Misgovernment in the north

01

Dec
2021

Imperial weakness and local heroes

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When the Liang dynasty replaced the Qi at the beginning of the sixth century, provincial leaders fell into factions that either resisted or favored the new dynasty. The pro-Liang group gained ascendancy and ruled the province for two decades, until a new system of imperial rule designed by Liang was extended to Giao in the 520s. During this time, unknown numbers of men from Giao traveled to the imperial court seeking advancement.

Since the Jin dynasty’s loss of northern China in the early fourth century, the court was located at modern Nanjing, around 2,200 kilometers by land and 2,700 kilometers by sea from the Giao provincial capital. This distance is one reason why, during the preceding two centuries, leaders in Giao were sensitive to  shifting dynastic fortunes at the imperial capital and developed habits of hand- ling local affairs in their own way when it was necessary or possible to do so.  Nevertheless, politically active people in Giao, despite their relative remoteness from the imperial center, were definitely educated and socialized to value their place in the empire, for ambitious men from Giao did not shrink from taking the long road to the imperial capital to advance their careers.

We know of two such men in the early sixth century, Ly Bi and Tinh Thieu, because they were prominent in a rebellion that in 541 drove Liang officials from Giao. Ly Bi’s ancestors were reportedly among those who had fled into the south from northern China during the Wang Mang disorders of the early first century ce. For several generations, his lineage had been prominent in the military affairs of Giao Province, and what is known of his career places him among officers assigned to patrol the frontiers. He traveled to the Liang capital seeking a court appointment, but his ambitions were thwarted for unknown reasons, and he returned to Giao. He was joined in his frustration by Tinh Thieu, known as a scholar, who had also gone to the Liang capital in hopes of advancement. Tinh Thieu was chagrined to be disregarded because his family was unknown at court; his literary aspirations were disdained and he felt himself to be insulted by being assigned to oversee one of the gates in the city wall. Ly Bi and Tinh Thieu eventually returned to Giao together. No others are mentioned in the records, but there may very well have been a significant group of disappointed office seekers from Giao at the Liang capital who gathered around Ly Bi and Tinh Thieu. The subsequent rebellion led by them may have grown from the network of personal relationships established among members of such a group.

In 541, Ly Bi mobilized “heroes from several provinces” to attack Liang  officials. These “heroes” are likely to have had unhappy imperial careers analo- gous to his and Tinh Thieu’s. A time of relative imperial weakness encouraged an  exuberance of ambition among those who were imaginative and daring. The “several provinces” is a reference to the Liang experiment in local administration implemented in the 520s, around the time that Ly Bi and Tinh Thieu returned to Giao. It was an effort to harness the ambitions of such “heroes” to imperial authority.

By this time, provincial government throughout the empire had, to a large extent, devolved into the hands of powerful local families, to the point that the imperial court aimed no further than to accept and regulate this state of affairs. The court appointed prominent local figures to be governors of newly organized small provinces while appointing members of the imperial family to be governors of larger, more strategic provinces. Military commands were established to oversee relations among the governors. Although Giao was divided into six provinces, the Red River plain remained intact; it was the dominant province in the region and was assigned to a nephew of the emperor. Ly Bi was appointed as military overseer of a province in the plain of the Ca River, on the southern frontier. From there, he mobilized an army that marched north. Reaching the Red River, he joined forces with a prominent local clan leader in the Red River plain named Trieu Tuc. In 541, the Liang governor paid a bribe to be allowed to escape north.

It took the Liang court four years, amidst several false starts, to organize an expedition against Ly Bi. During this time, while successfully resisting attacks both from Liang in the north and from Chams in the south, Ly Bi proclaimed  himself an emperor and set about organizing an imperial court, directly challen- ging Liang’s dynastic claim to the empire. It is no coincidence that the man who  led an army against Ly Bi in 545, Chen Baxian, had imperial ambitions of his own and eventually supplanted the Liang by founding his own dynasty. Chen Baxian was among the best military commanders of his generation. Within a year he had driven Ly Bi into the mountains where he was killed by uplanders seeking to ingratiate themselves with the Liang army. Thereafter, Chen Baxian returned north where he was absorbed in the wars that eventually led to his proclaiming the Chen dynasty in 557.

