Nguyen Phuc Khoat, the first southern king

01

Dec
2021

Ly Can Duc

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Ly Dao Thanh died in 1081. In 1085, 19-year-old Ly Can Duc announced his majority by proclaiming a new reign title and appointing Le Van Thinh as chancellor. Le Van Thinh had risen rapidly as a protégé of Ly Dao Thanh. In 1084, he successfully negotiated border questions with Song officials. From 1085 to 1096 he was the dominant figure at court.

According to historical records, in the late 1080s there were a series of initiatives that appear to have been concerned with establishing positions and hierarchies. In 1086, a literary exam was held to select a man to be a Han Lam Hoc Si (Chinese Hanlin Xueshi), the first reference in Vietnamese history to a Han Lam Scholar. In Tang and Song government, such men were assigned to what was called the Hanlin Academy where erudite men were called on for various tasks requiring academic knowledge or literary skill. A privy council (Bi Thu Cac; Chinese Mishu Ge) was instituted in 1087, a kind of secretariat where the most secret matters were handled. In 1088 a Buddhist monk was appointed Quoc Su (Chinese Guoshi), “Teacher of the Kingdom,” a title that had been given to a pre-eminent monk since the time of Le Hoan. At the same time, ten clerks were given appointments, seemingly to assist in administering the Buddhist temples, for, also at that time, all the Buddhist temples in the kingdom were categorized into three classes depending upon their wealth in fields, slaves, and treasure; high-ranking officials were appointed to oversee temple affairs. In 1089, a classification of positions was determined for “civil and military officials including those who personally attended the king and those with miscellaneous duties.” All of these initiatives apparently came from Le Van Thinh.

Le Van Thinh’s appointment as chancellor in 1085 came as Lady Y Lan ended her regency on behalf of her son the king. From this time Lady Y Lan began to occupy herself with traveling and with building temples and stupas. She became famous as a lavish patron of the Buddhist monks. Her pursuit of interests away from the court opened an opportunity for Le Van Thinh to make changes that brought increasing authority into his hands. As the king’s former teacher and chief advisor, Le Van Thinh enjoyed much power, particularly since surviving information portrays Ly Can Duc as unassertive.

Le Van Thinh’s ascendance diminished members of the Ly royal family. The king had a younger brother and many uncles. It is recorded that, in 1095, the king called all the nobles of the royal family to come to court. No further information is recorded about this, but shortly thereafter the king ended a drought by proclaiming an amnesty for prisoners and by canceling or reducing the collection of taxes. Whether or not these measures were intended to reduce Le Van Thinh’s control of affairs can be no more than a matter of conjecture, but within a few months, in early 1096, a curious episode brought an end to Le Van Thinh’s career.

Ly Can Duc was in a small boat on West Lake, adjacent to the royal com- pound at Thang Long, on an excursion to watch fishermen. Suddenly the lake  was covered with a thick mist. The splashing of another boat’s oars was heard approaching and the king threw a spear into the mist toward the sound. A moment later the mist lifted to reveal a tiger in the royal boat. A fisherman in a nearby boat threw his net over the threatening form, which turned out to be Le Van Thinh. Le Van Thinh was found guilty of plotting to murder the king and sentenced to die. In consideration of his earlier “merit,” however, Ly Can Duc remitted the death penalty and instead banished him to a frontier outpost in the mountains; no further information survives about him. Court historians glossed this event by explaining that Le Van Thinh had acquired a slave from Yunnan who could do “strange tricks,” and this slave taught him how to masquerade as a tiger. No further information survives about Le Van Thinh, but modern archaeologists have discovered an elaborate burial place prepared for him, though never used, located in his home district in modern Bac Ninh Province. Without further information the most plausible conjecture is that senior members of the royal family acted to secure their interests against a commoner upstart. The brave fisherman was later honored as a guardian deity of the kingdom. Shortly before Le Van Thinh was undone in the boat, whether by coincidence or as part of some larger set of events, Lady Y Lan gave a feast for monks at Thang Long and asked the Quoc Su, a senior monk and “Teacher of the Kingdom,” several questions about the Buddha, the source of enlightenment, and the “patriarchs” who transmitted enlightenment. The monk explained how the Buddha had transmitted enlightenment to the lineage of patriarchs in the Thien (Chinese Chan; Japanese Zen) School where it was passed from generation to generation outside of scriptural teachings. He explained how this lineage had entered the Viet lands and identified the patriarchs who possessed the “mind seal” of the Buddha’s teaching at that time. Lady Y Lan was very pleased with this explanation and gave the Quoc Su gifts and a new name, Thong Bien, “Understanding and Discrimination.” Lady Y Lan’s interest in the authoritative lineage of correct teaching suggests the possibility of a similar concern at that time with the royal bloodline, a concern that grew from year to year as Ly Can Duc was childless

