While royalty and literati maintained the forms of dynastic rule, an undercurrent of agrarian distress gathered momentum. The post-war famine of 1290–1292 had initiated a pattern of land being absorbed into the estates of royal family members and of peasants shifting into the status of royal slaves. Land once transferred to royal estates was never returned, but people who had sold themselves into slavery were given a term in which to redeem themselves. This term came to an end in 1299, after which redemptions were no longer allowed. Rural poverty was endemic. In 1303, Tran Kham summoned an assembly of wealthy people to contribute money to the poor. At the same assembly he initiated a program to distribute copies of a sutra to the common people for their edification, indicating that he and others viewed poverty as both a material and a moral issue.
The rise of slavery apparently led to disputes on royal estates, for in 1315 an edict forbad mutual denunciations among fathers and children, husbands and wives, and family slaves. Without more information, it is impossible to under- stand the situation being addressed, but in 1320 an edict forbad false claims of ownership over fields, indicating continued litigation over control of land. There is no indication of whether such litigation was between disputing aristocratic family members or between aristocrats and their slaves or peasants. Whatever the case, it is clear that the agrarian regime was not stable.
There was drought in 1315, and in 1317 it was recorded that banditry was a growing problem. In 1326 there was no rain. In 1333, there was flood and famine. In 1337, granaries were organized to feed the hungry. The following year, floods washed away crops and a big windstorm blew down trees and houses. These troubles were not out of the ordinary; a certain level of rural misery was normal. But the expansion of aristocratic estates and of slavery on those estates significantly reduced the capacity of rural society to respond flexibly to economic distress. In the 1340s the agrarian regime fell into a prolonged crisis that produced rebel armies. A drought in 1343 initiated a famine that lasted for three years. There was no harvest that year, and the court reduced taxes by half. Many people turned to banditry, especially slaves on royal estates. When the famine continued in 1344, people continued to join bandit gangs, and many who did not want to do that became monks and entered the temples. A rebel leader named Ngo Be assembled an army in the eastern plain near modern Dong Trieu and Mao Khe. Tran officials organized local military units to fight bandits and sent soldiers against Ngo Be. In 1345, Ngo Be’s army was defeated, but he continued his career as a rebel leader, and the famine also continued. An edict reduced the punishments for many crimes to encourage the surrender of bandits and rebels. In 1348 there was more drought and flooding. Rebels accumulated in the provinces of Thai Nguyen and Lang Son in the northern mountains and were not pacified until 1351. Then, in 1352, the dike on the Red River below Thang Long broke and flooded a vast region southeast of the capital. In 1354, another famine brought misery to the rural population. Insects destroyed the harvest, and another 50 percent tax reduction was proclaimed. A fresh outbreak of banditry contributed to the formation of another rebel army, this time led by one claiming to be a descendent of Tran Quoc Tuan. This man rallied large numbers of royal slaves and occupied extensive territories from his base at Van Kiep. In that year, news arrived from the northern border that a son of the traitor Tran Ich Tac intended to attack with an army he was raising in China, which at that time was rent by war as the Mongol regime was in collapse. Nothing came of this, but it added to the sense of unease in Thang Long, as did reports of the foreboding appearance of a wild black tiger in the palace complex. In 1355, there was drought and also floods. In 1356, amidst these unsettling events, Tran Manh, perhaps seeking some mercy for himself and his tormented kingdom, visited the tomb of Tran Quoc Chan, the father of his senior queen whom he had unjustly condemned to death three decades earlier. While returning to Thang Long by boat he was stung by a bee on his left cheek and fell ill. Despite the efforts of doctors and the prayers of his entourage he died six months later, in early 1357. Rural unrest continued as Tran Hao, a young man of 21, and not very interested in government, became the only king. In 1358, there was drought, crops were infested with insects, and fish died of pestilence. The court’s response was an appeal to wealthy people to give rice to the hungry. Ngo Be reappeared at the head of a rebel army. From his base at Chi Linh, he controlled the north- eastern part of the plain and adjacent uplands. The court ordered the mobiliza- tion of soldiers to fight the rebels. In 1359, floods washed away entire villages along with crops. In 1360, Ngo Be was finally captured and killed along with thirty of his lieutenants. In that year an edict required slaves belonging to royal family members to be tattooed on their foreheads. Anyone found without this tattoo would be treated as a rebel, which implies that the options available to many were now either slavery or rebellion. In 1362, drought again led to crop failure, a 50 percent reduction in taxes, and appeals for rich people to feed the hungry. To set an example, even the king distributed food. Banditry and rebel- lion continued. In 1366, robbers attacked the king himself as he traveled in the countryside at night, and took his royal seal and sword. Meanwhile the situation on the southern frontier was grim. In 1356, shortly before his fatal bee sting, Tran Manh took Tran Hao on a two-month inspection tour of the southern provinces. Cham relations were deteriorating at this time and efforts to maintain communications with the frontier were urgent; within a year orders went out to dredge and upgrade the canals and waterways in the southern provinces. In 1361 Cham sea raiders were fought off in modern Quang Binh. In 1361, Cham raiders plundered the Hue area and seized many captives. Cham raiders were repulsed in 1366, and the following year more soldiers were sent south to engage the Chams. In 1368, Cham envoys demanded the return of territories that the Tran had acquired with the ill-fated royal marriage alliance of 1305. The Tran response to this demand was to send an army to attack into modern Quang Nam, where it was repulsed. Soldiers were also mobilized to watch the northern border. The founder of the Ming dynasty was expanding his power in southern China, and the Mongol Yuan dynasty was no longer able to police the border, which inspired disorders. In 1359, Ming envoys appeared in Thang Long for the first time. The Tran sent officials north to investigate what was happening. In 1361, Thang Long politely refused a Ming request to send soldiers to help fight the Mongols. In 1368, Ming envoys arrived to announce their new dynasty and Tran envoys were sent to establish normal relations. Tran Hao paid little attention to the internal disorders and external threats of the 1360s. Before he died, Tran Manh had made Tran Hao’s mother, Queen Hien Tu, promise to remain in the palace and not withdraw to a nunnery. He must have foreseen that Tran Hao was not competent to be king and hoped that she would exert a positive influence on him. Tran Hao was mainly interested in money, amusements, and drinking. In a thinly veiled scheme to gain cash, he summoned rich people to come to the palace to gamble with him. On another occasion, he found a pretext to confiscate the property of a wealthy pearl merchant.
Many people were gaining access to the palace by virtue of their wealth or entertainment value. One man was given a rank at court simply for performing a trick in which he appeared to drink huge amounts of wine. Tran Hao ordered all members of the royal family to send their opera troupes to his palace; he spent much time watching the Yuan-style opera (tuong) that had become fashionable after the Mongol Wars. He also restored Trau Canh to the rank and privileges of which Tran Manh had deprived him. This clever doctor, hated by Tran Manh to his dying breath, had been closely associated with Tran Hao from the time he had revived the prince at the age of 3 from a near drowning accident. Trau Canh’s return to the palace was typical of a time when sycophants and adven- turers gained ascendancy at Tran Hao’s court. In a collection of tales compiled a century later entitled Linh Nam Chich Quai (Strange Tales Collected South of the Mountains) can be found a story of a young man, supposedly the son of a divine father and a human mother, who became a favorite of Tran Hao and made a career as a sexual predator until he was killed by a Tran nobleman.
In 1364, Tran Hao went for a drunken swim in the river at night and fell sick. Trau Canh mixed medicines for him and he was cured after two months. But he did not abate his heedless way of life. His nocturnal encounter with robbers in 1366, however, reportedly gave him an intimation that he did not have long to live, in response to which he indulged all his favorite dissipations until his death in 1369 at the age of 33
. He had no children. It fell to his mother, Queen Hien Tu, to mobilize the court behind a successor. Hien Tu was a niece of Tran Kham and the ranking woman at court. After the death of her father, Tran Quoc Chan, she had borne Tran Manh three children, two sons and a daughter. Tran Hao had been the second son. For unrecorded reasons, the eldest son, Tran Duc, had not been considered a good choice to be king. He apparently loved the theatre as much as his brother did, for he married an actress who was known as Vuong Mau, meaning “Royal Mother,” because she was famous for performing that role in the opera. It did not matter to Tran Duc that she was already married to an actor named Duong Khuong, nor did it matter to him that she happened to be pregnant with a child of Duong Khuong at the time he married her. She gave birth to a son named Nhat Le. Tran Duc, who had no children of his own, adopted Nhat Le as his own son. By the time Tran Duc died in 1364, Vuong Mau and Nhat Le were established in the palace as members of royalty.
When Tran Hao died, Nhat Le was the ostensible male heir of Tran Manh by Hien Tu, his only Tran wife. Nhat Le’s age is not known, but he could not have been out of his teens. There were three sons of Tran Manh who had established reputations as competent members of the royal family: Tran Nguyen Trac, 50 years old; Tran Phu, 48 years old; and Tran Kinh, 33 years old. However, none of their mothers was a Tran woman. Hien Tu officially recognized Nhat Le as her grandson and the legitimate successor to the throne. Despite Nhat Le’s questionable pedigree, she followed the Tran dynastic rule of succession, for which her father had paid with his life. She is recorded as saying: “Duc was the eldest son of the legal wife. He was not able to be king and died young. Is not Nhat Le his son?” Hien Tu had a reputation for being strictly fair in her relations with the women and children of the palace and for seeking to avoid conflict. Once, when Tran Manh was still alive, evidence surfaced that one of the palace women was using magic to bring harm to Hien Tu’s children. When Tran Manh wanted to bring the matter into the open and apply punishments, she persuaded him to let it pass because the woman in question was the daughter of a prominent Tran prince, and she valued harmony in the royal family above all else. She had accepted Nhat Le as the legitimate heir of her son Tran Duc, and she was not prepared to shirk from the implications of this when Tran Hao died. Nhat Le was raised to the throne. Tran Nguyen Trac was given a high appointment at court, and a daughter of Tran Phu was made queen. Six months later, Nhat Le killed Hien Tu when she expressed regret for his having become king.
Nhat Le was reportedly a lascivious drunkard who spent his time in idleness watching opera. In this he may not have been very different from Tran Hao. What was most demoralizing to the Tran nobles and court officials, and what probably turned Hien Tu against him, was that he began to talk about changing the dynastic name to Duong, the surname of his real father. This was a repudiation of his adoption by Tran Duc and an unacceptable threat to the existence of the Tran royal family. Resistance to him gathered around the senior Tran princes.