The Sino-Khmer War and renovation

01

Dec
2021

Le Loi

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In late 1424, news of the new emperor’s proclamation and of Huang Fu’s recall prompted Le Loi to set out on a new trajectory. His earlier five-year career as a rebel leader in the Thanh Hoa uplands had ended with him back at where he had begun. During that time he had simply endeavored to survive in the mountains of Thanh Hoa, laying ambushes and avoiding encirclement. Now he went on the offensive, striking south through the mountains into Nghe An. After ambushing a Ming force in Quy Chau district, he advanced to Con Cuong district on the  upper Ca River. From there he moved downriver, defeating Ming and local pro- Ming armies until by the end of the year he had forced his enemies to take refuge  at modern Vinh, which at that time was the provincial headquarters for Nghe An. He rallied thousands of new recruits into his armies from the upland population of the Ca River basin. In 1425, as the Ming court was preoccupied with the death of one emperor and the accession of another, Le Loi sent armies both to the south and to the north. In the south, his men defeated a Ming army in modern Quang Binh and then marched through modern Quang Tri and Thua Thien to gain control of the southern border. In the north, Le Loi’s men captured a Ming supply fleet in northern Nghe An, then pursued Ming forces through Thanh Hoa to besiege them at Tay Do. Gaining momentum from these spectacular successes, in 1426 Le Loi sent his armies through the mountains north of Tay Do to emerge at the head of the Red River plain, threatening Dong Kinh and cutting it off from the road to Yunnan. When Ming soldiers were recalled from Vinh to reinforce Dong Kinh, Le Loi, leaving some troops to besiege Vinh, followed the Ming forces as they moved north, rallying thousands of men from Thanh Hoa as he went. Pushing into the Red River plain he proclaimed as king a certain Tran Cao, supposedly a Tran prince. Men from the Red River plain began to join his ranks as he called for those who had favored the Ming to come to his side and arrested those who did not. Wang Tong, at Dong Kinh as Huang Fu’s replacement, was prepared to surrender, but local men who were loyal to Ming persuaded him to resist. They frightened him with the story of Omar whom the Tran had drowned in 1289 while pretending to let him return north. Consequently, there followed a year of waiting for Ming reinforcements. Le Loi was later recorded as saying that at first he had no intention of overthrowing the Ming regime or of becoming king: he had simply been trying to stay alive and one event had led to another. This seeming diffidence may have been true in the years 1418–1423 when personal enemies aroused Ming and Laotian armies against him in the Thanh Hoa uplands. However, upon news of the death of Zhu Di, he embarked on a three-year campaign that showed forethought and a bold, aggressive spirit. Attacking Ming and allied forces at their most isolated and vulnerable points, he quickly gained control of the southern provinces and recruited into his armies large numbers of men from both the uplands and the lowlands. Without pause he had rushed his men into the Red River plain and swiftly placed his enemies under siege. By the beginning of 1427, five major strongholds were under siege. These were Dong Kinh and Tay Do; Co Long, a fortress built to guard the southern entrance to the Red River plain in Y Yen district, near Vu Ban in Nam Dinh Province, on the road between Dong Kinh and Tay Do; a fortress at Chi Linh, near Pha Lai, that guarded the eastern part of the Red River plain; and Xuong Giang, a fortress at the modern city of Bac Giang that guarded the route out of the Red River plain to the northern border. All the Ming garrisons south of Tay Do had surrendered. Le Loi established his headquarters at Bo De, in Gia Lam district, directly across the Red River from Dong Kinh. Le Loi understood that Ming Giao Chi was at its end. The Ming were unlikely to make any serious effort to reassert their control in Giao Chi. By making Tran Cao king, Le Loi satisfied the aim of restoring the Tran that had ostensibly led to the initial Ming intervention and that Zhu Zhanji now considered to be the basis for terminating intervention. Nevertheless, with imperial forces under siege, Ming could not be idle. Maintaining the appearance of empire required efforts to reinforce or to rescue the besieged remnants of Giao Chi. At a more prosaic level, the routine habits of Ming military officials produced soldiers in response to Wang Tong’s call from Dong Kinh for help, although they would be relatively few and without the quality of leadership that