Nguyen Phuc Khoat, the first southern king

01

Dec
2021

Ly Cong Uan

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The Le succession wars were the context of Ly Cong Uan’s rise to the throne. Educated by monks in the heartland of Giao, Ly Cong Uan had a reputation for both erudition and martial prowess. Born in 974, he apparently began his career at the Hoa Lu court in the 990s when entourages formed behind Le Hoan’s sons, for his eldest son was born at Hoa Lu in 1000. When Le Dinh struck down Le Viet in 1005, Ly Cong Uan was 31 years old and in Le Viet’s entourage. Everyone present fled the scene except for Ly Cong Uan, who, unafraid, was said to have cradled Le Viet’s corpse in his arms and wept. Le Dinh reportedly praised his loyalty and made him commander of the palace guard.

Ly Cong Uan’s seemingly smooth transition from the entourage of Le Viet to that of Le Dinh may be a tribute to his personal qualities, but it is likely also to be an indication of the influence exercised by his patrons at court, the monks of Giao. The advisors who persuaded Le Hoan to give Le Viet precedence over Le Dinh were unconcerned with the seniority of Le Hoan’s second son, Le Tich. They were definitely partisans of Le Viet, among whom Ly Cong Uan stood. Ly Cong Uan was the star protégé of the monks. His reputation for “virtue, mercy, and magnanimity” resonates with the reputation for “upright humaneness” of Le Viet, the prince he served, and echoes the lessons of temple teachings. During Le Hoan’s reign, the influence of the monks grew as the Hoa Lu monarchy increasingly relied upon the wealth and manpower that they could provide. By the time of Le Hoan’s death, the position of Ly Cong Uan, and of the monks who stood behind him, was secure. They were indispensable even to Le Dinh, known for his “ruthless cruelty,” the most determined and unsavory of Le Hoan’s brawling, fratricidal teenage sons.

Although families of the mothers of potential kings were often important factors in royal politics in early times, this was probably not the case with the mother of Le Viet and Le Dinh, who was from the class of palace servants and not from a politically prominent family. The phrase in historical texts that identifies her has been variously recorded and interpreted to mean “beautiful woman,” “secondary wife,” or, according to some Vietnamese scholars, even “uncivilized slave woman,” which has led to a conjecture that she was one of the Cham palace women seized by Le Hoan in 982. It may have been precisely  because of her low status that the monks supported her sons, to avoid compli- cations arising from the ambitions of already powerful families.

Ly Cong Uan’s family background is no less mysterious than that of the mother of Le Viet and Le Dinh. According to the court chronicle, he was conceived when his mother had intercourse with a “divine being” at a temple in the heartland of Giao and at the age of 3 was given for adoption to a man  named Ly Khanh Van, of whom no information has survived. A fourteenth- century historian wrote that some thought he was from Fujian Province in China  but that this was incorrect. He was educated by Van Hanh, the most eminent Buddhist patriarch of the time, in the village of Dich Bang, a short distance across the Red River from Hanoi to the northeast. According to some accounts, Van Hanh was not only the teacher and patron of Ly Cong Uan but also his father. In the mid 990s, as Le Hoan’s sons were being entitled and their entourages were being assembled, Ly Cong Uan began to serve at the Hoa Lu court, eventually rising to a high position of trust at the side of the designated heir to the throne. It is not clear whether the Ly family was a prominent clan in its own right or a clan of convenience for the monks into which were adopted the most promising students from the temples. Van Hanh, just prior to Ly Cong Uan taking the throne, reportedly asserted that, considering all the families in the realm, the Ly family was “exceedingly large,” and the expression recorded could even be read as meaning “the largest.”

Incapacitated by declining health, Le Dinh watched helplessly as the monks of Giao launched a propaganda campaign that nurtured belief in the inevitability of Ly Cong Uan becoming king. Poems, riddles, portents, and prophecies pointed to the demise of the Le family and to Ly Cong Uan taking the throne. Van Hanh’s intemperate talk in this vein at Hoa Lu made Ly Cong Uan sufficiently nervous that he ordered a kinsman to escort Van Hanh back to Dich Bang and keep him quiet there. Le Dinh reportedly sought to have Ly Cong Uan killed, but nothing was done. Ly Cong Uan commanded the palace guard and enjoyed the support of the monks, who controlled what at that time passed for public opinion.

