The war of the 1070s was closely related to the Song reform policies of Wang Anshi (1021–1086), who became powerful in 1069 with the patronage of Emperor Shenzong (r. 1067–1085). At this time, Song government was rent with conflict between reformers led by Wang Anshi and those who opposed reform, generally called traditionalists. Wang Anshi initiated a broad range of fiscal, military, and administrative reforms intended to increase state revenue, adminis- trative efficiency, and military preparedness while improving the economic pos- ition of peasants and curbing the power of wealthy families. The emperor’s support enabled him to attempt to implement his reforms, but many powerful traditionalists, supported by the empress dowager, mother of the emperor, opposed him. The result was an era of fierce bureaucratic factionalism.
As for the traditional appeasement control policy toward Thang Long, Wang Anshi considered it cravenly unprincipled and encouraged activist officials to take a more “positive” attitude toward the border situation. He and his bureaucratic allies had developed a pattern of successfully dealing with irritating frontier situations on the Tibetan border in modern Gansu Province and against upland chieftains in Hunan and Sichuan Provinces. In each case, local military forces were used to build up pressure on the frontier until the enemy forces began to break up into groups that could be individually worn down and suppressed. When, in 1070, the emperor received a complaint lodged against an official on the Viet border for engaging in provocative activities, Wang Anshi denounced the complaint and decided to apply his experience of “nibbling operations” against tribal leaders to the far south, imagining that Thang Long could be subdued in the same way.
Xiao Zhu, the aggressive official who had been dismissed several years before, was reinstated and tasked with implementing the activist policy on the southern border. However, he had meanwhile shifted his view and had no heart for the enterprise. He reported that the Ly army was very strong, and he was accused of going so far as to destroy documents on military plans. In 1073, he was dismissed and a man named Shen Qi was sent to replace him. Shen Qi was enthusiastic. He reported that Thang Long was “small and ugly” and could be “squashed like a bug.” But Wang Anshi lost confidence in him because his excessive confidence led to carelessness, so he was replaced in 1074 with yet another official, Liu Yi, who rapidly reorganized preparations for war on a sound basis.
Part of the problem with local leadership in these years was that policy on the Viet border had become enmeshed in the factional conflict between Wang Anshi and his bureaucratic enemies. The emperor continued to receive complaints about the aggressive activities of officials on the Viet border even as Wang Anshi was endeavoring to initiate such activities. Opposition to Wang Anshi reached a cre- scendo of intensity in 1074 as his enemies, with the support of the empress dowager, mobilized against two of his reforms, the so-called Agricultural Loans Act and the Public Service Act. He was forced to retire from office for several months until, with the emperor’s support, he returned to power in early 1075, at which time the situation on the southern frontier was sliding toward open war.
Despite the ostensible incompetence of Song border officials, much had changed in the early 1070s. Song officers aggressively expanded their system of supervision over upland chieftains, competing with the Ly for their loyalty with considerable success. Local troops and tribal levies were recruited and trained. Weapons were distributed. Supplies were stockpiled. War boats were built. Élite land and naval units were assembled. The trigger for initiating hostilities was an effort to cut the trade routes between Nan Zhao in Yunnan and Thang Long. This occurred in spring of 1075. Meanwhile, at Thang Long, the adjustment to a child king had not been without drama.
For one year following the accession of 6-year-old Ly Can Duc in early 1072, government was in the hands of Ly Dao Thanh, a member of the royal family who had presided over Ly Nhat Ton’s court, and the senior queen, subsequently known as the Duong queen mother, who served as the regent and official adoptive mother of the king, for Ly Can Duc’s birth mother, Lady Y Lan, was a commoner and ineligible to hold the rank of queen. During that time, the court busily attended to routine matters as if making a studied effort to project an appearance of normalcy: the king made sacrifices at shrines, visited various palaces, celebrated his birthday festival, attended a “Buddha-bathing festival,” granted an amnesty to prisoners, presided over an examination of monks to test their literary skills for appointment as scribes at court, chose two queens, and conferred promotions upon Commander-in-Chief Ly Thuong Kiet and his senior officers.
