Most of all, Le Tu Thanh’s intelligence and erudition enabled him to stay ahead of his entourage, to truly be “the leader” of the royal court. This was already clear during the first six months of his reign when, according to court annalists, virtually every aspect of government was in some way addressed. For three decades the Le court had been an arena of competition among jostling great lords, child kings, eunuchs, and palace women. Agriculture, the main source of wealth for the kingdom, was neglected. Men of ability were elbowed aside by clambering sycophants. The royal compound was not even kept secure for the safety of the king. According to the Complete Book of the History of Great Viet, “It was as if no one was there.” Suddenly, with Le Tu Thanh’s accession, a higher level of brainpower was at work with royal attention being given to every detail of public life.
The educational system produced unprecedented numbers of educated men. Most of Le Tu Thanh’s energy was spent in mobilizing, organizing, supervising, disciplining, admonishing, counseling, and enjoying the company of these people. He created an entirely new kind of extended royal entourage with a structure and a body of rules and regulations that enabled the royal will to be effective beyond the palace walls to a degree never before achieved. The structure was inspired by Ming imperial government but cannot in any practical way be considered as comparable to it. The criticism attributed to Le Tu Thanh’s evil teacher, Tran Phong, that the government had abandoned dynastic tradition to follow Ming practice, was superficial at best; at worst, it showed nostalgia for the corruption and disorder of earlier reigns.
In 1471, detailed administrative regulations were published. The basic struc- ture was built upon the Six Ministries (Luc Bo) that had been the core of imperial government in China for centuries and which, in various partially adapted forms, had also existed in Vietnam since the Ly dynasty. In 1466, Le Tu Thanh reorganized existing offices into the Six Ministries. The Ministry of Personnel (Lai Bo) handled administrative appointments, promotions, and demotions. The Ministry of Finance (Ho Bo) handled revenue collection and monetary disbursements, including the census and other tax-related records. The Ministry of Rites (Le Bo) was responsible for education and examinations, ceremonies and festivals, diplomacy, astrology, medicine, religion, theater, and music. The Ministry of Justice (Hinh Bo) administered the courts of law. The Ministry of Public Works (Cong Bo) was responsible for all construction projects, fortifications, dikes, canals, steles, and transport/communication posts. The Ministry of War (Binh Bo) supervised military affairs, including the palace guards. Before the time of Le Tu Thanh, the specialized functions of these ministries were for the most part handled by relatively low-ranking officials. Le Tu Thanh gave the ministers a high status at court, just below the inner circle of his military commanders and personal advisors. He also reinforced the leadership in the ministries with each having two high-ranking deputy ministers. The most significant innovation of Le Tu Thanh, a departure from Ming practice, was the formation in 1471 of the Six Departments (Luc Khoa). A department was assigned to watch the work of each ministry to ensure that all was done according to rules and regulations. Departments functioned as inspectorates with power to report directly to the king. This was in addition to the less specialized Censorate, which had existed for centuries to report irregular- ities and corruption among officials. The emphasis on vigilance to monitor performance and to evaluate results was a key factor in the remarkable success of Le Tu Thanh’s reign. He understood the distance that separated the formation of policy from its implementation and accordingly built into the structure of his government a system for self-scrutiny. Another innovation, dating from 1466, was to reorganize several areas of responsibility into the Six Courts (Luc Tu) that performed specific tasks directly related to the palace. The Supreme Court of Justice (Dai Ly Tu) was attached to the Ministry of Justice. Four courts were attached to the Ministry of Rites: the Court of Seals (Thuong Bao Tu) was responsible for safeguarding royal seals; the Court of Ceremonies and Proclamations (Hong Lo Tu) organized public events that displayed royal majesty; the Court of Sacrifices (Thai Thuong Tu) conducted all sacrificial rituals on behalf of the king at temples and shrines; and the Court of Banquets (Quang Loc Tu) organized official culinary occasions. The Court of Equipage (Thai Boc Tu) was responsible for royal transportation and procurement; its relationship with any particular ministry is not apparent from information available today, but, at least, it must have had to coordinate with the Ministries of Finance, Rites, and War. The Palace Academy (Quoc Tu Giam), the most prestigious center of education in the country, collaborated with the Minis- try of Rites in administering examinations and with the Ministry of Personnel in recommending students for official appointments. The Office of Academicians (Han Lam Vien) and the Secretariat (Dong Cac) reported directly to the king. Many scholars simultaneously held positions in both of these offices. They were experts in education, in writing edicts and proclamations, and in diplomatic correspondence with Ming. Le Tu Thanh tended to stock the Academy and Secretariat with scholars whose opinions he particularly trusted. Other scholars, if they were not considered suitable for administrative responsibilities, such as Ngo Si Lien, were sent to the Office of History, which ranked rather low in the hierarchy of the court. Provincial governments were organized as triumvirates of military command- ers, civil administrators, and judicial officers. Censors were also stationed at the provincial level. After 1471 there were twelve provinces: four surrounding the capital in the Red River plain, four in the northern mountains facing the Ming border, and four in the south strung out along the coast. According to a map of the kingdom prepared in 1471, these provinces were comprised of 54 prefec- tures, under which were organized 178 lowland districts and 50 upland districts. The dynastic hierarchy was based on a schedule of overlapping aristocratic ranks and administrative grades. After the king (hoang de), the crown prince (hoang tu), and lesser princes (vuong) came more junior members of the royal family bearing the ranks of duke (cong), marquis (hau), and count (ba). The ranks of viscount (tu) and baron (nam), which could be assigned to people who were not members of the royal family, overlapped with the highest two grades in officialdom. These were typically men with military assignments or who personally advised the king and crown prince. Below these people were sixteen grades. Examples of appointments in this scheme, in descending order, are: commander of the palace guard; the Six Ministers; the head of the Censorate and the commanders of provincial garrisons; the twelve deputy ministers, and the provincial civil governors; the head of the Office of Academicians; the heads of the Secretariat and of the Palace Academy; the heads of the Six Courts; the head of communications and information; the heads of provincial judiciaries; prefects; the heads of the Six Departments and the provincial censors; district magistrates; the head of the Office of History; the head of land reclamation; the head of stockbreeding; the head of water control for agriculture.
Members of the royal family received annual cash salaries in addition to allotments of servants, salt makers, rice fields, ponds for raising fish, and mul- berry fields for raising silkworms. Officials in the top eight grades received annual cash salaries and allotments of land. Lower-ranking officials received cash salaries only. In 1477, Le Tu Thanh ordered an examination of the work- load of all officials and a corresponding adjustment of their salaries up or down. In 1481, when available cash was insufficient to pay all the salaries, the king ordered to reduce the number of officials by weeding out the incompetent, corrupt, or unproductive.
The expansion of government had been significant enough that in 1467 the royal compound was enlarged because it was “too small and cramped.” According to a census of officialdom in 1471, there were around 2,700 officials with appointments at court; 70 percent of them were military. A similar number of officials were in the countryside; of these, only 30 percent were military. The army and the navy were both headquartered at Dong Kinh, which is why military officers were so numerous there. The army was organized under five major commands, all stationed near the capital, in addition to which were the palace guard units. Provincial garrisons, border guards, and local militia kept watch in the countryside and on the frontiers. Le Tu Thanh met daily with his top military commanders, and after every public session of court he met privately with the commanders of the five armies along with the Six Ministers.
Le Tu Thanh was a keen judge of character and kept a sharp eye on the thousands of men in his government. Early in his reign he established a strong sense of connection between himself and his officials, praising and admonishing them individually, revealing detailed knowledge of their lives, careers, and litiga- tions. On one occasion he sent fruit jam to all his officials as a token of his appreciation and as encouragement to work hard. Another early edict advised officials against castrating themselves in a “foolish” effort to gain admittance into the inner palaces, identifying a temptation that some ambitious officials may have entertained. Time and again he issued warnings, rebukes, exhortations, and words of appreciation to officials. He dismissed one military official because the man’s son had galloped a horse through the streets of the capital and had let his slaves beat people passing by; the official was held accountable for not teaching his son how to behave. He once had an official beaten and banished because he had failed to report corruption existing among those he was supposed to super- vise. He dismissed a provincial official because “in his jurisdiction there were many insects eating the crops yet he did not report it but simply sat and watched calamity come upon the people.”
