Misgovernment in the north

01

Dec
2021

Misgovernment in the north

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In Samuel Baron’s words, written in the 1680s and later published in London as “A Description of the Kingdom of Tonqueen,” the city of Ke Cho is the metropolis of Tonkin … and may, for its capaciousness, be compared with many cities in Asia, and superior to most for populousness, especially on the first and fifteenth day of their new moon, being their market days … when the people from the adjacent villages flock thither with their trade, in such numbers, as is almost incredible; several of the streets, though broad and spacious, are then so crowded that one finds enough to do if he can sometimes advance through the multitude a hundred paces in half an hour. The vernacular term ke cho means “people in the market.” Thang Long, Dong Kinh, and other classical terms for the capital did not enjoy popular currency. From at least the seventeenth century, the capital was known to the people who lived there as Ke Cho, the place where large numbers of people gathered on the bi-monthly market days. In the seventeenth century, Europeans also knew the city as Ke Cho. The city was no longer a royal capital of kings who ruled. Kings now sat powerless in the solitude of their palaces while in a separate palace complex in the southern part of the city sat the lords who ruled with their garrison of thousands of soldiers from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. The reforms of the Vinh Tho and Canh Tri eras (1658–1671) had brought men from the Red River plain into the government, but their efforts to harness the agrarian resources of this potentially rich land were ad hoc and constrained by the limitations of Trinh leadership. The Trinh conundrum was that they dared not dispense with the Le dynasty because it was in the name of that dynasty that they had been able to establish  relations with first the Ming and then the Qing Empires to the north. Further- more, without the Le dynasty, the Trinh would have no credible claim over the  southerners. Even though efforts to enforce that claim had lapsed in the 1670s, the Trinh were not prepared to relinquish it altogether. But having to live with the fuss and bother of a royal court that by its nature was a magnet for seditious loyalties and a natural seedbed of opposition kept Trinh nerves stretched taut. The Le court was a reminder of unfulfilled ambition and a threat of disloyalty  and insubordination. The Trinh and their supporters inhabited an institutional- ized contradiction, which made it difficult to resist the lazy pleasures of enjoying  power and easy to avoid the headache of government. Trinh Tac’s successors displayed a range of qualities and achievements, from flawed efforts to solve problems to irresponsible self-indulgence. While political and administrative life crept along in a shadow of perplexity, the bi-monthly surge of people into and out of the city demonstrated the living, pulsing energy of the country. Powerful eunuchs were able to put their hands on the profits of foreign merchants, but the thousands of peasants and artisans who regularly did business in the streets of Ke Cho inhabited another world where an inattentive government fumbled and failed to find a grip. The entrepreneurial energy expressed by these “people in the market” had its own tempo arising from the aspirations of thousands of people inhabiting many hundreds of villages, and government administrators could not keep pace with it. Trinh efforts to maintain control of the Red River countryside without resorting to soldiers did not succeed. The lively international commerce of the early seventeenth century was in steep decline by the 1670s. With the end of their wars against the Nguyen and the Mac, the Trinh interest in foreign trade faded. The Dutch began to lose money and in 1671 abandoned their formerly lucrative shipments of silk directly to Japan and thereafter sent all their Tonkin trade to Batavia to be reshipped from there. The English arrived in 1672 and competed with the Dutch for what was left of the market. In the 1680s and 1690s, Trinh Can badgered the Dutch for difficult-to-obtain gifts, sometimes confiscated their property or imprisoned them, and insisted that they continue to buy raw silk that was no longer in demand anywhere. The English never made any profits in Tonkin and finally left in 1697. Even Chinese merchants were departing in large numbers during these years. The Dutch finally sailed away, never to return, in 1700. The French appeared in the late 1660s and for several years maintained a residence at Pho Hien. However, this was not a commercial venture so much as a  new missionary initiative. The Jesuits were expelled in 1663 during the Con- fucianizing exuberance of the Canh Tri period. The Paris Society of Foreign  Missions had been established in the 1650s with Papal blessing as a French-led alternative to the Jesuits, whose activities in Asia, with their headquarters in Macau, were dependent upon Portuguese transport and tended to operate within the confines of Portuguese interests. Alexandre de Rhodes, as much French as he was Jesuit, had a role in initiating this new organization. The Paris Society was comprised of “secular” priests, not members of religious orders such as the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians who had pioneered Christian proselytization in Asia. The Society ostensibly aimed to train native clergy to be under the direct guidance of Rome rather than to be partisans of any particular religious order. Yet, the Society lent itself to Asian adventures sponsored by the French crown, particularly in Siam, where a scheme to convert the monarchy