The Nguyen Dynasty



Le Quy Ly

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Tran Kinh’s rising profile as leader of the royal family was accompanied by the appearance of Le Quy Ly, his maternal cousin, at a high level of government. Within two months of the Cham invasion, Le Quy Ly was put in charge of the Privy Council and given as wife a Tran princess who had been widowed by Nhat Le. Tran Kinh, in turn, took a woman of the Le family as his queen. In autumn 1371, Le Quy Ly was given a title of nobility and sent to inspect the southern border regions. From his family base in Thanh Hoa, he became the master of the southern provinces and the frontier jurisdictions. Thang Long palaces were rebuilt in a rustic manner with labor from royal slaves so as not to trouble the rest of the population, which was being mobilized for military purposes. Bandits and drought interfered with and delayed military preparations, but gradually transportation routes into the south were put in order, weapons were manufactured, soldiers were trained, rice was requisitioned, and officers were selected. Tran Kinh was single-mindedly focused upon obtaining revenge for Che Bong Nga’s sack of Thang Long. By early 1376, Tran Kinh was poised to lead his armies south. Le Quy Ly was in charge of gathering supplies from the southern provinces and transporting them down the coast for the campaign. Do Tu Binh, a high official who in 1372 was given overall responsibility for military affairs, was sent to the southernmost Tran jurisdiction, in modern Thua Thien Province, to repulse Cham patrols and report on the situation at the border. It was later rumored that Che Bong Nga sent a large amount of gold to Tran Kinh and expressed a willingness to settle matters peacefully, but Do Tu Binh pocketed the gold and reported to Tran Kinh that Che Bong Nga’s colossal insolence required punishment. This was what Tran Kinh wanted to hear, for he had nurtured a consuming anger toward Che Bong Nga. Tran Kinh embarked his army at Thang Long and went by sea to the Giang River in what is now northern Quang Binh Province. From there he led his army on horseback, pausing for a month at modern Dong Hoi to train and reorganize his troops and to gather prisoners from the Cham population fleeing south. After a month of marching, he arrived before the Cham capital of Vijaya, near the modern city of Qui Nhon. Che Bong Nga enticed him into attacking what he thought was a deserted encampment. After an argument with one of his generals  who suspected a trap, he excitedly led his soldiers forward. In a rush of exuber- ance, his men melted into an undisciplined mob, which the Chams ambushed and  utterly defeated. Tran Kinh and three of his generals were killed. Do Tu Binh, in command of the rearguard, abandoned the field and fled north for his life. When the news reached Le Quy Ly, he hastened back to Thang Long.

The death of Tran Kinh in early 1377 reopened the issue of dynastic leader- ship. Tran Phu had two adult sons. Tran Ngac had been assigned to patrol  modern Thai Nguyen Province, in the foothills north of Thang Long, a notorious gathering place for bandits and rebels. His brother Tran Huc had accompanied  Tran Kinh’s expedition and had not returned. Exercising his accustomed diffi- dence, and perhaps also revealing what subsequently became his habit of defer- ring to the suggestions of Le Quy Ly, Tran Phu passed over Tran Ngac and  instead raised to the throne his 16-year-old nephew, a son of Tran Kinh named Tran Hien, whom later historians evaluated as muddleheaded. A daughter of Tran Phu, Thuc My, was married to Tran Hien and made his queen. In the midst of sorting out these dynastic arrangements, Che Bong Nga arrived by sea and found a way past coastal defenses to suddenly ascend the Red River. He once again plundered Thang Long before disappearing back into the sea.

In early 1378, Tran Hien celebrated his birthday festival amidst urgent efforts to manufacture more weapons and war boats. Tran Huc appeared in Nghe An married to a Cham princess and claiming to be king. Allied with Che Bong Nga he rallied many people in the southern provinces to his side. Che Bong Nga arrived in the lower Red River plain with an army. Do Tu Binh was sent to stop him but could not. The Chams plundered Thang Long for the third time.

