A Franco-Vietnamese government



Ho Quy Ly

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During the few years of his rule, Ho Quy Ly presided over a blizzard of activity aimed at monitoring and suppressing dissent, mobilizing available resources to push back the Chams, and preparing for an impending Ming attack. His efforts  to control officialdom, private property, the marketplace, manpower, and edu- cation were steadily expanded. He sent out trusted officers to check on provincial  and local officials. Based on their reports, officials were promoted or demoted. An important criterion in these investigations was an individual’s sense of loyalty to the new dynastic regime. At the same time, new regulations for administering law and conducting local government were published. A census in 1401 was more thorough than previous enumerations had been and discovered a great increase in the number of men available for conscription as soldiers. The ownership of slaves was restricted, with excess slaves being appropriated by the state; this provision was applied even to remaining Tran nobles, whose landholdings were also restricted at this time. Taxes on land were dramatically increased and were to be paid in paper money. Market inspectors were sent to enforce uniform weights and measures and to ensure the use of paper money, which was resisted by merchants. New taxes were levied on boats that carried merchandise. Ho Quy Ly was gathering manpower, land, and metal coins from people who could potentially oppose him. The degree of disaffection toward Ho Quy Ly was so significant that in these years there was a large turnover in officials, as many resigned or retired or were dismissed. The prevailing system of examinations to select men for officialdom was inadequate to meet the need for new officials. In 1400, an examination was held under the existing scheme and twenty men were graduated. In 1404 a new plan to mobilize more students into the examinations was published, but it was not implemented because of the urgent preparations for war with Ming that began to absorb Ho Quy Ly’s attention. Consequently, in 1405 an ad hoc examination was held that selected 170 people for government appointments. At the same time an even more informal examination produced appointments for an unrecorded number of officials. The rapid turnover of officials in these years prevented implementation of a plan to establish a system of granaries to provide food in times of want. Instead, when a famine broke out in 1405, inspectors were sent to inventory the rice supplies of wealthy families and to force them to sell rice to the hungry. At that time, the brewing of rice wine was prohibited to save rice for eating. One ritual change indicated a shift from loyalty enforced by religious belief to loyalty enforced by a police system. The annual blood oath, which appealed to one’s fear of spirits and deities and had been practiced since 1028, was aban- doned. In its place was a cadre of spies and special police who monitored any  detectable sign of disloyalty. Ho Quy Ly, rather than supernatural powers, now commanded fear and respect. In place of the oath ceremony, Ho Quy Ly instituted an annual sacrifice to Heaven on behalf of the kingdom to pray for good harvests and prosperity. This sacrifice was called giao (Chinese jiao),  indicating a tradition of Daoist sacrifices that developed in China during preced- ing centuries to supersede what were considered to be old-fashioned sacrifices to  unorthodox and demonic spirits. Another ritual change was abandonment of the birthday festival that had been held upon the accession of kings since the time of Le Hoan during the Hoa Lu monarchy. Instead, in 1405, Ho Quy Ly celebrated his seventieth birthday by holding a grand reception at Tay Do and by distributing gifts to people in the kingdom who were the same age as he or older. He reformed the traditional royal birthday festival from a legitimizing formality to an act of venerating longevity, bringing to mind the sage-kings of ancient times.  Many people in the Red River plain viewed Ho Quy Ly with sullen disenchant- ment, being aggravated by his hard policies and nursing nostalgia for what they  imagined to have been a better time under the Tran kings. Facing south, however, Ho Quy Ly found people who were ready to respond to his leadership, and there he achieved a brief but significant expansion of his regime. Considering that for the first twenty years of his public career he was almost exclusively occupied with desperate efforts to fight off Cham attacks, it is no surprise that after taking the throne his first order of business was to settle accounts with the Chams. An initial expedition against the Chams in 1401 was unsuccessful, but in the following year, after building a road with post