. After the Song War of the 1070s, there is no record of Ly Thuong Kiet playing any part in court affairs, although it is recorded that he patronized many famous monks. He appears to have spent most of his time away from Thang Long, in particular in the southern provinces and on the Cham frontier, where the few bits of information recorded from his later years took place. He has been credited  with building Buddhist temples in Thanh Hoa Province and with being particu- larly active in stamping out the worship of “evil spirits.” He seems to have been a  man of action with small tolerance for the palace life of Thang Long, or perhaps the Ly royal family enforced upon him a quasi-banishment to work in the southern provinces to preclude his involvement in court politics. His final cam- paigns, in 1103–1104, when he was already in his eighties, show him as Thang  Long’s lord of the southern marchlands.

In 1103, a rebellion broke out in the southernmost province, modern Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces, led by a magician named Ly Giac, who was thought to be able to conjure soldiers out of trees and bushes. Ly Thuong Kiet attacked Ly Giac and sent him fleeing to the Cham king (Jaya Indravarman II). With Ly Giac whispering in his ear, Jaya Indravarman II seized border districts and raided deeper into Viet territory. Ly Thuong Kiet led his men south, defeated the Chams, and re-established frontier defenses. One year later, he died and was accorded great honors.

Many stories have been recorded about Buddhist monks during the Ly dyn- asty. The poems of an official at court in the 1080s and 1090s, Doan Van Kham,  give written portraits of two contrasting kinds of monks, those who withdrew from human society to meditate as hermits and those who served society as teachers and royal advisors. In the late 1080s, as Le Van Thinh expanded the size of officialdom, Doan Van Kham described himself as “roped and fettered” among the “flock” of officials at court, frustrated in his desire to visit the monk Quang Tri, who dwelt in seclusion on a mountain. When news of Quang Tri’s death arrived with his desire still unfulfilled, Doan Van Kham comforted himself by writing that despite leaving behind no tomb where he could be venerated, Quang Tri had left his pure essence, which could be encountered everywhere. Doan Van Kham wrote another poem on the death of the monk Chan Khong in 1100. He describes Chan Khong as a pillar of society, surrounded by disciples, and in death continuing to serve others with his tomb as a place of pilgrimage and meditation. Behind these two classical stereotypes, however, were monks famous for magic and sorcery, the most famous of whom was Tu Dao Hanh.

According to Tu Dao Hanh’s biography, his father, a temple administrator in Thang Long, had an altercation with a Ly nobleman who hired a magician named Dai Dien to kill him. Tu Dao Hanh, after spending years acquiring supernatural powers, killed Dai Dien to avenge his father. He then wandered from temple to temple in search of enlightenment and eventually achieved his goal. He thereafter became famous for taming snakes and wild beasts, producing rain, and curing sickness. In those days, the king was advancing in years and remained childless.

In 1112, a small boy about 3 years old appeared on the seashore in Thanh Hoa. He spoke like an adult, knew all about Ly Can Duc, and called himself “Giac Hoang,” “emperor of enlightenment,” a term for the Buddha. He was taken to Thang Long and lodged at a temple in the royal compound. Ly Can Duc was so taken with him that he wanted to make him the crown prince, but the entire royal court opposed this. Some advised that if the boy was truly what he seemed to be then he should be able to reincarnate himself into the royal family, and if he could do that then there could be no objection to making him crown prince. Ly Can Duc accordingly organized a reincarnation ceremony for the child.

When he learned of this, Tu Dao Hanh realized that Giac Hoang was a reincarnation of his enemy, the magician Dai Dien, so he used his own magical powers to disrupt the ceremony. When Ly Can Duc investigated the matter, Tu Dao Hanh confessed to what he had done and was arrested. Tu Dao Hanh implored the Sung Hien Marquis, a brother of Ly Can Duc and also childless, to help him, in which case he promised to assist the marquis to become the father of the next king. The Sung Hien Marquis told Ly Can Duc that Tu Dao Hanh’s power was demonstrably greater than that of Giac Hoang and that accordingly it would be better to rely upon Tu Dao Hanh to supply an heir to the throne. Ly Can Duc agreed with this. According to one account, Giac Hoang died shortly after and was buried at a prestigious temple.

