The Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Wu (平吳大誥 , Bình Ngô Đại Cáo) was an announcement written by Nguyễn Trãi (阮廌 , 1380 – 1442) in 1428, for Emperor Lê Thái Tổ (黎太祖, 1385 – 1433) to proclaim the defeat of the Ming Dynasty and affirm the status of the later Lê dynasty (後黎朝 , Hậu Lê triều) as the legitimate ruler of Đại Việt (大越). Nguyễn Trãi, pen-name (號 , hiệu) Ức Trai (抑齋), was a Confucian scholar who helped as a strategist during the conflict against the Ming dynasty. He was also a noted author of both Chinese and Vietnamese poetry. This translation of the Great Proclamation is, to my knowledge, only the second complete translation into English. The first translation is that of professor Trương Bửu Lâm (張寶琳 , ?-?) in his book Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention: 1858–1900. I unfortunately did not have the resources to obtain this translation and take it into consideration when making this present translation. My present translation is based on the original Chinese text as reproduced in “Nguyễn Trãi opera omnia” (阮廌全集 , Nguyễn Trãi Toàn Tập) published in the year 2000. In addition, I also consulted several Vietnamese translations, among which I found the translation by Hoàng Phạm Trân (黃范珍 , 1904-1949) under the pen-name Mạc Bảo Thần (莫寶臣) to be the most accurate (in general, all past Vietnamese translations capture the “spirit” of the original classical Chinese; most, however, depart from the original in terms more specific phrases and wording). The English translation presented here differs slightly from the version published on Facebook previously this week. Only a few changes of word choice have been made. The unedited translation was recently published in the Phố Vui weekly newspaper, a print publication circulated in Southern California. Being a masterpiece of extreme historical importance and literary value, it is impossible to give this work due justice under this format. My time and resources being severely limited, the annotations presented here are but cursory. I hope to make up for this by providing some of my own commentary on the relevance of this work to modern day Vietnamese culture, and welcome any questions, criticisms, comments, or suggestions from my readership.
This post is divided into the following sections:
I. Original text
II. English translation
IV. Translator’s commentary
Great Proclamation upon the pacification of Wu
Assuming the role of Heaven in order to initiate renewal, the emperor proclaims thusly:
I have heard that works of benevolence and righteousness take root in bringing peace to the people. In raising an army, nothing takes precedence to doing away with the cruel. Our kingdom of Đại Việt is truly a state of letters and learned men. The boundaries and borders of rivers and mountains already being divided, the customs of south and north also differ. From the time that the Triệu, Đinh, Lý and Trần dynasties established our domain, along with the Han, Tang, Song, and Yuan emperors each ruled his own land. Though strength and weakness have at times been unequal, never has a generation been found lacking heroic and talented men.
Hence, desirous for merit, Liu Gong embraced defeat; fond of grandeur, Chao Hsie rushed headlong into destruction. Suo Du having been captured at Hàm Tử pass, Wu Ma also perished in the waters of the Bạch Đằng Sea. Studying past ages, of this there is clear evidence.
Recently, the Hồ regime’s excessive ordinances caused the people’s hearts to become resentful and rebellious. The upstart Ming took advantage of this opportunity to poison our people. Wicked factions embraced deceit, finally to sell our realm. Burning commoners in conflagrations of cruelty, burying the people in depths of disaster, deceiving Heaven and tricking the people, their lying machinations were countless in form. Gathering soldiers and accumulating wrong-doings, their wickedness increased for twenty years. Destroying righteousness and ruining humanity, Heaven and Earth oft approached annihilation. Under oppressive taxation, the very mountains and marshes were stripped bare. Searching for precious metals, they forced our people to brave poisonous miasmas, smashing mountains and shoveling sand. Looking for bright pearls, we delved into the depths of the sea, brushing against dragons and serpents. Agitating the people, they set up traps for black deer. Harming creatures, they wove nets to capture precious pheasants. Even worms, insects, grasses and trees were not able to fulfill their existence. Burdened by suffering and hardship, widowers and widows could not live in peace. The lips and teeth of perverse and cruel men became soaked with the blood of living souls. Exhausting the resources of the soil and trees, they built for themselves private residences. The taxes and labors put upon townspeople was heavy is such excess that business within the village gates was brought to naught. All the water of the Eastern Sea would not be enough to wash away their filth; should the bamboo of the Southern mountains be completely cut down, it would not be sufficient to record all their evil-doing. Because of this, both God and man were together infuriated; because of this, Heaven and Earth would not harbor them.
