Giáng long thôi sơn (“Descending dragon presses the mountain”)—Vietnamese martial artists training amidst Cham ruins in Bình Định of southcentral Vietnam. Source:  ZingNews.


***Greetings!  What follows is the first installment in a short series discussing the martial arts and martial culture of Vietnam.Trần Khải Hoài is a talented young scholar who I had the pleasure of getting to know while I was a Visiting Scholar at Cornell. He is also a dedicated martial artists who shares our passion for the academic exploration of these topics. I have been thinking about the Vietnamese martial arts community for some time, so I was very pleased when he approached me about the possibility of contributing a couple of guest posts on the topic. It is my hope that this will get the ball rolling as scholars increasingly turn their attention to another, even more southern, martial arts community.***


Views from the South

By Trần Khải Hoài

‘O soul, come back!  In the south you cannot stay.
There the people have tattooed faces and blackened teeth;
They sacrifice flesh of men and pound their bones for meat paste.
There the venomous cobra abounds, and the great fox that can run a hundred leagues,
And the great nine-headed serpent, who darts swiftly this way and that,
And swallows men as a sweet relish.
O soul, come back!  In the south you may not linger.’
                                               —Song Yu (fl. 277–263 B.C.E.)[1]

Of keen interests for readers of this blog has been questing for ways to imagine southern Chinese martial arts in particular and positioning Chinese martial arts more broadly across time, spaces, and societies.  Sometimes during this journey about history, states, and peoples, it is helpful to reorient our bearings.  In light of this, I thought it befitting to reflect on the view from the peripheral south: Việt Nam.

What kind of place is the peripheral south?  In the above poem from Songs of the South, Song Yu impresses us with quite harrowing a world inhabited by tattooed, black-toothed men of the wilds cavorting among strange and awesome beasts.  The South is no place for holiday.  On the contrary, for Song Yu’s “Summoning the Soul,” a funerary song incanted by a female shaman, the South is literally hell.  The power of the shaman’s spell is that, as she casts her gaze out towards the remote periphery, her voice bellows from the sanctuary of a centered realm, where men do not cure human flesh and snakes have only one head.  Her call resounds with the centripetal tug of civilization that beckons the wildered soul to seek refuge in the Middle Kingdom of the Central Plains, in this case the state of Chu along the Yangtze River south (Jiangnan).       

Still, as the shaman espies the southern horizons, her gaze belies her own enchantment.  The south effuses its own allure marked by wonderment and awe.  If the north could be stable, civil, and safe, then the south could be adventurous, exotic, and seductive.  In the medieval Chinese imagination, the remote south evoked all sorts of exotica from frightful miasmic (malarial) rains, meteoric thunder axes, elephant-swallowing serpents, and manslaying crabs “capable of fighting a tiger” to the captivating beauty of coy maidens gathering water lilies (the fabled Xi Shi among them), numinous turtles, night-shining moon pearls, and the so-called Bird of Yue/Việt (i.e., peacock).[2]  


Southeast Asia 1000–1100: The yellow region indicates the former Champa Empire, while  Great Yue/Việt is in blue. Source: Wikimedia.


The name of the latter fowl begs pause for some reflection about nomenclature.  “Yue” and “Việt” are different pronunciations of a single lexical item, the first being Mandarin and the second Vietnamese.  In the Sinitic literary tradition, “Yue/Việt” encompassed various regions of the Yangtze River’s south, at first the lower Yangtze River Delta but, by the second century before the common era, also the regions of Fujian, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Việt Nam.  For a millennium, connotations and associations of “Yue/Việt” continued to add new layers to the medieval core of the Sinitic literary tradition.  “Chinese” and “Vietnamese” polities may have gone their separate ways in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but they continued to share a literary heritage, including the accreted meanings of “Yue/Viẹt.”[3]  Indeed, the now familiar differentiation between the Sinographs for Cantonese 粵 and Vietnamese 越 was not completely systematized until well into the twentieth century.  (And by then literate Vietnamese were already making the switch from Sinographs to French and Vietnamese romanization).    

