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Great lords and Le Bang Co

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Six days after Le Nguyen Long’s body was carried back to Dong Kinh, Le Bang Co was made king. Nguyen Thi Anh, the queen mother, became the pivot of authority at court. She was designated as regent to rule “from behind the curtain.” She was from a Thanh Hoa family and established a working relationship with Le Kha and Le Thu. She took care to educate and discipline her son to the task of kingship with seemingly acceptable results. Later court historians praised her wholehearted concern for public affairs, the respect she showed toward the great lords, the care she took to follow established rules, and her willingness to retire when her son reached the age of 12. This rather cheery interpretation does not take into account that she was also pliant to the intrigues of others, was apparently forced into retirement with the fall of Le Kha and Le Thu, and was ridiculed by a later writer with the cliché of a hen crowing at dawn, commonly used by Confucian historians when referring to women in positions of authority. While the queen mother presided over the court, Le Loi’s old battlefield associates attended to affairs beyond the capital. There were five such men who in 1442 stood forth to ensure an untroubled accession for Le Bang Co. All five were prominent on the roll of merit published in 1429. Le Kha, Le Sat’s old enemy, was one of the five, as was Le Thu, who, although initially allied with Le Sat, had been harassed by court officials for his extravagance and did not rise  to prominence until after Le Sat’s death. Le Kha and Le Thu formed a partner- ship with the queen mother and their power grew during the 1440s.  Two others of the five, Le Boi and Le Liet, had been early allies of Le Sat, but they had mainly occupied themselves with leading soldiers on the frontiers in the mid 1430s and had escaped the palace dissentions of that time. They now appeared at court and stood with those raising Le Bang Co to the throne. Le Boi apparently did not care for court life. He was soon leading soldiers on the Cham frontier, but then succumbed to a lingering illness. He felt well enough in 1449 to pay a visit at court and receive a sum of money in recognition of his service, but played no further leadership role. Le Liet had been rising to prominence in the last years of Le Nguyen Long’s reign. In 1441, amidst the palace intrigues of that year, he was assigned to announce that Le Bang Co was crown prince. However, he was not part of the partnership between Le Kha and Le Thu, and in 1444 he was slandered to the queen mother who imprisoned him and his family. His case could not be resolved for lack of evidence, and he was finally released in 1448 after the intervention of several great lords and a princess. His wife and children were not released to him until 1450. He thereafter stayed out of the way until returning to the center of court affairs in 1459 with Le Xi, the remaining man of 1442. Le Xi had received a promotion after the death of Le Sat in 1437, but nothing further is thereafter recorded of him until 1442. Like Le Boi and Le Liet, he seems to have gravitated toward service on the frontiers. Shortly after leading an army against Champa in 1445, he was dismissed. By 1448 he had been reinstated with responsibility for administering the army, but thereafter he played no recorded role until 1459. In that year, he emerged to finish his career with an important act of leadership and great honor. Three of these five men are recorded with different surnames in some records because they were given the royal Le surname as a mark of merit: Trinh Kha, Dinh Liet, and Nguyen Xi. The careers of Le Loi’s generals in the mid fifteenth century reveal a great diversity of characters with many vicissitudes and intrigues, but few of these men became leading figures at court, and those who did achieve prominence enjoyed but a brief time in the limelight. In the 1440s, Le Kha and Le Thu managed to push aside Le Liet and Le Xi and, with Le Boi in failing health, to gradually gain ascendance at court. They exerted increasing influence over the queen mother and brought into their circle of power a third great lord named Le Khac Phuc (his original surname was Trinh). In 1434, Le Khac Phuc’s younger full brother had been killed by Le Sat, and he was demoted to a minor post. He had not immediately benefited from Le Sat’s death because at that time he was under investigation for protecting an official accused of corruption and with making unlawful appointments. He was apparently slow to master the skills of maneuver at court, but by 1445 he was a major figure, and in that year his eldest son received a princess in marriage. Le Kha, Le Thu, and Le Khac Phuc tightened their collective grip on the court during three years of war with