AN DƯƠNG VƯƠNG (257 BC-179 BC, 78 years old)

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     AN DƯƠNG VƯƠNG (257 BC-179 BC, 78 years old) was the king and the only ruler of the kingdom of Âu Lạc, a classical antiquity state centered in the Red River Delta. As the leader of the Âu Việt tribes, he defeated the last Hùng king of the state of Văn Lang and united its people – known as the Lạc Việt – with his people the Âu Việt. An Dương Vương fled and committed suicide after the war with Nanyue forces in 179 BCE.



       The antecedents of this figure are “cloudy” since the only information provided by written accounts is his name, which appears to associate him with the ancient state of Shu in what is now Sichuan, conquered by Qin dynasty in 316 BCE.1,2 This was also the traditional view of Chinese and Vietnamese historians. However, there are some problems inherent in accepting this traditional view.3 Many chronicles including Records of the Outer Territories of the Jiao province,4 Đại Việt sử lược, Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư stated that he was Shu prince (ms. “蜀 王 子”, literal meaning: “son of the Shu king“), but they were unable to describe precisely his origin. Later historians had a more nuanced view. In Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục, the writers expressed doubts about King An Dương Vương’s origin, claiming it was impossible for a Shu prince to cross thousands of miles, through forests, many states to invade Văn Lang.5 In 1963, an oral tradition of Tày people in Cao Bằng titled “Cẩu chủa cheng vùa” was recorded. 1,6 According to this account, at the end of Hồng Bàng dynasty, there was a kingdom called Nam Cương (lit. “southern border“) in modern-day Cao Bằng and Guangxi.1 It consisted of 10 regions, in which the King resided in the central one (present-day Cao Bằng Province).The other nine regions were under the control of nine lords.7 While King An Dương Vương’s father (Thục Chế 蜀 制) died, he was still a child; yet, his intelligence enabled him to retain the throne and all the lords surrendered. Nam Cương became more and more powerful while Văn Lang became weak.1,6 Subsequently, he invaded Văn Lang and founded the state of Âu Lạc. The tale is supported by many vestiges, relics and place names in Cao Bằng Province. The assumption about his origin as a local inhabitant has also been reflected in various fairy tales, registers, worships and folk memories.

Foundation of Âu Lạc

      Prior to the Chinese domination in the region, northern and north-central Vietnam had been ruled by Lạc kings (Hùng kings) who were served by Lạc hầu and Lạc tướng.8 In approximately 257 BCE, they were annexed by the Âu Việt state of Nam Cương, who inhabited in the southern part of Zuo River, the drainage basin of You River and the upstream area of Lô River, Gâm River, and Cầu River.9,10 The leader of the Âu Việt, THỤC PHÁN, overthrew the last Hùng kings, and unified the two kingdoms under the name of Âu Lạc, proclaiming himself King An Dương (An Dương Vương).1

Construction of Cổ Loa Citadel

     King AN DƯƠNG established the capital of Âu Lạc in Tây Vu, where a fortified citadel is constructed, known to history as Cổ Loa.11 It was the first political center of the Vietnamese civilization pre-Sinitic era,12 with an outer embankment covering 600 hectares,13,14 one of the largest prehistoric settlement sites of Southeast Asia.15 The name “Cổ Loa” is Sino-Vietnamese reading of 古 螺 (< Middle Chinese (ZS) kuoX-luɑ > Standard Chinese: Gǔ Luó), literally meaning “Ancient Conch“. According to Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, the citadel is shaped like a conch,16 reflecting of the citadel’s multi-layered structure with concentric ramparts and moats.17

       The events associated with the construction of this spiral-shaped citadel have been remembered in the legend of the golden turtle. According to this legend, when the citadel was being built, all the work done during the day was mysteriously undone during the night by a group of spirits seeking to avenge for the son of the previous king.18 The local spirits were led by a thousand-year-old white chicken perched on nearby Mount Tam Đảo. The King then burnt incense, prayed, and evoked the gods to help him. In answer to his plea, a giant golden turtle suddenly emerged from the water, subdued the white chicken, and protected him until the citadel’s completion. When he departed, he gave one of his claws and instructed the King to use it as a trigger of a crossbow, with the assurance that with it he could be invincible.

       King AN DƯƠNG commissioned Cao Lỗ (or Cao Thông) to construct a crossbow and christened it “Saintly Crossbow of the Supernaturally Luminous Golden Claw” (nỏ thần), which one shot could killed 300 men.8,18 According to historian K. W. Taylor, the crossbow, along with the word for it, seems to have been introduced into China from Austroasiatic peoples in the south during the third or fourth century BCE.18 It quickly became part of the Chinese arsenal; its trigger mechanism was capable of withstanding high pressure and of releasing an arrow with more force than any other type of bow. Two bronze trigger mechanisms have been excavated in Vietnam; most mechanisms were probably made of bamboo.