Medieval Chinese views of the Yue/Việt south as revealed in ancient odes like “Summoning the Soul” betray an otherizing gaze.  Yue/Việt did not denote a geographic space so much as it signified an elusive beyond, the “out there,” where Chinese civilization fades away in increasing gradations toward an ever-distant south.  In this sense, Yue/Việt does not suggest a geographic space as much as a liminal space, a transition zone between cultured humanity and animalian wilderness.  This is one reason, in addition to their watery environs, that Yue/Việt peoples of the lower Yangtze were described as aquatic creatures with fishlike or reptilian tattoos living among seductive serpents and nine-tailed foxes (or shapeshifters of such visage).[4]


Image circa 1908 of woman with turban and blackened teeth at Yên Bái in Tonkin of French Indochina.  Source: Wikimedia.


Yet, there is a semblance of truth behind northern visions of the Yue/Việt south.  Austroasiatic and Austronesian peoples south of the Yangtze actually did tattoo their bodies and pursue maritime or riverine livelihoods.  Water dominated their views of both themselves and their domain.  For them, even the afterlife could be a waterscape navigated by canoe-shaped coffins.[5]  (And in one case, at least, royalty actually did inter the dead with human sacrifices).[6]  In fact, today, water continues to abound in the landscape, culture, and idioms of the people of southern China and Vietnam.[7]  In some remote places, “Yue/Việt” peoples can still be found with apotropaic tattoos and teeth blackened from areca nut and betel leaves.  Sometimes urban spaces, too, accord with old views of the south.  For instance, in Việt Nam today, it is still customary for high school and college maidens to dress up and stage photoshoots of themselves bashfully plucking lotus blossoms in what has become almost a rite of passage.  

What does all this mean for southern Chinese martial arts?  By way of example, let us revisit a figure who has frequented these pages before, the Maiden of Yue/Việt.  Dr. Judkins has previously provided us with Stephen Selby’s translation of this tale from Zhao Ye’s (fl. 1st–2nd C.) Spring and Autumns of Wu and Yue.  I retranslate an excerpt below. My work is not superior, but my rendering brings into relief certain elements conducive to our discussion.

[King of Yue/Viẹt’s strategist said], “Now I have heard that in Yue/Việt is a virgin girl who emerged from the southern forests.  The kingdom’s people regard her as excellent.  I pray that the king invite her so that you may see her stand [before you].”  

King of Yue/Việt then sent and emissary to arrange for her and inquire of the arts of the sword and dagger-axe spear.  

The virgin girl went north to present herself to the king.  On the way, she encountered an old man, who called himself Mr. Yuan.  He inquired of the virgin girl, “I have heard that the master excels at the sword.[8]  I wish to see it just once.”

The lass said, “Your lady does not dare conceal what she has.  Sir, just test me.”

Thereupon, Mr. Yuan drew a large, thinly leafed stalk of bamboo.  The top of the bamboo stalk was dry and stale.  Its end snapped off and dropped to the ground.  The lass immediately snatched the branch up.  Mr. Yuan wielded the stalk and thrust at the virgin girl.  The virgin girl received him, immediately closing in.  Three times she closed in, raising her stick to strike Mr. Yuan.[9]  Mr. Yuan then flew atop a tree, transforming into a white gibbon, and took off.[10]       

When [the maiden] appeared before the king, the Yue/Việt king asked, “As for the Way of the sword, what is it like?”

The lass said, “Your lady was born within the depths of the forest.  I matured in the wilderness absent of men.  There is no Way that I failed to practice.  Without attaining to feudal nobles, I secretly loved the Way of striking.  I mastered it restlessly until it was second-nature.  Your lady, without ever receiving it from any person, suddenly, naturally possessed it.”[11]

Maiden of Yue.  Today, such romantic images of the maiden owe much to Jin Yong’s short story about her, “Sword of the Yue Maiden” and its cinematic spinoffs. Source: Xuehua Xinwen (Snowflake News).


