Yin and Yang numbers (Âm Dương: Part 3)

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Yin and Yang numbers (Con số Âm Dương)

One is accustomed to say in Vietnamese: sống chết đều có số cả (Everyone has his D day  for life  and death). Ði buôn có số, ăn cỗ có phần   (One has his vocation in trade as one has his part in feast). In daily life, everyone a his size for his clothing and his shoes. Contrary to the Chinese, the Vietnamese emphasize odd numbers (số dương) rather than  even numbers (sô’ âm). 

One frequently  finds the use of even numbers in the Vietnamese phrases: ba mặt một lời (One needs to be in front of someone with the presence of a witness),  ba hồn bảy vía ( three souls and 7 vital supports for men i.e one is terrified), Ba chìm bảy nổi chín lênh đênh ( very  hectic), năm thê bảy thiếp ( to have  5 spouses and 7 concubines i.e. to have many  women ), năm lần bảy lượt ( many times), năm cha ba mẹ ( heterogenuos), ba chóp bảy nhoáng ( with precipitation and  no care ), Môt lời nói dối , sám hối 7 ngày (A  speech deceitful amounts to  seven days of  repentance), Một câu nhịn chín câu lành (To avoid an offensive sentence is having kind sentences ) etc …or that of integral  multiples of the number 9:18 (9×2) đời Hùng Vương ( 18 legendary kings Hùng Vương ), 27 (9×3) đại tang 3 năm (27 tháng)(or a beareavement endured  on three years or 27 months only), 36 (9×4) phố phường Hànội (Hànội with 36 neighbourhoods) etc …One don’t forget to mention the numbers 5 and 9, having each of them a role very important.   The figure 5 is the  number the most mysterious because all starts from this number. Heaven and Earth have the five elements  or agents giving birth to thousand things and objects. It is placed in the center of the River map and Writings of Luo which are the basis for the mutation of five elements (Thủy, Hỏa, Mộc, Kim, Thổ)( Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth). It is associated to the element Earth in the central position that the peasant needs to  known for the  management of cardinal points.  This goes to the man to have the centre in the management of things and species and four  cardinals.  That is why, in the feudal society, this place is reserved to the king because it is he who  has govern  the people. Consequently, the number 5 belonged to him as well as the yellow colour symbolizing the Earth. This  explains the colour choosen by Vietnamese  and Chinese emperors for their clothes.

Ho Tou Lo Chou

(Hà Đồ Lạc Thư)

In the addition to the centre occupied by man, an symbolic animal is associated to the each of four cardinal points: the North by the turtle, the South by the phoenix, the West by the dragon and the East by the tiger. One is’nt surprised to see at least in this attribution the presence of three animals living in the region where the agricultural life plays a notable role and water is vital. It is the land of Bai Yue group. Even the dragon very mean in others cultures becomes a kind and noble animal imagined by  peaceful peoples  Bai Yue. The number 5 is yet known  under the name « Tham Thiên Lưỡng Đia » (or  three Heaven two  Earth or 3 Yang 2 Yin) in the Yin and Yang theory because the acquisition of the number 5 coming from the union of  numbers 3 and 2 corresponds better to the reasonable percentage of Yin and Yang than that of the association of numbers 4 and 1. In this latter, the number Yang 1 very dominated by the number 4. It is’nt the case of the union of the numbers 3 and 2 because the number Yang 3 slightly overpowers the number Yin 2. This encourages the universe development in an almost perfect harmony. In ancient times, the fifth day, the fourteen en day (1+4=5) and the twenty-third  (2+3=5) day in the month were reserved for the way out of the king. It is’nt allowed to subjects  for trading during his travel and disturbing his walk. It is  perhaps the reason for which a great number of the Vietnamese continue to avoid these days for the home construction, the trip and major purchases. One is accustomed to say: 

Chớ đi ngày bảy chớ về ngày ba
Mồng năm, mười bốn hai ba
Đi chơi cũng lỗ nữa là đi buôn
Mồng năm mười bốn hai ba
Trồng cây cây đỗ, làm nhà nhà xiêu

You  avoid going  out the 7th day and coming back the 3th in the month. For the 15th, 14th and 23th days in the month, you  will be losing if you go out or you trade.  Likewise, you will see the failing tree or the tilting of your home if you make the planting tree or the house construction.

The number 5 is frequently mentioned in the Vietnamese culinary art. The most typical sauce remains the fish brine (nước mắm). In the preparation of this national sauce, one mentiones the presence of 5 flavours classified according to the 5 elements of Yin and Yang:mặn ( salty ) with the fish juice  (nước mắm), đắng (bitter)  with the lemon zest (vỏ chanh), chua (acidulous) with the lemon juice, cay (spicy) with pigments crushed  in powder or chopped  in strips and ngọt (sweet ) with sugar in powder. These  5 flavours ( mặn, đắng, chua, cay, ngọt ) combined and found in the Vietnamese national sauce  correspond to 5 elements defined in the Yin and Yang theory (Thủy, Hỏa , Mộc , Kim Thổ ) ( Water, Fire,  Wood, Metal and Earth ).

Likewise, one rediscovers these 5 flavours in the bittersweet soup (canch chua) prepared from fish: acidulous with tamarin seeds or vinegar, sweet with slices of ananas, spicy with pigments chopped in strips,  salty with fish juice and bitter with some okras  (đậu bắp)  or flowers of “fayotier in French”  (bông so đũa). When the soup is served, one will add some fragrant herbs like the panicaut (ngò gai), rau om (herb having  the  flavor  of coriander with  a  lemony   taste in addition). It is a characteristic trait of the bittersweet soup of Sud Vietnam which  is different from those found in others regions of Vietnam.

One cannot forget to mentione the sweet rice cake that the Proto-Vietnamese had succeeded to bequeath to descendants over millennia of their civilization.  This  sweet rice cake is the intangible proof of Yin and Yang theory and 5 elements belonging to Bai Yue group (Hundred Yue), the Proto-Vietnamese of which formed part  because there is  the generation cycle (Ngũ hành tương sinh)  in its composition. 


Inside the cake, one finds a piece of porkmeat in red color ( Fire ) around which there is  a kind of paste made with broad beans in yellow color ( Earth ). The whole thing is wrapped by the sticky rice in white color ( Metal ) to be cooked with boiling water ( Water ) before having a green colouring on its surface thanks to the latanier leaves (Wood).

An other cake is not missing th weddings. This is the cake susê or phu thê (husband-spouse) having inside a round form  and enveloped by banana leaves (green colour) in order to give it the  well-tied cube appearance  with a red ribbon (red color).  The circle is  thus placed within the square (Dương trong âm)(Yang in Yin). This cake is made from tapioca flour,  perfumed in pandan and strewn with  black sesame seeds (black color). One finds in the hearth of this cake a paste made of steamed soybeans  (yellow color) and jam of lotus seeds and grated coconut.(white color). This paste is very similar to the  frangipane found in “galettes des rois”. Its sticky texture reminds the link that one can represent in the union. This cake is the symbol of the perfection in conjugal love and loyalty responding the perfect agreement with the Heaven and the Earth and 5 elements symbolized by 5 colors (red, green, black, yellow and white).

This cake is related by the following tale: in the past, there was a merchant engaged in debauchery and doing not like to go home although before his departure, his spouse gave him the cake susê  and promised to remain cordial and sweet like the cake. That is why, when she has heard this story, she did send others cakes phu thê accompagnied by two following verses: 

Từ ngày chàng bước xuống ghe
Sóng bao nhiêu đợt bánh phu thê rầu bấy nhiêu

Since your departure, waves were encountered by your boat as much as afflictions were known by the cake susê  
Lầu Ngũ Phụng


In architecture, the number 5 is not forgetten either. It is the case of Ngọ Môn gate (noon gate) in the forbidden city (Huế). This gate is  a powerful  masonry  foundation drilled with five passages and surmonted by an elegant wooden structure with two levels, the Belvedere of five Phoenixes (Lầu Ngủ Phụng). Viewed from the sky, this latter  with two additional wings, seems to form five phoenix in flight with intertwined beaks. This belvedere possesses 100 wood columns(gỗ lim)(ironwood) painted and tinted in yellow for allowing  to carry its nine roofs. This number 100 was well examinated  by Vietnamese specialists. According to renowned  archeologist  Phan Thuận An, it exactly corresponds to the total number obtained by adding two numbers found respectively  in the River map (Hà Đồ)  and Writings of Luo  (Lạc thư cửu tinh đồ) symbolizing the perfect harmony of the union Yin and Yang.  It is not the Liễu Thượng Văn advice.  According to this latter, this represents the strength of 100 families or people (bách tính) and reflects the notion dân vi bản (consider people as basis) in the Nguyễn dynasty’s governance.  The roof of the central pavilion is covered by yellow tiles « lưu ly », the rest being with blue tiles « lưu ly ». Being  just in the middle,  the main gate  (or noon gate) is reserved to the king and  paved with stones   « Thanh » tinted in yellow color. From both sides, one finds  left and right doors (Tả, Hữu, Giáp Môn) reserved to civilian and military mandarins.  Then two others lateral  gates Tả Dịch MônHữu Dịch Môn are intended to soldiers and horses. One is accustomed to say in Vietnamese: 


Ngọ Môn năm cửa chín lầu
Một lầu vàng, tám lầu xanh, ba cửa thẳng, hai cửa quanh »

The noon gate  possesses 5 passages and 9 roofs the one of which is varnished in yellow and the 8 others in blue.  There are  three main  doors  and two side entries.

In the east and west of the citadel, ones finds Humanty and Virtue gates which are reserved respectively for men and women. 

The number 9 is a Yang number (or odd number). It representes the Yang strength at the maximum.  It is difficult to reach it.  That is why, in the past, the emperor often uses for showing his power and supremacy. He climbs 9 stairs symbolizing the ascent of sacred mountain in which there was his throne. It is said that the forbidden city like that of Pékin possessed 9999 rooms. It is useful to recall that the forbidden city of Pékin was supervised by  Nguyễn An, a Vietnamese exiled  still  young at the time of the Ming. As his palaces, the emperor turns towards the South in Yang energy in order to receive the vital breath of Sky because he is the Heaven son. In Vietnam, one finds nine dynastic urns of Huế citadel, nine branchs of Mekon river, nine roofs of  Belvedere of five Phoenixes etc … In the tale intituled   “The God of Mountains and the God of Rivers “(Sơn Tinh Thủy Tinh)”, 18th (2×9) Hùng Vương king, proposed for the dowry marriage of his daughter Mị Nương: an elephant with nine tusks, a rooster with nine spurs and a horse with nine red manes.  The number 9 symbolizes the Heaven,  the birthday of which is the ninth (9th) day of February month.

Being less important than 5 and 9, the number 3 (or Ba and Tam in Vietnamese) isclosely tied to the daily life of the Vietnamese.  They do not hesitate to evoke it in a large number of popular expressions. For meaning a certain limit, a certain degree, they have the habit of saying: 

Không ai giàu ba họ, không ai khó ba đời:
No person can claim to be rich  to three generations as  no one is  more  stringent to three successive lives. 

It goes to the Vietnamese to often  accomplish this certain thing at once, this obliges them to do many times this operation. It is the following expression that they uses frequently: Nhất quá tam.  It is the number 3, a limit they don’t like to exceed  in the accomplishment of this task. For saying that someone is irresponsible,  they designate him under the term “Ba trợn“.  Someone who is opportunistic is called “Ba phải” . The expression  “Ba đá” is reserved to vulgar people while those who continue to be entangled in minor matters or endless difficulties  receive the title “Ba lăng nhăng“. For weighing his words, the Vietnamese needs to bend three inches of his  tongue. (Uốn ba tấc lưỡi). 

The number 3 also is synonymous with insignificant and unimportant something.It is what one finds in following popular expressions: 

Ăn sơ sài ba hột: To eat a little bit.
Ăn ba miếng: idem
Sách ba xu: book without values. (the book costs only three  pennies).
Ba món ăn chơi: Some  dishes  for tasting. 

