Rise of the east



Do Anh Vu and To Hien Thanh

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Just as his father had sought to re-enact his grandfather’s expedition to Champa after designating him as crown prince in the 1060s, Ly Can Duc, after his  mother’s death and the settling of the succession question, showed an uncharac- teristic exuberance by personally leading an army in the field for the first time in  his life. In 1119, after great preparation and accompanied by signs and wonders, Ly Can Duc led his soldiers to attack people in the mountains surrounded on three sides by the great curve in the Da River, a major affluent of the Red River,  in the modern province of Hoa Binh. In his proclamation announcing the exped- ition, Ly Can Duc charged the leader of these people with raiding, plundering,  and ignoring royal authority. The object of the expedition was around seventy  kilometers west of Thang Long, twice that distance by boat upriver. The cam- paign was a great success.  One man who may have taken the opportunity of this expedition to demon- strate his abilities to the king and thereby advance his status at court was Le Ba  Ngoc. He first appears in records as a palace eunuch in 1114. He had risen to a mid-level position by 1118, at which time he was demoted to a clerical post under unrecorded circumstances. Beginning in 1121, he received a series of promotions and advanced rapidly in rank. In 1125, he led an army against Nung rebels in Cao Bang and thereafter became the ranking military commander. At the time of Ly Can Duc’s death in 1127, he was entrusted with guarding the palace and ensuring Ly Duong Hoan’s accession. He was the dominant figure at court until his death in 1135.

Le Ba Ngoc’s success came from insinuating himself into the family of the crown prince’s mother, Do Thanh Anh, by adopting as his son one of her kinsmen named Do Anh Vu. According to written records, Do Anh Vu was a brother of Do Thanh Anh, but inscriptional evidence suggests that he was more likely her cousin. In 1124, at the age of 10, Do Anh Vu was brought to live at the court and became a companion of the crown prince Ly Duong Hoan, who was two years younger than he. Do Anh Vu was reportedly a handsome and lively lad skilled in singing, dancing, and playing games.

The court did not linger in mourning after Ly Can Duc’s death. After only twenty-two days, the new 11-year-old king began to hold court on the same day that he witnessed the palace women being burned on Ly Can Duc’s funeral pyre. This sweeping away of women in the palace put a definite end to the regime of Lady Y Lan, who had initiated her control of the palace by doing away with women of aristocratic status. Royal women and highborn women of families at court now regained control of the inner palace.

One of Ly Duong Hoan’s first acts was to elevate his mother to the rank of queen mother and to eliminate tax obligations for one hundred members of her family. Within two months, two royal consorts were designated. One was from the royal family and was named queen. The other was a daughter of Le Ba Ngoc’s nephew and was given a lower rank. The hierarchy of palace women was the dynasty’s spine. In 1131, even their distinctive hairstyle was forbidden to other women in the kingdom. One of the men sent to announce Ly Can Duc’s death to the parents of the new king was Do Thien. The only other surviving information about this man is that he wrote a book of history. The book has not survived, but it was cited in a fourteenth-century compilation for several stories that celebrate historical figures famous for loyal service to their sovereigns, a theme that Le Ba Ngoc and Do Anh Vu cultivated to justify their exercise of power in Do Thien’s time.

Ly Duong Hoan’s relatively short reign (1127–1138) was a time of major change in the strategic environment of the region. In the 1120s, the Song dynasty  was driven from northern China by the Jin dynasty, which originated in Man- churia and was led by people called Jurchen, ancestors of the Manchus who  conquered China in the seventeenth century. Thereafter, the Southern Song dynasty was ruled from Hangzhou in south-central China. Constantly threatened by its northern neighbor, Southern Song was a relatively weak dynasty that posed little potential threat to Thang Long. This significant reduction in pressure on the northern border is an underlying reason why Ly dynastic politics became increasingly diffuse and troubled during the twelfth century. The fate of the Ly dynasty was closely connected to the fortunes of Southern Song, for the necessity to maintain strong leadership at the Ly court faded away along with the sense of danger from the north.