When the monsoon rains continued well into autumn, the Dharma Cloud Buddha was paraded to the capital from its temple in the native district of Lady Y Lan. It was taken to a temple in the royal compound where the king prayed for the rain to stop, and the rain immediately stopped. This demonstration of supernatural power by a deity from Lady Y Lan’s natal village came shortly before a palace coup in which Lady Y Lan seized control of the court and was named queen mother and regent. The Duong queen mother and seventy-two other palace women were interred in Ly Nhat Ton’s tomb, whether dead or alive is unclear, and Ly Dao Thanh was exiled to the southern border in modern Nghe An Province. According to the court chronicle, Lady Y Lan was unhappy at “not being able to participate in government” and complained to her son that the Duong queen mother was “working hard to accumulate power, riches, and honor”; the king, “although a child,” knew who his real mother was and accordingly ordered the retirement of the Duong queen mother and the elevation of Lady Y Lan. Histor- ians have tended to assume that this coup was accomplished with the assistance of Ly Thuong Kiet, the general who had captured the Cham king in 1069 and was commander of all military forces, which is plausible because he was presumably the only person in a position to accomplish it, although evidence of this has not been preserved. Assuming that this, nevertheless, was the case, it is not hard to imagine, in the light of later events, that Ly Thuong Kiet championed Lady Y Lan’s resentment as a way of bringing into the court new leaders who understood the urgency of the situation developing on the northern border. During Ly Can Duc’s first year as king, activities recorded at court show no indication of addressing what an alert military commander would have under- stood as a serious threat.
In Nghe An, beside the provincial shrine for local deities, Ly Dao Thanh built a garden for the bodhisattva Ksitagarbha and erected in it a Buddha statue and an ancestral tablet for Ly Nhat Ton where he worshipped “at dawn and at dusk.” Ksitagarbha is the bodhisattva believed to be responsible for instructing the unfortunate souls who live in the age of darkness, from the historical Buddha’s death until the arrival of Maitreya, “the Buddha of the future.” Ly Dao Thanh viewed himself as living in the benighted age from Ly Nhat Ton’s death to Ly Can Duc’s maturity. He wanted to instruct his contemporaries about how to survive this dangerous time and took comfort from the bodhisattva for his task. He may have been too preoccupied with Ly Can Duc’s minority accession to take adequate note of events on the northern border. On the other hand, Ly Thuong Kiet may have been too preoccupied with military affairs on the border to appreciate Ly Dao Thanh’s leadership at court. But the urgency of events required that these two men work together.
In 1074, Ly Dao Thanh was called back to resume his duties at court. He lost no time in seeking new talent to serve at court. Although the wisdom of the old generation was acknowledged, with officials over 80 years of age being issued staffs and chairs for leaning and sitting at court, provision was also made for raising a new generation of young men to positions of importance. Early in 1075, three levels of examinations were held to select men educated in Confucian studies; what exactly this meant in that time and place is not known, but presumably it included the “five books” of the traditional Confucian education in history, poetry, ritual, prognostication, and annals. This is the first recorded instance of the Vietnamese royal court holding an exam to identify talent among commoners educated specifically in Confucianism. The highest honors were conferred upon Le Van Thinh, who was immediately assigned to be Ly Can Duc’s teacher. Later that year, in time of drought, the Dharma Cloud Buddha was again paraded to Thang Long, this time to hear the king’s prayer for rain, a prayer that was reportedly efficacious. This is the last felicitous event recorded before Thang Long passed into the shadows of war.
In late spring and early summer of 1075, fighting erupted in Cao Bang between Viet soldiers and a chieftain who had submitted to Song and cut the route by which Thang Long had been receiving horses in trade with the Nan Zhao kingdom of Yunnan. Warfare continued through the year and spread as Liu Yi’s military preparations along the border became impossible for Thang Long to ignore. Ly Thuong Kiet decided to take the initiative with a pre-emptive strike to ravage Song border jurisdictions and destroy accumulated supplies. Late in 1075, as terrain was drying out from the monsoon rains and large-scale military campaigns became practicable, Song border officers reported indications of a major attack, and within a week a combined land and sea force of between eighty and one hundred thousand Viets crossed the border.
Ly Thuong Kiet led naval forces and within three days easily captured the main Song ports facing the Viet coast, at modern Qinzhou and Hepu. He disembarked his soldiers and, joined by an army marching down the Zuo River from Cao Bang and Lang Son, lay siege to Nanning, the Song headquarters facing the Vietnamese border. Caught by surprise and fearing a naval attack on Guang- zhou, Song officials in the region were ordered to avoid battle and wait for reinforcements. After a siege of forty-two days, Nanning fell, much to the astonishment of Wang Anshi who had confidently predicted that the city was too strong to be taken. After destroying Nanning and killing tens of thousands of people, the Viets withdrew back across the border, taking with them much plunder and many captives. In a campaign of less than three months, Ly Thuong Kiet set back Song war preparations and stung Wang Anshi into an angry haste.