houses from Tay Do to the border near modern Hue, Ho Quy Ly forced the Cham king to cede to him what are now the provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai. Some of the people there followed the Cham king in his withdrawal from those territories, but many Chams remained and were organized into militia units with Vietnamese officers. There are families in Quang Nam Province today whose genealogical records indicate that they were originally Cham and that they took Vietnamese surnames in the time of Ho Quy Ly. Officials were appointed to govern these new border provinces. Landless people were settled there and water buffaloes were sent to assist in developing agriculture. In 1404, in a time of food scarcity, rice was sent to these provinces. In 1403, Ho Quy Ly, determined to utterly destroy the Cham threat, sent another expedition into Champa and besieged the Cham capital at Vijaya in modern Binh Dinh Province. However, he was forced to lift the siege and withdraw when supplies ran out. Thereafter, his attention was turned to the north where a much more serious threat was materializing. During the reign of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368– 1398), a disturbing pattern of peremptory demands had developed. In 1384, Ming demanded provisions for its soldiers fighting in Yunnan. In 1385, Ming demanded elephants and transportation facilities for moving soldiers south to fight Champa. In the same year there was a demand for tropical fruits and for Buddhist monks. In 1395 came demands for monks, masseuses, and eunuchs. In each case, the demands were at least partially met or plausible excuses were made. One of the eunuchs sent in 1395 arrived at Tay Do with a Ming envoy in 1403. Accused of serving as a Ming spy, Ho Quy Ly ordered him seized and killed. By this time, Emperor Zhu Di (r. 1402–1424) was on the Ming throne and pursued an expansionary policy. Zhu Yuanzhang, his father, appears to have viewed Thang Long as a vassal that had acquired bad habits during the Mongol– Yuan dynasty and needed to relearn proper imperial discipline. He took a dim view of the fighting between the Vietnamese and the Chams and tended to put most of the blame on the Vietnamese because they should know better than to behave like disorderly uncivilized people. On the other hand, Zhu Di viewed Ho Quy Ly both as an obstacle to the “great peace” of his imperial order and as an opportunity, because Tran dynasty partisans persuaded him that Ho Quy Ly did not have the support of the people and could be easily removed. Zhu Di was uncharacteristically outward looking among the Ming emperors. He allocated resources to build and outfit the fleets of Admiral Zheng He, which during his reign made several voyages through Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. Filled with the  exuberance of reasserting imperial power on the scale of the Han and Tang dynas- ties, Zhu Di was tempted to bring Giao Chi/An Nam back under direct rule.  By 1403, Ming envoys were, in the words of annalists, coming and going between Zhu Di’s capital at Nanjing and Tay Do “like the shuttle of a loom,”  and tension between the two newly established regimes increased rapidly. Diplo- matic exchanges became difficult and unpleasant. In 1404, a Ming envoy appeared  suddenly, delivered an accusatory message, and headed back to the northern border as unexpectedly as he had come. Ho Quy Ly sent men to kill him, but he escaped across the border before they could catch up with him. In 1405, Zhu Di demanded cession of certain border territories. Ho Quy Ly, seeking to buy time, agreed to deliver some land, but relations did not improve, and later that year Zhu Di imprisoned one of Ho Quy Ly’s envoys sent to negotiate an accommodation. It was becoming obvious that Zhu Di was intent upon striking at Ho Quy Ly. From 1404, Ho Quy Ly prepared for war with Ming. Landless, unemployed, and indigent men were organized into special army units. Boats were constantly on patrol at the border to intercept spies and watch for signs of an imminent attack. Wooden stakes were planted at strategic points in the rivers to obstruct invading boats, both from the sea and from Yunnan down the Red River. People with skills to make weapons were gathered at newly established arsenals. The army was reorganized and Ho Quy Ly traveled through the kingdom to inspect the terrain and make plans for defense. He ignored the advice of one general to engage invaders in the mountainous terrain on the borders and instead prepared a riverbank defense in the heart of the Red River plain. The key to his plan was the Da Bang fortress built on the southern bank of the Red River northwest of Dong Kinh, at the point where Ming armies from Yunnan and from Guangxi would most likely attempt to join forces. An anecdote about the construction