Another cycle of Trinh misgovernment

01

Dec
2021

Another cycle of Trinh misgovernment

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In early 1751, the battlefield situation changed dramatically. Both Nguyen Huu Cau and Nguyen Danh Phuong were captured and killed after heavy fighting. Hoang Cong Chat was driven into the mountains of Hung Hoa. Le Duy Mat was pushed into the mountains of Nghe An and eventually forced up the Ca River to the Xieng Khouang plateau of Laos where he and his followers established a small domain. Both Hoang Cong Chat and Le Duy Mat would survive in their mountain fortresses for nearly two more decades, but they were never again active in the lowlands. The years of rebellion were coming to an end.  By mid 1751, Nhu Dinh Toan (1703–1774), a graduate of the 1736 examin- ation, from an area east of the capital, was assigned to draw up plans for  rebuilding a system of administration. He announced nine basic principles that predictably echoed the ideals of the Hong Duc and Canh Tri eras. In more specific terms, he proposed that the Six Sessions, the Six Ministries, the Six Departments, the Six Courts, the Censorate, as well as the provincial and district officials, should all bear their respective responsibilities. He observed that, in actual fact, the Six Sessions, under direct Trinh control, decided everything while the other offices, in the royal domain, did nothing, and many high officials and prominent nobles did as they pleased. Two new offices were to be established to collect taxes in the Red River plain. For good measure, the 1663 “Edict to Explain Civilizing Instructions” was reissued. In 1752, remaining rebel bands in the lowlands were tracked down and pacified, and officials were sent to return scattered refugees to their villages and fields. In 1753, soldiers from the Red River plain were released to bring abandoned fields back under cultivation. In these years, Trinh Doanh held daily meetings with his highest officials to discuss the details of restoring calm to the country. He is reported to have admonished his Censorate and provincial judicial officers: “All I get from you is trivia! I know there are many bad things going on. You must report them to me so that something can be done about them.”  Two authors writing in the 1740s, during the rebellions, have been remem- bered for new literary departures. Dang Tran Con (1710–1745) wrote a long  poem entitled Chinh Phu Ngam Khuc (Song of a Soldier’s Wife), a lament in the voice of a woman whose husband had gone off to war, leaving her to mourn the passing of her years in loneliness. This work was written in Literary Chinese. Several later writers wrote translations of it in vernacular Nom. The most popular vernacular version today is attributed to Phan Huy Ich (1750–1822), written in the early nineteenth century. The second author was Doan Thi Diem (1705–1748), the daughter of a teacher. She wrote poetry and prose in Literary Chinese. Her work expressed the perspective of an educated woman who considered herself to be, and was, the intellectual equal of men. Among her works is Truyen Ky Tan Pha (New Collection of Marvelous Stories), which includes her version of the earthly life of the woman who became the popular goddess Lieu Hanh, emphasizing Lieu Hanh’s erudition as a mark of her divinity. Both Dang Tran Con and Doan Thi Diem gave impetus to the literary trend of using the voice of a woman to comment on social and political affairs. The literary conceit of intelligent and complaining women appeared amidst turmoil that tended to discredit the existing political leadership of men. By 1754, conditions were thought to have become sufficiently normal that the king was allowed to take a day excursion by boat on the Red River. In that year, taxation was reinstituted in the northern border provinces and officials reported that the village populations in the lowlands had been stabilized and fields had been restored to cultivation. Thereafter, the rural situation returned to the familiar cycle of subsistence: a good harvest, then famine and misery, and then waiting for the next good harvest. A drought in 1755 put taxes into arrears, clogged the courts of law with litigation over land, which was the only asset in poverty-stricken villages, and caused soldiers from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An to desert their units and return home to care for their families. Initiatives to reform judicial procedures were made in 1758 and again in 1762, but courts of law were as chronic a source of dismay as were the vicissitudes of agriculture. In 1757 there were floods, epidemics, and a famine. In 1759, there was drought, insects, and famine. In 1761 there was drought. In 1762 there was a rural epidemic. In 1765 there was drought and an epidemic. In 1766 there were broken dikes and floods. Trinh agrarian policy remained at the level of ad hoc reactions to these events. In 1755, all unpaid taxes in the Red River plain were forgiven, and the Nghe An  land tax rate was reduced. In 1756, the Six Sessions were found to be incompe- tent at collecting the land tax so this task was put into the hands of a eunuch. In  1757, military colonies (don dien) were abolished and their land was returned to village leaders. In 1762, Thanh Hoa and Nghe An were subject to a new census for conscripting soldiers. In 1765, an edict admonished powerful families to stop harassing the farmers. In 1766, soldiers were sent to suppress an outbreak of rural banditry in the region northwest of the capital. Commercial policy in these years was aimed at limiting excessive exactions at  customs stations that hindered the movement of goods and discouraged mer- chants. Copper coins were again being cast. Communities of Qing merchants  existed at Mong Cai on the coast at the Qing border, at the old port of Van Don, and in Nghe An at Quynh Luu and at Vinh. In 1764, the Qing people in these communities were forbidden to mix with the local population and required to stay in their own quarters. Christianity was routinely proscribed along with various forms of undesirable behavior such as gambling. The number of Christians nevertheless continued to grow. During the fifty years from the beginning of Trinh Cuong’s rule in 1709 through Trinh Doanh’s rule in the 1760s, eighty-six European missionaries are recorded as having served among the northern Vietnamese and 111 northern  Vietnamese were ordained as priests. Major concentrations of Christian commu- nities developed in Nghe An, in the coastal area south of Ke Cho at modern Phat  Diem, and in the region east of Ke Cho at Ke Sat and neighboring areas of the Hai