Nguyen Phuc Khoat, the first southern king



Nguyen Phuc Khoat, the first southern king

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In 1738, Nguyen Phuc Tru died and was succeeded by his 25-year-old eldest son Nguyen Phuc Khoat. He ruled for twenty-seven years during a time when the Trinh were beset by vast, prolonged rebellions in the north and the southerners annexed the remaining territories in the Mekong plain that would become Vietnamese. He presided with vigor and imagination over the last era of peace and prosperity for the southerners before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. He is most noted for claiming royal status, thereby casting aside any vestige of subordination to the Le dynasty and openly affirming the political independence of the south. In 1744, after a series of auspicious signs and the ritual of his officials three times requesting him to take the throne, Nguyen Phuc Khoat proclaimed himself a king, issued a new seal inscribed with “King of the Realm,” and published an edict announcing a “change to the new.” All of his predecessors were known by the title of “duke” (quan cong). He was the first to be known as “king” (vuong). There had been a well-known prophesy in the south that the Nguyen family would “return to the royal capital” after eight generations. Nguyen Phuc Khoat was in the eighth generation from Nguyen Hoang, and by making Phu Xuan a royal capital he fulfilled this prophesy. The government offices at Phu Xuan were, at least superficially, reorganized under the “Six Ministries” and the other administrative units that had been used at Dong Kinh since the time of Le Tu Thanh. The hierarchy of titles, clothing regulations for officials, court ritual, and the provincial administrative system were all reformed to be in accord with what  were understood as royal practice. The only compromise with respect to com- plete sovereignty was that official paperwork was still dated using Le dynasty  reign years to avoid diplomatic problems with the Qing imperial court. In 1754, a major project to construct palaces and gardens was initiated to make Phu Xuan look more like a royal capital. Nguyen Phuc Khoat continued the attention to education displayed by his predecessors. In 1740, he revised the literary examinations. Success at the first three of four levels of achievement, covering four-six distich prose, phu rhyming prose, and a prose composition on classical texts, respectively, earned various tax and corvée exemptions. The fourth and highest level required a dissertation in response to a question about public policy and success at this level earned an appointment at a provincial or district government office. One of the graduates of this 1740 examination was Nguyen Cu Trinh (1716– 1767). He became one the most famous scholar-officials during the time of Nguyen Phuc Khoat. His ancestors had left Nghe An for the south in the early sixteenth century. His father was Nguyen Dang De (1668–1727), a graduate of the 1701 examination who had a distinguished career under Nguyen Phuc Chu and authored the edicts on civilized behavior at the beginning of Nguyen Phuc Tru’s rule. A cousin of Nguyen Cu Trinh, Nguyen Dang Thinh (1693–1755), a graduate of the 1721 exam, was known for his erudition, was entrusted with the drafting of all edicts, and became the teacher of Nguyen Phuc Khoat. Nguyen Cu Trinh’s exceptionally astute administrative work is an indication of the quality of men who entered government through the educational system at this time, which provides a partial explanation for the achievements of Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s reign. Nguyen Cu Trinh was known for good manners, which probably contributed to his rapid rise at Phu Xuan. He already held a high court position when Nguyen Phuc Khoat proclaimed himself king in 1744. In 1750, he was made governor of Quang Ngai Province at a time when conditions there were in disarray and government authority was in danger of unraveling. Since Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s accession, the long southern coast and the Mekong plain gave frequent cause for concern, despite initiatives to maintain communications and to strengthen administration. No sooner had Nguyen Phuc Tru died in 1738 than a Siamese army expelled  Ang Chi, the pro-Vietnamese king of Cambodia, and reinstalled Srei Thoamar- eachea II on the Khmer throne. Ang Chi fled to Gia Dinh. This was immediately  followed by a Khmer attack on Ha Tien. Mo Jiu, the governor of Ha Tien, had died in 1735 and had been replaced by his son, Mac Thien Tu (Chinese: Mo Tianci; also known as Mo Tianxi, Vietnamese Mac Thien Tich; 1710–1780). Mac Thien Tu responded to the Khmer attack with such vigor that his men outran their supplies, but his wife organized the wives of his men to bring up supplies, which enabled him to decisively defeat the Khmers. When Truong Phuc Vinh was discredited and dismissed in 1632 as “controller” with