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Street Cred: Lý Thường Kiệt

Over mountains and rivers of the South, reigns the Emperor of the South.
This fate is written in the Book of Heaven.
How dare those barbarians invade our land?
Your armies, without pity, will be annihilated.

In light of the recent provocations in the South China Sea, this poem, penned by Ly Thuong Kiet in 1077, certainly remains relevant today. Unfurl a timeline and toss a dart anywhere onto the board; regardless of where it lands, you’ll hit a point of conflict between Vietnam and China.

Same shit, different century.

Aside from the use of a giant super soaker, not much is new in the topsy-turvy relationship between both countries. Just like the rain that falls during monsoon season or the pajamas that are in fashion every season, the tension between Vietnam and China has long been woven into the fabric of Vietnam. This week, we’ll take a look at a man who set a few trends in his time, not for what he wore, but for how he warred it. 

In 939, after a thousand years under Chinese subjugation, Vietnam successfully gained independence from China. Life’s hard for a newly minted country and freedom isn’t easy to maintain, especially if you’re fenced in by the likes of the Champa, the Khmer, and a spurned China. This was the precarious setting that Ly Thuong Kiet was born into in 1019.

Ly Thuong Kiet’s father was a general in the Dai Viet army. He would march in his father’s footsteps, eventually becoming leader of the imperial guard and a close confidant to the king.

In 1075, whispers of a severely weakened Vietnam made their way to Chinese ears. Vietnam and the Champa had been locked in battle for years and it was believed that Vietnam only had 10,000 troops remaining. With such a small contingent of soldiers left, China thought that it would be the perfect time to recapture what they had lost a century earlier—Vietnam.

The king caught wind of China’s plan, so he sent in Ly Thuong Kiet to take care of business.

In a pre-emptive attack that lasted 40 days in Chinese territory, Ly Thuong Kiet brought with him 100,000 soldiers and put a spanking on China. This forced China to form an alliance with the Champa and the Khmer the following year and when they all invaded Vietnam, guess who was there to greet them? That’s right, Ly Thuong Kiet. 


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Further victories awaited Ly Thuong Kiet and by the time he passed away in 1105, he was buried as a national hero.

The adversarial nature of Vietnam and China’s relationship isn’t going away anytime soon, but the tide of public opinion can shift in an instant. That’s an important battlefront that folks simply can’t ignore. Let’s hope that whatever happens in the next few weeks will be more measured and effective. This is how Ly Thuong Kiet would have entered this battle, and undoubtedly, he would have been victorious on all fronts.

About the writer:

California is where he’s from, Saigon is where he’s at and this column is where he could be found. If you’re looking for a freelance writer specializing in Vietnam, please contact Vinh at vinh@berkeley.edu.

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