Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Towards an Environmental History of the Eastern Red River Delta, Vietnam, C.900-1400

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Towards an Environmental History of the Eastern Red River Delta, Vietnam, C.900-1400

Article excerpt

The Red River Delta in Vietnam is divided into three parts: the fluvial- dominated mid delta, where the capital Hanoi is located; the tide-dominated eastern plain, centred at Hai Du'o'ng (hereafter the eastern delta); and finally, the wave-dominated southeastern plain, where the current course of the Red River is, centred at Nam Dinh (hereafter the western delta). (1) Up to the tenth century, most of the sub-prefectures under Chinese rule were located in the upper eastern delta and the upper-mid delta.

This coastal area had been important to Jiaozhi (one of the names used by China for Vietnam) under Chinese rule (second century BCE to early tenth century CE) as well as independent Dai Viet, whose first capital for 41 years (968-1009 CE) was in Hoa Lif (Ninh Binh province). In 1010 the newly founded Ly dynasty moved its capital to Dai La, the site of the Tang Annam Protectorate office, today's Hanoi, and renamed it Thang Long (ascending dragon). Although the same city was adopted by the Tang Annam protectorate and the Ly as their administrative centre, the Tang had regarded the eastern delta as crucial because Dai La linked its capital Changan with the coast, while the Ly dynasty was a strongly riverine polity.

John Whitmore has drawn our attention to the multiethnic coastal area of the early Dai Viet and its significance for Vietnamese history. (2) Building on his focus, this article situates the eastern coastal area of the Red River Delta within its natural environment to better understand how human actions and nature jointly shaped the region in the first four hundred years of Dai Viet's independence, and their long-term impact on Vietnamese history.

Population in the Ly period

Although in the second century BCE northern Vietnam (Jiaozhi) was the most densely populated area in the Han Empire's southern coast, (3) the situation had changed dramatically by the tenth century. The reasons for this were threefold. First, as Michael Churchman shows, between the third and sixth centuries Sinitic-speaking settlers were concentrated in key centres in coastal-southern China, such as Nanhai (Guangdong coast), Hepu (Guangxi coast), and Jiaozhi, while vast areas of present-day Guangxi were inhabited by the Li and Lao, who spoke Kam-Tai languages. These non-Han chiefdoms largely cut off the much more 'civilised' Jiaozhi from central China and, importantly, Han Chinese migration to Jiaozhi for over three hundred years. (4) Second, Guangdong's economic position greatly improved in the eighth century with the opening of the Dayu Mountain road and the linking of Guangzhou to the hinterland. From the early eighth century onwards, an unprecedented abundance of goods flowed from the hinterland to Guangzhou for trade, eclipsing former rival Jiaozhi. A third and equally important factor was that, by the ninth century, Persian and Arab merchants--the new princes of the Nanhai trade--chose to sail directly to Guangzhou on the open sea, cutting out Jiaozhi and many of its trading partners down the coast. (5) While the first factor greatly reduced the inward migration of the Han Chinese to Jiaozhi, the latter two factors may have encouraged outward migration from Jiaozhi. In the ninth century, the combined number of households in north and central Vietnam never exceeded forty thousand, or less than half the regional total recorded at the height of the Han period. (6) By the time of its independence in the tenth century, Dai Viet was anything but densely populated.

The newly independent Dai Viet was largely governed by local strong men, 'big men' whose status was determined, in part, by the number of bonded people they managed to amass. Next to trade, raids were the most effective means of obtaining manpower. Slave raids were common practice among the people of Lingnan (southeastern China) and Annam. The Tang records are filled with descriptions of such raids, and the trade in slaves belonging to different tribes in Guangdong, Hainan and particularly Guangxi. …

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