The last battle

01

Dec
2021

Living with danger

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Alerted to the danger posed by their new Mongol neighbor, the Tran family moved quickly to further strengthen royal leadership. Within two months of expelling Uriyangqadai from the lowlands, in early 1258, Crown Prince Tran Hoang was made king and Tran Canh became the senior king. The practice of having two kings, one senior and one junior, became a stabilizing feature of the dynasty

. The older generation was passing away. In early 1259 came the death of Thuan Trinh, the heroine of the evacuation of Thang Long. She was the queen of the last Ly king, the mother of Tran Canh’s queen, the grandmother of many talented princes and princesses, and for many years the wife of her half-brother, Tran Thu Do. She had borne the title “Mother of the Kingdom” with the rank and privileges of a queen dowager. Tran Thu Do died five years later at the age of 71. He remained lucid and active to the end. Only six months before his death he was leading patrols on horseback to inspect border terrain in Lang Son Province. He had not received a literary education, but in political acumen and foresight he had no peer, and for forty years his had been the final word on all matters of consequence. Tran Canh instinctively deferred to him, and he exercised the personal authority of a king.

Tran Thu Do was strict but also fair in his own way. According to one anecdote, a certain person from “the flock of officials” once had the temerity to approach Tran Canh during a public audience and with tears complain that Tran Thu Do acted like a king and took advantage of the king’s youth. Tran Canh immediately adjourned the audience and, taking with him the entire “flock of officials,” went to Tran Thu Do’s residence and reported to him what the man had said. Tran Thu Do replied, “Yes, it’s exactly as he says,” and gave the man a reward for his honesty.

This story tells of utter transparency between Tran Canh and Tran Thu Do and also of Tran Thu Do’s knowledge of human character, being able to see the loyalty and concern for royal authority that had motivated the complainer. After  the death in 1234 of Tran Canh’s father, Tran Thua, Tran Thu Do was effect- ively the “senior king” to Tran Canh. The quality of this relationship between  uncle and nephew was a model for the close and trusting relationships that existed between senior and junior kings in later generations.

In 1262 a royal complex with a palace for the senior king was built near the home of the Tran family at the site of what is today Pho Minh Temple, about five kilometers north of the modern city of Nam Dinh, some seventy kilometers downriver from Thang Long. A second palace was built next to the senior king’s residence for the junior king to use when coming to visit and consult. Tran kings, especially senior kings, established a particular relationship with Buddhist temples on Mount Yen Tu, where Tran Canh had sought refuge during the family crisis of 1237, as a place for study, meditation, and rest.

The regime of registering the population and recording land ownership to mobilize manpower and to collect taxes that was begun in the 1230s and 1240s produced a wandering population of landless, homeless people without any means of livelihood. These were people who failed to find a place in the new rural economy. Some may have resisted the registration procedure, preferring to remain anonymous in the eyes of officialdom, perhaps because of misdeeds in the past, perhaps because of family associations with the Ly dynasty, perhaps because of criminal or socially marginal ways of life. Others may not have been successful in registering their ownership of land, being victims of people quicker than they were to ingratiate themselves with a new regime. Still others may have found pleasure and opportunities in the wandering life. In 1254, an edict allowed people to buy communal land and turn it into private property. People who  depended upon communal land would have thereby lost their means of liveli- hood and many likely joined the vagabond life.

The Tran responded to this by having the royal family take direct responsi- bility for these people. In 1266 Tran nobles were allowed to “recruit” these  people as slaves and put them to work opening up uncultivated land for agricul- ture that then became their personal estates. This was the beginning of royal  estates farmed by slaves that became a characteristic feature of the Tran rural regime and which in the fourteenth century would contribute to an era of peasant rebellions. For several decades, it proved to be a successful way to stabilize the rural population.

In 1267, in order to limit the number of people who could participate in the privileges of royalty, an edict cited the rule of venerating one’s ancestors to the fifth generation to allow people to claim kinship with the royal family only  within five generations of the throne, meaning all who were the great-great- grandchildren, or closer, of a king. Only a king’s children and grandchildren  were qualified for the ranks of nobility that gave ready access to the palace. The king could nevertheless assign a title of nobility to anyone he wished, and he could promote and demote his kin from one rank to another as he considered appropriate. Being within five generations did not automatically confer nobility  but merely qualified one for receiving appropriate titles from the king. Common- ers of exceptional quality could be adopted into the royal family or given a status  commensurate with royal kin, but they could not pass this benefit on to their children. These regulations, combined with the rule of kings being the children of Tran women, removed any threat of a non-royal family gaining a foothold in the palace

