Lý Thường Kiệt

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Lý Thường Kiệt (; 1019–1105) was a Vietnamese eunuch, general, and admiral during the Lý Dynasty in Vietnam.[1]. He served as an official through the three dynasties of Lý Thái Tông, Lý Thánh Tông and Lý Nhân Tông and achieved many great achievements, making him one of the two greatest generals in Lý Dynasty, next to Lê Phụng Hiểu. He was a leading general for Vietnam during the Lý-Song wars.

In Vietnamese history, he stood out for his conquest of Champa (1069), raiding the three provinces Kham, Ung, Liem of Song (1075-1076), and then defeated the Vietnamese invasion of the Song army led by Gou Kui, Zhao Xie. In particular, the battle in the 3 provinces Kham, Ung and Liem made his name resounding from Đại Việt (ancient Vietnam) and became known in the Song land.

In 2013, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (Vietnam) lists him as one of the 14 most typical Vietnamese national heroes in Vietnamese history.



Lý Thường Kiệt was born in Thăng Long (now Hanoi), the capital of Đại Việt (ancient Vietnam). His real name was Ngô Tuấn. His father was a low-ranking military officer. He was originally from Thái Hòa ward (太和坊) of Thăng Long citadel. According to Hoàng Xuân Hãn, Thái Hòa was also the name of a small mountain in the west of Thăng Long citadel, south of the Bách Thảo dike, near the place turn down to the horse racing. Lý Thường Kiệt surname was not originally , because he was given the royal surname. His original surname, there are now two major controversial theories:

  • Ngô surname: This theory is based on "Genealogy of the Vietnamese Ngô family" and "Thần phổ Lý Thường Kiệt" written by Nhữ Bá Sĩ in the Nguyễn Dynasty. According to this evidence, his original name was Ngô Tuấn (吳俊), the name after maturity was Thường Kiệt (常傑), after being given the royal surname, was named Lý Thường Kiệt. He was the son of Sùng Tiết general Ngô An Ngữ, the grandson of ambassador Ngô Xương Xí and the great-grandson of Thiên Sách vương Ngô Xương Ngập - the eldest son of Ngô Quyền. This theory was most widely accepted, but it was considered a "new theory", because the time of the evidence was still young, an unknown genealogy and was written during the Nguyễn Dynasty.
  • Quách surname: This theory is based on the stele "An Hoạch Báo Ân tự bi ký" (created in 1100)[2] and the "Cồ Việt quốc Thái úy Lý công thạch bi minh tính tự" (created in 1159), these are both original steles of the Lý Dynasty and the translation is available in "The epitaphs of Lý-Trần Dynasty" by Lam Giang, Pham Van Tham and Pham Thi Hoa. According to the information of both steles, Lý Thường Kiệt originally surname was Quách, first name was Tuấn, the name after maturity was Thường Kiệt very similar to the information of [Ngô family theory]. According to the stele, his hometown is An Xá village, Quảng Đức district (Cơ Xá, Gia Lâm district today), and perhaps later transformed into Thái Hòa ward as Toan Thu noted. His father was commander-in-chief under the reign of Lý Thái Tông, there are two different names, according to Đại Việt sử lược his father named commander-in-chief Quách Thịnh Ích (郭盛謚), and An Nam Chí Lược written as commander-in-chief Quách Thịnh Dật (郭盛溢)[3], hometown in Câu Lậu and Tế Giang districts (now in Mỹ Văn, Hưng Yên). After the Emperor gave him the royal surname, Quách Tuấn was named Lý Thường Kiệt. According to the epitaph of commander-in-chief Đỗ Anh Vũ, Anh Vũ's father called Lý Thường Kiệt his uncle.

Chinese histories often say that [Thường Kiệt] is Lý Thường Cát or Lý Thượng Cát[4]. In the family, he has a younger brother named Lý Thường Hiến (李常憲). Perhaps like his brother, "Thường Hiến" is the name after maturity, not the real name; it is customary in the old days that the name after maturation has a similar or opposite meaning to the real name and is used to call outside as an understanding of the politeness, only in the home to call the real name.


According to the comment of Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư history book, his family succeeded as mandarins in the way of hereditary, that is the ordination was permanent throughout the generations, so his family could be seen as a bureaucracy with a strong roots. From a young age, Lý Thường Kiệt has proved to be a person with the will and energy, studying, practicing both literature and martial arts, having studied military tactics.

Due to two different sources, Lý Thường Kiệt's father position is also different. The Việt điện u linh tập history book that were compiled with [Ngô surname sources] all mention Lý Thường Kiệt's father named An Ngữ, and was a "Sùng ban Lang tướng". The An Nam chí lược history book in the Lý Dynasty has two names Sùng ban and Lang tướng, but that policy copies the two names apart. Perhaps "Sùng ban Lang tướng" is "Lang tướng belonging to Sùng ban", because even in Chí lược book there was a position called "Vũ nội Lang tướng", but it is not clear how these positions are in the court. As for [Quách surname sources], Lý Thường Kiệt was the son of Quách Thịnh Ích, a commander-in-chief, so his position was different.