On the other hand, this was in the time of the greatest conqueror to rule the Khmer kingdom of Angkor, Suryavarman II, whose reign began in 1113 and lasted into the 1150s. During much of this time, Suryavarman II dominated the Chams, and allied Khmer and Cham armies attacked across Thang Long’s southern border in 1128, in 1133, in 1135, and in 1137. Each time, Viet armies mobilized and successfully repelled the invaders. The border nevertheless remained unstable for many years with chronic raids, Cham princes seeking asylum, and Cham slave merchants seizing local people to sell at Angkor. In 1138, Ly Duong Hoan lay on his deathbed at the age of 22. It is recorded simply that he was “unwell.” Two years earlier he had suffered a severe illness that resisted all cures until he was miraculously made well by a monk named Minh Khong who had been the favorite disciple of Tu Dao Hanh. According to  the story, Tu Dao Hanh had forewarned his disciple that after he was reincar- nated as the next king he would be ill, and he asked that Minh Khong cure him  when that came to pass. According to an inscription, Ly Duong Hoan’s fatal illness began in 1137. Apparently, the king had a weak constitution and was not expected to live long.

Ly Duong Hoan had three sons, aged 6, 2, and 1. He intended that his eldest son should succeed him, and the implications of this for the family and allies of that son’s mother are likely to have been an increasingly important factor in court politics. However, on his deathbed he was visited by three of his wives who pled with him to designate his second son instead because the mother of his eldest son was of a lower status than the mother of his second son, being only a concubine, and she would become jealous and bring harm to them if her son were made king. Here we see the shadow of Lady Y Lan’s murderous rampage in 1073. The dying king acknowledged the justice of their appeal and accordingly named his second son, Ly Thien To, as his heir. One of the three wives, Le Cam Thanh, was Ly Thien To’s mother. She was from a high-ranking family claiming paternal descent from Le Hoan and maternal descent from the Ly royal family. When Ly Duong Hoan died, Do Anh Vu immediately stood up to exercise actual power in the name of the child king, Ly Thien To. Do Anh Vu became the lover of Le Cam Thanh, Ly Duong Hoan’s widow and Ly Thien To’s mother, and he stood at the head of the court for the next two decades. Do Anh Vu had accompanied an army sent in 1135 to expel Cham and Khmer invaders on the southern border, and his career shows close attention to military affairs. A major challenge to his ascendance at Thang Long materialized within a year of Ly Duong Hoan’s death. In 1139, a man named Than Loi, identified in Vietnamese records as a sorcerer, appeared in the northern mountains. He posed as an abandoned son of Ly Can Duc and laid claim to the throne, proclaiming himself king. Chinese records tell of a man at this time claiming to be the son of a concubine rejected by Ly Can Duc. He asked the Southern Song for assistance but the emperor refused to be involved. Than Loi gained a reputation for supernatural powers and gathered a large following from the lowlands as well as from the border regions and the mountains. He concentrated his forces in the foothills of modern Thai Nguyen Province about seventy kilometers north of Thang Long, and defeated all armies sent against him. When Than Loi marched against Thang Long, Do Anh Vu personally led an army out to attack him. Than Loi suffered a crushing defeat and escaped back north to the mountains to assemble new forces. After displaying the heads of dead rebels for many kilometers along the roads north of Thang Long, Do Anh Vu marched out to attack Than Loi along the upstream of the Cau River, in  modern Thai Nguyen Province. He captured two thousand of Than Loi’s fol- lowers, but Than Loi fled toward the Song border. One of Do Anh Vu’s lieuten- ants, To Hien Thanh, pursued Than Loi and captured him in modern Lang Son  Province. Than Loi and his most prominent followers were beheaded in Thang Long. Other captives received various punishments depending upon the measure of guilt assigned to them. They all received pardons a year later. The Than Loi episode suggests rather serious disaffection with the Thang Long court. What it has in common with previous and later moves against the dynastic regime is that it originated from outside the circle of royal blood and of those who posed as guardians of that circle. The rupture of that circle when Lady Y Lan swept out the highborn women of the palace in 1073 was a haunting memory for later generations of nobles. The Ly dynasty was based on alliances of aristocratic families, among which the Ly were preeminent. But over time, in the absence of strong adult kings, competition among these families for precedence at the Ly court played out among the palace women following the vicissitudes of giving birth to an heir, and this gradually began to pull the dynastic system apart. Meanwhile, men like Do Anh Vu guarded access to the palace and supervised the government. The campaign against Than Loi is the first mention of To Hien Thanh in the records. To Hien Thanh, probably a kinsman of Do Anh Vu’s wife, who was from the To family, was Do Anh Vu’s protégé and most trusted assistant. After Do Anh Vu’s death in 1159, To Hien Thanh stepped into the role of guarding the dynasty for another twenty years, until his death in 1179. Four laws proclaimed in 1141 give a glimpse into the rural economy. They show that the royal court was concerned with disputes over the ownership of fields, orchards, and ponds. The laws specified the difference between a mortgage and a bill of sale; a mortgage could be redeemed or litigated under certain conditions but a bill of sale was final. They also protected the ownership rights of people bringing abandoned fields or orchards under cultivation for one year without anyone disputing their claim. Anyone disputing ownership of fields or ponds with weapons and killing or injuring another person lost any claim to the disputed property. Violation of these laws earned eighty strokes of the rod. These laws do not have any discernible applicability to the relatively stable regime of large ecclesiastical and aristocratic estates that were typical of the Ly dynasty and that dominated the rural economy of the Red River plain from the tenth century into the early thirteenth century. However, we know that in the twelfth century lands along the coast where the Red River meets the sea were being desalinized and brought under cultivation. This is the modern province of Thai Binh where in the early thirteenth century the Tran family rose up to penetrate the system of Ly politics and found a new dynasty. Do Anh Vu’s family estates were located on the Thai Binh frontier downriver from Thang Long, and he was surely interested in promoting the extension of agriculture into the tidelands.  The 1141 laws were concerned with buying and selling lands and with litigat- ing disputes over land ownership, problems typical of an emerging rural econ- omy on an expanding agricultural frontier, which is what Thai Binh was at that  time. In 1144, another law was published specifying that anyone relying upon family power and influence in a dispute over fields, ponds, and property was  subject to eighty strokes. Judicial concern then shifted from disputants to cor- ruption, for in the following year yet another edict prescribed sixty strokes for  judges who unlawfully used coercion in settling litigation. Economic expansion along the coast at this time attracted foreign trade. In 1149, merchant ships from Java and what is modern Thailand arrived asking to trade. A seaport was established at Van Don, on what today is called Quan Lan Island off the coast north of the Red River plain, where local products were  exchanged for goods from overseas. Merchants from Southern Song were prom- inent at Van Don, which became part of a thriving trade route from China down  the coast to what is now Thailand, Sumatra, and Java, with connections to  islands further east and to India in the west. Van Don was thereafter an import- ant entrepôt for more than three centuries.  Do Anh Vu was particularly concerned with military authority and the loyalty of the palace guard, for this was his main defense against enemies both in the countryside and at court. In 1143 he instituted a new regime of training and discipline for the army. As the Than Loi affair demonstrated, without a strong adult king, the Ly court was vulnerable to pretenders.

In 1144, a man from Song crossed into the border province of Cao Bang and proclaimed that he had received an imperial mandate to govern An Nam. He attracted a large following from the peoples in the mountains and along the border. Song border officials asked Thang Long to capture and extradite him. A Viet army attacked the rebels and captured many followers of the imposter, who escaped back into Song territory where he and his entourage were captured by Song border guards. Recognizing five of those captured as rebel chieftains owing allegiance to the Ly, Song officials returned them to Thang Long for justice. The Sino-Vietnamese border had become a relatively well-policed frontier with the Song and Ly courts cooperating to maintain order.

