Archive for 1000 Years of Chinese Occupation

Year One: 938, The Year Vietnam Broke Free

Posted in Ancient History, Dynastic History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2018 by Ian Pham

Bach Dang Battle 938(Wikimedia)

Let us be clear, first and foremost, that Vietnam, its history, its language, its culture, and its people, has existed long before the year 938 A.D. There are at least two thousand years of popular recorded Vietnamese history, and much more information available about Vietnam out there covering even further back than these two millennia. This article does not make the case that 938 is the year that Vietnam began. No, this article simply seeks to highlight the significance of the year 938, because, while there are many, many major dates in the history of Vietnam before and after 938, that particular year holds a very important place in Vietnam’s history.

938 A.D. was the year that the people of Vietnam defeated China in a decisive war, ended the thousand years of Chinese occupation once and for all, achieved independence, and created for themselves a sovereign nation that was distinctly Vietnamese. It was a new beginning for the Vietnamese people, the year that Vietnam was reborn, and the dawn of a new era of independence after a destructive thousand years of Chinese domination. This is the significance of the year 938, and why it is argued here to be “Year One” of a new Vietnamese epoch.

So many heroes and so many lives were sacrificed, up to and including the year 938 to achieve the triumph of the Vietnamese people over the Chinese occupiers. This momentous victory culminated at Vietnam’s Bạch Đằng River, where a small Vietnamese naval force, under the leadership of General Ngô Quyền, destroyed an invading army from the Southern Han kingdom of China. It was at Bạch Đằng, with this victory, that China’s thousand years of domination over Vietnam effectively came to an end (Bolt & Garrett, 1999).

Prior to the 938 Battle of Bạch Đằng, Vietnam was still an occupied territory under the Southern Han of China. The millennium of Chinese domination over Vietnam formally began in the year 111 B.C., when the Han Dynasty of China, under the command of Emperor Wu Di, overran the ancient kingdom of Nam-Việt (ancient Vietnam) (Tran, 1920: 44-47). From that period, all the way until 938 A.D., the Vietnamese people initiated many fights for independence. Although some of these efforts yielded short-lived successes, such as the revered and truly consequential Trưng Sisters’ Rebellion in the first century (40 A.D. – 43. A.D.) (ibid, 49-50), a conclusive and lasting victory did not occur until Ngô Quyền’s monumental triumph over the Southern Han at Bạch Đằng in 938. It was then and there that Chinese domination was ended once and for all.

General Ngô Quyền, the man who led the fight against the Southern Han in 938, was born in Vietnam’s Sơn Tây province (Chapuis, 1995: 70). According to the historian Tran Trong Kim, Ngô Quyền was 47 years old when he died in the year 944 (89), thus marking his age at either 40 or 41 at the Battle of Bạch Đằng, depending on whether his birthday (unknown in this article) occurred before or after the battle. In any case, one can see here that Ngô Quyền was not very old at the time he led the Vietnamese to victory.

Before Ngô Quyền took the helm as leader of the resistance, a man named Dương Đình Nghệ, Ngô Quyền’s mentor and father-in-law, led the Vietnamese rebel forces. Certain feats accomplished by Dương Đình Nghệ showed him to be a strong and effective leader.

In 931, having already established control over some originally Vietnamese territories in the crumbling Chinese empire, the elder Nghệ launched an attack on Southern Han forces in Đại La, expanded the scope of his control, and effectively consolidated a governorship over a quasi-independent Vietnamese territory (Taylor, 2013: 45-46).

During this time, though the Vietnamese area was indeed ruled by a Vietnamese leader, it was, on paper, still under the control of the Southern Han. Having achieved recognition from a weak and reluctant Southern Han (Taylor, 46), the Governor Nghệ had big plans for his territory. However, due to his assassination, Governor Nghệ would only rule for a span of six years and was unable to carry out his goals (Tran, 76). In 937, Dương Đình Nghệ was betrayed and murdered by one of his own generals, Kiều Công Tiễn, who then sought help from the Chinese to consolidate his usurpation (Taylor, 46). Consistent with their approach to any traitor to the Vietnamese nation, the Chinese were happy to assist the treasonous Kiều Công Tiễn in causing damage to Vietnam’s interests.

