Niu Junkai 牛军凯
World Book Publishing Group, Guangzhou – PRC, 2012
Reviewed by Vu Duong Luan
This book by Niu Junkai is a history of political and diplomatic relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese states over the course of one century. It begins in the late sixteenth century when the Mac clan in Vietnam were driven from the fertile plains around the capital to new territory near the Sino-Vietnamese border. It ends with the failed attempts of Mac clan descendants to restore their court in the early eighteenth century. This means that the narrative is situated in an era of dynastic transition for both Vietnam and China (from the Ming to the Qing).
Although the book shares aspects with previous studies of the relationship between China and Vietnam, the author goes further by paying more attention to the practices and effects of tributary relations rather than simply seeing such relations as power symbols of Chinese rulers. Theories of the Chinese tributary system usually highlight its continuity and irreplaceable role in establishing the foreign affairs of China with others. However, the book describes Chinese-Vietnamese relations from a different perspective. Through analysis of the formalities, mechanisms, and activities of diplomatic envoys between China and Vietnam, the author of the book argues that vassal states like Vietnam were not fully committed to the tributary order. Furthermore, though the Chinese court sought to dispatch missions to proclaim its legitimacy to Vietnam, the respect to Chinese rulers paid by Vietnamese states was not constant. This started occurring in Sino-Vietnamese relations as the Ming weakened and changed with the rise of the Qing dynasty, which re-launched pacification campaigns along the southernmost border with Vietnam. From this, the author suggests that balance of power should be considered as a key element for evaluating and measuring the state of the relationship between China and Vietnam as well as between China with its dependent states in any period.
Not limited to diplomatic history, the book also enlightens on other aspects of Vietnamese and Chinese history. There are stories about the descendants of the Mac clan, who had to flee across the border to China to escape suppression by the Le dynasty’s military forces after the collapse of the last government of the Mac clan in Cao Bang in the 1670s, and then lived as political refugees and rebels along the border area until the early eighteenth century. The lives of the Mac clan’s descendants are described in the book and show the way the Mac clan sustained themselves amidst political turmoil between Vietnam and China. On the one hand, the Mac clan expressed their allegiance to the Qing dynasty but on the other hand, they sought to establish an independent entity by exploiting local resources, establishing militia alliances with local chieftains, and taking advantage of the fuzzy border between China and Vietnam. The aim of the Mac clan’s descendants, to restore the leadership of the Mac family in Vietnam, was not achieved but from the author’s viewpoint the prolonged existence of Mac clan forces on the borderland had significant effects on the security situation and diplomatic affairs.
Parallel to the crossing border communities of Mac clan descendants, the book also considers the local population living on both sides of the Sino-Vietnamese border. From the author’s viewpoint, the autonomous entities established by borderland chieftains and powerbrokers further inflamed military and political conflicts between the Vietnamese and Chinese governments. Therefore, it was the gaitu guiliu policy of the Qing court that actually laid the institutional foundation for friendly diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Royal Descendants and Rebels is a valuable and significant diplomatic and political history of Vietnam, China, and their relations. It not only captures a historical narrative of a specific period, but also elucidates the complicated two-thousand-year history of China and Vietnam at various levels. The book has some flaws such as a lack of diverse local voices that the author himself seemingly has not yet overcome. This, however, does not overshadow the book’s significant academic quality.