Champa. In 1444, Cham attacks in Thuan Hoa prompted Le Boi to lead an army to the border, after which he became ill and played no further role at court. In mid 1445, Le Xi was sent to attack Champa. He was dismissed a few months later for an unrecorded offense. During the winter dry season of 1445–1446, Le Kha, Le Thu, and Le Khac Phuc all joined an army as it assembled in Nghe An and advanced down the coast to modern Binh Dinh Province. There, the Cham capital of Vijaya was taken and the Cham king was captured. They appointed a new Cham king and surrounded him with Chams who had resided in Dong Kinh during previous years. Three years later, in 1449, the man designated as the Cham king was killed and replaced by an elder brother. Thereafter, relations between the two kingdoms began to deteriorate again. The Dong Kinh court was quick to report to Ming the details of the expedition to Champa and to explain it as a response to unprovoked attacks. The Le court was particularly sensitive to the Ming in these years because of a territorial dispute that had arisen on the coastal border. The two sides held discussions about the problem in 1447 and 1448, and at one point a false rumor that a Ming army was about to attack prompted an emergency mobilization of soldiers and the collection of large amounts of beef and wine with which to beguile the expected invaders. Meanwhile, scholars continued to accumulate at court. The first examination under the new academic system announced in 1434 was held in early 1442, shortly before Le Nguyen Long’s death. This and subsequent examinations held in 1448, 1453, and 1458 produced a total of eighty-nine graduates, although only four of these were from 1458. This was a new generation of educated men who came of age in a time when, according to a comment in the Complete Book of the History of Great Viet, “culture and education were in eclipse, those with ability crouched under injustice, and old scholars were tossed into retirement.” Many of these graduates would play prominent roles at court later in the century,  some of them still haunted by the fragility of civilized behavior. The examin- ations were seldom without scandal. The top graduate in 1448 was publicly  satirized with graffiti and street songs as “professor pig” when it became common knowledge that he slept with his mother-in-law. The great lords did appreciate and protect scholars who attended competently to their assigned tasks. For example, Nguyen Thien Tich went to China three times as an envoy to the Ming court and wrote an inscription for Le Nguyen  Long’s tomb. He was known for being strictly impartial when grading examin- ations, which was so unusual as to be a point of particular praise. When, in 1448,  another official who had falsely slandered him was caught embezzling tax revenues, Le Kha had the man killed, even though the offense did not require such a severe punishment, simply because he was so incensed that anyone would dare to disparage a man of such integrity as Nguyen Thien Tich. Le Kha’s presumption of authority at this time seemed to extend to the smallest details. The whole court would periodically go to Tay Do for a holiday. On such an occasion in 1448 the local boys and girls in Thanh Hoa Province presented a  performance of dancing and singing, which Le Kha stopped because he con- sidered it too lewd for the young king to see. Later that year in Dong Kinh he  ordered that a hunting net hanging in a palace courtyard be discarded so as not to encourage the king to become addicted to hunting. He personally went to convey the Dharma Cloud Buddha to the capital to pray for rain, and he also made a trip to Tay Do specifically to build a shrine. He supervised court appointments and judicial proceedings, advising the queen mother about how cases should be decided. The employment of mercy and severity appears random without more information but surely had to do with Le Kha’s circle of friends and clients, and his list of enemies. In one case, the son of a great lord who murdered someone in the marketplace escaped punishment in consideration of his father’s merit. On the other hand, the son of another great lord was executed for being a thief and a gambler and his father was demoted for having failed to control him. An example of Le Kha’s idea of justice being disconnected from the opinions of others comes from 1449 when he insisted on beheading an official accused of corruption despite nearly everyone else at court arguing for mercy. For his part, Le Thu seemed more interested in reaping personal benefit from his position at court than in exercising authority. In 1448 his son was to marry the 10-year-old elder sister of the king, who happened to be mute. His prepar- ations for the wedding were attended by such extravagance and corruption that a  scandal erupted, which nevertheless was quickly smoothed away. Le Khac Phuc, who