Analogous to number 3, the number 7 is often mentioned in Vietnamese literature. One cannot ignore either the expression Bảy nỗi ba chìm với nước non  (I  float 7 times  and I descend thee times if this  expression is translated in verbatim) that Hồ Xuân Hương poetess  has used and immortalized in her poem intituled “Bánh trôi nước” :

Thân em vừa trắng lại vừa tròn
Bây nỗi ba chìm với nước non

for describing difficulties encountered by the Vietnamese woman in a feudal and Confucian society. This one did not spare either those having an independent mind, freedom and justice.   It is the case of  Cao Bá Quát , an active scholar who was degusted from the scholastica of his time and dreamed of replacing the Nguyễn authoritarian monarchy by an enlightened monarchy. Accused of being the actor of the grasshoppers insurrection  (Giặc Châu Chấu) in 1854, he was condemned to death and he did no hesitate his reflection on the fate reserved to those who dared to criticize  the despotism and feudal society in his poem before his death: 

Ba hồi trống giục đù cha kiếp
Một nhát gươm đưa, đéo mẹ đời. 

Three gongs are reserved to the miserable fate
A sabre slice finishes this dog’s life. 

If the Yin and Yang theory continues to haunt their mind for its mystical and impenetrable character, it remains however a way of thinking and living to which a good number  of the Vietnamese continue to refer daily for common practices and respect of ancestral traditions.


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Yin and Yang theory: (Âm Dương Phần 2)

French version

Yin and Yang theory (Part 1)
Yin and Yang theory (Part 2) 
Yin and Yang theory (Part 3)

By speaking of the couple circle/square, one wants to evoke the perfection and happy union. That is why one is accustomed to say in Vietnamese: « Mẹ tròn, con vuông » for wishing the mother and her child a good health a the time of birth.  This expression has been bequeathed  by our ancestors with the aim of retaining our attention on the creative character of universe. The roundness and square are two foms taken not only by rice cakes   (Bánh Chưng, Bánh Tết) or married couple cakes (Bánh Su Sê ou Phu Thê) but also  Vietnamese old coins (or  copper cash pieces). The form of this latter is related to the Vietnamese traditional cosmology: their  roundness  evokes that of sky  and the central hole is square as  soil. 

Old coin

For the surface of this old coins, there is always a percentage to be respected: 70%  for the round part and 30% the square part. One  also finds two forms with the bamboo rod  held by the eldest son by walking after the coffin during the funeral  procession of his father.  When the deceased is his mother, he is obliged to walk backwards before the coffin. It is the protocol  « Cha đưa mẹ đón» (Accompagny the father, receive the mother) to be respected in Vietnamese funeral rituals. The rod bamboo represents  the father’s righteousness and endurance. It is replaced by an other plant known under the name  « cây vong » and symbolizing the simplicity,  sweetness and flexibility when the deceased is the mother.  The rod must have the round head  and square leg  for symbolizing the Heaven  and the Earth  while the median part of rod is reserved for children and descendants. That means everyone needs  the protection of the  Heaven and the Earth, the education of parents  and mutual assistance between brothers and sisters in the society. For showing the respect, the number of times which  the invited person is obliged  to  accomplish by bending his back in the state of prostration before the coffin is a Yin number (or an even number)(i.e. 2 or 4) because the deceased is going to the  darker world  of Yin nature  (Âm phủ in Vietnamese). In the past, one had the habit of putting in the deceased mouth a scrap of   gold in order to breathe the mana contained in the precious metal  into him. Being of Yang nature, the gold is able to assume the  body preservation and prevent the putrefaction.  At the time of the  agony of the deceased, his family members must give him a surname (or in Vietnamese tên thụy) which is known only by them with the agreement of home genius because at the anniversary of his death, this surname will be called in order to invite him to participate in offerings and avoid waking others lost souls. That is why one is accustomed to say in Vietnamese  tên cúng cơm for reminding that  everyone has a surname. Likewise, the bunch of flowers offered to funerals must be constituted of an even number of flowers (or Yin number).  

 There is an exception to this rule when one is dealing with Buddha or deceased parents. Before the altar of this later, one is accustomed to put 3 incense sticks in the vase or one gets down completely on his knees with  head on ground by repeating an odder number of times (Yang number) because one always consideres them as living beings. Likewise, for showing the respect towards seniors, one only accomplishes one or three times in prostration. However, in  marriage rites, the future wife must bow down before her parents for thanking them from the birth and education received before joining the family of her husband. It is an even number (or Yin number) of times  she will accomplish   (i.e. 2) because she is considered “dead” and does not belong to her original  family. There is a custom for the ceremony of first wedding night. Being supposed to be good, honest,  old enough and having many children, a woman takes charge of spreading  and overlapping of a pair of mats on the nuptial bed:  one of these mats is open, the other upside down in the image of Yin and Yang union. 

In ancien times, young married men are accustomed to exchange mutually a pinch of earth against a pinch of salt. They would like to honour and  sustain their union and fidelity by taking the  Heaven and  the Earth as the  witnesses of their engagement. One also finds the same signification in the following expression: Gừng cay muối mặn  for reminding young married men   that they should not leave themselves because the life is bitter and painful with ups and downs as ginger and it is intense and deep with feelings as salt.

For speaking of virtue, one is accustomed to say in Vietnamese: 

Ba vuông sánh với bảy tròn
Đời cha vinh hiễn đời con sang giàu

As three squares can be in comparison seven circles, virtuous parents will have rich children.

By speaking of these three squares, one needs to reminder the square form of rice cake proposed during the new year. This cake constituted by straight lines  symbolizes loyalty and righteousness in the relationship of three submissions « Tam Tòng »: Tại gia tòng phu, xuất giá tòng phu, phu tữ tòng tữ (submission to the father before her marriage,submission to the husband during her marriage, submission to the elder son when widowed).

About 7 circles, one must think of the roundness of “bánh giầy”.  This one  is constituted by a sequence of dots equidistant from the center where there is the heart. This cake is the symbol of  a well-balancel soul that any passion does not bewinder. One finds in this heart the perfection of seven human sentiments: (Thất tình : hỹ, nộ, ái, lạc, sĩ, ố, dục )( Joy, anger, sadness, cheerfullness, love, hatred, desire). Does someone  realize a  ideal moral life if under any circumstances, he succeeds to maintain the loyalty and  righteousness with others and always keeps his equidistant gap in the manifestation of his feelings?

The expression  vuông tròn has  frequently been  employed in a great number of Vietnamese popular sayings:

Lạy trời cho đặng vuông tròn 
Trăm năm cho trọn lòng son với chàng!

I pray to God that  everything should go well and I should  eternally keep  my faithful  hearth  with you.


Đấy mà xử ngãi (nghĩa) vuông tròn
Ngàn năm ly biệt vẫn còn đợi trông

Here is the signification of conjugal love
Despite the eternal separation, one continues to wait  for the  return with patience

or in the following verses 411-412 and  1331-1332 of Kim Vân Kiều‘s best-seller

Nghĩ mình phận mỏng cánh chuồn 
Khuôn xanh biết có vuông tròn mà haỵ

My fate is fragile like the dragonfly’s wing
Does the Heaven  knows that this union is durable or not?


 Trăm năm tính cuộc vuông tròn,
Phải dò cho đến ngọn nguồn lạch sông

During your lifetime (hundred years), when you are concerned by your marriage, you must climb up the river to the source (i. e. you must get informed  in the smallest detail).

This bipolarity Yin and Yang is  visible in various forms in Vietnam. In China, an only genius of marriage is seen, one has  in Vietnam a couple of geniuses, a man and a woman (Ông Tơ Bà Nguyêt). Likewise, in Vietnamese pagodas, one finds on the altar a couple of Buddhas (a man and a woman) (Phât ông Phât Bà) in place of one Buddha. The Vietnamese strongly believe that each of them is associated with a certain number of digits. Before the birth, the embryo needs to wait for 9 months and 10 days. For speaking of someone having  a happy destiny, one says  he as the “good luck” (số đỏ). On the contrary, the ” bad luck (số đen)” is reserved to people having a lamentable destiny. NEXT (Yin and Yang numbers)



Yin and Yang theory (Âm Dương : Phần 1)

French version 

Part 1 (Yin and Yang theory)
Part 2 (Yin and Yang theory)
Part 3 (Yin and Yang numbers)

The Yin and Yang theory continues to manage the daily life of the Vietnamese,   down to the last detail. The Yin nature is everything being  fluid, cold, humid, passive, dark, interior, immobile and originating from  feminine  essence as the  sky, moon,  night,  water and  winter. But everything being solid, hot, light, active, exterior, mobile and coming from the male essence as  soil, sky, fire and  summer belongs to the Yang nature. This  bipolarity is even  found   in the Vietnamese grammar by using the words “con” and “cái”.  Similar to French articles defined “le” and “la”, these are employed to indicate the type in certain cases but one can rely on the nature “mobile” or “immobile” of the object accompanied for indicating its belonging in the corresponding semantic class. The word cái is used in case where the object carries the character “immobile” (tĩnh vật) : cái nhà (house), cái hang (cave), cái nồi ( pot) etc… However, when the state “mobile” (động vật) belongs to the object nature, the word “con” is used instead of “cái”. It is the case of the following words: con mắt (eye), con tim ( heart), con trăng ( viper),  con ngươi ( pupil), con dao ( knife) etc… The eye moves incessantly as the throbbing heart. Similarly, the viper moves as well as the pupil. The knife is considered by the Vietnamese as a sacred animal. It is nourrished with blood, wine and rice.  The same name beared by an object can lead to two different interpretations depending on the use of the word “cái” or “con“. The following example reflects the character “mobile” or “immobile” of the object “thuyền” ( or boat ) employed : Con thuyền trôi theo dòng nước (The boat moves on the water). This mean  someone drives forward the boat with oar or  engine. However, when one says  “cái thuyền trôi theo dòng nước” (The boat moves on the water), one insists on the fact that nobody does not manoeuvre the boat. It is the flood waters that drives forward the boat alone. This notes the character “immobile” of the boat. The influence of Yin and Yang is no stranger to the way of attributing the sex to common objects. It is the case of the knife (dao): dao cái (large knife), dao đực ou dao rựa (or machete).  This remark has been notified by French archeologist and sinologist Alain Thote in his article intituled “Origine et premiers développements de l’épée en Chine “: The Yue  swords enjoyed the very  high celebrity in ancien times. Some swords had the name  and one was brought to consider their belonging to the male or female sex. The expression  “đực rựa”  used frequently in conversations for designating the men,  is from the custom  of the old Vietnamese  carrying machetes during the walk.

The gender  association is  also visible for a long time in Vietnam in rice cultivation: the man ploughs and the woman pricks out in the field. The plougshare penetrating the soil (Yin)  symbolizes the male sex (Yang) while the woman transmits the power of fertilization (Yin) to rice plants (Yang)  by transplantation. For showing the complete perfection in the harmonious union of Yin and Yang, one has the habit of saying in Vietnamese: Being together, husband and wife achieve to scoop all the  water from the East sea. (thuận vợ thuận chồng tát biển Đông cũng cạn).

