Rise of the east

01

Dec
2021

Ly Nhat Ton

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Ly Nhat Ton was the first king of the post-Tang era to enjoy an uneventful accession. Unlike his father and grandfather, he had not lived in the disturbed  atmosphere of Hoa Lu. He came of age witnessing and participating in the exuber- ance of Ly Phat Ma’s reign. His father had readily delegated important tasks to him.  He led soldiers against rebels, he judged offenders, he presided over the court in his father’s absence, and he always knew that he would be king. Later Vietnamese historians remembered him as a good military strategist, a promoter of education, an aesthete who enjoyed music and dance, a man who was both compassionate toward his people and harsh toward his enemies, and also a man who wasted wealth and manpower on the construction of palaces and temples; historians cited as particularly extravagant a pleasure palace on the shore of West Lake, adjacent to the royal compound in Thang Long, and a spectacular multi-storied stupa, located beside a temple on the site now occupied by the Hanoi cathedral.

According to Chinese historians, Ly Nhat Ton violated propriety by arro- gantly proclaiming himself an emperor, and he violated the border by sending his  soldiers to attack Song outposts. He was the first king at Thang Long to capture the close attention of Chinese historians, and this was because, in the wake of Nung Tri Cao’s rebellion, the buffer zone between Ly and Song had been removed and soldiers from the two sides began to encounter one another on a regular and increasingly hostile basis. Chinese historians argued that Ly Nhat Ton bore much responsibility for provoking the Sino-Vietnamese war that broke out in the 1070s. Ly Nhat Ton’s fearless attitude toward the Song borderlands can be included among factors contributing to that war, but there were many other factors as well. As for claiming imperial status, Ly Nhat Ton was generally careful to maintain a correct posture as vassal in all dealings with Song, but he also “reformed letters” and “nurtured propriety” in ways that gave a rhetorical and ritual appearance of following the forms of an imperial dynasty.

In the 960s, Dinh Bo Linh had named his kingdom Dai Co Viet, a linguistically hybrid term that included both Literary Chinese and vernacular Vietnamese. In Literary Chinese, dai (Chinese da) means “great”; the vernacular Vietnamese word co also means “great.” The pairing of these words in this name expresses a phase in the linguistic shift from bilingualism to the emergence of the Vietnamese  language. By the time of Ly Nhat Ton, the formal acknowledgment of bilingual- ism was no longer necessary. When he became king, Ly Nhat Ton dropped the  word co from the name of the kingdom, henceforth known as Dai Viet, a reformation of letters conforming to imperial usage by removing a non-classical word. Ly Nhat Ton also honored his father and grandfather with posthumous titles that followed the usage of imperial dynasties in the north. Furthermore, he ordered the members of his court to wear ceremonial hats and boots according to the fashion at the Song court. Perhaps most provocative of all, given the context of growing border conflict with Song, he had three characters tattooed on the foreheads of his soldiers meaning “The Son of Heaven’s Army”; “son of Heaven” was a term that could mean only “the emperor.”

Despite aspiring toward usages prevailing in the Song Empire, Ly Nhat Ton also followed the practices that had grown out of the Hoa Lu and Thang Long experience of kingship. He named eight queens, celebrated his birthday festival,  plowed fields at agricultural ceremonies, convened Arhat Assemblies, and per- sonally led soldiers against rebels. The number of dragons recorded as having  been sighted during his reign is considerably more than for any other Vietnamese king. A great lover of Cham music, he had Cham songs translated and performed with singing and dancing to the accompaniment of drums.

For routine government affairs, he apparently relied upon Ly Dao Thanh, a royal kinsman, whom he appointed to serve as chancellor at the beginning of his reign. Ly Dao Thanh remained chancellor for the duration of Ly Nhat Ton’s reign and was a prominent leader at court in the early years of the next reign. Chancellors, functioning as royal advisors, are recorded from the time of Le Hoan, but Ly Dao Thanh was the first to eventually emerge as more than an advisor. This was because Ly Nhat Ton never had an adult heir with whom to share the duties of government.

Ly Nhat Ton’s chief preoccupation during the first twelve years of his reign was to father a son. This led him to visit shrines and temples throughout the kingdom to pray for an heir. In 1063, 40 years old and still without a son, he traveled to the temple of the Dharma Cloud Buddha, about thirty kilometers east of Thang Long at the ancient site of Luy Lau, where Shi Xie had governed at the turn of the third century. This was among the first Buddhist temples to be built in the Red River plain. It was dedicated to a female Buddha famous for her ability to send or stop rain. As the royal procession made its way through the fields across the countryside, all the local people crowded around to catch a glimpse of the king except for one young girl who ignored the hubbub and continued her task of picking mulberry leaves for feeding silkworms. Her nonchalance attracted the attention of Ly Nhat Ton and he brought her back to Thang Long. Three years later, she gave birth to Ly Nhat Ton’s heir, Ly Can Duc. She was known as Lady Y Lan and, during the reign of her son, she would exert a  dominating influence at the royal court. The Dharma Cloud Buddha conse- quently became a prominent object of royal patronage, and its temple is today  called Chua Dau, “mulberry temple.”