Wherever Ly Thuong Kiet’s soldiers had gone on Song territory they set up signs at crossroads proclaiming three reasons for the attack. The first two reasons were closely related to the actual situation along the border. First, Ly Thuong Kiet accused Song of harboring rebels against Thang Long and refusing to surrender them. This referred to the immediate cause of the fighting when Nung chieftains who had been Ly vassals shifted their allegiance to Song. Just prior to the outbreak of fighting in early 1075, Thang Long had requested the return of an upland chieftain who had gone over to Song with seven hundred of his followers; Song refused, saying that these people had submitted to Song and consequently belonged to Song. This was different from prior policy during the decades of Song pacifism when Song strictly refused to meddle with Thang Long’s vassals and even returned those who sought refuge with Song. Second, Ly Thuong Kiet accused Song of training and organizing soldiers on the border for the purpose of attacking Thang Long. This, of course, was true, and later Chinese historians considered the war preparations of Liu Yi and his predecessor as provocative.
The third reason is remarkable for the knowledge it reveals of Song politics. It is seemingly a riposte to a Song edict, reportedly composed personally by Wang Anshi and published early in the campaign, which denounced the invasion and declared Song’s intention of attacking the Viet kingdom, among other reasons, to rescue the people from Thang Long’s harsh exactions. Ly Thuong Kiet, for his part, claimed that he had come to rescue the people suffering from Wang Anshi’s Agricultural Loan and Public Service Acts, the controversial reforms that had provoked such resistance in the Song government as to force Wang Anshi into temporary retirement in 1074–1075. Ly Thuong Kiet was inserting his campaign into Song bureaucratic factionalism by claiming to be an ally of Wang Anshi’s political enemies. This was said to have especially nettled Wang Anshi and to have hardened his eagerness to strike back.
One of the successes of Ly Thuong Kiet’s pre-emptive strike was to provoke a Song response so motivated by a desire for revenge that it was poorly prepared. Ly Thuong Kiet had also taken many captives that would be used as leverage in future negotiations. Furthermore, many upland chieftains who had gone over to Song now returned their allegiance to Thang Long. But his most important achievement was the destruction of the Song navy that had been assembled at Qinzhou and Hepu. This had decisive repercussions for future battles. The surprise of Ly Thuong Kiet’s attack, as perceived by Song, was achieved by his sailing directly from the Cham frontier to attack the Song coastal ports. Ly Thuong Kiet spent several months prior to his Song attack in the far south skirmishing with Cham border forces, mapping terrain, and settling military colonists. Song diplomacy was exciting Cham kings with visions of revenge for Thang Long having twice plundered Vijaya during the previous thirty years. Cham–Viet hostilities were nearly constant during this time. Wang Anshi’s enemies at the Song court made sure that the decision to launch a full-scale invasion of the Viet kingdom was not made without extensive discussion and spirited dissent. Fu Bi, a traditionalist who opposed Wang Anshi’s reforms, argued that the Viet lands were remote and difficult to conquer. Zhang Fangbing, another traditionalist, submitted a nine-point argument against the projected expedition, saying that Viet military strength was greater than in the past, having successfully attacked and inflicted great damage upon Song border jurisdictions; that cavalry was of no use in the Viet lowlands, which were screened by rugged mountains and wide rivers; that if success could not be obtained in one winter’s campaign the army would have to be withdrawn when the summer rains began; and that the Viet kingdom had been an important frontier jurisdiction of the old Tang Empire but had now become a major regional power that could not be knocked out in one blow. A naval expert, Su Ziyuan, cautioned that the Viets had a powerful navy and were “skilled in water battle”; he pointed out that it would be impossible to take Thang Long without naval control of the Red River, which would be no easy task. Wu Chong, another enemy of Wang Anshi, although unsuccessful in arguing against the expedition, obtained the emperor’s approval of his recommendation to appoint Guo Kuei as senior commander of the army. Wang Anshi’s candidate, Zhao Xie, was named second-in-command. As can be expected, Guo Kuei and Zhao Xie did not get along. While Guo Kuei was slow and methodical, Zhao Xie was alert to tactical opportunities. Furthermore, despite being recommended by Wang Anshi, Zhao Xie did not want this assignment and repeatedly requested to be excused, unconvinced that the expedition was well advised.