Ancient ties between Taiwanese and Vietnamese

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I always knew my family’s spoken language was slightly different than what was spoken on the streets.  There were many terminology which didn’t fit in with the Việt vocabulary that I learned in school and on the playground.  For example, my father called his mother, my paternal grandmother, by the word Bu (母) pronounced as in the English word ‘boo’.  I never understood why.  I just thought he was a bit strange.  As I got older, I found out that the Taiwanese word for mother is pronounced Bu, and the Japanese word for mother is (pronounced ‘bow’).  I thought that rather odd since there really isn’t a connection between my Father and a native Taiwanese (or Japanese).  So I decided to dig around myself to find out what’s the deal here.

Before I go too far, let me just lay out the four basic language groups:  Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, and Austronesian.  I am zeroing in on Austronesian because this is the language root of the Việt people.


Austronesia is further split into four separate groups.  Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Tai-Kadai, and Tibito-Burman (more commonly known as Sino-Tibetan).  My question was, where does Vietnamese fit into these four branches?  Since I am not a linguist, I had to go find out what the linguists of note thought.

Back in 1852, James Logan thought it was Austroasiatic (he called it Môn Anam back then).  In 1905, another linguist named W. Schmidt thought it was Môn Khmer, but then changed his mind and said it had to be part of the the Tai-Kadai grouping.  Then in 1912, Maspéro placed it in with the Tai-Kadai.  But then, in 1952, Andre Haudricourt placed the Vietnamese language back into the Austro-Asiatic group again.

So which is it?  Austroasiatic or Tai-Kadai, and why the mix-up over such a long time (roughly 100 years)?   The answer came in 1975 when a linguist by the name of Paul Benedict decided that the old groupings didn’t work, so he proposed to combine the Tai-Kadai and Austronesian into one grouping called Proto-Austro-Tai (or PAT for short).  This is because Vietnamese didn’t fit in either one, having features found in both.  But that still left the other two groupings Austronesian and Sino-Tibetan.

Upon further review, the various linguists of the day found a single language that combined all four groupings, making it the proto-language of the South-East-Asian and South-Asian world.  They proposed a new name, Austric, to combine all four into one so that the single language would have a placement.  This single language came out of the Hòa Bình culture, which eventually evolved into the Việt culture and encompasses the written Văn Khoa Đẩu (more commonly known as the tadpole script), aka Proto-Việt language.


This tadpole script was found everywhere, all over southeast Asia, in Japan, Taiwan, southern China, even into Thailand and Sumatra.  It was carved on rocks, bones, turtle shells, megalithic stones, you name it.  Once people figured out what it was, it turned up everywhere.  Reading this script is not extremely difficult either…if you know Vietnamese.  Of course, the words are a bit strange, but a decent grasp of old Việt language is really all that one needs to be able to read the ancient phonetic writing on these rocks.

Incidentally… Hòa Bình means Peaceful.  I kinda like that.  



Ancient Việt: Matriarchy and the Female Lineage

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Vietnamese Women Rule.

OK, so maybe not at this time, but in the past we did…kinda, sorta, in a way.  Even as early as two-thousand years ago, we were a Matriarchal society.  In my previous post on the Trưng sisters, I noted that not only were they twin queens of a huge geographic area, their generals were also women of great note.  But they were hardly the first—nor were they the last—great Việt female queens.  Their mother, who ruled over Mê Linh (present-day Hunan) was the famed Man Thiện, aka Trần Thị Đoan, who was also the maternal grand-daughter of one of the Hùng Vương Kings.  I will tell her story in a future posting, but again this was not an anomaly, merely the way that a matriarchal society worked.

In a matriarchal society, the most powerful ruling entity was always the mother of the king.  The mother was the head of household.  She was the teacher, the wise woman; she guided the family and the state.  She appointed the king and if needed, she impeached the king.  Sometimes, the king was a man, but quite often, it was a woman.  This mostly had to do with talent and abilities and not the sex of the child.  It was truly an egalitarian mindset.  The most capable child of her brood was the de-facto king who ruled the region under the Matriarchal Mother who was there to be the counselor, or ‘wise woman’.

