Yuëh-Nán

The origin of the name of Vietnam and its history continue to intrigue me. The name’s source was intrinsic to the naming of my novel, Last of the Annamese.

The Vietnamese people originated thousands of years ago as a tribe in southern China ethnically distinct from the Chinese. They were a tough and resilient people unwilling to be dominated, politically or culturally.

The Chinese used the term Yuëh-Nán ( 越 南 )  to refer to these people.  Yuëh means to cross over, exceed, or transcend with strong pejorative implications; Nán means “south.” The compound means “those in the south who cross over.” The Chinese applied the name long before the Vietnamese moved south out of China. So the implication is that “cross over” here means to challenge or make trouble. The translation that seems most plausible to me is “the troublemakers in the south.” Yuëh-Nán in Vietnamese is Viet Nam.

Millennia ago, the troublesome people started moving south, into what is now Vietnam. Despite repeated wars with the Chinese, the Vietnamese established their independence. They called themselves by various names but eventually settled on Vietnam. Among the names they used for their country was An Nam, which means “peace in the south.” A resident of An Nam is, in English, called an Annamese. Hence the title of my novel.

One of the principal characters in the novel is South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh. Unlike most modern Vietnamese, he understands the unflattering connotation of Viet Nam and greatly prefers the old name, An Nam. To him, An Nam comes to mean the nation and culture he loves. It is he who, toward the end of the novel as the North Vietnamese bear down on Saigon, pronounces the death sentence of his beloved country when he says, “‘The Heaven weeps. An Nam no more. An Nam was. You listen to her weep now.’”

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