Rising with force and spirit from the Lam Sơn Mountain, I hid myself in the abandoned wilds. Meditating on this generational enmity, how could one bear to share the same sky with these men? I swore that I would not live alongside these insolent renegades. With pained heart and aching head, I passed over ten years. Sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall, I spent not but a single day. Erupting in fury, I forgot my meal; constantly did I study and meditate upon annals of stratagems and the art of war. Reflecting on antiquity and observing the present, I carefully researched the principles of rise and fall. Not even in sleep and rest did I forget my ambition to carry out my plans. When the banner of righteousness was first raised, the enemy’s strength had just reached its peak.
Alas, how could I bear that talented men were scarce like the autumn leaves, brilliant heroes as sparse as stars at morning-tide. Running to and fro, before and after, men were always lacking. Within our camps and tents, there was scarcely anyone with whom to discuss strategies and plans. Ardent with desire to rescue the people, choked up with sorrow I wished to conquer eastward. Waiting for the chariots of worthy men to arrive, I constantly waited for one to sit at my left.
Yet, waiting for talented men, I was like one gazing blindly towards the distant ocean. Relying on my own unwavering sincerity, I was like unto one saving a drowning man. Enraged that these cruel villains were not yet exterminated, reflecting that the realm faced many tribulations, at times in Linh Sơn rations were depleted for weeks at a time. In Khôi district, there were at times not a single band of men. Truly, Heaven wished me to suffer in order to bestow upon me a great mission. Thus my resolve became hardened in order to overcome these trials. Raising bamboo as our banner, commoners assembled from all four directions. Making libations of wine and feasting with officers, our soldiers were like fathers and sons, forming an army with a single heart. Weak against strong, we assaulted the enemy when he was unprepared. Few against many, we continually prepared ambushes, making manifest our brilliant strategy.
Finally, with supreme righteousness we conquered the fierce and cruel; with ultimate benevolence we took the place of the oppressive and tyrannical. At Đồ-Bằng Mountain, our army was as fierce as thunder and lightning. In the battle of Trà-Lân, the enemy was smashed like bamboo, reduced to ashes billowing in the wind. Our troop’s morale multiplied; the roar of our army pealed and thundered. Chen Chi and Shan Shou lost their senses and became terrified upon hearing the wind. Li An and Fang Cheng fled, clinging to life breath by breath. Riding upon victory we pushed onward; Tây-kinh once again entered our possession. Selecting talented soldiers, we advanced to Đông-Đô, reconquering our old territory in its entirety. At Ninh-kiều, blood flowed forming rivers, the stench rank across ten-thousand miles. At Tốt-động, corpses piled up in the wilds, leaving behind their putrid smell for a thousand years. Chen He, the heart and mind of the enemy, had his head smashed into a pulp. The parasitic worm, Li Liang had his corpse exposed. Wang Tong attempted to put order to the chaos, but that which was already in conflagration burned with greater intensity. Ma Ying attempted a rescue, but those who were already enraged became only more infuriated. Their wit exhausted and strength depleted, with tied hands they awaited destruction. We struck into their hearts and minds, not raising the sword against them, they still toppled on their own. One would have thought that they ought have a change of heart and mind. Who could have expected that they would persevere in their evil, bringing disaster upon themselves? Hardened and stubborn in their ways, they continued to bring ruin to others. Greedy for fleeting merit, they became the laughingstock of the entire world. They persuaded the upstart boy of Hsuan-Te not to tire of war; they ordered cowardly generals like Mu Sheng and Liu Sheng to put out fire with oil. In the ninth month of the Đinh Mùi year, Liu Sheng led his army, advancing from Qiu-wen. In the tenth month of the same year, Mu Sheng split directions and came from Yun-nan. I had already selected soldiers to prepare ambushes at essential locations, destroying their vanguard. I then ordered men to block their escape route, cutting off the transportation of their rations. In the eighteen day of the same month, our troops attached attacked Liu Sheng, who had fallen into a trap in the wilderness of Chi-lăng. In the twentieth day of the same month, Liu Sheng was defeated by our troops and perished in the mountains of Mã-yên. On the twenty fifth day, the earl of Bo-Ding, Liang Ming, lost in battle and was slaughtered. On the twenty eighth day, at his wit’s end, the minister Li Ching slit his own throat.
