The Nguyen Dynasty



Expanding the borders

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Le Tu Thanh’s agrarian policy was based on Le Loi’s effort to keep all land in  production by nurturing a peasantry of small landowners able to support them- selves and pay taxes. One of his first edicts was against idleness, exhorting rural  people to grow as much rice as possible. Tax rates for rice fields were fixed and  family registers, along with records of land ownership, were updated and sched- uled for revision at six-year intervals. Land could be sold only under certain  conditions to prevent small landholders from selling land to pay their debts and to prevent large landholders from accumulating more land than they could cultivate. Mortgages dating from before the founding of the dynasty in 1428 were declared void and could not be redeemed. Land disputes were to be settled promptly by judicial officers. Severe punishments were announced for those who took over the fields of others by force, pulled up or changed boundary markers, or cut down trees and bamboo hedges belonging to others. Officials were repeatedly reminded to check that all available land was in production. If fields became waterlogged or dried out, officials were responsible for adjusting the water control system to make them productive again. Coastal lands were being brought under cultivation as early as the twelfth century, and, while this process accelerated under the Tran dynasty, evidence of a major rise in the population of the coastal regions comes from the fifteenth century. This agrarian policy was designed for the Red River plain. In the southern provinces, land ownership remained vulnerable to the greed of predatory great lords. In 1467, Le Tu Thanh lamented in an edict that although the region  around Tay Do in Thanh Hoa was the “homeland of the royal family,” “prom- inent local families” had unlawfully appropriated all the land there so that  members of the royal family could not find any available land to call their own. There is no further information recorded about the rural regime in Thanh Hoa, but Le Tu Thanh presumably shamed the great lords into making land available for at least some prominent members of the royal family. This is very  different from the Ly and Tran royal families that, in times past, directly con- trolled much of the most productive land in the country. Le Tu Thanh  endeavored to shift the basis of the dynasty from the pool of martial manpower in the Thanh Hoa uplands to the peasantry of the Red River plain. As long as he  lived, this experiment was alive, but however much he brought rational govern- ment to the Red River plain, the feuds and ambitions of Thanh Hoa men, which  had propelled the dynasty to power, remained in the background. Le Tu Thanh sought to address this potential source of ruin by keeping these men busy with military adventures. Early in his reign, Le Tu Thanh ruled that military officials were to have no authority over civil affairs. He also forbad military officials from engaging in  trade. He wanted to focus the concentration of his military officers on assign- ments along and beyond the borders. In 1467, after consultations with military  commanders, new instructions were issued to units stationed on the borders. Incidents on the Ming border that year were followed by warnings to border officers to be especially vigilant. An army was sent to attack Laos and returned in victory. Military exercises were held at which regulations for issuing rewards and punishments were announced. In 1469, soldiers were once more sent into the mountains to attack people along the Lao border. Relations with Ming received careful attention. Envoys regularly departed to and arrived from the Ming court. Close attention to border incidents was part of Le Tu Thanh’s method of maintaining peace. This required demonstrations of alertness and preparedness. In 1472, indications of potential border trouble in  modern Quang Ninh Province triggered plans to mobilize soldiers from neigh- boring jurisdictions. In 1480, incidents along the border in Cao Bang and Lang  Son were promptly investigated. Le Tu Thanh decreed that all correspondence with Ming about these problems be discussed and vetted by three separate groups of officials to preclude any errors. At this time, perhaps provoked by rumors about border troubles or some other unknown cause, the officials in charge of governing the capital began to force all the resident Ming people to return back north to their own country. Le Tu Thanh immediately stopped this, rebuking the officials for overstepping their authority, for harming commerce, and for destroying an important source of tax revenue.  