During the next six years, with neither of the kings capable of providing leadership, Le Quy Ly and a group of men associated with him struggled to keep the Chams out of Thang Long. The treasury was empty but money was needed to train, equip, and supply soldiers. To increase revenue and military manpower, the basis of taxation was shifted from land to households. Following the equal field system of the Tang dynasty, able-bodied men were organized into military units, assigned land, and taxed on a per capita basis. The old system in which taxes were levied only on land was not functioning because so much land had disappeared into the estates of royal family members who did not pay taxes. The new system was also designed to stem the flow of impoverished peasants into the  ranks of slaves on royal estates. This was the first step in what would be a long- term policy of Le Quy Ly to build a socio-economic base beyond Tran  aristocratic control.

In 1379, despite drought, famine, fears of Cham attacks, and a major rebellion in the northeast of the Red River plain, enough taxes were collected that soldiers were assigned to transport money to the mountains for safekeeping. In 1380, the Chams, who then firmly controlled the frontier region of modern Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien Provinces, tightened their grip on Nghe An and attacked into Thanh Hoa. Le Quy Ly led armies south and, gaining victories, pushed the Chams back into the borderlands. In 1381, a local leader in Nghe An was executed for having served the Chams, as was Tran Huc, Tran Phu’s son who had rallied support in the southern provinces behind his alliance with Che Bong Nga.

Despite some victories in the field, Tran resources were near exhaustion and the Cham threat remained unabated. In 1381, Buddhist leaders were sent to  mobilize all able-bodied monks both from temple monasteries and from moun- tain retreats to temporarily serve as soldiers against the Chams. Statuary and  other treasures from temples and shrines in the lower Red River plain were taken and stored for safekeeping in the mountains. In 1382, the Chams again attacked into Thanh Hoa but were repulsed after desperate fighting by Nguyen Da Phuong, a protégé of Le Quy Ly.

In 1383, Le Quy Ly sent a fleet of large new ships down the coast. They did not advance far, being damaged in a storm, but nevertheless did prevent Cham attacks by sea. Instead, Che Bong Nga led his army through the mountains of Thanh Hoa to emerge into the Red River plain west of Thang Long. A general sent by Tran Phu against him was captured and Che Bong Nga closed in on Thang Long as Nguyen Da Phuong hastily built and garrisoned a defensive “fence” to protect the city. Amidst heavy fighting, Tran Phu fled across the river and took refuge at Bao Hoa Palace, which was located beside Phat Tich Temple, around twelve kilometers northeast of Thang Long near modern Tien Son. There he spent his time compiling a book of instructions for the young king.

Nguyen Da Phuong’s defense of Thang Long was successful and the Chams withdrew. Thereafter, Che Bong Nga did not threaten the Tran capital for six years, although fighting continued along the southern coast. At Thang Long, Le Quy Ly and his growing entourage made decisions as the young king and people near him gnawed powerlessly on their resentment. Tran Phu remained at Bao Hoa Palace. Among other things, he supervised an examination held at Phat Tich Temple that graduated thirty men in 1384.

The other senior Tran prince, Tran Nguyen Dan, went into retreat at Mount Con near Chi Linh on the northeastern edge of the plain. He clearly perceived that the Tran dynasty was nearing its end but saw no way to prevent this. He was in his sixties and had made his peace with Le Quy Ly, marrying his son to Le Quy Ly’s stepdaughter, who in giving birth to two grandsons thereby ensured that his posterity would survive beyond the age of Tran. The strongest words that he had about the fate of his dynasty were in two lines of poetry: “From past to present, prosperity and decline can truly be seen; Gentlemen, how can it be endured that remonstrations are so few?” Tran noblemen were paralyzed by the daunting disorders of the time, their lack of strong leaders, and the ambition of Le Quy Ly that put him far ahead of any rival. Tran Ngac, who in 1377 had been passed over for the throne, commiserated with Tran Nguyen Dan with a poem that said: “I was tossed aside years ago; You are not a great talent in our house; It happens that we are alike in being old and weak; Fields and gardens will soon revert back to nature.”