Le Tu Thanh paid particular attention to officials being recommended for promotion. He would refuse to promote those he considered unworthy. He once imprisoned an official for recommending someone he viewed as bad. He insisted that a man must be in a position long enough to be evaluated before being promoted to another assignment. Evaluations of officials were to be conducted every three years, and supervising officers were punished if their evaluations were not completed on time. Officials in remote upland areas could be reassigned to lowland appointments after six years if their work had been good. If not, they would have to spend at least six more years in the mountains. On the other hand, officials in sensitive border areas were reassigned after relatively short periods to prevent their “going native” and losing a spirit of vigilance.
Le Tu Thanh’s reign displays a constant stream of edicts instructing and warning officials about bribery, corruption, dishonesty, greed, laxity, self- indulgence, wild and undisciplined living, wine, women, marriage procedures, marrying a woman from the jurisdiction where one was assigned, mourning regulations, competition for burial plots, excessive feasting, laziness in collecting taxes, not completing work on time, gathering with others for gossip and not keeping office hours, hanging around the guard posts as if having nothing to do, tossing betel quids in the palace yard before entering the court, correct dress and ways of holding one’s hands at court, how to address one another, not taking paperwork out of the office to one’s home, returning all papers when leaving a position, not to speak of court affairs with family members or people outside of the court, reporting at the palace first before going to one’s home when returning from assignments outside of the capital, the preparation and submission of paperwork, apportioning the workload between officials and their subordinates, and the importance of filling vacancies promptly. The annalists record that, when the extent to which the king kept a close watch over his officials became well known, everyone became very careful about their behavior.
At the same time, Le Tu Thanh made it clear that evaluations, promotions, and demotions were not to be a matter of public discussion or factional struggle; he announced that if an official was at fault it was a matter between him and the official and not a case for public accusations at court. He was famous for giving those who had been disciplined, demoted, or dismissed a second chance so that they might redeem themselves. He once revealed a sense of humor when he satirized two officials who pretended to be ill in order to avoid participating in a poetry competition; he suggested that their jobs were too demanding for them, causing them to lose their health. He displayed a very rare mixture of strictness, fairness, and mercy.
Le Tu Thanh valued the opinions of his officials. Administrative innovations were often the result of suggestions made by his officials. He wanted his officials to be perfectly open and honest with him, and he once issued an edict against speaking equivocally. He eventually divided his court into three groups with which he met separately: the heads of the Six Departments and the Censorate to discuss the conduct of officials; the heads of the Six Ministries and of the Six Courts to discuss plans and policies; the nobles and the military commanders to discuss security matters. He made a point of insisting that everyone speak when called on and that they address topics of discussion thoroughly, clearly, and decisively; they were not to follow a faction or be evasive. One man was appointed to be the “invigilator” for each court session; he was not to participate in the discussion but was to bring charges against anyone violating the rules of discussion. These arrangements reveal an effort to maximize the application of group intelligence to any given problem.
In an edict of 1485, Le Tu Thanh expressed his purpose in building an administration of officials trained to be moral and efficient. He proclaimed that government had two main goals: to maintain the happiness of the people and to nurture agriculture to provide enough food and clothing. He explained that happiness comes from a moral life and that his officials must do more to teach ethics to the people and to keep a close watch over the state of agriculture and the moral behavior of the people, implying a connection between these two aspects of rural life. Officials in the countryside were expected to react quickly to drought, flooding, and other rural calamities. The king often inquired about the condition of agriculture and the well being of the people. He made provision to send out doctors with medicines to areas affected by epidemics. Local officials were expected to instruct people in the laws affecting them, particularly laws about land ownership. They were to take care in appointing village heads and were not to allow more than one person from a family to serve as a village head in order to avoid factions and feuds among villages.
