Lesson 03


Chinese Domination Era Field Trip



When talking about the 1000-year Chinese domination, we often ask ourselves how the Vietnamese people resisted the Chinese cultural assimilation. This Field Trip No. 2 will give you the answer to this question.


During this 1000-year domination (111 BC – 938 AD), the Chinese already had high-level bright culture in the East with philosophers like Lao Tzu, Confucius, and the philosophy of Yi King … with a national political and military system like under the reign of Qin Shi Huang (248-208 BC). The Chinese domination era field trip will help us make observations of the two following cultural events:


– The South East Asian culture of Văn Lang – Âu Lạc exchanged with an advanced political and culture force of China.


– The pagoda as a symbol of the resistance against the Chinese cultural assimilation.


Cultural exchanges between

South East Asia and Far East


The South East Asian culture of the Vietnamese people began to change from the time Zhao Tuo (Triệu Đà), sent by the Qin Dynasty to govern the Viet land, and became the District Chief of Long Xuyên District. Later he conquered the two districts of Quế Lâm and Tượng, and established the kingdom of Nam Việt.


In 238 BC, Zhao Tuo began to use the Book of Odes and the Book of Rites to educate the population[1], and forced the Vietnamese people to learn Chinese characters, with the objective to assimilate the Vietnamese people by language. Việt giám Thông khảo Tổng luận (General dissertation on research in Vietnamese history), written by Lê Tung in 1514, recorded the opening of schools by Zhao Tuo to teach Vietnamese people Chinese characters.


Under the Western Han Dynasty, the policy in dealing with the Lạc Việt population was quite loose; the governor was only responsible for tax collection, security, census, without any intervention of internal affairs of the Lạc Việt. After defeating the Trưng Sisters in 43 AD, Ma Yuan (Mã Viện) was the first administrator to enforce the assimilation upon the Vietnamese people. Men had to wear clothes and cultivate the rice fields like the Chinese, women had to raise silkworms, weave fabric, and learn Chinese characters.


Under the Eastern Han Dynasty, the governors paid more attention to the introduction of Chinese culture, in particular Hsin Kuang (Tích Quang), governor of Giao Chỉ commandery, and Jen Yen (Nhâm Diên), governor of Cửu Chân commandery. Because of the Wang Mang (Vương Mãn) rebellion, a number of Han Dynasty loyalists escaped to Giao Chỉ. Hsin Kuang accepted all of them and asked them to civilize the people. That was the peaceful form of cultural assimilation brought in by the Chinese immigrants, for example, the Chinese intellectuals like Liu Xi (Lưu Hy), Xu Jing (Hứa Tĩnh), Xu You (Hứa Từ), (Yuan Hui) Viên Huy, who came to Vietnam as refugees and helped propagate Chinese culture.


According to Đào Duy Anh, “Hsin Kuang (Tích Quang) taught the people how to cultivate, know to wear hat and shoes, practice matchmaking for marriage, re-establish schools” (Book of the Later Han, Vol. 116). At the end of the Han Dynasty, Hsin Kuang built a school. Lê Tắc wrote: “During the Tang (Đường) and Yu (Ngu) Dynasties and the Three Dynasties era (Tam Đại: Xia (Hạ), Shang (Thương) and Zhou (Chu) dynasties), the Chinese education has already been penetrative[2]. Shi Xie (Sĩ Nhiếp), governor of Giao Chỉ commandery, by his teachings of the Book of Documents (Kinh Thư) and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Kinh Xuân Thu), has created a social class of intellectuals of Chinese studies to function as interpretors / translators, even as madarins in Nothern royal courts, such as Lý Tiến from Cao Hưng region holding the position of Thái Sử under the reign of Han Ling Di (Hán Linh Đế, 183-189 AD). During the two dynasties of Han and Tang, Giao Chỉ has provided as tributes intellectuals and scholars like Lý Cầm, Trương Trọng, and Khương Công Phụ. It was not a surprise when people built a shrine for Shi Xie and considered him as the Education Founder of Nam Giao.


