The Tran did not simply replace the Ly but fought for many years to destroy the local powers that had been an aspect of the Ly system of government. While the Ly presided over a coalition of powerful local families, the Tran made sure that members of the royal family were in dominant positions everywhere. This was practicable only with a cadre of educated commoners to serve the Tran nobles. The need for administrative personnel led the Tran to develop a system for recruitment based on the model of civil service examinations in Song China. The Ly dynasty had held occasional examinations to select people with skills in demand at court, most commonly with little more than knowledge of letters for reading and writing. In addition to this, a small cadre of scholars was needed to serve as palace teachers and as envoys to the Song dynasty. Most of the educated people in the Ly dynasty were Buddhist monks or classical scholars who were also Buddhists. This began to change in the thirteenth century under the influence of educational ideas about curriculum and examinations for govern- ment service that had developed in Song China and were brought to Thang Long by the Tran. This curriculum began to produce men with a more secular sense of moral cultivation based on relatively rational ethical principles and hierarchical human relationships. Devotion to deities or the cultivation of spiritual know- ledge and of supernatural powers did not cease among educated people but rather declined and came under more critical scrutiny.
The first recorded mention of the new curriculum comes from 1253 when Confucian scholars were summoned to teach “the Four Books and the Five Classics” at a newly built palace academy. In 1272, a search was made for scholars to teach the king about “the Four Books and the Five Classics.” The Five Classics (Changes, Odes, Rites, History, and the Spring and Autumn Annals) were standard texts that had been studied for centuries by ancestors of both the Song Chinese and the Vietnamese. However, the Four Books (Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects of Confucius, and Mencius) came into prominence only from the time of the Song philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200), the architect of what is sometimes called Neo-Confucianism.
In 1232 and in 1239, examinations were held at the capital with a total of nine people being selected in those years. These exams were for “advanced students,” but they did not follow the system of awarding academic degrees that was later viewed as standard. One of those selected in 1232 was Tran Chu Pho, who is known to have written a book of history that no longer exists but was used by later historians. His other claim to fame was to be an object of public laughter during a royal banquet in 1242 when everyone was drunk and taking turns to sing songs; he stood up to sing but could only murmur over and over: “What I will now sing is … What I will now sing is …” The few people selected in these exams were most probably used as teachers and as consultants in relations with Song China.
In 1246, a new system for examinations was established that began a stan- dard format for awarding degrees to successful candidates. In 1247, the first examination under this new academic regime was held and forty-eight men were graduated. Similar exams were held in 1256, 1266, and 1275, producing forty-three, forty-seven, and twenty-seven graduates, respectively. Thus, in thirty years, 165 men were produced by these exams. Most of these graduates were from the Red River plain. The only examination to record the number of Kinh and Trai graduates is that of 1256. In that year, only one of the forty-three graduates came from the southern provinces.
The men who participated in these examinations presumably had the advantage of coming from families able to educate their sons and of being recommended by members of royalty. Many of these men were descendents of immigrants from the north who maintained family traditions of learning. The examination system provided an avenue for such people to gain public attention and opportunities for advancement in service to royalty. These men did not receive appointments in a bureaucratic structure of government, for such did not exist. If not assigned to pedagogical, scholarly, or consulting tasks in palace offices, they were assigned to the entourages of noblemen to assist with the miscellaneous tasks of adminis- tering various localities. Two men of that time who are remembered as historians represent these contrasting experiences.
One of the graduates of 1247 was Le Van Huu (1230–1322), who in 1272 presented to the throne a book of history from early times to the end of the Ly dynasty. Although this book no longer exists as Le Van Huu wrote it, it was used in compiling the official court chronicle in the fifteenth century, which preserves Le Van Huu’s comments on various historical events. Beginning with Zhao To in antiquity and continuing through the period of the Ly dynasty, his comments critique what he regarded as laudable, disorganized, improper, or immoral conduct by historical figures and reveal a strong Confucian bias. He spent his long life in Thang Long as a palace erudite.
Le Trac was a man of learning in the entourage of Tran Kien. Tran Kien’s father, Tran Quoc Khang, was a son of Tran Lieu, but born after Tran Thu Do sent Tran Lieu’s wife to Tran Canh. Tran Quoc Khang was adopted as a son by Tran Canh and remained loyal to the throne throughout his life, but his son Tran Kien nurtured the resentment of his grandfather, and in 1285, while on campaign in Nghe An, he surrendered the army he was leading, along with his family, dependents, and entourage, to the Mongols. Le Trac surrendered with him. When Mongols escorted this group north to China, local chiefs prepared an ambush at Chi Lang, a strategic pass on the watershed over the highlands into Lang Son Province. With those lying in wait was a slave of Tran Quoc Tuan, Tran Kien’s uncle and commander of the Tran armies. The slave, a marksman with the bow and arrow, recognized Tran Kien and shot him dead. Le Trac retrieved the body of his patron and escaped on horseback. He spent the rest of his life in China where, in the early fourteenth century, he compiled a history of “An Nam” that still exists today.
After 1275, no examinations are recorded until 1304, apparently because of the disruptions of the Mongol Wars. The 165 men selected during the examin- ations of the mid thirteenth century were but the peak of a mass of literate officials serving at all levels of dynastic affairs. In 1228 all officials were tested to compile a register for ranking them. A royal audience for students passing an exam was recorded in 1236, and on that occasion rules and regulations for lower-level exams were established. Also in that year a school was established for the sons and younger brothers of “literate” officials and of officials who “follow,” two categories of people apparently meant to include all those in the entourages of Tran noblemen, both the literate and the illiterate. In 1261, an examination was held in writing and mathematics for applicants seeking appointments in officialdom. In 1267, an examination in writing was held for people to be given official appointments. In 1274, people specifically identified as Confucian scholars were selected to teach the crown prince. There were also examinations in the “three religions” of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism recorded in 1227 and in 1253. These examinations continued an educational tradition from earlier times and apparently selected people to supervise Buddhist and Daoist temples.
In 1253, a shrine was built at Thang Long with statues of the Duke of Zhou, of Confucius, and of Mencius, along with pictures of seventy-two of Confucius’ disciples. This is reminiscent of the shrine built in 1070 with statues of the Duke of Zhou, of Confucius, and of Confucius’ seventy-two disciples. In 1156, Do Anh Vu had built a shrine for Confucius, an indication that the 1070 shrine no longer existed in his time. The 1156 shrine apparently perished when Thang Long was looted and burned in the last years of the Ly dynasty. In 1253, the addition of Mencius reveals the influence of Song Neo-Confucian thought, which put particular emphasis upon the Mencian idea that everyone had the potential for goodness if properly educated. This shrine was part of the palace academy, already mentioned, which was established to teach the “Four Books and Five Classics,” the new curriculum from Song China.
Despite formal attention to a curriculum of study and a system of academic examinations, men resorted to other means to gain promotion as well. One scholar secretly used incantations to advance his career, which, when revealed, provoked the king to veto his appointment to the royal academy. Full of resent- ment, he joined the Mongols during their invasion of 1287–1288 and was subsequently beheaded as a traitor when captured by the Tran.