Being ric farmers, the Proto-Vietnamese were attached not only to the soil but also to the environment because thanks to the natural  phenomena ( rain, sky, wind, cloud etc…) , they had successful  harvests or not. The extensive agriculture in slash/burning or in flooded terrains  depended on  the vagaries of climate. That is why they needed to live in harmony with nature. They considered that they were the link between  Heaven and Earth (Thiên-Nhân-Địa). From this notion, one has the habit of saying: Thiên Thời, Địa Lợi, Nhân Hòa (to be aware of  weather,to  know the environment and to  have popular support or national harmony). There are three  key   factors of success  to which Vietnamese strategists (Trần Hưng Đạo, Nguyễn Trãi or Quang Trung) referred,  in their struggle against foreign invaders. The Vietnamese  take into consideration this triad in their way of thinking and their daily life. For them,  there is no doubt that this notion has an undeniable influence on man himself: his destinity is imposed by the will of Heaven and depend on his date  of birth. With the exterior and interior environment of his home, he can receive the harmful or beneficial  breath (qi) generated by the Earth. The art of harmonizing the exterior and interior  environmental energy of his housing allows him to minimize his troubles and promotes his welfare and his health. A flat terrain without any undulations and no hills is the lifeless soil and shortness of breath qi (Khí). The Vietnamese call  mountains and hills with the names Dragons and Tigers. Buildings should have respectively  a green  Dragon  and  a white tiger in the  west and east facing.  The caring dragon must be more powerful than the tiger (Hữu Thanh Long, Tã Bạch Hổ), that means the Dragon mountain is higher than the Tiger hill.  The best site is that which has a hill behind one another, which enables to show the interlacing between the Dragon and the Tiger. The concept of harmony takes on its full meaning when a site backed by a mountain and surrounded on two sides by ranges of hills allowing its protection against winds for avoiding the dissipation of Chi (or cosmic energy), provides access to a lake or a river where there are  both water and nourrishment and the accumulation of cosmic energies.  This model is found by taking the example of  historic city of Huế.  The enclosure of this latter is a defensive  military structure based on the technique of strengthened fortifications of  renowned engineer, Vaubanand covers near the southern front,   the imperial city delimited by a second square-enclosed area mesuring approximatively  622m x606 m. Therein, one finds the   Forbidden Purple City forming the symbolic heart of the empire in the third and last enclosure, having  nearly  a square in shape  and mesuring 330×324 m. The imbrication of three enclosures refers to the triad  (Thiên, Nhân, Ðịa). Facing to the 105 m high  mountain Royal Screen (or Ngự Bình in Vietnamese)  that, according to the geomancers interpretation (Feng Shui)(Phong Thủy),  is the imperial shield created by  Gods,  the citadel’s southern front including the moon gate (or Ngọ Môn), follows the convex alignment along  the Perfume river (Hương giang). Being similar to the dragon lying in the West, this river undulates and goes up  in the north  by penetrating the soil through small hills and  making a 45°  bend towards the east. It   reachs  firstly  protectives isles Dã  Viên and Cồn Hến  before ending in the sea.  That creates the ideal position (Chi Huyền Thủy) corresponding to the above described scheme with a green Dragon in the West  and a white Tiger in the East. These animals are respectively represented by the shell isles Dã Viên and Cồn Hến  in the face of the natural screen symbolized by the mount of Royal Screen (Núi Ngự Bình). 

The man can affect his own life. By accomplishing acts of caring towards others,  he can find his joy and improves his karma. In ancient times, Vietnam had a sacrificial ceremony named “Nam Giao” or “Tế Giao”  intended  to Heaven and  Earth. It goes back to the king  to pay homage  to Heaven and Earth every year with his deified ancestors on the monumental esplanade built in 1806 in the southern suburb of Huế. One finds in this esplanade a  square mound representating the Earth temple, in the center of which is an other round mound symbolyzing the Heaven temple. Being firstly  subjected in complete isolation and fast,  the king climbs the sacrificial  esplanade and acts on behalf of his people for communicating  with universe natural forces in order to ask them to improve the environment on earth. The king is the only figure eligible for being an intermediary between Earth and Heaven. This Triad (Thiên, Nhân, Địa) has also evoked in Vietnamese legends. One finds the narrator willingness to show the deep attachment  of Vietnamese people to the triad notion in accordance with nature and moral. In  the legend intituled “The God of Mountains and the God of Rivers (Sơn Tinh Thủy Tinh), a girl named Mị nương is requested in marriage by these two geniuses or in the Kitchen genius myth  (Chuyện Táo quân),  one finds a woman torn between  the love of her old husband and that of her new companion. In the betel quid (Trầu Cau), the triad (wife, husband and brother) is represented by the woman, her husband and her twin brother-in-law who, once deceased,  respectively become betel,  arecanut palm  and  limestone.  The betel  quid reflects well the equilibrium notion and harmony found in the Yin and Yang theory.  For preparing the betel quid,  a little of slaked lime is smeared on a betel leaf.  Then one adds some root bark of Artocarpus tonkinese in yellow-orange colour and finally incorporates a areca nut finely sliced. All this  is introduced in the mouth and chewed slowly.  After twenty minutes of chewing, one spits out what remains. Five tastes can  be  found in the betel quid: sweet with areca nut, spicy with betel leaf,  sour with root bark,  salty with lime and acidulous  with saliva.  By the image  of  fresh betel liana coming from Earth symbolized by lime stone and embracing the slender  arecanut palm trunk in this legend, one wants to mention the intermediary   character between the Yin and Yang in a perfect accord.  The old Vietnamese adage says that   the betel quid is the prelude to the conversation (Miếng trầu là đầu câu chuyện).  The acceptation implies heavy consequences and is equivalent to a firm commitment, a word given that no one would  ever  think of taking back. If the exchange has taken place between girl and boy , this is equivalent to a proposal of marriage. In the Vietnamese tradition, the betel quid is the symbol of marital happiness. It cannot be missing in marriage riruels.

In the swamp rice civilization, others trinities are important as the triad (Heaven, Earth, Man). There is the case of  the triad  (Thủy, Hỏa, Thổ) (or (in English  Water-Fire-Soil) or that of the triad (Mộc, Kim, Thổ)(or Wood, Metal, Soil).  One needs soil  for the rice cultivation, water and fertilizers coming from  ashes caused by fire for enriching soils. Likewise, one needs plants for food and metals for making appropriate tools in agriculture.  One oberves that these triads have a common element that is the soil. That is why this latter occupies a central position in the management of 4 cardinal points. There is the pivot around which fourth others elements take place. In  the farm life,  the most important element following the soil is water.  One the habit of hearing from Vietnamese  peasant  the following saying: Nhất nước nhì phân (Firstly water, secondly fertilizers). Being of Yin nature, water is attributed to the northern direction because it is compatible with the cold (winter). On the contrary, being of Yang nature, fire found in the triad (Water-Fire-Soil) is better associated in the  southern direction with the warmth and radiation (summer). The element “Wood” evokes plants, the birthday of which takes place in spring. It derserves to occupy the eastern direction with the development of  Yang. Being  element of malleable character and  taking different forms, Metal is associated to the western direction (autumn).

The Vietnamese are  founding in the Yin and Yang theory a practice of alternation rather than a idea of opposition. Yin and its complementary Yang form an identity that  allows to result in the installation of right balance and harmony. For them,  the word represents  the totality of cyclical  sequences constitued by the combination of two alternating and complementary   events. One knows that in the relation of opposition, Yin as Yang each of them carries within himself or herself the germ of the other. (Không có gì hoàn toàn âm hoặc hoàn toàn dương, trong âm có dương và trong dương có âm).  Yin and  Yang are like  a wheel in motion. By coming at their end, they must start again. Once their limit  is reached,  they go come back again. A lot of popular sayings evoking the law of causality, concretely testify to  the Yin and Yang mutation.

That is why one is accustomed to saying in Vietnamese « Trong cái  rũi có cái may » (In the bad luck, there will have the chance), « Trong cái dỡ  có  cái hay (In what appears to be bad,  one also finds something  good) »,« Trong họa có phúc ( In the misfortune , there will have the happiness) ». « Sướng lắm khổ nhiều (The more one is  satisfied by desire,  the more  one will suffer ) », «Trèo cao ngã đau ( The more one climbs high,  the more one has a painful drop)». « Yêu nhau nhiều cắn nhau đau. The more we are in love, the more  we hurt each other’s feelings». The lost goods  sometimes  are the price of life. There is what the Vietnamese saying clearly expresses: Của đi thay người ( Goods are going out in the place of people). The factors Phúc and Họa have to vary in opposite directions. It’s because of the bipolarity Yin and Yang that the Vietnamese are accustomed to  strike  a good balance in the daily life.  They try to look for a perfect  arrangement with everyone and nature and even beyond their death. There is what one discovers in the necropolis of Lạch Trương (Thanh Hóa) dating from three centuries before J.C. with wooden burial objects (Yang) placed in the northern direction and that in terracotta (Yin)  at the southern  direction (Yang).  This equilibrium notion is even found in pagoda with geniuses of good and evil. (Ông Thiện Ông Ác). It’s thanks to this equilibium philosophy that the Vietnamese have the ability to adapt to any situation, even in the extreme case. It’s also this principle of balance that  Vietnamese leaders have continued to keep in the past during the confrontation with  foreign countries. For avoiding the humiliation of the Mongols twice defeated in Vietnam, General Trần Hưng Đạo proposed to pay tribute to  Koubilai Khan in exchange for lasting peace. After defeating the Ming, the  strategist and advisor  of Lê Lơi king, Nguyễn Trải did not hesitate  to let Wang Toung ( Vương Thông ) come back in China with 13000 captured soldiers and  proposed  a pact of vasselage with a triannual toll  of two  fine metal statues in standard size as compensation for two generals died in combat. Likewise,  Quang Trung king, guided by humility, sent an emissary to seek peace with Qianlong emperor after defeating the Qing army at Hànội in 1788 for a very short period of time.(6 days).  One cannot forget the conducting and flexibility carried out by communist leaders in diplomacy during the confrontation with the  French and  Americans. The  Geneva (1954) and Paris (1972) agreements once more testify  of the  search for balance or the middle way that the Vietnamese have found with ingenuity   in the Yin and Yang theory. In Vietnam,  the circular shaped objects (hình tròn)  are integrated  in the Yang and square shaped objects (hình vuông) in the Yin. It is the tendancy dating back  to the period when one believed that the sky was round and the soil  square and flat. The Vietnamese  were obliged to square the latter before using it in the plowing and house construction. It is in the state of mind that the Bai Yue ( to which the Proto-Vietnamese belonged ) had the habit of dividing a portion of land into nine  lots by taking for model the character   tĩnh (giếng nước). The central lot was expected for the construction of a water well and eight remaining lots were  destined for the housing construction, which is the first housing unit in the agricultural society.  The following Vietnamese popular saying: trời xanh như tán lọng tròn ; đất kia chằn chặn như bàn cờ vuông (The blue skue  ressembles  a round   parasol as this perfect soil similar to the square chessboard ) reflects this popular belief. NEXT (More reading Part 2)


–Alain Thote: Origine et premiers développements de l’épée en Chine.
–Cung Ðình Thanh: Trống đồng Ðồng Sơn : Sự tranh luận về chủ quyền trống đồng giữa học giã Việt và Hoa.Tập San Tư Tưởng Tháng 3 năm 2002 số 18. 
-Brigitte Baptandier : En guise d’introduction. Chine et anthropologie. Ateliers 24 (2001). Journée d’étude de l’APRAS sur les ethnologies régionales à Paris en 1993.
-Nguyễn Từ Thức : Tãn Mạn về Âm Dương, chẳn lẻ (www.anviettoancau.net) 
-Trần Ngọc Thêm: Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt-Nam. NXB : Tp Hồ Chí Minh Tp HCM 2001. 
-Nguyễn Xuân Quang: Bản sắc văn hóa việt qua ngôn ngữ việt (www.dunglac.org)
-Georges Condominas : La guérilla viêt. Trait culturel majeur et pérenne de l’espace social vietnamien, L’Homme 2002/4, N° 164, p. 17-36. 
-Louis Bezacier: Sur la datation d’une représentation primitive de la charrue. (BEFO, année 1967, volume 53, pages 551-556) …..




Sacrifice (English version)

Version Française


Life is a game of chance. The chance is against us. It’s worth dying now for the country and set an example of sacrifice

Nguyễn Thái Học

Vietnam is not only a land of legends and learned men but also a land that men have acquired acre by acre in a crual mother nature for more than four thousand years. The cradle of the Vietnamese nation, the delta of Tonkin bordered by mild hills of the Hundred Thousands Mounts of China and squeezed in the South by a quasi impenetrable range, the Annamitic Cordillera, reduced to 15,000 km2 but rich of all the mud pulled out by the Red river, continues to be threathened by the latter with the discharge of 500m3 at low tide up to 3500m3 during the highest crests.

