Ly Phat Ma, Ly Cong Uan’s eldest son, was the most vigorous and charismatic of all the Ly kings. He was born in 1000 at Hoa Lu when his father was rising to prominence at the Le court. In 1012, he was assigned to reside in the “eastern palace” built outside the walls of Thang Long, because his father wanted him “to understand all about the people.” He thus escaped, to some extent, the stifling fate of a palace-bound prince. Like his father, he received a broad education in the Confucian classics, in the Buddhist sutras, and in military affairs. In 1020, at the age of 20, he and an experienced general were sent against a Cham army that was threatening the southern border. The two armies met in what is now northern Quang Binh Province and the Chams were decisively defeated. In subsequent years, he led soldiers to repress rebels in the modern provinces of Nghe An, Vinh Phu, and Lang Son, giving him familiarity with the kingdom’s borderlands.
An uncle and two younger brothers of Ly Phat Ma also led armies to patrol the frontiers and to attack rebels during these years. On the day of Ly Cong Uan’s death, these three men, for reasons that have not been recorded, led their soldiers into Thang Long and besieged the royal compound to dispute Ly Phat Ma’s accession. The palace guard opened the gates and burst out, killing one of Ly Phat Ma’s brothers and most of the rebel soldiers. The uncle and surviving brother escaped, but the next day, when Ly Phat Ma formally took the throne, they returned to beg forgiveness, and the new king pardoned them. The com- mander of the palace guard, who had killed the rebellious prince, was later honored with a posthumous cult and made a protector spirit of the kingdom.
Another of Ly Phat Ma’s brothers had for fifteen years been assigned to oversee Hoa Lu, which during that time had become a bandit lair. When news of the battle at the palace gates reached Hoa Lu, this prince raised his standard in revolt. Ly Phat Ma mobilized his soldiers and, before marching against Hoa Lu, paused to have his officers drink a blood oath of personal loyalty to him at the shrine of the spirit of a mountain in Thanh Hoa that he had encountered in 1020 during his expedition into the southern frontier. He believed that this spirit had helped him to obtain victory against the Chams at that time and also that this spirit had appeared to him in a dream to warn him of the treachery of his brothers. As Ly Phat Ma’s soldiers approached Hoa Lu, the rebellious prince submitted and was forgiven. In dialogues between Ly Phat Ma and court officials that have been recorded from the days following his father’s death, Ly Phat Ma expressed a strong sense of family feeling for his disloyal brothers. Hoping that his kinsmen would submit of their own accord, he sought to delay a resort to violence, saying: “I want to hide my brothers’ crimes and allow them to yield willingly, for, of all things, my own flesh and blood is most precious.” There is no way to know whether these words reveal Ly Phat Ma’s attitude toward family solidarity or are the handi- work of later historians seeking to give a didactic gloss to a sad episode of fraternal strife. In either case, Ly Phat Ma was a strong personality whose quarter-century reign has been recorded with a relative abundance of words attributed to him. Two months after his father’s death, after settling affairs with his brothers, Ly Phat Ma designated his 5-year-old eldest son, Ly Nhat Ton, as crown prince and sent him to live in the “eastern palace” outside the city gates, away from the ritualized life of the royal compound. At the same time he appointed seven women as queens, appointed men to serve in his immediate entourage, and established a new hierarchy for the monkhood. His next act was to organize a grand festival to feast, entertain, and distribute gifts to his followers. The occa- sion was ostensibly his birthday celebration and it followed a precedent dating back to 985 when Le Hoan began the practice of royal birthday festivals, which was continued by both Le Dinh and Ly Cong Uan. A distinctive feature of these festivals was the construction of a bamboo mountain that over the years came to be decorated with images of birds and animals, the calls of which royal guests competed to imitate. Ly Phat Ma began a new style of “five-peaked bamboo mountain” with elaborate decorations beyond precedent. It was only after having thus attended to the joy and expectations of his followers that Ly Phat Ma finally buried his father, seven months after Ly Cong Uan’s death, a delay that later Confucian historians severely criticized. Ly Phat Ma appears from the records as one of