Radicalization of the Viet Minh

01

Dec
2021

Farewell to the princes

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For a few decades, the heroes of the Mongol Wars continued to lead soldiers, govern assigned territories, and offer advice at court. But they passed steadily from the scene. Tran Quang Khai, Tran Quoc Tuan’s closest friend and the hero  of the Battle of Chuong Duong, died in 1294. Tran Quoc Tuan, commander-in- chief and the hero of the Battles of Tay Ket and Bach Dang, died in 1300, as also  did his full brother Tran Quoc Khang, who had spent his career in Nghe An and had fought running battles with Sogetu’s army as it came north from Champa. Tran Quoc Tuan’s son-in-law Pham Ngu Lao, who gained fame for laying ambushes for Togan in the northern mountains, actively led soldiers on the frontiers until just before his death in 1320. The longest surviving members of that generation were Tran Nhat Duat, Tran Khanh Du, and Tran Khac Chung, and they each represented particular tendencies in the royal family.

Tran Nhat Duat was born in 1255. A son of Tran Canh and the hero of the Battle of Ham Tu, he was active as a loyal member of the royal entourage throughout his life. Whether suppressing rebellion in the mountains or leading  armies against Mongols, he was always reliable. He spent much time with non- Viet people and never needed an interpreter, whether talking with Chams, with  upland peoples, or with Chinese. His personal estates were in Thanh Hoa and all of his wives were from that province, but he remained attentive to affairs in  Thang Long for many years and was deeply concerned about the future leader- ship of the dynasty.

Tran Thuyen’s senior wife, a granddaughter of Tran Quoc Tuan known as the Bao Tu queen, had no children, and sons born to lesser wives had not survived infancy. Then, in 1300, Tran Thuyen finally obtained a son and heir when Tran Manh was born to the Chieu Tu queen, a daughter of Princess Thuy Bao and Tran Binh Trong, who had been captured and killed during the Mongol Wars. Although not from the senior line of the Tran family, the Chieu Tu queen was nevertheless a high-ranking Tran woman, so there were particularly strong hopes that her son would survive to inherit the throne. Fearing that the palace was not propitious for the health of infants, Chieu Tu’s mother, the Princess Thuy Bao, was asked to take responsibility for rearing the baby. She excused herself from the task and asked her brother, Tran Nhat Duat, to do this in her place.

Tran Nhat Duat reared Tran Manh as if he were one of his own sons, training him in martial skills, seeing to his education with books, and teaching him to have concern for public affairs while at the same time living simply and viewing himself as but one member of a dynastic team. Tran Manh would be king during a time of unprecedented challenges to dynastic authority. That he would be able to maintain a measure of integrity and competence amidst a general shift in social and political values away from Tran leadership is a tribute to the quality of Tran Nhat Duat as an adoptive father and mentor. When Tran Thuyen spent six months away on an expedition to Champa in 1312, Tran Nhat Duat was left in charge at Thang Long with the young crown prince. By the time Tran Manh had come of age and became sole king in 1320, Tran Nhat Duat was advancing in age and became less active at court. He died at age 75 in 1330.

Tran Khanh Du, with his checkered yet illustrious career, represents the tendency of some Tran princes to withdraw from public affairs and pursue private gain, ignoring Thang Long and settling down to a life of leisure on their estates. He had a reputation for corruption and making trouble, but his seizure of the Mongol supply fleet in 1288 made him a hero and virtually untouchable for the rest of his long life.

Tran Kham disliked him and considered him to be a bad influence in the royal family. In 1296, Tran Kham summoned him to answer charges that his coarse and greedy behaviour was causing distress to the people in his jurisdiction. He replied, “We are hawks and the people are ducks. The purpose of ducks is to feed the hawks. What’s so strange about that?” Tran Kham was so incensed with this arrogant reply that Tran Khanh Du hastened from Thang Long before judicial proceedings could be initiated against him. He kept away from court affairs until after Tran Kham’s death. When Tran Thuyen attacked Champa in 1312, he was placed in charge of the seaborne units, but his lust for plunder and disregard of instructions angered Tran Thuyen. His last recorded public act was in 1316 when he was sent to conduct a census and to collect taxes in Nghe An. The king made sure to send along with him an official known for integrity, but that did not prevent accusations of fraud from being made. Thereafter, Tran Khanh Du is not mentioned in the records until his death in 1339, at which time he must have been around 100 years old.

