Dialogue  April-June, 2010, Volume 11 No. 4

Vietnam-China Relations (From Early to First Millennium AD)

Bachchan Kumar*


Vietnam is located on the eastern rim of the Indochinese peninsula. Its northernmost point is the village of Lung Cu (23o 22’ N. Lat), its southern most point is Cape Ca Mau (8o 30’ N Lat), while its eastern most part is Cape Hon Gai (109o 29’ E. Long) and its western geographical formation is Mount Na San (102o 10 E. Long).  From north to south, Vietnam is extended to 1,750 km., its widest and narrowest area are 600 kms. and 50 kms respectively. The area of the country including that of the islands is about 331,690 sq. Kms.

      During ancient period, Vietnam and China shared a long history of relations of military conflict on Red River Delta. Due to unavailable written records, the facts of long relations between Vietnam and China is shrouded in the mist. Generally scholars believe that Vietnam has no early history as it was part of China. In fact, it is quiet untrue. Being known for bravery, Vietnamese people always maintained their cultural identity even during course of the Chinese domination. This paper discusses political and cultural relations of Vietnam and  China during first millennium A.D.                                                                                    
    Archaeological excavations along the Red River between Phu Tho province and suburbs of Hanoi unearthed a series of prehistoric sites. The area, now known as Vietnam, has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times, with some archaeological sites in Thanh Hoa province reportedly


Map showing South China and Vietnam

Vietnamese civilization to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, Phung-nguyen culture was centered in Vinh Phu Province of contemporary Vietnam from about 2000 to 1400 B.C.. By about 1200 B.C., the development of wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting in the Ma River and Red River plains led to the development of the Dong Son culture, notable for its elaborate bronze drums. The bronze weapons, tools, and drums of Dongsonian sites show a Southeast Asian influence that indicates an indigenous origin for the bronze-casting technology. Many small, ancient copper mine sites have been found in northern Vietnam. Some of the similarities between the Dongsonian sites and other Southeast Asian sites include the presence of boat-shaped coffins and burial jars, stilt dwellings, and evidence of the customs of betel-nut-chewing and teeth-blackening.

Formation of Vietnamese Kingdom                                                       
     According to a popular legend, the formation of
Vietnam as a nation took place at a very early period around 2000 B.C.  The legend mentions that the Vietnamese are descended from dragons and fairies. The dragon lord named Lac and fairy, princess of mountain, named Au Co gave birth to a hundred children. The dragon lord later returned to the sea with half of their offsprings while rest settled in the midlands of the Red river delta. One of these children became the first king of Hung dynasty of Vietnam. Eighteen Hung kings of this dynasty have ruled the Red river delta. Each of the ruler ruled for 150 years.  The last Hung king is said to have committed suicide in 257 BC after being defeated by a neighbouring chieftain of the north. This led to the creation of the new kingdom of Au Lac.  With the aid of a Golded Turtle spirit, the new king, An Duong, built a magnificent citadel at Co Loa, near Hanoi. However, this story has no historical base.

     Viet people had their own kingdom in South China where they were under the pressure of Chinese. During 7th century BC, the process of migration of the Viets to Red River Delta began. In 4th century BC, a mass migration took place because of the attack of Chinese invaders. The migrant Viets finally settled in the Red River Delta and called their new home Nam (south) Viet (Hauptly, 1985, 4).

     In 3rd century B.C.,  Zhao Tuo, a Chinese general  who was controlling the Kwantung and Kwangso Provinces, attacked the Red River delta and brought it under their  control and founded wholly new kingdom Nam Viet.  The first effort of assimilation of Vietnamese to the Chinese was made by General Zhao Tuo who encouraged the local tradition and customs of Vietnamese and promoted intermarriage between Chinese and Vietnamese people. This area was largely populated by Austronesian stock (Jamieson, 1993, 6). Vietnamese are of mixed racial descent. They spoke both monotonic language like the Malayo-Indonesian and variotonic one like that of Mongolian group influenced by Mon-Khmer grammar and large number of words of Thai language (SarDesai, 1992, 3). The racial admixture took place through marriage after they moved into the Tongkin Delta. This new kingdom retained its independence for about one century.

Vietnam – China  Relations During Early Periods

     Vietnam always has had to contend with the “tyranny of its geography.” China is physically large, economically and militarily powerful and having an enduring aspect of geopolitical reality. Historically Sino-Vietnamese relations were usually managed through the tributory system. While acknowledging Chinese pre-eminence, Vietnam sought to maintain its independence of action (Thayer 1994, 513).