Patrolling the northern border was not a task sufficient to absorb the ambi- tions of military commanders. It was on the southern border that Le Tu Thanh  found opportunities to entertain the attention of his soldiers. After the expedition to Champa of 1446, Vietnamese efforts to hold the Cham king as a vassal quickly failed and relations between the two kingdoms deteriorated. The border was at Hai Van Pass between the modern cities of Hue and Da Nang. In 1469, a Cham raid across the border was recorded. In 1470, a Cham army arrived and besieged the Vietnamese garrison at Hue. The local commander sent appeals to Dong Kinh for help. The alacrity and scale of Le Tu Thanh’s response shows that this situation was anticipated. Within weeks, soldiers were mobilized, rice was collected and transported south, and envoys hastened to inform Ming of what was planned. Only three months later, at the start of the winter dry season, after publishing detailed campaign orders to his generals and proclaiming in a long edict the reasons for the expedition, Le Tu Thanh set out to attack Champa. As he went south, Le Tu Thanh paused along the way to make sacrifices at temples and shrines. When he rendezvoused with his soldiers in Nghe An he was dismayed to find not an army but crowds of undisciplined men. He called in his generals and warned them that their soldiers were acting “like children playing games” and that he expected them to bring the army to attention. In the early weeks of 1471 as he moved down to the border and into Cham territory, he put the army and navy under strict discipline and kept them busy drilling and conducting exercises. He wrote a book of instructions for the expedition and had it translated into the vernacular and taught to the men. He observed terrain, corrected maps, and monitored the transport of rice to ensure that the expedition would not run out of food. He also scrutinized the behavior of his officers and occupied himself with promoting and demoting them based on his evaluation of their ability. In short, he brought with him on campaign the clarity of thought and the habits of critical supervision that he had been practicing for ten years within the halls of the royal court. He was 29 years old. As he moved through modern Quang Nam and ascertained the disposition of the Cham army, he devised a plan that was spectacularly successful. Marching with his main force down the coast, he sent his right wing through the mountains to lay an ambush and advanced his left wing by sea to land behind the enemy. He soon had the Cham army surrounded, causing it to melt and scatter. He pursued the Cham king and captured him at his capital in modern Binh Dinh Province. A Cham general fled and established himself as ruler at modern Phan Rang, more than 250 kilometers further south. He and two others, a ruler in the Central Highlands (the region of Kon Tum and Play Ku) and a ruler on the coast immediately to the south of Binh Dinh, in the modern provinces of Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa, submitted to Le Tu Thanh as vassals. The modern provinces of Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, and Binh Dinh were annexed to become Quang Nam  Province. Le Tu Thanh assigned garrisons and appointed officials to be respon- sible for this new jurisdiction. The Cham king was embarked with his multitude  of wives, requiring an additional boat, to be brought to Dong Kinh; he reportedly died of illness en route. Certain classes of marginal or undesirable people were subsequently settled in Quang Nam. In late 1471, descendents of people who had served the Ming, unreliable upland chieftains, unsatisfactory royal slaves, criminals, resident Chams, resident Laotians, and people of mixed Ming and local ancestry were identified and selected to be pioneers of Le authority in the new lands. Officials who were convicted of corruption or other offenses were sent to establish administration there. Officials along the coast of the Red River plain that had been devastated by the typhoon of 1467 were particularly warned that unless they worked harder to restore the dikes and return inundated fields to production they would be reassigned to Quang Nam. Quang Nam was  categorized along with the northern border provinces as an unhealthy assign- ment. Many Cham people remained in Quang Nam and Vietnamized their  names. In 1472, an edict specified that these names could be only three characters in length. At the same time an edict warned against Vietnamese  officials and people concealing their possession of Chams, presumably mean- ing Chams unlawfully enslaved. In 1474 a schedule of banishment for crim- inals to Quang Nam was established with those guilty of more serious crimes  being sent further south. Le Tu Thanh did not accompany the other major expedition during his reign. In the 1479–1480 dry season, a large army advancing in five columns set out into the western mountains. It sacked Luang Prabang, the capital of the Laotian kingdom of Lan Xang, and, according to Vietnamese annalists, continued