A more immediate danger to Do Anh Vu was disaffection in the palace guard, for as the young king, Ly Thien To, grew from childhood to adolescence he became a focus of loyalty for those who were alienated from Do Anh Vu. In 1145, an edict specified that in selecting men to fill vacancies in the palace guard, local officers were to select men from large, powerful families and were not to select orphans. The reason for this was that someone without a family would be more susceptible to a conspiracy than someone with a prominent family to guarantee his loyalty. Furthermore, the families indicated here were aristocratic allies of Do Anh Vu.

Nevertheless, many at court detested Do Anh Vu’s adultery with the queen mother. The Complete Book of the History of Great Viet records his reputation for cruelty and his arrogance in “sitting as emperor in the hall of audience while belligerently daring anyone to oppose him.” It also records that “servants, officials, and officers …” gestured with their chins and exchanged glances; they all looked askance at what was happening but dared say nothing.” Perhaps barriers to Do Anh Vu’s enemies were removed by the deaths, in the mid 1140s, of Do Anh Vu’s kinswoman, the queen dowager, and of Mau Du Do, an influential official at court who had supported both Le Ba Ngoc and Do Anh Vu since the death of Ly Can Duc nearly twenty years before.

In 1149, a conspiracy broke out in the palace guard, which imprisoned Do Anh Vu and appealed to the young king. Do Anh Vu’s enemies temporarily gained control of the court and he was exiled to a village outside of Thang Long. Within a short time, however, the queen mother, Le Cam Thanh, had mobilized her allies to secure his return to court. Do Anh Vu organized and trained a personal guard of five hundred men and used it to seize his enemies and have them killed. After these events, the young king reportedly fell ill and regained his health only after Do Anh Vu re-enacted a famous episode from the life of the Duke of Zhou, celebrated in Confucian texts as the model for those ruling on behalf of young kings, in which he  prayed that the king’s illness be placed upon himself. What lay behind the perform- ance of this historical cliché is unknown, but Ly Thien To remained docile for the  rest of his life.

In 1150, the daughter of a paternal cousin of Do Anh Vu named Do Thuy Chau became a queen of Ly Thien To and during the next several years gave birth to several sons, thus ensuring the continued ascendance of Do Anh Vu and his family at court. Opponents of Do Anh Vu nevertheless tried once more to bring him down.

In early 1159, an envoy returned from the Song court and reported the practice of a box being placed in the palace courtyard to receive anonymous messages addressed to the Song emperor. He requested that this practice be instituted at Thang Long, and the king agreed. After a month, the box was opened and a message was found that accused Do Anh Vu of plotting to seize the throne. Do Anh Vu said that this was surely the work of the person who had suggested to emplace the box, and so the king exiled that person to an outpost in the mountains where he was compelled to drink poison. Perhaps this last effort of Do Anh Vu’s enemies was emboldened by intimations of his mortality, for within a few months of this episode, Do Anh Vu died. He was buried with great honors. To Hien Thanh, his trusted assistant and wife’s kinsman, immediately picked up the reins of government.

Later historians condemned Do Anh Vu for his adultery with the queen mother, but they evaluated To Hien Thanh highly, praising his principled leadership and incorruptibility. To Hien Thanh maintained the level of leadership established by Do Anh Vu in campaigning successfully against Champa and suppressing rebels to protect the borders and maintain the peace. In his time there were literary exams to select civil and military officials, and he discouraged the proliferation of palace eunuchs by forbidding self-castration; these measures were litmus-test issues for Confucian historians in later centuries. Furthermore, in 1174, Thang Long achieved a major diplomatic success when Viet envoys persuaded the Song emperor, against the arguments of some of his advisors, to promote the status of  the Ly king in the imperial hierarchy of vassalage from King of Giao Chi Prefec- ture, the title first given to Dinh Bo Linh, to King of An Nam Kingdom.