To master the blows of sword of the Red River, the Vietnamese people resort to a method of building dikes, which requires not only an increased watch of dikes but also a perpetual struggle. Facing the never-ending change of nature, the caprice of the Red river and the territorial ambitions of China, the Vietnamese people owe their safety at the cost not only of their labor and courage but also of their sacrifice in the long march toward the South.

This sacrifice is not foreign to the majority of Vietnamese in particular the men and women of character. It also becomes a cult that one likes to maintain and ceaselessly praise for Vietnam to excite the whole people before the threat of foreigners.

The sacrifice is the surest way to maintain the perfection of the homeland but it is also the synonym of loyalty and dignity. A great person is the one who dares take the responsibilities in moments of difficulty in his or her life but it is also the one who knows how to sacrifice himself or herself for a good cause, in particular for his or her country. The sacrifice is indispensable to the word “honor” in Vietnam.

Because of this moral dignity, many military people prefered suicide to surrender (Trưng Trắc, Trưng Nhị, Trần Bình Trọng, Võ Tánh etc..). That is why it is the habit to say:

Hùm chết để da, người chết để tiếng.
A dead tiger leaves its hide, a deceased person his reputation. 
The history of Vietnam is also that of sacrifices. The duty of a Vietnamese is to serve his or her country wholehreatedly. The greater the danger, the better his or her loyalty seems to be.



Heroes sacrifice for their fatherland. No matter what happens, his honor is never tainted. It is the case of the scholar Phan Thanh Giản, signatory of the Franco-Vietnamese treaty of 1868. After having failed to put up with the French in the defense of the three western provinces of the Mekong delta (Vĩnh Long, An Giang and Hà Tiên) he chose to surrender and decided to poison himself in 1967 because he thought it was the only way to save the people and to show his fidelity to emperor Tự Ðức. The same, Nguyễn Tri Phương (1873), adversary of Francis Garnier and Hoàng Diệu (1882), adversary of Henri Rivière preferred suicide after having failed to defend Hànội city.

During the French occupation, sacrifice became the flame of hope lit by unknown people such as Nguyễn Trung Trực, Phạm Hồng Thái. The former accepted to die in the stead of his mother captured after having succeeded in blowing up the French “Espérance” on its passage on the “Nhựt Tảo” river in Long An while the latter, chased by the Chinese police in his escape, preferred to throw himself in the river after having failed to assassinate the French governor Merlin during his passage by Canton in 1924. Admiror of his courage and sacrifice for his fatherland, the governor of Canton later buried his remains in a cemetery solely reserved for the 72 Chinese heroes and known as “Hoàng Hoa Cương” in Vietnamese. 

If this sacrifice is not a vain word for men, it carries a particular meaning for the Vietnamese women. Princess Huyền Trân of the Trần dynasty was proposed to become in 1306 the wife of king Chế Mẫn (Jaya Simhavarman)  in exchange of the two territories of Champa Chau Ô and Châu Rí. She had to sacrifice her life, her love for reason of State.

The same, three centuries later, a princess of the Nguyễn dynasty, of the name Ngọc Vạn to whom the word “Cochinchina” or (Cô chín xin) was attributed, was not late in following Huyen Tran’s footsteps in becoming the concubine of Cambodian king Prea Chey Chetta II in 1618 in exchange of the facilities granted to Vietnamese in their settlement in the region Ðồng Nai Mô Xoài which is no other than the Saigon-Cholon region today.

Her presence on the Cham soil served as a pretext for lord Nguyễn Phúc Tần to launch an expedition and annex the last territory of Champa in 1651. One cannot blame the Cham for hating princess Ngoc Khoa at that time because of her, they have lost their homeland. But Ngọc Khoa illustrates for us Vietnamese the sublime sacrifice she consented for her country and her people.




Văn Lang civilization (Thời kỳ Hồng Bàng: Part 2)

French version

One also retains the outstanding event underlined by the Chinese historian Trịnh Tiều in his work “Thông Chí“: In the southern China, under the reign of  Nghiêu king  (2253 before J.C.), there was the emissary of a tribe named Việt Thường who offered to the king as a pledge of allegiance, an old tortoise living more than 1000 years and 3 meters long. One found on its back, the inscriptions carrying the characters in the shape of a tadpole (văn Khoa Ðẩu) and allowing to interpret all the changes of the Sky and nature. King Nghiêu decided to attribute to them the name Qui Lịch (or tortoise calendar). This form of writing was recently found  on a stone belonging to the cultural vestiges of the region Sapa-Lào Cai in the North of Vietnam. The Vietnamese historian Trần Trọng Kim raised this question in his work entitled Việt Nam sử lược (Abstract of the history of Vietnam). Many clues have been found in favour of the interpretation of the same tribe and  people. One cannot refute  there is an undeniable bond between the writing in the shape of tadpoles  and the toad found either on the  bronze drums of Ðồng Sơn or the  Ðông Hà popular Vietnamese stamps,  the most of which known remains the stamp “Thầy Ðồ Cóc” (or the Master toad). On the latter, one finds the following sentence: Lão oa độc giảng ( the old toad holds the monopoly of teaching ). Although it had appeared 400 years ago only, it ingeniously reflected the perpetual thought of the Hùng vuong time. It is not by chance that one attributed to the toad the Master role  but one would like to highlight the importance of the representation and the significance of this image.

The toad was the carrier of a civilization whose the writing in the shape of tadpoles was used by the  Lac Viet tribe  at the Hùng Vương time  because he was the father of the tadpole. In the same way, through the stamp of “Chú bé ôm con cóc” (or the child embraces the toad ), one detected all the original thought of  Lạc Việt people. The respect of the child towards  the toad or rather  its Master (Tôn Sư trọng đạo) was an already existing concept at the Hùng vương time. Could one conclude from it there was a correlation with what one found later in the confucean spirit with the sentence “Tiên học lễ, hậu học văn ” ( First learn the moral values then  the culture )?

The master toad (Thầy Ðồ Cóc)
 In Vietnam, the tortoise is not not only the symbol of longevity and immortality but also that of transmission of  spiritual values in the Vietnamese tradition. One finds its representation everywhere, in particular in commonplaces like communal houses, pagodas and temples. It is used at the temple of literature ( Văn Miếu ) to raise steles praising the merits of laureates to the national contests.


The crane on the tortoise back
On the other hand, in the temples and communal houses, one sees the tortoise  always carry a crane on its back. There is an undeniable resemblance between this crane and the bird wader with a long beak found on the bronze drums of Ðồng Sơn. The  crane statue on the tortoise  back probably reflects the perpetuity of all the religious beliefs resulting from the  Văn Lang  civilization through the time.

The tortoise  omnipresence in the history and culture of the Vietnamese results neither from the long domination of the Chinese nor the effect of chance but it  owed  to the fact that the Văn Lang kingdom should be located in an area populated by large tortoises. It was only in the south of  the Basin  Yang Tsé river (Sông Dương Tữ) that one can find this species of large tortoises in extermination. It is what was reported by the Vietnamese author Nguyễn Hiến Lê in his work entitled “Sử Trung Quốc ” (History of China ) (Editor Văn Hoá 1996) “.

It is not very probable to  find one day, the archaeological vestiges proving the existence of this kingdom like those already found with the Shang  dynasty. But nothing invalidates this historical truth because in addition to the facts evoked above, there is even  in this kingdom the intangible proof of a very old civilization often named  “the Văn Lang civilization” , one found the base of which  in the theory of Yin and Yang and  the five elements (Thuyết Âm Dương Ngũ Hành ). 

Âm Dương
This one was highlighted through the sticky rice cake “Bánh Chưng Bánh dầy” which was exclusively specific to the Vietnamese people since the   kings Hùng period.  One could raise questions about the origin of this theory which was attributed until now to the Chinese. According to the historical Memoires of Si Ma Qian ( Sử Ký Tư Mã Thiên ), one knew that  the philosopher of the country of Qi ( Tề Quốc ) ( 350-270 before J.C.) Tseou Yen (Trâu Diễn), was the first Chinese to highlight the relation between the theory of Yin and Yang and that of the 5 elements ( Wu Xing )(Thuyết Âm Dương Ngũ Hành)  at the time of the Warring States (thời Chiến Quốc). 

The Yin and the Yang  was evoked in the  Zhouyi book (Chu Dịch) by the son of king Wen (1)or Duke of Zhou (Chu Công Đán) while the theory of the five elements had been found by Yu the Great (Đại Vũ) of the Xia dynasty ( Hạ ). There was practically an interval of 1000 years between these two theories. The concept of the five elements was quickly integrated into  the yin and the yang to give an explanation on the “tao” which is at the origin of everything. In spite of the success met in a great number of domains (astrology, geomancy, traditional medicine), it is difficult to give a coherent justification to the level of the publication date of these theories because the concept Taiji  (thái cực) ( supreme limit ) from which the two principal elements were born ( the yin and the yang ), was introduced only at the time of Confucius (500 years before J.C. ).  Taiji was the object of meditation for  philosophers from all horizons  since the philosopher of the Song  period  and  founder of the Neo-Confucianism, Zhou Dunyi ( Chu Ðôn Di ), had given to this concept a new definition in his bestseller: “Treatise on the figure Taiji” ( Thái Cực đồ thuyết ):

Vô cực mà là thái cực, Thái cực  động sinh Dương, động đến cực điểm thì tĩnh, tĩnh sinh Âm, tĩnh đến cực đỉnh thì lại động. Một động một tĩnh làm căn bản cho nhau….

From Wuji (no limit) to Taiji (supreme limit or  grand extreme). The supreme limit, once in motion, generates the yang and at the limit of motion, it is in the rest state.   In turn, this one generates the yin and at the limit of the rest state, it is  the return to  the motion state.  For the latter  and the rest state, each takes roots in the other.

For the Chinese, there is a sequence in the beginning of the universe:
Thái cực sinh lưỡng nghi là Âm Dương, Âm Dương sinh Bát Quái

Taiji is  the “One” referred to in the Dao principle of creation. From Taiji,  Yin and Yang which are the basic attributes of the universe give rise to the eight trigrams.

 Hà Đồ (Map of the River)
The incoherence is so visible in the chronological order of these theories because one had attributed to Fu Xi (Phục Hi)(1) the invention of the eight trigrams 3500 years ago before J.C. while the concept of Yin and Yang was introduced at the time of Zhou (1200 years before J.C.). While relying on the recent archaeological discoveries, in particular on the discovery of the manuscripts on silk  at Mawangdui (1973), the Chinese specialists of today advance unimaginable statements: The hexagrams precede the trigrams…, which proves that the chronological order of these theories is likely to be modified unceasingly in accordance with the new situations. One is brought to find in this imbroglio, an another explanation, an  another approach, an  another assumption according to which the theory of Yin and  Yang and  5 elements was adequated to an  another civilization. It would be that of Văn Lang. The confusion continues to be anchored in the  reader mind with the famous River map and Writing of Luo (Hà Ðồ Lạc Thư). 

The Writing of Luo was to be found before the appearance of the Plan of the River. That highlights the contradiction found in the chronological order of these discoveries. Certain Chinese had the occasion to call in question the traditional history established up to that point in the confucian orthodoxy by the Chinese dynasties. It is the case of Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) who saw in this famous plan the work of man. He refuted the “gift from heaven” in his work entitled “Questions of a child about Yi King ( Yi tongzi wen )” (Zhongguo shudian, Peking 1986). He preferred the version of the human invention.

How can  one grant  the veracity to the Chinese legend when  a complete inconsistency is known in the chronological order of the discovery of these famous Plan of the River and Writing of Luo?