Thereafter, the maiden proceeds to explicate her thoughts on swordsmanship.  Personally, I am skeptical of attempts to identify a style of second century swordsmanship based on this passage (omitted here, see Selby).  As Erik Zurcher described decades ago, specialist knowledge in China often becomes differentiated only at elite or institutional peaks that emerge from a common cultural base.[12]  Expressions like yin-yangjing-shen (essence and spirit), and men-hu (gates and doors) can be readily found at the foot of China’s cultural mountainscape.  Accessing these items from a shared “cultural repertoire” does not in itself constitute a distinct method of swordplay.[13]  Furthermore, sometimes Chinese terms can sound more esoteric in translation than in their source language.  We can render tianqi “Qi of Heaven,” but simply calling it “weather” is fine, too.  Such processes often tell us more about the target language’s audience and the lives such operations are intended to italicize than they elucidate meanings for people of a distant past.  All in all, I have to say that looking for tangible sword techniques in the Maiden of Yue/Việt’s speech is about as substantiative as seeking ancient schools of ox-cutting and carpentry in Zhuangzi’s butcher and wheelwright.            

But as far as we might allow that the Maiden of Yue/Việt’s words do reflect her vision of swordplay, we must also take seriously her rustic self-introduction.  We cannot help but notice that the king and the lass seem to be talking past one another.  The king asked about pedagogy and method, but, for the maiden, swordsmanship is just fun.  Students of Austronesian martial arts in Southeast Asia such as those of the Cham, whose contributions to Vietnamese martial arts are as legion as they are left uncredited, will quickly recognize in the maiden’s words the role of flow and play for these arts in waking up the inherent, natural fighting movements of the human condition.  However historically specious, this observation begins to arrive at the heart of the issue.  It is in this tenuous intercourse between the “cultured” Sinitic north and the organic “wild” south that the meaning of “Yue/Việt” becomes apparent.  Thus, what interests me about this story is not whether it says anything about tactile motions of the sword but rather its suggestion of movement from the southern periphery to a conceptual civilized center up north.  In other words, the story speaks to the circulation of peoples, cultures, and ideas.    

With our eyes keen to such movement, the first thing that strikes us is that the maiden is not actually from Yue/Việt, but rather the depths of an unnamed southern forest.[14]  Only after she fully matures does she emerge from this wilderness to inhabit Yue/Việt and, eventually, venture further north for audience with the king.  Considering that, in the fifth century B.C.E., the ancient state of Yue/Việt at the lower Yangtze River was at the far reaches of Chinese civilization, the maiden’s origin is literally off the map.  Described as a virgin girl (chunǚ), she is immaculate and pristine, an elusive creature of an untamed periphery who belongs among the seductive, shape-shifting tree sprites, serpents, nine-tailed-foxes, and simian transcendents of the far south.  She is an enigma, relentlessly unattached and yet eternally available.  She eschews noble suitors and, only after the king “arranges for her,”[15] does she allow herself to be adopted as a “Daughter of Yue.”  Finally, when the king demands of her discursive tactics and practical techniques, the virgin girl only responds in the poetic (and, therefore, mystical) language that Dr. Selby has so inimitably captured.  Absent men, it is the only language she knows.       

What we see then in the story of the Maiden of Yue/Việt is the tentative domestication of the periphery and the concomitant infusion of remote mystery into a disciplined center.  Yue/Việt is thus a transformative space, where southern exotica meet the civilizing forces of the north.