Although Ly Nhat Ton found the mother of his heir in the mulberry fields near Chua Dau, the prayer believed to have actually produced the happy event was made at a temple in a western suburb of Thang Long. Ly Nhat Ton had sent a servant to make prayers there on his behalf. Despite the success of his mission, the servant was later beheaded at the door of the temple when it became known that he was studying magical arts with the resident monk. Prowess in the use of magic is a strong theme in the record of the Ly dynasty. Ly Can Duc was born in early spring of 1066. This event was the watershed of  Ly Nhat Ton’s reign. More sons were born later, but Ly Can Duc was immedi- ately named the crown prince, and the remaining six years of Ly Nhat Ton’s life  were an echo of his father’s vigorous style. The centerpiece of these years was the re-enactment of Ly Phat Ma’s 1044 expedition to Champa. In 1068, Ly Nhat Ton ordered the war boats to be repaired. In making plans for the campaign he relied on Ly Thuong Kiet, the ranking military man at court. Ly Thuong Kiet, born in 1019 in Thang Long, had begun his career in royal

service as a eunuch during the reign of Ly Phat Ma. He advanced quickly in rank, being a skillful military leader. He was not a member of the Ly family but had been given the royal surname to honor his service. He lived long and became a major figure in the late eleventh century.

Ly Nhat Ton embarked on his expedition in spring 1069 and six weeks later landed near modern Qui Nhon. The Cham capital of Vijaya lay some fifteen kilometers inland from there. It is worth noting that the only battle fought by the Vietnamese during the long voyage down the coast was at the modern site of Dong Hoi, in Quang Binh Province, where a Cham army was positioned to intercept them at the border. This is the very same place where, for fifty years in battle after battle, southern Vietnamese stopped northern invasions during the seventeenth century. The explanation for this lies in the coastal terrain. It is the  most defensible natural choke between mountains and sea for any force march- ing by land on the entire Vietnamese coast, and it was very difficult for a pre- modern naval force to advance south of this point without first taking control of  it, for there are seventy kilometers of barren sandy beach without fresh water before the next river mouth.

When the Cham army was defeated at Vijaya, the Cham king, Rudravarman III, fled to seek refuge with the Khmers. Ly Thuong Kiet pursued and captured him before he could make good his escape. Ly Nhat Ton lingered for some time to enjoy the Cham palaces, to feast his officers, and to personally perform “the shield dance” and play a game of shuttlecock in the Cham throne room to symbolize his conquest. After conducting a census of Vijaya, which totaled 2,560 households, he burned it to the ground and departed. He returned to Thang Long after an absence of five months, entering the city parading several thousand prisoners, among whom Rudravarman III was prominently displayed.

Rudravarman III was allowed to return to his kingdom after promising to cede what is now the province of Quang Binh, giving the Vietnamese control of the Dong Hoi choke point. Despite this, the Viets and the Chams continued to fight for control of this region until the fifteenth century. Many Cham prisoners were settled on the royal estates of the Ly family in modern Bac Ninh Province, across the river from Thang Long, where they would exert a discernible cultural and political influence into the thirteenth century

. In contrast to happy adventures along distant southern coasts, relations with Song on the northern frontier went from bad to worse during Ly Nhat Ton’s reign. Ly Phat Ma had used a policy of punitive expeditions and marriage alliances to gradually extend his influence over chieftains in territories beyond the effective control of Song outposts, most importantly in the modern provinces of Lang Son and Cao Bang. Nung Tri Cao’s uprising had been to some extent a reaction against this policy. While engaged in fighting with Ly armies in Cao Bang, Nung Tri Cao requested to be accepted as a vassal of Song, hoping to elicit Song assistance, but the Song emperor rejected the advice of officials eager to use him against Thang Long and refused the request, observing that “he belongs to the Viets.” When the Vietnamese forced Nung Tri Cao out of Cao Bang and into Song territory, he was treated by Song as, and played the part of, a plundering invader, and Song soldiers eventually put an end to him. The buffer of local chieftains between Ly and Song had thus been eliminated, but without a clear demarcation of the border.