Within this cultural background, the custom, society, and economy of Lạc Việt have been profoundly changed by the Chinese cultural assimilation policy, resulting in a new socio-political system, especially forming a new social class of intellectuals in Chinese studies (noblemen, intellectuals, monks) possessing dominating Chinese culture (by reading the Chinese classics, learning Chinese characters, Confucian ethical thoughts). However, the majority of the population, in particular in the countryside, still spoke the Giao Chỉ language, still preserved the local religion like the Mẫu Cult, and the custom from Hùng Vương era (betel chewing, skirt wearing). During the Chinese domination era, the most important cultural event was the appearance of Buddhism with the pagodas playing the role of Vietnamese cultural centres resisting the Chinese cultural assimilation.


The Pagodas

Centres for Cultural Resistance


Throughout the 1000-year Chinese domination, the pagodas have played three important cultural roles:


– Centres for the creation of Sino-Vietnamese words, for the preservation of the Vietnamese language and the unification of the Three Religions with the religion of the Hung Vương era;


– Centres for the teaching of Chinese characters for the people and the training of intellectuals in Chinese studies in order to sow the seeds of resistance against the Chinese domination; the people who wanted to pass the examinations for mandarins had to go to China to do that, like Lý Cầm, Lý Tiến, Khương Công Phụ (the first one to receive a doctoral degree).


– Buddhism was the symbol of the intellectual movement of the time, assembling the most educated people, mostly Buddhist monks like Venerables Đạo Cao and Pháp Minh, who have engaged in polemic exchanges on Buddhism with Li Miao (Lý Miễu), governor of Giao Châu.


Buddhism on ancient Viet land


During the Hung Vương era, in their fighting to seize land, the quan lang (princes) have erected wooden fences to protect their land. From that time on, the Giao Chỉ people began to live in communities called “sách, thôn, trang, phường” later changed to “kê, chạ, chiềng, làng (purely Vietnamese terms), or xã” (originated from Chinese characters during the Chinese domination era). From the time of Ma Yuan’s conquest, the people have lived concentrated in (village), which became the basic administrative unit of the society and Qu Hao (Khúc Hạo) later created “bộ, phủ, châu.”[3]


During the domination, the Giao Chỉ people peacefully adopted the Buddhist culture from India and later from China. From the beginning of the 1st century AD, many Indian monks came to Luy Lâu, the principal politico-economic centre of Giao Châu, on the northern bank of Đuống river, which early had become an important Buddhist cultural centre with the presence of famous monks such as Kaundinya (Khâu Đà La), arriving at Luy Lâu around 168-189 AD and Mahajivaka (Ma Ha Kì Vực) and Kang Senghui (Khương Tăng Hội). Next came during the V and VI centuries different Buddhist sects like Zen (Thiền Tông), Jingtu-zong (or Pure Land Buddhism, Tịnh Độ Tông), and Mi-zong (or Esoteric Buddhism, Mật Tông).


During the time of Shi Xie [4](137-226 AD), many pagodas were built especially in Luy Lâu (Bắc Ninh province now) where the Indian monks stayed and learn Chinese characters before going to China for their missionary work. In 247 AD, Kang Senghui was already in Luy Lâu before coming to China. At that time Luy Lâu was a Buddhist centre with about 20 pagodas, and 500 monks having translated 15 Buddhist scriptures.


During this period of Chinese domination, politically and administratively, the invaders only placed administrators at the higher levels of administrative units like bộ, phủ, châu. Thanks to that, the villages were still self-governed behind the bamboo hedge and around the Pagoda. Although being an imported culture-religion, but totally absorbed by the people throughout several centuries, Buddhism has become an integral part of the Giao Chỉ culture. Many researchers, therefore, have used the image of milk merging into water to describe the integration of Buddhism into the Vietnamese culture.



Bắc Ninh province: Chùa Dâu (Dâu Pagoda) Chùa Bút Tháp (Bút Tháp)


How did the Pagoda integrate into our folklore?


Since the introduction of Buddhism into Vietnam the pagodas, having accepted and tolerated Buddha, Saints, Fairies, even Earth-Sky…, have become not only a religious centre but also a centre for community activities like festivals and other anniversary celebrations (e.g., Dâu Pagoda, Keo Pagoda, Hương Pagoda festivals). People lived around the Pagoda, and the Pagoda was seen as a cultural-religious-spiritual centre, a Chinese cultural reception centre (Buddhism, Taoism, thoughts, custom…), and a centre for the preservation of the Lạc Việt culture (Mẫu Cult with medium sessions, skirt wearing, betel chewing, black teeth…). The Giao Chỉ people have lived in harmony with Buddhism because of the following factors:


– Buddhism was introduced peacefully


– From his sitting position on the calm lotus pedestal, Shakyamuni Buddha stepped down and lived closely with the people under the familiar name of Ông Bụt[5]. Ông Bụt did not bring in fear, just mercy and forgiveness. That has been a symbolic image of the level of deep integration of Buddhism into our folklore.


