Nguyen Phuc Khoat, the first southern king

01

Dec
2021

A lesser empire

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The Khuc were a prominent family from the old heartland of Giao Province, east of Hanoi. When the Tang dynasty was officially replaced by the Later Liang dynasty in 907, the leader of this family was Khuc Thua My. He transferred his allegiance from Tang to Later Liang and claimed legitimacy as a loyal imperial official. The Later Liang exerted little influence beyond northern China, but, as late as 918, Khuc Thua My continued to send envoys with tribute to Later Liang to maintain the benefit of whatever moral support could be obtained from imperial appointments. In central and southern China, adventurers were striving to expand their authority with dreams of founding their own dynasties. In 917, one such aspirant proclaimed the Southern Han dynasty in Guangdong and Guangxi, on the northern border of Giao. When Later Liang fell in 923, the powers contending for northern China gave no more thought to affairs in the south, and Southern Han began to nurture designs on An Nam.

The Khuc did not follow the model of other regional powers in China by founding a dynasty. They continued to pose as officials of an empire that no longer existed, ostensibly waiting for a new imperial house to re-establish order in the north. Unlike other parts of the empire that since the late ninth century had been ravaged by the uprisings and turmoil of Tang’s long decline, An Nam rested quietly with the legacy of fifteen years of stable government led by Gao Pian, by his grandson, and by Zeng Gun. The men who inherited this legacy shrank from the anarchic violence they observed in the north. Claiming to be more than imperial servants would simply attract unwanted attention and stoke the ambitions of their Southern Han neighbor. For several years, they had an alliance with the Min kingdom of Fujian, located on the northeastern border of Southern Han, which discouraged Southern Han from launching an attack on either of them. However, when Min fell apart into civil war in 930, Southern Han immediately took the opportunity to attack An Nam.

There is no record of any resistance being offered by Khuc Thua My. It appears that he and his advisors considered it best to submit. After all, their sense of identity was with the empire, and the Southern Han were claimants to the imperial throne. Khuc Thua My was taken into custody and removed to the north where he spent the rest of his life. The Southern Han army could not resist the temptation to march down the coast to sack the Cham capital at Tra Kieu. After that, Southern Han was content to appoint a governor of Giao Province with responsibility for the Red River plain.

The southern provinces, in the Ma and Ca River plains, were left in the hands of a subordinate of Khuc Thua My, a man native to that region named Duong Dinh Nghe. While the people in the Red River plain may have been relatively phlegmatic about Southern Han rule, Duong Dinh Nghe and the people who assembled around him had their own ambitions. In 931, Duong Dinh Nghe marched his soldiers north to Dai La, expelled the Southern Han officials with  their garrison, and attacked the Southern Han army that was sent as reinforce- ment, killing its general in battle. He then proclaimed himself to be the governor,  and Southern Han, stinging from defeat and unprepared for further fighting, recognized him as such.

Duong Dinh Nghe’s mobilization of the southern provinces was the first  indication after the Nan Zhao War that these territories were prepared to re- enter the competition for control of the Red River plain. There were two main political centers in the plain, Giao in the agricultural heartland with Da Lai at its center and Phong, formerly Me Linh, at the head of the plain where the Red River emerges from the mountains. For centuries, the headquarters for patrolling the upland hinterland had been located in Phong. Duong Dinh Nghe endeavored to rule from Da Lai, but, in 937, Kieu Cong Tien, a leader of Phong, killed him and called on Southern Han for assistance against the southern provinces. In response, Southern Han mobilized a fleet of warships, commanded by the crown prince, to bring an army to the aid of its would-be ally in Phong.

Meanwhile, Duong Dinh Nghe’s son-in-law, Ngo Quyen, also from Phong but in command of the southern provinces, marched north and killed Kieu Cong Tien. He then stationed his men at the estuary of the Bach Dang River where the sea routes entered the plain and where he prepared to receive the Southern Han fleet with iron-tipped poles planted in the bed of the river. When the Southern Han fleet arrived in late 938, it was trapped on the poles as the tide fell and was annihilated; the heir to the Southern Han throne perished, and that was the end of Southern Han ambitions in An Nam.

What was left of the empire was now divided up among several regional king- doms and it was no longer plausible to maintain the fiction of posing as an  administrator-in-waiting for some new dynasty to restore the imperial peace. Ngo Quyen accordingly rode the momentum of his battlefield victory at the Bach Dang estuary and took the step of entering the realm of jostling post-Tang states by claiming royal status and proposing to found a dynasty of his own. He organized a court with titles, ritual etiquette, and dress code modeled on imitations of imperial practice then current at the various regional capitals in the north. Furthermore, he set his capital north of the Red River at the ancient site of Co Loa, the fortress supposedly built by King An Duong over a millennium before, located in the heartland of old pre-Tang Giao where the Chinese-speaking population was concentrated.