     Two essential elements that contributed to the moulding of the early Vietnamese social organization have been the struggle against nature and struggle against a mighty neighbour to the north. Since very early times, China always hangs over the Vietnamese  like a dark and dangerous cloud. In 111 BC, Han Emperor Wu Ti (140-87 B.C.) sent his forces against it. Chinese troops invaded Nam ViÇt and established new territories, dividing Vietnam into Giao ChÉ (Chinese:  pinyin: Jiaozhi, now the Red river delta); Cíu Chân (from modern-day Thanh Hoá to Hà T)nh); and Jenan (or Nh­t Nam; from modern-day Qu£ng B́nh to Hu¿.) While the Chinese were governors and top officials, the original Vietnamese nobles (L¡c H§u, L¡c TưÛng) still managed some highlands. For over a century China ruled oppressively over Vietnamese. As compared to Vietnam, China was a gigantic country like an elephant. Vietnamese followed the principle of wait and watch and maintained their identity.

     Whenever Vietnamese found suitable time, they revolted against the Chinese authority to achieve their independence and identity. Their first uprisings took place in AD 39 when the central Chinese government was weak. It was led by the noble woman Trưng Tr¯c and her sister Trưng NhË  against the harsh rule of  Han Governor Tô ĐËnh (pinyin: Sû D́ng). The Vietnamese revolt  captured 65 states (include modern Guangxi). They made Trưng Tr¯c  the Queen (Trưng Nï Vương) of the independent country. In 42 AD, Emperor Guangwu of Han sent his famous general Mă ViÇn (Chinese: Ma Yuan) to quell the revolt. After a torturous campaign, Ma Yuan defeated the Trưng Queen, who committed suicide. Even now on  particular days the Trưng sisters are revered by the  Vietnamese  as the heroine of Vietnam.

      Learning a lesson from the Trưng revolt, the Han and other Chinese dynasties took necessary measures. It was realized that to expand their dominion over Vietnam they need to have control on every aspect of Vietnamese culture. A vigorous campaign was started to further assimilate the Vietnamese into the Chinese culture through more intensive adoption of Chinese script and educational system, subordination of Vietnamese laws to Chinese jurisprudence and above all, enforcement of Confucius ethics of submission of subjects to emperor, son to father and wife to husband. They made change in the government form. The Vietnamese elites and nobles were eliminated from power; they executed hundreds of members of the nobility who were even remotely linked with the revolt. Others were humiliated and exiled to South China. Further, Chinese garrisons were set up at numerous strategic points to eschew the possibility of future revolts.  For administrative control, three prefectures were divided into fifty-six districts which were controlled by Chinese mandarins (SarDesai, 1992, 13).

     Vietnamese proved themselves diligent. They quickly came up to the standard of Chinese system and claimed the posts of civil services. But Chinese never treated them on equal footing. They rejected their claim on the ground that they still retain their old customs and traditions and were not following Chinese system. Moreover Vietnamese retained their old customs and were proud for it. The well known Vietnamese classical distinct traditions were their tattooing, coating the teeth with black lacquer, chewing betel nut, and women were given liberty and high pride in their society. Moreover, the Chinese branded their customs barbarous. 

     Vietnamese revolted against the Chinese domination quite often. Some of the important uprisings were in A.D. 160 led by Chu Dat, in 178 by Luong Long and in 187 AD by Si Nhiep.  During Han rule, Si Nhiep was governor of Giao Chi who was successful in maintaining peace in the area. After the overthrow of the Chinese, Si Nhiep virtually made Nam Viet an independent state from A.D. 187 to A.D. 226 (SarDesai, 1992, 15).                               

    Another uprising was instrumented from Than Hoa in A.D. 248. It was led by a woman, TriÇu ThË Trinh, popularly known as Lady TriÇu (Bà TriÇu). She helped her brother to raise an army and train them in guerrilla war. The guerrillas killed the Chinese governor of Chiao Chih. Later the sophisticated Chinese army succeeded in crushing the uprising. Lady Trieu preferred to commit suicide rather than to surrender herself to the Chinese army.                                                                                            

     This next period of Chinese domination lasted until A.D. 539, when a Vietnamese scholar, Ly Bon again drove out the Chinese rulers. The Chinese at that time named the Vietnamese nation An Nam. This independence lasted for a little longer time until A.D. 548 when Chinese emperor Liang ruthlessly crushed the Vietnamese rebels. Moreover, the Vietnamese continued to resist the Chinese  rule.

    Taking advantage of internal disturbances in China, Trieu Quang Phuc took back a sizable part of the nation’s territory. However, the Vietnamese feudalists did not get on together and the last decades of the 6th century were marked by their rivalry which enabled the Suei dynasty to reconquer the country in 603 A.D. (Vien, 2007, 40).  After a brief period of rule by Suei (AD 581 to AD 618), the famous Tang dynasty came into power in China.

Vietnam – China Relatipons under Tang Rule

    Under Tang rule, China grew at  a very faster pace. It was a great period of Chinese history. A huge territory of China must have required enough security. As a result some of the annexed territories of China must have enjoyed great freedom. The Tang gave its Vietnamese domain sound and effective administration but continued to strengthen the policy of assimilation. In A.D. 622, the province so far called Giao Chi was converted into a protectorate as Annam. However, Vietnamese disliked the term Annam for their country. The Tang court created a separate administrative system for the Vietnamese mountainous areas since these places were inhabited by many wild tribes. The rest of the Viet land was divided into four Chou (prefectures) of which Giao-chau with its capital at Tong-binh was most important. In the Chou region, there were a number of assimilated Vietnamese in the Chinese administration.

   In spite of the firmness of the Tang administration and many assimilation measures, the Vietnamese continued to be resistive. Again a great uprising took place in A.D. 722 under the leadership of Mai Thuc Loan who was able to seize the capital city of Tong-binh. He was then proclaimed emperor by the Vietnamese noblemen. He became known as the “Black Emperor.” This uprising was successfully crushed by the powerful Tang.

     In A.D. 791, the Annamese staged another patriotic uprising under the leadership of Phung Hung, a chief of Son-Tay. The Chinese protector, Cheng Chou quelled this uprising. A trouble, however, came to Annam from another sources. The kingdom of Nanchao which covered much of the present Yunnan had become a powerful unit in the early ninth century. They started raiding the neighboring areas. In A.D. 862,  Nanchao attacked Vietnamese and captured their capital Tong-binh. The Tang took it very seriously and sent the Chinese General Kao Pien to deal with the troublesome kingdom. After a hard fight, Kao Pien defeated the raiders and finally ejected them from Annam. To this act of Chinese protection, Vietnamese became grateful to Chinese culture but, any way, they were not totally assimilated. Soon they managed to extract the best which was in Chinese culture but they maintained their own personality.  Besides, they secretly continued their ceaseless struggle against the Chinese.

    The Tangs patronized the Dhyana school of Mahayana Buddhism which, as the name implies, requires meditation and deep studies. This in turn, created strong and fearless personalities among many Vietnamese adherents. The Vietnamese improved their knowledge in arts and crafts, literature, house and other activities. They also learnt the organizational tactics of the Chinese army, and, at the same time, they never forgot their own basic style of Guerrilla warfare. The Vietnamese people became basically ‘sinicised’ and they were soon to beat their prime foe, the Chinese.                                                                 

The Independent
    With the fall  of Tang dynasty in A.D. 907, the Vietnamese at once renewed their efforts to achieve independence. The movement was facilitated by the weakness in
China during the period of Five dynasties. The later Liang (A.D. 907- A.D. 923)  appointed a native chieftain, Khuc Thua Du as the governor of Vietnam what was known then as Annam. He was succeeded by his son, Khuc Hao. Hao. He, against the wishes of the Vietnamese nationalists, negotiated with the Southern Han Dynasty. For the time being this enhanced his prestige among the Chinese. But soon he was overthrown by the  Vietnamese people under the leadership of a former General Thua Du. General Du was later assassinated by a Chinese traitor in A.D. 937. After this incident, Vietnamese movement of independence  under the leadership of Ngo Vong Quyen in A.D. 938 started in full force.
    To quell this movement,
Southern Han sent strong troops  of  2,00,000 naval force to conquer autonomous Giao Châu. The Southern Han fleet was defeated by the Vietnamese  at the Battle of Bach Dang River.  Ngô  Vong Quyen became the first  king of Independent Vietnam. He shifted his capital at Co Loa in A.D. 939 and restored his old country‘s name Nam Viet. At this time, independent Vietnam was confined to present Tongkin and provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of Annam.                                                                                   
    Complication to the precarious existence of the new kingdom arose after the death of Ngo Vong Quyen in A.D. 945. The throne was usurped by one Duong Binh (945-951) which at once led to a great scramble to capture power by other claimants.  Between A.D. 951 to A.D. 954, the nation was divided by two claimants, Ngo Nam-Tan and Ngo Thieu-Sack. Amidst intense confusion, Nam-Tan lasted till 965 but after his death that year a state of anarchy prevailed in the Annamese kingdom.  At this stage, the Song ruling house of
China woke up to the Vietnamese situation and decided to re-establish Chinese authority over Annam.    

     The extremely perilous situation was saved by Dinh-Bo-Linh, one of the able generals of Ngo Quyen, who was able to put and end to the infighting among the noblemen and the  feudal lords. Dinh Bo Linh (A.D. 968 to A.D. 979) was then proclaimed emperor by popular acclamation. The award of the title of  ‘emperor’ to the ruler of Annam denoted a bold shift in Vietnamese attitude vis a vis China. Vietnam felt confident that it had recovered its liberty and finally shaken off the  Chinese yoke for all times to come.

  Under the strong rule of Dinh-Bo-Linh, Annam prospered. His eleven year old regime also saw the incorportation of Buddhism and Taoism in the administrative machinery of the state.  In 979 AD, Emperor Đinh BÙ L)nh and his crown prince Đinh LiÅn were assassinated, leaving his lone surviving son, the 6-year-old Đinh Toàn, to assume the throne. Taking advantage of the situation, the Chinese Song Dynasty invaded Đ¡i CÓ ViÇt.                                                                                                             
    Facing such a grave threat to national independence, the court’s Commander of the Ten Armies (Th­p Đ¡o TưÛng Quân)
Lê Hoàn took the throne founding the former Lê Dynasty.  A capable military tactician, Lê Hoan realized the risks of engaging the mighty Chinese troops head on; thus he tricked the invading army into Chi Lăng Pass, then ambushed and killed their commander, quickly ending the threat to his young nation in 981 AD. The Song Dynasty withdrew their troops. Yet they would not recognize Lê Hoàn as Prince of Jiaozhi until 12 years later. Nevertheless, he is referred to in his realm as Emperor Đ¡i Hành (Đ¡i Hành Hoàng Đ¿). Emperor Lê Hoàn was  the first Vietnamese monarch who began to expand Vietnamese  territory. There was no chance to expand towards north to the Chinese territory. Thus Le Hoan turned his eyes towards south of the Red River Delta, the fertile coastal plains of Annam which were inhabited by the Chams. The general dislike of the Chams on account of their earlier piratical activities. Population pressure due to inflow of migrants from the north into the Annamese kingdom and Cham’s wealth also worked on the Vietnamese mind to expand their cramped homeland. Also Vietnamese pride had been hurt when Champa’s  ruler Jaya IndraVarman I (A.D. 960 to A.D. 965) ignored their  Viets neighbor state and extended his hand of friendship to the Song ruler. A more direct provocation was caused in A.D. 979 when Cham court lent its naval force to the Annam pretender to take the Dinh capital, Hoa Lu. The attempt, however, failed as a strong typhoonic gale wrecked most of the ships (Maspero, BEFEO, X, 678).  In spite of that Le Hoan tried to build cordial relations with Champa and sent an embassy to the Chams’ capital Indrapura. The Chinese name the country Chan-cheng, the “Chan city” or Champapura (Coedes,1968, 123). King Parmeshwarvarman, however, imprisoned the members of the Annamese mission. There is absence of record to find out the apparent discourteous act on the part of Cham king but it gave pretext to the very angry Le Hoan to hit Champa and teach its court some lesson on diplomatic etiquettet. King Le Hoan started making preparation for war, and while he was doing so, a huge Chinese naval and land force of the Sung suddenly appeared with the intention of capturing the Vietnamese capital Hoa Lu (now in Ha Nam Ninh province). Once again the Chinese army was routed at the Bach Dang estuary. The Vietnamese force was led by King Le Hoan himself.                                                                                   
       King Le Hoan then attacked Champa in A.D. 982. The Cham capital Indrapura (present Quang nam) was captured while the Cham King Parmeshwarvarman lost his life in its defence. The Vietnamese army then returned to their capital with huge booty and many slaves. This was the first army operation of the Vietnamese after their independence which was successfully held. The Vietnamese capacity to wage a war and win it was proved. It also boosted their self-confidence.

