Early Vietnam

   by Charles Kimball

The origin of the Vietnamese people is uncertain. Their language closely resembles the Mon-Khmer tongues, but there are also similarities with Thai and the Malay languages. The Vietnamese themselves claim one of China's first kings as their ancestor, and in fact there was a tribe that called itself "Viet" (Yue in Chinese) on the banks of the Yangtze River (in China's Zhejiang province) in the first millennium B.C. The theory now accepted is that the Viets migrated to the south after the Chinese absorbed their homeland in 334 B.C. Some Viets settled in Fujian Province; their kingdom, called Man Viet (Min Yue in Chinese), was conquered by China in 110 B.C. The rest of the Viets continued to the Red River delta, intermarried with the peoples already living there, and formed the ethnic Vietnamese of today.

The first Vietnamese state along the Red River, Van Lang ("Land of the Tattooed Men"), is probably a myth--Vietnamese legends claim it was founded in 2879 B.C.! At best Van Lang is a vague memory of the Dongson culture that existed in the region before the Viets arrived. The last Van Lang king was overthrown in 258 B.C. by an immigrant named An Duong Vuong (the chief of the Viets?), who renamed the state Au Loc. Au Loc was in turn conquered by a Chinese general named Zhao To in 208 B.C. But even while the Chinese took over, the masters of China, the Qin dynasty, were overthrown. Instead of submitting to a new emperor, Zhao took for himself a Viet name, Trieu Da, adopted Viet customs, and declared the area under his control--the Red River valley plus Guangdong and Guangxi provinces--an independent kingdom called Nam Viet (Nan Yue in Chinese). At this point true history replaces legends.

For nearly a century Trieu Da's successors used diplomatic and military duels to keep the Chinese out. Then in 111 B.C. Nam Viet was conquered by the Chinese emperor Wu Di. At first the Chinese ruled leniently, introducing many things the Vietnamese welcomed, like writing, roads, canals, improved agriculture, and iron tools/weapons. But the Viets refused to become Chinese; as a result, from the first century A.D. onwards the Chinese attempted a program of total Sinicization. Thousands of Chinese administrators, soldiers and scholars came in, filling the government jobs previously held by Vietnamese. Confucianism, Daoism, and the Chinese language were taught; Chinese customs and fashions became mandatory. Despite all this only the educated elite were affected much, and even they preferred to speak only Vietnamese at home.

The first major rebellion against Chinese rule (39-42 A.D.) was led by Trung Trac, the wife of a noble executed by the Chinese, and her sister Trung Nhi. They gathered the tribal chiefs with their armed followers, attacked and destroyed the Chinese strongholds, and proclaimed themselves queens of an independent Vietnam. The Chinese returned, however, with a new army, re-imposed their rule, and tried harder than ever to assimilate the natives. Another woman, Trieu Au, led a second uprising in 248, but it was crushed in six months; like the Trung sisters, she drowned herself to avoid capture by the Chinese. Three more revolts took place in the sixth century, and the Chinese won every time. After the first uprising the Chinese general, Ma Yuan, erected two bronze pillars on the southern border of Vietnam, marking where the Chinese thought the civilized world came to an end. Beyond those pillars lived only demons, ghosts, subhuman savages--and the Chams.

To the south, in the neighborhood of modern Hue, a different kingdom was getting started. Champa, as that kingdom was called, is first listed in Chinese records under the name "Linyi", and the date of its founding is given as 192 A.D. Ruled by a king clad in cotton, with gold necklaces and flowers in his hair, the Chams brought up pearls from the South China Sea and produced amazingly potent drugs and incenses. Warriors wore rattan armor and rode elephants in battle, often to raid Chinese settlements.

Like their neighbors to the south and west, the Chams were Malays. Because of their location, Champa was influenced by both Chinese and Indian culture at first. Later on, when the Gupta empire arose in India (4th century), a great deal of commerce between India and Champa took place. The result was that Champa's culture became totally Indianized. Sanskrit was widely used as a sacred language, the kings took on Sanskrit names, and the names of Champa's cities were Sanskrit ones as well: Amaravati (modern Quang Nam), Vijaya (Binh Dinh), Kauthara (Nha Trang), and Panduranga (Phan Rang). At the same time Indian and Cham art were identical.

The mountainous coast of central Vietnam could not provide enough farmland to keep the Chams fed, so from the earliest years their society was ship-oriented, depending on both trade and piracy (with no particular preference) to make a living. Most of the raids were directed north towards the Chinese-occupied part of Vietnam, until the Chinese retaliated by destroying Vijaya, the Cham capital, in 446. Champa fell under Chinese rule until it regained its independence in 510. Thirty years later, the decline of Funan gave the Chams an opportunity to expand south, and they advanced all the way to the edge of the Mekong delta.

In the following centuries Champa exchanged raids with the Chinese, Khmers, and Javanese. The skill of the Cham soldiers, their strong sea power and their virtually unassailable land position all contributed to Champa's success. But their piracy made all of Champa's neighbors enemies, and the Chams got more than they bargained for when the Vietnamese turned out to be as aggressive as they were.

Late in the eighth century Chinese control over Vietnam weakened, encouraging raids from Java (767) and the Thai kingdom of Nan Zhao (862-863); in 780 Champa bit off the provinces of Hue, Quang Tri, and Quang Binh. When China's Tang dynasty was replaced by anarchy in the early tenth century, the Vietnamese made yet another bid for independence. This time, under their leader Ngo Quyen, they were successful, and after an overwhelming naval victory in 939 the Vietnamese were free at last.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball