Formation of French Cochinchina



Politics and government in the south

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Nguyen Phuc Chu was concerned with much more than the Mekong frontier. In 1697 and again in 1714 he fought brief wars with upland chieftains who threatened to cut the Cam Lo Road west from Quang Tri to the Mekong, a  route not only important commercially but also militarily because of its proxim- ity to the northern border. In 1700, he inspected the northern wall complex and embarked on a two-year project to repair and renovate it. A year later he ordered a map to be made of the entire country. Ten years later, the northern walls were repaired once again and a survey was conducted of roads and beaches in the border region. In 1713, another inspection of the walls on the northern border was made. Despite the seeming peace with the north, Nguyen Phuc Chu was taking nothing for granted. In 1715 he sent two Fujianese merchants into the north as spies to evaluate Trinh military preparedness. Military affairs took precedence over all other public concerns. Nguyen Phuc Chu scheduled mobilizations of conscripts for military service on a five-year cycle. In 1707, he issued a detailed edict with twenty-two articles on military  conscription. In 1708 there were thirteen assembly points for organizing con- scripts, five in Thuan Hoa, two in Quang Nam, and one each in Quang Ngai,  Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, Khanh Hoa, Thuan Thanh, and Gia Dinh. Nguyen Phuc Chu halted the 1713 call-up when he learned that his officials were unlawfully harassing people and acquiring personal fortunes by selling exemptions. In  addition to paying close attention to the system for acquiring soldiers, he empha- sized military training. In 1696, he began an annual event for his officials to  practice shooting muskets. In 1701, he inspected a center for training soldiers in how to shoot guns. In 1700 he opened a school for performing horses and two  years later held an examination of his generals in horsemanship. He also insti- tuted a new program for training elephants for battle. In 1703 a new kind of  crossbow was introduced and it became all the rage to acquire one and to learn how to shoot it. Elaborate naval and land exercises were regularly held to simulate battlefield conditions and to sharpen military skills. Nguyen Phuc Chu also gave close attention to education and to the system of examinations for filling public positions. Literary examinations were regularly held on a six-year schedule. There were five categories of achievement and appointments were accordingly made to provincial or district offices, to oversee education, or to work in one of the three “offices” of the central government (ty). One of the categories that produced officials for the three “offices” was facility in the Chinese spoken language, which reveals the importance of the Chinese communities in the country. The basic curriculum of literary examinations in the south was well established by the end of the seventeenth century and continued through the eighteenth century. Unlike the curriculum in the north, which was more academic and emphasized skill in traditional poetic forms, the southern curriculum included practical skills and new literary forms. The first level of achievement was to demonstrate skill in a distich rhythmic prose of alternating four- and six-syllable lines (tu-luc), a distinctive feature of southern exams. The second level was to write compositions in the phu rhyming prose that had been part of the Vietnamese curriculum since Tran times. The third level was the standard com- position about the meaning of classical texts. The fourth level changed through  the years from tests in mathematics for calculating taxes and market duties, to questions about case law for judging litigation in the late seventeenth century, to dissertations on public policy by the mid eighteenth century. Students who  successfully completed the fourth level were qualified for appointments in gov- ernment offices.  A new departure commonly thought to have appeared in Vietnamese literature during the eighteenth century is an appreciation of women and of their point of view, which was usually a complaint against Heaven for the hard life that women had to lead. The earliest example of this kind of literature comes from Nguyen Phuc Chu’s wife, Nguyen Kinh Phi (d. 1714), who wrote four poems lamenting the transience of her fading beauty and blaming Heaven for “robbing” her of her youth. After her death, Nguyen Phuc Chu wrote four poems in response, lamenting her death and accusing Heaven of “hating” his wife. In the poems of both poets, readers are admonished not to “laugh” at such sentiments, for they express feelings that all people experience. The mention of laughter reveals that  this kind of poetry exceeded existing conventions and was intentionally provoca- tive. By the end of the century, the theme of a woman’s “complaint” against  Heaven would not only be acceptable in literature but it would also be used by men to voice their feelings at a time when a man’s voice was not considered appropriate to express complaints without suggesting an inclination to rebel against political authority. Nguyen Phuc Chu aspired to have his realm recognized by the Qing, thus gaining imperial acknowledgment that he no longer owed allegiance to the Le dynasty. In 1702, he sent a letter to the Qing court requesting appointment as a vassal separate from the Le. The Qing rejected the request, replying that the Le dynasty yet reigned and thus remained the Qing vassal for that part of the world.  