Two days after Le Dinh died in late 1009, Ly Cong Uan became king, reportedly by general acclamation. Within a year, Hoa Lu was abandoned. The royal court relocated to the site of Dai La. Dai La was known as the city that the Tang general Gao Pian had built in the 860s after the ravages of the Nan Zhao War. In 1010, Ly Cong Uan published an edict explaining why he was moving his capital to this place. Citing kings who moved their capitals during the Shang and Zhou dynasties in classical antiquity, the edict compared Hoa Lu unfavorably to “King Gao’s old capital at Dai La,” which was centrally located amidst the abundance of a broad plain and which displayed the marks of geomantic potency. Dai La was only ten kilometers from Dich Bang, where Ly Cong Uan had been raised and educated by Van Hanh. When Ly Cong Uan’s boat docked at the new capital, a dragon, symbol of sovereign authority, reportedly soared above his head; he accordingly renamed the place Thang Long, “ascending dragon.”

The successive reigns of Ly Cong Uan (1009–1028), of his son Ly Phat Ma  (1028–1054), and of his grandson Ly Nhat Ton (1054–1072) appear in histor- ical records as an era of soaring power for the kingdom over which the house of  Ly presided. All three kings were learned and capable. They all came to the throne as adults and ruled during their years of vigor. They were all men of action who traveled incessantly to personally survey the affairs of their realm. They were all interested in the problems of government. They presided over six decades of internal peace and prosperity and of an expansion of royal power outward from Thang Long that met no effective barrier.

Relations with Song were given high priority. One of Ly Cong Uan’s first acts was to send envoys to the Song court to report that the Dinh family had lost the capacity to rule and to ask for recognition. During the disorders following Le Hoan’s death, Song border officials had argued in favor of military intervention, but the emperor refused to act and admonished officials to avoid becoming embroiled in the violent affairs of distant uncivilized people. In 1010, Song recognized Ly Cong Uan without delay, conferring upon him the usual titles of vassalage. Thereafter, Song maintained a pacifist policy, doing the minimum necessary to preserve border security, even willing to suffer minor violations. The aim of Song policy was to preclude any provocation that might arouse a major crisis requiring mobilization of armies into the south that were more urgently needed on the northern frontier. This policy, begun in the 980s in the wake of the failed expedition of 980–981, has been termed “appeasement control” by some historians. It prevailed into the 1050s when, as we will see,  dramatic events emboldened Song border officials to shift toward a more aggres- sive posture in response to the rising power of Thang Long in the border regions.

Ly Cong Uan’s activities as king went through three phases. His early years were occupied with gaining a firm grip on the material resources of his kingdom, building his capital, and leading soldiers into vital borderlands. Beginning in 1016, he focused on establishing his authority in the spiritual realm, placing local cults under the eye of court patronage. His final years were a time of personal withdrawal in preparation for death and of releasing worldly affairs into the hands of the next generation.

One of Ly Cong Uan’s first acts was to summon fugitives and vagabonds to return to their native places and to command all villages and hamlets to repair shrines and temples that had fallen into ruin. These measures reveal Ly Cong Uan’s priorities: population control and the encouragement of religion. Very little can now be known about Ly Cong Uan’s method of administering his kingdom, but there is no evidence of any kind of bureaucratic organization. His authority was based on personal charisma and the loyalty of his aristocratic and monastic entourages.

The Ly family controlled the agricultural heartland of the Red River plain where both the Ly home estates and Thang Long were located. This was where the power of the Buddhist temples was strongest, and there was a close relation between the monarchy and the temples. Ly Cong Uan supervised the ordination of monks and appointed officials to oversee both the monks and the lands belonging to temples. Because of this, the Ly family effectively controlled temple estates as well as lands held directly by family members. Ly Cong Uan began his reign with vast expenditures, bestowing robes on monks, distributing cash and silk to elderly people in his home district, building over a dozen palaces in the royal compound at Thang Long, and erecting at least fifteen new temples in Thang Long and adjacent areas. Ly Cong Uan’s wealth was enough to cover these expenditures, for, at the same time, he announced an amnesty for all tax delinquents, declared a tax holiday for three years, and abolished all taxes for orphans, widows, and the elderly.

Three years later, in 1013, Ly Cong Uan published a scheme for taxation on ponds (fish and pearls), fields (rice), and mulberry trees (silk); on goods traded in upland markets, such as salt, lumber, aromatic wood for making incense, fruits, and flowers; and on precious luxury items such as rhinoceros horns and elephant tusks. He also specified that members of the Ly family could collect taxes according to their rank. In 1009, he had assigned ranks to his father, his mother, six queens, an uncle, and a host of brothers, nephews, sons, and daughters, an indication that his family background may not have been as muddled as various accounts have suggested.