the most intelligent, vigorous, and interesting kings in Vietnamese history: intelligent because the comparatively large amount of information preserved from his reign shows a mind constantly in motion, growing in its understanding of how to exercise royal authority and in a dynamic and creative relation with a shifting circle of advisors and the rush of events; vigorous because he was typically at the forefront of events and the prime mover of them; interesting because, despite the intervening centuries, a living personality shines through the words attributed to him. Vietnamese kings followed the practice of Chinese emperors of designating the years of their rule by reign titles, phrases that expressed the aspirations of the time. Ly Cong Uan had used but one reign title at Thang Long: Thuan Thien, meaning “in Agree- ment with Heaven,” expressing the Ly view that the Hoa Lu kings had not been in harmony with the natural order of things. In comparison, Ly Phat Ma succes- sively proclaimed six different reign titles, and each one represented an evolving phase of his focus and activity. His first reign title was Thien Thanh, “Heavenly Completion,” as if to signal that he aspired no further than to complete what his father had begun. During the six years of this period (1028–1034), he was compliant with the advice of men who had been close to his father, filling in the blanks of what his father had initiated and maintaining the peace that had been achieved under his father’s leadership. Nevertheless, there were already indications of his energy. He went to hunt elephants and personally captured one, a sport he would enjoy throughout his reign. He regularly attended plowing and harvesting ceremonies at royal estates. He built new palaces at Thang Long and 150 temples and shrines throughout the kingdom. He compiled a register of Daoist priests. He attacked rebels in the southern provinces and in the northern mountains. And he married a daughter to a local chieftain on the Song border in the modern province of Lang Son, showing a keen and fateful interest in expanding his power into the northern borderlands. In 1034, Ly Phat Ma proclaimed a new reign title: Thong Thuy, meaning “Utterly Auspicious.” This was the beginning of an era (1034–1039) in which he often argued with or surprised his advisors. The event considered “auspicious” that occasioned the change of reign title was the self-immolation by fire of two monks who thereby produced potent relics in the form of their ashes and bones, which Ly Phat Ma installed for veneration in a temple. The two monks had been lifelong friends who through years of study and meditation had attained a high level of erudition and spiritual enlightenment. Self-immolation was not unknown among Buddhist monks in China at that time, but this is the first recorded example of it in Vietnam. Shortly after this event, a box of Buddhist relics was unearthed in the home district of the royal family, giving emphasis to the idea of welcoming change. Ly Phat Ma marked the new reign title by demanding that his officials use a more grandiloquent form of address with him. From this time, Ly Phat Ma stepped beyond the perspective of his father’s generation and took more direct personal control of the royal agenda. Aside from irritating his court by promoting a favorite concubine to the status of queen, thereby provoking conspiracies that he seems to have openly elicited and then ruthlessly put down, he began to build ocean-going ships and to build storehouses in frontier areas, suggesting an initiative to develop trade with foreign lands. During the annual ceremonies to open fields for agricultural work, he shocked his entourage by insisting on actually taking the plow. When his officials objected, saying “This is farmer’s work,” he replied, “If I do not plow, what rice can I use for my sacrifices to the spirits and what kind of leadership will there be in the realm?” Previously, at these ceremonies he had simply received a symbolic stalk of rice from a farmer. Now, not content with ritual, he wanted to lead by example and believed that true sacrifice required his direct participation in producing the rice to be offered up. When the royal prison became overcrowded with people whose cases were not being decided and he suspected that the judges were corrupt, his solution was to lay the matter before the “heavenly emperor,” who replied by informing him in a dream that the spirit of Pham Cu Lang, the general who had served Le Hoan during the Song War of 980–981, was being appointed to take care of the matter. He accordingly built a shrine for Pham Cu Lang and made him the patron deity of the court and prison, the practical effect of which presumes widespread respect for Pham Cu Lang’s supernatural powers. In 1039, Ly Phat Ma marched an army north to the upland valley of Cao Bang, on the Song border, to attack Nung Ton Phuc, leader of the Tai-speaking population there. For several years previously, Nung Ton Phuc had been a Ly vassal, sending annual tribute to Thang Long, but in 1038 he had renounced his allegiance to the Ly and proclaimed himself a sovereign. Ly Phat Ma captured him and four other prominent male members of the Nung family and brought them to Thang Long where he publicly put them to death. In the wake of this campaign, veins of gold and silver were discovered in the mountains of Cao Bang. At about the same time, by coincidence, five Cham princes arrived at Thang Long seeking refuge from political troubles in their kingdom and offering their submission. Court officials argued that the pacification of the Nung, the discovery of gold and silver, and the arrival of submissive foreign princes were indications of good government that required literary acknowledgment with a new reign title meaning “Having the Way that Tallies with Heaven” (Can Phu Huu Dao) and the addition of a phrase to the royal honorific meaning “Gold Flows, Silver Appears, the Nung are Controlled, the [Cham] Frontier Yields” (Kim Dung Ngan Sinh Nung Binh Phien Phuc). They cited the golden age of Yao and Shun, the sage-kings of classical antiquity, whose virtue was so great that simply donning their robes and folding their arms was enough to bring peace and order to the human and natural worlds. The royal advisors sought to establish the idea of ruling in accordance with principles, and to do that they needed to capture the attention of a king who had his own intellectual momentum. At that time in China, Fan Zhongyan (989–1052) was advocating a stronger role for scholars in government. Vietnamese envoys regularly visited the Song court and knowledge of trends there was promptly communicated to Thang Long.
Ly Phat Ma did not like what his advisors were saying. He is the first king whose words have been recorded in relative abundance revealing a strong personality. According to the court annals, eventually compiled as Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (Complete Book of the History of Great Viet), he replied to his entourage that as for the golden age of Yao and Shun, when everything was perfect “simply from the ruler putting on robes and folding his arms,” he did not understand it, because, being “a mere man assigned to stand above the officials and the people,” he had to work hard at being king, “rising early and retiring late, as if passing through a deep abyss, not knowing the way to understand Heaven and Earth or the virtue that rises to the level of Yao and Shun.” Referring to the events of pacifying the Nung, receiving the submission of Cham princes, and finding gold and silver, he rhetorically asked: “How did ideas cause these things? Or what was there to give prior notification of them? I am very worried about this. What is a sufficiently noble and beautiful reign title? You must stop this discussion.” Ly Phat Ma believed that good results came from hard work, not from consulting books. He apparently considered that his advisors’ proposal was intended to diminish his own role, which he was endeavoring to expand. He thought that he was in contention with them for control of the royal agenda. Nevertheless, when they “obstinately” insisted, he finally gave in.
What happened during the three years of the ensuing reign period (1039– 1042) is an indication that the argument was about how to take up the slack between Ly Phat Ma’s vigorous personality and the disorganized manner in which he was ruling. Rather than smothering Ly Phat Ma’s initiative with erudition, those who won the argument sought to strengthen his leadership by codifying laws and procedures. The result was a book of law “suitable for the current age.” The book no longer exists, but edicts recorded from these years indicate detailed attention to military discipline, corrupt tax collectors, the storage of rice against times of shortage, and cattle thieves. Issues related to a new class of wealthy households, apparently from the rising Ly aristocracy and allied families, were also addressed. These households were prohibited from buying able-bodied male peasants as slaves, who were thereby removed from the tax and conscription registers. On the other hand, householders were allowed to kill nocturnal intruders who sought to molest their women. The court was protecting both its source of revenue and the morale of its supporters.