The trend among Tran princes in the fourteenth century was for there to be fewer and fewer in the mold of Tran Nhat Duat and increasing numbers who withdrew from public life to their own private lives in the mode of Tran Khanh Du. Tran Khac Chung represented a different and more portentous trend of people entering the royal family from outside and compromising it for their own ambitions. This man was originally named Do Khac Chung, but he was given the royal surname and adopted into the royal family as a result of his high-risk but successful performance in a side drama of the Mongol invasion of 1284–1285. When Togan and Omar were camped across the river from Thang Long shortly before occupying it, the senior king, Tran Hoang, called for a volunteer to go into the Mongol camp and pretend to negotiate for peace while in fact spying out  the situation there. Do Khac Chung, a famous gambler, was excellent at present- ing a bold front and engaging in clever talk; he immediately asked to be given the  assignment. In the course of his successful visit to the Mongol camp he had an interview with Omar in which, as recorded among the Tran, he audaciously bantered with the Mongol general. He then got safely away despite efforts by Omar to have him detained. He was subsequently admitted to high councils and given the royal surname with the rank of a Tran nobleman.

In 1298, Tran Khac Chung was appointed to administer the royal capital of Thang Long. In 1303, he was elevated to a coveted rank with close access to the king, normally reserved for eunuchs. During a visit to Champa in 1301, Tran Kham had promised a marriage alliance with the Cham king. In 1305, when Cham envoys arrived with gifts, asking for fulfillment of this promise, all of the court officials argued against it except for Tran Khac Chung and one other prince. Tran Kham sent a princess to marry the Cham king. Two years later, the Cham king died and the Tran worried that the princess was in danger of being burned on his funeral pyre. Tran Khac Chung was sent to rescue her from that prospect. He arrived back in Thang Long many months later after dawdling at sea to prolong an affair with the princess. This earned him the hatred of some Tran princes, in particular a son of Tran Quoc Tuan who, referring to the meaning of the characters in Tran Khac Chung’s name, said: “This guy is unlucky for our house. Does not his name mean that we are finished?” (Tran Khac Chung literally means: “the Tran can die.”)

Thereafter, Tran Khac Chung kept a low profile for a few years, but after Tran Kham’s death he insinuated himself back into the center of things, obtaining promotions in 1313 and 1315. He was so prominent at court in 1315 that some officials blamed him for a drought in that year, saying that it was a sign of his wickedness. He once suffered a demotion for publicly making a joke and causing laughter in the palace when the Tran royal tombs were struck by lightning, but it  was a temporary setback. With a glib tongue he talked himself into the confi- dence of the young and unsuspecting king.

In 1319, Tran Manh’s first son, Tran Vuong, was born to a non-royal woman from Tran Khac Chung’s home village in the eastern part of the Red River plain. She had apparently been introduced into the palace through Tran Khac Chung’s influence. Tran Khac Chung posed as a “teacher” of Tran Vuong and began to nurture hopes of the boy inheriting the throne.

Despite Tran Khac Chung’s aspirations for Tran Vuong, there remained a strong belief among senior members of the dynasty that the mothers of kings must be from the royal family. The leader of this group was Tran Quoc Chan, a brother of Tran Kham. In the 1310s he twice led armies against Champa and became the most trusted advisor of the senior king, Tran Thuyen. Before he died in 1320, Tran Thuyen established Tran Quoc Chan as the mentor of his heir, the young king Tran Manh. In 1323, Tran Quoc Chan’s daughter, Hien Tu, was appointed Tran Manh’s senior queen. Her age is not known but she was still too young to bear children. Tran Khac Chung and others argued for making Tran Vuong the crown prince. Tran Quoc Chan argued forcefully against this, asking to wait until his daughter, a Tran woman, could produce an heir.

Frustrated by Tran Quoc Chan’s influence, those who wished to see Tran Vuong made king conceived a plot. Tran Phau, a member of Tran Quoc Chan’s entourage, was bribed with a large amount of gold to falsely accuse Tran Quoc Chan of treason. In 1328, Tran Quoc Chan was imprisoned in a temple. The young king was uncertain what to do. Tran Khac Chung advised that “it is easier to capture a tiger than to let one go,” and Tran Quoc Chan was left to die of starvation. In the following year, Tran Vuong was made king, with Tran Manh becoming senior king.

Tran Khac Chung did not live long to enjoy the fruits of his schemes. He died in 1330. One of Tran Quoc Chan’s sons sent a slave to dig up his corpse and to chop it into bits. It was not until 1344 that Tran Quoc Chan was posthumously rehabilitated when a dispute among the wives in Tran Phau’s household brought the conspiracy into the open. Tran Phau was condemned to die by slicing, and Tran Quoc Chan’s son ate his flesh as it was cut away. Tran Vuong, the young prince who became king as a result of the conspiracy, died in 1341 at age 22. Meanwhile, Queen Hien Tu had begun to have children, and one of these, 5-year-old Tran Hao, was immediately raised to the throne. In his later years, Tran Manh was haunted by his “error” in not preventing the death of Tran Quoc Chan. The death of Tran Quoc Chan ended the mutual trust and family discipline that had been the strength of previous generations of Tran leaders. Tran Manh was thereafter a lonely king. The counsel of senior princes and the loyal service of junior princes became more attenuated than it had ever been for a Tran king.