During this time, Ngô Quyền was serving under Dương Đình Nghệ as the administrator of what is modern day Thanh Hóa province. The two men had a close relationship, for it was Nghệ who recognized the talents of Ngô Quyền in earlier times, promoted Quyền to oversee the operations of Thanh Hóa, and granted his daughter’s hand in marriage to Quyền. Upon hearing the news of his mentor’s death, Ngô Quyền mobilized his own forces to confront Kiều Công Tiễn and avenge his father-in-law (Tran, 76).

Marching northward, Ngô Quyền killed the traitor Kiều Công Tiễn in 938, and promptly shifted his attention to the incoming Chinese invasion (Taylor, 46; Tran, 76). From China, the Southern Han ruler, Liu Gong, braced his forces for an attempt to recapture the Vietnamese territory.

Anticipating the Southern Han’s attack, Ngô Quyền “stationed his men at the estuary of the Bạch Đằng River where the sea routes entered the plain and where he prepared to receive the Southern Han fleet with iron-tipped poles planted in the bed of the river,” (Taylor, 46).

Prior to the Battle of Bạch Đằng, the Southern Han heeded the call of the traitor Kiều Công Tiễn, and “mobilized a fleet of warships, commanded by the crown prince, to bring an army to the aid of its would-be ally,” (ibid). According to Chapuis, this invading force was known as the “Yunnanese expedition,” (70), and was led by Liu Gong’s son, the crown prince Liu Hungcao (Anderson, 2007: 43), [known as Hoằng Tháo in Vietnamese records (Chapuis, 70)].

As history shows, even after the death of Kiều Công Tiễn, the Southern Han continued their invasion of Vietnam without their “would-be ally.” An examination by James Anderson demonstrates that during this period, in what the Chinese describe as the “Five Dynasties” period, the aspirational Southern Han dynasty north of the Vietnamese regions were showing renewed interest in once again capturing full control of Vietnam and its people (43). These findings cast doubt on the Southern Han’s apparently benevolent intentions of simply helping a potential ally, embodied by the treasonous Kiều Công Tiễn. Instead, it is more apparent that the Southern Han, though claiming to assist an ally in need, sought to exploit the situation in Vietnam to capture and reestablish Chinese control over the Vietnamese once more.

The Southern Han’s Yunnanese expedition arrived in the autumn of 938, and was met by the forces of General Ngô Quyền at Bạch Đằng River (Anderson, 43; Taylor, 46).

As part of their strategy, it was the forces of Ngô Quyền who initiated the naval confrontation versus the Southern Han fleet (Chapuis, 70). The Việt forces instigated the fight during high tide, when the river waters covered the giant iron stakes they had planted beneath the waves. As the tide gradually fell, Ngô Quyền’s forces feigned a retreat, prompting a chase by the Southern Han’s forces. In their pursuit, the invaders sailed directly over Ngô Quyền’s trap (Tran, 70). With the fall of the tide, the Chinese ships became entangled, the stakes ripping through the Chinese ships and impaling the soldiers onboard (Anderson, 43). It was then that Ngô Quyền and the Việt forces launched their counter attack, against an ensnared Southern Han naval fleet that could neither fight back nor escape. As a result, at Bạch Đằng River, Ngô Quyền and his navy obliterated the Chinese invading forces (Tran, 76), drowning half of the Chinese expedition (Anderson, 43).

From the battle, the Southern Han’s naval commander, the crown prince Liu Hungcao, was captured by Ngô Quyền’s forces and subsequently executed (Tran, 76). With the destruction of its invading fleet, and the loss of Prince Hungcao, who was both the leader of the fleet and the heir to the Southern Han’s throne, the defeat at Bạch Đằng River marked “the end of Southern Han ambitions in An Nam,” (Taylor, 46). [Side note: An Nam was the Chinese’ derogatory name for Vietnam, meaning “Pacified South,” and is a label “much resented by the Vietnamese,” then and now (Bolt & Garrett)].