Ngo Quyen’s adoption of the forms of imperial authority at a site north of the Red River shows that, although he had avenged his father-in-law by killing the leader of Phong, he had also come to terms with the people of Giao. Preparing for the Battle of Bach Dang had required the active assistance of these people, for the Bach Dang estuary was in eastern Giao. Despite his career in Duong Dinh Nghe’s entourage and his command of the southern provinces, he was as noted earlier originally from Phong, the same district that had produced Phung Hung in the eighth century, whose posthumous cult he patronized. He achieved an alliance between the southern provinces and the Red River plain. The court at Co Loa was designed to elicit the loyalty of prominent people who believed in maintaining membership in the northern political realm, whatever form that might take.

When Ngo Quyen died in 944, Duong Tam Kha, his brother-in-law and a son of Duong Dinh Nghe, proclaimed himself king. The eldest of Ngo Quyen’s sons, not yet an adult, fled and was protected by a powerful family in eastern Giao. Duong Tam Kha brought people from the southern provinces into the court and pushed aside the men of Giao. In 950, leaders in Giao rallied behind Ngo Quyen’s second son, who had remained under Duong Tam Kha’s tutelage, and deposed Duong Tam Kha, banishing him south of the Red River. At this point, men from the southern provinces were pushed out of the royal court and the powerful families of Giao stood behind Ngo Quyen’s two eldest sons, who presided over a weak two-headed monarchy. When the eldest brother died in 954, the younger brother announced himself as a vassal of Southern Han, but this was of no help to him. Enmity between the Kieu and Ngo families produced chronic fighting between Phong and Giao, and in 963 the Ngo king was killed in an ambush while campaigning on the Giao–Phong border. His successor, very likely a younger brother, was unable to resist a new leader emerging from the southern provinces named Dinh Bo Linh, who forced him and the Ngo family into his entourage with multiple marriage alliances. Dinh Bo Linh’s father had been in command on the Cham border in the far south under Duong Dinh Nghe and Ngo Quyen.

Dinh Bo Linh was based at Hoa Lu, a natural redoubt among the rocky outcroppings of the southeastern edge of the Red River plain in modern Ninh Binh province. Hoa Lu commanded the main land route from the plain to the southern provinces. It was also an outpost of the southern provinces looking out upon the Red River plain. From there, Dinh Bo Linh built up his forces, allied with neighboring strongmen along the lower Red River, and attacked those in the upper plain who resisted him, the most valiant of whom were three brothers, sons of a Chinese merchant and a local woman. He subdued all his opponents by 965 when he sent envoys to the Southern Han court. At this time the empire was being reconstituted by the Song dynasty, which conquered Southern Han in 971. In 973 and again in 975, Dinh Bo Linh sent envoys to establish and then to expand relations with the Song court in northern China, which, being occupied with urgent problems elsewhere, provisionally acknowledged the Dinh family’s authority in An Nam.

In terms of geographical extent and military power, the Song dynasty did not compare with the Han and the Tang. The reason for this was that the warrior aristocracy that for centuries had founded dynasties and ruled the empire had, beginning in the last half of Tang, been superseded by a class of scholars and  administrators who advanced their careers through a system of academic exam- inations and were distrustful of military men. Armies were organized with  multiple chains of command to prevent any single person from gaining control of soldiers. Military campaigns were bureaucratized with pre-set itineraries and the need for cooperation among men chosen for their personal animosity toward each other. Consequently, the Song dynasty did not expand to the north, the northwest, and the northeast to the extent that previous major dynasties had, but instead was blocked by other powers along these borders. As for the southern frontier, the Song court waited for an opportunity to reclaim the legacy of Han and Tang. This opportunity came in 980 with news that Dinh Bo Linh had been assassinated and that his followers were fighting among themselves. This came at a time of relative quiet on the northern frontiers and an expedition was quickly organized to reclaim the far south.

A courtier who reportedly had visions of grandeur stabbed Dinh Bo Linh and his eldest son to death in their sleep. A brief struggle for power was quickly resolved in favor of Le Hoan, a native of the province south of Hoa Lu, now called Thanh Hoa, who was commander of an army that had been recruited by Dinh Bo Linh in the Red River plain. Le Hoan prepared to resist the Song expedition, which was en route both by land and by sea. The leaders of the Song  forces were unimaginative and confounded by strict instructions from the imper- ial court. The land force arrived on the northern edge of the Red River plain and  spent over two months in camp waiting for the arrival of the fleet, which was held up by fighting with Le Hoan’s forces at the Bach Dang estuary. When the fleet arrived, the Song officers argued about what to do next, dismayed by the loss of time and the approach of the monsoon rain season when warfare was impracticable. One senior official, believing that Le Hoan was about to submit, embarked part of the army and advanced by river toward Hoa Lu, but he was ambushed and killed. News of this led the other senior officers to abandon the campaign and return north, where they were executed for incompetence.