The transfer of talent and knowledge in the story from south to north implies that the South could become its own center.  Indeed, this was the case.  Even before medieval times, Yue/Việt southerners transmitted Buddhism and medical knowhow to the north.[16]  In another particularly instructive instance, the Ming compelled a Vietnamese prince to train northerners in the art of artillery.[17]  Over time, this southern center grew increasingly distant from the north’s.  At first, Yue/Việt referred to an independent state just south of the lower Yangtze, roughly the area around Tai Lake with its center at Shaoxing, Zhejiang (where our swordswoman alighted).  With the rise of the Han Dynasty, this center shifted further south with the emergence of two Yue/Việt kingdoms that coexisted with Han, Min-Yue or Eastern Yue in Fujian and Southern Yue/Việt in the Pearl River Delta.  The latter was established by a diehard Qin general who ruled from Panyu over the regions of modern Guangdong, Guangxi, and northern Vietnam.[18]  

The Han eventually succeeded in conquering both Yue/Việt kingdoms by 111 B.C.E.  Nevertheless, it is worth musing about what may have come to be had they persisted, especially as it concerns Southern Yue/Việt.  There may be no “what ifs” in history, but sometimes such fantasies can shake us from retrospective bias.  As much as anyone may be inclined to behold the imperial legacy of the Han Dynasty as the cultural fodder that, after centuries of warring among disparate kingdoms, rekindled northern empire in the name of Sui and Tang, so one must also allow that the memory of Southern Yue/Việt coalesced in the eleventh century with the resurfacing of a new dynastic tradition in the Red River Delta of the far south, Great Yue/Việt.     


“Chinese Regular”—A member of the Black Flags, a bandit group that occupied sections of the Black and Red rivers in the later half of the 19th C. Source:  Charles-Edouard Hocquard, Une Campagne Au Tonkin (Paris: Hachette, 1892), 91.


Great Yue/Việt was a prime site for cultural alchemy, where Sinitic civilization met the “untamed” Việt and Mường peoples of the far south.  Even after Great Yue/Viẹt emerged as a sustained independent polity early in the eleventh century, “Vietnamese” ruling elites continued to speak a local dialect of Chinese as the prestige language for another three centuries, and they perpetuated their sense of cultured Efflorescence (Hua/Hoa) up through the modern era.[19]  It is not hard to understand why Hanoi like the maiden’s Yue of the past had its own West Lake and attendant lore about magic swords, reptilian spirits, elemental sprites, and nine-tailed foxes.[20]  Even as far south as the Mekong plains, Cantonese Yue from southern China, who sojourned and settled at Hà Tiên at the farthest reaches of Vietnamese empire, found common ground with their Việt interlocutors in their self-representation as “fish-dragons” of the South.[21]

But allusion to Yue/Việt of old could be provocative, too.  Great Việt imagined herself in the likeness of Southern Yue/Việt, and this always ran the risk of stirring trepidation in the North about the South’s dynastic pretensions.  Imperial China could brook only one emperor under heaven just as the sky would harbor but one sun.  That the movement of culture could reverse to course from an impertinent, “wild” South and upset the North’s centrality was anathema to Chinese empire.  This is why Ming power brokers launched a “decivilizing mission” to recast Great Yue/Việt as a backwater in the sixteenth century (we don’t have to worry about the Việt if they’re irredeemable fishy savages), and a Qing emperor took offense when, in 1802, a Vietnamese prince had the gall to declare himself the emperor of Southern Yue/Việt (the prince yielded and instead called his kingdom Yue/Việt South or Việt Nam).[22]

This is why visions of Yue/Việt matter to the martial arts of southern China, formerly the domains of Southern Yue (Cantonese) and Eastern Min-Yue (Fujianese).[23]  Yue/Việt is the locus of cultural negotiation between peoples of the north and south.  Regular readers of this blog would surely recognize the north-south circulation of cultures and peoples in these pages.  For instance, we see this dynamic at play in the lives of southbound masters, (including Leung Gee, a son of Leung Jan, and Yuen Chai Wan, both of whom taught Wing Chun to Yue/Cantonese migrants in Vietnam),[24] action films like Grandmaster (2013) and Final Master (2015), and the mainland’s angst that unruly ideas from the far south might upset the order up north.  In this sense, recent re-imaginings of the Little Dragon are only one more iteration of the Maiden of Yue/Việt.