overall command in the Mekong region, a man named Nguyen Huu Doan was appointed to replace him. Thereafter, Nguyen Huu Doan’s competent leadership stabilized the Vietnamese position in the Mekong plain. In 1741 he established nine new storehouses in Gia Dinh as part of a general reorganization of storehouses throughout the country that was designed to reduce the level of corruption in storehouse administration. In 1746, he sent soldiers to put down an uprising among the Chams in Binh Thuan to the north. Shortly after this he suppressed an attempt by Qing merchants to take over Bien Hoa. This was no sooner settled than the Khmer monarchy fell open for contestation. In 1747, the death of Srei Thoamareachea II provoked a new round of fighting in the Mekong plain among his potential successors. Amidst this turmoil, a Khmer army seized and plundered My Tho. Nguyen Huu Doan replied to this with an advance up the Mekong River to the Khmer capital where he made Ang Chi king, but Ang Chi was soon driven out and died shortly after. Eventually, a son of Srei Thoamareachea II emerged as the new king, known as Chei Chéttha IV. Nguyen Huu Doan was content to let matters calm down and concentrated on establishing a system of roads and ferry crossings to facilitate communication and transport in the Mekong plain. This became the southernmost extension of the first land road with ferry crossings that was then being built from the northern border to Gia Dinh. All the problems that could be expected in frontier jurisdictions seem to have accumulated with particular virulence in Quang Ngai. Although not very far from Phu Xuan, and despite, or maybe because of, being commonly treated as a backwater of Quang Nam, Vietnamese settlers in Quang Ngai had developed an adversarial attitude toward government authority. Unlike neighboring provinces,  Quang Ngai had no easy access into the mountains, which stood, in the expres- sion of the time, like a “stone wall” in the west. One particular mountain was  named “Stone Wall Mountain.” The province extended from north to south for about one hundred kilometers, but the coastal plain was relatively narrow, on average ten to fifteen kilometers wide, and the mountains were never out of sight. Nguyen Cu Trinh’s report on the conditions he found in Quang Ngai when he arrived in 1750 is a list of problems: corrupt officials; bullies and bandits everywhere; poor communication; a sparse and scattered population; stubborn, ungovernable people living in misery; soldiers living in neglect; and chronic attacks from upland peoples, called “stone wall barbarians.” His analysis was that the first priority was to take care of the soldiers and to improve the morale of the people. A year later, he submitted a follow-up report with a more detailed analysis of the situation and with recommendations for improvement. He thought that excessive taxes, legal fees levied by corrupt officials, and demands to provide supplies for garrisons and to care for elephants were impoverishing the people in the province. Local officials were busying themselves with raising money by making arrests, conducting interrogations, and seeking bribes. He recommended that taxes be collected by provincial authorities and thus taken out of the hands of local magistrates; that magistrates be paid salaries and be promoted, demoted, or dismissed based on evaluations of their honesty; that the large population of vagabonds be sorted out to distinguish good people fleeing oppressive taxation from troublemakers, and that those simply seeking a livelihood be allowed to  settle where they wished; and, finally, that people be required to carry identifica- tion papers to clearly distinguish honest citizens from people wandering around  stealing chickens and horses and disturbing the peace. Nguyen Cu Trinh was in Quang Ngai only three years. It is unknown to what extent he was able to implement his recommendations, but he did considerably improve conditions in the province. He brought available military forces to a  high level of training and, using both force and conciliation, ended the depreda- tions of the “stone wall barbarians.” Beyond that, he composed a vernacular  work that could be performed on stage that was aimed at raising the morale of the people in Quang Ngai and at giving them a vocabulary to increase their cultural and political awareness. The work is a dialogue between a Buddhist monk and a Buddhist nun called Sai Vai (Monk and Nun). It is an entertaining, racy, and at times almost pornographic work in easily memorized six-eight vernacular verse. It includes humorous critiques both of Buddhist meditational practice and of Confucian ideas about good government and it ends with a rallying cry against the “stone wall barbarians.” The Sai Vai was a brilliant way to catch the attention of a dispirited population and give them a laugh while  providing an education in the rhetoric of civilized behavior and good govern- ment. Another