We conquered wherever we advanced; the enemy turned around fighting their own. Our troops increased, surrounding them on all four sides. A date was set in the middle of the tenth month for complete extermination. Officers and generals, ferocious as tigers and leopards, were selected. Our elephants drank rivers dry. Our swords were sharpened to such extent that they could pierce the rocks of mountains. One battle and leviathans and whales were slaughtered and cut to pieces. Another battle and the enemy was like unto scattered birds, terrified and separated from their flock. A flood destroying an ant nest; a great wind sweeping through dry leaves. The military governor, Tui Hsiu, fell to his knees and offered surrender. The minister Huang Fu tied himself up and delivered himself into captivity. Stiffened corpses piled up along the roads of Lạng-Giang and Lạng-Sơn. The waters of Xương-Giang and Bình-Than were red with the blood of war. The wind and clouds changed appearance in response; the sun and moon were dismal and ceased to give illumination.
The soldiers from Yun-nan were entrapped by our army at Lê-Hoa. Confused and terrified, their entrails immediately became entwined. When Mu Sheng’s troops heard that Liu Sheng’s army had suffered devastating defeat at Cần-Trạm, they trampled over one another each trying to escape with his life. At Lãnh-Câu, the banks shimmered with blood; the river water seemed to choke up in response. At Đan-xá corpses piled up like mountains, the wild grass dyed crimson. Both directions of rescue troops had not time to turn their feet and flee before being destroyed. Emerging from their fortresses, the cornered enemy took off his armor in surrender. The enemy’s general having become captives, they were like tigers, who having fallen into a trap, wagged their tails begging for mercy. Divine and tremendous warfare does not require killing; emulating God, I took pity on their lives. General Fang Cheng and official Ma Chi were first provided with over five hundred ships; having already crossed the ocean, they were still like ones whose souls had left their body. Commander Wang Tong and governor Ma Ying were then given over one thousand horses; after returning to their domain, their knees still shook, their hearts still terrified. They were afraid of death and greedy for life; their proposal for treaty was sincere. I put the entire army above all else and desired that the people should rest. Not only were these strategies and plans truly profound and far-sighted, from past unto present these were events hitherto unheard and unseen.
Peace and order was thus brought to the realm. The mountains and rivers became renewed. Heaven and Earth having passed through hardship was restored to prosperity. The sun and moon having been darkened, shone once more. Thus was laid the foundation for supreme peace for ten-thousand generations. Thus was washed clean the boundless disgrace of a thousand ages. Truly it was with the hidden assistance of Heaven and Earth and the souls of our ancestors that this was achieved in such manner.
Alas! One war brought about this supreme order, resulting in incomparable merit. The four seas henceforth forever tranquil, let this edict of renewal be announced.
Let all far and near heed this proclamation that they may hear and know!
– Wu (吳 , Ngô) refers to ancestral land of the Ming dynasty’s royal family. Here it refers to the Ming dynasty
– Liu Gong (劉龔 , Lưu Cung , 889-942) was a ruler of the Southern Han dynasty (南漢 , Nam Hán). His son, Liu Hong-cao (劉弘操 , Lưu Hoằng Tháo) was killed in an attempted invasion of Vietnam. Liu Hong-cao’s naval defeat under the hands of Vietnamese general Ngô Quyền (吳權 , 898-944) numbers among the most famous military victories in Vietnamese history
– Zhao Hsie (赵禼 , Triệu Tiết , 1026–1090) was a Song dynasty general who retreated from an unsuccessful invasion of Lý dynasty (李朝 , Lý triều) Vietnam
-Sogetu (唆都 , Toa Đô) and Omar (烏馬 , Ô Mã) were Yuan dynasty generals that led unsuccessful invasions of Trần dynasty (陳朝 , Trần triều) Vietnam. There is an error in the original text; Sogetu was in fact killed and Omar captured alive.
