In 1442, only fourteen days before the death of his father Le Nguyen Long, Le Tu Thanh was born in the countryside where his mother had found refuge from homicidal intrigues in the palace. After three years, he was brought to the palace to be educated with his three elder brothers, all being about the same age: Le Nghi Dan, Le Khac Xuong, and the king Le Bang Co. According to the annalists, he was in good relations with all his brothers and in particular earned the affection of both Le Bang Co and Le Bang Co’s mother who was then serving as regent queen mother. Annalists described him as unusually handsome, digni- fied, intelligent, courageous, resourceful, humane, and decisive. He was drawn to good and gentle people. Most importantly, he was diligent and untiring in his studies. As time went on, he withdrew from contact with others and spent all his time with books. The luxury of spending the energy of his youth in study made him the most erudite man of his generation. Tran Phong, an examination graduate of 1431, was the head of the palace teachers. Some historians recorded that he quickly perceived that Le Tu Thanh showed indications of greatness. But others wrote that he favored Le Nghi Dan and scorned Le Tu Thanh. When Le Nghi Dan seized the throne, like many other officials, he had no qualms about serving this fratricidal king. Then, a few months later, when Le Tu Thanh became king, Tran Phong turned to serve him. For twenty-five years, Le Tu Thanh endeavored to give Tran Phong the consideration due to a former teacher while at the same time repeatedly rebuking him for his reprehensible behavior and urging him to mend his ways. Tran Phong held positions in the judiciary and the Censorate. He became famous for following the crowd while shamelessly fawning on people of high rank. In 1465, Le Tu Thanh rebuked Tran Phong for joining others in lodging an accusation against his own younger brother, thereby abandoning correct brotherly feelings. In 1467, the king turned the tables on his former teacher to ask: “Why do you not read the books that illuminate the way to correct yourself?” At that time, Tran Phong had joined a group of officials seeking to denounce Nguyen Duc Trung, a man who had joined Le Xi against Le Nghi Dan in 1460 and who had subsequently become the maternal grandfather of Le Tranh, the crown prince. Immediately after doing this, Tran Phong hastened by night to the house of Nguyen Duc Trung to apologize. Then, seeking to ingratiate himself further with the maternal family of the future king, he asked to marry the daughter of Nguyen Duc Trung’s brother, Nguyen Yen. He finally achieved this after spending an entire day lying prostrate in Nguyen Yen’s courtyard. Le Tu Thanh observed that, in his unprincipled search for greatness, Tran Phong “licked Nguyen Duc Trung’s hemorrhoids and sucked Nguyen Yen’s boils.” In 1474, the king rebuked Tran Phong for his corrupt schemes and asked: “Why do you not stop your despicable behavior so that you can have a good name when you retire?” Finally, in 1485, Tran Phong was put to death, accused of obstinate disloyalty. On that occasion, the official who prepared the accusation against him noted the king’s repeated warnings and wrote that, among other things, Tran Phong treasonously resisted Le Tu Thanh’s organization of the royal government, denouncing it as imitating the Ming instead of following dynastic tradition. Tran Phong’s dismal career introduces three large aspects of Le Tu Thanh’s reign: the importance of education, an intense relationship between the king and his offi- cials, and an unprecedented renovation in the structure of government. Education was the cornerstone of the half-century “golden age” initiated by Le Tu Thanh’s accession in 1460. Of the 2,896 men listed as having graduated at the level of countrywide, or capital, examinations from the eleventh to the twentieth centuries, 502 graduated in the twelve triennial exams, from 1463 to 1496, that were held during the reign of Le Tu Thanh, which is more than 17 percent of the total. If we add the six additional exams, through 1514, held during the reigns of his successors before the Le dynasty began to collapse, the total is 714 graduates, which is nearly 25 percent of all graduates in the history of the country. In 1484, steles were erected inscribed with the names of all capital examination graduates beginning with the exam of 1442. Thereafter, the names of graduates were routinely inscribed on steles, which can still be seen today in Hanoi at the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu). Behind these few who achieved the honor of participating in the palace exam, which was held to rank the graduates of the capital exam, there were thousands who graduated from the regional exams, thereby earning the right to compete in the capital exams. In 1463, nearly 4,400 men participated in the capital exam. In 1514 there were 5,700. An average of about 4,000 men graduated from the regional exams to participate in the capital exams every three years, and only about 1 percent of these graduated to take the palace exam.
The proportion of candidates to graduates in the regional exams was surely greater than it was in the capital exams. The rules for entering the regional exams involved an investigation into one’s family history, an evaluation of one’s moral character, and a preliminary dictation test to eliminate non-competitive candi- dates. Being away from direct scrutiny by the court until 1492, when the court took direct responsibility for the regional exams, the supervision of regional exams was not as severe as it was for the capital exams. Consequently, the percentage of regional candidates who graduated to take the capital exam was certainly greater than the 1 percent success rate for candidates at the more rigorous capital exam. How much greater can be no more than conjecture, but a hypothetical calculation based on a plausible yet conservative 10 percent success rate will yield an average of 40,000 candidates at regional exams in any given year.
