A new peace

01

Dec
2021

Mobilizing resources: eunuchs, slaves, dikes, and war

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An important class of people at court was eunuchs. As had been the case during the Ly dynasty, Tran eunuchs were typically the products of self-castration. Some young men took this route to gain access to the palaces and to the powerful people in them. An example of someone becoming a eunuch was recorded in 1254 when Tran Canh, on an excursion into the city, saw a student who looked exactly like a person that a divine being had pointed out to him in a dream as deserving a senior appointment in his entourage, which was reserved for eunuchs. Tran Canh paid the boy a large sum of cash to be castrated and to enter his service as a eunuch. Eventually, this eunuch proved his worth and was promoted to reach the high position indicated in the king’s dream. Eunuchs served in many capacities. In 1231, a eunuch was sent to supervise the digging of a canal to link the provinces of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. In 1280, when Tran Canh was hailed in the street by someone seeking justice against the brother of a powerful official of whom judicial officers were afraid, he had a  eunuch investigate the matter and thereafter placed eunuchs in charge of hand- ling such cases. Confucian scholars generally disdained eunuchs, considering  them a pestilence of intrigue and corruption, and some tension between the two groups also existed at Thang Long, as demonstrated in an episode from 1288, which nevertheless was recorded with a happy ending in keeping with the Tran court’s emphasis on harmony. A feud had erupted between the scholar in charge of the office that prepared proclamations and the eunuch whose task it was to read out the proclamations in public. The proclamations were written in Literary Chinese, but the eunuch’s knowledge of Literary Chinese was rudimentary, so in order for him to read out the proclamation before an audience at court he needed sufficient time to study it beforehand. The feud between the two men reached a point that on one occasion the scholar decided to keep back a proclamation until just before the court session at which it was to be read. The result was a public scandal with the eunuch being unable to read the proclamation. Afterwards, the king took the eunuch aside and said: “This man is a scholar. You are a eunuch. You both watch over the royal capital and are mere worms to me. Send him some oranges as a present and the two of you will give gifts back and forth. What is the problem?” Thereafter, the two antagonists reportedly became good friends.

As the king’s blunt words made clear, both scholars and eunuchs were members of the royal entourage and neither had any base of power or support outside of royal favor. There was no choice for them but to get along. But it was significant that it was the eunuch whom the king pulled aside for a reprimand. Eunuchs belonged to the king in a way that scholars did not. Scholars had their own families and friends beyond the palace, but it was difficult for a eunuch to exist outside of the king’s entourage.

Another class of people was slaves. These could be peasants who sold them- selves into slavery to improve their lives, or prisoners of war, or people from  other lands brought by merchants. They served many functions from manual laborers to skilled craftspeople. As time went by, Tran princes accumulated increasing numbers of slaves. During the Mongol Wars, many military units were composed entirely of slaves. In the thirteenth century, slavery was not a particularly bad fate. Slaves were generally well cared for and, in wartime, served their masters loyally. The condition of slaves, and also of peasants, would change dramatically for the worse in the fourteenth century when, lacking the kind of leadership provided by the first three kings, Tran government faltered.

The infrastructure of transport, communication, and water control was cen- tralized to an unprecedented degree in the thirteenth century. The canal built in  1231 connecting the southern provinces of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An has already been mentioned. In that same year, Tran Thua ordered that statues of Buddha be built in all the rest houses so travelers could worship while on the road. In 1244 the kingdom was divided into jurisdictions and officials were sent to establish a  base in each of them for transporting goods. Transportation and communica- tion, as in the past, were mostly by boat. In 1248, a system of dikes was designed  for defense against floods in the Red River plain. A cadre of officials was tasked with maintaining these dikes. Owners of land lost to dike construction were compensated in cash by the court. In 1255, an official was sent to oversee dike construction throughout Thanh Hoa Province. Previous dike construction was done locally or regionally. Royal interest in building and keeping watch over dikes throughout the kingdom began from this time.

By 1250, the Tran court had mobilized the human and material resources of the Red, Ma, and Ca River plains to a degree of central direction never before achieved. Tran Canh was then 32 years old. He had been king since the age of 7. He had a 10-year-old crown prince, Tran Hoang. His uncle, Tran Thu Do, architect of the dynasty, was 57 years old and still strong. Following the example of Ly Phat Ma and Ly Nhat Ton, Tran Canh expressed the exuberance of his well being by an expedition to the Cham capital of Vijaya.

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, Cham rulers were in large measure subservient to Jayavarman VII, one of the great kings of Angkor, under whose direction Khmer and Cham armies had pushed north against the faltering leadership of the Ly dynasty. By the 1220s, this era of Khmer ascendancy had passed and Cham kings regularly sent tribute to Thang Long. The Tran court was nevertheless irritated by demands for its recognition of Cham authority in disputed border territories in modern Quang Binh Province that each side claimed but neither controlled. Even more irritating were periodic raids along the southern coast by people whom the Tran believed to belong to the Cham king. Consequently, to display Tran power on the southern coast, in 1252 Tran Canh personally led an expedition to sack Vijaya. Departing Thang Long at the beginning of the year, he returned at the end of the year with much plunder and many captives, including the wives and concubines of the Cham king. The two kingdoms were thereafter at peace for many years, and they even became allies during the Mongol Wars of the 1280s.

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