Fou Xi (Phục Hi) (3500 before J.C.) discovered first, the River map ( Hà Ðồ ) at the time of an excursion on the Yellow River (Hoàng Hà). He saw leaving the water a dragon horse (long mã) bearing on its back this plan. It is to You the Great (Đại Vũ)  (2205 before J.C.) that one attributed the discovery of the Writing of Luo found on the  tortoise back. However it is thanks to the Writing of Luo and with its explanation (Lạc Thư cửu tinh đồ) that one manages to establish and  interpret correctly the stellar diagram drawn  from the polar star (Bắc Ðẩu) and found on this famous Plan of the river according to the Yin and Yang and 5 elements.

The famous word “Luo” ( Lạc ) found in the text of the Great Commentary of Confucius:

     Thị cố thiên sinh thần vật, thánh nhân tắc chi, thiên địa hóa thánh nhân hiệu chi; thiên tượng, hiện cát hung, thánh nhân tượng chi. Hà xuất đồ, Lạc xuất thư, thánh nhân tắc chi

     Cho nên trời sinh ra  thần vật, thánh nhân áp dụng theo; trời đất biến hoá, thánh nhân bắt chước; trời bày ra hình tượng. Hiện ra sự  tốt  xấu, thánh nhân phỏng theo ý tượng. Bức đồ hiện ra sông Hoàng  Hà, hình chữ hiện ở sông Lạc, thánh nhân áp dụng.

The Heaven gives rise to the divine things, the Wise men  take them as criterion. The Heaven  and the Earth know changes and transformations, the Wise men  reproduce them. The images expressing fortune and misfortune are suspended    in the Heaven, the Wise mens imitate them. The Plan comes from the Yellow River, the Writing  from the Luo river, the Wise men take them as models.

continues to be interpreted until today like the name of the Luo river, an affluent of the Yellow River which crosses and nourishes the center of China. One continues to see in these famous Plan of the River and Writing of Luo the first premises of the Chinese civilization. From the drawings and figures to the trigrammatic signs, from the trigrammatic signs to the linguistic signs, one thinks of the march of the Chinese civilization in Yi King without believing that it could be the model borrowed by the Wise one from another civilization. However if Luo is associated with the word Yue, that indicates the tribe Lạc Việt  (Luo Yue ) from which the Vietnamese come.  Does it seem  like  a sheer coincidence or a name used by the Wise men  You the Great  or Confucius to refer to the Văn Lang civilization? Lạc Thư indicates effectively the writing of the tribe Luo, Lạc tướng its generals, Lạc điền its territory, Lạc hầu  its marquis etc…..

It is rather disconcerting to note that the theory of Yin – Yang and  5 elements finds its perfect cohesion and its functioning in the  intangible proof of the  Văn Lang civilization, the sticky cake. In addition to the water, one finds in its constitution the 4 essential elements (meat, broad beans, sticky rice, bamboo or latanier leaves). The cycle of generation (Ngũ hành sinh) of 5 elements is quite visible in the making of this cake. At the interior of the cake, one finds a red  piece of porkmeat  (Fire) surrounded by a kind of paste made with  yellow broad beans (Earth). The whole thing is wrapped by the white  sticky rice (Metal) to be cooked with boiling water  (Water) before finding a green colouring on its surface thanks to the latanier leaves (Wood).

The two geometrical forms, a circle and a square which this cake takes, correspond well to the  Yin ( Âm ) and  the Yang (Dương). As the Yang breath reflects plenitude and purity, one gives it  the shape of a circle. However, one finds in the  Yin breath the impurity and  limitation. That is why it recovers the form of a square. A light difference is notable in the definition of Yin-Yang of the Chinese and that of the Vietnamese. For the latter, Yin tends to be in motion (động).

Cycle of generation


Ngũ hành tương sinh

It is for that reason one finds only the presence of the 5 elements in the Yin (Âm) represented by the rice cake in the form of a square ( Bánh chưng ). It is not the case of the cake in the shape of a circle that  the Yang (Dương) symbolizes, this latter tending  to carry the “motionless” character  (tĩnh). It is probably the reason which explains until today why the theory  of Yin-Yang and 5 elements does not know a giant leap in its evolution and that its applications continue to carry the mystical and confused character in the public opinion because of the error introduced into the definition of Yin-Yang by the Chinese.

One is accustomed to saying “Mẹ tròn, con vuôn” in Vietnamese to wish the mother and her child a good health at the time of birth. This expression is used as a phrase of courtesy if it is not known that it was bequeathed by our ancestors with an aim of holding our attention on the creative character of the Universe. From this latter were born Yin and Yang which are not only in opposition but also in interaction and correlation. The complementarity and the indissociability of these two poles are at the base of the satisfying development of nature. The typically Vietnamese game “Chơi ô ăn quan” also testifies to the perfect operation of the theory of Yin-Yang and 5 elements. The game stops when one does not find any more tokens in the two extreme half-circles corresponding to the two poles Yin and Yang.

Ancestor altar

No Vietnamese hides his emotion when he sees on his ancestor altar  the sticky rice cake at the time of the  Tết festival. For him, this dish looking less attractive and not having any succulent taste,  bears a particular significance. It testifies not only to the respect and affection that  the Vietnamese likes to maintain with regard to his ancestors but also the impression of a 5000-year old civilization. This sticky rice cake is the undeniable proof of the perfect  functioning  of Yin and Yang and 5 elements. It is the only intact legacy that the Vietnamese succeeded in receiving on behalf of his ancestors in the swirls of history. It cannot compete with the masterpieces of other civilizations like the Wall of China or pyramids of the Pharaohs built with sweat and blood. It is the living symbol of a civilization which bequeathed to humanity a knowledge of priceless value.  One continues to use it  in a great number of domains of application (astronomy, geomancy, medicine, astrology etc….). Return to Part 1




Văn Lang civilization (Thời kỳ Hồng Bàng): Part 1

Version française

Thời kỳ Hồng Bàng

Văn Lang civilization

The Vietnamese are accustomed to saying: one remembers the source from which one drinks the water (Uống nước nhớ nguồn). It is therefore not surprising to see them continue to celebrate in grand pomp on the 10th day of the third lunar month of each year, the commemorative day of the Hùng kings of the Hồng Bàng dynasty, the founding fathers of the Vietnamese nation.

Until today, no archaeological vestige is found to confirm the existence of this dynasty except for the ruins of the citadel Cỗ Loa (Old snail city) dating from the period of the  An Dương Vương‘s reign and the temple built in honor of these  Hùng kings at  Phong Châu in the province of Phú Thọ.

Many clues do not invalidate this existence if one refers to the legends reported of this mythical time and  the Annals of Vietnam and China. The Chinese domination (IIIrd century before J.C. – 939 after J.C.) is not foreign to the greatest influence on the development of the Vietnamese civilization. All that belongs to the Vietnamese became Chinese and vice versa during this period.

One notes it is a policy of assimilation deliberately wanted by the Chinese. That does not let the Vietnamese  the possibility for maintaining their culture inherited from an old civilization of 5000 years and called “Văn Lang civilization” without resorting to the oral traditions (popular proverbs, poems or legends).

Two verses found in the following popular song (ca dao):

Trăm năm bia đá thì mòn

Ngàn năm bia miệng vẫn còn trơ trơ

The stele of stone erodes after a hundred years
The words of people continue to remain in force after a thousand years

testify to the practice carried out knowingly by the Vietnamese with the goal of preserving what they inherited from the Văn Lang civilization.

This one bears the name of a kingdom which was bordered at that time by the East sea, to the west by the Shu Ba kingdom (Ba Thục)(Tứ Xuyên or Szechuan in English), to the north by the territory of the lake Ðông Ðình (Hu Nan) (Hồ Nam) and to the south by the  kingdom of Chămpa (Champa). This state was located in the  Yang Tse river (Dương Tữ giang) Basin region and was placed under the authority of a king Hùng. This one had been elected for his courage and his values. He had divided his kingdom into districts entrusted to his brothers known under the name “Lạc hầu” (marquis). His male children have the title of Quang Lang and his daughters that of Mỵ nương. His people was known under the name “Lạc Việt”. His men had a custome of  tattooing their body. Being often revealed in the Chinese annals, this “barbarian” practice was intended to protect men from the attacks of  water dragons (con thuồng luồng) if one believes the Vietnamese texts. It is perhaps the reason why the Chinese often designated them under the name Qủi (demons). Loincloth and chignon constituted the usual costume of these people to which were added bronze ornaments. The Lac Viet lacquered their teeth in black, chewed betel nuts and crushed rice with their hand. Being farmers, they practiced the cultivation of rice in flooded field. They lived in plains and coastal areas while in the mountainous areas of  Việt Bắc and on the part of the territory of the  Kuang Si province, took refuge the Tây Âu, the ancestors of the ethnic groups Tày, Nùng and Choang.

Towards the end of the third century before our era, the leader of Tây Âu tribes defeated the last king Hùng  and succeeded in reunifying under his banner the territories of Tây Âu and  Lac Việt to form the  Âu Lạc kingdom, in the year 258 before our era. He took as the reign name, An Dương Vương  and transferred his capital to Cỗ Loa located  just over 20  kilometers from Hànội.

Is the kingdom of Văn Lang a pure fabrication supplied by the Vietnamese with an aim of maintaining a myth or a kingdom really existing and disappeared in the swirls of history?

Geographic map of Văn Lang kingdom

According to the Vietnamese myth, the land of the Proto-Vietnamese was delimited in the north, at the time of Hùng kings (first vietnamese dynasty 2879 before J.C.)  by the Dongting lake (Động Đình Hồ) located in the land of the Chu kingdom (Sỡ Quốc in Vietnamese). A part of their territory returned to this latter during the Warring States period (thời Chiến Quốc).  Their descendants living in this part reattached  probably became inhabitants of the Chu kingdom. There were a relationship, an  intimate connection between in this kingdom and the Proto-Vietnamese. There is a hypothesis suggested and proposed recently by a Vietnamese writer Nguyên Nguyên (2). According to the latter, it is not rare that in the old writings, ideograms are replaced by other ideograms with the same phonetics. It is the case of the title Kinh Dương Vương whom had taken  the father of the ancestor of the Vietnamese, Lộc TụcBy writing it in this way in Chinese , we  see appearing easily the names of two cities Kinh Châu (Jingzhou) (3) and Dương Châu (Yángzhou) (4) where lived respectively the  Yue ethnic groups  of Thai branch  and Lạc branch. There was the  expression of a  desire employed by the narrator for evoking intelligently the installation and  fusion of yue ethnic groups of Thai branch and Lạc branch coming from these cities during the conquests of the Chu kingdom.  On the other hand, the ideogram  (Thái dương) is translated as light or solemn. It is employed with  the aim of avoiding its use as surname. By using this word, it allows to translate Kinh Dương Vương   into solemn king Kinh. But there is also a synonymic word Kinh  of the word Lạc (), nickname of the Vietnamese. In short,  Kinh Dương Vương can be translated as solemn king Việt. Concerning the title whom took the Âu Việt king , the author does not question his explanation: it is the pacification of the country of the Yue ethnic group from the Lạc branch by a Yue son from the Thái branch. This can only strengthen the argument given by Edouard Chavannes and  Léonard Aurousseau(5): the Proto-Vietnamese  and the inhabitants of the Chu kingdom have had common ancestors. Moreover,  there  is a striking coincidence found in the clan name Mi (bear or gấu in Vietnamese) written in the Chu language, translated into Hùng  () (in Vietnamese) and beared  by Chu kings and that of Vietnamese kings. By relying on Sseu-Ma Tsien historical memories translated by  E. Chavannes (6), one knowns that the king of the Chu principality  is from bararian hordes living in the South China (or Bai Yue): Hiong-K’iu (Hùng Cừ) says: I am a barbarian man and does not participe in titles and posthumous names  granted by the Middle kingdom.

American linguists  Mei Tsulin and  Norman Jerry (7) identified a number of borrowed words in the Austro-Asiatic language and recognized them in Chinese writings during  the Han period. There is the case of the Chinese word  囝 (giang in Vietnamese or river  in French ) or nu (ná     in Vietnamese or  crossbow in English). They demonstrated the high likelihood of the   Austro-Asiatic language presence  in South China and concluded that there was a contact between the Chinese language and the Austro-Asiatic language in the territority of the former kingdom of Chu between 1000 and 500 years before J.C.

