Monday, March 29, 2010

The term, Viet(Yue/越/월), in Vietnam ... a drive down to Los Angeles...

Correction: Date for Nanyue (Nam Viet Kingdom)  

Last week, I came down to Los Angeles for spring break. On the way down here, through the power of uloop, I had the fortune of speaking with a Vietnamese-American. It was a diverse mix in the car in that there were American-born Korean-Americans, an international college student from Korea, and a second generation Vietnamese-American. The drive is not short and during this drive for a brief moment, we talked about Viet means. We had a native-Korean speaker, who was born and educated in the S. Korea up until college, so we could to some extent translate between English-Korean-Classical Chinese Characters-Vietnamese. Though as the Vietnamese language adopted the Latin or Roman script things made it a little bit more difficult.

Anyways, what I find strange about the word Vietnam is that as the Korean pronounciation of the classical Chinese characters for Vietnam(越南) are similar in pronounciation to at least the English word Vietnam (Weol'nam) -- though on a separate side note and from recent arrivals from Korea, it seems that the dictionary as provided by (the korean-english and not the korean-sino-korean dictionary), it appears Weol'nam is not used as frequently as Koreans now use the Korean pronounciation of the English word Vietnam (which to me makes no sense). But anyways, under the assumption that the word for Vietnam in Korean, Weol'nam, derives from the same characters as Vietnam, then I find that there is something particular strange about this word.

You see, "nam"(南) means south. For example, in (Sino-)Korean, Nam-Mi(南美) means South America (the continent). But, notice that here Nam is a prefix here and not a suffix. So, it would mean that the term Nam(南) is being used to modify the second -- South America. But, when Nam is used as a suffix, it means "South of." So, I find it strange (perhaps, it's a bit like how Hungary is well, mistakenly, called Hungary), but anyways, I wanted to see what this meant. And, I thought it be of historical interest since I know almost nothing of Chinese history -- particularly after the center of Chinese civilization moved further south to the Yangtze River (further away from the Korean peninsula that is).

Well, Wikipedia gives the etymology of Vietnam to be:
Việt Nam (Vietnamese pronunciation: [vjə̀tnam]) was adopted as the official name of the country by Emperor Gia Long in 1804.[4] It is a variation of "Nam Việt" (南越, Southern Việt), a name used in ancient times.[5] In 1839, Emperor Minh Mạng renamed the country Đại Nam ("Great South").[6] In 1945, the nation's official name was changed back to "Vietnam". The name is also sometimes rendered as "Viet Nam" in English.[7]
So, it does look like the word Vietnam is from the same Classical Chinese characters, but Nam Viet and Viet Nam seem to be more than just a mere variation. Consider that the former means Southern Viet and that the latter means South of Viet. Southern Viet would suggest a link with Viet (?) and South of Viet would suggest that Viet would be a term that had been ascribed to people living to the north of Vietnam and is a name that appears to be given to it by the Chinese. I believe Vietnam (Dai Viet -- which I take to be Great Viet or 大越 since Dai is close to the Sino-Korean word Dae, which also means Great) had to struggle continuously for her independence from the Chinese for most of her history. I believe Northern Vietnam was a part of Chinese kingdoms until the end of the first millenium at which point the Dai Viet emerged. (Though even here, I believe Dai Viet was conquered by the Chinese as late as during the Ming Empire). (The history of Southern Vietnam seems to be more complex as there were people who lived there that practiced Hinduism (which would put it oddly out of place with its neighbors). Anyways, I didn't want to get in to a heated debate in the middle of a car ride, but it had always perked my curiosity and I guess this is what this blog is here for. And, Wikipedia's entries of Vietnam are look surprisingly sparse for the country that is supposed to be the next Japan (no, not the next South Korea (it's unified for one) -- but the next Japan; the country already has a population larger than South Korea and most of Vietnam, unlike South Korea, which (I believe) which has for past two consecutive years had the lowest feritility rate in the world, is young and its population growing fast).

But, the character for Viet (越) seems to be Yue in -- I'm guessing -- Mandarin. On a side note, I had this discussion last year with an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam that said the pitch for Yue and Viet were different -- making it different words (I don't know if it has a different pitch, but it does have the same character. And, if it has the same etymologoical (from Wikipedia):

In ancient times, the northern Han Chinese referred to the peoples to their south collectively as the Yue. Historian Luo Xianglin has suggested that these peoples shared a common ancestry with the Xia Dynasty. There is little evidence, however, that the Yue peoples held any common identity. Historical texts often refer to the Hundred Yue tribes (Chinese: 百越; pinyin: Bǎi Yuè; Cantonese Yale: Baak Yuht; Vietnamese: Bách Việt). The "Treatise of Geography" in Han Shu notes: "In the seven or eight thousand li from Jiaozhi to Kuaiji (modern southern Jiangsu or northern Zhejiang) the Hundred Yue are everywhere, each with their own clans."
But, interestingly, note where Zhejiang province is:
So, it appears that as the above quote says that the term Viet (Yue/越) referred to a lot more than just a single group of people and probably to a region and even a kingdom -- "one of the feudal states within the China area was the kingdom of Yue, located south of Hangzhou Bay; it included what is now Fujian province" (Britannica Online).