of Da Bang fortress is emblematic of Ho Quy Ly’s subsequent reputation. When, in the course of construction, the shrine of a local spirit was destroyed, the spirit reportedly appeared in a dream to the official in charge and requested that the shrine be rebuilt. In reply the official wrote a poem with the words: “It is too bad, but there comes a time when old trees must suffer axes.” Later historians commented that when “knowledgeable people” heard about this poem they knew that Ho Quy Ly would come to a bad end. This idea that Ho Quy Ly and his followers were the victims of their arrogant disregard for tradition was useful to later historians as an explanation for Ho Quy Ly’s failure, but in fact he did not have the luxury of time to plant his regime in the minds of a new generation before having to face a powerful foe that was determined to dominate the region. When he met with his generals and advisors in 1405 to discuss the situation, his eldest son Ho Nguyen Trung prophetically said: “I am not afraid to fight. I fear only that the people will abandon us.” The people whose loyalties were most in doubt were the inhabitants of the Red River plain. Ho Quy Ly could not rely upon the Red River plain as the source of his military strength as the Ly and Tran courts had been able to do when resisting invaders in previous centuries. Instead, the Red River plain became a forward line of defense for his base of power in the southern provinces and his seat at Tay Do. A small Ming army came across the northern border in late spring of 1406 escorting a man who claimed to be a member of the Tran royal family. The Ming proposed to place him on the throne and to demote Ho Quy Ly to a provincial post in the far south. Ho generals engaged the Ming as they emerged from the mountains into the northeastern foothills of the Red River plain. After a day of bitter fighting, Ho Quy Ly’s men captured the Tran pretender along with many Ming officers and soldiers. The Ming commander barely escaped back to the border. This triggered Ming plans to invade that already had been in preparation for two years. In the few months before the end of the monsoon rain season, when the land would be sufficiently dry to enable the movement of large armies, Ho Quy Ly made his final arrangements for war. Stakes were planted at the river mouths, the population in the northeastern part of the Red River plain was evacuated to the south and west, and retired officers were called to duty. But no serious resistance was given to the Ming armies as they came through the mountains and entered the Red River plain. Modern historians have estimated that an army of 135,000 men set out from Guangxi and an army of 80,000 advanced from Yunnan. By the end of 1407, the two armies had joined forces in the northwestern part of the plain, had overrun Da Bang fortress, and had occupied Dong Kinh.Ming officers spread the news that they had come to restore the Tran dynasty. More than half of Ho Quy Ly’s soldiers deserted. Prominent families in the Red River plain led by Mac Thuy and his brothers, descendents of a famous scholar-official in the early fourteenth century named Mac Dinh Chi (1272–1346), offered their allegiance to the Ming. In early 1407, as most of the people in the Red River plain and many members of the Ho government defected to the Ming, Ho Quy Ly and his eldest son Ho Nguyen Trung rallied their soldiers and led a final desperate attack up the Red River to dislodge the Ming from Dong Kinh. They were decisively defeated and retreated to Tay Do. Pursuing Ming forces quickly expelled them from Thanh Hoa and chased them down the coast. Ho Quy Ly, his sons, and other family members along with their followers were captured in what is now southern Ha Tinh Province and taken to the Ming capital at Nanjing. Ho Quy Ly and Ho Han Thuong were imprisoned and disappear from recorded history. Ho Nguyen Trung found a new career as a manufacturer of weapons near the northern Ming capital at Beijing and died after authoring a book about his native country that was published in 1438.  Pre-modern Vietnamese historians, following historiographical rules estab- lished by the Song scholar Sima Guang (1019–1086), viewed Ho Quy Ly as an  illegitimate usurper, and he was scorned for having failed to defend the country. In modern times, scholars have variously viewed him as a feared, even hated, reformer; as a savior of the Vietnamese state amidst the disintegration of the Tran dynasty; and as a ruthless yet astute man who deserves some recognition for what he accomplished under difficult circumstances. He lived in hard times, but rebuilt a crumbling dynastic regime with imagination and will. He was stymied by Zhu Di’s expansionist policy, which was beyond his control.

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