Đàm Trung Pháp

                                                             “THE SOUTHERN LAND”    

                                                          A POEM BY LÝ THƯỜNG KIỆT

Lý Thường Kiệt (1019-1105) was one of Vietnam’s greatest generals. His original family name was Nguyễn, but King Lý Thánh Tông himself changed it to Lý [1] as a token of appreciation and gratitude. At age 18, he was selected as a cavalry officer. At age 35, he was appointed to an important post by King Lý Thánh Tông and charged with the pacification of the Thanh-Nghệ region. After he accomplished the daunting mission, the king made him a marshal and bestowed upon him the extraordinary authority of “tiết việt” or the prerogative to condemn people to death and only report to the king afterward. The marshal also became the king’s adopted younger brother (“thiên tử nghĩa đệ”).

Upon hearing that China was planning to invade Vietnam (called “Đại Việt” at the time), he urged the newly-installed King Lý Nhân Tông to pre-empt the enemy intention. With the king’s approval, the marshal and his troops raided three Chinese prefectures, namely Yong Zhou (Châu Ung) in Guang Xi (Quảng Tây) Province, and Qin Zhou (Châu Khâm) and Lian Zhou (Châu Liêm) in Guang Dong (Quảng Đông) Province. Wherever Lý Thường Kiệt and his troops went, he issued great proclamations (“đại cáo”) to accuse prime minister Wang An Shi (Vương An Thạch) of oppressing the Chinese people and to declare that troops from the Southern king came to stop Wang An Shi’s atrocious new ruling policy. The defeated governor of Yong Zhou committed suicide. All told, about one hundred thousand people in those three prefectures were killed or captured by marshal Ly’s troops (Nguyễn Đăng Thục 1967).

A furious Wang An Shi ordered a large army under the command of several generals, strengthened by alliance forces from Champa (Chiêm Thành) and Chenla (Chân Lạp), to invade Đại Việt. Lý Thường Kiệt’s troops battled them along the Như Nguyệt River, north of Thăng Long, for over one month, with both sides suffering heavy losses. In order to exhort his troops to continue to resist aggressors, Lý Thường Kiệt one night had someone in a temple on the southern bank of the river declaim four powerful verses he had written in Chinese [2].

Asserting the sovereignty of Vietnam, Lý Thường Kiệt’s poem also heralded a heroic spirit from the South when faced by aggression from the North [3]. More than ever before, now is the time for us to review the valiant pages of our history book in order to revive the Vietnamese people’s indomitable national-defense spirit. Lý Thường Kiệt’s patriotic poem in Chinese characters appears below, followed by its transliteration into Sino-Vietnamese, its English translation, its Vietnamese translation, annotations, and references:

南 國 山 河

南 國 山 河 南 帝 居

截 然 定 分 在 天 書

如 何 逆 虜 來 侵 犯

汝 等 行 看 取 敗 虛



Nam quốc sơn hà nam đế cư

Tiệt nhiên định phận tại thiên thư

Như hà nghịch lỗ lai xâm phạm

Nhữ đẳng hành khan thủ bại hư



The Southern Emperor rules the Southern Land

Our destiny is writ in Heaven’s Book

How dare ye bandits trespass on our soil

Ye shall meet your undoing at our hands

(Translation by Huỳnh Sanh Thông)


Sông núi nước Nam, quyền vua Nam

Hiển nhiên Thiên định hẳn không lầm

Giặc bay trái mệnh đòi xâm chiếm

Thảm bại trông kìa, hỡi lũ tham

(Bản dịch của Nguyễn Đăng Thục)


[1] During the Lý dynasty (1010-1225), there were numerous sages and heroes and the people enjoyed long-lasting peace; the country had never been this auspiciously ruled before. It was during this dynasty that “Đại Việt” (Great Viet) was chosen as the country’ s name and that “Thăng Long” (Rising Dragon) became the country’s capital. The magnificent “Quốc Tử Giám” (the agency that oversaw higher education) – the nation’s very first university – was established in Thăng Long in 1076 by King Lý Thánh Tông. Đại Việt was totally independent from its northern neighbor.

[2] Nguyễn Đăng Thục (1967) had this to say about marshal Lý Thường Kiệt’s poem: “This is the national psyche reflecting the people’s religious spirit bordering on the mystical. In the stillness of the night, the booming recital of the poem from a temple boosted the Vietnamese troops’ morale. The terrified Chinese troops simply dispersed.”

[3] Since the second half of the twentieth century, this patriotic poem by marshal Lý Thường Kiệt has been considered as Vietnam’s first declaration of independence.


Huỳnh Sanh Thông (1996). An anthology of Vietnamese poems. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Nguyễn Đăng Thục (1967). Lịch sử tư tưởng Việt Nam. Saigon: Bộ Văn Hóa Giáo Dục.

Trần Trọng Kim (1971). Việt Nam sử lược. Saigon: Bộ Văn Hóa Giáo Dục.

[ĐTP 2011]