. A famous example of a prince losing and then regaining royal status is Tran Khanh Du. His actual relationship with the kings is unknown, but he was adopted by Tran Hoang as a son and given all the privileges of that rank because of his battlefield prowess during the Mongol invasion of 1257. However, when he forced intimacy upon a princess who happened to be the wife of Tran Quoc Tuan’s son, the king sent men to beat him nearly to death, confiscated all his property, and expelled him from the royal family. He became a coal merchant. Years later, in 1282, when the kingdom was in a flurry of military preparation, the king, while traveling to a conference of royal princes, noticed Tran Khanh Du rowing a boat loaded with coal. He restored him to the royal family and gave him a high military command. Tran Khanh Du won a major naval battle against the Mongols in 1287. Because of his battlefield merit, he was never again expelled from the royal family, despite his many misdeeds and his reputation for greed, lust, and arrogance.

Kings kept a close watch over their family members. In 1270, one of Tran Hoang’s cousins was building an elaborate palace with extravagant architectural features in Nghe An. He sent someone to take a look, which so embarrassed the man that he installed a Buddha statue and turned the edifice into a temple. On the other hand, kings were sometimes thwarted by the opinions of their kin. For example, in 1264 Tran Hoang wanted to promote his uncle Tran Nhat Hieu to a higher position, but Tran Nhat Hieu’s faintheartedness in wanting to run away to Song during the Mongol invasion had so embarrassed him among the other nobles that he dared not accept.

From Uriyangqadai’s retreat upriver to Yunnan in the winter of 1257–1258 until Mongol armies under the command of Togan began to penetrate the borders in the winter of 1284–1285, envoys shuttled regularly between the Tran  and Mongol leaders. The Tran were prepared to acknowledge Mongol suzer- ainty to the same degree that they acknowledged Song suzerainty, with triennial  tribute missions. The Mongols demanded more than this, but until the mid 1260s were too occupied with internal struggles and events in China to pay very much attention to the matter. In 1261, Kubilai agreed to the traditional tributary relationship, but also insisted that a Mongol military overseer, called a Daruhaci, be stationed in Thang Long.

From 1262 to 1268 the Daruhaci spent little time at Thang Long and there were reports that the Tran had corrupted him. In 1267, Kubilai sent his son Hugaci to take charge of Yunnan, at the same time sending a list of six demands to Thang Long: that the Tran king come to the Mongol court, that the king’s children be kept as hostages at the Mongol court, that census registers be sent, that taxes be sent, that a Mongol garrison be stationed at Thang Long, and that all affairs be under the supervision of the Daruhaci. A new Daruhaci was sent in 1268. During the next ten years, there was a stalemate with envoys carrying back and forth Mongol demands and Tran demurrals.

Until 1271, Kubilai was occupied with internal disputes among the Mongol princes and with organizing his control over northern China. In that year he proclaimed the Yuan dynasty and summoned the Tran king to appear at his court in Dadu (modern Beijing). Tran Hoang excused himself, saying that he was ill. It was probably no coincidence that at this time Le Van Huu submitted his book of history to the Tran court. One of Le Van Huu’s arguments in this book was that the kings of Thang Long were heirs of a southern imperial tradition established in the second century bce by Zhao To, King of “Southern Viet,” who had proclaimed himself emperor during a period of confrontation with the Han dynasty. Le Van Huu claimed that, in the tenth century, Dinh Bo Linh had carried forward Zhao To’s imperial claim, which was then inherited by the Le, the Ly, and the Tran kings. The poem attributed to Ly Thuong Kiet during the Ly–Song War of the 1070s expresses the idea of northern and southern imperial realms with a clear border defined by separate heavenly mandates. Whether or not this poem pre-dated Le Van Huu is a matter for conjecture. If it did, it was but an ideological elaboration of Ly Nhat Ton’s application of imperial titles and ranks to his own royal house and court in the mid eleventh century, a rhetoric followed by all later kings in the realm of ink on paper.

Le Van Huu’s writing of this perspective into history was a response to the Yuan dynasty’s claim of universal empire at a time when Thang Long’s suzerain of nearly three centuries, the Song, still existed in southern China. Kubilai may have been an emperor in the north, but there remained a Song emperor in the south, not to mention Tran pretensions to imperial status, which were kept private among the Tran and never acknowledged to the Song or the Yuan. An interest in borrowing history to argue about the present was not confined to the Tran, for in 1272 a Mongol envoy demanded to know the exact location of the bronze pillars reportedly erected by Ma Yuan in the first century ce to mark the southern limit of the empire. After an investigation, the Tran reported that no trace of Ma Yuan’s pillars could be found.

