The ruins and records of an ancient kingdom are locked beneath the glass and steel of the modern Pearl River Delta.
For nearly a century, the Nanyue held out against an aggressive Han Empire, and while they were finally conquered 111 BCE, memories of Nanyue resistance remain potent and alive in modern legacies of Vietnamese nationalism and Cantonese regionalism.
Even at the time, people had a hard time wrapping their heads around just what or who was the Nanyue that once controlled territory from central Vietnam to the southern borders of Hunan Province.
The area, which eventually became Nanyue was a frontier of high mountains, deep valleys, broad rivers and a polyglot mix of many different indigenous people.
It was a hard place for outsiders to conquer, much less rule. The Qin Empire (256-221 BCE) sent nearly 500,000 troops in a decade-long attempt to subjugate the region. Ultimately, the Qin state settled for nominal control in the form of drawing lines on a map.
In the waning days of the Qin Empire, the relatively lawless and unincorporated zones of the southern frontier presented an opportunity for adventurous military types looking to get out of the way of the inevitable carnage associated with a dynastic transition.
Even that name, some scholars argue that Viet Nam is a derivation of Nan Yue, pronounced in Vietnamese as “Nam Viet.”
One of these cowboys was a Qin military commander, from a town in present-day Hebei Province, named Zhao Tuo. In 207 BCE, Zhao and his armies fought their way through the mountain passes into modern-day Guangdong and carved out an independent kingdom with its capital Panyu somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Guangzhou.
Zhao Tuo maintained an “It’s Complicated” relationship status with the new Han Empire which replaced the Qin in 206 BCE. He accepted de facto independence in exchange for tribute and at least the occasional nod in the direction of vassal status. In 196 BCE, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang (r. 202 – 195 BCE) sent an envoy to meet Zhao Tuo in an attempt to convince Zhao to bend the knee and have his kingdom join the Han Empire in a new role: Imperial subjects.
The Han envoy was shocked when he arrived at the customs of Zhao’s court and accused the former Qin general of having gone native, reminding Zhao that he was still “Chinese.” Zhao was many things, but he definitely had little interest in adding “Servant of the Han Emperor.”
The Han court settled for sacking Zhao Tuo’s ancestral village and slaughtering his extended family.
The issue of Nanyue’s status would be a recurring theme for the next century. Zhao Tuo lived a famously long life (between 95 and 103) and his son, Zhao Mo, the second of five Nanyue kings, came to the throne as an old man.
Zhao Mo is perhaps most famous for his tomb, which was discovered in 1983 complete with a jade burial suit, cups, bronzes and tools some of which bore strong influence from the Yellow River civilizations and other objects which are less easily categorized as “Chinese.”
Ultimately, it was Zhao Mo’s son, Zhao Yinqi who led to the downfall of the Nanyue state. Zhao Yinqi was living in the Han capital Chang’an as an advisor/hostage after his father Zhao Mo requested Han imperial aid in Nanyue’s war with their rivals along the northern coastline, Minyue.
While in Chang’an, Zhao Yinqi, who already had a wife from Nanyue and with whom he’d had a son, married again, this time to a woman of the Han, who gave birth to Zhao Yinqi’s second son.
Zhao Yinqi, perhaps influenced by his time at the Han court, favored his Chinese wife and her son and made the child his heir. This violated the rules of primogeniture and also raised concerns at the Nanyue court that the Chinese would accomplish in the bedchamber what they could not on the battlefield.
Sure enough, when Zhao Yinqi died, his Chinese wife became the Empress Dowager and urged the court to join the Han State. The Han court was elated and sent emissaries to Nanyue to work out the details. When the Han contingent arrived at Panyu, the Nanyue loyalist officials launched a coup killing the young emperor, the Empress Dowager and the Han emissaries.
This got the attention of the Han Emperor back in Chang’an who promptly dispatched 100,000 troops to wipe Nanyue off the map once and for all. In 111 BCE, most of the former Nanyue territory was formally annexed by force of arms into the Han Empire.
Today, Nanyue exists as tourist sites around Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta. Zhao Mo’s tomb is now a museum. But the Nanyue legacy is also one of resistance, even independence not just for Guangdong, but also for Vietnam.
In Vietnamese history, Zhao Tuo is known as Tri?u ?à, and his kingdom is called the Tri?u Dynasty. Chinese and Vietnamese scholars have engaged in a turf war over the years regarding the cultural influence. Even that name, some scholars argue that Viet Nam is a derivation of Nan Yue, pronounced in Vietnamese as “Nam Viet.”
Sometimes even when the past is buried, memories linger. The stories of Nanyue, the multi-cultural kingdom built along the coastline of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Vietnam is a reminder of the area’s long tradition as a meeting point for cultures from all over the region.