Nhữ Bá Sĩ wrote about the legend youth of Lý Thường Kiệt as follows:

"Around the date of Thiên Thành, during Lý Thái Tông's life, his father patrolled the border, in Tượng Châu of Thanh Hóa, became ill and died in 1031. Thường Kiệt was thirteen years old, day and night he couldn't stop crying. His aunt's husband, Tạ Đức saw it, feel sorry and soothe him. Tạ Đức asked him about his minded, he answered: "For literature, understand letters to sign is enough. And for martial arts, I want to follow Vệ Thanh and Hoắc Khú, traveled thousands of miles to make merits, gain seals, so my parents can be proud of me. That is my wishes." Tạ Đức praised him for his character, he let Thường Kiệt married his nephew named Thuần Khanh, and taught him about the infantry tactics in the military books of Tôn and Ngô family.

Thường Kiệt studied all night and day, read at night, daytime he training for archery, equestrian, strategic thinking. Understand all military tactics. Tạ Đức recommended him to read confucianism books, Thường Kiệt studied very hard for it, so he quickly become talented.

When he was 18 years old (1036), his mother died. He and his younger brother took care of all the funeral. While the sacrifice ceremony, whenever there is any work, he would did it by himself. At the end of the funeral, thanks to his adoptive father, Thường Kiệt was assigned the position of "Cavalry Captain", a small officer in the riding horses army."

— Excerpt from Nhữ Bá Sĩ, translation from the book "Lý Thường Kiệt" by Hoàng Xuân Hãn

Scholar Hoàng Xuân Hãn, when extracting content from Nhữ Bá Sĩ's stele, also commented: "This paragraph, copied from Nhữ Bá Sĩ stele, a new stele built in Tự Đức's reign. Certainly, Nhữ Bá Sĩ copied the oral tradition of the people. The word of the people is mostly an oral or a fabrication, we cannot fully believe the details that are so clearly written in the oral. But the above mentioned Thường Kiệt education is consistent with what we still know about the Lý Dynasty."


Under the reign of Thái Tông and Thánh Tông[edit]

Cơ Xá Linh Từ - Temple of Lý Thường Kiệt - in Nguyễn Huy Tự street, Bạch Đằng ward (former Cơ Xá village), Hai Bà Trưng district, Hanoi.

In 1036, he served in the royal army as a cavalry captain and later the commander of the imperial guard. In 1041, aged 22, Thường Kiệt was appointed as the Hoàng môn Chi hậu (皇門祇候), a eunuch to serve Lý Thái Tông because of his beautiful face. Over 12 years of service as a eunuch in the court, Thường Kiệt's reputation grew.[5] In 1053, he was promoted to the rank of Nội thị sảnh Đô tri (内侍省都知), at the age of 35.

In 1054, prince Lý Nhật Tôn ascended the throne as Lý Thánh Tông. Under the reign of Thánh Tông, Thường Kiệt rose to the rank of Bổng hành quân Hiệu úy, a high-ranking martial officer. He often accompanied and advised the emperor. Because of his performance, he was promoted to Kiểm hiệu Thái bảo.

In 1061, the Man people on the southwest border harassed. Việt điện u linh tập history book, the story of Lý Thường Kiệt is written as follows: "Meeting in the country, in the Southwest, people rebelled against the colonies, the Man Lao people often harassed Vietnam land. Lý Thánh Tông saw that Thường Kiệt was diligent, careful, and lenient, so he sent him to be an envoy to investigate Thanh Hóa, Nghệ An, empower him to conveniently work. He cleverly appease the people, so all five provinces, six districts, three sources, and twenty-four caves were surrendered and lived in peace."

Regarding this disorder, in Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư do not see any mention. Only just Việt sử lược history book compiled that: "In 1061, Ngũ Huyện Giang in Ái Châu rebellion". Ngũ Huyện Giang was a name of land in Thanh Hóa. During Tiền Lê Dynasty and Lý Dynasty often used the name of the river and call the land have that river with the river name, for example, Bắc Giang Lộ, Đà Giang Lộ. According to two steles in Lý Dynasty, the tomb of Hương Nghiêm pagoda and the tomb of Lưu Khánh Đàm[6][7], Ngũ Huyện Giang is probably in Thanh Hóa, now is Mã river. Thường Kiệt was 43 years old at that time, and this was the first time he had a military achievement.

In February 1069, he followed King Thánh Tông to fight Champa. Thường Kiệt took the lead as a pioneer and captured King of Champa, Yang Pu Sri Rudravarmadeva.

