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VN Water Culture
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Vietnam Water Culture

Vietnam and the Origins of the Water Civilization

The Indigenous of the Eastern Sea

Living by the Eastern Sea, Vietnamese are all-around naturally seamen. In the contrary with the Chinese nature, Vietnamese have always been considered as the experts in the arts of naval warfare and maritime transportation since the very ancient time.

The Han Chinese wrote of southerners Viet people as follows "The Yủeh people by nature a indolent and undisciplined. They travel to remote places by water and use boats as we use carts and oars as we use horses. When they come (north - to attack) they float along and when they leave (withdraw) they are hard to follow. They enjoy fighting and are not afraid to die." (See "Eighth Voyage of the Dragon", Bruce Swanson, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1982, page 11-12).

The vessels of the Yủeh in the Warring States period, however, were not all naval, and we can be sure that there were trading expeditions at least along the coasts of Siberia, Korea and Indochina. There were also some explorations of the Pacific itself. And of course, as ever, inland water transport. (See Needham, Joseph, Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-Djen, "Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology, part III: Civil Engineering and Nautics" Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1971, Page 441)

The off-shore ships of the Tonking (North Vietnam) Area were surprisingly big and so technically advanced for the Chinese observations. A 3rd-century text of capital importance does so, however. It occurs in the Nan Chou I Wu Chih (Strange Things of the South), written by Wan Chen, and run as follows:

The people of foreign parts (wai yu jen) call chhuan (ships) po. The large ones are more than 20 chang in length (up to 150 ft.), and stand out of the water 2 or 3 chang (about 15 to 23 ft.). At a distance they look like 'flying galleries' (ko tao) and they can carry from 600 to 700 persons, with 10,000 bushels (hu) of cargo.

The people beyond the barriers (wai chiao jen), according to the sizes of their ships, sometimes rig (as many as) four sails, which they carry in a row from bow to stern. From the leaves of the lu-thou tree, which have the shape of 'yung', and are more 1 chang (about 7.5 ft.) long, they weave the sails.

The four sails do not face directly forwards. but are set obliquely, and so arranged that they can all be fixed in the same direction, to receive the wind and to spill it (Chhi ssu fan pu cheng chhien hsiang, chieh shih hsieh i hsiang chu, i chhufeng chhui feng ). Those (sails which are) behind (the most windward one) (receiving the) pressure (of the wind), throw it from one to the other, so that they all profit from its force (Hou che chi erh hsiang she, i ping te feng li). If it is violent, they (the sailors) diminish or augment (the sails) to receive from one another the breath of the wind, obviates the anxiety attendant upon having high masts. Thus (these ships) sail without avoiding strong winds and dashing waves, by the aid of which they can make great speed."

This indeed a striking passage. It establishes without any doubt that in the +3rd century southerners, whether Cantonese or Annamese, were using four-masted ships with matting sails in a fore-and-aft rig of some kind. The Indonesian canted square-sail is not absolutely excluded, but it would be unwieldy on a vessel with several masts, and some kind of tall balanced lug-sail seem much more probable. (See Needham, Joseph, Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-Djen, "Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology, part III: Civil Engineering and Nautics" Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1971, Page 600-601.)

Viet Nam is a maritime country. None of the plains on which the great bulk of the population is concentrated lies very far from the coast.

"The sea therefore is constantly present in Vietnamese life. Its products, salt and fish, play a vital role in the diet. The legendary emperors who founded the Vietnamese monarchy are said to have had their thighs tattooed with sea monsters in order to ensure a victorious return from their fishing expeditions. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries English agents sent to Viet Nam by the East India Company acknowledged that the Vietnamese were the best sailors in the Far East. Even more than the often narrow coastal corridor of Central Viet Nam, the sea represents the main line of communication between north and south- it is therefore an essential element of Vietnamese National unity in the economic sphere." (Jean Chesneaux "The Vietnamese Nation - Contribution To A History, Translated by Malcolm Salmon, Current Book Distributors Pty. Ltd. Sydney, 1966)

Western merchants also testified to the hospitality of the Vietnamese. By the old tradition of the sailors, they have especially expressed the genuine kindness towards other mariners, as described in a memo on trade with this region written probably between 1690 and 1700:

When a vessel is shipwrecked, it get a better welcome (in Cochinchina) than anywhere else.. Ships come out from shore to salvage the equipment; nets are used to recover merchandise which has fallen overboard. In fact, no effort is spared to put the ship back into good condition. (See Taboulet, "La geste franẫaise en Indochine." Paris, 1955, Vol. 1, p. 87.)