led to a short-lived French military intervention in the 1680s. In Tonkin, the Society began its operations clandestinely in collaboration with the newly formed French East India Company. Once the missionaries of the Society discovered that they were able to operate among the Vietnamese under these conditions, the Jesuits returned via Macau, and soon Dominicans also arrived from Manila. This new wave of European missionaries established contact with the Vietnamese Christian communities that had grown up under Jesuit tutelage in earlier decades. Despite initial tension between Vietnamese Christian leaders who favored different groups of missionaries, and despite disputes between the Jesuits and the Society about how best to train a native clergy, and, also, despite periodic persecutions of Christians by Vietnamese authorities, the Christian missionary effort spread through the villages of the Red River plain. By the time of Trinh Can’s death in 1709, forty-seven European missionaries are recorded as having gone to serve in Tonkin: eighteen Jesuits, fourteen members of the Society, ten Dominicans, one Augustinian, and four others. During the same time, the missionaries of the Society ordained twenty-eight native priests and the Jesuits ordained four. The Society and the various religious orders were also conducting missionary work in the south at a similar level of activity. Trinh Can’s date of birth is unknown, but he was most probably born in the 1620s. He had spent 25 years as his father’s right-hand man. During the 27 years that he ruled after the death of Trinh Tac, he showed himself to be secretive, scheming, greedy, reliant upon a small circle of cronies, passive, and unimaginative. He was already an old man at this time. He outlived three designated heirs and was finally succeeded by a great grandson. His years in power were filled with cyclic recurrences of the “same old” problems: drought, flood, and famine; border disputes with Qing; corruption in the examination halls; confusion in the courts of law; and bitter feuds among his officials. Whatever Vinh Tho and Canh Tri administrators had achieved with regard to agrarian affairs in the late 1650s and early 1660s was lost amidst recurring disasters beginning in the early 1680s. Dikes broke with distressing frequency. Famine was endemic. Europeans reported outbreaks of cannibalism. In 1694, Trinh soldiers attacked and destroyed an entire village after it had become a major center of brigandage that threatened communication between the capital and Thanh Hoa. Officials were sent to investigate “the misery of the people” but without any indication of action taken to alleviate the situation. Inspectors were repeatedly sent out to the provinces to clean up courts of law that had become “clogged” with unresolved litigation. Routine exhortations for officials to be honest were repeated again and again. Regional examinations were famous for chaos and corruption, and in 1696 there was a major scandal in the capital exam  despite repeated efforts to “reform” the system. In the same year, the proscrip- tion of Christianity was reaffirmed while noting that during the preceding thirty- three years it had had no effect. Qing immigrants were spreading their style of  dress and haircut among the people, so this was forbidden. A form of gambling became such a rage that it was forbidden. Officials who refused to serve under the supervision of eunuchs were summarily dismissed. Negotiations with Qing over border issues were entangled in the politics of Trinh Can’s court. In two separate cases, honest officials who had been dismissed arbitrarily or as a result of being on the losing side of a feud among officials turned to teaching and established reputations for producing many famous students. One of Trinh Can’s especial favorites was Le Hy, the scholar who supervised completion of the court history published in 1697. Le Hy was also a corrupt man who did not shrink from homicide in his feuds with other officials. In 1696 he obtained the death of an official with whom he had nurtured enmity and who had sabotaged a scheme for Le Hy’s son to cheat on a regional exam. Described as cunning and naturally suspicious of others, Le Hy was a specialist in false accusations that derailed the careers of his enemies. A popular saying was recorded that went: “The greedy chant prayers to Le Hy; the whole world is as sad as can be.” When Le Hy died in 1702, some of his enemies managed to regain positions at the Trinh court. One of these was Nguyen Quan Nho (1638–1709), a Canh Tri graduate who retained some of the idealism of those years. Returning to the capital from his home in Thanh Hoa, he reported to Trinh Can that not only was Thanh Hoa suffering from famine but also that military commanders there were abusive and oppressive. He appealed for more enlightened policies toward the common people. Trinh Can listened to him. Trinh Can’s designated heir, a grandson, died in the following year, and Nguyen Quan Nho along with other officials of his ilk prevailed upon Trinh Can to elevate an 18-year-old great grandson, Trinh Cuong, to be his heir. This provoked resistance among the eunuchs and generals, who turned to their allies within the Trinh family. In 1704, two grandsons of Trinh Can, sons of an earlier but deceased heir, were executed after plotting a coup against Trinh Cuong. Resistance to Trinh Cuong from Trinh kinsmen continued for several years. The contention over Trinh Cuong’s appointment may have also spread to the royal family, which could explain why, in 1705, Trinh Can deposed the 45-year-old king, Le Duy Cap, and replaced him with his 26-year-old son, Le Duy Duong.

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