In 1075, China's chancellor Wang Anshi convinced Emperor Shenzong that Đại Việt was in a precarious position and would fall easily if invaded. With less than ten thousand soldiers remaining, Wang argued, Đại Việt would be in a vulnerable position, and it would be a great opportunity for China to annex its age-old enemy. In response, Shenzong mobilized troops and passed decrees which forbade all of China's provinces to trade with Đại Việt, in effect cutting off all trade with the small nation. Upon hearing this, the Lý ruler sent Lý Thường Kiệt and Nùng Tôn Đản with more than 100,000 troops to China to carry out a pre-emptive attack against the Song dynasty. In the ensuing 40-day battle near modern-day Nanning, Đại Việt was victorious, capturing the generals of three Song armies.

In 1076, the Song formed an alliance with the other enemies of Dai Viet, Champa and the Khmer Empire and all three sent troops to invade Đại Việt. Emperor Lý Nhân Tông again sent General Lý Thường Kiệt to lead his forces. Being one of the many great military strategists of Vietnam, Lý Thường Kiệt placed spikes under the Như Nguyệt riverbed before tricking Song troops into the death trap, killing more than 1,000 Chinese soldiers and sailors and forcing their remaining forces to retreat.

Those two significant Vietnamese victories quelled Chinese desires to launch more invasions. Afterwards, Lý Thường Kiệt also led a Vietnamese army south to invade Champa twice, with both invasions being successful.

He died in 1105 at the age of 86.

Nam Quốc Sơn Hà[edit]

He may have been the author of Chinese poem, Nam Quốc Sơn Hà. However controversy surrounds its exact authorship.

The poem was written to motivate troops to fight against the Song dynasty.

According to the 20th century historian Trần Trọng Kim, Ly was afraid that his soldiers would lose morale so he wrote this poem and said it was done by the Gods to restore their fighting spirit.[8]

In US President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam, he referred to the poem as Vietnam's "declaration of independence" saying that large countries should not bully smaller countries.[9]

Nonetheless, to this day the poem is still well-known in Vietnam, and Ly is considered a national hero, with some Vietnamese still delivering tribute to and worshipping him as a deity at his shrine in Hanoi.

Original Chinese Sino-Vietnamese English translation

Nam quốc sơn hà nam đế cư
Tiệt nhiên định phận tại thiên thư
Như hà nghịch lỗ lai xâm phạm
Nhữ đẳng hành khan thủ bại hư.
Over Mountains and Rivers of the South, reigns the Emperor of the South
As it stands written forever in the Book of Heaven
How dare those barbarians invade our land?
Your armies, without pity, will be annihilated.

Phạt Tống lộ bố văn[edit]

General Ly Thuong Kiet was also the author of the Phạt Tống lộ bố văn (chữ Hán : 伐宋露布文, An Account of the Campaign to Punish the Song), another poem against the Song Dynasty.[10]


  1. ^ Bruce M. Lockhart, William J. Duiker The A to Z of Vietnam 2010 Page 227 "Lý Thường Kiệt - Born in 1030 to an aristocratic family in the capital of Thăng Long (Hanoi), Lý Thường Kiệt served Emperor Lý Thanh Tong as a military officer and commanded a successful invasion of Champa in 1069 ..."
  2. ^ An Hoạch Báo Ân tự bi ký (安获山报恩序碑記), has a total of 680 Chinese characters (not counting the Ming article). This is a stele stating the construction of the temple so there is no word about the homeland of Ly Thuong Kiet
  3. ^ In fact, this is probably just a difference in defense because of the problem of hand-copying the words of the ancients. Two words [Ích;謚] with [Dật;溢] is basically different from the left hand.
  4. ^ Hoàng Xuân Hãn, book cited, pages 76-77
  5. ^ Based on the Việt điện u linh tập history book, the story about Lý Thường Kiệt
  6. ^ The stele in Hanoi wrote: "Lê Đại Hành Emperor went patrolled out in Ngũ Huyện Giang district, he visited Hương Nghiêm pagoda". This pagoda is in Đông Sơn, Thanh Hóa
  7. ^ Lưu Khánh Đàm stele said: "Lưu Khánh Đàm was from Yên Lang village, belonging to Ngũ Huyện Giang, Cửu Chân district"
  8. ^ 陳, 仲金. 越南史略.
  9. ^ "奥巴马所说的越南"独立宣言"《南国山河》真相--文史--人民网". history.people.com.cn. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  10. ^ Viet Nam social sciences - Issues 4-6 - Page 86 Ủy ban khoa học xã hội Việt Nam - 2002 "... and author of the epic poems Nam Quoc Son Ha and Lo Bo Van warning foreigners against attempting to follow in the "

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