The geographical argument was never taken seriously  into account by Vietnamese historians in the past because for them, this dynasty belonged to the mythical period. Moreover, according to Chinese writings,  the   territory of ancestors of the Vietnamese  (Kiao-tche (Giao Chỉ))  was confined in the current Tonkin, thus annoying them to accept without explanation or justification the territorial spread  of the Hồng Bàng dynasty   until the  Dongting lake. They did not see in the narration of this myth, the willingness of the ancestors   of the Vietnamese to indicate their origin, to show their belonging in the Bai Yue group and their unwavering resistance facing formidable Chinese conquerors.

In the Chinese annals,  one has reported that, at the Spring and Autumn period,   Gou Jian king of the  Yue state  was interested to get an alliance with the Văn Lang kingdom  in order to hold supremacy on  other powerful  principalities of the region. It is likely that the Văn Lang kingdom had to be a  country  neighbouring the state of  Gou Jian king  of  Yue. This one had no interest in contracting this alliance if  the Văn Lang kingdom was geographically confined in Vietnam today. The recent discovery of the Gou Jian king’s sword  (reign of 496-465 before J.C.)  in the grave  n°1 of Wanshan (Jianling) (Hubei) allows to better discern the  contours of the Văn Lang kingdom. It would probably be located in the Guizhou region (Qúi Châu).  But Henri Masporo has contested this speculation in the book  intituled “Le royaume de Văn Lang “(BEFEO, t XVIII, fasc 3 )”. He has attributed to Vietnamese historians the mistake of confusing the Văn Lang kingdom with that of Ye Lang (or Dạ Lang in Vietnamese)  the name of which has been badly by Chinese historians to their Vietnamese colleagues at the time of  the Tang dynasty (nhà Đường).  This is not exactly true because in Vietnamese legends, in particular in that of Phù Ðổng Thiên Vương (or  Skylord of  Phù Ðổng village), one realizes that the Văn  Lang kingdom was in armed conflict with the Yin-Shang dynasty (Ân Thương) at the time of the  Hùng  VI king  and it was much larger in area than the Ye Lang kingdom found at the time of  the unification of China by Qin Shi Huang Di (Tần Thủy Hoàng)

In the Vietnamese annals, one took about the long period of the Hùng kings reign (from 2879 to 258 before J.C.). The discovery of bronze artefacts in Ningxiang (Hu Nan) during the years 1960 does not put into question the existence of the contemporary centres of the Shang civilization ignored by  writings in the southern China. There is the case of the culture of Sangxindui (Di chỉ Tam Tinh Đôi)(Sichuan (Tứ Xuyên)) for example. The wine vase in bronze decorated with the anthropomorphic faces testifies obviously to the contact established by the Shang with    people of Melanesian type because one finds on these sides,  the round human faces with a flat nose. The moulding of this bronze used in the manufacture of this vase requires the tin incorporation which the northern China did not have at that time.  

Would there be any  real contact, a war between the  Shang and the   Văn Lang  kingdom  if one held on to the legend of the skylord Phù Ðổng? Could  you  grant the  veracity to a fact brought back by a Vietnamese legend ? Many western historians always perceived the  Dongsonian  civilization period as the beginning  of the Vietnamese nation (500-700 before J.C.). It is also the shared opinion  found in the anonymous historical work intituled  “Việt Sử Lược“.

Under the reign of Zhuang Wang (Trang Vương) of Zhou (nhà Châu)  ( 697-682 before J.C.), in the district Gia Ninh, there was a strange character managing to dominate  all the tribes with his sorceries, taking for title the name Hùng and establishing his capital at Phong Châu. With the hereditary filiation, that made it possible for his line to maintain power with 18 kings, all bearing the name Hùng.

On the other hand, in other Vietnamese historical works, one granted a long period of reign to the Hồng Bàng  dynasty (from 2879 to 258 before J.C.) with 2622 years. It appears inconceivable to us if one maintains 18 as  the number of kings during this period because this means that each king Hùng  reigned on average 150 years. One can only find a satisfactory answer if one accepts the assumption established by Trần Huy Bá in his expose published in the newspaper  Nguồn Sáng n°23 on the commemorative day of Hùng kings (Ngày giỗ Tổ Hùng Vương) (1998). For him, there is a false interpretation on the word “đời” found in the sentence “18 đời Hùng Vương“. The word “Ðời” must be replaced by the word Thời meaning “period”.

Mouth organ player

With this assumption, there are therefore  18 periods of reign,   each of which  corresponds to a branch being able to be made up of one or several kings in the family tree of the  Hồng Bàng dynasty . This argumentation is reinforced by the fact that king Hùng Vương was elected for his courage and his merits if one refers to the Vietnamese tradition to choose men of value for the supreme function. That was reported in the famous legend of the sticky rice cake (Bánh chưng bánh dầy). One can thus justify the word Thời by the word branch (or chi ).

There is a need to give a more coherent explanation for the number 2622 with 18 branches following in the work  intituled “Văn hoá tâm linh – đất tổ Hùng Vương” by the author  Hồng Tử Uyên.

Chi Càn Kinh Dương Vương húy Lộc Túc   
Chi Khảm Lạc Long Quân húy Sùng Lãm
Chi Cấn Hùng Quốc Vương húy Hùng Lân
Chi Chấn Hùng Hoa Vương húy Bửu Lang
Chi Tốn Hùng Hy Vương húy Bảo Lang
Chi Ly Hùng Hồn Vương húy Long Tiên Lang
Chi Khôn Hùng Chiêu Vương húy Quốc Lang
Chi Ðoài Hùng Vĩ Vương húy Vân Lang
Chi Giáp Hùng Ðịnh Vương húy Chân Nhân Lang
………….. manquant dans  le document historique …
Chi Bính Hùng Trinh Vương húy Hưng Ðức Lang
Chi Ðinh Hùng Vũ Vương húy Ðức Hiền Lang
Chi Mậu Hùng Việt Vương húy Tuấn Lang
Chi Kỷ Hùng Anh Vương húy Viên Lang
Chi Canh Hùng Triệu Vương húy Cảnh Chiêu Lang
Chi Tân Hùng Tạo Vương húy Ðức Quân Lang
Chi Nhâm Hùng Nghị Vương húy Bảo Quang Lang
Chi Qúy Hùng Duệ Vương

That enables us to also find the thread of history in the military conflict between the  Văn Lang kingdom  and the Shang  via the legend of “Phù Ðổng Thiên Vương (Thánh Gióng)“. If this conflict took place, it could only be at the beginning of the period of  the Shang’s reign  for several reasons:

  • 1) No Chinese or Vietnamese historical document spoke about the trade between the kingdom of Van Lang and the Shang. On the other hand, one noted the contact established later between the Zhou dynasty (nhà Châu) and  Hùng king. A silver pheasant had been offered even by this latter to the king of Zhou according to the book  intituled “Selection of Strange Tales in Lĩnh Nam” (Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái).
  • 2) The  Shang dynasty  only reigned from 1766 to 1122 before J.C.  There would be approximately a time lag of 300 years  if one tried to compute the arithmetic mean of the 18 periods under the  Hùng kings reign: (2622/18) and to multiply it by 12 to give rougly  a date to the end of  the sixth branch of the Hùng reign ((Hùng Vương VI) by adding to which the number  258, the year of the annexation of the Văn Lang  kingdom by  An Dương king. One would have fallen about at the year 2006 dating  the end of the sixth branch Hùng reign (Hùng Vuong VI). One can deduce from this date that the conflict if happened, should be at the beginning of the  Shang dynasty era. This gap is not completely unjustified because one only has until then few precise historical details beyond the  reign time of  Chu Lệ Vương (Zhou LiWang)  (850 before J.C.).

One notes a military expedition undertaken during three years by   Wuding (Vũ Ðịnh) king of the Shang in  the  region of  Ðộng Ðình lake against the nomadic people, the Gui  alias “Demons”, which was mentioned in the  Yi King book (Kinh Dịch) translated by Bùi Văn Nguyên, Khoa Hoc Xã Hội Hà Nội 1997. In his work published in the newspaper Nguồn Sáng no 23, Trần Huy Bá rather thought of King Woding (Ốc Ðinh) who was one of the first kings of the Shang  dynasty. With this assumption,  there is no doubt or ambiguity because there is a perfect coherence reported in the Chinese and Vietnamese annals. One must know that at the time of An Dương Vương, one was accustomed to indicating the country Việt Thường under the name “Xích Qủi”. The term Xích is employed for referring to the equator (Xich đạo). About Qủi, this  wants to evoke the red star Yugui Qui, one of the seven stars of the South. This one  happened under the skies of the Jingzhou city of the Yue at the time the Shang king had installed his troop. It is also the opinion shared by the Vietnamese author Vũ Quỳnh in his work “Tân Ðinh Linh Nam Chích Quái”:

Ở đây có bộ tộc Thi La Quỷ thời Hùng Vương thứ VI vào đánh nước ta nhân danh nhà Ân Thương.

It is here that at the reign time  of king Hùng VI , one found a tribe Thi La Qủy who invaded our country in the name of Yin-Shan.

This conflict could explain the principal reason for which the Văn Lang kingdom did not establish any trade with the Shang. The discoveries of the bronze objects in Ningxiang  (Hu Nan) during the years 1960 gave the evidence that they could be the spoils brought back during the expedition into the southern China because there was no explanation to give to the bronze wine vases decorated with  Melanesian anthropomorphic faces.

  • 3°) In the Vietnamese legend “Phù Ðổng Thiên Vương”, one noted the escape and  dislocation of the Shang army  in the district Vũ Ninh at the same time  the immediate disappearance of the celestial hero coming from the  Phù Ðổng village. One also told of his spontaneous appearance at the time of the Shang  invasion without any preparation in advance. This gave the evidence that he should be present on the territory at the  invasion time  of this latter. The territories conquered by the Shang could not be taken back entirely by the Lạc Việt because  one could say that they were driven out of the  Văn Lang territory in the legend. It was not completely the case because it was noted that with the advent of the Zhou dynasty, one saw appearing  vassal countries like the state of Yue  Goujian (Wu Yue) (Ngô Việt), the  Chu  kingdom ( Sỡ ) etc…on an old part of the Văn Lang territory.

 It would not be known for whatever reason , the Văn Lang kingdom was reduced and thus confined in the north of Vietnam of today  by glancing  at  the geographical map found during  the time of Springs and Autumn and that of king Qin Shi Huang Di. Why was Goujian interested to the alliance with the Văn Lang kingdom if the latter was confined in the north of the Vietnam today? One could give to the dismemberment of this kingdom the following explanation:

At the time of the Yin-Shan  invasion, a certain number of tribes among the 15 tribes of  Lạc Việt people, succeeded in routing away the Shang  army  and continued to shown  their attachment and their honesty to the Văn Lang kingdom. That did not prevent them from keeping their autonomy and  maintaining a development rather high at  the social and cultural level. That could give later  an explanation to the emergence of  independent states   located at  the geographical map  of the  Tsin period (Qin Shi Huang Di) as  Ye Lang (Dạ Lang), Dian (Ðiền Việt), Si Ngeou (Tây Âu) and  the  significant reduction of the Văn Lang kingdom in  area  to the current state (in the north of Vietnam).