Duong plain. The missionaries tried to keep Christians out of the rebellions of the 1730s and 1740s but were not always successful in doing so. Their accounts describe the grinding misery of rural life. Christian soldiers served in the military during those years, being allowed to swear an oath of loyalty to the Trinh in the name of the Christian god rather than of the traditional mountain spirit. In the mid 1750s, Trinh Doanh’s interest in the examination system extended to conducting continuing evaluations of the officials who had emerged from that  system and who, in peacetime, were taking greater roles in government adminis- tration. In 1756, he assigned Le Quy Don (1726–1784), a graduate of 1752 from  the coastal region of modern Thai Binh Province, to examine all officials and make recommendations for promotions and demotions. Le Quy Don was a relatively erudite man, which may explain the confidence placed in him by Trinh Doanh. He was also a clever self-promoter and did not neglect opportunities to advance the careers of men in his debt or to derail the careers of men he did not like. In 1762, Trinh Doanh established a privy council (bi thu cac) and put Le Quy Don in charge of it along with an older official named Nguyen Ba Lan (1701–1786), a graduate of 1731. Shortly after, Le Quy Don departed as envoy to China. When he returned in 1765, however, he made himself so ridiculous by ostensibly announcing his errors while in fact publicly praising himself that Trinh Doanh dismissed him into early retirement. In 1767, Trinh Doanh died and was succeeded by his eldest son Trinh Sam. Trinh Sam had been designated as heir fourteen years earlier when he was a teenager. At the time of his elevation, Ngo Thi Si (1725–1780), an official who had been brought into officialdom in 1756 when Le Quy Don was ascendant, was in the northern mountains with a group of subordinates. He had been sent by Trinh Doanh to bring the mining operations there under control. All the profits from the mines were going to Qing businessmen across the border and Ke Cho administrators were stymied in their efforts to collect taxes. It is typical of Trinh Sam’s rule that, upon his coming to power, Ngo Thi Si and his colleagues were recalled to the capital and no further effort was taken to deal with the perennial problem of the mines along the Qing border. Trinh Sam called Le Quy Don back from retirement, and, during the next fifteen years, Le Quy Don and Ngo Thi Si were prominent in a group of officials who worked closely with eunuchs to maintain a modicum of public order while attending to Trinh Sam’s wishes and their own enrichment. Trinh Sam bore lifelong resentment against the Le family, being incurably jealous of its royal status. He had grown up with the crown prince, Le Duy Vi, and the two young men nurtured a deep hatred of one another. Le Duy Vi resented Trinh domination of the royal family, and Trinh Sam was consumed with an impossible desire for the throne. The personal animus between the two came to a head in 1769 when Trinh Sam deposed and imprisoned Le Duy Vi, replacing him as crown prince with a younger brother, Le Duy Can. This happened shortly after the death of the old rebel Hoang Cong Chat in the mountains of Hung Hoa and an expedition that decisively defeated his son, thus putting to an end that group of diehards from the rebellions of two decades before. The only remaining holdout from that era was Le Duy Mat, the prince who had established himself on the Xieng Khouang plateau of Laos. One of the main things that occupied Trinh Sam’s attention after he came to power was his determination to put an end to Le Duy Mat. In fact, when Trinh Doanh died in 1767, Le Duy Mat decided to test the new Trinh ruler by leading his men out of the mountains to attack him. Trinh armies drove him back into the mountains and from then on were urged forward by Trinh Sam with orders to destroy this prince who for thirty years had flourished the banner of Le resistance to the Trinh. In 1770, Le Duy Mat’s stronghold finally fell and he took his own life. In 1771, Trinh Sam killed Le Duy Vi and imprisoned Le Duy Vi’s three sons. The eldest of these sons, Le Duy Khiem, a future king, was then 6 years old. Trinh Sam continued to look for new ways to humiliate the royal family, and he found a willing henchman for this endeavor in Le Quy Don. Le Quy Don had been rising in Trinh Sam’s esteem as a result of his passing along a percentage of the wealth that he was accumulating through bribery and corruption. In 1771, Le Quy Don was in the Censorate and was cultivating eunuchs close to Trinh Sam by giving them positions of supervision over officials. He managed to insinuate himself into the confidence of Pham Huy Dinh, a eunuch who was a great favorite of Trinh Sam. Together they embarked on various corrupt schemes. Le Quy Don began to use the position of immunity conferred by his alliance with the eunuchs to penalize officials who were close to the king. Within a short time he was able to sufficiently intimidate officials to stop them from attending the bi-monthly sessions of the royal court on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month. This gave immense satisfaction to Trinh Sam, whose passion for demeaning the royal court was insatiable. By the early 1770s, when events in the south began to open new possibilities, Trinh government at Ke Cho had survived an age of insurrection without having seriously addressed its causes. The inability of rebel leaders to unite and Trinh  Doanh’s persistence gave the Trinh regime an opportunity to be renewed. How- ever, instead of renewal, once the rebellions had been calmed, the Trinh simply  returned to the conundrums that had been at the heart of their political problems  from the very beginning: a dependence upon soldiers from the southern prov- inces to rule a sullen and impoverished population in the Red River plain and an  inability to escape from doubts about the Trinh right to exercise power on behalf of the Le dynasty. Trinh Tac had addressed the first of these problems by  bringing the literati of the Red River plain into his government. But the long- term effect of this was simply to burden the agriculturalists of the Red River plain  with a new class of predators. The northern Vietnamese had not been able to find a way out of this impasse. The impetus for a new age would come from the southerners. The relative passivity of the northerners during the Thirty Years War that broke out in the 1770s revealed an exhaustion of hope that came from generations of oppression, poverty, and despair.

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