A separate Vietnamese kingdom could not penetrate the Qing system of vassal- age. Nguyen Phuc Chu nevertheless expressed his aspirations with a new seal in  1709 inscribed: “The Nguyen Lord Eternally Guarding the Kingdom of Great Viet.” The economic development of the Mekong during the first decade of the eighteenth century led to an expansion of coastal shipping. The transport of rice from the Mekong to the northern provinces, particularly Thuan Hoa with its large military population on guard at the northern border, was a critical concern of the Phu Xuan government. It had been subject to a system of conscripting boat owners and requiring them to transport rice twice a year in exchange for tax exemptions and allowances for expenses. However, as the coastal economy grew, boat owners balked at this arrangement because opportunities for private business were so much more lucrative than government service. Consequently, a major shift in government policy was initiated in 1714 under the leadership of an official named Nguyen Khoa Chiem, by which the government abandoned the system of commandeering transport and instead simply joined the market by purchasing rice with cash at prevailing rates while establishing a new tax scheme on private shipping. This monetizing of the rice economy began to affect the supply of money, which was already shrinking due to the decreasing availability of coins from China and Japan, and within a few decades became a factor contributing to serious fiscal problems. Nguyen Phuc Chu died in 1725 and was succeeded by his 30-year-old eldest son, Nguyen Phuc Tru. During his thirteen years of rule, Nguyen Phuc Tru did not show as much personal engagement with government as did his father, but rather relied upon the senior members of his entourage to handle affairs. Three families that were particularly prominent at this time were the Nguyen Cuu, the Nguyen Khoa, and the Truong Phuc. Nguyen Cuu Kieu, the man who had fled to the south in 1623 with a letter from Trinh Trang’s wife to her brother Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, was the founder of the Nguyen Cuu family. Nguyen Cuu Van, who had led the 1705 expedition to Cambodia and served for many years thereafter as the governor of Gia Dinh, was a grandson of Nguyen Cuu Kieu. He was prominent in opening up land to Vietnamese settlement west of My Tho, between the Mekong and West Vam Co Rivers. In 1715, Nguyen Cuu Chiem, a son of Nguyen Cuu Van, became governor of Gia Dinh and inherited lands that his father had possessed along the East Vam Co River, northwest of Saigon in the region of modern Tay Ninh, which, during the next two decades, he opened up to Vietnamese settlement. He was still the governor at Gia Dinh in the 1730s when another round of fighting led to the annexation of more territory. The Nguyen Khoa family traced its ancestry to a man who had come south with Nguyen Hoang in 1558. In the early eighteenth century, the most prominent person of this family was Nguyen Khoa Chiem, who made his mark both in administration and in literature. He was the official who had monetized the system of coastal rice transport in 1714. He also wrote a book that he entitled Stories about the Achievements of the Southern Court (Nam Trieu Cong Nghiep Dien Chi), a book now commonly referred to as Stories about the Founding of the Country of Viet Nam (Viet Nam Khai Quoc Chi Truyen), which is an anecdotal history of the south from the time of Nguyen Hoang through the time of Nguyen Phuc Tan (mid sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century). Nguyen Khoa Chiem’s second son, Nguyen Khoa Dang, became a prominent official at Phu Xuan in the 1720s. Nguyen Khoa Dang was famous for being utterly honest and very strict in the performance of his official duties. He was an excellent judge and many stories were told of how he decided difficult cases. He was greatly trusted by Nguyen Phuc Chu, who appointed him to many difficult assignments, including supervision of the treasury and of the “meat ration” for members of the Nguyen Phuc family and of other prominent families at court. Perhaps his enthusiasm for doing the right thing was too exuberant for Phu Xuan. He earned the enmity of powerful families at court by persuading Nguyen Phuc Chu to require that they pay back all the money they had “borrowed” from the treasury. Shortly after the death of Nguyen Phuc Chu in 1725, a cousin of Nguyen Cuu Van accused Nguyen Khoa Dang of treason and he was put to death, only 35 years old, unprotected by Nguyen Phuc Tru. Another family that, like the Nguyen Cuu family, was prominent both at the Phu Xuan court and in Gia Dinh, was descended from Truong Phuc Phan, who had gained fame during the Trinh invasion of 1648 by calmly directing the defense of the last wall amidst desperate fighting. One of his grandsons had been governor at Gia Dinh during the episode of eliminating the English base on Con Dao Island. In 