It is possible that this reduced kingdom restructured itself  in an identical way sus as the Văn Lang kingdom established at the beginning of its creation by last king Hùng in order to remind to his people the greatness of his kingdom.  The king  thus  kept  the names of 15  ancient tribes and gave to his reduced territory the name Vũ Ninh for commemorating the brilliant success earned by Lạc Việt people under the reign of Hùng VI  king. Việt Trì probably could be the last capital of the Văn Lang kingdom.  One notes a part of historical  reality  in the Vietnamese legend because one has recently discovered in China the use of iron at the time of the Shang dynasty. On  the other hand, the  iron could be replaced by an other metal like the bronze without losing however the real significance in the content of the legend. It was only used for reflecting the courage and the bravery which one loved  to attribute to the skylord. If the iron was well  quoted, this  no longer doubted its  discovery  and its use very early in the Văn Lang kingdom. This  also justifies  the coherence given by this legend to the conflict which opposed  the Văn Lang kingdom and  the Shang. Read more 



(1) Paul Pozner : Le problème  des chroniques vietnamiennes., origines et influences étrangères.  BEFO, année 1980, vol 67, no 67,  p 275-302
(2) Nguyên Nguyên: Thử đọc lại truyền thuyết Hùng Vương 
(3)Jīngzhōu (Kinh Châu) : la capitale de vingt rois de Chu, au cours de la période  des Printemps et Automnes (Xuân Thu) (-771 — ~-481) 
(4) Yángzhōu (Dương Châu) 
(5) Léonard Rousseau: La première conquête chinoise des pays annamites (IIIe siècle avant notre ère). BEFO, année 1923, Vol 23, no 1.
(6) Edouard Chavannes :Mémoires historiques de Se-Ma Tsien de Chavannes, tome quatrième, page 170).
(7) Norman Jerry- Mei tsulin 1976 The Austro asiatic in south China : some lexical evidence, Monumenta Serica 32 :274-301

Sơn mài (Laques)

English version

À quel moment la technique de la laque a-t-elle été introduite au Vietnam? Sa date d’introduction  continue à alimenter les débats et reste toujours l’objet de discussions. Pour certains archéologues, l’utilisation de l’ornement laqué remonta à la première invasion chinoise (découverte des objets laqués dans des tombes des IIIème- IVème siècles de notre ère). Pour d’autres, cette technique fut introduite au XVème siècle par Trần Tường Công, ambassadeur à la cour de Chine. Celui-ci fut chargé par le roi Lê Nhân Tôn (1443- 1460) de trouver un métier susceptible de procurer de nouvelles ressources pour les paysans. Il fut initié dans des ateliers chinois de la province Hunan aux mystères de la laque.  Personne n’est vraiment convaincue jusqu’à ce jour car les affabulations chinoises ne manquaient pas  à cette époque pour légitimer leur politique d’assimilation  et de conquête territoriale vis à vis à d’autres peuples.

Par contre, on sait que Hunan fit partie du royaume de Chu (Sỡ Quốc) établi sur la fleuve Yangzi (Dương Tử Giang) à l’époque des Royaumes Combattants. Ce dernier fut annexé plus tard par Qin Shi Huang Di (Tần Thủy Hoàng). C’est aussi dans ce royaume de Chu qu’on a découvert les tombes  de Mme Dai et de son fils à Mawangdui (Mã Vương Đôi) (Changsa, Hunan), (168 av. J.C.) où l’artisanat local  montrait une maîtrise de la forme et la couleur, en particulier les boiseries de la laque.  Cela nous amène à avoir une idée précise et pouvoir conclure  que la technique de la  laque venait probablement des Bai Yue car  le royaume de Chu  était en contact étroit  avec ces derniers et  en recevait une influence notable en ce qui concerne la soie, la laque, les rites chamaniques des Hmong, les épées etc…

Sơn mài

La laque est en fait le suc laiteux obtenu par incision du laquier. Grâce à la solidification à l’air libre et à la résistance à l’acide et aux éraflures, la gomme résineuse constitue une protection idéale pour les bois et pour les bambous. On se sert de cette résine dans la fabrication des objets laqués. Ceux-ci offrent une grande diversité: paravents, coffres, plateaux, vases, échiquiers etc … Le travail de laque nécessite beaucoup de préparations et de soins.

Version anglaise

Over what  time period was introduced the  lacquer technique in Vietnam? Its date of introduction continues to sustain debates and always remains the object of discussions. For some archaeologists, the use of lacquer adornment dated back to the first Chinese invasion (discovery of lacquerwares in the tombs of 3rd – 4th centuries of our era). For others, this technique was introduced by Trần Tường Công, ambassador to the court of China. He was assigned by king Lê Nhân Tôn (1443-1460 ) to find a trade contributing  to provide new resources for peasants. He was introduced to the secrets of lacquer in Chinese workshops of Hunan province. Nobody is not really convinced  until today because the Chinese pretence did not lack  at this time for legitimating  the policy of assimilation and territorial conquest vis à vis other people. On the other hand, one knowns Hunan was an integral  part of the kingdom Chu (Sỡ Quốc) established on the Yangzi river  (Dương Tử Giang)  during the Warring States period. The latter was annexed thereafter by  Qin Shi Huang Di (Tần Thủy Hoàng). It is also in the Chu kingdom  one has discovered  the tombs of Mrs Dai and her son at  Mawangdui (Mã Vương Đôi) (Changsa, Hunan), (168 av. J.C.) where the local craft  showed the master’s degree in  shape and color, in particular the lacquer panelling. This leads us to get a precise idea and to be able to conclude  the lacquer technique came from Bai Yue (Bách Việt) because  the Chu kingdom was  in close contact  with the latter and received from which  an important influence  concerning  silk,  lacquer, shamanic rites of Hmong people, swords etc…

Lacquer is in fact the milky juice obtained from an incision of the lacquer tree. Thanks to the solidification in open air and the resistance to acid and scratches, the resinous gum constitutes an ideal protection for wood and bamboo. One uses this resin to make lacquerwares. They offer a great diversity: folding screens, chests, trays, vases, chessboard etc….

Lacquerwork requires lots of preparation and care.

Tết du bûcheron (Sữ tích cây nêu ngày Tết)


English version

Jadis, un bûcheron parti dans les bois pour couper son bois, voulût ramener quelques bamboux. Il s’apprêta à couper un bambou avec sa hache quand il entendit ce dernier lui parler. En fait,ce bambou n’était pas ordinaire: c’était un Génie du Ciel transformé en bambou par un sortilège. Le bûcheron, surpris, accepta de laisser la vie sauve au Génie. Pour le remercier, le Génie exauça son vœu ( passer 3 merveilleux jours de Têt, comblés de bons mets et de vins délicieux). Sur le conseil du Génie, le bûcheron continua sa route et rencontra l’ermite Za-Xoa qui l’invita dans son temple à célébrer le Têt…

A minuit, assailli par une nuée de démons, le bûcheron et ses compagnons affrontèrent ces derniers. Bouddha, venu du Ciel pour les aider, offrit aux démons de leur acheter un lopin de terre en échange de pièces précieuses, d’or et d’argent qu’il déposa devant eux. De quelle superficie ? demandèrent aussitôt les génies. De la taille de ma robe,leur répondit-il.Ceux-ci s’empressèrent d’accepter, pensant faire là une excellente affaire. Or quand le Bouddha étendit son vêtement, ce dernier se révéla aussi grand que le territoire vietnamien. Les démons étaient furieux de s’être laissés duper, mais le marché était conclu.

Le Bouddha s’adressa au bûcheron et à ses amis en ces termes: “Lorsque vous inviterez les mânes de vos ancêtres à venir chez vous pour les cérémonies du Têt, des esprits maléfiques peuvent se glisser parmi eux. Vous devrez donc élever une perche de bambou au bout de laquelle vous ferez frotter un morceau de tissu jaune marqué de mon emblème. Ainsi, tous les mauvais génies ne viendront pas vous importuner.”

Au Vietnam, on observe encore cette coutume dans certaines campagnes. Dans le milieu urbain, elle a virtuellement disparu. Cependant, le pétard est rentré dans les moeurs et depuis,le Têt débute dans un concert de pétard qui est censé chasser les démons durant toute l’année.

Sữ tích cây nêu 

Version anglaise

Long ago,  a woodcutter going to the woods to cut wood, wanted to bring home some bamboos. He was ready to cut a bamboo tree with his ax when he heard the tree talking to him. In fact, this bamboo tree was not ordinary: it was the Genie of the Sky transformed into a bamboo tree by a spell. The woodcutter, surprised, agreed to let the Genie’s life safe. To thank him, the Genie granted him his wish ( spending three marvellous days of Tet, loaded with good foods and delicious wines). Upon advice of the Genie, the woodcutter continued his route and met hermit Za-Xoa who invited him to his temple to celebrate Tet…

At midnight, assailed by a horde of demons, the woodcutter and his companions confronted them. Buddha coming from Heaven to help, offered to the demons to buy from them a piece of land in exchange of precious stones, gold and silver that he displayed before them. Of how large the area? asked the demons right away. The size of my robe, he replied to them. The demons thinking it was a good deal hurried to accept the offer. Yet when Buddha extended his clothe, it shows as big as the Vietnamese territory. The demons were furious for having been duped, but the deal was closed.

Buddha told the woodcutter and his friends in these words: ” When you will invite the spirits of your ancestors to your homes to celebrate Tet, the evil spirits may slip in among them. So you must set up a bamboo pole, at the end of which you will fly a apiece of yellow cloth marked with my emblem. Thus, the evil spirits will not come to bother you.

In Vietnam, one still observed this custom in certain rural areas. In the urban environment, it has virtually disappeared. However, fireworks have entered the customs and from then, Tet begins in a concert of fireworks that are deemed to chase away demons for the whole year.



Edouard Hocquard

Le regard d’un homme au destin exceptionnel

English version

Charles Edouard Hocquard, médecin militaire et  reporter correspondant pour l’agence Havas au Tonkin de 1884 à 1886 nous a légué en héritage une collection d’images de beauté de la première guerre coloniale du Vietnam. Il a rapporté plus de 200 clichés composant une porte-folio de 80 planches en photoglyptie (1) publié en 1887. Il a relaté avec acuité et humour dans “Une expédition au Tonkin”, les anecdotes pittoresques avec les paysans de la région, la connaissance de la flore locale, les souvenirs  de la guerre du Tonkin et du peuple vietnamien etc..

Il n’a pas obtenu le succès commercial escompté avec la publication de ses reportages photographiques.  Mais il a réussi à montrer qu’il est possible de trouver dans le conflit franco-vietnamien un autre regard plus objectif, celui d’un homme de science à la rencontre d’une autre culture à l’aube du  XXème siècle. Il est décédé d’une grippe infectieuse le 11 Janvier 1911 à l’âge de cinquante huit ans.


Galerie des photos

Version anglaise

The look of a man with  extraordinary destiny

Being a medical officer and reporter for the Havas agency in Tonkin from 1884 to 1886,  Charles Edouard Hocquard  has bequeathed us as heritage a collection of  beautiful digital pictures  coming from the first colonial war in Vietnam. He brougth  back more than 200 clichés composing a portfolio of 80 boards in  “photoglyptie“(1)  and published in 1887. He related picturesque anecdotes with  local peasants, knowledge  of local flora,  memories of war and Vietnamese people with acuity and humor in the book “Une expédition au Tonkin (An expedition in Tonkin)” etc…

The commercial success was not obtained  with the publication of its  photographic articles. But he succeeded in showing that it is possible to find in the franco-vietnamese conflict an other look very impartial, that of a scientific man going out to meet with an other culture at the dawn of the twenty century. He died from an infectious influenza on 11 January 1911 when he was fifty-eight years old.

(1) photoglyptie: un procédé d’impression photomécanique inaltérable destiné à remplacer les tirages argentiques.

      An immutable  photomechanical printing process is  intended to replace silver printings.