With the Southern Han invaders vanquished, and his position over the Vietnamese realm solidified, Ngô Quyền purged himself of any designations associated with the old Chinese order, and took on the role as “King” of a newly independent Vietnamese throne (Anderson, 43). The new Vietnamese King then set up his independent capital at Cổ Loa, an ancient site north of the Red River Delta, where the legendary Vietnamese ruler King An Dương founded his ancient kingdom of Âu Lạc (257 B.C. – 207 B.C.) more than a thousand years before Ngô Quyền’s time (Anderson, 43-44; Taylor, 46).

Ngô Quyền’s decision to set up his government at this specific location signified his purpose to be a “Vietnamese leader who was independent from northern [Chinese] control” (Anderson, 44). In so doing, King Ngô Quyền declared his own dynasty, separate from the Chinese (Taylor, 46). It was a monarchic regime, viewed by some as “the first manifestation of Vietnam’s national identity,” (Chapuis, 70).

And with that, in the year 938 A.D., a new Vietnamese nation was born, after more than one thousand years of Chinese domination.

The Battle of Bạch Đằng of 938 would be recorded famously in the annals of history, and the mastermind behind the brilliant strategies that resulted in that victory, the General (and later, King) Ngô Quyền, joined the “pantheon of Vietnamese national heroes,” (43). Successive generations, such as the dynasties of the Đinh, the “Early” Lê, the Lý, the Trần (Tran, 76), and all those after them, stemmed from the foundation laid by Ngô Quyền and the brave Vietnamese who made the ultimate sacrifice before and up to that monumental victory at Bạch Đằng River.

It was at that critical juncture that a new Vietnamese homeland was born. At Bạch Đằng River, after a thousand years of trying, trying, and trying some more, our Vietnamese ancestors realized our destiny in 938, affirming the right to exist of the Vietnamese people, and of a Vietnamese homeland, always and forever.

For this reason, with the undying truth that Vietnam and its people possess thousands of years of history long before the Battle of Bạch Đằng Bay, the year 938 A.D. stands immortal in the history books of the Vietnamese people, and is argued here to be “Year One” of a new Vietnamese era.



Anderson, James. The Rebel Den of Nùng Trí Cao: Loyalty and Identity Along the Sino-Vietnamese Frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

Bolt, Ernest & Amanda Garrett. “The End of Chinese Domination: The Battle of Bach Dang (938).” From Pre-Colonial Vietnam: Study Module for Online Course (Richmond University, 1999). (accessed Dec. 30, 2017).

Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam: From Hong Bang to Tu Duc. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Taylor, Keith W. A History of the Vietnamese. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Tran, Kim Trong. Việt Nam Sử Lược. Vietnam: Thanh Hoa Publishing, 1920.


Lady Triệu: The Goddess Who Fought the Wu

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by Ian Pham

Third Century (225-248A.D.)Triệu Thị Trinh was a female warrior who fought against the Chinese occupants in the third century.  Her story takes place during the Three Kingdoms period in China, after the collapse of the Han Dynasty.  During this time, Vietnam was occupied by the Kingdom of Wu.  Similar to the Han, life under the Wu was bleak and oppressive.  The people of Nam-Việt needed a hero, and the courageous Lady Triệu rose to the occasion.

Lady Triệu, also known as Triệu Trinh, was orphaned as a child and lived under the household with her older brother.  When she turned 20 years old, Triệu Trinh fled to the mountains to follow her older brother.  It was there that she learned her revolutionary ways, meeting many Vietnamese warriors who were ready to fight the Wu.