 “Chinese Pirates”—river pirates in Tuyên Quang circa 1884. Source:  Charles-Edouard Hocquard, Une Campagne Au Tonkin (Paris: Hachette, 1892), 417.


Finally, consideration of the accreted, multivocal meanings of Yue/Việt invites us to think in terms of circulation rather than transmission.  Ultimately, stories like that of the Maiden of Yue/Việt are just snapshots of a larger phenomenon.  When we cast our gaze more broadly to those places, layered over time, that saw waves of northern “Chinese” migration and sojourns to lands inhabited by Austroasiatic and Austronesian peoples and subsequently came to be called Yue/Việt, we see a Yue/Việt littoral world that ranges across the coasts of southeastern China (Fujian, Guangdong, Hong Kong) and the Tonkin floodplains (Red River Delta, Mã River Basin) to the former maritime empire of Champa (Hội An, Đà Nẵng, Qúy Nhỡn, Phan Rang, etc.), the once Khmer Mekong Delta (Sàigòn), and the Cantonese founded entrepot of Hà Tiền.  From this purview, Yue/Việt becomes not only the place of contact between Sinitic civilization and the southern periphery, but it is also that of continental southeast Asian and the larger oceanic world.  From the vantage of the sea, Vietnam and southeastern China are but one circuit in the maritime coursings of the Pacific, and this implies that Yue/Việt entails a different kind of periphery, those shores lapped upon by the cultural and human waves of the seagoing world.[25]  

As such, can we reimagine Yue/Việt martial arts, including their subset of southern Chinese martial arts, as “Chinese circulations” that moved through Southeast Asian waters alongside a host of commodities, cultural manifestations, and their human vectors?[26]  For example, looking to other tales, can we see instead of the transmission of martial arts from Fujian (Fuzhou) to Ryukyu through Chinese seafarers their circulationthrough the overlapping, multidirectional currents that coursed the (predominantly Austronesian) Asian Pacific?  Can we see in these “Min-Yue” (Minnanese) the fish-dragons who interacted with their Okinawan counterparts, encountered participants of sprawling, stateless maritime networks (or, if you prefer, pirates), and alighted in distant places like say, Hội An, the former Cham turned Vietnamese entrepot that once received vast numbers of Japanese and other foreign seafarers?[27]  And if so, then how did (and do) Yue/Việt martial artists’ experiences with the sea create networks that like the Cham Whale God of the Southern Seas circle across oceans to bridge so-called Boat People and Yue/Việt diasporic communities with peoples of their homelands?


 Song long xuat hai—“Twin dragons emerge from the sea.” Source: ZingNews

[1] Liu Xiang, et. al., Chʻu Tzʻŭ: The Songs of the South, an Ancient Chinese Anthology, trans. David Hawkes, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 104.  Although the poem’s authorship is debatable, it is traditionally attributed to Song Yu.

[2] Edward Schafer, The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 83, 130–131, 153, 160, 169–170, 209, 215, 225, 237.

[3] Ibid., 4–7; Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BCE–50 CE (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 35–39.

[4] Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue, 173, 186–187.

[5] Ibid., 88–91, 164–168.

[6] Ibid., 210.

[7] Huỳnh Sanh Thông, “The Vietnamese Worldview: Water, Water Everywhere” Vietnam Review 2 (1997): 16–97.

[8] It was reported elsewhere on this blog that Stephen Selby’s text uses “stick” as a euphemism for sword.  This was not the case in all versions of the text that I have consulted; they consistently use jian.

[9] As is the case with English, the Chinese can be read to mean both “she closed in, raising her stick, and struck Mr. Yuan” and “she closed in, raising her stick to strike at Mr. Yuan.”

