Qin Dynasty general Zhao Tuo created the breakaway Nanyue Kingdom founding modern Guangzhou, China (aka Canton) impacting the early development of both China and Vietnam. The influence of the Nanyue Kingdom continues to reverberate to this day.
Zhao Tuo and the Birth of Imperial China
Zhao Tuo was born round 235 BCE in the state of Zhao, part of modern day Hebei Province near Beijing. The kingdom of Zhoa was defeated and annexed by the Qin in 222 BCE, and Tuo was conscripted into the military as part of Ying Zheng’s successful drive to conquer and unify China in 221 BCE. The name China itself is believed to come from the word Qin.
By 214 BCE, Zhao Tuo had become a famed general of the Qin, and he was sent south to quell unrest of the Banyue or literally the 100 Yue tribes. Tuo was the commander of the Nanhai Command, “Nan Hai” means “South Sea”.
Nanyue Kingdom Founding
After the Qin Dynasty collapsed in 2006, Tuo took advantage of the ensuing chaos in the north to found the Nanyue or “Southern Yue” Kingdom in 204 BCE. This kingdom included parts of both modern Southeastern China and Vietnam.
Tuo made his capital on the banks of the Pearl River founding the modern day city of Guangzhou. The excavation of Tuo’s palace grounds can be seen in modern day Guangzhou by visiting the Nanyue Kingdom Palace Museum. The lower level of this museum shows the actual excavations of the palace grounds, while the upper level is a living recreation of what these grounds may have actually looked like in Tuo’s time.
Despite their far superior boat technology and advanced sword making and other technologies, the Chinese considered the Yue barbarians. According to one Chinese immigrant of the second century BCE, the Yue “cut their hair short, tattooed their bodies, live in bamboo groves with neither towns nor villages, possessing neither bows or arrows, nor horses or chariots .” Nanyue in Vietnamese is Nam Viet and is where Vietnam gets its name. Tuo took a different approach toward the Yue and instituted a policy of “Harmonizing” which encouraged the integration and inter-marriage of the Yue and also encouraged more Northern Chinese to immigrate south.
Cantonese Language is Born
The Nanyue kingdom merged the traditional Han Chinese culture with the Yue culture. This included the introduction of the Han’s system of writing, while the Yue’s language was retained. The Yue’s language is the basis for the Cantonese language that is still spoken throughout the Peril River Delta including Hong Kong, Macao, and the entire Guangdong Province as well as elsewhere. Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually unintelligible languages.
In 196 BCE, the first Han Emperor, Gaozu, sent Lu Jia south. Lu was enraged when he was greeted by Tuo in the barbarian dress and customs of the Yue. Lu threatened destruction of the Nanyue Kingdom, if Tuo did not acquiesce to the Han Dynasty. Tuo relented and made tribute to the Han Emperor, and was given a seal recognizing his official position as ruler of the Nanyue Kingdom.
Nanyue Kingdom War with Han Dynasty
In 183 BCE, this relationship soured as the ruling Dowager Empress Lu suddenly declared trade restrictions on critical items like iron and horses to the Nanyue Kingdom. She also had Tuo’s relatives, that still lived in China, killed and the family tomb destroyed. Tuo subsequently declared himself the Martial Emperor of the Nanyue and sacked the Han city of Changsha on their northern border. This prompted a counterattack by the Dowager Empress that failed due to a majority of this force dying from disease on their way to the Nanyue Kingdom.
In 179 BCE, Emperor Wen ascended to the throne abolishing some of the trade restrictions with the Nanyue and relations improved. After promoting a surviving member of Tuo’s family in China, restoring the Zhao family tomb, and withdrawing the army from the Nanyue border, Tuo agreed to become a vassal state and once again sent tribute to the Han Dynasty. Tuo still retained the autonomy of the Nanyue Kingdom however and was referred to as emperor within the kingdom until his death in 137 BCE. It is believed that Tuo reached the incredible age of 103.
Fall of the Nanyue Kingdom
In 113 BCE, the fourth-generation Nanyue leader, Zhao Xing, and his wife Queen Dowager a Chinese herself, sought to have the Nanyue formally become part of the Han Dynasty. The prime minister, Lu Jia, objected vehemently and murdered Xing, the queen, and several Han emissaries. He then installed Xing’s elder brother Zhao Jiande as emperor. In retaliation, and as a means to seize the Nanyue Kingdom, the Han’s Emperor Wu sent 100,000 troops by sea to Panyu, present day Quangzhou, the Nanyue kingdom surrendered in short order. The Nanyue Kingdom lasted 93 years.
Zhao Tuo and the Nanyue Kingdom’s Lasting Impact
Due to his declaration in 183 BCE, Zhao Tuo has traditionally been regarded as the first emperor of Vietnam. However, many modern Vietnamese historians consider him a foreign invader. He is still revered by many Vietnamese and his likeness is still worshiped in some temples in Vietnam. There is also a street named after him in the Hiep Phu Ward in Ho Chi Minh City.
An indication of the wealth of the Nanyue Kingdom can be seen by visiting the Nanyue King Tomb and Museum in the heart of Guangzhou (See video at end). It is the burial site of Zhao Mo, Zhao Tuo’s grandson, who ruled immediately following Tuo since his father predeceased Tuo. Although the museum is best known for Zhao Mo’s jade burial suit, the most historically important object may be a box from the Middle East that most likely came via maritime trade.
The conquest of the Nanyue gave the Han control of Southeast China and its ports opening the door for the establishment of maritime trade in Southeast and South Asia, opening the door to the establishment of the Maritime Silk Road and substantial international trade.