This war exemplified how the situation had changed from that in previous centuries. In the past, new dynasties had no problem establishing their control over the plains of the Red, Ma, and Ca Rivers. The generals who led imperial  armies adapted to circumstances and improvised their strategies, taking calcu- lated risks, being confident of victory. In 980, the Song army came with a  committee of arguing officers constrained by their instructions and fearful of defeat. This was a new kind of empire led by a different kind of people. It lacked the martial prowess and strategic vision of the old Han-Tang aristocracy. Rather, it was focused on civil administration, bureaucratic procedure, the management of wealth, and literary excellence.

In the wake of the Song expedition’s withdrawal in 981, Le Hoan moved quickly to establish relations with the northern empire. Hoa Lu diplomacy had initiated a precedent during the previous ten years. After the Song conquest of southern China in 971, Dinh Lien, Dinh Bo Linh’s son, had traveled to the Song court and obtained an imperial appointment as governor; during the 970s, envoys from Hoa Lu bearing rich tribute repeatedly went to the Song court and Song envoys arrived at Hoa Lu to confer additional honorary titles on both Dinh  Lien and Dinh Bo Linh. After the uproar of 980–981, Le Hoan initially con- ducted diplomacy with Song in the name of the last Dinh king, an infant son of  Dinh Bo Linh whom he had deposed and adopted when taking the throne. When it became clear that Song was uninterested in further warfare and, moreover, was open to conciliation, Le Hoan stepped from the shadows and informed Song that he had supplanted the Dinh. The Song court responded in 986 by recognizing him as the local ruler and conferring on him titles of vassalage. Throughout Le Hoan’s reign, envoys from Hoa Lu regularly carried tribute to the Song court and Song envoys arrived to bestow further titles on Le Hoan. One Song envoy, Li Jiao, became famous for exchanging poetry with the Buddhist monks assigned to greet and entertain him. In modern times, the verse produced in these exchanges has been anthologized as the first poems in what is imagined to be the history of Vietnamese literature.

In the mid 990s, when Le Hoan was beginning to enforce his ascendancy in areas adjacent to the Song border, the emperor accused him of plundering Song settlements both by land and by sea. Le Hoan replied that the depredations were the work of rebels and bandits whom he was endeavoring to suppress. The Song court, determined on a pacifist policy, accepted his explanation and amicable relations were soon restored. Many men at the Song court began to understand that the imperial inheritance on the southern frontier, as on the northern frontier, was beyond their capacity to reclaim. Le Hoan understood that the Song would leave him alone so long as he observed the protocol of vassalage and displayed a respectful attitude.

The millennium of belonging to the empire ended because of fundamental  changes in the outlook of the rulers of the empire and in how imperial govern- ment was organized. What for centuries had been Giao Province or the Protect- orate of An Nam was now beyond the reach of imperial armies because, in  comparison with earlier times, military commanders were kept on a short bur- eaucratic leash. But this was also more than just an administrative matter. Song  rulers were less cosmopolitan than those of Han and Tang; their relative weak- ness in relation to neighboring powers produced a more embattled perception of  the civilized world, narrower and less confident of being able to accommodate cultural diversity. While earlier dynasties had no problem accepting the people of Giao/An Nam as more or less legitimate members of the empire, Song rulers viewed them as beyond the edge of civilization. This was revealed in the imperial edict published in 980 announcing the reasons for the expedition against Hoa Lu. The rhetoric of disdain for and outrage at the uncivilized behavior of Le Hoan and the people he ruled was unprecedented in the long history of official  imperial relations with this part of the world. Beyond giving lip service to the historical task of reclaiming a part of the imperial inheritance, this edict dilated upon the task of eradicating savagery, indicating a more constricted mental world than that of previous generations of imperial officials who had lived, worked, and permanently settled in Giao/An Nam.

The Song attitude effectively redefined this place as outside the realm of civilization. Le Hoan was able to go his separate way not only because Song  was not strong enough to subdue him but also because Song no longer con- sidered him and the people he ruled sufficiently civilized to be deemed proper  subjects of the empire. Song’s diminished martial prowess was closely related to this more demanding, less inclusive, view of the civilized world because men in government were now products of literary education and civil administration more than of military training and battlefield experience. One effect of this fundamental change in Chinese government was that the people in the Red River plain began a new trajectory of cultural and political autonomy.

Every aspect of Vietnamese culture is deeply imprinted by contact with China. To assume that these aspects have been either imposed by imperial oppressors or freely borrowed by indigenous people requires a clear demarcation between what is called Chinese and what is called Vietnamese. Such a demarcation did not exist during the time we have discussed in this chapter. In the tenth century, the people of what is now northern Vietnam were an amalgam of settlers from the north and indigenous peoples; for centuries they had lived together, intermarried, developed bilingual habits of speech, and formed a regional perspective on imperial civilization.

By the end of the tenth century, as described in the Introduction, the version of the Chinese language spoken in northern Vietnam, which we can call Annamese Middle Chinese, was cut off from regular contact with the north and from fresh infusions of Chinese speakers. It nevertheless remained the prestige language even as it became more isolated in the region surrounding Hanoi and began a  process of merging with and shifting into the prestige version of Proto-Viet- Muong, a process that produced what we can recognize as the Vietnamese  language.

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