A Nong (c. 1005–1055)
A Nong (c. 1005–1055)
Powerful shaman and leader of the Zhuang/Nung minority peoples of the Sino-Vietnamese frontier, who led her people in resisting the encroachment of both the Chinese and Vietnamese states. Pronunciation: Ah Nung. Born A Nong around 1005, in the area now bordering the northernmost region of Vietnam and southern China; executed by the Chinese in 1055; daughter of a noted chieftain of the Nong clan of the minority people known today in China as the Zhuang, and in Vietnam as the Nung; married Nong Quanfu (a leader of the Nong clan), around 1020; children: several, the most famous of whom was her son Nong Zhigao (b. 1025).
In concert with her father, husband, and son, led her people in attempting to found a Zhuang/Nung kingdom, (1035); escaped with her son, Nong Zhigao, at the time of her husband's capture and execution (1039); after years of political strategy and warfare, she declared a second independent state (1052); captured by the Chinese and executed (1055).
In the early 11th century, ethnic identities and boundaries of rule were far more fluid than they are today in the frontier region lying along what is now the Sino-Vietnamese border. But the dominant ethnic group at that time was largely the same as the largest minority still found there, the Zhuang/Nung, who now number more than 15 million people. Identified in China as the Zhuang, and in Vietnam as the Nung, they are usually referred to as the Zhuang/Nung. At a time of crisis during the 11th century, their ancestors were led by A Nong in a valiant war that briefly established an independent state under her son, the group's most famous leader, King Nong Zhigao.
The land of the Zhuang/Nung was a region of great natural wealth, making it attractive for encroachment by the more powerful Chinese from the north and the Vietnamese from the south. Gold was easily mined or gleaned from stream beds, and the ancient Chinese chronicles mention chieftains who kept baskets of gold to "ward off evil influences." The broken terrain was also rich with other mineral resources, while flourishing plant and animal life supplied timber, sugar, ivory, and rare birds and animals for trade, as well as medical herbs that were highly prized in both China and Vietnam.
The region's dramatic limestone crags, crisscrossed by numerous large and small streams, made communication and transport difficult, helping to protect it from outside invaders. But the roughness of the terrain also increased the difficulties of indigenous peoples trying to establish a unified political organization, and their relative isolation from each other often kept their associations tenuous. Although the Zhuang/Nung people spoke a common tongue, a member of the Thai family of languages, there were distinct dialect differences.
Life for A Nong's people was centered upon the region's high mountain valleys, where landowners applied skillful and intensive farming techniques to the raising of rice and other grains, augmented by the periodic cultivation of mountain-side fields, according to "slash-and-burn" agriculture. Some larger valleys, with a good water supply, could support a population of tens of thousands, and the powerful lords who controlled them commanded many armed men and plentiful resources. A Nong was the daughter of such a lord. A noted warrior, he was a clan chieftain who accepted administrative titles under both the Chinese and the Vietnamese, who were then in dispute for control of the prosperous high grounds, which threatened the riceraising lowlands of their neighbors.
When the Chinese first pushed into the area, the Zhuang/Nung peoples still had no written language, but they quickly adapted written Chinese to suit their own needs. Since Chinese characters do not carry any fixed pronunciation, it was simple to assign their own pronunciation to given Chinese words, as did the Koreans, the Japanese, and the Vietnamese. Unfortunately, because the Zhuang/Nung had no earlier written history, our earliest knowledge of them is through the eyes of the Chinese chroniclers, who often viewed the mountain culture with prejudice. They were scandalized, for example, by the strong social role of Zhuang women, and viewed Zhuang shamanesses as terrifying witches.
Compared to the strict hierarchical family of traditional China, gender roles of the local peoples were usually quite open and egalitarian, perhaps because of the regional terrain. Men engaged in child-care and frequently moved in with their wive's families rather than establish their own. Women had great power, reflected in the region's number of famous female warriors, including the Vietnamese Trung Sisters . And while the Chinese, and to a lesser extent the Vietnamese, worshipped primarily male figures, the high status of females among the Zhuang and Nong is suggested by the number of their religious cults involving goddesses and powerful female demons, often watched over by a shaman like A Nong.
