The Sino-Khmer War and renovation



A new dynastic structure

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In early 1427, aside from collecting rice to feed soldiers, the chief aims of Le Loi’s  civil administration in the Red River plain were focused upon accumulating know- ledge of the population, finding qualified officials, and establishing rules for their  behavior. Family registers were compiled. Displaced people were sent back to their villages to grow rice or to engage in trade. In a proclamation, Le Loi called upon educated “men of ability” to come forward to serve. In one of his first acts after establishing his headquarters at Bo De, Le Loi authorized a literary examination that selected over thirty scholars who became the core of a civil court. Officials who had served Ming but readily turned to serve Le Loi were assigned to posts in the southern provinces. Checkpoints were established to authenticate the travel documents of officials, who were admonished to strictly follow their itinerary and instructions, to report everything that they saw and did, and to observe “the three proscriptions”: do not be without human feeling; do not be oppressive and rude; do not be crafty and avaricious.  As more local people who had served the Ming began to come over, proced- ures for evaluating degrees of guilt by association were devised and levels of  punishment were prescribed. A schedule of ransoms by which guilty men could  redeem their wives, children, and slaves was published. Chieftains in the moun- tains also began to submit, and trade in salt and fish was forbidden with those  who did not. Envoys from Champa and Laos arrived to make peace with Le Loi, showing that the shifting tide of power was felt beyond the frontiers. During the first half of 1427, Le Loi was preoccupied with turning a rabble into an army. Thousands of men were hastily recruited during his march through the southern provinces. Thousands more were recruited in the Red River plain. After a spate of fighting around Dong Kinh early in the year, Le Loi not only rewarded some officers but he also had others executed for failure to follow instructions. He issued a proclamation to his soldiers urging discipline and obedience. He informed them that if they obeyed his commands he would take care of them and their families but disobedience would be punished with death. He also announced that when the war ended two-thirds of them would be allowed to return to their homes and fields. Le Loi announced ten prohibitions that give an indication of what he meant by indiscipline in the ranks: boisterous behavior; talk of omens that caused loss of fighting spirit; pretending not to see the flags or hear the drums ordering an attack; not stopping when the signal to stand fast is given; not retreating when the gong for retreat is sounded; sleeping or abandoning one’s post when on guard duty; getting involved with women; hiding unreported wealth or taking bribes from deserters; venting anger and hatred that obscures the merit or the crimes of others; being dishonest, thievish, cruel, or at odds with others. Viola- tions of these prohibitions were to be punished by beheading. Shortly after,  another punishment was announced: all members of units that flee battle and leave some of their members behind were to be executed. Meanwhile, catapults and siege engines were being constructed and iron forges were built to produce and repair weapons. Dikes and walls were piled up to tighten the siege of Dong Kinh. The northern border was put under the command of Le Sat, one of Le Loi’s most able commanders. In late summer, a small Ming army attempted to cross the border but was repulsed. Thereafter the families of soldiers on the northern border were relocated out of danger and the siege of Xuong Giang (Bac Giang) was pressed to eliminate this stepping-stone for any Ming army on its way to relieve Dong Kinh or for any retreat of Ming forces from Dong Kinh to the border. The Ming commanders at Xuong Giang understood the importance of their post and resisted to the death. Le Loi sent troops to throw up earthworks from which to gain access to the fortress. Élite units with long swords, crossbows, flaming arrows, and firearms joined the battle, and Xuong Giang fell ten days before the arrival of the main Ming relief army. Le Loi instructed his generals to prepare what might be called a “deep dead end” for the Ming army on the road from the border to Xuong Giang with Xuong Giang as the end of the road and with units closing in around the Ming force as it advanced. The commander of the Ming relief force did not know that Xuong Giang had fallen so plunged ahead until he was well caught in the trap. The Ming army was utterly annihilated. Banners, standards, and prisoners from this campaign were conveyed to the Ming army marching downriver from Yunnan, which persuaded its commander to turn back, and to Wang Tong at Dong Kinh, which persuaded him to surrender. Le Loi’s generals wanted to attack and kill remaining Ming forces, but Nguyen Trai argued that nothing was to be gained by this and that they should be allowed to return north without further injury. Le Loi took Nguyen Trai’s advice and arranged for the Ming and their supporters to leave the country in peace. Le Loi promulgated six rules to be observed by his military officers to curb their enthusiasm in victory, prohibiting cruelty, bullying, and criminal behavior. Most local people who had supported the Ming decided to remain and face the consequences of that. The rest were allowed to depart north with what remained of the imperial garrison. Within weeks, the Ming court recognized Tran Cao as king and abolished Giao Chi. Only a few weeks after that, Tran Cao was dead, probably poisoned, though many stories have been told of his demise. In 1428, Le Loi presided over an extended session of conferring rewards and meting out punishments before entering Dong Kinh and taking the throne. During the five years of his reign, he and his followers attended to all aspects of a royal court: law, administration, personnel, public morality, finance, defense, diplomacy, ritual, and succession. The role of Nguyen Trai and other civil officials was mainly concerned with ritual, diplomacy, and the details of law and administration. The most influential voices at court belonged to a group of generals from Thanh Hoa who had served Le Loi from the beginning of his military campaigns, of whom Le Sat was the most prominent. Le Loi endeavored to maintain some sense of continuity with the Tran past by  rebuilding the tombs and shrines of the Tran royal family that had been des- troyed by the Ming. He conducted sacrifices to all former kings and to all  prominent deities that had received royal recognition in times past. He also reinstituted the blood oath and the royal birthday festival, which had been abolished by Ho Quy Ly. These were occasions to encourage loyalty and to distribute gifts among large crowds of new followers.

The business of rewards and punishments continued for quite some time. Assemblies were organized to distribute rewards to various military units. In 1429, after a year and a half of investigation, a “register of merit” honoring ninety-three men who had particularly distinguished themselves in wartime service to Le Loi was published. An official was assigned to investigate anyone claiming to have been unjustly left out.

Measures for dealing with those who had served Ming reveal that this included a significant number of people. Stubborn Ming partisans who tried to avoid Le Loi’s justice were tracked down and beheaded. On the other hand, those who surrendered to Le Loi could regain their confiscated property. The investigation to itemize the land and possessions of various classes of people who had served Ming took ten months, and for several months after the completion of this procedure officials were still sorting out the disposition of those who had served not only the Ming but also the Ho, along with their families, dependents, land, and property. The official dynastic doctrine was that the Le succeeded the Tran dynasty, and that Ho Quy Ly was an unlawful usurper.

Administrative jurisdictions were reformed and regulations for conducting censuses, collecting taxes, conscripting soldiers, and authenticating paperwork  were published. Government at village, district, and provincial levels was organ- ized, and officials were assigned their posts. Literary exams to fill positions were  held in 1429, 1431, and 1433. Officials were called upon to recommend others for appointment, but they were punished if anyone they recommended proved to be incapable. Officials were investigated and categorized into four groups: first, those with energy, acumen, and both literary and military skill; second, those with energy, acumen, and knowledge of letters; third, those who could write and do arithmetic; and the fourth category was for “others.” The emphasis on “energy and acumen” expresses an appreciation for enthusiasm and intelligence, and for being able not simply to follow orders but also to take initiative.

At the same time, several edicts were published against corruption, and offi- cials were repeatedly admonished to refrain from evil and oppressive behavior.  Some such problems were a normal part of any administration, particularly at the start of a new regime. However, there were likely to have been contradictions between the Le dynasts, whose base of power was in Thanh Hoa, and the people in the Red River plain, who for twenty years had been governed as a Ming province. Ho Quy Ly, the first king from Thanh Hoa, never won the allegiance of people in the Red River plain. Later events would show that Le Loi and his successors mitigated this regional antagonism for a time but did not erase it.  In 1429, after a grand military review, four-fifths of the soldiers were demobil- ized and sent to work in the fields. An especial concern of Le Loi was to put land  back into production. Abandoned and confiscated land was assigned to demobil- ized soldiers and to other worthy people. Magistrates were instructed that no  land was to be left uncultivated. A new agrarian regime emerged out of Le Loi’s legislation on land ownership and village government. There came an end to large estates farmed by slaves or peasants in a serf-like status. Instead, villages were organized on the basis of free peasants with enough land to support their families and pay taxes.

This agenda built upon the work of Ho and Ming administrators. The Ho, the Ming, and the Le all targeted the estates not only of aristocrats but also of temples. Le Loi ensured that Buddhist temples were restricted not only in their ownership of land but also in their manpower. He held an examination of all monks to determine whether or not they would be allowed to continue as monks or would be returned to lay life. The effort to put people into productive work was reinforced by Confucian ideas about public morality. One of the first edicts in 1429 was against gambling, playing chess, and sitting around drinking wine.

During the Le dynasty, the standing army was primarily recruited from the southern provinces. Le Loi collected weapons from the population in the Red  River plain. At the same time, arsenals and shipyards were established to manu- facture new weapons and war boats. Several campaigns were launched into the  mountains against upland people deemed uncooperative in the modern province of Lai Chau. Despite tribute missions from Champa and Laos, the Le court nurtured a long-term desire for revenge against these kingdoms. Champa had taken the opportunity of Ming rule to recover the territories that Ho Quy Ly had conquered in 1402, the modern provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai. Laos had assisted Ming in its pacification of Le Loi in 1421–1422. The Le court would take its time to prepare replies to these grievances. Meanwhile, more urgent matters preoccupied Le Loi.

One of these was finance. Annalists observed that Ho Quy Ly had destroyed nearly all coinage. As early as 1428, Le Loi began to cast his own coins, but demand was initially greater than what could be produced. In 1429 the court debated the issuing of paper money, but this was not done. After a few years, the monetary situation was stabilized as the production of new coins gradually filled demand.

An important matter was to regularize the tributary relationship with Ming. For four years, Ming demanded the return of all Ming people and of weapons left behind in Giao Chi. In fact, a significant population of Ming people chose to stay, and Le Loi had no intention of forcing them to leave. Ming repeatedly demanded that Le Loi find a Tran descendent to restore that dynasty, and Le Loi repeatedly replied that none could be found. Finally, in 1431, the Ming court recognized Le Loi as king. Thereafter, relations with Ming were amicable and uneventful.

Le Loi’s eldest son, Le Tu Te, was an adult and had held high positions in his father’s entourage. However, he had a reputation for being rustic, rash, and foolish, and Le Loi did not regard him as capable of being king. In 1429 he designated his second son, Le Nguyen Long, born in 1423, to be crown prince. Shortly before he died in 1433, Le Loi demoted Le Tu Te and confirmed Le Nguyen Long as his choice to succeed him. After Le Loi’s death, Le Tu Te was ostracized from the royal family and eventually demoted to commoner status.

Le Loi led a rough and vigorous life, full of danger, daring, and drama. His energy was spent enforcing order, discipline, and hierarchy, first among the people in the uplands of the southern provinces and then among the Kinh in the lowlands as Ming rule faded away. Rising as a frontier chieftain on the margins where Trai and Kinh people intermingled, he mobilized the Trai to make himself king of the Kinh. Although he established his regime at Dong Kinh, the “eastern capital,” he also maintained a dynastic “home base” at Ho Quy Ly’s old “western capital” of Tay Do, which lay near his native estate at Mount Lam and near which he and his descendents would be buried.

According to a popular story, Le Loi’s achievement was made possible by a magical sword that he received from Heaven as a symbol of his destiny. After founding his dynasty, Heaven took the form of a great turtle that surfaced in a Dong Kinh lake and reclaimed the sword as Le Loi passed by in a boat. Today, a lake in downtown Hanoi is called the Lake of the Returned Sword (Ho Hoan Kiem) to commemorate this mythical event.

Later Vietnamese historians have understandably chosen to see Le Loi’s war with Ming as a war of resistance against foreign aggression, but it was also a civil war between the Kinh and the Trai, between the Red River plain and the southern provinces, between those for whom the northern empire was the source of civilization and those for whom the uplands and southern frontiers were places of freedom from the restraints of civil discipline. Le Loi built his dynasty as an alliance between these two groups, but it was a fragile alliance, relying  upon unity among men from the south whose personal ambitions were a centri- fugal force seeking new horizons of fulfillment. The alliance lasted for a century  before lapsing into a new civil war that continued in various forms for three centuries. For three decades following Le Loi’s death, his generals became great lords and enforced a peace in which educated men of the Red River plain accumulated at the royal court.

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