was in charge of the wedding arrangements, had married one of his sons to a princess three years before and was in the middle of many unsavory activities. He dispensed royal largess by presiding over banquets at which gifts were distributed to selected officials. He instituted the practice of examination officials taking a blood oath as a caution against corruption, yet he admitted an unqualified student to the palace academy in a transparent case of bribery. The greatest failing of these men was their inattention to agriculture, to keep the dikes in repair, to guard against the loss of harvests to insects, and to provide for times of famine. Rural distress is a major theme of the era of great lord ascendancy. In 1445, a flood destroyed one-third of the rice stored in the palace compound; an edict was published noting that there had been several years of excessive rain, floods, broken dikes, villages being washed away, insects ruining harvests, ponds drying up, and vegetables rotting on the plant. The edict, following Confucian logic, suggested that these troubles resulted from bad government, so, in an effort to make a new beginning, criminal punishments and taxes were reduced. In 1448, there was more famine and prayers for rain. Once again an edict lamented several years of successive floods, drought, and plagues of insects. A year later, in 1449, another edict noted drought, failed harvests, famine, and misery. This edict expressed royal self-criticism and the same day there was rain. Thereafter, altars were erected to worship all kinds of spirits, including the gods of wind, clouds, thunder, and rain. Schools were repaired as an act of good government to solicit rain. Le Kha and Le Thu sent a public message to the queen mother suggesting that she consult more extensively with them in order to bring order to the court and thereby elicit rain. When she issued a statement agreeing with their suggestion, it rained again. But the overall situation did not improve. In 1451, another royal edict was published about the chronic disasters in the countryside. Questions were posed. Why is this happening? What can be done about it? Many people were asking these questions, and the most plausible answer was that something was wrong with how the country was being governed. The standard Confucian explanation was that blame rested upon the ruler and his ministers. The king was 10 years old and represented by a regent.  With the country in such distress, the men who exercised authority in collabor- ation with the queen mother could not hide from what were widely believed to be  the consequences of dereliction. Accordingly, in the space of two years, a shift of leadership brought a new regime to court. The 1451 edict was issued at a time when Le Kha’s harsh, increasingly homicidal rule had infected the court with fear to the point that his enemiesv gathered their courage against him. The queen mother was persuaded that Le Kha was plotting against the throne, so she ordered him to be killed. Le Khac Phuc was also killed since there seemed to be no way to retain one without the other. Less than a year later, Le Thu was imprisoned for not preventing his son from using sorcery to harm others. In 1453, the queen mother was persuaded to withdraw from court affairs, thus ending the regency. The 12-year-old king, Le Bang Co, began to personally hold court. Very little is recorded from the six remaining years of Le Bang Co’s reign. Coins were minted. A census was taken. Edicts on military discipline and public morality were published. Le Thu was released from prison in 1456. In that year the king enjoyed a music and dance performance during a visit to Tay Do that featured two favorite items entitled “Defeat of the Ming” and “The Great Lords Come to Court,” indicating a congratulatory imagination fixed on past glories.  The most memorable event from this time for later historians was the comple- tion in 1455 of the official court history of the Tran dynasty, including the reign  of Ho Quy Ly and the era of Ming rule. Phan Phu Tien, a graduate of the 1429 examination, supervised this work. It became the most important source of information available to later generations about the Tran and about Ho Quy Ly. Phan Phu Tien emphasized that the last Tran rulers were incapable and had lost the heavenly mandate to govern and that Ho Quy Ly was an illegitimate usurper. Thus, he presented the historical basis for proclaiming the Le dynasty. Many obituaries of great lords are recorded as the generation of Le Loi’s followers dropped away. But there remained a constellation of aging men who carried the responsibilities of government. They had been previously elbowed aside by the more ambitious men of their cohort such as Le Sat and Le Kha, who had each attained great heights of power before being cut down. The survivors tended to be men who had kept to the edges