Tran Nguyen Dan, although without political ability, was nevertheless a tal- ented poet and, until his death in 1390, kept about him a circle of like-minded  literary men. One of his later marks of note was that in 1380 he became the grandfather of Nguyen Trai, the most prominent scholar, poet, and statesman of  the early fifteenth century. Nguyen Trai’s father, Nguyen Phi Khanh, as an aspir- ing young scholar, was employed as the tutor of one of Tran Nguyen Dan’s  daughters. When she became pregnant, her father allowed Nguyen Phi Khanh to marry her. However, Tran Phu, the senior king, was offended by this marriage of a Tran noblewoman with a commoner and barred Nguyen Phi Khanh from any appointment at court. Nguyen Phi Khanh later followed Le Quy Ly.

In 1387, Tran Phu returned to Thang Long from his sojourn of nearly four  years at the Bao Hoa Palace. His presence in the capital emboldened the 27-year- old king, Tran Hien, to plot against Le Quy Ly. Learning of this, in 1388 Le Quy  Ly manipulated Tran Phu into deposing Tran Hien and replacing him with his youngest son, 10-year-old Tran Ngung, once again passing over Tran Ngac.  A daughter of Le Quy Ly was made the queen. Tran Hien and all his co- conspirators were killed.

In 1389, more secure after being rid of Tran Hien, Le Quy Ly appointed to high positions at court a group of eleven scholars of whose loyalty he was sure. By mid year, however, rebellions in Thanh Hoa opened the way for a new Cham invasion. Le Quy Ly led an army into Thanh Hoa but was defeated, after which Tran Phu lost confidence in his battlefield skills. When Le Quy Ly returned to Thang Long to obtain reinforcements, Tran Phu relieved him of further military duty and instead appointed Tran Khat Chan, a descendent of Tran Binh Trong, the famous martyr of the Mongol Wars, to lead soldiers against the Chams. Le Quy Ly’s prestige had suffered sufficiently that Nguyen Da Phuong, his former associate who had kept the Chams out of Thang Long in 1383, dared to publicly oppose him until forced to commit suicide. Then, a monk suddenly appeared at the head of a rebel army from northwest of Thang Long. The two kings fled north of the Red River as the rebel army flooded into Thang Long. Tran Phu called on a general who had been campaigning against Chams and their allies in the mountains west of Thang Long to suppress this uprising. For a few critical months, Tran Phu demonstrated a hint of the leadership for which his ancestors were famous.

Tran Khat Chan, although repulsed in Thanh Hoa, retreated in good order to the southern Red River plain. There, in early 1390, benefiting from information given by a Cham turncoat, Che Bong Nga’s boat was identified and ambushed with firearms, the first recorded use of firearms in Vietnam. Che Bong Nga was killed and his followers fled south. The Cham wars ended after twenty years. During that time, the people in the territories of modern Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Tien had mostly followed the Chams. The people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh had been divided with about half following the Chams. Officials and  soldiers were sent from Thang Long into these areas to re-establish Tran author- ity and to administer a round of rewards and punishments.

With the lifting of the Cham cloud, Le Quy Ly regained his momentum. In 1391, he personally led soldiers down to the vicinity of modern Hue on the border. He sent an army to penetrate into Cham territory, but it was decisively defeated and he returned to Thang Long. This reminder of past defeats and of Le  Quy Ly’s skill in turning disaster for the country into personal success encour- aged criticism from many quarters, despite the fact that Le Quy Ly’s spies and  agents seemed to be everywhere.

When an official drew attention to a song sung by children in the streets of Thang Long that suggested Le Quy Ly was coveting the throne, the official was forced to go into hiding. Two officials in a province far from Thang Long had a conversation in which they expressed dismay at how Le Quy Ly was acting as the king; the conversation was reported to Le Quy Ly and the two men were killed. A Tran nobleman was killed for plotting to kill Le Quy Ly. Tran Ngac, Tran Phu’s son, had been on the edge of several conspiracies against Le Quy Ly. He thought that he should be the king and was a focus for Tran resentment against Le Quy Ly. Fearing for his life, he fled from the capital, was caught in the countryside, and was killed.