Gần chùa gọi Bụt bằng anh,


(Living near the pagoda, we call Buddha brother,)


Trông thấy Bụt lành, cõng Bụt đi chôi.


(As he is so nice, we carry him on our back to go play around.)




Trông thấy Bụt lành, hạ xuống đất chơi.


(As he is so nice, we put him down to play with him.)


– The pagoda became the pagoda of the village; the villagers even changed the pagoda’s name, e.g. Long Ân pagoda in the suburb of Hà Nội was changed to Quảng Bá pagoda, Pháp Vân pagoda in Hà Bắc province was changed to Dâu pagoda because it was located in the region where people grew dâu (mulberry).


Dù ai đi đâu về đâu,


(Whereever go go,)


Hễ trông thấy tháp chùa Dâu thì về.


(Whenever you see the tower of Dâu pagoda, please come back.)


In the poem Nhớ cây đa chùa Viên Giác (Remember the banian tree of Viên Giác pagoda), poet Trần Trung Đạo has considered the pagoda yard as his home yard:


Cây đa cũ chắc đã già hơn trước,


(The old banian tree is certainly older than before,)


Biết có còn đổ lá xuống sân tôi?


(Don’t know if its leaves still fall down into my home yard?)


Within the background of a pagoda, Buddhism plays the role of the principal entity in the common flow and harmony of various religions. Buddhism considered harmony as the objective, and thus helped the resonance between Buddhism, Taoism, and local beliefs occurring in a natural way by their attraction, integration to one another without any obstruction of forcefulness.


Buddhist integration into local culture


Because of the backwardness of its culture, having only local beliefs, without any advanced philosophical and ethical system, unlike the Chinese people having their own Taoism, Confucianism and the Book of Odes, the Giao Chỉ people did not consider Buddhism as a foreign religion. The integration of Buddhism, right from the beginning, was easily made under several forms.


Harmony with local beliefs


In Bắc Ninh, the local belief was the worship of Four Deities (four goddesses for: Cloud, Rain, Thunder, and Lightning). Buddhism has formed an alliance with the local belief of Four Deities through the legend of the Buddha Mother of Man Nương, Mother of the four goddesses. The temples for the four goddesses, therefore, were called pagodas in the region of Dâu in Bắc Ninh[6] the Dâu Pagoda[7] in Bắc Ninh, for the worship of Pháp Vân, was the oldest Buddhist centre in Vietnam, built in 226 AD, located in the Dâu region, called Luy Lâu during the Chinese domination era.


Preservation of the Hùng Vương era’s beliefs


People usually say “Tiền Phật, hậu Thần,” which means that behind the điện (shrine) for the worship of Buddha is the hậu cung (posterior shrine) for the altars for Chư Vị (Deities) of Mẫu Cult, such as Highlands Goddess, Water Goddess, the Princesses from the Hùng Vương era. Mẫu Cult was recognized by UNESCO as the pre-historic ancient belief of the Vietnamese people. Beside the altar for Buddha, there is usually a separate altar for Mẫu, for example the pagoda of North Trà Lũ village, district of Xuân Trường, province of Nam Định has a shrine built beside it for the worship of the Goddesses of Mẫu Cult together with medium sessions. The presence of Mẫu Cult within the pagoda can be explained by the fact that the introduction of Taoism (witchcraft, charms) has been integrated into the medium rituals of Mẫu Cult[8].


