The Name “Vietnam”

Some time ago in this blog, I talked about the name “Vietnam,” where it came from, and its meaning. A question from a friend brought the subject up again. It’s worth reviewing.

Centuries ago in southern China there lived a non-Chinese tribe who refused to submit to Chinese rule. The Chinese called them the yuèh nán  (越 南). Yuèh means to cross over, exceed, or transcend. It implies disobeying the rules. Nán means “south.” So one way to translate yuèh nán is “the troublemakers in the south.”

That tribe eventually moved south into what is now called Vietnam. They continued to be at war with the Chinese—and later with the French, Japanese, and Americans—but were never permanently subjugated. They established their own kingdom which had various names. One derived from the Chinese an nán (安 南), that is, “peace in the south,” was An Nam. Over time, the tribe accepted the earlier name the Chinese had given them, yuèh nán. In Vietnamese, that’s Vit Nam.

Most Vietnamese I have known were unaware of the origin of the name “Vietnam.” The educated who knew the etymology of the name tended to prefer a translation along the lines of “those who crossed over to the south.” They point out that the tribe in question did indeed go south out of China into what is now Vietnam. The problem with their argument is that the Chinese were apparently calling them the yuèh nán long before they moved south out of China.

No matter which translation is accepted, the name “Vietnam” (yuèh nán) strongly suggests an independent bunch not about to be cowed by another culture. The name fits the Vietnamese I have known, strong and self-reliant and not willing to bow down to a foreign power. We Americans learned their determination the hard way during the Vietnam war, which, ironically, the Vietnamese call the American war.

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