Meanwhile, Liang forces remaining in Giao were sidelined by a struggle between the Ly clan, led by a kinsman of Ly Bi named Ly Phat Tu, who marshaled his forces in the southern provinces and along the upland frontier, and the Trieu clan, led by a son of Trieu Tuc named Trieu Quang Phuc, based in the lowlands of the Red River plain. In 557, when the Liang dynasty fell, the Ly and the Trieu, after many battles, made a truce, each recognizing the other’s control in their respective territories. This truce was arranged with an eye on the new Chen dynasty, whose emperor had direct personal experience of Giao, having vanquished Ly Bi a decade earlier.

In 570, after stabilizing imperial control over the provinces just north of Giao, Chen Baxian sent an expedition to Giao, the main effect of which appears to have been the establishment of trading relations and the demise of Trieu Quang Phuc. This was the end of the brief moment of Chen power on the southern frontier and subsequently for three decades Ly Phat Tu governed Giao while watching the new imperial regime of Sui rise in northern China. By the 590s, Sui armies were operating in southern China near the Giao border and Ly Phat Tu  found it expedient to formally acknowledge the authority of Sui officials head- quartered there.

In the sixth century, the Ly clan found scope for its ambition as imperial power ebbed from Giao. The Ly took on the trappings of an imperial court and, in the turmoil of the time, may have nurtured visions of glory beyond Giao’s northern border. Less is known about the Trieu, but Trieu Quang Phuc’s rise and fall were recorded in temples dedicated to his memory with a version of the story recorded in imperial texts about the rise and fall of King An Duong in antiquity, described earlier in this chapter. This sixth-century version explains how Ly Phat Tu defeated Trieu Quang Phuc. It associates these men with Sinic lore about frontier heroes that celebrated loyalty to one’s father over romantic attachment to a spouse. It is a clichéd tale that had been recycled through the writings of imperial literati, and it shaped how these sixth-century heroes were remembered through the writing brushes of aspiring local scholars such as Tinh Thieu.

The rule of Ly Phat Tu, literally “The Son of Buddha with the Ly Surname,” was congenial to the prosperity of Buddhism. The first Sui emperor reportedly asked about Buddhism in Giao and was informed by a prominent monk that in the provincial capital of Giao there were twenty Buddhist temples and five hundred ordained monks. Sutras had been translated there and prominent monks were teaching. The first Thien (Chinese Chan; Japanese Zen; Korean Seon) master was considered to have arrived in Giao at this time, initiating a lineage of patriarchs in the School of Dhyana (meditation), which was beginning to flourish at that time.

As Sui inaugurated a new imperial era in the north, a residue of resisters and adventurers from the old order of the Southern Dynasties crowded into Giao, and Ly Phat Tu presided over the last outpost of a passing age. After years of equivocating with Sui officials, he was unprepared to resist when, in 602, a Sui army, under the able leadership of an energetic commander named Liu Fang, unexpectedly emerged from the northern mountains. Ly Phat Tu surrendered and was taken prisoner to the Sui capital in northern China. Liu Fang took the  submission of local clans while tracking down and executing the few recalci- trants. To punctuate Sui dominance on the frontier, he then led his army down  the coast to a Cham royal center at Tra Kieu, near modern Da Nang, which he put to the torch. Loaded with plunder, Liu Fang and his army encountered an epidemic en route back north and reportedly perished to the last man.

Despite this disaster, Sui officials easily established their rule in Giao. They brought a new way of organizing society, economy, and government as well as cultural and educational fashions that superseded the imperial ebbs and flows that  had characterized the preceding four centuries of belonging to the Southern Dynas- ties. The Sui inaugurated an imperial age that brought fundamental change to Giao.

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