Nanzhao Captures Hanoi Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ironically, the temporary capture of Hanoi by the Nanzhao people, who defeated the Chinese occupiers of Vietnam, served to reinforce Vietnamese cultural ties to China, while loosening Chinese power over a soon-to-be independent Vietnam, distinct from the Nanzhao raiders.

Summary of Event

By the middle of the ninth century, Chinese rule over the Vietnamese was increasingly challenged. By 679, China’s Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty;Vietnam and (T’ang; 618-907) had reorganized its Vietnamese possessions, conquered in 111 b.c.e., into the Protectorate of Annam Annam . China ruled the area then occupied by the Vietnamese, which corresponds roughly to northern Vietnam. [kw]Nanzhao Captures Hanoi (863) [kw]Hanoi, Nanzhao Captures (863) La Thanh, capture of Nanzhao Southeast Asia;863: Nanzhao Captures Hanoi[0990] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;863: Nanzhao Captures Hanoi[0990] Do Ton Thanh Do Thu Trung Li Cho Wang Shi Li Hu Cai Xi Gao Pian

Around 850, the Vietnamese had become strong enough that Chinese rule was effective only when the Chinese protector general, the highest administrator in the Pacified South, as China called Vietnam, collaborated with his Vietnamese subjects. The Vietnamese themselves felt divided by the situation. There were those who lived in the agriculturally rich heartland along the Red (Hong) River draining into the Gulf of Tonkin. Their old capital, then called La Thanh and much later rebuilt as Hanoi, had become a center of administration, learning, and cultivated urban living. The Vietnamese of the city and the region were those most deeply touched by Chinese civilization and did not oppose Chinese rule when it was not hostile. However, in the mountains to the north and west, the rough life far from the capital led to greater political and spiritual independence. The same was true for the southern frontier, where the Vietnamese traded with Champa and the Khmer.

In the eighth century, the kingdom of Nanzhao (Nanchao, Nam Chieu in Vietnamese) had arisen to the northwest of Vietnam, in the present-day Chinese province of Yunnan. Called “yellow grotto barbarians” by the Chinese, the Nanzhao were a fierce, independent mountain people. As dissatisfaction with the Chinese grew, some Vietnamese started to look toward Nanzhao as a potential ally.

In 854, Li Cho Li Cho (protector general of Annam) was appointed protector general of Annam. Greedy and cruel, with a violent temper, Li quickly became unpopular. To enrich himself, he changed the terms of trade between the Vietnamese and the Lao mountain chiefs. The Lao resisted this change, and Li attacked them, suffering substantial losses. The mountain chiefs then allied themselves with the king of Nanzhao and the anti-Chinese Vietnamese.

Do Ton Thanh Do Ton Thanh was one of the Vietnamese opposed to the Chinese. Do was the military governor of Ai Province, which had a reputation for being most resistant to Chinese rule and influence and would become a center of Vietnamese nationalism in the next century. The degree of Do’s anti-Chinese sentiments is not known, but Li became enraged. In 854, he had Do killed, an act that inspired fierce opposition to his rule. The Nanzhao, who had become firmly allied with the local mountain chiefs, raided Vietnam, and the Nanzhao war began.

From 858 to 860, Wang Shi Wang Shi , the new protector general, succeeded in firming up China’s position. He completed the fortification of La Thanh, persuaded Nanzhao raiders to return to their homes with an apology, and defeated an invasion by the mountain chiefs. He tried to alienate his followers from Do Thu Trung Do Thu Trung , son of the executed governor of Ai, who became a leader of the Vietnamese resistance. In 860, the able Wang was recalled to fight rebels in another part of China.

His successor, Li Hu Li Hu (protector general of Annam) , quickly reversed Wang’s accomplishments. He executed Do Thu Trung, enraging the Vietnamese. Next, Li left to fight the Nanzhao in China, which they had invaded from Yunnan. In his absence, the Do family recruited thirty thousand soldiers, including allies from Nanzhao. They met the returning Li with this force. In December, 860, the Do army captured La Thanh. Li fled to China, gathering a new army. By mid-861, Li had recaptured La Thanh but failed to destroy the enemy, who moved into China. For his failures, Li was exiled to Hainan Island and replaced with Wang Guan Wang Guan by the end of the year.

Wang Guan attempted reconciliation. The Chinese court sent a letter of apology for the execution of both Do Ton Thanh and his son Do Thu Trung, honoring the father with a posthumous title and officially acknowledging that Li Hu had acted wrongly.