of the great factional conflicts of their time by busying themselves in the provinces, leading soldiers on frontiers, preferring the open life in the countryside to the headaches of palace intrigue. Consequently, they were diffident about taking a prominent and open role at court, even when the king’s youth would appear to require it. The fates of Le Sat and Le Kha were lessons against seeking the limelight. The most prominent of the surviving great lords were Le Xi and Le Liet, both of whom had briefly come forward in 1442 during the emergency of Le Nguyen Long’s death, after which they faded into the background as others pushed ahead. They were relatively sober men whose sense of public service was at least equal to their desire for personal acclaim. They continued to stand outside the circle of power, ready to step forward if necessary. Many court affairs fell into the hands of the sons of great lords, but there was no one of stature among them able to exercise leadership. Le Bang Co wandered into adulthood amidst a royal entourage composed of elderly men filled with self- importance and fond of recalling the deeds of their youth and the sons of these  men who had grown up learning how to leverage their fathers’ reputations for personal gain. According to the comment in the Complete Book of the History of Great Viet mentioned above, there was “injustice without appeal” and “all public matters were upside down”; prominent civil officials were “almost 80 years old” and leading great lords “could not read one word”; “the young men, without memory or forethought, acted with savage cruelty, and the old men, not dying, became agents of ruination.” The manner in which the reign and life of Le Bang Co came to an end shows that proper attention was not being given even to the basics of palace security.  Court historians considered that Le Bang Co was a well-educated and well- behaved young man who gave indications of becoming a good king, but he  lacked the benefit of experienced advisors able to ensure that routine precautions were observed. One night late in 1459, his elder half-brother Le Nghi Dan, who as an infant had been demoted from being crown prince during the palace turmoil of 1441, benefiting from the complicity of a palace guard officer and accompanied by around three hundred followers, climbed over the walls of the palace compound with ladders and killed both Le Bang Co and the queen mother. Four days later, Le Nghi Dan proclaimed himself king. Le Nghi Dan’s feat of suddenly penetrating into the center of power, along with his claim to the throne as a former crown prince, gave him an opportunity to be king. However, it soon became evident that the homicidal manner in which he had advanced his claim would be typical of his rule. Le Thu, who had survived  imprisonment during 1452–1456, became one of Le Nghi Dan’s victims. Fur- thermore, Le Nghi Dan was perceived as the tool of other men about whom  nothing has been recorded except their names and that they came from a region in the Red River plain east of Dong Kinh. For reasons now lost, except for conceivable conjectures based on class or regional animosities, these men and the great lords regarded each other as mortal enemies. Resistance to Le Nghi Dan among the great lords was ostensibly based upon their revulsion against regicide, but eight months passed before Le Xi and Le Liet brought their men into the palace to kill the regicide and his followers in an apparent act of striking first to avoid calamity for themselves. Le Bang Co’s other elder half-brother, Le Khac Xuong, played an ambiguous role in these events, for which he was later killed. Le Xi and Le Liet passed him by in favor of the younger half-brother, 18-year-old Le Tu Thanh, whose birth had been safeguarded by the intervention of Nguyen Trai. Two days after Le Nghi Dan’s death, Le Tu Thanh was proclaimed king, thereby opening the most celebrated reign in all of Vietnamese history. Bringing Le Tu Thanh to the throne earned Le Xi and Le Liet great merit among later historians. It was also the last event of any consequence that can be attributed to the great lords. The nearly three decades separating the death of Le Loi and the accession of his grandson Le Tu Thanh contrast sharply with comparable times in Ly and Tran dynastic history. Whereas the Ly dynasty began with the successive reigns of three strong kings and the founders of the Tran dynasty quickly organized a collective leadership of talented kings and princes, in the early years of the Le dynasty the royal family was eclipsed by a parade of great lords whose energies were in large measure absorbed in mutual competition. This was an aspect of Thanh Hoa political culture that became a fundamental feature of Le dynastic history with the exception of the reigns of Le Tu Thanh and his son, Le Tranh.

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