A historic watershed

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By mid 1407 the Ming announced that the Tran family was extinct and, report- edly in response to petitions from local leaders and elders, proceeded to organize  the imperial province of Giao Chi. Huang Fu, the senior civil official, immedi- ately began to establish a structure of government staffed by both local men and  men from other imperial provinces. He spent the next decade in Giao Chi as the senior administrator. According to the official Vietnamese history (Complete Book of the History of Great Viet) compiled later in the century, he “was intelligent, was able to cope with changing circumstances, had talent for government, and was respected by the people.” His stated aim was “to make a fresh start” after the turmoil of the preceding thirty-five years. He used the expression canh tan (Chinese gengxin), “change to the new,” the literary equivalent of the vernacular term doi  moi, generally translated as “renovation,” which has become famous as the desig- nation of government policy in Vietnam beginning in the late 1980s.

This expression has a venerable pedigree in pre-modern Vietnamese political thought and shows a perception of discontinuity that is at least as characteristic of historical experience as the more common assertion of continuity. Since the tenth century, no experiment in establishing a structure of political leadership has lasted more than a few generations, whether it was personal charisma, maternal kinship, group solidarity, merit, or despotism. Now there would be an experiment in going back to the empire. None of these experiments led logically from one to the next. They each exhausted the possibilities for developing a particular solution to the problem of leadership in the context of a specific time and place. Each experiment turned in a new direction that did not necessarily develop from what had gone before. These experiments were enabled, shaped, or thwarted by the vicissitudes of powerful empires rising and declining just beyond the northern border.

Vietnamese historians have unanimously viewed the experiment in Ming rule as a tale of woe with no redeeming features and sure to fall beneath the weight of its own corruption and the righteous wrath of Vietnamese patriots. However,  this was not a story with a pre-ordained narrative. It was initiated and aban- doned as a result of decisions made at the Ming court. Like the interventions of  Wang Anshi, Kubilai Khan, and Che Bong Nga, this was not a struggle with an outcome determined by a law or theme of history but rather by the ambition and limitation of a particular man, in this case Zhu Di. Furthermore, Ming rule had a transforming effect on the development of Vietnamese culture and politics. For one thing, it completed the destruction of the Tran aristocracy begun by Ho Quy Ly. For another, it inculcated a generation of students with the Confucianism of Zhu Xi, which thereafter replaced Buddhism as the primary ideological vantage of rulers. And it also aroused a new style of monarchy that built upon the brief experiment of Ho Quy Ly in Thanh Hoa.

The senior Ming military commander in Giao Chi, Zhang Fu, was among the most competent military figures of the early Ming period. After preparing and leading the Ming invasion, he spent most of the next two decades in Giao Chi attending to security matters. His main post-invasion task was the suppression of resistance led by surviving members of the Tran royal family. In autumn of 1407, a son of Tran Phu named Tran Ngoi rallied soldiers to the Tran banner and proclaimed himself king at Yen Mo district in Ninh Binh Province, near Hoa Lu. Within two days Ming soldiers attacked him, and he fled south to Nghe An Province. There, he and his men killed two Tran nobles along with five hundred of their followers because they refused to abandon their allegiance to the Ming. Within weeks, Zhang Fu attacked Tran Ngoi and forced him further south. By mid 1408, Zhang Fu had returned to Dong Kinh and Tran Ngoi had returned to Nghe An, where he was joined by a general named Dang Tat leading soldiers from the far southern frontier.

With Ho Quy Ly’s defeat, the Cham king had reoccupied Quang Ngai and Quang Nam. Dang Tat and other officials from those jurisdictions began to fight among themselves as they withdrew northward. Dang Tat prevailed over his erstwhile colleagues and then sealed his ascendant status on the border by pledging allegiance to Ming. He now abandoned this pledge and joined his forces with Tran Ngoi. He rallied a large army and led it north through Thanh Hoa and into the Red River plain. Near the end of 1408 in Y Yen district, Nam Dinh Province, on the road to Dong Kinh, he defeated a Ming force that had been sent to stop him. This was the last hurrah of the Tran dynasty, but it was achieved under the leadership of a headstrong and careless man. Dang Tat brushed aside Tran Ngoi’s desire to follow up the victory with an immediate attack on Dong Kinh and instead led his soldiers from place to place in the lower plain to disperse Ming garrisons and rally more people to his banner. In early 1409, when rumors spread that Dang Tat was thinking of pushing Tran Ngoi aside to proclaim himself king, Tran Ngoi had him killed.

This turn of events caused dismay among Tran partisans, and a son of Dang Tat went south to rally support for Tran Quy Khoang, a son of Tran Phu’s son Tran Ngac, a nephew of Tran Ngoi. Tran Quy Khoang was proclaimed king in Nghe An. His partisans captured Tran Ngoi and brought him to Nghe An. By autumn 1409, the two kings had worked out an arrangement with Tran Ngoi as senior king and Tran Quy Khoang as junior king. The two kings led their forces north but were defeated in Thanh Hoa by Zhang Fu in an engagement resulting in Tran Ngoi’s capture by the Ming. Thanh Hoa was thereafter pacified and incorporated into Giao Chi. Tran Quy Khoang attempted to invade Thanh Hoa in 1410 but was repelled. He was thereafter inactive and survived for two years until Zhang Fu expelled him from Nghe An, pursued him to the southern border and captured him there in 1413. The Ming had completed the pacification of the Red River plain and Thanh Hoa by 1409; Nghe An, which included modern Ha Tinh, by 1412; and the southernmost territories down to the region of Hue by 1413. Quang Nam and Quang Ngai were left to the Chams. Irreconcilable opponents of the Ming fled to Champa and Laos. Later Vietnamese court annalists criticized Tran Ngoi and Tran Quy Khoang for being weak leaders and for being addicted to wine and women. Their most ardent followers and boldest generals came from the Cham frontier. They relied upon residual loyalty to the Tran dynasty, but their failures and internal rivalries  accumulated, giving them no prospect for overcoming such a strong and relent- less foe as Zhang Fu.

As long as Emperor Zhu Di remained alive, until 1424, the project of making Giao Chi a Ming province was firmly supported by the imperial court and, despite problems, was plausibly a success or at least on the way to success. Huang Fu was governor throughout this time, giving a continuity of leadership  that generated administrative momentum. The later propaganda of the Le dyn- asty that developed in resistance to Ming rule portrayed Ming Giao Chi as a  cruel, oppressive, exploitative regime. In fact, like nearly every regime that has tried to govern anywhere, Huang Fu’s administration was a mixture of positive and negative characteristics. Overall, the positive was no less important than the negative, depending upon the perceptions of particular localities.

People in the Red River plain tended to support Ming government. People in the lowlands of the southern provinces of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An were generally responsive to Ming government as well. But in the foothills and uplands of these southern provinces was an endemic resistance to Ming rule. In other words, following a distinction first reported during Tran times, many Kinh people perceived value in being part of the northern empire, but the Trai people did not. Thus, in the 1420s, after the death of Zhu Di, it was among the Trai population of the southern provinces that active resistance to Ming developed most rapidly, particularly in the lower valleys of the foothills south of the Red River and west of the coastal plains. The Tran terms Kinh and Trai represented different tendencies on a spectrum of cultural and linguistic practice that in modern times have been perceived as a difference between Vietnamese and various peoples collectively called Muong. This difference began to assume a significant political aspect in the fifteenth century with the building of Tay Do and with Thanh Hoa becoming the home of kings. Ming rule exacerbated latent tensions between the Red River plain and the southern provinces that became a prominent feature of Vietnamese politics for the next four centuries.

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