War with Nanyue

      In 204 BCE, in Panyu (now Guangzhou), ZHAO TUO, a native of Zhending,19,20 in the state of Zhao (modern-day Hebei), established the kingdom of Nanyue.21 TAYLOR (1983) believed during the time when Nanyue and Âu Lạc co-existed, Âu Lạc temporarily acknowledged the suzerainty of Nanyue, but rather than implying that Nanyue exerted any real authority over them, this simply represented their mutual anti-Han sentiment. As peaceful relations with Han were restored, Nanyue’s influence over Âu Lạc lapsed. The army Zhao Tuo had created to oppose the Han was now available to deploy against the Âu Lạc.22

      The details of the campaign are not authentically recorded. Zhao Tuo‘s early setbacks and eventual victory against King An Dương were mentioned in Records of the Outer Territories of the Jiao province.4 Records of the Grand Historian mentioned neither King An Duong nor Zhao Tuo’s military conquest of Âu Lạc; just that after Empress Lü’s death (180 BCE), ZHAO TUO used his own troops to menace and used wealth to bribe the Minyue, the Western Ou, and the Luo into submission.23 However, the campaign inspired a legend whose theme is the transfer of the turtle claw-triggered crossbow from King An Duong to Zhao Tuo. According to this legend, ownership of the crossbow conferred the political power: “He who is able to hold this crossbow rules the realm; he who is not able to hold this crossbow will perish.”24,25,26

       Unsuccessful on the battlefield, ZHAO TUO asked for a truce and sent his son Zhong Shi to submit to King An Dương to serve him.27,25 There, he and King An Duong’s daughter, MỴ CHÂU, fell in love and were married.25,28 A vestige of the matrilocal organization required the husband to live in the residence of his wife’s family.29 As a result, they resided at An Duong’s court until Zhong Shi managed to discover the secrets and strategies of King An Dương.29 Meanwhile, King AN DUONG treated Cao Lỗ disrespectfully, and he abandoned him.30

       ZHONG SHI had Mỵ Châu show him the sacred crossbow, at with point he secretly changed its trigger, neutralizing its special powers and rendering it useless.28 He then asked to return to his father, who thereupon launched new attack on Âu Lạc and this time defeated King An Dương.29 History records that, in his defeat, the King jumped into the ocean to commit suicide. In some versions, he was told by the turtle about his daughter’s betrayal and killed his daughter for her treachery before killing himself. A legend, however, discloses that a golden turtle emerged from the water and guided him into the watery realm.25 There is also a tradition that King fled south to the modern-day Nghệ An Province, building a new citadel and ruled until his death.31

        From the archaeological findings of Cổ Loa, it is posible that military technologies from the Warring States had been transferred to the region with a range of weapons analogous to contemporary armies in China, suggesting that the supernatural crossbow may have been a type of “new model army” trained and commanded by Cao Thông, which was “no longer effective” without his instruction.32


     Vietnamese historians typically view the main events of this era as having roots in historical fact. However interpretation and reconciliation of the history of the period has been set in, and sometimes against, the history of Soviet interpretation of history.33 The capital of King An Dương, CỔ LOA, was the first political center of the Vietnamese civilization pre-Sinitic era.12 The site consists of two outer sets of ramparts and a citadel on the inside, of rectangular shape. The moats consist of a series of streams, including the Hoang Giang River and a network of lakes that provided Cổ Loa with protection and navigation.34 Kim estimated the population of Co Loa possibly ranged from 5,000 to around 10,000 inhabitants.35


  1. TAYLOR 1983, p. 19.
  2. TERRY F. KLEEMAN 1998, p. 24.
  3. O’HARROW 1979, p. 148.
  4. As quoted in Li Daoyuan’s Commentary on the Water Classic,Vol. 37
  5. Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục (欽 定 越 史 通 鑑 綱 目)
  6. ĐÀO DUY ANH 2016, p. 30.
  7. ĐÀO DUY ANH 2016, p. 29.
  8. KELLEY 2014, p. 88.
  9. ĐÀO DUY ANH 2016, p. 31.
  10. DEMATTÈ 2015, p. 622-624.
  11. TAYLOR 2013, p. 14.
  12. MIKSIC & YIAN 2016, p. 111.
  13. MIKSIC & YIAN 2016, p. 156.
  14. KIM, LAI & TRINH 2010, p. 1013.
  15. KIM 2020, p. 231.
  16. NGÔ SĨ LIÊN et al., Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn ThưAn Dương Vương” quote: “王 於 是 築 城 于 越 裳,廣 千 丈,盤 旋如 螺 形 故 號 螺 城” tr: “The King then built a citadel at Việt Thường, one-thousand-zhàng wide, whirling and swirling like the shape of a conch. Therefore, it was called Conch Citadel.”
  17. KIERNAN, BEN (2017). Việt Nam: a history from earliest time to the present. Oxford University Press. p. 34.
  18. TAYLOR 1983, p. 21.
  19. WATSON 1961, p. 239.
  20. YU 1986, pp. 451–452.
  21. LOEWE 1986, p. 128.
  22. TAYLOR 1983, p. 24.
  23. WATSON 1961, p. 241.
  24. NAM C. KIM 2015, p. 5.
  25. TAYLOR 1983, p. 25.
  26. GEORGE E. DUTTON 2006, p. 70.
  27. LEEMING 2001, p. 193.
  28. KELLEY 2014, p. 89.
  29. TAYLOR 2013, p. 15.
  30. TAYLOR 2013, p. 16.
  31. TAYLOR 1983, p. 317.
  32. TAYLOR 2013, pp. 16-17.
  33. PATRICIA M. PELLEY – Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past – Page 50 2002 “who relied more on the work of Lenin — most notably Trần Quốc Vượng, Hà Văn Tấn, and Phan Huy Lê – published two pathbreaking studies, Primitive Communism and The History of Feudalism, from which they conspicuously omitted the …..proceeding instead directly from primitive communism to feudalism. Inspired by Lenin’s assertions regarding the Slavic countries, historians at the university insisted that beginning with the Hùng kings and the kingdom of Văn Lang… during the reign of An Dương Vương, who ruled the kingdom of Âu Lạc, and through the early stages of the Chinese occupation (from 2879 BC to 43 AD, in other words) Vietnamese society was based on primitive communism
  34. HIGHAM 1996, p. 122.
  35. KIM 2015, p. 219-220.


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6 /2021

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