I was visiting Nelson’s blog and ran across the statement “For example, the Cantonese term for Vietnam is ‘Yuet Naam,’ and the pronunciation is such that they could conceivably be derived from similar sources.” I was going to leave him a comment letting him know his guess was correct, but when I tried to compose it I realized I could either say “Yes” and leave it at that or tell a longer story than would suit a comment box, so I chose the latter, and here it is.

Before the Han Dynasty, in the third century BC, Chinese civilization was centered in the Yellow River valley; further south, in the Yangtze region, were non-Chinese states that were coming more and more under Chinese influence, the easternmost of which, on the coast (approximately where Chekiang is now), was Yüeh. (That is the modern Mandarin version of the name, which at that period had a final -t preserved in Cantonese “Yuet” and Vietnamese “Viet.”) As the Chinese of Ch’in (which unified the country) pushed south, the Yüeh ruling classes scattered further down the coast and founded a number of little kingdoms collectively known to the Chinese as the “hundred Yüeh,” the largest of which, near modern Canton, was called Nan Yüeh or ‘Southern Yüeh.’ These kingdoms were briefly conquered by the Ch’in emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, but after his death Nan Yüeh became independent under a former Chinese general, Chao T’o (known in Vietnamese as Trieu Da), who not only resisted the new Han dynasty to the north but conquered the peoples to the south, including the ancestors of the modern Vietnamese. This is the vital moment in our story, because it gave the Vietnamese people the lasting memory of a state that had stood up against the colossus to the north, and the name of that state was Nan Yüeh.

During the second and first centuries BC Nan Yüeh came more and more under Chinese domination, and by AD 42 it was firmly incorporated into the Han empire. But although the other peoples of the region lost their languages and became Chinese (the strongly divergent southern forms of Chinese presumably reflecting the influence of those lost languages), the Vietnamese kept a sense of their own nationhood (and, crucially, preserved their own language) even as they assimilated all the trappings of Chinese culture: the characters, the art, the examination system, the chopsticks. When they briefly achieved independence in the sixth century, the rebel Ly Bi proclaimed himself the emperor of Nam Viet, the Vietnamese form of Nan Yüeh. When independence came for good in the tenth century, the new kingdom was called Annam, but centuries later the old name was revived in a new form; I’ll let Keith Weller Taylor, the author of the excellent book The Birth of Vietnam, tell the story:

The modern name of Vietnam dates from 1803, when envoys from the new Nguyen dynasty went to Peking to establish diplomatic relations. They claimed the name Nam Viet (Nan Yüeh). But the Chinese objected to this invocation of Chao T’o’s rebellious realm in antiquity and changed the name to Viet Nam. This Chinese adherence to the formalities of imperial theory was resented at the time, but in the twentieth century the name Vietnam has acquired general acceptance among the Vietnamese.

If this has piqued anyone’s interest, the Tuvy Asian Resource Center has a useful account of early Vietnamese history, and I heartily recommend the Keith Weller Taylor book cited above.


  1. This is the standard account. Only thing that I’d add is that most of the Chinese borrowings in Vietnamese come from Han Chinese. And the Vietnamese use of Chinese characters took two forms. Initially, the Vietnamese empreors simply used Han Chinese as the official languge, but before long scholars wanted a way to write Vietnamese & a system called chu nom was developed in which most Vietnamese words were represented by a pair of Chinese characters, one for the meaning & one for the sound. The system was devilishly difficult & never fully formalized. There has been a recent revival of interest in preserving onld nom texts spurred on by John Balaban’s translations of the poems of Ho Xuan Hung, the 19th century proto-feminist & wife of a court official.
    In the early 20th century Vietnamese nationalists realized that quoc ngu (national language), a system for writing Vietnamese using the roman alphabet plus diacritical marks that was invented by French missionaries in the 18th c., could be put to use in the struggle against colonialism. A native speaker of Vietnamese can lear to read & write in quoc ngu in a matter of months. Literacy became a weapon of national liberation as quoc ngu newspapers sprung up to carry the message of nationalism.

  2. Thanks!

  3. Thanks also, Joseph, for bringing this article to the “Recently Commented On” table, as it was something I had missed but really needed to read! Thanks LH.

  4. I was recently told that ‘Vietnam’ meant “land of Tattoo Man” can anyone concur? Thanks

  5. Joann, if you’ll read the post above you’ll see that it means something entirely different. You’re welcome.

  6. There’s a more straightforward reason for the Chinese rejecting Nan Yue in favor of Yue Nan. The first reads ‘Southern Yue’, plausibly implying a claim to all of the ancient Yue territory, whereas the latter is ‘south of Yue’, which is a straightforward geographical statement, like the province names Hunan ‘south of the lake [Dongting]’ and Henan ‘south of the [Yellow] river’. See Macedonia.

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