gift of Nguyen Cu Trinh to the people of Quang Ngai was a set of  poems praising the “ten most scenic places” in the province, which was a traditional way of putting a locality on the literary map. It might be thought that he pacified the province with theater and literature. With his exceptional abilities, Nguyen Cu Trinh was given the most difficult assignments. In early 1753, he was sent to administer the northern border region. This followed reports in 1752 that corruption among officials there was causing unrest among the people, which invited Trinh intervention. At that time, the Trinh were requesting permission of Phu Xuan to move their armies through the border region to attack a rebel Le prince who had taken refuge in Laos. Nguyen Cu Trinh dismissed the corrupt officials, raised the level of vigilance on the border, and wrote a reply to the Trinh denying their request. After only eight months on the northern border he had settled matters there. He was immediately reassigned to the southern frontier where turmoil in the Khmer royal family was creating new opportunities. Nguyen Cu Trinh was sent south to be Nguyen Huu Doan’s successor as “controller” in the Mekong region, but the territory over which he was given authority extended up the coast as far as Nha Trang to give him greater resources for dealing with the Cambodian situation. There was supposedly a rumor that Chei Chéttha IV, the king of Cambodia, was in league with the Trinh, and there were suspicions that the border flap Nguyen Cu Trinh encountered in the north was connected with events in Cambodia. The implausibility of this rumor may suggest that it was recorded by way of justifying Nguyen Cu Trinh’s assignment, but given the embattled view that the southerners had of both frontiers it is not unlikely that such a rumor could easily have gained currency at that time. Nguyen Phuc Khoat heard news of confusion at the Khmer capital and decided to simply move in and overwhelm the contestants for power there. In late 1753,  Nguyen Cu Trinh was ordered to Gia Dinh where he was to prepare an exped- ition against Cambodia. In mid 1754 he launched an attack upriver from My  Tho toward the Khmer capital. The Cham community in Cambodia found itself in the middle of this campaign and rallied to Nguyen Cu Trinh, providing him with scouts and guides. During the course of this campaign, which continued for two years, a front-line Vietnamese general ordered the Chams to relocate, and  then, apparently seeing little value in protecting his “barbarian” allies, he with- drew to My Tho as a Khmer army attacked the Cham refugees, numbering some  five thousand men and women. Nguyen Cu Trinh, alerted to the situation, came to the rescue of the Chams and escorted them to safety, out of the battle zone to the northwest of Saigon. He then replaced the apparently racist general with a  man who incorporated Cham soldiers into his vanguard and renewed the offen- sive against the Khmers.  Chei Chéttha IV had been in the midst of murderous intrigues among the Khmer princes and members of his court when the Vietnamese attack was launched. He eventually fled to Ha Tien and found refuge with Mac Thien Tu. In 1756, Mac Thien Tu relayed a message from Chei Chéttha IV to Nguyen Cu Trinh begging to submit and offering to pay tribute due for the preceding three years and to hand over two Khmer territories along the two branches of the Mekong River from the modern cities of Vinh Long and Can Tho upriver to the vicinity of Chau Doc, on the modern Khmer–Viet border. Nguyen Phuc Khoat was not inclined to accept this offer of submission from Chei Chéttha IV, not believing that he would keep his word. Nguyen Cu Trinh then sent a letter to Nguyen Phuc Khoat that reveals the quality of his thought: We use military force to exterminate enemies and to expand our control of territory. Now Chei Chéttha IV shows an attitude of repentance and submission, and he offers us land. If we persist in doubting him, he will surely run away and nothing will have been achieved. From Gia Dinh to Phnom Penh the way is far and difficult with rivers and forests. It will not be easy to run him down. If we want to expand our territory, we should take the two places he offers to us before we do anything else, so that they will definitely be ours. If we toss away what is near in search of what is far, I fear that there will be difficulties that our soldiers cannot overcome. Although it is easy to take territory, it is not so easy to truly hold it. In the  past, our occupation of these territories in this region has been slow, step- by-step. In fact, the land we now occupy does not have enough settlers  and soldiers. The Chams are good soldiers and the Khmers fear them. We should give the Chams land and support them, using barbarians against barbarians. I recommend that we forgive Chei Chéttha IV, take the two regions he has offered to us, inspect them, build fortifications, establish