This was how all the regions of Âu Việt back in those days were ruled.  If there were any border disputes between the various kingdoms, the kings dealt with the small stuff.  If things got out of hand, which was often the case, the problem was escalated to the Matriarchal Mothers who got together, drank some tea, talked about the old days when they played together as sisters/cousins/in-laws/ and then gave a joint decree to solve the various issues.

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Sometimes, it was to arrange the marriage of two offspring who seemed to fit each other well in temperament and intellect (as Trưng Trắc’s marriage to Thi had been arranged).  Sometimes, it was to join forces for huge construction projects such as dams, bridges, and common thoroughfare.

This was how Matriarchal society usually worked.  There was no single Emperor to head the various Việt clans.  Indeed, the understanding of the day was that several heads were always better than one.  All the old ladies just got together and gabbed.  They gabbed and drank hot tea and traded gossip, much like what women do today.  In the process of gabbing, they smoothed over potential tensions, gave counsel to the kings and the generals, and basically had a nice afternoon visit with each other and then went home.

This vestige of matriarchy still shows up today, in modern Việt Nam, through all sorts of ways.

Linguistic Vestiges

The main component of anything in my language is always denoted with the word cái, which actually means female, like đường cái (main road),  or con cái (children).  Cái is also used as the word (the) for ordinary everyday objects, as in cái tô (the bowl), or cái hộp (the box).  It can also be used for the word (a), such as cái cách (a method) or cái điều (an idea).

Lineage Vestiges

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Matriarchal societies may sound unfair to the males in the family, but appearances are deceiving.  Being female only gave one advantage in a matriarchal society.  Land rights.

Family land was split between the girls within the family because it was recognized that future progeny came from the wombs of the girls, hence the word đất mẹ (motherland) or quê mẹ (homeland).  Boys were married off to families with the land and wealth suitable to support a male and his subsequent children.  This is why the girl’s family pays for all wedding costs.  They were not losing a daughter, they were gaining a son.  Children of the resulting marriage took on the mother’s family name, which was also the name of the land where they came from.

Confucianism and Patriarchy

The period of female ruling lasted at least twelve-thousand years.  Sadly, when Confucius came around, he spear-headed the patriarchal movement, couched into a philosophy and a religion, which took the ancient Taoist idea of a balanced yin/yang relationship and changed it completely into one where yin was no longer the balancing force of yang.  In the physical sciences, the negative and the positive poles must be balanced to remain stable.  Instability occurs when one pole is stronger than the other.  Likewise, under the patriarchal way of life, the very structure of the Việt communities began to become unbalanced.

Taoism became unbalanced.

The matriarchal society finally succumbed to the Confucianistic way of thinking and women lost the throne to the patriarchs of the world.  Once that happened, women became objects to be owned.  They were deemed less important than the children they bore.  The yin began to be subjugated.  Girls began to be undervalued.  Boys were given preferential treatment.  We lost all our wise women.  We lost the gabby old women who ruled as a clan.  More importantly, we lost an egalitarian society.

In my next post, I will delve further into the philosophical and religious implication of the loss of the matriarchal society.

The Trưng Sisters (Part 4)

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(…continued from The Trưng Sisters (Part 3))

The Beauty

During the three-year reign of Trắc and Nhị Trưng, people saw them everywhere.  They never stayed in one place for long—always on their elephants and always on the road.  Their swords were never sheathed, they were constantly keeping the troops trained and motivated, maintaining connections with all the generals, and maintaining the goodwill of the population.

To allow the people time to recover from the steep harsh taxes that they had been under, the queens did not issue any taxes for the first two years of their reign, which allowed for food stores to be replenished and allowed for the people to adequately feed their families.  This, above all was what kept the queens in the hearts and minds of the people, even to this day.

