Chams artifact Champa Kingdom Vietnam

In my last history post we heard a bedtime story about the origins of the Vietnamese people (TL;DR: Viets are spawn of a fairy and a dragon, who then got an amicable divorce and each took half the kids back to their parents’ homes). This occurred in one of the earliest Vietnamese kingdoms, Dai Viet, which covered the area of current North Vietnam/South China.

Sa Huynh – the Proto-Chams

Fast forward about 1,500 years and we encounter the Sa Huynh peoples, the forebears of the more culturally developed Chams. Scholars believe they were Malayo-Polynesian-speaking seafarers from Borneo, and this tendency to dominate the seas never completely left them as they founded what would become one of the regions’ powerhouse governments, complete with major religions and early ideas of statecraft imported from the Indians. It was initially centered on the modern central Vietnam coast around Da Nang, although the sea unquestionably was their true dominion.

The Chams Emerge

The Sa Huynh thrived and expanded from roughly 1,000 B.C. to the 2nd Century A.D., which is when we find the Cham peoples’ distinctive culture flowering. Cham artifacts and ruins have been found on most of the western islands of the South China Sea (at that time known as the Cham Sea, because they know who’s in charge), including the Sprately and Paracel islands, which we’ll learn a bit more about much, much later in this series.

Chams artifact Champa Kingdom Vietnam
This is a very unique Champa sculpture that represents the nine gods (navagraha) associating planets to other deities, and was once worshipped. It’s linked strongly to the Indian traditions of cosmology, and very common in India. Similar remnants have been found among the ancient Cambodian Khmer art. Taken at the HCMC History Museum of Vietnam.

Hinduism was imported early on in the kingdom’s history from Indian merchants, and was followed later by Islam. Adherents of both religions also revered Cham kings and deities, as well as their ancestors, much like virtually all current-day Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) do.

Chams map Champa Kingdom Vietnam
This map professes to depict the world in ~1200 AD. Vietnam is indicated in red. However, this was during the Cham golden age, and the Vietnam empire didn’t extend south of the central coast… Subtle, but effective. History is written by the victors. Taken at the HCMC History Museum of Vietnam.














The Golden Age of the Cham

In their Golden Age, the 6th-15th centuries, the Champa Empire was known not only for trade and naval power, but also for homemade textiles, an original written language (based on sanskrit), and being a massive hub of culture and multiple religions. At times at their peak they occupied parts of Cambodia and Laos in addition to their central-south Vietnamese strongholds, and extant records depict at least one massive naval engagement between the Cham and the Khmer to their West. Their relatively weak land forces could never match their naval power, however, and ultimately proved to be their undoing (twice!) at the hands of more able Vietnamese armies.

Their golden age also saw them build 100’s of monuments and towers that experts today describe as the pinnacle of Vietnamese art. Sadly, much of the possible benefits of these ancient sites, including tourism or simply a rare window on the past, are lost on the Vietnamese government, and rampant theft from and destruction of these ancient monuments proceeds apace over much of Vietnam. A major exception includes the UNESCO World Heritage sites My Son, and even this magnificent example of brick architecture and design has slipped into entropy, crumbling drastically in the 120 years since being rediscovered in 1895.

Chams artifact Champa Kingdom Vietnam
Hindu and Muslim iconography by the Chams. This is the mythic bird Garuda, the traditional mount of Vishnu. Here he is seen fighting the serpents (naga).
Taken at the HCMC History Museum of Vietnam.













An Expanding Vietnam

Meanwhile, the growing population of the Vietnamese kingdom to the north was being harassed by China almost continually. They eventually put sandals on the ground, twice, and decided to expand southward: once in the mid-16th century, which forced the Chams southward and out of Central Vietnam, and again in the 1800’s, when Emperor Minh Mang crushed (CRUSHED!) the already embattled Chams by sending soldiers to demolish their fields, houses, and cities. It was a no-holds-barred thing, and it worked – the Champa Kingdom was effectively destroyed, their territories at at home and abroad gradually reconquored by Vietnam, China, and the Philippines.

Thus essentially ends the story of one of humanity’s most prolific ocean-faring trade empires, the Cham.

Well, almost.

All the big stuff, at least.

So… what’s happening with the Cham today?

Oh, they still exist, you might say? Yes they do!

Chams in Modern Vietnam

About 162,000 modern Cham descendants live in Vietnam today. Two major communities exist: one is predominantly Muslim and patrilineal and eeks out a living along the Cambodian border, not far from their Cambodian Cham cousins, and the other is Hindu and matrilineal and subsists on the southern shore surrounding Phan Thiet/Mui Ne, near the location of the last Champa capital (Son Luy). In fact, the last remaining Champa queen was 90 in 1997 and had no daughter, which must come as something of a relief to any Vietnamese officials that still suspect the Cham have designs on their ancestral homeland (spoiler alert: doesn’t seem that way).

Chams artifact Champa Kingdom Vietnam
Lion, Thap Mam, 12-13th century. Sandstone.
Taken at the HCMC History Museum of Vietnam.

Despite their many historical accomplishments and enduring monuments to their culture, faith, religions, and naval prowess, this ethnic minority today live in abject poverty and remain a conquered people, changed from a major naval trade power into a small agrarian community that remains socially distant from surrounding ethnic peoples and Vietnamese alike. While there have been many protests about human rights violations over the years, including as recently as the 2000’s, responses have been opaque to the international community and the government has labored to keep it that way.

Indeed, although Cham culture continued to impact and inspire Vietnamese culture in the years after their utter defeat (especially through the arts, including textiles and music), they are virtually never given credit within Vietnam for these gifts. They may be an ancient and rich culture, but in modern times much of their heritage is being casually erased, or, even worse, simply ignored. Even the spoken and written language is threatened by Government laws that require Vietnamese use in schools and public functions. The present Cham peoples try to isolate themselves as much as they can, believing this is the only way to maintain what remains of their culture.

Chams artifact Champa Kingdom Vietnam
Although there are many examples of Cham art at the History Museum, signage goes out of its way to avoid even mentioning their name. It’s cultural appropriation on a whole ‘other level. Vietnam!
Taken at the HCMC History Museum of Vietnam.

Whether or not the present-day Cham peoples have any kind of renaissance is up for debate (if it does occur, it seems like it should be artistic in nature, given their enduring ability with textiles and their major influences on traditional Vietnamese court music), but it does appear that this is a one-way ticket to cultural extinction, unless there’s some kind of magical 180 degree policy change in the State Party.

Honestly, though, the role of the Vietnamese in the downfall of the Champa Empire is pretty similar to other territory grabs around the world throughout history. The American treatment of Native Americans was particularly brutal, and arguably creepier and more destructive than this (we’ve all seen Poltergeist, right? ha ha). Australians and aboriginals weren’t exactly BFFs back in the day. And in my next entry, we’ll see the French set up shop right on top of the Vietnamese.

It’s a brutal world and we’re crazy monkeys… but it makes for fun reading!

TA DA! We’ve traveled in time over 4,737 years from the beginning of the very first Viet Dynasty, way back in Dai Viet (there’s probably a bunch of interesting stuff that happened in there… but I’m eager to get to the Modern era!).

Next stop: 1887 AD, and the beginning of the French Protectorate! Do you know why Vietnamese language uses a Roman alphabet? The reason is weird, of course. Stick around.

This is a pretty skimpy history of a culture that lasted over 1,500 years – got any juicy details you’d like to add? Please leave in the comments!