The Barbarian Nong clan … loved to fight and struggle and regarded death lightly.
—The Song History
In an open gender system, women tend to be powerful members of the family structure. In A Nong's time, many families traced their descent through both female and male lines, mothers were as important as fathers, and a marriage was a complicated alliance between two families or "clans," both of whom jealously guarded the rights and powers of their family member.
Among the Zhuang/Nung, women were particularly noted as shamanesses, or "Wu," a Chinese word meaning witches. They were knowledgeable about an amazing pharmacopeia of herbs, used as both medicines and poisons. The Zhuang (as well as Chinese) men believed that their wives regularly dosed them with a powerful elixir, the Wu-gu, which would kill them horribly the moment they were unfaithful, and Zhuang/Nung soldiers were particularly feared because of the poisons they applied to their edged weapons. The Zhuang/Nung are also known to have practiced ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice.
The people of A Nong lived in a difficult and dangerous land, inhabited by crocodiles, tigers, panthers, wolves, and many varieties of poisonous snakes. The region is also subject to high winds, thunderstorms, and the sudden onset of great typhoons. The fearful power of nature was sometimes personified as dark and fierce gods.
But the lives of these peoples also had an easier side. Where the power and influence of women was strong, their household labor usually had significant value. A Nong's people were noted for their textiles: fibers spun and woven into beautiful cloth, then dyed in brilliant colors and richly embroidered. Zhuang/Nung brocades were highly prized at both the Chinese and Vietnamese courts.
These people also loved to sing, and courting was carried out as a bawdy songfest between gaily dressed ranks of young men and women who competed in sung verse, responding to their intended marriage partners in complicated rhyme and meter. Even today, some older women of the region are said never to speak in prose, but to communicate only in poetic verse. The Chinese likened the Zhuang/Nung's beautiful spoken language to the twittering of birds. The importance of song in courting, as well as in transmitting shared culture and history, is probably one of the primary factors that have contributed to their lasting ethnic cohesion and relatively egalitarian gender system. In their important singing ceremonies, still held today, the wit and verbal fluency of the women is usually more than a match for that displayed by the men.
As a child, A Nong probably learned spinning and weaving from her mother as most girls did, and most likely spent a great deal of time in company with young women of her age, sometimes living with them communally. Girls learned the beautiful traditional songs and ballads of their peoples and flirted with young men who were practicing their warriors' skills. Some women, too, learned to use spears, swords, and cross-bows, and became noted warriors in their own right. Many young men served as mercenary soldiers in the armies of both China and Vietnam, observing a strict warrior code of resolute loyalty to their employers. Their indigenous terrain developed powerful limbs and strong lungs, making these men celebrated for physical endurance and ferocious courage for more than 2,000 years. (Nung men were famous fighters during the war between the United States and Vietnam. While Americans like to think that they were usually on the side of the United States, they in fact fought on both sides. Vietnamese graveyards have extensive sections allotted to the Nung who fought in that war. In the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1978, the Zhuang/Nung probably constituted the majority of forces on both sides.)
At some point, probably at puberty, A Nong was separated from the other girls to begin her studies as a shaman. We cannot know precisely how she was selected, but a combination of heredity and ability probably led to her choice within the clan for this important but demanding role. Under the guidance of older shamanesses, she learned the names and histories of the gods and goddesses of the region, of the fearful demons that had to be propitiated, and how their protective powers could be invoked in spells. She also studied plant and animal life and learned the healing powers of herbs, as well as those that could be compounded into subtle poisons.
The status A Nong thus achieved, as well as the political power of her family, prepared her for the role of a leader, but since few other such women ever obtained power comparable to hers, we assume that she was also unusually intelligent, brave, and determined. She was also born at a critical historical moment, and it fell to her family to take the lead in resisting the encroaching Chinese and Vietnamese.