Everywhere they went, the people rallied and poured their support.  The young queens could be seen on their elephants riding all over the country, wearing their red robes with gold turbans even though traditions state that a woman who is in the midst of mourning for her deceased husband must wear white from head to foot and refrain from beautifying herself.

White is the color of mourning, but Trắc was too busy to be in mourning.  She had a country to protect.  As beautiful as she was—and she was a legendary beauty, for the three ensuing years that she was a monarch, she took extra special care with her hair and makeup, and always wore red and gold when she went outside.

When her female generals asked why, she responded immediately:  “I cannot allow my personal feelings to affect our soldiers’ morale.  If I keep with traditions and wear white or smear charcoal dust on my face, I cannot maintain the spirit of my troops.  I must continue my daily dressing routine.  My colors and my outer appearance bolster their spirits.  It also affects the enemy and weakens their resolve.  Everyone else can follow traditions.  I, on the other hand, do not have that luxury.”

(As an aside: Three-fourths of all her generals were women…and in my next posting, I will go into more detail about the more notable women generals and the real reason WHY there were so many female war generals, land Lords, and Monarchs during that time)

The Territory

The territory was huge, and a great prize to be maintained—or taken.  When Tô Định and his men fell, the Trưng sisters took control over the nine regions that the Chinese had split sections to facilitate their governance.  Along with their own region, Mê Linh, in present-day Hunan province, this made complete, the ten regions of the Trưng Dynasty.

To understand the scope of what these two courageous women did, take a look at the map below, which shows the regions they had managed to recover from the Chinese during the revolution to reclaim Việt land.

As I stated previously in my last posting about the Trưng sisters, the reason why they were able to do so was not because of the death of a single king in a single kingdom.  It was because the scattered Việt kingdoms were a loosely united states of Việt Nam who had in common a spoken and written language, and a common ancestor.  They had lived in separate states in relative peace for thousands of years until the Chinese came down and took over.

It was within this chaotic time that the Việt Lạc organized the revolt, headed by the Trưng sisters.  Of course, this was a few regions short of what it used to be under the ancient Hùng kings, but it was as close as it ever got again, to the original Xích Quỉ region of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ of ancient times.


Orange text denotes the ancient names as they were known.  Green text denotes the name as they are known to the Vietnamese today.  Black bold text denotes how they are phonetically anglicized.

These ten regions are:

1. Nam Hải (Quảng Đông) – present-day Guangdong

2. Thương Ngô (Quảng Tây) – present-day Guangxi

3. Uất Lâm (Quảng Tây) –  present-day Guangxi

4. Hợp Phố (Quảng Châu) –  present-day Guangzhou

5. Giao Chỉ (Bắc Việt Nam) –  present-day Jiaozhi

6. Cửu Chân (Vân Nam xuống Thanh Hoá) – present-day Yunnan, down to Thanh Hoa, Việt Nam

7. Nhật Nam (Nghệ An) – present-day North Việt Nam

8. Châu Nhai (Hải Nam Island) – present-day Hainan

9. Đạm Nhĩ (Đam Châu of Hải Nam Island) – present-day Hainan

10.  Mê Linh (Hồ Nam) – present-day Hunan

The Trump Card

But it is one thing to regain an empire—and another to retain it.  The Chinese to the north had a final trump card they pulled out of retirement, just for this specific duty.  It was to be one of his major crowning achievements.

So that it was, on an early spring morning, some time within the first month of the brand new year of the tiger, 42 AD, the Chinese came calling on the Trưng sisters at their capitol citadel of Mê Linh, located in current-day Changsha, Hunan, China.  The name on the calling card was one famous Chinese figure, General Mã Viện (馬援) Ma Yuan.

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General Mã Viện was a highly skilled warrior.  He had won many battles for the Chinese emperor and was, in fact, 62 years old and enjoying his well-earned retirement.  Mã Viện had to be called out of retirement because, frankly, he was the very best they had, and the Chinese Emperor knew that nothing but the best would regain his lost southern territories.

The history books state that the Trưng sisters had a force of 10,000 fighters.  General Mã Viện had roughly about 30,000 foot soldiers and 5,000 naval troops with 20 ocean-worthy vessels, each carrying around two or three-hundred naval troops.  Her troops knew the territory well and since they were on familiar terrain, they could defend themselves well, but he had the coastal areas.  By this time Phúc Kiến (福建) Fujian had already fallen into the hands of the Chinese, and the sea route belonged to Mã Viện.

It took one full year, from the time Mã Viện was given the order in 42 AD, to move his troops into position to the first battle in 43 AD, but it was a year well-spent.  General Mã Viện was highly skilled, with decades of war strategies behind him and a massive number of troops allotted to his cause.  Add to that the ocean vessels of naval troops and he was a megalithic force to be dealt with.

The Trưng sisters had NO sea vessels.  All they had were land troops, and this would prove to be their falling grace.  His strategy was to attack from the front AND the rear, using his navy fleet to prevent the queens’ troops from retreating.  It was a spectacularly successful strategy.

Still, the queens were not ones to be cowered.  They rallied their troops, and along with their fierce female generals, they charged into battle with fearless ferocity.  Their famous war cry, echoing in every town, every hamlet, every city, accompanied by the echoing sound of the famous Đông Sơn bronze drums, was thus:

Một xin rửa sạch nước thù,                        First, to wash away the enemy
Hai xin dựng lại nghiệp xưa họ Hùng,        Second, to rebuild the might of ancient Hùng Dynasty
Ba kêu oan ức lòng chồng,                       Third, crying for revenge of husband’s soul
Bốn xin vẻn vẹn sở công lệnh này.             Fourth, to complete the mission of this order 

The first battle was in Lãng Bạc, which is present-day Hồ Tây, or East Lake.  It was at this great battle that the young queens lost 5,000 troops to hand-to-hand combat, plus 10,000 more were taken as prisoners-of-war.  They also lost six or seven female generals of high note.

The first battle lost, the queens pulled back to Thạch Thất in the area of Cấm Khê (Kim Khê, in Guanxi).  Here, another huge battle ensued, whereby the queens lost again.  And again, they had to make a retreat, but along the way, a horrible tragedy occurred.

The queens were surrounded on all sides.  With nowhere to run, they fought until they were down to a handful of warriors.  They were staring at death in the face, cornered on all sides by blood thirsty warriors who were moving in for the kill.

In a last ditch effort, Nhị Trưng told her older sister, Trắc Trưng to make a run for the capitol, and that she would hold the line to allow for Trắc’s escape.  She knew that they both could not run together.  One of them would have to maintain the line for the other to make it back to the fortified citadel that was their capitol.

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As she stood there, bravely fighting the horde of Chinese warriors, Nhị knew that as long as her sister Trưng could make it out of that battle ground alive, they would have a chance.  The people could rally around a single monarch just as well as two.  She hoped and prayed for her sister’s safety, partly because of her great love for her twin, and partly because of her desperate yearning to retain the land that was her native home.

It was a bitter, desperate fight.  For her, there was to be no other ending.  Nhị was a very highly skilled martial artist and weapons master, but her small group of solders were getting smaller, and there was just so many Chinese warriors.  So very many.

But she kept fighting.

She kept fighting and fighting and fighting until she alone, stood on the battle ground, surrounded by Chinese warriors.  She was a pool of red silk swinging a silver blade in all directions.

The end came swiftly.

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Overwhelmed, she fell at last, to the hands of the Chinese warriors.  They beheaded her and took their prize to be presented to the Chinese Emperor as a sign of victory.

Meanwhile, Trắc was having her own problems.  No sooner had she fled past the group of warriors from that battle, whereupon she ran straight into the naval force that was waiting at the rear.

battleThere was nowhere to go.

They were surrounded.