The administration of royal justice, which Ly Phat Ma had attempted to reform by establishing the cult of Pham Cu Lang a few years before, was now reorganized and placed under the direction of a living person, the 17-year-old crown prince, Ly Nhat Ton, who subsequently became an expert in the law. Queens and concubines, often used to advance the interests of their families, were a perennial source of intrigue, so it is not surprising that at this time the hierarchy of palace women was reorganized. The monks and people attached to temples were another focus of royal attention, and an Arhat Assembly was instituted to legislate monastic and temple affairs. When the book of laws was published in 1042, the Minh Dao, “Clear Way,” reign period was initiated, indicating that codifying the laws had made clear the way to govern.
The short Mind Dao reign period (1042–44) was occupied with preparations for and the actualization of a seaborne expedition more than a thousand kilo- meters down the coast to sack the Cham capital. This was the climax of Ly Phat Ma’s reign. In consulting with his entourage, he asked why he had never received any envoy from the Cham king and wondered if it was due to some fault of his own or if it was simply a matter of the Cham king trusting in the protection afforded by distance and terrain. His advisors replied that the Cham king would not acknowledge him without being attacked and thereby being forced to do so. Moreover, they said that vassals at home would also become arrogant and disrespectful unless he attacked the Cham king. Ly Phat Ma’s advisors were ready to follow him on a difficult mission to a remote place in order to ensure obedience and submission near at hand, an indication of the high degree to which Ly kingship depended upon the momentum of charismatic leadership. In 1043, coins were minted, soldiers were recruited and trained, supplies and weapons were assembled, and several hundred warships, of eight different classes, were built.
Amidst these preparations for war were auspicious episodes of material objects being mysteriously moved by Ly Phat Ma’s will. For example, while visiting the ruins of an abandoned Buddhist temple, Ly Phat Ma saw a tilting stone pillar on the verge of falling. He was about to order his men to set it up straight, but before the words were out of his mouth the pillar suddenly straightened up by itself. Literati at court, identified by a term indicating Confucianists (nho; Chinese ru), the first appearance of this term in the Vietnamese annals, were directed to compose a rhyming narrative “to make known this extraordinary supernatural event.” Royal advisors interpreted other signs and wonders before and during the expedition as Heaven’s blessing on the king’s plans.
At the beginning of 1044, Ly Phat Ma left Thang Long in the hands of Crown Prince Ly Nhat Ton and embarked. He encountered the Cham king, Jaya Sinhavarman II, in the vicinity of the modern city of Da Nang. Ly Phat Ma immediately landed his soldiers and attacked. The Cham king was killed and his soldiers fled. Many thousands were slain and five thousand were captured along with thirty war elephants. Re-embarking, Ly Phat Ma arrived in early autumn at the Cham capital of Vijaya, near the modern city of Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh Province, where he took possession of the royal treasury and the palace women, including a group of girls skilled in singing and dancing to “Indian tunes.” At the end of the year, back in Thang Long, he celebrated victory by proclaiming a 50 percent reduction in taxes and a new reign title, Thien Cam Thanh Vu, “Heaven Inspires Saintly Martial Prowess.”
There followed an era of prosperous contentment as plunder from the south- ern coast was digested and many fortunes were made. Edicts were published against corrupt storehouse officers and prison guards. Ly Phat Ma used captured elephants from Champa to pull him around in a lavishly ornamented wagon and as decoys for his elephant hunts. He built a new palace for the exclusive use of the women taken from Vijaya. Markets and post houses were built. An army was sent to the Xieng Khouang plateau in modern Laos and returned with large herds of cattle and many human captives. All this seemed to be a fulfillment of Ly Phat Ma’s punning prophesy on the eve of his Cham expedition when an unusually large gallstone the size and shape of a citron was found in a sacrificial goat. Since the word for “citron” is a homonym of the word for “pleasure,” Ly Phat Ma suggested that the big gallstone in the sacrificial goat was an indication that “with a bit of hard work we will gain great pleasure and happiness.”
