Nam Quốc Sơn Hà

translated and annotated

Dr. Đàm Trung Pháp
Professor Emeritus
Texas Woman’s University


“Nam Quốc Sơn Hà”

Lý Thường Kiệt


Lý Thường Kiệt (1019-1105) was one of Vietnam’s greatest generals. His original family name was Nguyễn, but King Lý Thánh Tông himself changed it to Lý as a token of appreciation and gratitude. As a young child, he told his family that he would like to become a general “who would charge into battlefields ten thousand miles away to achieve victories, get knighted, and glorify the family line.” At age 18, he was selected as a cavalry officer. Under King Lý Thánh Tông, in the year 1054, he was appointed to an important post and charged with the pacification of the Thanh-Nghệ region. He pacified 5 prefectures, 6 districts, 3 streams, and 24 caves (Hoàng Xuân Hãn 1950). The king made him a marshal and bestowed upon him the extraordinary authority of “tiết việt” or the prerogative to condemn people to death and only report to the king afterward. The marshal also became the king’s adopted younger brother (thiên tử nghĩa đệ) [1].  Upon hearing that China’s Song (Tống) king was planning to invade Đại Việt, he told the newly-installed King Lý Nhân Tông, “We should strike the enemies first instead of waiting for them to come to us.” With the king’s approval, the marshal and his troops raided three Chinese prefectures, namely Yong Zhou (Châu Ung) in Guang Xi (Quảng Tây) Province, and Qin Zhou (Châu Khâm) and Lian Zhou (Châu Liêm) in Guang Dong (Quảng Đông) Province. Wherever Lý Thường Kiệt and his troops went, he issued “đại cáo” or “great proclamations” to accuse the Song prime minister Wang An Shi (Vương An Thạch) of oppressing the Chinese people and to declare that troops from the Southern king came to stop Wang An Shi’s atrocious new ruling policy (tân pháp). The defeated governor of Yong Zhou committed suicide. All told, about one hundred thousand people in those three prefectures were killed or captured by marshal Ly’s troops (Nguyễn Đăng Thục 1967).

A furious Wang An Shi ordered a large army under the command of several generals, strengthened by alliance forces from Champa (Chiêm Thành) and Chenla (Chân Lạp), to invade Đại Việt. Lý Thường Kiệt’s troops battled them along the Như Nguyệt River, north of Thăng Long, for over one month, with both sides suffering heavy losses. In order to exhort his troops to continue to resist agressors, one night Lý Thường Kiệt had someone in a temple on the southern bank of the river declaim four powerful verses he had written in Chinese [2]. The verses in Chinese characters, their Sino-Vietnamese transliteration, and their translation  into Vietnamese by Nguyễn Đăng Thục (1967) and into English by Huỳnh Sanh Thông (1996) appear below:

南國山河南帝居 Nam quốc sơn hà Nam đế cư
截然定分在天書  Tiệt nhiên định phận tại thiên thư.
如何逆虜來侵犯   Như hà nghịch lỗ lai xâm phạm
汝等行看取敗虛 Nhữ đẳng hành khan thủ bại hư

Sông núi nước Nam, quyền vua Nam
Hiển nhiên Thiên định hẳn không lầm.
Giặc bay trái mệnh đòi xâm chiếm<
Thảm bại trông kìa, hỡi lũ tham.
(Bản dịch của Nguyễn Đăng Thục)

The Southern emperor rules the Southern land.
Our destiny is writ in Heaven’s Book.
How dare ye bandits trespass on our soil?
Ye shall meet your undoing at our hands!
(Translation by Huỳnh Sanh Thông)

Asserting the sovereignty of Vietnam, Lý Thường Kiệt’s poem also heralded a heroic spirit from the South when faced by aggression from the North [3]. More than ever before, now is the time for us to review the valiant pages of our history book in order to revive the Vietnamese people’s indomitable national-defense spirit.


[1] During the Lý dynasty (1010-1225), according to Ngô Thời Sĩ in his Việt Sử Tiêu Án, there were numerous sages and heroes and the people enjoyed long-lasting peace; the country had never been this auspiciously ruled before. It was during this dynasty that Đại Việt (Great Viet) was chosen as the country’ s name and that Thăng Long (Rising Dragon) became the country’s capital. The magnificent Quốc Tử Giám (the agency that oversaw higher education), the nation’s very first university, was established in Thăng Long in 1076 by King Lý Thánh Tông. Đại Việt was totally independent from its northern neighbor.

[2] Nguyễn Đăng Thục (1967) had this to say about marshal Lý Thường Kiệt’s poem: “This is the national psyche reflecting the people’s religious spirit bordering on the mystical. Reporting on the effect of the declamation of the poem, the book Việt Điện U Linh Tập noted that ‘in the stillness of the night, the booming recital of the poem from a temple boosted the Vietnamese troops’ morale. The terrified Song troops simply dispersed.’ Thus, Lý Thường Kiệt succeeded in defending Đại Việt’s national dignity in the face of the Northern forces. Not only did he stamp out China’s intention to re-conquer Vietnam, but he also demonstrated the victory of the spiritual Vietnamese ideology over the socially oppressive ideology of a politico-economic doctrine implemented by Wang An Shi” (page 114).

[3] Since the second half of the twentieth century, this patriotic poem by marshal Lý Thường Kiệt has been considered as Vietnam’s first declaration of independence. According to Hoàng Văn Chí (1964), this independent spirit was praised by a Japanese statesman in front of a Chinese counterpart.  He wrote, “After the 1911 revolution and his transfer of presidential powers to Yuan Shi Kai (Viên Thế Khải), Sun Wen (Tôn Văn) visited Japan. He was honored at a banquet given by Inukai Tsuyoshi (Khuyển Dưỡng Nghị), leader of the Japanese Kuomintang (Quốc Dân Đảng Nhật Bản). Asked about his recent visit to Hà Nội, Sun Wen commented, ‘The Vietnamese are servile by nature. They have no future.’ Inukai Tsuyoshi disagreed, saying that ‘Historically, among the Bách Việt group, only Việt Nam has not been Sinicized.’ Sun Wen said nothing more” (page 22).



Hoàng Xuân Hãn (1950). Lý Thường Kiệt. Hanoi: Sông Nhị.

Hoàng Văn Chí (no date). Từ thực dân đến cộng sản. Glendale, CA: Dainamco. [This book is a Vietnamese translation by Mạc Định of Hoàng Văn Chí’s (1964) From colonialism to communism published in New York by Praeger].

Huỳnh Sanh Thông (1996). An anthology of Vietnamese poems. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

Lê Hữu Mục (1960). Việt điện u linh tập (Lý Tế Xuyên, thế kỷ XIV). Saigon: Khai Trí.

Nguyễn Đăng Thục (1967). Lịch sử tư tưởng Việt Nam. Saigon: Bộ Văn Hóa Giáo Dục.

Trần Trọng Kim (1971). Việt Nam sử lược (Quyển I). Saigon: Bộ Giáo Dục.