Her older brother, Triệu Quốc Đạt, feared for her safety and asked her to reconsider joining the rebels.  Triệu Trinh did not accept, telling him that she refused to bow her head down and become another slave to the Chinese invaders.  Her brother was taken by her words and in the end, he respected her decision.

“All I want to do is ride the storms, tame the crashing waves, kill the sharks of the Eastern Sea, cleanse the land, and save the people from drowning.  I refuse to mimic the others, bow my head down, lower myself, and become another concubine!”

– Triệu Thị Trinh, 248A.D.

From then on, Triệu Thị Trinh fought alongside the rebels, engaging the Wu forces and resisting the kingdom from China.  Her bravery, intellect, and valor in battle earned her the name of Lady Triệu.  The warriors also chose her as the leader of their organization.  Lady Triệu was remembered as a strong, intelligent, and beautiful woman, able to tame the heart of any warrior that stands in her way.  She marches fearlessly into battle, wrapped around a silky golden robe, riding on the back of a ferocious elephant.

Under her leadership, the rebels managed to take on the Kingdom of Wu for a short time.  The rebels forces were small, often fighting the much larger army of the Wu Kingdom.  After six months of vigorous battles, Lady Triệu and her forces were finally defeated in battle.  Though they fought valiantly, the Wu forces were much too large for the rebels to withstand.

After escaping from the grasps of the enemy, Triệu Trinh found refuge in the region of Bồ Điền.  In the tradition of the Trung Sisters and the ways of the warrior, to defend her honour and the honour of her brethren, Lady Triệu Thị Trinh ended her own life.  The year was 248A.D. and Triệu Trinh was only 23 years old.

Lady Triệu is remembered, along with the Trung Sisters, as one of the most celebrated female heroes in the history of Vietnam.  In a time when no one else dared to oppose the Wu, Lady Triệu stepped up and fought them to the death.  Though she never succeeded in expelling the Chinese, her courage inspired future generations to keep on fighting and never give up.  Lady Triệu has become a legendary figure of strength and resilience, a goddess in Vietnamese folklore.  In the 10th century under the Dynasty, a temple was built in her memory.  The emperor of the Dynasty also gave her the honourary title of Lady Triệu: The Honourable, Courageous, and Virtuous Woman.

The Trưng Sisters and the First Great Rebellion

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , on July 19, 2010 by Ian Pham

First Century (40-43A.D.)
One of the glorious events in Vietnam’s history is the great revolution led by the Trưng Sisters in the first century against the Han Dynasty of China.  In the early periods of Chinese domination, the Trưng Sisters managed to bring independence to the people of the Việt origin for a brief moment in time.  Though their reign was short-lived, their contributions to the Vietnamese tradition will be remembered for many years to come.

The sisters of Trưng were born in the province of Mê Linh, they were the daughters of a Vietnamese lord and are well educated in the arts of literature and war.  The elder sister goes by the name of Trưng Trắc and the younger goes by the name of Trưng Nhị.  The sisters lived in an era when Vietnam was under the rule of the Han Dynasty.  After the Triệu Dynasty of Vietnam was defeated by the Han in 111B.C., the Chinese Empire annexed and incorporated all of Nam-Việt (Vietnam) as part of its territory.

The story of the Trưng Sisters begins with the murder of Trưng Trắc’s husband, Thi Sách.  He was one of the few individuals to stand up to the Han Dynasty’s cruel and oppressive treatment against the people of Nam-Việt.  As a result, the Chinese executed Thi Sách as a way to intimidate and further demoralize the Vietnamese people.  As Thi Sách’s wife, Trưng Trắc’ swore to avenge the death of her husband and free the people of Nam-Việt from their sadistic oppressors.

With the help of her younger sister, Nhị, Trưng Trắc established a small militia within her village.  This small group of fighters later grew into a revolutionary force that spread thoughout all of Nam-Việt.  Thousands of men and women from all over the southern regions showed their deepest support for the new freedom fighters.  Under the leadership of Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, the people of Nam-Việt liberated the country, driving out the Han invaders in the year 40A.D.  With the Chinese gone, the Trưng Sisters declared themselves the Queens of Nam-Việt and established a new Vietnamese Kingdom directly south of China.