In Search of the Origin of the Vietnamese People: Part 1 (Đi tìm nguồn gốc dân tộc Việt)

Version française


The discovery of the Hemudu site ( Zhejiang ) in 1973 was a great event for Chinese archaelologists because the site traced back to more than 7000 years the most ancient civilization of rice found on earth. Also found there were remnants of lacustrine wooden housing built on piles, the type of construction quite different from the earthen houses in Northern China. The people who lived there possessed traits characterized Mongoloid as well as Australo-Negroid. Because Zhejiang is part of the most beautiful provinces in Southern China for a long time, that famous civilization has been attributed to the Chinese people even though the cradle of their civilization was known to be narrowly tied to the basin of the Yellow River ( or Huang He ) ( Hoàng Hà ) where Anyang is its ancient heart. One cannot deny that their civilization has found all its quintessence in the neolithic cultures of Yang-Shao ( Henan Province ) ( 5000 years BC) and Longshan ( Shandong Province ) ( 2500 years BC ) respectively identified by the Swedish Johan G. Andersson in 1921 and the father of Chinese archaeology Li Ji a few years later. Thanks to phylogenetic works done by the American team led by professor J.Y.Chu of the University of Texas, which was published in the American Review of Sciences Academy under the title “Genetic Relationship of Population in China” (1), an accurate idea about the origin of the Chinese people began to emerge. Three points were raised from these works:

  • 1) It is clear that genetic evidence does not support that Homo-sapiens in China has an independent origin. The ancestors of the populations presently living in the East of China came from South East Asia.
  • 2) Thereafter, it is probably safe to conclude that “modern” folks native of Africa constitute largely the genetic capital found presently in East Asia.

At her birth a person possesses her genoptype ( collection of genes ) that is a gem capable of making itself an infinity of copies transmitted from generation to generation. These genes, which are made of immense molecules in the form of double-helix DNA (3) are the basis of heredity. It is possible that the tiny biochemical computers made of DNA portions in our body make radical changes in a specific context where all essential factors combine to allow them to do so. It is at the point of spontaneous mutation in response to climatic changes or solar radiation or a genetic drift that the genotype of one species can be completely modified to become the genotype of another species as the years go by. That mutation can take place at snail pace ( theory of gradualism of Ernst Mayr ) or by giant’s leaps (theory of punctuated equilibrium put forth by two American paleontologists Nils Elredge and Stephen Jay Gould ). That better facilitated the understanding of the human race evolution ( from Homo-Erectus to Homo-sapiens sapiens ) and of the phenotype that the latter can acquire in an encountered environment ( skin color, size, blood system, different behavior etc…).

In his conclusion, professor J.Y. Chu recognized that it is probable the ancestors of the populations speaking Altaic languages ( or the Han ) were issues of the population of South East Asia and the tribes coming from Central Asia and Europe.

That discovery did not call into question what has been proposed some few years before by anthropology professor Wilhelm G. Solheim II of the University of Hawaii in his book “A New Light in a Forgotten Past” (2). For this anthropologist, there is no doubts that the Hoa Binh culture (15,000 years B.C.) discovered in 1922 by the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in a village near Hoà Bình province in Vietnam was the birth place of future evolution of Neolithic cultures of Yang Shao and Longshan found in Northern China. British physicist Stephen Oppenheimer has gone far beyond what was thought at that time by showing in logical and scientific processes that the cradle of civilization of humanity was in South-East Asia in his work “Eden in the East: the Drowned Continent of South-East Asia“.(4) He concluded basing on geological evidence found at the bottom of the East sea (Biển Đông)  and carbon-14 dating methods on foodstuff (yam, taro, rice, cereals etc…) found in South-East Asia ( Non Sok Tha, Sakai ( Thailand ) , Phùng Nguyên, Ðồng Ðậu ( Vietnam ), Indonesia ), that a huge flood took place and forced the people in the region who, unlike what western archaeologists had described as folks living on fishing, hunting and gathering, were the first to know how to perfectly master rice growing and farming to migrate all over the place ( either southward in Oceania, or eastward in the Pacific, or westward in India, or northward in China ) for their survival. Those folks had become the seeds of great and brilliant civilizations found later in India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Mediterranean.

From those archaeological and scientific findings, one is led to pose questions on what has been reported and falsified by history in this region of the world and taught until then to the Vietnamese. Could one ignore any longer those scientific discoveries? Could one continue to believe any longer in Chinese writings ( Hậu Hán Thư for example ) where Chinese prefects such as Tích Quang ( Si Kouang ) and Khâm Diên were imputed the care of teaching the ancestors of the Vietnamese how to dress and use the plow that they did not know at the first century of our era?. How could they not know rice growing, the legitimate descendants of king Shennong ( Thần Nông )(4), when one knows that the latter was a specialist in agrarian domain? No one dares to pick out this contradiction.

Shennong (Thần Nông)

One does not even raise questions on what the people from the North have given to this devine hero the nickname Yandi ( Viêm Ðế )( king of hot country of Bai Yue ). Is it about the way to refer to the king of the region of the South, because at the Zhou era, the Yue territory was known as Viêm Bang? Is it possible for nomad folks from the North whose origin is Turco-Mongol, the ancestors of the Han and of the Southern folks, the Yue to have the same ancestors? Is it the matter of a pure making up stories at the glory of the conquerors in order to justify their policy of assimilation?

All the traces of the other peoples, the “Barbarians” have been wiped off at the time of their passage. The conquest of the Chinese continent began at the borders of the loess and the Great Plain and hard to please for almost four millennia. That has been noted by the French scholar René Grousset in his work “History of China” when speaking of the expansion of a Chinese rude pioneer race of the Great Plain.

Facing their brilliant civilization, very few people including the Europeans when they first arrived in Asia dared to raise any doubts about what has been said in Chinese and Vietnamese annals and think of the existence of even another civilization that the dominators succeeded in monopolizing and erasing on the submissive land of the Bai Yue people. The name Indochina has already reflected a great deal this attitude because for a large number of folks, there are only two civilizations in the world worth mentioning in Asia: That of India and of China. It is also regrettable to note the same mistake made by some Vietnamese historians influenced by by the Chinese culture in their history works. By dint of being indoctrinated by the Northern folks’ policy of colonization, a certain number of Vietnamese continue to forget our origin and to think nowadays that we are issues of the Chinese who will not hesitate to set going their policy of assimilation and annexation in territories they have succeeded in conquering since the creation of their nation. The success of “Sinisation” of the Han was visible as the centuries went by at the time of contact with other “barbarian” peoples. The process would not be different from the one that marked their footsteps on the Mongolian “land of grass” in 19th century and in the Manchurian forest in 20th century.

One does not refute their brilliant civilization having an undeniable impact on the development of the Vietnamese culture during their long domination, but one cannot forget to recognize that the ancestors of the Vietnamese, the Luo Yue ( ou Lạc Việt ) have had their own culture, that of Bai Yue. The Vietnamese were the sole survivors of this people for not to be “sinised” in the turmoil of history. They were the legitimate heirs of the Bai Yue people and of their agricultural civilization. The bronze drums of Ðồng Sơn have witnessed their legitimacy because on these objects were found patterns of decoration recounting their agricultural and maritime activities of this brilliant era before the arrival of the Chinese on their territory ( Kiao Tche or Giao Chỉ in Vietnamese).

Now we know that the agricultural civilization of Hemudu has given birth to the culture of Bai Yue (or Bách Việt in Vietnamese). The term Bai Yue literary meaning One hundred Yue, has been used by the Chinese to call all the tribes thought to belong to one group, the Yue. According to Bình Nguyên Lộc, a Vietnamese writer, the tool frequently used by the Yue is the axe ( cái rìu in Vietnamese) found in several forms and made of different materials ( stone, iron or bronze ). For this reason that at the moment of contact with the nomad folks from the North of Turco-Mongol origin, the ancestors of the Han ( or Chinese ) called them by the name of “Yue”, the folks who use the axe, which at that time looked like this :

and served as the model of representation in Chinese writing by the pictogram  . This pictogram also appears in the word Yue where is found the root word mễ ( ) (or rice or gạo in Vietnamese ) to mean the folks who practice farming at the era of Confucius. 

Nowadays, the word Yue ( ) besides the radical (   pass or vượt in Vietnamese), the picture of the axe continues to be represented by the pictogram     endlessly modified as time goes by. Perhaps the word Yue phonetically comes from the sound Yit used by the Muong tribe to call the axe. It is important to remember that the Muong tribe has the same origins as the Luo Yue ( ou Lạc Việt ) tribe whose the Vietnamese are issues. ( The famous Vietnamese kings Lê Ðại Hành , Lê Lợi being Muong people). Recently, archaeologist and researcher of CNRS Corinne Debaine-Francfort has talked about the use of the ceremonial axes by the Chinese in the sacrifice of humans or animals in her work titled “The Rediscovery of Ancient China” ( Editeur Gallimard, 1998 ). The sage Confucius had the opportunity to talk about the Bai Yue people in conversations with his disciples.

The Bai Yue people living south of the Yang Tse river ( Dương Tử Giang ) has a life style, a language, traditions, moral standards and a specific foodstuff… They devote themselves to rice growing, which makes them different from our people who grow millet and wheat. They drink water coming from a kind of plant plucked from the forest known as “tea”. They like dancing, working while singing and alternate their reply in the songs. They often disguise themselves in the dance with leaves and plants. We should not imitate them ( Xướng ca vô loại ).

Confucian influence is not unfamiliar to the bias that Vietnamese parents still hold today when their children devote themselves a bit too much to musical or theatrical activities. it is in this spirit that they are seen with a negative view. But it is also the attitude adopted by Chinese governors in forbidding the Vietnamese to manifest musical expressions in their ceremonies and festivities during their long domination.

Historian Si Ma Qian ( Tư Mã Thiên ) had the opportunity to talk about the Yue in his Memoires historiques ( Sử Ký Tư Mã Thiên ) when he recounts the life of the famous lord , Gou Jian ( Câu Tiễn ),prince of the Yue for his incommensurable patience facing the ennemy governor Fu Chai ( Phù Sai ), king of principality Wu ( Ngô ) at the war time of Srpings and Autumns. After his death, his kingdom was absorbed completely in 332 B.C. by the kingdom of Chu ( Sở Quốc ) which was in its turn annexed later by Qin Shi Huang Di during the unification of China. It is important to stress that the Hemudu site is located in the kingdom Yue of Gou Jian.( Zhejiang ).

As for the groups sharing the same culture of Bai Yue, one finds the Yang Yue, Nan Yue ( Nam Việt ), Lu Yue, Xi Ou, Ou Yue, Luo Yue ( Lạc Việt ), Gan Yue, Min Yue ( Mân Việt ), Yi Yue, Yue Shang etc… They lived north of the basin of the blue river, from Zhejiang ( Triết Giang ) to Jiaozhi ( Giao Chỉ ) ( the North of Vietnam today ). It is found in this area of distribution the current provinces of Southern China: Foujian ( Phúc Kiến ), Hunan ( Hồ Nam ), Guizhou ( Qúi Châu ), Guangdong ( Quảng Ðông ), Jiangxi, Guangxi ( Quảng Tây ) and Yunnan ( Vân Nam ).

The Bai yue were probably the heirs of the Hòa Bình culture. They were a people of skilled farmers: They grew rice on burned land and flooded fields and raised buffaloes and pigs. They lived also by hunting and fishing. They have the custom of tattooing their bodies to protect themselves from attacks of water dragons (con thuồng luồng). Relying on the support of Si Ma Qian’s Memoires Historiques the scholar Léonard Aurousseau evoked the Goujian ( king of the East Yue ) ancestors’ custom to paint their bodies with dragons or other aquatic beasts similar to the ones found on the South Yue.

They wore long hair in chignon held by a turban. According to some Vietnamese texts, they cut their hair short to facilitate their walk in the mountain forests. Their clothes were made of vegetal fibers. Their houses were elevated to avoid being attacked by wild animals. They used bronze drums as ritual objects in their ceremonies for invocation of rain or as an emblem of power in case there is the need to call warriors for combat. The Giao Chi possessed a sacred instrument: The bronze drum. In listening to the drum, they were so enthusiastic during the war…”, that is what we found in the first volume of Hậu Hán Thư ( Late Hán Book ). Their warriors wore a simple loincloth and armed with long spears decorated with feathers. They were also bold navigators who, in their long pirogues traveled all over East sea (Biển Đông) and beyond in part of southern seas. In spite of their high technicity and perfect mastering of farming and rice growing, they were a very peaceful people. More reading (Part 2)