A new peace

01

Dec
2021

Farewell to tattoos

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In late 1288, tax exemptions were published proportional to wartime damages. But there were also long-term economic and social effects of the war. By autumn of 1290, a famine began that lasted for two years, causing taxes to be cancelled entirely. The Tran court distributed food to the poor for a time until overwhelmed by the starving. There is no record of what caused these crop failures. Perhaps a decade of preoccupation with war had led to neglect and breakdown of the water control system. Perhaps the mobilization of men out of the rice fields into the battlefields had disrupted the planting and harvesting calendar. Perhaps there were floods, drought, and pestilence that have not been recorded.  Whatever the case, the result was a socio-economic shift with a drastic reduc- tion in population from death by starvation, the abandonment of villages, and  large numbers of people selling their land, and also selling their children and themselves into slavery, in order to survive. In 1292, as the famine eased, a law was published that people who had sold themselves into slavery during the famine could be redeemed, but land and property could not be redeemed. The people in a position to acquire the land, property, and slaves made available at  bargain prices during this long famine were the Tran noblemen and their entou- rages with their riches and honors earned in wartime. The trend toward large  aristocratic estates worked by slave labor or the labor of peasants in a serf-like condition accelerated from this time.

It was amidst this dire famine that the royal family passed through another generational transition. Tran Hoang, the senior king, died in 1290 at the age of 50. He had been the center around which the clashing egos of Tran princes had revolved during the dramatic events of the 1280s. He was a master of discipline, of consensus, and of delegating authority. His father, Tran Canh, had taught him the importance of family solidarity. His son, Tran Kham, and his grandson, Tran Thuyen, learned to exercise similar attitudes toward maintaining dynastic leadership.

In 1292, the 16-year-old crown prince, Tran Thuyen, was married to a granddaughter of Tran Quoc Tuan, and the following year he was proclaimed king. Tran Kham, still in his mid 30s, became senior king. He remained very much in command until his death in 1308. He encouraged his younger brothers, Tran Duc Viep and Tran Quoc Chan, to play more active roles at court. Tran Duc Viep died in 1306, but Tran Quoc Chan was a prominent member of the court for the next thirty years. He became a trusted advisor of Tran Thuyen, and the circumstances of his death in 1328 came to symbolize for later historians a major turn in dynastic fortunes.

Shortly after Tran Thuyen’s accession, his mother, a daughter of Tran Quoc Tuan, died. She was much respected for her bravery. Stories were told of how she once protected her husband, Tran Kham, from a tiger that had escaped from its cage, and how she had confronted a runaway elephant that had broken into her palace. She was typical of many Tran women who were praised for their courage and loyalty during the era of the Mongol Wars.

In the late 1290s, tension erupted between the senior and junior kings. In his early twenties, Tran Thuyen developed a habit of going out into the city at night with a group of companions and carousing until dawn. His fondness for alcohol led to many days when the palace dozed away the daylight hours while he slept off his hangover. Tran Kham spent most of his time at the downriver palace. However, when he discovered what was going on in Thang Long, he became exceedingly angry and severely rebuked the young king, threatening to dethrone him and replace him with a brother. Tran Thuyen eventually took his father’s reprimands to heart and for the rest of his life forswore drinking alcohol. He came to be regarded as a strong and competent king, strict but fair, loyal to friends but also a good judge of character. Yet, his youthful rebellion left a lasting mark on the dynasty with a loosening of pride in the Tran martial ethos.

In 1299, Tran Kham summoned Tran Thuyen to a palace where, before an audience of Tran princes, arrangements had been made for him to be tattooed in the manner of Tran men. Tran Kham’s explanation to his son was recorded as follows: “Our family comes from the river mouth and our ancestors were blessed with good fortune. For generations we have respected martial valor and our profession has been war. We all have dragons tattooed on our thighs to show that we have not forgotten our origin.” The Tran sense of family solidarity was based on a warrior ethos that was expressed by the tattoos on their thighs. According to an explanation recorded at that time, the dragons on Tran thighs were associated with the crocodiles found at the mouth of the Red River. The dragon was also an old and enduring symbol of royal authority shared with other Asian thrones. Perhaps the Tran journey upriver to Thang Long was celebrated with a visual reminder of how a crocodile became a dragon.

Tran Thuyen, however, did not want to be tattooed. He watched and waited for a moment when his father’s attention was taken in conversation with others, and then he quickly slipped away from the palace. He was the first Tran king not to be tattooed. A generation later, in 1323, men selected as officers for the palace  guard could no longer wear tattoos, which by then were considered old fash- ioned and ugly. The abandonment of this mark of family identity came amidst a  gradual but fundamental shift in the composition of dynastic leadership.

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