The fighting became intense.  The small group of warriors she had remaining desperately tried to defend their queen.  They fought valiantly, but in the end, one by one, they each fell to the enemy’s blades.

Trắc knew there was no way out.  She also knew that she did not want to be beheaded and sent back to the Emperor.

In a last ditch attempt to cheat the Chinese warriors of their last prize, she threw herself down the cliff into the Hát River.

Thus ended the legend of the Trưng sisters over two-thousand years ago.  They went out in a blaze of glory, fighting with everything they had until the very end.

But death is not the end.  Nor is it the worst thing that can possibly happen.

The Trưng sisters are still remembered to this day.  Every year on the anniversary of their death, the people still come to their shrines and pray and remember and give thanks for their ultimate sacrifice.  To this day, they hold Trưng sisters parades and plays and commemorative reenactments.  To this day, the children still learn about them and sing songs about their heroic deeds.  To this day, every single city in Việt Nam has boulevards and buildings and parks and schools and libraries named after them.

That is not death—that is immortality.


Who says water buffalo herding is hard work?


Ai bảo chăn trâu là khổ                             Who says water buffalo herding is hard work?
Chăn trâu sướng lắm chứ                          It’s a lot of fun!
Ngồi mình trâu, phất ngọn cờ lau               Sitting on the buffalo, swishing my pendant grass stalk
Và miệng hát nghêu ngao                          and singing out loud.
Vui thú không quên học đâu                      I have fun, but I don’t forget to study
Nằm đồi non gió mát                                Lying on the hill with the cool breeze
Cất tiếng theo tiếng lúa đang reo               my voice joins the sound of the growing rice fields
Em đánh vần thật mau.                             I recite my lessons fast

Chiều vương tiếng diều                             Evening brings the sound of the whistling kites
Trên bờ đê vắng (ứ ư ư) xa.                      on the distant barren levee
Đường về xóm nhà                                   Along the road home
Chữ i, chữ (ư ư ư) tờ.                                I recite my lessons, “i” and “tờ”
Lùa trâu nhốt chuồng                                Bring the water buffalo into the barn
Gánh nước nữa là (a à a) xong                   Bring the water into the house and I’m done.
Khoai lùi bếp nóng                                    Hot roasted potatoes awaiting
Ngon hơn là (a à a) vàng.                          Tastes better than gold.

Em mới lên năm, lên mười                         I just turned five (or ten)
Nhưng em không yếu đuối.                        But I am not weak
Thầy mẹ yêu cũng vì trẻ thơ                       Mom and Dad loves me
Làm việc rất say sưa                                  Because I work so hard and passionately
Em biết yêu thương đời trai                        I love my life
Đời hùng anh chiến sĩ                                And I love the life of a hero
Ước mong sao em nhớn lên mau                 I hope I grow up soon
Vươn sức mạnh cần lao.                             So I can be strong.

Trâu hỡi trâu ơi đi cầy                                Hey you, water buffalo, go and plow
Trâu ơi đi cấy nhé                                      Go and plow, ok?
Đồng ruộng kia, với đồi cỏ kia                     That rice field over there, and that grass hill over there
Là của những dân quê                                Belongs to all of us
Em bé dân quê Việt Nam                            Children of Việt Nam
Là mầm non tươi thắm                               We are the fresh new buds
Sức mai sau xây đắp quê hương                  of strength for tomorrow to build our nation
Cho nước giầu mạnh hơn.                           so our nation will be stronger and wealthier.

Vàng lên cánh đồng                                    Rice fields turn a golden hue
Khi trời vươn ánh dương                             when the sun rises in the sky
Trẻ thơ nhớn dậy                                       Children grow up fast
Giữ quê, giữ vườn                                      Protect the lands, protect the nation
Đời vui thái bình, cây lúa sớm trổ bông         Happy, peaceful lives, the rice fields will soon flower
Cỏ ngàn thơm phức, trâu ăn đầy đồng          Endless scented grass, the water buffalo eats all day.