The outer regions of the Red River plain, beyond the Ly heartland, were in the hands of families allied with the Ly by marriage. Ly Cong Uan abandoned a scheme of dividing the plain into “ten circuits” that had been devised by Dinh Bo Linh and replaced it with “twenty-four routes”; these were not administrative jurisdictions but rather itineraries designating various localities. He organized the southern provinces into “military outposts,” indicating a policy of garrisons and patrols.

In 1011, Ly Cong Uan raised a large army and attacked “rebels” in the southern provinces, in what is now Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. He campaigned there for two years, burning villages and capturing local leaders. While returning  by sea in late 1012, a great storm threatened to sink his boat, which he under- stood as a divine judgment upon him for the violence he had brought upon so  many people. A speech was recorded that he reportedly made amidst the storm, addressed to the heavenly power, in which he acknowledged that the innocent might have been harmed in error but that he nevertheless could not refrain from attacking these people because of their wickedness, cruelty, and savage resistance to “civilizing instructions”; he begged forgiveness for his soldiers and expressed his personal acceptance of any required punishment. In response to his appeal, according to the story, the storm abated and the sea became calm.

This speech in the storm shows the religious sensibility of Ly Cong Uan, which later Confucian historians criticized as “superstitious.” Ly Cong Uan represented his people before the divine powers, and his was a civilizing task. He understood the moral dilemma as well as the necessity of using violence on behalf of a worthy cause. His sensitivity to the supernatural realm became increasingly evident as the years passed.

For three years, 1013–1015, Ly Cong Uan sent soldiers into the northern mountains, primarily the upland valleys of modern Ha Tuyen Province, to chastise people there who were falling under the influence of the Nan Zhao kingdom in Yunnan. Soldiers commanded by a brother reportedly killed or captured thousands of people and obtained many horses. Song border officials felt the reverberations of these events, which they interpreted as threatening to their security, but the Song emperor commanded them to remain uninvolved.

In 1016, at the age of 42, Ly Cong Uan appears to have achieved a sense of success and contentment sufficient to enable a new focus for his attention. In that year, there was an exceptionally good harvest, and Ly Cong Uan accordingly declared a three-year holiday from having to pay land rents. He also took the opportunity to obtain three more queens, ordain over a thousand monks, build two Buddhist temples, dedicate four new images of the “heavenly emperor,” and embark on a series of peregrinations to enjoy the famous sights of the Red River plain.

During the course of his travels he initiated a kind of royal experience that would be repeated by his son and grandson and that would accumulate a pantheon of spirit guardians for the Ly realm. The pattern was for the king to be visited in a dream by the most prominent spirit in the place of his sojourn, having been aroused by the presence of the king’s virtue to announce itself as a protector of the kingdom; in response to this, the king then worshipped the spirit and built a temple for it in the capital. In this way, during the first half of the eleventh century, a pantheon of spirit protectors was assembled from all parts of the kingdom. All of the first three Ly kings were students of the Confucian classics and devout Buddhists. They were also patrons of Daoist priests and honored the supernatural realm of earth spirits, mountain spirits, water spirits, and spirits of departed human beings, over which the “heavenly emperor” was  believed to rule. This eclectic attitude became characteristic of Vietnamese reli- gious practice, which today remains attached to popular spirit cults that are often  incorporated into Buddhist and Daoist pantheons.

In 1024, a temple was built for Ly Cong Uan to use for reading and reciting the Buddhist scriptures, a copy of which he had requested and received from the Song court a few years earlier. Thereafter he began to withdraw from public affairs. In 1025, Van Hanh died. He had been Ly Cong Uan’s teacher, mentor, and, to some extent, father figure. He had previously been an advisor to Le Hoan and was a central figure in effecting the transition from the Le family at Hoa Lu to the Ly family at Thang Long. It seems that Ly Cong Uan’s royal personality was in some degree animated as an extension of Van Hanh’s expectations of him, for from this time little of note is recorded about Ly Cong Uan until his death in the spring of 1028.

Ly Cong Uan’s achievement in shifting the throne from Hoa Lu to Thang Long without bloodshed owed much to the power of the Buddhist temples in Giao that mobilized manpower and resources on his behalf. But his personal qualities, so far as they can be understood as a combination of martial valor, classical erudition, and religious devotion, were also important in setting a standard of leadership for his son and grandson.

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