Ly Nhat Ton became king with an ongoing and volatile border situation in the  wake of the Nung Tri Cao episode. There were opportunities for misunderstand- ings and resentments as each side endeavored to secure the most favorable  terrain. The distant Song court took a passive attitude toward the potential for trouble, at that time being more concerned with its northern frontier. However, from the mid 1050s, local Song officials, led by a man named Xiao Zhu, agitated for military action against Thang Long to settle the border question. They secretly trained military units and sheltered refugees from the Vietnamese side, including army deserters. The contradiction between the pacific pronouncements of the Song court and the devious, provocative policy of local Song officials angered Ly Nhat Ton. He believed that Song officials were conspiring to provoke war, shielding their activities behind the professions of amity issuing from the imperial court. In 1059, “hating Song’s back and forth,” he ordered a raid upon the Song coast at modern Qinzhou, about eighty kilometers northeast of the modern Sino-Vietnamese border, “to dazzle [Song] with soldiers and return.” There followed a series of attacks and counterattacks in which local Song forces fared poorly, resulting in a parley between Song and Ly envoys that temporarily calmed things down. Seeking to avoid being drawn into a larger conflict, the Song court accepted Thang Long’s explanation of the trouble and dismissed Xiao Zhu and the other activist officials.

In the mid 1060s, Han Qi, a prominent official at the Song court, explained the rationale of the appeasement control policy that had been observed for eighty years, apparently in response to arguments against it. He wrote that the lesson of the 980–981 war was that negotiation and conciliation were more effective than punitive expeditions in eliciting Viet affirmations of obedience; that the Viet territory was remote, its climate unhealthy, and even if conquered could not be controlled; that no conceivable benefit could be obtained from sending soldiers against Thang Long. Nevertheless, new incidents occurred, and, although the official Song policy forbad direct provocation, local Song officials went so far as to conspire with the Cham king to put pressure on Thang Long. During the 1060s, Song border officials were divided in their opinions with some conspiring to engineer military action against Thang Long and others denouncing these efforts as foolish and contrary to instructions. Meanwhile, Ly Nhat Ton, emboldened by the passivity of the Song court and unaware that Song policy was about to change, allowed his border officers to maintain an aggressive stance. By the time of his death, in 1072, the Song court was implementing plans to attack Thang Long.

The Cham adventure exhausted Ly Nhat Ton’s vitality; two and a half years later, he died at the age of 49. His final years were full of worry: declining health, border problems with Song, successive years of drought that depleted royal granaries, but especially the lack of an adult heir. The prospect of a child king lay behind the building of a shrine in 1070 dedicated to the Duke of Zhou, Confucius, and Confucius’ disciples. The Duke of Zhou was famous for ably governing on behalf of a child king and then relinquishing power when the king came of age. Confucius, the great teacher of good government, considered the Duke of Zhou to be a model of righteousness and loyalty for officials serving a child king. For centuries, historians had credited the Duke of Zhou with a  decisive role in establishing the house of Zhou, one of the greatest and longest- lasting dynasties of Chinese antiquity.

The Thang Long shrine built in 1070 contained statues of the Duke of Zhou, of Confucius, and of Confucius’ four best disciples, as well as painted images of seventy-two of Confucius’ other disciples. Seasonal sacrifices were instituted at the shrine to worship the spirits of these men, and 4-year-old Crown Prince Ly Can Duc was sent there to study. This combination of spirit cult and study hall focused attention upon the small crown prince as the true and correct object of loyalty. Famous men in the past were invoked as dynastic spirit protectors,  models of loyal service, correct teaching, and sincere learning. This shrine com- bined appropriate worship with lessons in loyalty for officials and lessons in  kingship for the crown prince.

In the fifteenth century, when Confucian thought first dominated the Vietnam- ese court, historians seeking to extend the genealogy of Confucian practice as far  as possible into the past recorded the 1070 shrine as a Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), which indeed it became in the fifteenth century, a type of temple that in Ming China was dedicated to Confucius. However, the first Van Mieu in China was built in 1410, so an eleventh-century Van Mieu in Vietnam is implausible. After years of dereliction during the twentieth-century wars, the Van Mieu in Hanoi has been rebuilt and is now a major tourist site, claimed as the first university in Vietnam.

Ly Dao Thanh, the leading figure at court in the 1070s, was definitely familiar with the Confucian classics, as were all educated people at that time. But he was also a devout Buddhist. He valued the teachings of Confucius because they exhorted officials to serve their sovereign loyally and instructed rulers how to govern wisely. Yet, in time of need, he turned to Buddhism.

The death of Ly Nhat Ton in early 1072 opened a perilous era. Song was preparing to attack. The king, Ly Can Duc, was a child born of an ambitious peasant mother, Lady Y Lan, who was intolerant of her low status in the hierarchy of aristocratic palace women. Presiding at court was an old man, Ly Dao Thanh, who was quickly surrounded by intrigues beyond his ability to fathom. The commander of military forces, Ly Thuong Kiet, was experienced and decisive, but also foolhardy and difficult to control.

The first three Ly kings made Thang Long a rising regional force, eventually attracting the concerned attention of the Song court. The ensuing Sino-Vietnamese war in the 1070s coincided with the beginning of an age of successive royal minorities when mothers of kings and the men they favored exercised authority.

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