What earned To Hien Thanh his greatest appreciation from later historians was his resistance to the schemes of the queen mother, Le Cam Thanh, during the royal succession of 1175. As the ranking woman at court, she commanded considerable authority. When, in 1149, the palace guard had imprisoned her lover, Do Anh Vu, she bribed his jailors and returned him to power. In the early 1170s, the crown prince, Ly Long Xuong, was around 20 years old. Information about his mother has not survived, but the queen mother had fixed her hopes on him, and she exercised a strong influence over him. According to what has been recorded, her love of intrigue blighted Ly Long Xuong’s prospects because she underestimated To Hien Thanh’s loyalty to the king, Ly Thien To, her son.

The king grew to hate the crown prince because the youth made a point of having affairs with all of his favorite women. The queen mother, for reasons not recorded, took exception to a particular favorite of the king named Lady Tu and wanted to alienate the king from her. To this end, she secretly introduced Ly Long Xuong into Lady Tu’s chamber and endeavored to have the lady fall in love with the prince, thinking that this would cause the king to abandon her. When Lady Tu told the king about this, the king angrily demoted Ly Long Xuong and replaced him as crown prince with Ly Long Trat, who was less than 2 years old. This occurred in 1174.

The queen mother was not reconciled to this turn of events, and, when the king died a year later, she repeatedly tried to put Ly Long Xuong on the throne, first by bribing To Hien Thanh, then by banqueting court officials, and finally by  trying to bring Ly Long Xuong into the palace with an entourage of his follow- ers. To Hien Thanh stood fast to the dead king’s decision and refused all bribes.  The court officials all remained loyal to him and ignored the queen mother’s appeal. When Ly Long Xuong attempted to enter the royal compound, court officials barred the way and advised him that, if he did not desist, the palace guard would be called. The queen mother did not cease her conspiracies on Ly Long Xuong’s behalf until 1182, after he had become a leader of bandits. She lived to a fine old age, dying in 1200.

To Hien Thanh’s presumed loyalty to the wishes of Ly Thien To in protecting the accession of Ly Long Trat was probably not as important as his loyalty to the network of friends and associates that he inherited from Do Anh Vu. The mother of the child who was put on the throne by To Hien Thanh in 1175, the new queen mother, was Do Thuy Chau, a kinswoman of Do Anh Vu. Her brother Do Anh Di became second-in-command to To Hien Thanh.

When To Hien Thanh died in 1179, Do Anh Di succeeded him as the dominant person at court. He did not have the moral stature of To Hien Thanh, who apparently persuaded others with appeals to what was thought to be correct. Instead, he instilled in others a fear of him personally, which led to a breakdown in government functions and became the object of public jokes made onstage at the Thang Long opera. Grim humor during his ascendancy may have been exacerbated by a famine in 1181 that reportedly carried away more than half the population.

Perhaps because of the lowering of respect for authority after the death of To Hien Thanh, there was a particular emphasis on education and the next generation of leaders, starting with the small king. Within weeks of To Hien Thanh’s death, the king, Ly Long Trat, and his mother observed children of temple officials competing to read a Buddhist sutra and a competition of lads in poetry and mathematics. They also attended an examination in which children of Buddhists, Confucians, and Daoists competed in writing poetry and rhyming prose and were tested on their knowledge of classical books, moral principles, and practical sciences such as making calculations and organizing transportation. A course of instruction was instituted for the king and a program of public education was begun to teach the people about filial piety and loyalty to rulers. In 1185, an exam of those 15 and older with knowledge of poetry and history resulted in selecting thirty for further study. These exams were presumably held to identify talent for assignments at court, but there is no information about people coming through these exams occupying positions of significance. Despite these educational activities, later  historians viewed Ly Long Trat as a hopeless playboy with no interest in govern- ment, and they dated the beginning of the collapse of the Ly dynasty from this time.

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