Moreover, Britannica gives a definition of Yüeh (Yue/Viet/越) as an

aboriginal people of South China who in the 5th–4th century bce formed a powerful kingdom in present-day Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. The name Vietnam means “south of the Yue,” and some Chinese scholars consider the Vietnamese to be descendants of the Yue.
Also, there seemed to be a kingdom called Nanyue or Nam Viet (南越) that encompassed the northern parts of present day Vietnam and the Cantonese speaking regions of Southern China in 2000 BCE (though I'm not sure at that time what regions actually spoke Cantonese). I mean this is about 4,000 years ago and about eighteen hundred years before China was first unified. Anyways, it does appear that the term Viet was originally given by those not living in Vietnam today (I believe in the first millenium the "Chinese" did a rather poor job of assimilating the local Vietnamese) and, was, perhaps, too different from the origins of the name (Barbara).

Also, there seemed to be kingdom called Nanyue or Nam Viet (南越):

[Nam Viet was an] ancient kingdom occupying much of what is now northern Vietnam and the southern Chinese provinces of Kwangtung and Kwangsi. The kingdom was formed in 207 bce, during the breakup of the Ch’in dynasty (221–206 bce), when the Ch’in governor of Yüeh (now Kwangtung and Kwangsi provinces) declared his territory independent. His son Chao T’o (Trieu Da) expanded the new kingdom southward, incorporating the Red River delta and the area as far south as Da Nang (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Nonetheless, it does seem the Vietnamese had a much harder time from the Chinese than Koreans. And, the term Vietnam suggests that the country is/was outside the fringe of Chinese civilization if it is to the South of Yue. Or, if Vietnam is just a mere variation of Nam Viet than the Han Chinese have come to conquer both culturally and physically a lot of land in the past few millenia. Anyways, I believe the Vietnamese and Chinese(pl) langugaes are very closely related (and I don't mean just in terms of vocabulary or loan words).


  1. A good explanation of the Chinese view of the Yue people and how they relate to the Vietnamese today (that Vietnamese are descendants of the Luo Yue tribe) is available here:

    I think you have your date wrong. says Nanyue was founded in 208BC not 2000BC, by a Han Chinese general (meaning that it was founded after the fall of Qin dynasty).

    At least in Mandarin, the different characters for Yue/Viet (粵,鉞,越) have the exact same tone and pronunciation. Nowadays 越 refers to Vietnam (and also the ancient Yue peoples) while 粵 refers to the Cantonese, but they were used interchangeably in ancient times.

  2. I've been looking at the link you provied and it appears that it would be a stretch to call the Yue people as one people.

    Regarding the claim of the differing tones, yeah, I heard this as this was during a bet over the loser having to buy Korean BBQ (I claimed -- judging from the maps that -- the Cantonese (plus the Hakka speaking regions & Vietnam) were areas that the Han Chinese never got around to fully assimilating. Actually, I'm not quite sure what the bet was over exactly, but I do remember the food was pretty good. ^^

    But, ultimately, it appears that Nam Viet would according to the "Chinese view" be a more appropriate name for Vietnam.

  3. For most of Viet Nam history dynasties change, but the name is unchanged, Dai Viet. Emperor Gia Long for some reason did not like it. He wanted to change it to Nam Viet. He sent his mandarins to Beijing to inform the Manchu emperor about it. The Manchu court protested because it implied Trieu Da's Nam Viet which included Kwangtung and Kwangsi. The Viet and Manchu reached a compromise: Kept the words but switched the order.

  4. Zhejiang Haplogroups :
    - O3 (M122) = 26%
    - O3a2c1 (M134) = 28%
    - O1a (M119) = 29%
    - O2a1 (M95) = 5%

    A high frequency of O1 was found in Liangzhu Culture sites around the mouth of the Yangtze River, linking this culture to modern Austronesian and Daic populations.

  6. In Vietnamese, Viet Nam means "Yue of the South", not "South of Yue". The name Viet Nam appeared when the Nguyen dynasty of Vietnam "asked" Qing China for a name. Nguyen dynasty first wanted to call the country "Nam Viet" - Nan Yue. However, Qing dynasty feels threatened by the name (as it would hint Qing accept Vietnam's claim on Guangxi and Guangdong). As a result, it came up with "Viet Nam" - Yue Nan, south of Yue. However, as in Vietnamese, Viet Nam means "Yue of the South" also. That's why Nguyen dynasty accepted the name. However, sometimes Nguyen Dynasty refers the country as "An Nam" - An nan, spacified south. This still shows Vietnam commitment on the claim of Guangdong and Guangxi (as Annam is the name of Vietnam under Tang's control, by that time still consists Guangdong and Guangxi).