Today, we can still witness Mẫu Cult at the complex of Bái Đính pagoda[9] (both the ancient and new pagodas) in Ninh Bình, on the western side of the ancient capital city of Hoa Lư. The festival at Bái Đính pagoda consists of two parts:


– The ritual of incense offering to Buddha, in remembrance of Saint Nguyễn Minh Không (Zen monk);


– The ceremonial worship of Cao Sơn and Highlands Goddess (Mẫu Cult); procession in honour of the three sacred personalities from the ancient pagoda to the new pagoda. The festival also consists of folk games, hát chèo (chèo musical theatre), xẩm (xẩm folk music) …


Preservation of custom by the pagoda


Going to the pagoda, the female Buddhists still practice ancient custom of the Hùng Vương era: wearing skirt, having black teeth, and chewing betel. According to the engraving details of human body on Đông Sơn bronze drums from Hùng Vương era, we can see the following images of people wearing skirts:


– Images of people wearing skirts with two laps hanging from the two sides, dancing while walking …


– Images of persons facing toward the houses, wearing skirts and with their hair hanging down.


– Images of persons with big earrings, high hair tufts, wearing skirts having a leaf covering the front.


These engraving details demonstrate that the skirt has been part of the characteristically traditional clothes from Hùng Vương time and has been preserved by the Vietnamese women against the Chinese clothes throughout the 1000-year Chinese domination.


Creation of Sino-Vietnamese words


Why were Vietnamese people not assimilated? The answer most commonly used is that our ancestors have created our own way of reading Chinese characters by Sino-Vietnamese sounds in order to provide explanations to Chinese characters in Vietnamese language. There are four elements that contribute to the creation of the Sino-Vietnamese words: the way to learn Chinese characters, the method of teaching Chinese characters, the creator, and the method of creation.


The way to learn Chinese characters


When the Chinese culture was introduced into our country, there was a barrier since the written Chinese language and the spoken Chinese language were two different linguistic entities. We did not learn their spoken language. We learned only their written language through “Cổ văn” (old written language), i.e., the literature in the Chinese classics and “Kim văn” (new written language), i.e., the literature from the Han and Sung dynasties, which form the treasure of our Sino-Vietnamese words.


The method of teaching Chinese characters


In their teaching of Chinese characters, the old-school masters used our vernacular language to read and explain the texts: taking a sentence of Chinese characters, explaining each word in the sentence, and then using our vernacular language to explain the meaning of the sentence taken from the text[10]. Since our vernacular language cannot be used to explain every Chinese character, the Sino-Vietnamese words should be used instead. Thus, gradually, our own vernacular has become more literary.


The creators


It is certain that the creation of Sino-Vietnamese words began during the Chinese domination era with the two following important events.


1. Many monks have learned and taught Chinese characters, borrowing Chinese characters to translate scriptures, e.g., the Liudu Ji Jing [11](Lục Độ Tập Kinh) by Kang Senghui for their missionary work. The Buddhist movement, therefore, has provided many individuals, who later made contributions to Great Việt (Đại Việt) government, such as Khuông Việt, Vạn Hạnh, eminent Zen monk Nguyễn Minh Không, who would be later nominated National Monk and be allowed to be worshipped in the Thánh Nguyễn temple near the Bái Đính pagoda.


2. A whole social class of intellectuals in Chinese studies was formed. Shi Xie (187-226), by his teachings of the Book of Documents (Kinh Thư) and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Kinh Xuân Thu), has created a social class of intellectuals of Chinese studies to function as interpretors / translators, even as madarins in Nothern royal courts, such as Lý Tiến holding the position of Thái Sử under the reign of Han Ling Di (168-189).


Method of creation


Under the Han and Tang dynasties, in situations with Chinese characters, the elite class among our ancestors, in particular the monks with excellent knowledge of Chinese characters, have borrowed Chinese characters and used them as the written language for the Vienamese people. For the translation and the propagation of Buddhism, our ancestors have created a solution emanating from the idea that each Chinese character would be pronounced by one (or a few, depending on the original Chinese character) Vietnamese sound determined that it was originated from a Chinese sound. Today we call these Sino-Vietnamese sounds and use them to provide explanations of the Chinese characters to Buddhists and students. Sino-Vietnamese sounds are Vietnamese sounds used in reading Chinese characters in texts of Chinese characters and Chinese meanings. We do not speak Chinese language but we still write Chinese characters and use Sino-Vietnamese sounds to read Chinese characters. For example, these two Chinese characters 物 陽 are pronounced Yin Yang by the Chinese but “âm dương” by the Vietnamese people who know Chinese characters; the word is pronounced thủy by the Vietnamese people, which is quite different from the Chinese sound of shuay. We can, therefore, learn Chinese characters without having to read them with Chinese sounds.


That kind of Chinese characters read with Sino-Vietnamese sounds is called chữ Nho by our people, i.e., the words of educated people, because the word Nho  is the term used for educated people. Since it is read in our mother’s tongue, chữ Nho is easy to learn for the Vietnamese people: you need only to recognize the Chinese characters, their meanings and how to write them without having to pronounce, or listen or speak them like the Chinese people.


Because our ancestors still spoke Vietnamese language[12], wrote Chinese characters but read them with Sino-Vietnamese sounds, and lived in communities surrounding pagodas, their learning of Chinese characters did not effect their preservation of the Vietnamese language. That’s why we believe that: “As long as we speak our language our country will survive.”


In summary, after the 1000-year Chinese domination, what have we drawn as conclusions?


1) We lost our country but we did not lose our village. Giao Chỉ was like a house that had only the front changed (image of the Chinese administrators / governors in Giao Chỉ), while the infrastructure, i.e., the villages, the culture, was still controlled by Vietnamese people.


2) The “negative” force of the rural culture. The village pagoda has become the rural cultural centre of Giao Chỉ. The essence of this culture was the attachment of the people to the ricefields, and thus, was having the “negative” effect of the inactive culture, a closed, introverted culture, aimed at preserving the language and custom[13], and keeping the legends from the pre-invasion and pre-assimiliation times. This speaks loudly of the Vietnamese people’s determination of not to become Chinese in spite of the 1000 year Chinese domination.


3) Imbibed of Chinese culture but not losing identity. Although totally integrated into and exalting Chinese culture, the Vietnamese people did not forsake their will to preserve their independence. Therefore, later they could find the cultural and political strength to fight and expel the invaders.


  1. Annam Chí Lược , prepared by Lê Tắc in XIV century, published by Huế University, 1961, p. 110

  2. Annam Chí Lược, op.cit., p. 15

  3. Under the Pre-Lý Dynasty, the village system became well organized. In 1242, the Trần Dynasty made distinction between large and small villages and started to nominate village chiefs to administer them.

  4. Called the Education Founder of Nam Giao

  5. Bụt is from the Sanskrit word Bouddha meaning Knowing.

  6. Five old pagodas: Dâu Pagoda for the worship of Pháp Vân (Goddess of Cloud), Đậu Pagoda for Pháp Vũ (Goddess of Rain), Tường Pagoda for Pháp Lôi (Goddess of Thunder), Đàn Pagoda for Pháp Điện (Goddess of Lightning), Tổ Pagoda for Buddha Mother Man Nương. Tổ Pagoda was facing the South, and the other four pagodas were facing the West.

  7. Also called Diên Ứng, Pháp Vân, Cổ Châu.

  8. Lê Thành Khôi, Histoire du Việt Nam, p. 98

  9. The mountain at Bái Đính Pagoda was the place where King Đinh Tiên Hoàng built the ritual platform for the ceremony dedicated to the Heaven. During the Lý Dynasty, the eminent Zen monk Nguyễn Minh Không was nominated National Monk and later was worshipped in the temple for Thánh Nguyễn. Another temple was for Cao Sơn, who, according to the sacred genealogical table at the Hầu Mountain, was the 17th son of Lạc Long Quân. The Bái Đính pagoda in Ninh Bình, on the western side of the ancient capital city of Hoa Lư, with its festival celebrating the ceremony dedicated to the Heaven by King Đinh Tiên Hoàng, the ceremonial worship for Cao Sơn and Highlands Goddess … embodies the harmony between Buddhism and Mẫu Cult.

  10. Like other people in the Po Yue (Bách Việt) group living in South of Yantze river, also learning Chinese characters but pronouncing them with their own spoken languages

  11. Liudu Ji Jing, comprising 91 volumes, was introduced to Luy Lâu directly from India by sea.

  12. Of course, this method of reading is only possible with Chinese characters, which are idea-showing; it cannot be done with phonetic words.

  13. The nomadic culture and the urban culture are “positive,” i.e., active, creative, developing. The language assimilation is the most effective assimilation process. The loss of mother’s tongue is the loss of national identity. For example: at the beginning of the XV century, Brazil was occupied by Portugal, and very soon Portuguese became the official language of the Brazilian people. Many French colonies in Africa, such as Benin, Togo, Senegal … use French as their official language.