west as far as the Irrawaddy River in Burma before turning back. The return of this army is not recorded, but the presence in Dong Kinh of the generals who led it is noted by mid year 1480 when Ming envoys inquired about reports from Ming administrators in Yunnan that a Vietnamese army had attacked people on the Yunnan–Burma border. A result of this expedition was that from this time Vietnamese rulers considered it important to have a foothold on the Xieng Khouang plateau of Laos (called the Tran Ninh plateau in Vietnamese and known in Western writing as “The Plain of Jars”) to secure their western frontier. The opportunities for adventure in Quang Nam and in the western mountains momentarily occupied the lords of Thanh Hoa. In his later years, Le Tu Thanh distributed gifts to those who accompanied him on his annual pilgrimages to Thanh Hoa and made a point of publicly honoring the descendents of men who had fought with Le Loi. He had seemingly pacified his turbulent dynastic homeland. Yet, he harbored resentment at having had to endure the bluster of old heroes. On his deathbed he reportedly said that he had erred in two regards. First, he violated what was right in his desire for fame, seemingly referring to his military conquests in the south and west. Second, he disturbed the government by keeping in high positions incompetent men with merit from the past; he named three men in particular, one of them being Le Liet, who, with Le Xi, had raised him to the throne in 1460. A historian who was at court during that time lamented that Le Tu Thanh “excessively visited women and consequently his body was afflicted with chronic illness.” As a result of this, his senior queen, the mother of Crown Prince Le Tranh, later known as the Truong Lac queen mother, had retired to a separate palace and had no contact with the king as his illness increased in seriousness. His symptoms were described as tumors, swellings, and open sores. Although annalists did not name the disease, their descriptions of it and their observation that it came from excessive sexual contact point to syphilis. When Le Tu Thanh took to bed for the final time in late 1496, the queen was allowed to wait on him. She was apparently angry toward him, for historians recorded that she hid poison in her sleeve and secretly applied it to his sores to increase the intensity of his illness. After proclaiming Crown Prince Le Tranh king and writing a final poem, Le Tu Thanh died in early 1497 at age 55. He was the father of fourteen sons and  twenty daughters. Commonly called the Hong Duc King because the last twenty- six years of his reign were counted as the Hong Duc (“immense virtue”) reign  period, he has been celebrated as the greatest king in Vietnamese history. Confu- cian scholars in later generations viewed his reign as a golden age of good  government. His most significant achievement was to unite the human and material resources of the Red River plain and the southern provinces and to organize these resources to maximize prosperity and to push back the southern and western frontiers. He did this by promoting education and by mobilizing a  generation of officials trained to respond to moral appeals. The military achieve- ments would not have been possible without the unprecedented level of efficiency  in civil administration that he achieved, which produced the necessary supplies of recruits and of rice. The relatively short reign (1497–1504) of Le Tranh was a mild echo of his father’s more famous reign. Educated by the best teachers available and by a father with definite ideas about the responsibilities of kingship, at age 36 he stepped into the pattern of royal leadership created by Le Tu Thanh without discernibly disturbing the established habits of government. For seven years he gave the same kind of attention to education, examinations, appointments, promotions, demotions, moral exhortations, relations with Ming, agricultural production, local administration, and writing poetry that had been typical of his father. And, finally, he died in the same way as his father, suffering, in the words of the annalist, “chronic illness” from “excessively visiting women.” In providing a worthy successor, however, he did not follow his father’s model. In the fifteenth century, Le dynasty rulers effected a fundamental reorientation of government and culture that established norms of public life that would be honored into modern times, at least in word if not always in action. However, this was a fragile achievement of one man’s unusual personality. Regional tensions remained unresolved. When leadership faltered, these tensions erupted into a series of wars between rival regimes that continued for three centuries and that coincided with the expansion of Vietnamese speakers down the coast and into the Mekong River plain.

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