[10] Zhao Ye surely chose the name of the old stranger because his surname Yuan puns with the word for gibbon.  “White ape” is a more conventional translation than “white gibbon,” and, perhaps, more befitting a blog about martial arts, since White Ape is a well-known style of kung fu.  However, in the context of periphery, the smaller, tree dwelling gibbons of southwest China and Southeast Asia are better in light of the gibbon’s geography and literary function as a creature of mystery.  Edward Schafer, Vermillion Bird, 231.

[11] Zhao Ye, Xinyi Wu Yue chunqiu, ed. Huang Rensheng and Li Zhenxing (Taibei: Sanmin shudian, 1996), 305–306.  For netizens, reliable source text can be found at Chinese Text Projectedited by Donald Sturgeon. 

[12] Erik Zürcher, “Buddhist Influence on Early Taoism: A Survey of Scriptural Evidence,” T’oung Pao 66, no. 1 (1980): 146.

[13] Robert Ford Campany, “On the Very Idea of Religions (In the Modern West and in Early Medieval China),” History of Religions 42, no. 4 (2003): 317–319.

[14] Song commentators located the southern forest in Shanyin District (now part of Shaoxing, Zhejiang).  However, by Song times the “Yue/Việt” South had already shifted to the Pearl River and the Red River Deltas, so the literary connotation of periphery implied by “southern forest” was lost to them.  Instead, they tried to find it in the vicinity of Ancient Yue’s old capital Kuaji (Shaoxing).  Zhao Ye, Xinyi Wu Yue chunqiu, 307.

[15] Zhao Ye, a skillful writer, repeatedly implies courtship of the maiden through suggestive diction; here, his use of pin can mean “enlist,” but, in Ye’s day, it was also commonly used to arrange a marriage.

[16] C. Michele Thompson, “Selections from Miraculous Drugs of the South, by the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk-physician Tuệ Tĩnh,” in Buddhism and Medicine: an Anthology of Premodern Sources, ed. Pierce C. Salguero (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 561–568.

[17] Kathlene Baldanza, Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 65, 71.

[18] Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue, 92–111.

[19] K.W. Taylor, “Vietnamese Geopolitical Constraints,” LIMES 8 (2015),

[20] To folks curious about Hanoi’s place in Yue/Viet lore, I recommend chapter two of my forthcoming dissertation.

[21] Claudine Ang, Poetic Transformations: Eighteenth-century Cultural Projects on the Mekong Plains (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 145–161.

[22] Kathlene Baldanza, Ming China and Vietnam, 1–4, 102–106.

[23] Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue, 92–111.

[24] Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015), 174, 198.

[25] Li Tana, “A View from the Sea: Perspectives on the Northern and Central Vietnamese Coast,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 1 (2006): 83-102.

[26] Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-Chin Chang, “Introduction: The Arc of Historical Commercial Relations

between China and Southeast Asia,” in Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia, ed. Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-Chin Chang (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1–17.

[27] On Vietnamese piracy, see: Stefan Eklöf Amirell, “Indochina,” in Pirates of Empire: Colonisation and Maritime Violence in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 161–208; Robert J. Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2003), 38–43; ________, “Turbulent Waters: Sea Raiding in Early Modern South East Asia,” The Mariner’s Mirror 99, no. 1 (2013): 23-38; George E. Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), 219–227; Dian H. Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 6–56.  For Hội An (Faifo), see: Charles Wheeler, “Re-thinking the Sea in Vietnamese History: Littoral Society in the Integration of Thuận Quảng, Seventeenth–Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 1 (2006): 123–153.  Charles Wheeler has written extensively about Hội An.  Netizens may want to see his “Maritime Logic to Vietnamese History? Littoral Society in Hoi An’s Trading World c.1550-1830.”



About the Author

Trần Khải Hoài is a PhD candidate in the field of Vietnamese Literature, Religion, and Culture at Cornell University.  His connection with martial arts is as a choreographer of martial arts inspired routines for Cornell’s Chinese dance troupe Illuminations and an informant for Augustus John Roe’s The Martial Arts of Vietnam (Boston: YMAA, 2020).