Once A Nong married Nong Quanfu, who was also a member of the extensive Nong clan, she became his primary political advisor. She gave birth to several children, the most famous of whom was Nong Zhigao, born in 1025. Ten years later, in 1035, Quanfu and A Nong, seeing the power and political cohesion gained by both the Chinese and Vietnamese peoples through state organization, declared the founding of their own kingdom.
As the power located closest to the Zhuang/Nung lands, the Vietnamese found this a challenge they could not ignore. In 1039, Ly Thai-tong, the king of the Vietnamese state of Dai Viet, or Great Vietnam, led his armies into the region, seized Quanfu, and executed him. A Nong escaped with Nong Zhigao, her oldest son and Quanfu's heir.
A Nong's ability now came to the fore, as she rallied the survivors among her people and planned for the future. Zhigao proved a worthy student under his mother's tutelage, and continued to expand the power of the Nong clan, while shrewdly paying costly tributes to both the Chinese and the Vietnamese, as he grew to adulthood. Gold, silver, and trained war elephants were all sent to the Chinese court, buying time for the Zhuang/Nung to rebuild their military and economic base. They migrated north into the lands of the Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279), people who were weaker than the Vietnamese in the frontier region.
In 1052, A Nong and Zhigao were ready. They declared another independent state, invoked the blessings of heaven, and attacked the major Chinese towns and fortifications all along their border. With their skilled soldiers moving more quickly, they rapidly occupied them. For almost two months, they besieged the great southern port city of Canton, but were finally forced to withdraw in the face of terrible weather and massive Chinese reinforcements. Their superior military machine, however, allowed the Zhuang to defeat five successive Chinese armies and execute each of their commanding generals.
After many defeats, the Chinese resolved to end the threat of the insurgents. They selected the best commanders in their vast empire and assembled their most experienced troops, including a large contingent of northern nomadic cavalry. In 1054, the Chinese attacked the capital city of the Zhuang, who fought bravely and were initially victorious but were eventually outweighed by the enemy's numbers. The effect of the crack cavalry forces of the Chinese Song was decisive, the capital fell, and A Nong and Nong Zhigao were forced to flee west into the isolated highlands.
The Song pursued the rebels relentlessly, offering huge rewards for the heads of A Nong and Nong Zhigao, and carrying out intrigues to split the Zhuang clans' alliance. In 1055, aided by the Zhuang who resented the power of the Nong clan, Chinese forces captured A Nong, and executed her summarily, believing her too dangerous to try to hold in prison. Nong Zhigao escaped and disappeared. The Song History says simply: "His death cannot be known."
For a brief period, the fate of the Zhuang/Nung people as a unified nation was held in the balance by the determination of A Nong and the military talent of her son. Today their descendants are a substantial minority in the lands that were formerly theirs. Divided by Vietnamese and Chinese authorities, their culture eventually diverged to the point where they are now usually thought of as two distinct peoples. Eventually, however, both the Chinese and the Vietnamese learned that they had to give these people a measure of independence, or face continual conflict. Zhuang women have continued to act as leaders in the region, some of them worthy successors to A Nong, including the remarkable Zhuang woman Wa Shi .
A Nong led a long struggle to preserve the unity of her people, but the forces arrayed against her were too great. Today, the Zhuang/Nung people have made their peace with both the Chinese and the Vietnamese and are regarded by both states as the best guardians of the frontier between them. But whenever the youth of her people gather and sing their lovely songs in the high mountains she protected, A Nong is remembered.
Barlow, Jeffrey G. "The Zhuang Peoples of the Sino-Vietnamese Frontier in the Song Period," in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Vol. XVII, no. 2, September 1987.
Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities, Yesterday and Today. Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1982.
Taylor, K.W. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1983.
Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.
Jeffrey G. Barlow , Professor of History, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon