Vietnam’s history is intimately tied, for better or for worse, to its long relationship with China. The impact of Chinese cultural and political forms is difficult to overestimate, as is the impact of wars begun by its powerful neighbor to the north. Although the borders of what is now called Vietnam and the country’s name have changed many times, a continuous history can be delineated.
In the early to mid-2nd millennium B.C.E., it appears that bronze implements began to be used. The Dông-son archeological site has unearthed particularly fine items in bronze. Legend recounts a Van Lang kingdom, supposedly a strictly hierarchical, feudal regime, that held sway from 2879 until 258 B.C.E. It was thereupon replaced by the Au Lac kingdom, which ruled in the south. In 214 B.C.E. the newly unified Qin empire of China sent a military expedition south to conquer northern Vietnam. The ruler there, fearing devastation, submitted to the Qin, and the north was divided into three commandaries, much like Korea was under the Han. With the decline of the Qin, the governor of one commandery in 208 B.C.E. conquered Au Lac and renamed the new entity under him Nam Viêt. During the Han dynasty, Nam Viêt became part of the Chinese tributary system. This relationship continued through the end of the 2nd century B.C.E., but in 111 B.C.E. Chinese troops attacked and captured Nam Viêt on the order of Emperor Wu of the Han. The country was renamed Giao-chi (Jiaozhi in Chinese) and was incorporated into the Han empire. There it remained for more than a millennium.
Under the Han empire
The Han did not draw Giao-chi (Vietnam) closely into its orbit, seeing it primarily as providing access to trade routes and luxury goods from the south. Local notables were given jurisdiction in the counties and prefectures under the control of Han governors. The population census of 2 C.E. recorded more than 1 million residents in northern Vietnam. There is also evidence that farmers were already double-cropping before the Han conquest, and this too may indicate that a well-organized, centralized form of government was in place earlier. During the Wang Mang era (9–23 C.E.), a noteworthy number of elite Han families fled to Vietnam, strengthening the Chinese official stratum already there. They pushed for a more concerted program of patriarchal control of the economy, rather than the bilateral kin patterns favored in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In 43, the Trung sisters led an unsuccessful rebellion against Han rule.
Rebellions against the Chinese
From this point, Dông-son culture began to disappear, as Chinese-style centralized bureaucracy and tax-assessed landholdings replaced native systems. The newly emergent elite was a Han-Viêt mix, due to cultural interpenetration as well as intermarriage. With the decline and collapse of the Later Han, Chinese influence in Vietnam waned. During the centuries of disunion in China, Vietnam fell under the domination of a succession of smaller states to the north. In the 540s and 550s, a number of rebellions against the Chinese erupted, and fighting continued for some time. By the end of the 6th century, Vietnam had been defeated and returned to the Chinese sphere.
Again under Chinese control
When China was reunified under the Sui and Tang dynasties, Vietnam fell again under Chinese control. The Tang set up the Protectorate of An-nam (literally, the “pacified south”) in the northern part of the country in the 7th and 8th centuries, typical of Chinese regional control structures at the time. When the central control of the Tang waned in the 9th century, control in the extremities waned as well and gave rise to instability. During the Tang, the political center of what was then Vietnam became Hanoi.
After a defeat of the army of the Southern Han, Ngô Quyên (898–944) declared himself king, although infighting continued for the entire three decades of his and his descendants’ rule.
Dinh Bô Ling
Dinh Bô Ling (c. 925–79) established a stable regime, with himself as king, from Hoalu, near the southern rim of the Red River plain. The country was renamed Dai Viêt. He sent his son (972) to China to establish contacts, and he was recognized as the king of Giao-châu, while his son became commander in chief of the An-nam Protectorate. Both were assassinated in 979.
Lê Hoan (950–1005) continued rule from Hoa-lu after defeating a Song expeditionary force from China, but he and his descendants, being thoroughly military men, were unable to establish the foundations of long-term political stability. What is sometimes called the Early Lê dynasty ended in 1009, when it was replaced by the Ly dynasty. As Thang-long (Hanoi) became the political center of the country during Tang hegemony, Chinese-style agricultural organizations and taxation systems came to Vietnam, in part aimed at breaking up the older, entrenched great families. Thang-long was the first urban center south of the Red River, and these new systems opened up rich new farmlands that were placed in the hands of free peasants trained militarily to defend their lands against the older elites. By the end of the 8th century, the Tang’s double-tax reform had fostered the emergence of a new great landlord class. Vietnam was seen by its northern master as a source of revenue and luxury items.
Buddhism probably came to Vietnam between the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., perhaps as early as the 2nd century. A number of famous Buddhist travelers passed through Vietnam en route to or from China, and by the early years of the Tang, Vietnamese monks were among those travelers. In the 7th century, Vân-Ky brought home Chinese language Buddhist texts from China. The most popular and influential Chinese sect in Vietnam was the Chan (in Vietnamese, Thiên). An Indian traveler in China in the 6th century had proceeded to Vietnam and launched the first Thiên sect. Another took root during the Tang; by the late 10th century, the fourth patriarch of the sect was a teacher at the Lê Palace. While the status of women in pre-China-dominated Vietnam may have been better than it became, women were never the legal or social equals of men of their same class.
Nonetheless, the relatively more important roles women played throughout Vietnamese society mark a significant distinction with respect to China.