     The new king of Champa, Indravarman IV left for the southern part of his kingdom from where in he asked for military aid from the emperor of China which was refused. During this time, in the north of the country a Vietnamese named Luu Ke Tong seized the power. In 983, he successfully resisted an attempted invasion by Le Hoan. On the death of Indravarman IV he officially proclaimed himself as the king of Champa and in 986, he intimated the Chinese court of his accession. The domination by the foreigners led to the exodus of Cham inhabitants, a certain number of whom took refuge at Hainan and Kwangchou (Maspero, 1928, 121 ff.).

      In 1988, the Chams rallied around one of their own. They placed him on the throne at Vijaya in modern Binh-dinh, and when the Vietnamese usurper Luu Ke Tong died in the following year,they proclaimed him king under the name Harivarman II. Scarcely had he been installed when he had to face a new Vietnamese invasion in the north of his kingdom in 990.  After a short period of peace, marked by the erection of an Isanabhadresvara at Mi-son in 991 by an exchange of presents with the emperor of China in 992 and by the liberation in the same year of 360 Cham prisoners detained at Tongkin, hostilities with Le Hoan  began, this time because of the activities of the Chams, who in 995 and 997 multiplied their raids along their northern frontier (Coedes, 1968, 125).                                 
    Harivarman II reistalled himself at Indrapura, but his successor, who reigned from 999 and for whom we have only an incomplete name, Yang Pu Ku Vijaya Sri finally abandoned this extreme vulnerable capital in the year 1000 and established himself at Vijaya, in the region of Binh-dinh.                                                                                   

Chinese Contribution to the Vietnamese                                            

    Vietnamese always considered Chinese as foe and fearful force due to the long periods of internecine resistance and struggle against the Chinese. The Chinese rulers have left a strong impact on Vietnamese culture, religion and language. As a result of a number of resentments against Chinese rule, the Vietnamese were accustomed to make their joint efforts on every aspects of their life. Vietnam under Chinese rule became a sophisticated nation with technological and scientific advancements. There were several developments during the Chinese rule in Vietnam. Roads were constructed and waterways and harbours were improved to support good transportation system. Giao ChÉ (with its capital around modern B¯c Ninh province) became a flourishing trading outpost receiving goods from the southern seas. The “History of Later Han” (H­u Hán Thư, Hou Hanshu) recorded that in 166 AD the first envoy from the
Roman Empire to China arrived by this route, and merchants were soon to follow. The 3rd-century “Tales of Wei” (Ngåy Låc, Weilue) mentioned a “water route” (the Red River) from Jiaozhi into what is now southern Yunnan. From there, goods were taken overland to the rest of China via the regions of modern Kunming and Chengdu.                                                                                                        
    New systems were introduced to improve agriculture and mining in Vietnam. Other important Chinese contributions were introduction of art of printing, minting of coins, silkwork breeding, porcelain manufacture and a great involvement in international trade (Hodgkin, 1981, 29). However, the imposition of Chinese culture, customs, language, political institutions, and at times cruel oppression and exploitation of the nation ultimately crystallized the Vietnamese people’s fierce desire to be free and independent at all costs. They preserved distinct Vietnamese way of life in the tightly knit rural communities. To maintain their culture, Vietnamese never break their contact with the other Vietnamese racial groups (Taylor, 1983, 229; Brown 1991, 2).                          

    The Chinese introduced to the Vietnamese  Confucianism and Taoism. Indians sailing eastward brought Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism to the Red River Delta while, Chinese travellers introduced Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhist monks carried with them the scientific and medical knowledge of the civilizations of India and China. As a result, Vietnamese Buddhists were soon counted among their own great doctors, botanists and scholars.             
    Vietnamese aristocracy were allowed during Chinese rule to fill lower positions in the bureaucracy. The Vietnamese elite in particular received a thorough indoctrination in Chinese cultural, religious, and political traditions. One result of Sinicization, however, was the creation of a Confucian bureaucratic, family, and social structure that gave the Vietnamese the strength to resist Chinese political domination in later centuries, unlike most of the other Yue peoples who were sooner or later assimilated into the Chinese cultural and political world. Nor was Sinicization so total as to erase the memory of pre-Han Vietnamese culture, especially among the peasant class, which retained the Vietnamese language and many Southeast Asian customs. Chinese rule had the dual effect of making the Vietnamese aristocracy more receptive to Chinese culture and cultural leadership while at the same time instilling resistance and hostility toward Chinese political domination throughout Vietnamese society.



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Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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