Among Ly Phat Ma’s vassals who traveled to Thang Long to congratulate him on the success of the Cham adventure was Nung Tri Cao, son of Nung Ton Phuc, the chieftain of the northern border valley of Cao Bang whom Ly Phat Ma had captured and executed for treason in 1039. At that time, Nung Tri Cao had escaped capture, but in 1041 he was seized and brought to Thang Long after attempting to follow his father’s rebellious path. Having already put to death his father and other male kinsmen, Ly Phat Ma “took pity” on Nung Tri Cao, pardoned him, and sent him back to govern Cao Bang. For the next seven years, Nung Tri Cao was a loyal vassal of Ly Phat Ma. But in 1048, perhaps judging that Thang Long had grown soft with Cham plunder and could be challenged, he raised his banner in revolt. After three years of heavy fighting, Ly armies drove Nung Tri Cao out of Cao Bang and into Song territory where he wreaked havoc across the length and breadth of southern China, the modern provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong, all the way to modern Guangzhou, before Song forces ran him down and killed him in early 1053.
Ly Phat Ma may have been disturbed in his declining years by the Nung Tri Cao affair and by chronic fighting against rebels in Thanh Hoa, but these worries did not disturb his preparation for death. In 1049, he dreamed of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of mercy, seated on a “lotus throne” growing out of a pond; the bodhisattva reached down and lifted Ly Phat Ma up to sit on the throne. When he recounted this dream to his circle of advisors, they interpreted it as a portent of Ly Phat Ma’s death, his departure to a higher realm of consciousness. A Buddhist monk recommended that a temple be built on a stone pillar in the middle of a pond with an image of Avalokitesvara seated on a lotus throne as in the dream. This was done and monks continually circumambulated the pond chanting a liturgy asking long life for their king. This temple, repeatedly rebuilt through the centuries, exists in Hanoi today, known as the “One Pillar Pagoda” (Chua Mot Cot). The beautiful and fragrant lotus blossom, with its stem rooted in the filthy mud of a pond, called a “lotus throne,” was a popular symbol for the enlightened mind rising above the turmoil of worldly affairs.
The reign title was changed in 1049 to Sung Hung Dai Bao, “Reverencing and Raising the Great Jewel,” referring to the “great jewel” of the kingdom, Ly Phat Ma, being lifted up to the lotus throne and into the company of the bodhisattva. Elaborate gardens and fishponds were built in these years to create a restful environment for Ly Phat Ma during his last years on earth. At the same time, the palace guard was reorganized, elderly advisors of merit were promoted, worthy officials were feasted and given gifts, princes and princesses received new ranks and titles, and a bell was hung in the palace courtyard to be rung by anyone appealing to Ly Phat Ma for justice, indicating withdrawal of the king from the accessibility of his accustomed routine.
In 1053, after a series of earthquakes, a dragon was reportedly sighted at a pavilion in the inner courtyard of the palace. While some considered this to be a good omen, one Buddhist monk said: “Dragons are supposed to fly in the sky. This one has appeared on the ground. It is not a good omen.” In mid 1054, Ly Phat Ma formally handed governing authority to his 31-year-old heir, Ly Nhat Ton. He died a few weeks later.
The reign of Ly Phat Ma stands out as a remarkable time of unfolding the potential of Thang Long as a regional power. Ly Phat Ma had a vigorous personality and he responded to events decisively, but he also assembled an entourage of astute men with whom he was in a continuous and evolving conversation about what to do next. In his early years as king, he followed his father’s style of taking the advice of men he respected. Then, there was a period in which he argued with his advisors, disputing with them about how to govern. The major achievements of his reign in codifying laws, ravaging Champa, and pushing into the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands came when a mutual appreciation was established between him and his entourage and they had learned to work together. His son, Ly Nhat Ton, had a less dynamic personality yet at the same time a more grandiose vision of himself.