During a later visit to the Sung Hien Marquis, Tu Dao Hanh supposedly used his magical powers to cause the nobleman’s wife to become pregnant, and he told the marquis to inform him when the baby was about to be born. In 1116, when a messenger from the marquis arrived at the temple where Tu Dao Hanh resided to say that birth was imminent, Tu Dao Hanh prepared to die and passed away. He was reincarnated as the son of the Sung Hien Marquis and was named Ly Duong Hoan. Two years later, Ly Can Duc, 52 years old and still childless, selected Ly Duong Hoan to be the crown prince. In this way, Tu Dao Hanh was reincarnated to become the fifth Ly king.

This odd tale, a mixture of fact and fancy, was forced out of the human imagin- ation by the same desperation to have an heir that had oppressed Ly Nhat Ton until  the birth of Ly Can Duc. Ly Can Duc never had any children, and by the 1110s, as he approached and entered his sixth decade of life, the future of the dynasty became an urgent question. The story that explained how the matter was resolved features a Buddhist monk, a feud between magicians, and the bloodline of the Ly family, three prominent elements in the minds of educated people at that time.

Another aspect of this is that Ly Can Duc designated a crown prince in late 1117 only two months after the death of his mother, Lady Y Lan. Lady Y Lan exercised strong influence over Ly Can Duc to the end of her life. Five months before her death, she complained to her son about the depredations of water buffalo thieves and he responded by prescribing a series of punishments for such people. After her death, three other palace women were buried with her remains, punctuating what in effect was a revolution in the palace, making way for the mother of the next king. Lady Y Lan had inhibited a resolution of the succession question.

The deaths of two other high-ranking people in 1117, shortly before the death of Lady Y Lan, may also have had implications for the naming of a crown prince. They were both Ly noblemen with the rank of marquis, among the brothers and uncles of Ly Can Duc, although the exact relationships are unknown. In 1104, during a royal audience, one of them had publicly struck the other with the ivory tablet held by noblemen during royal audiences at court; these symbols of rank were about a meter long and just wide enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand. No additional information was recorded about the incident, so it remains a mystery, but the attacker was the same man who had hired Dai Dien to kill Tu Dao Hanh’s father in the story about Tu Dao Hanh, suggesting that he may have been a rival of the Sung Hien Marquis, with whom Tu Dao Hanh was allied. That he was easily angered and quick to act suggests a man of definite views who was likely to have had a stake in the naming of the crown prince. Perhaps the deaths of the two antagonists of 1104 removed options with which Lady Y Lan had involved herself but that were opposed by other members of the Ly family, in particular the Sung Hien Marquis and others who were willing that his son, Ly Duong Hoan, be made crown prince.

One option that was ostensibly taken seriously was Giac Hoang, the strange boy who came from outside the royal family. Lady Y Lan, who came to the court as an outsider and who resorted to mass murder to push her way into the Ly aristocracy, may have favored Giac Hoang or others like him. Her well-known  devotion to Buddhism may have led her to consider spiritual achievement super- ior to a royal bloodline in selecting the next king.

A dominant theme during the remaining history of the Ly dynasty, which lasted for another century, was a struggle to draw a boundary around the royal family to distinguish those eligible to be king from those who were not. Except for the childless Ly Can Duc, the practice of multiple queens, along with hosts of royal concubines, produced several potential kings in every generation. The political logic of the Ly experiment in government was based on marriage alliances with other powerful families who provided queens, the potential mothers of kings. Ly Nhat Ton had resorted to designating the son of a peasant  girl as his heir. This was accepted because there was no other plausible alterna- tive, but Ly Dao Thanh’s effort to maintain the fiction of Ly Can Duc’s adoption  into the clan of the senior queen succumbed to Lady Y Lan’s homicidal ambition.

Four decades later, Ly Can Duc, apparently under the influence of Lady Y Lan, wished to make Giac Hoang the crown prince. Giac Hoang came as if having sprung from the sea, without a mother or any family at all. He did not threaten Lady Y Lan’s dominant position among the palace women. Senior Ly noblemen foiled this scheme, and five of them offered their sons for consideration instead. Ly Duong Hoan was chosen from among these five Ly offspring just three months after Lady Y Lan’s death. His mother, Do Thanh Anh, would be a strong influence in the palace until her death in 1147. Her kinsman, Do Anh Vu, would dominate the court from the late 1130s until his death in 1159.

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