In 1392, having disposed of all immediate enemies, Le Quy Ly published a book that propounded his version of the Confucian canon. The Duke of Zhou, who loyally served a young king in antiquity, was “the first sage.” Second in importance was Confucius, “the first teacher,” whose Analects Le Quy Ly criticized passages for where Confucius appears to show lack of attention to ethical and practical matters (visiting a lewd woman, talking with rebels, failing to bring along enough food while traveling). The Tang philosopher Han Yu  (768–824) is praised, apparently because of his practical attention to the import- ance of a strong central government and his criticism of Buddhism as a waste of  manpower and resources. On the other hand, the line of Song philosophers from Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073), Cheng Yi (1033–1107), Yang Shi (1053–1135), La Congyan (1072–1135), Li Tong (1093–1163), and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) is described as erudite but with little ability, not sufficiently attached to actual facts, skilled only in collecting bits and pieces from ancient texts. Le Quy Ly proposed that action is more important than thought and that his model for action was the Duke of Zhou who accepted the responsibilities of kingship during a time when the king was too young to do so. He did not share the disdain of Tran royalty for “pale-faced scholars,” but he wanted an intellectual agenda that was under his control.

Given the curriculum followed in previous generations, which accepted the teachings of the Song philosophers, this was a change in ideology that was sure to provoke unease among some scholars. A teacher in the royal academy had the temerity to publicly disagree with Le Quy Ly’s book and was consequently demoted. Le Quy Ly immediately moved to reorient education toward his ideas. An examination in 1393 produced thirty new graduates and was followed by another examination for officials who already had appointments, apparently to reinforce the perspective of the new book.

An even larger difficulty in Le Quy Ly’s new emphasis would seem to be that, with a senior king at hand, there ought to be no need for a “Duke of Zhou” to assist the young king, Tran Ngung, then in his early teens. In 1394, however, Tran Phu, 73 years old, set this worry to rest by presenting a painting to Le Quy Ly that demonstrated his approval of Le Quy Ly’s new conceit. The painting was entitled “Four Helpers” and depicted four ministers of state in times past who were famous for helping young kings: the Duke of Zhou himself, who helped Zhou Cheng in the eleventh century bce; Hua Guang, who helped Han Zhao in the first century bce; Zhuge Liang, who helped Liu Shan in the third century ce; and To Hien Thanh, who helped Ly Long Trat in the twelfth century.

A month after this painting was shown in public, Tran Phu reportedly had a dream in which he saw his half-brother Tran Kinh, the former king, leading his army and reciting a poem: “In the center is no one but the marquis with a red snout; He is about to climb up into the tower of the white chicken; The decision of whether the kingdom will prosper or perish has already been made; It is not in front of you but behind you.” Reference to the “red snout” and to the “white chicken” indicated Le Quy Ly and Tran Phu, respectively, based on horoscopes and puns. The “tower” was the throne. The last two lines affirmed that it was already determined that the Tran were about to perish. It is recorded that Tran Phu brooded over this dream and was troubled by it, but that he saw no way out

. Another month passed and, after the annual blood oath was administered, Le Quy Ly met with Tran Phu, who is reported to have said: “You and I are of the same family. Together we are in charge of the country’s affairs. Now the country’s strength is declining, and I am an old man. After I depart this life, if the king can be helped, then help him; but if he shows no merit, then take the throne for yourself.” He understood what was happening and, despite his personal dismay, publicly blessed it. Four months later, he died.

Tran Phu had passed from the family of his father to the “same family” that he shared with Le Quy Ly, the family of his mother. Whereas Ly Sam had marked the end his dynasty by turning away from his mother’s family, the end of Tran Phu’s was marked by turning toward his mother’s family. The Ly dynasty developed an experiment in governance by maternal families. The Tran dynasty was an experiment in excluding non-royal maternal families from access to the throne. Both experiments worked for a few generations and both ultimately failed. There is no way to know whether the tremble of doubt that passed briefly through the mind of Tran Phu after dreaming of his brother was the last quiver of courage radiating from the deeds of his ancestors, or a shudder of loathing at  how he had betrayed his own bright hopes on that day in Vu Ban nearly twenty- five years before when he was proclaimed king, or simply the anxiety provoked  by the approach of death. His brother’s ghost came to comfort him. The outcome of the Tran story had been determined, and he could die in peace.

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