How Did Civilisation Emerge in Ancient Vietnam?

Tristan Hughes

Ancient and Classical
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Ancient history is so much more than just the Mediterranean and the Near East. The stories of ancient Rome, Greece, Persia, Carthage, Egypt and so on are absolutely extraordinary, but it is also fascinating to discover what was happening at similar times at the other ends of the World.

From the Polynesians settling isolated islands in the Pacific to the highly-sophisticated bronze age civilisation that thrived along the banks of the Oxus River in modern day Afghanistan.
Vietnam is another place with an extraordinary ancient history.

To talk through the history, and legends, that surround this central bastion of ancient Vietnam, I was delighted to be joined by Professor Nam Kim from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nam is a leading expert on the ancient history of Vietnam and has conducted excavations at Co Loa since 2005.Listen Now

The origins of civilisation

What survives in the archaeological recorded has provided specialists with some astonishing insight as to where, and roughly when, sedentary societies started emerging in Vietnam. River valleys were key locations for this development. These were places where societies had access to fertile lands that were ideal for vital farming practices such as wet rice production. Fishing was also important.

These farming practices started to emerge in the c.late 3rd millennium BC. In particular we see this activity occurring along the Red River Valley. The Valley stretches for hundreds of miles. It has its source in Southern China and flows through today’s Northern Vietnam.

Map showing the Red River drainage basin. Image Credit: Kmusser / CC.

These farming societies started to interact with hunter-gatherer communities already present along the Valley and overtime more and more societies settled and embraced farming practices. Population levels began to grow. Interactions between societies along the Red River Valley increased, these ancient communities using the Red River almost like an ancient highway to establish connections with communities at far ends of this waterway.

As these interactions increased, so too did the amount of ideas transferred between societies along coastlines and along the Red River highway. And so too did the social complexity of these societies.

Professor Nam Kim:

‘The trappings of what we call civilisation emerge at this time’.

Bronze working

In c.1,500 BC elements of bronze working started to emerge at certain sites along the Red River Valley. This advancement seems to have stimulated further social development among these early proto-Vietnamese societies. More class levels started to emerge. Clearer status differentiation became visible in burial practices, with elite figures enjoying burials in more remarkable graves.

The introduction of bronze working to these ancient Vietnamese societies was a catalyst for further communal development and it is interesting to note that at roughly the same time, hundreds of miles upriver in what we know as Southern China today, archaeologists have also identified communities that had become very complex in nature and very sophisticated in their bronze working.

These similar cultural aspects between societies hundreds of miles away from each other, but linked by the Red River, are unlikely to be coincidental. It suggests that connections along the length of the River Valley coincided with, and predated, this bronze working revolution. The Red River served as an ancient highway. A route through which trade and ideas could flow between societies and influence future development.

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The bronze drums

Keeping on the topic of bronze working in ancient Vietnam, another iconic element of ancient Vietnamese culture that we soon start to see emerging are the bronze drums. Iconic of the Dong Son culture, that is prevalent in Vietnam between c.1000 BC and 100 AD, these extraordinary bronzes have been discovered throughout Vietnam and Southern China, as well as at various other areas of mainland and island Southeast Asia . The drums vary in size, with some being very large indeed.

Cổ Loa bronze drum
Cổ Loa bronze drum.

Linking in with how the development of bronze working seems to have increased social differentiation among ancient Vietnamese societies, the bronze drums appear to have been symbols of local authority. Symbols of status, owned by powerful figures.

The drums may have also served a ceremonial role, playing a key role in vital ancient Vietnamese ceremonies such as rice agricultural ceremonies that prayed for good harvests.

Co Loa

Settlements in northern Vietnam continued to develop during the Late Prehistoric Period. Interestingly, however, the archaeological record has only recorded one clear example of a city in Northern Vietnam emerging at this time. This was Co Loa, an ancient Vietnamese city that is surrounded in myth and legend. According to Vietnamese tradition Co Loa emerged in 258/7 BC, founded by a king called An Dương Vương after he had overthrown the preceding dynasty.

Massive fortifications were erected and archaeological work at the site over recent years confirms that Co Loa was a huge and powerful settlement. A stronghold at the heart of an ancient state.

Co Loa remains central to Vietnamese identity to this day. The Vietnamese believe that this city was founded by an indigenous proto-Vietnamese king and that its extraordinary construction predated the arrival / invasion of the Han Dynasty from neighbouring China (late second century BC).

Statue of An Dương Vương, wielding the magic crossbow that is associated with his legendary founding of Co Loa. Image Credit: Julez A. / CC.

The size and splendour of Co Loa emphasises to the Vietnamese the high level of sophistication their ancient ancestors had before the Han arrived, debunking the rather imperialist mindset that Vietnam was civilised by the invading Han.

Archaeology at Co Loa seems to affirm that this remarkable bastion’s construction predated the Han invasion, although there does appear to be some influence in its building from Southern China. Once again, this emphasises the far reaching connections ancient Vietnamese communities had, more than 2,000 years ago.

Boudicca and the Trung Sisters

Finally, an interesting parallel between the ancient history of Vietnam and the ancient history of Britain. At roughly the same time, in the 1st century AD, that Boudicca led her famous uprising against the Romans in Britannia, two Vietnamese sisters led an uprising against the Han Dynasty’s over lordship in Vietnam.

The Trung Sisters (c. 12 – AD 43), known in Vietnamese as Hai Ba Trung (literally ‘the two Trung Ladies’), and individually as Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, were two first century Vietnamese women leaders who successfully rebelled against Chinese Han-Dynasty rule for three years, and are regarded as national heroines of Vietnam.
Dong Ho painting.

Both Boudicca and the two sisters, the Trung Sisters, were determined to oust a foreign power from their land. But whereas Boudicca is portrayed being transported on a chariot, the Trung Sisters are portrayed being carried on top of elephants. Both rebellions ultimately failed, but it is an extraordinary parallel that once again emphasises how ancient history is so much more than Greece and Rome.

 

References:

Nam C. Kim: The Origins of Ancient Vietnam (2015).

Matters of the past mattering today, article by Nam C. Kim.

Legendary Co Loa: Vietnam’s Ancient Capital Podcast on The Ancients

Tristan Hughes