– “conquer eastward” refers to a quote from Liu Pang (劉邦 , Lưu Bang , 256-195 BC), the founder the Han dynasty expressing his desire to conquer eastward (吾亦欲東耳，安能鬱鬱久居此乎 , Ngô diệc dục đông nhĩ, an năng uất uất cửu cư thử hồ)
– I currently do not have time to make meaningful annotations of the remaining names of people and locations in this work. The great majority of them refer to geographic locations in northern Vietnam and the personal names of various Ming dynasty officials and generals involved in the conflict. Aside from personal names and locations, this work also includes a huge number of references (many of which can be difficult to detect) to Confucian classics and previous historical events. Rather than wait to compile complete annotations of these minute details, I have decided to publish this translation first and add to the annotations as time allows, should the readership require. I hope that interested readers that are capable of reading classical Chinese or Vietnamese can assist me in this work. If there are any sections for which annotations are wanted, please write a comment expressing inquiry.
The Great Proclamation upon the pacification of Wu remains one of the most important and widely known documents in Vietnamese history. Many of my friends, none of whom know classical Chinese, can quote the opening section from memory. However, it is a mistake to present this work as an “anti-Chinese” (chống Tầu) document. Nowhere in this work does the author use the word “Chinese”, simply because the modern concept of “China” and what constitutes “Chinese” did not exist in his historical backdrop. Terms such as “Middle Kingdom” (中國 , trung quốc), “central plains” (中原 , trung nguyên) , and “divine realm” (神州 , thần châu) have been used by both Vietnamese and Chinese people to describe their own kingdoms and lands. It is worthy of note that the term “middle kingdom” (中國 , trung quốc) is not used to reference the Ming dynasty in this work. The enemy here is simply the Ming dynasty – not what is today identified as “China” or “Chinese culture”. The author’s argument that Vietnam is a state of “letters and learned men” (文獻之邦 , văn hiến chi bang) emphasizes that the Ming dynasty and Vietnam are both “civilized” states with the same shared culture, largely based on Confucian ethics. Being already civilized, Vietnam had no need for the Ming dynasty to interfere under the pretense of a civilizing mission (用華變夷 , dụng Hoa biến Di). On this note, it is important to remember that terms such as “Hua-hsia” (華夏 , Hoa Hạ) and “Han” (漢 , Hán) were used by Vietnamese authors to describe Vietnamese culture, people, language, etc. up until the 20th century. Today, the use of these terms by Vietnamese people as derogatory names for Chinese people and culture and for Vietnamese who are allegedly “slaves” to Communist China and modern Chinese culture (漢奴 , Hán nô) is inaccurate, uneducated, and offensive to our Vietnamese ancestors who took pride in identifying themselves as “Hua” (華 , Hoa) and “Han” (漢 , Hán). There are many, scholars and commoners alike, in the modern day Vietnamese community that look to the Great Proclamation as a sort of “Declaration of Independence” that firmly establishes the division between what is now called “China” and “Vietnam”. Misunderstanding the author’s intent, such people assume that his eloquent prose argues that “Chinese” culture was an essentially alien presence forcefully imposed on the Vietnamese people, who were happy to be rid therefrom. As previously mentioned, the enemy against whom Nguyễn Trãi directed his powerful writing was simply the Ming dynasty – no more, no less. For example, the author’s delineation between “north and south” is simply geographic and refers to the Ming dynasty as ruling the north while the Vietnamese have dominion over the south. If nothing else, the author’s writing shows obvious evidence of profound erudition in the ancient classics and Confucianism, the historical and cultural tradition in which Vietnam and what constitutes modern day Korea and Japan was steeped. Hence, in translating this work into English, I hope to bring to new life a fresh look on this old document for the sake of readers interested in Vietnamese studies. In particular, modern day Vietnam’s conflicts with Communist China are very hot topics in the Vietnamese community, both in Vietnam and overseas. Through this humble contribution, I hope to both affirm the morale of my countrymen, but also simultaneously remind them that the conflict between “Vietnam” and “China” is one of politics, not a “culture war”. This Nguyễn Trãi already captures beautifully in his writing.