Gia Long’s confidence in his fourth son as a man with his own mind was well placed. Minh Mang was an intelligent and active ruler with definite ideas about how to govern. Unlike his successors, historians have never viewed him as being manipulated by others. On the other hand, My Duong, the royal grandson who had been championed by Nguyen Van Thanh in 1815, was turned into an embarrassment, whether justly or through trickery is unknown. In 1824, he and his mother were charged with incest. His mother was put to death, and he was banished from the royal family. Minh Mang was a child during the final years of his father’s wars, came of age as Hue was being built into a royal capital, and became king at age 30. He had received an excellent education with the most erudite of teachers. He was a relatively disciplined man with a lively interest in government and a strong sense of responsibility for ruling his country. On the other hand, he lacked the practical experience of his father. He also lacked his father’s toleration of administrative heterogeneity and cultural diversity. Gia Long had the benefit of subordinates with whose strengths and weaknesses he was familiar through years of military campaigns. He had created his government from his wartime entourage and for the most part it operated as an extension of his personality. Minh Mang entered an existing structure of authority and eventually came to see some of the men who had served his father as obstacles to his more strictly bureaucratic style of rule. Minh Mang was a strong and decisive leader. But he was also ethno- culturally intolerant, which limited his capacity to devise successful policies in the Mekong plain. Historians have tended to see Minh Mang as a centralizer because he elimin- ated the northern and southern viceroyalties and tried to organize a single administrative system for the whole country. His policies revealed a desire for uniformity in government, in religion, in culture, and even in apparel. For example, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, silk was relatively more available for common use in the south than in the north, and silk trousers became everyday wear for both men and women. In the north, however, cotton skirts similar to the Burmese longyi were widely worn, especially by women. Minh Mang promoted a policy of encouraging northerners to adopt what southerners, in an 1828 court discussion, considered to be more “proper” attire. However, he instructed officials to enforce the new dress code slowly and cautioned them against expecting to change “in a day” the manner of dress that had been customary in the north for “six or seven hundred years.” One of Minh Mang’s first concerns was to establish a source of new men who had not served his father, men who could be shaped by his own style of authority. As Vietnamese rulers had done for generations, he turned to the literary examination system. He instituted the capital examination in 1822, which conferred the doctoral degree (tien si) for the first time since the last capital examination held under the Le dynasty in 1787, thirty-five years before. When this did not produce many graduates, in 1829 he began to award a second- rank degree, which can be called a junior doctor (pho bang), to make men with good, if not excellent, educational achievement available for administrative appointments. Whether by design or not, thirty-five of the thirty-six men who received the doctoral degree in the first four examinations (1822, 1826, 1829, and 1832) were from the north, that is from Nghe An and jurisdictions to the north. Six of the eight junior doctors in the years 1829 and 1832 were also from the north. In the two remaining examinations during Minh Mang’s reign, 1835 and 1838, thirteen of twenty-one doctors and six of twelve junior doctors were from the north. Overall, in the six examinations during Minh Mang’s reign, forty-eight of fifty-seven doctors and twelve of twenty junior doctors were from the north. For the first four examinations, the proportion of examination graduates from the north was overwhelming. More graduates began to appear from the south near the end of Minh Mang’s reign. To some extent these results can be attributed to the relatively more developed tradition of study and scholarship in the north, but they also show that Minh Mang was prepared to open government service to educated northerners. Nevertheless, the number of graduates is not impressive when compared with the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. To fill administrative positions, many graduates of regional examinations were taken directly into government service, and non-literary roads to appointment remained alive, particularly in the south. During Minh Mang’s reign, over seven hundred men graduated from regional examinations, but only around 10 percent of these came from the south. The potential of the educational and examination systems to unify the country with a large cadre of officials shaped by a common curriculum and a common career path was not realized to any significant degree. The reason for this was that regional differences continued to present serious obstacles to a unifying educa- tional system. Education meant different things to northerners and southerners. Beginning in the 1830s, capital examination graduates started to appear from the Hue region, comprised of the modern provinces of Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien, and, to a lesser extent, Quang Nam. But graduates from further south were extremely rare. During Minh Mang’s, Thieu Tri’s, and Tu Duc’s reigns, only two doctors and five junior doctors came from Quang Ngai, four doctors and two junior doctors came from Binh Dinh, and three doctors and one junior doctor came from Gia Dinh in the Mekong plain. There were no graduates from Phu Yen, Khanh Hoa, or Binh Thuan. After the examination of 1856, the French navy occupied Gia Dinh, but even before that there is no evidence of success in incorporating the provinces south of the Hue region into the examination system. Aside from people in provinces close to the royal court, southerners showed little interest in the kind of literary education required to enter the examinations. In the south, relatively abundant land, a market culture of entrepreneurship, and a tradition of military service provided appealing alternatives to years of study. Minh Mang did not initiate any significant reform of the agrarian regime or the tax system. Rather, he adjusted policies in various localities in response to changing conditions, aiming at a general appearance of uniformity. An almost continual rustling of unrest and popular disaffection drew attention to the ongoing task of pacification and emphasized the difficulty of governing distant places from Hue. Minh Mang responded with major administrative initiatives, by which he endeavored to establish a system of authority throughout the country that was directly responsive to him. There may have been no reason why eventually such a government based at Hue could not have been effective. But, given the legacies of regional separatisms and the distance of Hue from major population centers, more time would have been needed to achieve this than was available to Gia Long’s heirs. In 1831, Minh Mang abolished the viceroyalty at Hanoi and reorganized northern provinces to be more directly under the authority of the Hue royal court. In announcing this change, he cited fifteen reasons, all of which indicated the greater efficiency to be obtained by removing a level of government between the royal court and provincial officials. Five of the fifteen points had to do with expectations of more effective military responses to unrest, banditry, and rebel- lion in local jurisdictions. Nine of the points referred to inefficiencies and irregularities, waste of time and manpower, and lack of transparency between the court and the provinces that were characteristic of the viceroyalty. One point aimed at liberating local feeling from the big mix of a regional jurisdiction. Demonstrating this point at a sub-provincial level, the lowland districts south of the Ca River in Nghe An were at this time separated to form Ha Tinh Province. A number of other adjustments to provincial boundaries in the north were implemented. The end of the Hanoi viceroyalty did not mean the end of administrative posts between Hue and the provinces. The viceroyalty was replaced with a structure of jurisdictions that were mostly comprised of two neighboring provinces, which provided a more direct link between local government and the royal court. At the same time, a separate system of military commands under the Ministry of War was organized at the sub-provincial level, which gave Hue an administrative path to localities that bypassed provincial government. The reforms implemented at this time extended to all jurisdictions north of Hue, including Quang Tri and Quang Binh. They came after several years during which the role of the Hanoi viceroyalty had been gradually diminished, and they were achieved without difficulty. Minh Mang’s effort to implement similar reforms in the south, how- ever, was not as uneventful.