This period of independence would only last for a short time however.  The Chinese were shamed in defeat and were determined to redeem themselves.  To avoid a second humiliation, the Chinese sent a massive expeditionary army into Nam-Việt under the fierce leadership of General Ma Yuan.  The kingdom of Nam-Việt fought the returning invaders courageously, though they were strongly outnumbered.  In the end, the independent kingdom was overpowered by the massive military might of the invading Han forces.  As a result, the kingdom of Nam-Việt fell back into the hands of the Han Dynasty in 43A.D.

The soldiers of Nam-Việt all gave their lives, now the Trưng Sisters were prepared to do the same.  Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị refused to be captured by the enemy and surrendering was not an option.  So with the Han army steadily approaching the Sisters of Trưng at the river of Hát, Trắc and Nhị leaped into the waters, out of the reach of the Han soldiers.  By taking their own lives, the Trưng Sisters preserved their pride and honour, and defying the Chinese once again.

Even though the Trưng Sisters’ rebellion only lasted for three short years, the significance of their actions reverberated in the hearts of the Việt people.  This heroic fight would be a guiding light for future generations of the Vietnamese freedom movement, giving hope to the fighters in their darkest hours.  Even today, the Trưng Sisters are revered and loved as the first liberators of the Vietnamese people.  In Vietnam, many temples and shrines are built to honour these bright and courageous women.

Prelude to the Heroes: 1000 Years of Chinese Occupation

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , on July 18, 2010 by Ian Pham

“Our nation, Dai Viet, was established long ago as an independent nation with its own civilization.  Our borders with China have been drawn…”

When China was first unified under the Qin Dynasty in 221B.C., the ancient civilization of Lac Viet (ancient Vietnam) lost an immense amount of land to the Chinese.  However, during this time, the ancient Vietnamese nation still salvaged a considerable amount of land for itself by the name of Nam-Viet.  It wasn’t until the overthrow of the Qin and the establishment of the Han Dynasty in China did Lac Viet become totally overrun by the Chinese.  This period marked the thousand years occupation of the Vietnamese nation by the Chinese invaders.

“Our customs and traditions are different from those of the foreign country to the North.  The independence of our nation has been established by the Trieu, Dinh, Le, Ly, and Tran Dynasties, concurrent with that of the Han, Tang, Song, and Yuan of China…”

For over 1000 years, starting with the Han invasion in 111B.C. and ending with the defeat of the Southern Han in 938A.D., Vietnam was forcefully integrated into the state of China.  Numerous struggles and rebellions erupted through this long period of Chinese occupation.  Many brave warriors fought to protect the Vietnamese way of life and revive the independence of the nation.  Although some leaders managed to bring freedom to Vietnam for a short period of time, like the Trung Sisters in the first century, it wasn’t until General Ngo Quyen’s victory at Bach Dang Bay were the Chinese permanently expelled.

“It is true that our nation has sometimes been weak and sometimes been strong, but never in time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”

– Nguyen Trai, 1428 (The Great Declaration on the Victory Over China)

From that day forward, the people of Vietnam will defend their nation to the very death.  Though they have been liberated from China, the Viet people still lived in constant fear of invasion from the country to the north.  For the next thousand years, Vietnam and China would be engaged in a storm of perpetual warfare.  The successive dynasties of China, such as the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing, would continue to invade Vietnam, trying to recapture the land.  In response, the warriors of Vietnam would fight, giving their lives to defend the nation’s sovereignty.  It is from this ongoing struggle to defend the country against China that many heroic individuals emerge, leaving their mark in the history of Vietnam.  These men and women are the protectors of the Viet tradition, fearlessly risking their lives to protect the nation for more than 1000 years.  Strong, noble, and selfless, these individuals are proudly known and remembered as the Heroes of Vietnam.