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Vietnam - Early History

The Vietnamese people represent a fusion of races, languages, and cultures, the elements of which are still being sorted out by ethnologists, linguists, and archaeologists. As was true for most areas of Southeast Asia, the Indochina Peninsula was a crossroads for many migrations of peoples, including speakers of Austronesian, Mon-Khmer, and Tai languages. The Vietnamese language provides some clues to the cultural mixture of the Vietnamese people. Although a separate and distinct language, Vietnamese borrows much of its basic vocabulary from Mon-Khmer, tonality from the Tai languages, and some grammatical features from both Mon-Khmer and Tai. Vietnamese also exhibits some influence from Austronesian languages, as well as large infusions of Chinese literary, political, and philosophical terminology of a later period.

The area now known as Vietnam has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, with some archaeological sites in Thanh Hoa Province reportedly dating back several thousand years. Archaeologists link the beginnings of Vietnamese civilization to the late Neolithic, early Bronze Age, Phung-nguyen culture, which was centered in Vinh Phu Province of contemporary Vietnam from about 2000 to 1400 BC. By about 1200 BC, 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 Dong Sonian 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 Dong Sonian 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.

Legend establishes the first Vietnamese kingdom in what is now North Vietnam. The early periods of this epoch are a tissue of fables, and the sequel presents nothing bearing the stamp of certainty. According to the earliest Vietnamese traditions, the founder of the Vietnamese nation was Hung Vuong, the first ruler of the semilegendary Hung dynasty (2879-258 BC, mythological dates) of the kingdom of Van Lang. According to one story, Lac Long Quan, the first Vietnamese king, was the descendant of a line of Chinese divine rulers. He married Au Co, an immortal, and, according to the legend, fathered 100 sons. The king and queen then parted, dividing sons between them. The king went south; the queen, north into the mountains near Hanoi.

The eldest of the boys accompanying the king was then installed on the throne and founded the Hong Bang dynasty, the dates of which are given as 2879 BC to 258 BC. Hung Vuong, in Vietnamese mythology, was the oldest son of Lac Long Quan (Lac Dragon Lord), who came to the Red River Delta from his home in the sea, and Au Co, a Chinese immortal. Lac Long Quan, a Vietnamese cultural hero, is credited with teaching the people how to cultivate rice.

This legendary account, which probably was not developed in literary form until after AD 1200, differs in substance from Chinese mythical history but shares some themes and figures with it. The resemblance suggests not only Chinese influence but an effort by the Vietnamese chroniclers to show that in origin and antiquity Vietnam (lit., the Viet of the South or Southern Viet) was in no way inferior to dominant China.

The Hung dynasty, which according to tradition ruled Van Lang for eighteen generations, is associated by Vietnamese scholars with Dong Sonian culture. An important aspect of this culture by the sixth century BC was the tidal irrigation of rice fields through an elaborate system of canals and dikes. The fields were called Lac fields, and Lac, mentioned in Chinese annals, is the earliest recorded name for the Vietnamese people.

The Hung kings ruled Van Lang in feudal fashion with the aid of the Lac lords, who controlled the communal settlements around each irrigated area, organized construction and maintenance of the dikes, and regulated the supply of water. Besides cultivating rice, the people of Van Lang grew other grains and beans and raised stock, mainly buffaloes, chickens, and pigs. Potterymaking and bamboo-working were highly developed crafts, as were basketry, leather-working, and the weaving of hemp, jute, and silk. Both transport and communication were provided by dugout canoes, which plied the network of rivers and canals.

The first historical records pertaining to the people in the Red River Delta were written by the Chinese after they had conquered the area in the third century BC. Still earlier Chinese accounts mention a Viet (Yiieh in Chinese) kingdom which existed about 500 B.C. south of the Yangtze River. This kingdom fell in 333 BC, and its inhabitants, one of the many tribal peoples in southern Ohina at the time, moved further south.

Basically Mongoloid, like the Chinese, they seem to have shown, both physically and culturally, the results of mixture with Mon Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian speaking peoples. Some of the Viets remained in China and over the centuries were integrated into the developing Chinese civilization, the dynamic center of which was then in northern China. Others, under pressure from the north, pushed south, reaching the Red River Delta in the mid-fourth century BC, and encountered a mixed Indonesian population with which they both fought and mingled.

After the fall of the Ch'in dynasty of China (897-207 BC), there emerged a number of small, competing states. The last Hung king was overthrown in the third century BC by An Duong Vuong, the ruler of the neighboring upland kingdom of Thuc. An Duong Vuong united Van Lang with Thuc to form Au Lac, building his capital and citadel at Co Loa, thirty-five kilometers north of present-day Hanoi. An Duong's kingdom was short-lived, however, being conquered in 208 BC by the army of the Chinese Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) military commander Trieu Da (Zhao Tuo in Chinese).

Reluctant to accept the rule of the Qin dynasty's successor, the new Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), Trieu Da combined the territories under his control in southern China and northern Vietnam and established the kingdom of Nam Viet (Nan Yue in Chinese), meaning Southern Viet. Viet (Yue) was the term applied by the Chinese to the various peoples on the southern fringes of the Han empire, including the people of the Red River Delta. It controlled the areas west of the present site of Canton and extended through the Red River Delta down to Hai Van Pass, 40 miles south of Hue. Trieu Da divided his kingdom of Nam Viet into nine military districts; the southern three (Giao Chi, Cuu Chan, and Nhat Nam) included the northern part of present-day Vietnam. The Lac lords continued to rule in the Red River Delta, but as vassals of Nam Viet.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:35:50 ZULU