Le Tu Thanh was aware of and engaged with how village people lived, both in meeting their material needs through agriculture and as a society of human relationships. As king, he believed it was his responsibility to ensure that govern- ment be the best it could possibly be. He had no expectation of attaining perfection. But, during more than thirty years, extending his voice beyond the circle of his officials with the studied repetition of a born teacher, he endeavored to raise the ethical consciousness of increasing numbers of people with exhort- ations to moral excellence. His education had taught him that social morality was fundamentally defined by Confucian ethics. He gave public honor to people known for their chastity and filial piety. Abortion was prohibited. He issued an edict forbidding singers and actors from ridiculing parents or officials.
Stories were later written about his view of Buddhism as a vain superstition that wasted the productive energy of the people. But he was not an agnostic about supernatural powers and advised his officials to pray to all available spirits and deities in times of drought, flood, or pestilence. Village ritual life began to change in the fifteenth century with the development of the village community hall, called dinh, as a place for the conduct of local administration and for the worship of village protector spirits called thanh hoang.
There are references to dinh in Tran times as places to shelter travelers and where Buddhist statues were sometimes placed. The distinctive architectural features of dinh with raised floors bring to mind stilted longhouses still found in upland regions and suggest that there was a tradition of such structures for community events. In China, thanh hoang were protector deities of cities, towns, and walled administrative centers. Beginning in Tang times and extending through Tran times, three different thanh hoang were recorded for Dai La/Thang Long. During the era of Ming Giao Chi, imperial officials followed the system current in Ming China of establishing shrines to thanh hoang at centers of administration down to the district level. During the reigns of the Le kings in the fifteenth century, thanh hoang cults came to be placed in the dinh where they were regulated as an aspect of local administration. Ritual observances associ- ated with thanh hoang were conducted by men, in contrast with the prominent role of women and nuns at many Buddhist temples.
There is little information about Buddhism from Le Tu Thanh’s reign. In 1467, he decreed that Buddhist and Daoist temples that did not have “old thresholds” could not be rebuilt without permission, implying some effort to place limits on these religions. A 1470 edict against people shaving their heads unless they were legitimate Buddhist monks or temple wardens suggests a suspicion of people seeking to impersonate temple dwellers to avoid field work. Despite this seeming inclination to curb the activities of monks and priests, in 1467, amidst an invasion of crop-destroying insects, the king sent Daoist priests to exercise their occult powers against the calamity; he also ordered that sacrifices be made to “all the deities” to stop the infestation.
There were several recorded times of drought and hunger during Le Tu Thanh’s reign and each time he responded vigorously. In 1467, in addition to sending Daoist priests against the insects and ordering prayers for rain, he also lowered taxes due to the poor harvest. This same year a typhoon devastated coastal provinces, breaking dikes, flooding fields with seawater, and causing the deaths of many people. The king halted all construction projects in the capital and sent the workers to help in the countryside. Soldiers were excused from drill and training exercises to assist with repairing the damage from the storm, including rebuilding the coastal dikes. The price of rice in Dong Kinh was excessively high, so rice was transported from Nghe An where it was more plentiful and cheaper.
The drought continued in 1468 and prayers for rain also continued. When rural distress led to disorders and banditry in the coastal province adjacent to the Ming border, the king closely monitored the situation and sent new officials with reinforcements to restore calm. Shortly after this, in 1469, weapons were col- lected from private homes. In 1473 and in 1476, droughts were combated with prayers that were followed by rains. A drought that began in 1489 led to harvest failures in some provinces in 1490. When people began to die of hunger, the court distributed rice and declared a suspension of taxes. In 1492, a famine was met with people being instructed to plant and eat yams instead of rice. Le Tu Thanh’s government paid closer attention to village life than any previous regime. This resulted from the increase in the number of royal officials assigned to rural localities, from the way that officials were organized to implement policies and monitor performance, and from Le Tu Thanh’s repeated exhortations.