In early 862, Nanzhao launched a full-scale invasion of Vietnam. Wang Guan asked for reinforcements but was replaced as protector general by Cai Xi Cai Xi , who managed to stop the Nanzhao with thirty thousand fresh troops in the summer. Then, Cai Xi fell victim to a personal intrigue. A rival recommended to the emperor that his army be dissolved as the threat from Nanzhao had vanished. Cai Xi’s true assertions to the contrary were not believed, and his army was withdrawn. Encouraged, Nanzhao decided to attack La Thanh, trapping Cai Xi there with a small force.

In January, 863, after a siege of twenty-four days, La Thanh fell to the Nanzhao. Cai Xi fought to the end. Wounded, he drowned in the Red River, and his men were encircled and killed. Contemporary Chinese sources estimate that the Nanzhao killed and captured 150,000 Chinese soldiers in 862 and 863, with many of these troops being Vietnamese recruits.

After their victory, Nanzhao soldiers poured into Vietnam to pillage and plunder. Terrified Vietnamese and Chinese refugees fled into the caves and ravines of the inhospitable mountain regions and crossed the border into China. In fortified towns, Vietnamese commanders fought against the Nanzhao and successfully defended their people. It became clear to the Vietnamese that the Nanzhao had come not as liberators but as raiders and invaders.

With the Nanzhao occupying La Thanh and Vietnam with twenty thousand troops and fighting the Chinese to the north, those Vietnamese who had allied with them felt betrayed by the plundering, and the pro-Chinese faction felt abandoned by their protectors. China slowly reorganized its southern army. In the summer of 865, General Gao Pian Gao Pian attacked fifty thousand Nanzhao soldiers foraging in Vietnam and defeated them with only five thousand soldiers. Yet Gao Pian, too, nearly fell victim to a court intrigue, as news of his victory was not forwarded to the emperor.

Reinforced by seven thousand soldiers, Gao Pian defeated a new Nanzhao army in the spring of 866. Just as he had laid a siege to recapture La Thanh, he heard that he had been replaced. While Gao sent an aide to the court to clear up the situation, his officers refused to obey his successor. They lifted the siege of La Thanh, letting half of the Nanzhao escape.

Officially reinstated, Gao Pian returned to capture La Thanh later in 866, and he beheaded the thirty thousand Nanzhao who had not yet escaped. The Tang Dynasty reorganized its rule in Vietnam. China abolished the Protectorate of Annam, calling the land the Peaceful Sea Army and assigning its rule to a military governor, Gao Pian being the first. After his victory, Gao Pian rebuilt the city of La Thanh, calling it Dai-la. His rule became very supportive of local Vietnamese customs, traditions, and beliefs. He was well liked when he left for another position in 868.


The capture of the Vietnamese capital by the “yellow grotto barbarians” of Nanzhao served as a significant turning point. As Chinese power weakened, there rose strong Vietnamese opposition to Chinese rule, particularly at the frontier. The Do family of Ai represents those elements who were ready to shake off Chinese domination.

Yet the Nanzhao war also showed the Vietnamese the dangers of allying themselves with foreign people. The brief Nanzhao conquest even led to rumors that the Chams also were rampaging through Vietnam in the wake of the fleeing Chinese. The pro-Nanzhao elements in Vietnam, such as the Muong-Viet of the frontier, decided to leave the country with the Nanzhao.

Ironically, the Vietnamese adopted more of the culture and civilization of the Chinese after the Nanzhao war. As China grew weaker, the Vietnamese distinguished themselves from the surrounding mountain people and looked to Chinese culture to enrich their own cultural identity. Chinese rule began to slowly dissolve, giving some real power to Vietnamese leaders while maintaining official rule. The next century would see full Vietnamese independence.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand. Viet-Nam, Civilization and Culture. 2d ed. Hanoi: École Française d’s Extrěme Orient, 1994. Useful general history of Vietnam, its people, culture, and customs. Richly illustrated, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockard, Craig A. “The Unexplained Miracle: Reflections on Vietnamese National Identity and Survival.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 29 (January-April, 1994): 10-35. Framework for the Vietnamese attitude toward the Chinese and Nanzhao as they struggled for their independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Keith Weller. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. The standard historical work of the era in English. Detailed and readable, based on the author’s knowledge of primary historical sources in Vietnamese and Chinese. Maps, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Keith Weller. “An Evaluation of the Chinese Period in Vietnamese History.” The Journal of Asiatic Studies (Korea University) 23 (January, 1980): 139-164. Concise article analyzing the rise and fall of China’s one-thousand-year rule over Vietnam. Notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiens, Harold. Han Chinese Expansion in South China. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1967. Useful background information on China’s earlier conflict with the Nanzhao people.

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