The 1490 census reported approximately 8,000 village-level jurisdictions throughout the country including the thirty-six urban wards that lay between the royal compound and the Red River at Dong Kinh, the only “city” in the country. There were at least seven different categories of rural village-level jurisdiction. One of these, the xa, was the most typical form of lowland rice- growing village and made up the great majority of village-level jurisdictions. During the fifteenth century, the trend of Le dynasty administration of the xa was toward fewer and larger xa as rural administration became more entrenched, the agrarian regime became more systematic, and the population grew. Surviving records do not enable any calculation of an average size of xa in number either of households or of population, but, according to one text, by 1490 the number of households in a xa could range from fewer than sixty to more than 600, which is not a particularly precise or useful piece of information.
Taking the reasonable but arbitrary hypothesis mentioned above that in each of the triennial exam years there was an average of 40,000 regional candidates, there would have been an average of five of these candidates for every village- level jurisdiction in the country as counted in the 1490 census. This is not implausible and strongly suggests, even if it does not indicate with certainty, that education had spread widely into the villages. Of all those who studied, relatively few were likely to have gained admittance to the regional examinations, which suggests that many others nevertheless attained a certain level of literacy.
Behind these thousands of examination candidates were thousands of students preparing for examinations as well as thousands who failed and took relatively minor government appointments or became teachers or went into the military or turned to agriculture or business. They all had some modicum of literacy and to some extent had passed through the discipline of a pedagogical process, learning the rudiments of Literary Chinese and the prestige vocabulary. During these years, the ambitions of young men for fame and fortune were to a large extent focused upon the mastery of a curriculum based on philosophy, literature, history, and government.
The examination curriculum during the reigns of the first three Le kings followed educational policies established during the period of Ming rule. It was based on the Four Books, which had been emphasized in Song Neo- Confucian thought and had become the basis of orthodoxy for the Ming dynasty. These Four Books were the Great Way, Doctrine of the Mean, Ana- lects of Confucius, and Mencius. These were philosophical texts that empha- sized the importance of education in the development of human morality. The curriculum published for use in the regional examinations of 1463 included the Four Books but not the Five Classics, which had been part of the curriculum during the Tran dynasty. In 1467, the Five Classics (Changes, Odes, Rites, History, and the Spring and Autumn Annals) were published and teachers were assigned to teach them in the palace academy. An edict noted that prior to this time only the Classics of Odes and Classic of History had been studied, not the others, but that from then all of them were to be studied. The 1472 exam included both the Four Books and the Five Classics, giving particular emphasis to the Spring and Autumn Annals. In 1473, there was an exam for teachers on the Four Books and the Five Classics. Subsequently, the 1475 exam contained a more elaborate scheme of questions about the Four Books and the Five Classics than there had been in 1472.
The restoration of the Five Classics to the curriculum reflects an intellectual eclecticism that eschewed a dogmatism based on authoritative texts oriented toward ideological certainty in favor of more general fields of knowledge with practical utility. The Spring and Autumn Annals, along with its various commen- taries, is a storehouse of historical situations with lessons for how to govern. The Classics of Rites and Classic of Changes contain blueprints for ceremonial behavior, for analyzing the present, and for thinking about the future. Paying attention to the Five Classics indicates a wider horizon of thought than is generally associated with the Neo-Confucian school of Zhu Xi. The 1473 teacher’s exam also covered the Tang poet Li Bo’s style of phu (Chinese fu), a Han dynasty prosodic form that had been introduced in the 1304 exam of the Tran dynasty and adapted into the vernacular during the early fourteenth cen- tury. This is another example of turning to pre-Song pedagogical authority, which cautions against a widely accepted view of this as a time when the Le court adopted Neo-Confucianism. In terms of pedagogy, the Neo-Confucian legacy of Ming Giao Chi was contextualized in a larger realm of erudition.
The credibility of the educational system rested upon a perception that the examinations were administered fairly. Consequently, officials who supervised the examinations were closely monitored, were quickly promoted or demoted depending upon their performance, and were the recipients of frequent royal edicts exhorting them toward excellence. In 1492, presumably in an effort to upgrade standards, the responsibility for supervising regional examinations was given to court-based officials rather than being left to provincial officials. The regional, capital, and palace examinations that dispensed academic degrees were only the most prestigious in a broad system of exams, but they set the criteria for objectivity that gave credibility to the many other exams that became part of dynastic educational policy, including exams in medicine and astrology.