1731, Nguyen Phuc Tru appointed another member of this family, Truong Phuc Vinh, to be “controller” in overall command of the Mekong River plain. This was a new position. It was made amidst a new crisis in the far south and a perception that government authority there had become too decentralized with Nguyen Cuu Chiem at Gia Dinh, Mo Jiu at Ha Tien, and Chen Dading, son of Chen Shangchuan, at My Tho. Truong Phuc Vinh was eager to rebuild the fortunes of his family on this frontier. The situation that he faced in 1731 arose from events within the Laotian community in Cambodia, which had supported Ang Im against the Siamese in 1714 and continued to support Ang Im’s son, Ang Chi, who was then reigning as king. The Laotian community was centered along the Mekong River north of Phnom Penh, west of modern Tay Ninh Province where Nguyen Cuu Chiem’s private lands were. In 1731, a leader of this community, seemingly without the approval of Ang Chi, mobilized his followers, along with many Khmers, and began to attack down the East Vam Co River toward Gia Dinh. Nguyen Cuu Chiem successfully fended them off, but, after news of this arrived at Phu Xuan, Truong Phuc Vinh was sent to take command of the situation. By the time he had arrived, the Lao–Khmer forces had shifted to attack toward My Tho along the West Vam Co River. Truong Phuc Vinh sent Nguyen Cuu Chiem and Chen Dading to repulse them. Ang Chi, fearing reprisals, sent a letter of submission to Truong Phuc Vinh and ceded the My Tho and Vinh Long regions to Phu Xuan. Truong Phuc Vinh thereafter occupied himself with conscripting labor to open lacquer plantations in Gia Dinh. However, in the following year, the Laotians mobilized more attacks in the Vinh Long and My Tho areas. Truong Phuc Vinh accused Ang Chi of supporting the Laotians and prepared to attack up the Mekong River. Finding himself in an impossible situation and learning of Truong Phuc Vinh’s desire for wealth, Ang Chi sent a large sum of money to Truong Phuc Vinh as a bribe to stop any military action against him. Truong Phuc Vinh accepted the bribe. He then hoped to remove Chen Dading’s authority in My Tho and Vinh Long by ordering him to attack while withdrawing his own forces back to Gia Dinh, meanwhile reporting to Phu Xuan that Chen Dading had refused his order to advance. Chen Dading’s advance up the Mekong gave Ang Chi an opportunity to mobilize his Khmer followers and wipe out the Laotian “rebels.” But when he learned of Truong Phuc Vinh’s treachery, Chen Dading went immediately to Phu Xuan to plead his case. However, the influence of the Truong Phuc family was so strong that he was summarily imprisoned. He died before Nguyen Cuu Chiem was able to inform Nguyen Phuc Tru of Chen Dading’s innocence. Nguyen Cuu Chiem was rewarded for uncovering the affair with land in Vinh Long, and Truong Phuc Vinh was dismissed.  The formal annexation of the My Tho and Vinh Long territories was accom- plished under somewhat odd circumstances. Ang Chi considered himself allied  with Phu Xuan against his rival, Srei Thoamareachea II, who was allied with Siam. He was also allied with the Laotian community in Cambodia against Siam. However, the Laotians proved to be a wild card and, for reasons unknown but that may simply have been a lust for plunder, a certain Lao leader, called Sa Tot in Vietnamese records, initiated a war with the Vietnamese. Under duress from all sides, Ang Chi used what capital he had available in territorial claims and treasure to forestall Vietnamese invasions until finding a chance to eliminate the Laotians. Vietnamese authority had already extended into many areas of the My Tho and Vinh Long regions. The events of 1731 and 1732 resulted in making official the penetration of Vietnamese settlement into the Mekong’s northerly downriver territories.  Aside from these acquisitions on the Gia Dinh frontier, indications of adminis- trative energy during Nguyen Phuc Tru’s years appear to have been aimed at  seeking an appearance of uniformity. For example, in 1733 he ordered that  clocks be put in all administrative centers and coastal watch stations to coordin- ate the timing of government activities and related events. The edict proclaiming  this innovation included a detailed description of the clocks that were to be used, their manufacture, and their various functions. Other innovations came early in Nguyen Phuc Tru’s rule. In 1726, he issued  two edicts to instruct the people how to live proper, civilized lives. He empha- sized the merit of his family in founding the country and the gratitude for this  that should encourage an industrious and productive spirit among the people. Gambling, corrupt litigation, and efforts to avoid census takers and military conscription were specifically forbidden. This appears to have been an exhort- ation for human behaviour to be as correct, morally, as clocks could be in telling  time. Also in 1726, a new system of administration was set up for jurisdictions along the western upland frontier from the northern border all the way down to the Mekong plain. It appears to have created an administrative border zone  between lowland Viets and uplanders and to have defined more clearly a bound- ary between the two populations.

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