had been demonstrated in the past by Zhang Fu. While waiting for this final crack of Ming’s whip, Le Loi pressed the siege of remaining Ming fortresses, prepared to defend the borders, and began to act like a king. Le Loi appointed Nguyen Trai to have responsibility for organizing civil administration and for writing letters to solicit the submission of Ming officials and of local people serving the Ming. Nguyen Trai was a grandson of Tran Nguyen Dan, one of the last prominent Tran princes. Nguyen Trai’s father, Nguyen Phi Khanh, was a scholar who had served Ho Quy Ly and had been taken as a prisoner to the north after the Ming conquest. Nguyen Phi Khanh has left many poems expressing his aspirations for public service. Nguyen Trai had received an excellent classical education and was a graduate of the examination held in 1400 under Ho Quy Ly. After the Ming conquest, he remained in Giao Chi and apparently lived for several years in hiding to avoid serving the Ming. Eventually, he joined Le Loi and served him as an advisor. Nguyen Trai’s surviving works include several letters to Ming officials and to local men serving the Ming explaining why they should surrender, a famous proclamation of victory over the Ming, a history of Le Loi’s career, a geography,  and many poems both in Literary Chinese and in vernacular Vietnamese. Conse- quently, he has become a towering figure in Vietnamese literary history, particu- larly since very little has survived from before his lifetime and because he is the  first poet to leave a significant corpus of verse in the vernacular language. Consequently, although largely based on conjecture, it has been widely assumed that he was a great statesman and military strategist who devised the plans that resulted in Le Loi’s success. There is no firm record of when Nguyen Trai joined Le Loi, although there is a well-known tale about him traveling to Thanh Hoa to meet Le Loi at Mount Lam and then deciding to join him. It is very unlikely that this occurred before Le Loi began to resist the Ming in 1418, because at that time Le Loi had no particular reputation that could possibly have drawn Nguyen Trai’s attention. It is most likely to have been after the five years of fighting in the mountains of Thanh Hoa that ended in Le Loi’s defeat and submission to Ming. Le Loi’s reputation as a fighter and a survivor was established by then, and during the truce of 1423–1424 it would have been possible for visitors to find Le Loi at home. Part of the significance of Nguyen Trai’s role in the events of that time comes from the fact that he was a man of the Kinh people in the Red River plain while Le Loi and large numbers of his followers came from the Trai peoples of the  southern provinces. A century later, the differences between these two popula- tions and regions would lead to prolonged civil war. The image of Le Loi and  Nguyen Trai as a team of brawn and brain representing the two parts of the country was a useful and comforting symbol of unity, particularly since so many Kinh people in the Red River plain had supported the Ming. In fact, there is no firm evidence that Nguyen Trai’s contribution to Le Loi’s regime was more than as an erudite writer of letters and proclamations, a knowledgeable administrator, an expert on court music and ritual, and a voice of moderation amidst Le Loi’s bloodthirsty lieutenants, all of which, while a bit short of the myth, was still a substantial role in the tumult of that time. The most plausible way to conjecture an even larger role for Nguyen Trai is to associate him with the shift in aim, strategy, and tactics that we have noted between Le Loi’s activities before and after the death of Zhu Di. From a defensive mentality and merely staying alive in the mountains of Thanh Hoa, Le Loi suddenly acted to mobilize the upland population of the southern provinces, to strike at the most vulnerable points of the Ming defense, to build on the  momentum of his successes without delay, and to methodically lay the founda- tion for a new dynastic regime. This dramatic change may have come from Le  Loi’s own meditations or from consultations with his trusted battle leaders, but it may also owe something to Nguyen Trai, who possessed a large knowledge of history, had closely observed Ming administration while evading it, and held strong opinions about good government. Nguyen Trai is likely to have been more alert than others to understanding the implications of Zhu Di’s death and of Zhu Gaozhi’s proclamation of a new policy in Giao Chi. It may even have been these events that prompted him to join Le Loi and to urge Le Loi to take advantage of the changing circumstances.

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