During the 1820s, Le Van Duyet, the viceroy at Saigon, presided over the Mekong plain, including the Khmer protectorate, as if it were his private domain. He had no discernible disloyal design, but his style of governance, although harmonious with local conditions, was at odds with Minh Mang’s unifying aims.
Le Van Duyet followed Gia Long’s policy of keeping the various ethnic, religious, and social groups in the south separate from each other and allowing each group to follow its own way of life so long as it did not threaten public order. These groups were Khmers, Chams, Chinese, and upland minorities, but also different kinds of Vietnamese, such as Christians, former rebels, and prisoners from northern jurisdictions suffering banishment. Le Van Duyet cultivated the trust and loyalty of all these groups. He protected a French missionary who entered the country illegally, he encouraged exiled criminals to integrate into normal society, he shielded Khmer and Cham communities from encroaching Vietnam- ese, he allowed Chinese and Vietnamese businessmen to prosper, he supervised the Khmer king and watched the Siamese border with discreet vigilance. But, by the late 1820s, he was in his mid sixties and beginning to tire. His popularity among the people in the far south persuaded Minh Mang to keep him at his post while meanwhile reducing his authority by replacing his men with officials sent from Hue
. In 1828, one of Le Van Duyet’s senior administrators was reassigned to the north, where he was promptly accused of corruption and imprisoned. He was replaced by one of Minh Mang’s trusted officers. The inability of Le Van Duyet to control the appointments in his jurisdiction and to protect his men, as he had been able to do in previous years, indicated the beginning of a shift in the relationship between him and the king. The Vietnamese protector at the Khmer royal court was a man recommended by Le Van Duyet. When the protector died in 1829, however, Minh Mang ignored Le Van Duyet’s recommendation and instead appointed two of his officials from Hue to supervise the Cambodian protectorate. In 1831, Minh Mang replaced the military commander at Saigon, and Le Van Duyet’s army units were reassigned to places further north. By the time of Le Van Duyet’s death in 1832, officials sent from Hue, unfamiliar with and intolerant of local conditions, were provoking widespread disaffection and agitation among the various populations in the Mekong plain.
Immediately upon Le Van Duyet’s death, the southern viceroyalty was abol- ished and replaced with an administrative scheme similar to what had been implemented in the north the previous year. The “Six Provinces” (Luc Tinh) of the Mekong plain (Bien Hoa; Gia Dinh/Saigon; Dinh Tuong/My Tho; Vinh Long; An Giang/Chau Doc; and Ha Tien) were reorganized and paired with supervising officials assigned to two provinces. If he had left it at that, Minh Mang may have had as peaceful a transition to his centralization policy as there had been in the north. But Minh Mang took the opportunity to unleash pent-up frustrations with what he perceived as problems that had been enabled by Le Van Duyet’s regime in the far south. Without delay he moved decisively to privilege Vietnamese over other ethnic groups, to prohibit Christianity, to harden the penal regime on banished criminals, to increase surveillance of Chinese business activities, and to posthumously proclaim Le Van Duyet to have been a traitor.
Even this may not have provoked more than minor disorders if Le Van Duyet’s regime had not been a critical factor in providing an escape valve for internal unrest and in keeping the peace with Siam. Minh Mang’s high-handed move into the south was accompanied by major domestic rebellions and war with Siam. When applied to the far south, Minh Mang’s passion for uniformity led him into confrontations that brought an end to Gia Long’s era of tolerating differences. Minh Mang established strict, even harsh, policies toward local officials, toward Christians, and toward Cambodians that his weak successors were unable to change except under duress. His reign was followed by an era of spreading disorder that left men at the Hue court as spectators to the collapse of dynastic authority. By suppressing the south, Minh Mang attacked its awareness of the outside world that could have been an asset when the European threat material- ized shortly after his death. Instead, his policies provoked internal discord and created opportunities for foreign powers.