Already in 1300, the right to contribute to discussions at court was restricted to those who had participated in the wars. Anyone speaking up who did not have a veteran’s identification card was demoted. However, some cards were issued during a time in 1258 when the royal seal had been lost and temporarily replaced with a hastily carved wooden seal, and there were questions about these having  been counterfeited. So an inquest was initiated to examine such cards for authen- tication. The same issue came up again in 1316, and Tran Thuyen, who experi- enced the wars of the 1280s as an adolescent, commented: “People at court who  are not familiar with references to the past will make big mistakes in their work.”

Even as the older generation resisted the loosening of its grip on public affairs, new fashions took hold, stimulated by the cosmopolitan energy of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Sorcery and fasting to obtain supernatural knowledge and power had been practiced for centuries, but a Daoist master from Fujian stimulated an unprecedented popularization of these practices in the early fourteenth century. A royal servant famous for training horses, playing chess, and mixing medicine studied with Daoist experts to perform exorcisms. A Buddhist yoga master from China claiming to be 100 years old amazed people with his curious skills and even obtained the admission of his daughter into the palace. Performers from China introduced tightrope walking and rope dancing as well as Yuan dynasty classical opera (called tuong in its Vietnamese adaptation).

The strangest case of all was connected with Tran Hao, who in 1341 became king at the age of 5. When he was 3 years old, he had fallen into a lake while watching fish and was apparently drowned. A doctor named Trau Canh revived the boy with acupuncture. Trau Canh’s father had been a doctor with the Mongols during the 1280s, was captured by the Tran, and then chose to remain in Thang Long. He treated members of the royal family and became rich with land and slaves. Trau Canh followed his father’s profession and was known as a skillful physician. In 1351, he prescribed a cure for the 15-year-old king’s impotence that involved human sacrifice and sexual intercourse with his sister. The cure was declared successful, although Tran Hao never did have any children, and Trau Canh thereafter became a popular physician among the palace women. With free access to the palace he began to carry on affairs with the women there. Informed of this, Tran Manh, the senior king, wanted to have him killed, but he was spared because he had saved Tran Hao’s life.

Tran Manh hated Trau Canh so much that when Trau Canh came to his deathbed in 1357 and repeatedly informed him that his pulse was “melancholy,” Tran Manh roused himself to write a satirical poem before he died: “When examining the pulse do not speak of too much melancholy; Mr. Trau’s medicine should blend the ingredients; If one unceasingly speaks of melancholy, I fear that melancholy will only be aroused to increase.” The reluctant mercy shown to the doctor was emblematic of Tran Manh’s intelligent yet inclusive spirit, the last echo of his great-great-grandfather Tran Canh’s teachings about non-duality. Although in 1347 he ordered a kinsman to be killed for stealing one of his robes and then having the cheek to wear it at court, Tran Manh sometimes substituted poetry for justice. Within a decade of his death, Tran Hao’s palace became a playground for clever commoners. It was also at this time that an unprecedented challenge began to materialize on the Cham frontier.

Tran Kham’s visit to the Cham king in 1301 had built upon the anti-Mongol alliance to achieve a marriage agreement. In return for a Tran woman as wife, the  Cham king relinquished his claim to modern Quang Tri and Thua Thien Prov- inces. The death of the Cham king in 1307 dissolved the marriage and gave rise  to Cham demands for the return of those territories. Tran Thuyen’s expedition of 1311–1312 was in part a response to those demands and resulted in deposing the Cham king and replacing him with a brother who agreed to be a Tran vassal. In 1313, a Tran army was sent to repulse a Siamese army from Sukhothai, a kingdom in central Thailand, which had emerged from the mountains to attack the Chams. In 1318, a Tran expedition expelled the Cham vassal, who had rebelled, and replaced him with another Cham leader. In 1326, that vassal also rebelled, defeated a Tran expedition, and thereafter sought to regain the lost territories. The Tran took no initiatives toward Champa for over two decades, being occupied for several years in the 1330s with fighting against encroaching Laotians along the upper Ca River in Nghe An. In 1353, an attempt to intervene in a Cham succession dispute failed when Cham war boats prevented supply ships from reaching the Tran army, which had advanced as far as modern Quang Ngai Province before turning back. Thereafter, the Tran were on the defensive in the south. In the 1360s, a Cham king appeared, called Che Bong Nga, who in the 1370s and 1380s would strike deadly blows upon the Tran dynasty.

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