Wednesday, September 19, 2012

When the Mongols Invaded Vietnam - A History of an Independent People

For those who do not know my grandmother, Phuong Lan and who misguidedly fall into the trap of their own prejudices or else employ irreverent condescending language towards a 'little old Vietnamese' woman, you are in for a BIG surprise.

There is nothing seemingly fierce about this peaceful, broad-faced, soft-skinned five-foot woman who enjoys the company of her little cubs (aka, her grandchildren) and demonstrates artful patience in the kitchen. But show her an ounce of disrespect or else badmouth her ancestors and you will find a woman who can defend herself. You will be subjected to a well-timed repartee whose wit is as admirable as its ability to cut to the core.

Appearances are deceptive.

When people encounter peaceful, non-boisterous others, they are tempted to judge them as weaker or else attribute their retiring demeanour to lack of ability.

In Eastern cultures especially, this attribution could not be further from the truth. Recall Lao Tzu's emphasis on seemingly soft, flowing water and its ability to carve rock over time. Strength has a different meaning in the East where one's flexibility, one's ability to 'bend' is a marker of strength.

But this should not be seen as a sign that those who bend will bend forever. The decision of whether to bend, to 'let it slide' or to fight back comes with wisdom. It comes with an evaluation of the right action to take for the greater good.

When does it become necessary to fight back?

If it is only your ego under attack: Bend. Bend.
For what is ego? Why does it matter? And would you ruin your relationships to preserve your ego?
(Though one has to discard relationships that are toxic...)

But what if your country is under attack? What if it is more than your own petty preoccupations at stake?

Since I began this post about my grandmother, I want to reflect on an impressive Vietnamese battle.
This is a battle that was fought by the Vietnamese people in the 13th century. The Battle of Bạch Đằng. It took place when the Mongols tried to invade the Vietnamese land, just as they had previously invaded most of the world and were at the time, the rulers of China.

In this battle, Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, who had since conquered the Chinese and led to the collapse of the Song Dynasty, sent the Mongol fleet to take Vietnam or what was then called, Đại Việt.

It was a mighty fleet that Kublai sent. It had 500 vessels, manned by one hundred thousand men. Please note that the Mongols did not build this fleet. They appropriated it from the Song Dynasty Chinese and initially, the Mongol navy consisted of Chinese defectors.

 Let us see what happened in this battle, when the might of the then world, came ploughing at the Đại Việt's door...

The Battle of Bạch Đằng

The painting above shows the distressed Mongol fleet after it was lured into a Vietnamese naval ambush.
It does not look good.

It turns out that The Battle of Bạch Đằng was the third invasion into the Đại Việt by the Mongols. The Mongols had been defeated twice before but they were at it again. For this third battle, Kublai Khan had entrusted victory to his general son, Toghan. "Son, do me proud!" And for the third time, the Mongols were militarily defeated by the Vietnamese Tran generals.

In a period where the Mongols stood as the uncontested leaders of the world and had subjects across many nations, the Vietnamese successfully resisted them for thirty years.

Kublai Khan was so furious upon learning of this defeat, that he banished his own son, Toghan, for life. I suppose Kublai Khan's ego was severely trampled on at this point and his reprisal is a perfect example of someone who cannot 'bend' gracefully.

In the end, however, the Tran rulers officially agreed to pay tribute as Kublai's 'subjects' if only to avoid further war which was ruining their own people. Resistance, no matter how successful, was costing lives and so the Vietnamese accepted the loss of face and chose to 'bend' for the greater good.

I enjoyed highlighting the Mongol-Vietnamese war for two reasons. On the one hand, it illustrates what happens when we undermine our opponent. In this story, the Mongols undermined the Vietnamese. Surely, it should have been easy to take the Đại Việt given their other conquests? But it was not.
This is a reminder of the strength of what we perceive as 'little' things. It is also a reminder of the endurance and determination of those who feel self-righteous in defending their own land.

The other reason for this post is that I think the Vietnamese people are not given credit for their strategic genius and their fighting spirit. I sought to highlight their amazing achievements. They are peaceful people who for years have suffered invasions and or colonialism. Yet they have proved time and time again that they will fight, and successfully so, for their independence.

The Vietnamese resistance to the Mongols in the 13th century is only one example of their spirited rise in the face of invasion. In later years, during the 15th century Ming Dynasty, Chinese emperor Zhu Di was fully aware that the Chinese invading army was not faring well in Vietnam. He ought to have known, given that his army had since appropriated samples of Vietnamese-made firearms, known then to be technologically superior than the Ming cannons. He knew long before his death that the Vietnamese would eventually win and reclaim their independence.
And he was right. In 1427, three years after Zhu Di's death, after 10 years of battling the Chinese, Vietnamese leader Le Loi defeated the Ming army and proclaimed the Đại Việt’s independence.

There is another story along those lines... The story we are all familiar with. A story where Vietnamese soldiers were pitted against the French imperialist force and then later against the greatest army in the modern world: the US military.

Of course, there were no real 'winners' in the Vietnam-US war, since war is a harbinger of loss and tragedy for all sides. But having said that, it is clear that the US, just like the Mongols before them and just like the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty, did eventually retreat.

Sometimes 'bending' is good for all.

I leave you, now with these two strong Vietnamese sisters.

The Trung sisters. Two Vietnamese women, amazon-like figures whose story you may Google, a story that was originally passed down orally for generations in Vietnam's early history. Distrust of oral tradition has given their story a legendary reputation. But we know better.

It is not legend.