Like his fellow Jesuits Ricci and de Nobili in China and India, de Rhodes never looked on the oriental Vietnamese as "underdeveloped" or even as just plain hungry, benightedly awaiting the benefits of Western technocracy and superior social structures. (See Rhodes Of Vietnam, The Travels and Missions of Father Alexander de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient, Translated by Solange Hertz, The Newman Press - Westminster, Maryland, 1966.)

Two years before the "Mayflower" put ashore at Massachusetts, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Cristoforo Borri (the same Father Borri, have mentioned above), landed with brother missionaries in Faifo, a Vietnamese port located near the present city of Danang in Central Vietnam. (The Portuguese called all of Vietnam below the 18th parallel Cochinchina; they called the people Cochinchinese, to distinguish them from the Chinese of China proper.)

Father Borri came as a friend and was so received by Vietnamese. This delightful mathematician expressed great enthusiasm for the local inhabitants, even commenting on the women’s feminine charms! Extolling their attire, he wrote that "though decent, it is so becoming that one believes one is witnessing a gracious flowering springtime." (See Georges Taboulet, "La geste Franẫaise en Indochine," Paris, 1955, p. 59.)

The record he left compares the people with those of China, where his journeys for the faith had also taken him. To his evident delight, he found the Cochinchinese truly hospitable and "superior to the Chinese in their wit and courage" (See Helen B. Lamb, "Vietnam’s Will to Live - Resistance to Foreign Aggression from Early Times Through the Nineteenth Century", Monthly Review Press, New York and London, 1972.)



Viet or Yueh -The undauntable seafaring people

"A seafaring people," C. P. Fitzgerald had written in The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People, "the Yủeh fought against the incorporation in new empires." To this day, "in Kwangtung, the homeland of the 'Cantonese' retains their distinctive character and restless attitude toward northern rule," he wrote; for "the main constituent of the population of Kwangtung and also in Fukien is a stock originally-non-Chinese and largely Yủeh."

Who were these people? "The Yủeh people, from whom the old kingdom had taken its name, were in ancient times wide-spread along the coast of eastern Asia.... Vietnam is the modern center of the Yủeh, and the word Viet is simply the local pronunciation of the Chinese form Yủeh," Fitzgerald said. "The more northerly Yủeh were annexed by the Han empire and lost their national identity, although it is probable that a very large proportion of the present inhabitants of Fukien and Kwangtung are descendants of this people.

These seafaring people were among the masters of the seas. From the beginning of known history, the "coastal people turned to the sea, as long tradition suggested," wrote Fitzgerald. "They had, probably before the Christian age, moved south across the sea." And " the pattern of Chinese emigration therefore settled, at a time which has not been fully recorded, into a shape which it has retained until modern times."

It may have been these traditions that made them so self-reliant and independent. They fought foreign invasions with the same resilience with which they fought the storms at sea. (Fusang, The Chinese Who Built America, Stan Steiner, New York, 1979, p.70-71.)



Cochinchinese- The boldest Seamen

Under the observation of George Windsor Earl, of England,  the South Vietnamese or so-called Cochinese Mariners were the boldest Seamen of the world. He wrote in his diary:

The weather continued very indifferent during the remainder of the passage. On the 27th, when near the entrance of Singapore Straits, we fell in with six Cochin Chinese prahus, similar to that which we had seen at Tringanu. Although exposed to a severe squall, these brave fellows were carrying all sail on their little vessels, and seemed determined to start nothing. Our Chinese jerratulis watched them for some time in silent admiration, and at last he cried out- "Ah ! dia brani berlayer itu orang Cochin China "-"they are bold seamen those Cochin Chinese ;" and indeed they may be so pronounced when compared with the Chinese themselves. I do not know how the Cochin Chinese would behave on board square-rigged ships, but they work their little vessels in a manner that would not disgrace the best European seamen. These prahus, none of which exceeded fifty tons burden, had beat down the China sea against the monsoon. a feat which a Company's ship would scarcely have attempted twenty years ago.

The Cochin-Chinese are deservedly great favourites with those who are well acquainted with them, and from their liveliness and vivacity, they have often been compared with the French. In their commercial intercourse with Singapore, they have to struggle against many disadvantages. In the first place the selfish government of their country not permitting a foreign trade, they are consequently, when engaged in this forbidden pursuit, obliged to steal away and risk all their little property, and probably their lives also and being unable to procure arms, become the favourite prey of the cowardly Malay pirates, many of them, perhaps to the annual amount of one hundred and fifty, being killed or taken., within a day's sail of our settlement at Singapore... (See: The Eastern Seas On Voyages and Advantures in the Indian Archipelago, in 1832-33-34, George Windsor Earl, London 1837, - Reprint: The Eastern Seas, Oxford U. Press, 1971.)

(to be continued)