garrisons, settle people, make a border, and soon we will have the whole region. Nguyen Phuc Khoat found nothing wrong with this argument and accordingly made peace with Chei Chéttha IV. One year later, in 1757, Chei Chéttha IV died. Two men who endeavored to  succeed him were successively murdered. Vietnamese armies were again mobil- ized to intervene. Once again, Mac Thien Tu provided the solution for settling  matters by proposing that a Khmer prince who had found refuge with him be made king of Cambodia. Nguyen Phuc Khoat agreed to this on condition that all remaining downriver Khmer territories, in the region of modern Tra Vinh and Soc Trang, were to be ceded to the Vietnamese. On this basis, Nguyen Cu Trinh and Mac Thien Tu marched to the Khmer capital and enthroned a grandson of one of Chei Chéttha IV’s second cousins as Outeireachea III, who reigned thereafter until 1775. As part of the final settlement, Outeireachea III ceded more territories along the borders of Ha Tien to Mac Thien Tu, who then passed them along to Phu Xuan. With this, the Khmer–Viet border was drawn more or less as it exists today. Nguyen Cu Trinh remained in the south until 1765. He and Mac Thien Tu were well-educated men who became famous for their friendship. Both loved poetry and Nguyen Cu Trinh contributed to an anthology of poems praising the “ten most scenic places” in Ha Tien. Nguyen Cu Trinh’s leadership was a critical factor in stabilizing a Khmer–Viet border that would thereafter stand the test of time. It was during Nguyen Cu Trinh’s service in the south, in 1751, that envoys are recorded from the “Water Chieftain” and the “Fire Chieftain” of the Central Highlands in the vicinity of modern Buon Ma Thuot. Vietnamese historians considered these men to be descendents of the Cham king defeated by Le Tu Thanh in 1471 and recorded tribute and trading relationships with them since the time Phu Yen had been added to Vietnamese territory in the early seventeenth century, for access to their lands was up the Da Rang River that flowed into the sea at Phu Yen. According to southern annalists, Vietnamese traded silks, hats, brass pots, iron pans, and ceramics for beeswax, deer antlers, bear gall, stallions, and bull elephants. Trade with the Laotian kingdom via the Cam Lo Road west from Quang Tri continued to be important as well. In 1761, Laotian envoys arrived in Phu Xuan to demonstrate their interest in maintaining this trade. Information recorded in the time of Nguyen Phuc Khoat also gives details about the maritime frontier. In 1754, a Vietnamese ship on its way to the Hoang Sa Islands (Paracel Islands) was blown off course by a storm and shipwrecked on Hainan Island. Qing magistrates sent the survivors back to Phu Xuan, and Nguyen Phuc Khoat wrote a letter of thanks to the Qing authorities. This episode  was the occasion for Vietnamese historians to record information about Viet- namese activities on offshore islands. According to them, each year, since the  beginning of Nguyen rule in the south, around seventy people were assigned to sail to the Hoang Sa Islands in the third lunar month to collect sea products and to return in the eighth lunar month. The trip normally took three days each way. The passage also mentions that Vietnamese regularly visited the Truong Sa Islands (Spratley Islands), describing them as over 130 islets, some with fresh water, spread over a huge distance. The products collected from the islands included shellfish, sea ginseng, tortoise shell, and many kinds of sea turtles. However impressive the achievements of Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s reign may  appear, failure to find any solution to a deepening fiscal conundrum also char- acterized his time. The basic problem was that the southern economy was  increasingly monetized just as money was increasingly scarce. This led to a shift of coinage from copper to zinc, which led to inflation and the erosion of both the private economy and government finances.  In the seventeenth century, trade with China and Japan produced an abun- dance of copper coins, which met the needs of the economy. By the early  eighteenth century, however, this supply declined and the price of copper rapidly rose relative to silver, which became more abundant from South America via Manila. Chinese copper became expensive, and Japan began to limit the export of copper coins in the early eighteenth century. The first indication of this problem in the annals comes in 1724 with an edict forbidding the casting of tin, lead, or iron coins or the melting down of copper coins unless they were chipped, cracked, or worn away. Apparently, not only were people melting down copper coins because their actual value was higher than their face value, but there was also private minting of non-copper coins. The edict appears to have been an effort to maintain copper as legal tender despite the market forces that were replacing copper with cheaper materials. In the following