Archive for Dynastic History

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.

 

Bibliography:

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). https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ebolt/history398/PrecolonialVietnam.html (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.

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