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

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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)

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