Those who taught the élite students who were accepted into the palace acad- emy were kept alert to maximize the learning process. Edicts warned them against taking books to their homes, thereby rendering them inaccessible to the students. They were also instructed to arrange programs of study so that students would not all be assigned to read the same texts at the same time, which would inevitably cause an excessive demand for some texts while others were not being read at all. This level of classroom detail as the subject of royal attention is typical of Le Tu Thanh. He ruled as if his reign were one long study session for the entire country
. Exams in letters and math were regularly organized for the children of offi- cials, and sometimes for others as well, including soldiers and peasants, which could lead to appointments in officialdom or admission to schools in the capital. The lives of students at the capital were carefully regulated in terms of study periods, levels of achievement, tax exemptions, and exemptions from labor and military service. Poor performance led to assignments in the army. A particular educational stream was created for the sons of nobles and high officials that led to examinations for appointments in officialdom. If they failed they were sent to study the military arts. If they failed the examination in military arts, which could lead to military appointments, they were sent to serve as menials in adminis- trative centers outside of the capital. In 1478, an examination was held for military officers to certify their skill in archery. The 1471 expedition to Champa, which was personally led by Le Tu Thanh, became an extended training session for soldiers. The king published a book of instructions for military drill and discipline for use during the campaign that was translated into the vernacular and used “to teach everyone” as the army marched and drilled its way south.
Le Tu Thanh sought to create an atmosphere of study and of literary prowess in his palace. When the crown prince, Le Tranh, was 4 years old, the king surrounded him with teachers. In 1467 he selected thirty officials to take an examination in writing tu (Chinese ci) poetry, six of whom he chose for the luxury assignment of being allowed to do nothing but read books in the palace library. In 1471, Ngo Si Lien, a graduate of 1442 who had not particularly endeared himself to Le Tu Thanh with his equivocal behavior during the Le Nghi Dan episode of 1459–1460, was sent to work in the Office of History. Eight years later he produced a work that reorganized the history of the Ly dynasty written by Le Van Huu in the thirteenth century and the history of the Tran dynasty completed by Phan Phu Tien in 1445 and adorned them with his commentaries. Later historians extended this work, entitled the Complete Book of the History of Great Viet, to the end of the seventeenth century, making it the official court history up until that time.
Ngo Si Lien’s innovation in historical consciousness was to extend the history of the kingdom back to the time of the Confucian sages of antiquity. He did this by drawing upon a collection of tales that were circulating among educated people at this time, known today as Strange Tales Collected South of the Mountains (Linh Nam Chich Quai). These tales were ostensibly written down during the Tran dynasty based on oral lore then current among common people. They had been subjected to a process of revision and rewriting to discard what was considered lewd and demonic and to infuse them with Confucian didacti- cism. Ngo Si Lien used them to give content to an ancient dynasty named Hung that he purported to have ruled beginning in the third millennium bce, preceding the first dynasty in Chinese history. This dramatic and unprecedented excursion into the past might conceivably be attributed to the episode of Ming rule. In asserting a hoary imperial prerogative, the Ming could be imagined to have provoked a counterargument negating that claim by making an even more extravagant assertion of local sovereignty. The Linh Nam Chich Quai and Ngo Si Lien differently recorded the details of how the line of Hung kings originated, but the basic idea is that the first king was acknowledged as the most worthy of one hundred brothers. Half of the brothers followed their father to the sea and half followed their mother to the mountains. Versions of this story have also been recorded in modern times from oral lore among the peoples called Muong and can be understood as affirming the common ancestry of upland Trai/ Muong and lowland Kinh. This tale became popular at the royal court in the late fifteenth century because of the Le dynasty’s origins in the Thanh Hoa foothills.
In 1470, Le Tu Thanh published a book entitled Dao Am Thien Tu (One Thousand Words from a Wayside Cottage). According to the summary of it that has survived, it described the analogous relationships between, on the one hand, the unyielding authority of divine Heaven, of a sovereign ruler, and of a husband, and, on the other hand, the responding pliancy of the Earth, of a loyal subject, and of a wife, each of which willingly and harmoniously follows its leading partner without compulsion. He was interested in how to exercise authority without coercion. His literary interests seem always to have contained an element of didacticism. In his later years, Le Tu Thanh gathered selected officials to write poetry with him on assigned themes related to ethics and good government and then published them in anthologies. He loved poetry and enjoyed the excitement of competing to display literary skill.
As became the custom of the Le kings, early each year Le Tu Thanh made a visit to Tay Do and to his ancestral tombs in Thanh Hoa. On one such occasion he wrote about the scenery and terrain as he observed it while going up the Ma River by boat. He used the imagery of a dragon and identified various features of the landscape as the dragon’s nose, its mouth, its jaws, etc. His seeing “the dragon” of sovereignty in Thanh Hoa symbolizes the historic reorientation of political geography that had been underway since the time of Ho Quy Ly. Dong Kinh had been the place of the “rising dragon” (Thang Long) for four centuries and, according to some texts, before that it had on occasion been referred to as the “dragon’s belly” (Long Do), the heaviest and most immovable part of the dragon. Now, with the Le dynasty, the dragon of sovereignty had shifted south, and for a time it would reside in Thanh Hoa. The “great lords” of Thanh Hoa who had been mobilized by Le Loi became a force that would drive Vietnamese politics for several centuries. One of Le Tu Thanh’s achievements was to wrap his authority around these men and to subordinate them to his will. He did this in two ways. He absorbed some in study and civil administration; for others he offered war.