c. 2879 BC – 258 BC
And we move to the first state we’re covering in East Asia, the first Vietnamese state, under the Hồng Bàng dynasty. The name was Xích Quỷ upon founding but changed a few generations after, for all intents and purposes Xích Quỷ and Văn Lang are the same state and I’ll mostly refer to it as the latter. I’m hesitant at saying it was the first East Asian state, because we only get solid evidence for a Vietnamese state around about 1000 BC and so I’m just going to leave that unclarified to attempt to avoid Vietnamese-Sino conflicts on that matter. The beginnings of it are semi-legendary so I almost did this one a lot later, but the dates are precise if not necessarily accurate so I felt the evidence presented was best done in this order. It does mean it’ll be quite a while before the next Vietnamese entry.
Time And Location
As the first Vietnamese state, Văn Lang was located in what is now Northern Vietnam. It was the first of many states to sit upon this region, around the Red River delta, where humans had been congregating for many thousands of years before that. There are some sources that say it had land as far north as Southern China at the height of its power, obviously I haven’t exactly shown that upon the map as it is meant to be a slightly later date.
The maps intend to show a snapshot of the country’s territory and obviously the longer the timespan, I think this is probably one of the longest-lasting overall nations, and I’m doing it in one post, the more inaccuracies that could creep in, but this state stayed about the same size with random fluctuations throughout its history as far as we can tell), at a later date when the Chinese dynasties to the north were more powerful . Van Lang means Land Of The Tattooed Men in Vietnamese. Presumably that was a part of their culture in some fashion. I can’t say for sure, there are many things about this nation I can’t say for sure. This isn’t a particularly factual entry in my History of a Nation series. They get more factual later on.
Now the bits I have about the founding of Xích Quỷ/Văn Lang, let me stress that they are semi-legendary and involve rulers who are descended from immortal fairies of the mountains, so at a guess, I would say they aren’t historical. But I’m completely fine with talking about legends, this isn’t meant to be an academic publication but something for people to learn from, about peoples well-known and obscure. The first king of this Hồng Bàng dynasty was Kinh Dương Vương who ‘founded’ the nation in 2879 BC but it’s his son who gets all of the attention in Vietnam today. His name was Lạc Long Quân, the latter two words meaning ‘Dragon Lord’, who’s often considered the founding father of Vietnam. So many myths involve him in Vietnam, there is a story about him killing a fish monster that was terrorising the coasts of Vietnam with a piece of metal shaped like a human, and destroying a nine-tailed fox (or kitsune, if you’re Japanese) who had been harassing a particular part of his kingdom by torturing villagers. The most popular is often used to explain where the approximately one hundred Vietnamese surnames came from, Lạc Long Quân’s children hatched from one hundred eggs that his wife… laid… and they split the family right down the middle with half the population following Quân to the sea and the other half following his wife to the uplands. It could potentially be based in fact in that there were distinct groups of Vietnamese ethnic peoples during this time, one ruling over the other. Lạc Long Quân was then followed by all of the Hùng kings. I’m making no jokes, that would be culturally insensitive.
After the third dynasty, the official rename from Xích Quỷ to Văn Lang took place, and there were many more dynasties, just like in Egypt, naturally, over the next thousand years. These kings were each said to reign 150 years. In reality, away from the legendary rulers, there was probably a coming together of Vietnamese tribes into a more feudal system with a centralised ruler at around about 1000 BC. This would continue with all of the kings coming from the Lạc Việt tribes until a ruler from the upland tribes, Âu Việt, overthrew the last Hùng king and formed a new state called Âu Lạc. And we will get there when we get down to 258 BC.
Sophisticated pottery, lots of wheel-made stuff, make up most of the artifacts coming out of Vietnam at this time, not much art otherwise as… this was if anything a rather tribal society with potentially some proto-feudal elements in the government. If there were any kings anything like the legends then yes, there may have been some form of loose government where the king and some advisors ruled from a court over local vassals, but that’s all sounding rather medieval and I don’t know if we can say that society was that structured at this time anywhere outside of the Fertile Crescent.
Bronze tools were in use to help with wet-rice cultivation, the primary form of agriculture in this part of the world, as it is today, and they show high quality bronze working for this time period. That could have lead well into military…
Military, Trade and Decline
The Vietnamese at this time would have traded with the tribes around them, but they were definitely… for an ancient state, rather expansionist and there are reports of them fighting the Chinese in the north and the Champa in the south, defeating the latter but slowly losing ground to the former over centuries of what was probably just mere border skirmishes between peoples of different cultures.
This society worked well with bronze as said above and we’ve found axes, spearheads and knives, to give an idea of what they did use for fighting. Equivalent societies used similar weapons so this is a society by all means keeping up with the technology of other humans at this time.
Eventually, Van Lang falls not to military might from another civilisation but from within to a completely different kind of ruler, and we will cover that in Au Lac. In the meantime, it’s been a pleasure covering Vietnamese history for the first time, I’ll return to it then.
Next however, the early Iranian state of Elam.
Nam C. Kim The Origins Of Ancient Vietnam, (New York, 2015)