Meanwhile, relations with Southern Song went slack as Song became com- pletely absorbed in its struggle for survival. In 1263, a border chieftain who had  been a vassal of Song submitted to the Tran, indicating the shrinkage of Song authority away from the border. The Song Empire was fading fast. In 1274, a fleet of thirty ships loaded with Song refugees and their families arrived and, being mostly merchants, were allowed to settle in Thang Long where they  established a new commercial district. This was the beginning of a major emi- gration of Song refugees.

As Song fortunes sank, the Tran became more determined and watchful as the Mongol attitude toward them became more imperious. In 1275, the Tran court  requested dismissal of the Daruhaci. Kubilai responded by naming a new Dar- uhaci and renewing the six demands of 1267. In 1276, as Kubilai was engaged in  heavy fighting with Song, a Mongol envoy arrived demanding that the Tran assist by also attacking the Song. The Tran refused. In that year a Tran spy masquerading as a buyer of medicines was in the north gathering information about the Mongols.

Amidst this threatening situation, the Tran mechanism of leadership func- tioned perfectly. Tran Canh died in 1277 at the age of 59. In 1278, the 38-  year-old king, Tran Hoang, became senior king and the 20-year-old crown prince, Tran Kham, became king. Tran Kham’s eldest son, Tran Thuyen, 2 years old, became crown prince. During the Mongol invasions of the 1280s there would be two kings, one in his forties and one in his twenties, as well as a crown prince in early adolescence. They would stick together in complete harmony throughout the ordeal.

In 1278, led by a man named Chai Zhuang, Mongol envoys for the first time came to the border through Guangxi rather than Yunnan. The Tran sought to redirect them through Yunnan, explaining that the route was not secure, but Chai Zhuang brushed aside objections and arrived at Thang Long with a letter from Kubilai full of accusations and demands. Chai Zhuang was turned away without any satisfaction.

In 1279, the Mongols finally extinguished the Song dynasty and ruled unchal- lenged in the north. In that year, Chai Zhuang arrived again to reiterate Mongol  demands, and again he was sent away empty-handed. Mongol power was growing on the northern horizon. An episode in 1281 alerted the Tran to this changing situation. An uncle of the king had been made the leader of a group of envoys sent to the Yuan court. Kubilai appointed him “King of An Nam” and sent him back with a mounted escort of one thousand men under the command of Chai Zhuang, ostensibly to place him on the throne at Thang Long.

This expedition was met at the border by Tran soldiers who let Chai Zhuang pass but went after the royal renegade and seized him. Chai Zhuang was angry about what had happened at the border. He arrived in Thang Long at the head of his armed column and, without dismounting, unceremoniously rode through the palace gate. When a guard officer attempted to stop him he wounded the man in the head with his whip and rode on. When he came to the pavilion for foreign envoys, he dismounted, went in, and sprawled out. Tran Quang Khai, a brother of the senior king, who had given hospitality to Chai Zhuang on his previous visits, came with a poem full of polite and diplomatic sentiments to greet him, but Chai Zhuang refused to acknowledge him. Tran Quoc Tuan, half-brother of the senior king, then decided to approach the disgruntled envoy. He shaved his head, donned monk’s robes, and went into the pavilion where Chai Zhuang and his officers were. He spoke and acted exactly as a Chinese monk, and Chai Zhuang in astonishment stood up to receive him. As they drank tea together, Chai Zhuang became aware of Tran Quoc Tuan’s true identity. He had one of his attendants poke Tran Quoc Tuan’s head with an arrow, causing blood to flow.

Tran Quoc Tuan acted as if nothing had happened and, according to Thang Long annalists, thereby tamed Chai Zhuang with politeness. After Chai Zhuang departed Thang Long, again without anything to show for his long journey, the royal uncle who had been used by the Mongols to humiliate his kin was demoted and assigned to a minor military post. During the twenty-five years following the First Mongol War, the Tran kings concentrated on enforcing unity and discipline among the princes, strengthening  their grip on the human and material resources of the kingdom, and maintain- ing a vigilant eye on the north. There was a growing conviction among the  kings and senior princes that the prospect of living in peace with the Mongols was remote.

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