year, copper coins were cast and distributed to soldiers. The annal explains that this was necessary because people were melting down copper coins and making them scarce. The first indication of inflation comes from 1741 when Nguyen Phuc Khoat ordered an examination of tax receipts for rice and salt during the preceding three years to see if the tax rate was correct in reference to expenses. It was at that time that he became concerned about corruption in storehouses and instituted a new system of control for storehouses to maintain stricter supervision of them and to prevent officials from abusing their access to these sites of non-monetary wealth. The scarcity of copper coinage finally led to the casting of zinc coins in 1746. These coins were one-third to half the weight of copper coins and their face  value was more than twice their real value. In 1748, an edict prescribed punish- ments for those refusing to use these new coins. Before long, private foundries  were producing as many of these coins as the government was supplying, and inflation became a very serious matter. Indications of government efforts to keep up with inflation are frequent in the 1750s. In 1753, Nguyen Phuc Khoat ordered a calculation and analysis of revenues and expenditures during the preceding six years. In 1758, officials were sent to adjust tax rates in Phu Yen because revenue from that province was not consistent with rising revenues from neighboring jurisdictions; perhaps officials in Phu Yen were trying to benefit from inflation while pretending it was not happening. In 1755, custom duties on foreign ships were increased. European ships were assessed at the highest rate. Ships from Macau and Japan were assessed at half the  European rate. Ships from Guangdong and Shanghai were assessed at three- quarters the Macau and Japanese rate, and those from Fujian, Siam, and Manila  at two-thirds the Guangdong and Shanghai rate. The effect of inflation on foreign trade was disastrous. Whereas in the 1740s sixty to eighty foreign ships called at Hoi An each year, by the early 1770s the number was down at ten to fifteen. The inflationary squeeze that developed during Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s time tore the vitality out of the southern economy and, by the mid 1760s, brought to the verge of poverty a country that for the preceding two centuries had been mostly prosperous. The failure to solve this economic crisis led to a collapse of political leaderhip in the 1760s that contributed to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. At the time of his death in 1765, Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s designated heir was his 33-year-old second son, Nguyen Phuc Con. However, a member of the powerful Truong Phuc family named Truong Phuc Loan, a brother of Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s mother, had insinuated himself into an impregnable position at court. Nguyen Phuc Con was imprisoned and killed as Truong Phuc Loan brought to the throne Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s sixteenth son, 11-year-old Nguyen Phuc Thuan. Truong Phuc Loan thereafter maintained power with an entourage of homicidal sycophants. He was greedy for riches and spent much time with food, wine, and women. However, he was an incompetent ruler, and it was not long before the country began to drift into disorder. In the Phu Xuan era, the southerners established a new country extending from the Gianh River to the Gulf of Siam. The Nguyen Phuc family gradually abandoned its pose of loyalty to a dynasty held hostage by its Trinh enemy. After generations of acting as an independent monarchy, the Nguyen Phuc openly claimed that status. Under Nguyen Phuc Khoat, Phu Xuan’s wealth and power overwhelmed Cambodia, was felt among chieftains in the Central Highlands, extended to the Laotian kingdom on the mid Mekong, and echoed across the sea. That Phu Xuan was destined to collapse so suddenly within a few years of Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s death was not foreseen by anyone during his lifetime. The helplessness of the Nguyen Phuc family under the machinations of Truong Phuc Loan is difficult to explain without an understanding of what can begin to happen at a royal court suffering financial woes and where greed and intrigue become the everyday style of life. By the 1760s, Phu Xuan was not a garrison, or the headquarters of a regional lord, or the center of administration for an aspiring monarchy. It had become a royal court and was consequently the arena of king-making ambitions modeled on the Trinh in the north. In 1765, Truong Phuc Loan aspired to be for the Nguyen Phuc what the Trinh were for the Le. However, unlike the Trinh, he lacked a strong regional base from which to dominate the rest of the country, and he was bereft of political acuity. His adventure as lord of the palace did not last long.

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