Collapse of the Ly dynasty




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The thirteen chapters of this book are organized on the basis of length and convenience and do not represent any scheme of periodization with which to conceptualize Vietnamese history. In terms of large themes, I am inclined to organize this material into four periods: first, the centuries during which what is now northern Vietnam was a province of Chinese empires (Chapter 1); second,  the four centuries of the Ly and Tran dynasties during which Buddhist aristocra- cies in the Red River plain ruled (Chapters 2 and 3); third, the four centuries  attributed to the Le dynasty during which kings came from Thanh Hoa Province, Confucianism was the ideology of rulers, the Vietnamese expanded into the south, and there were long eras of separate realms at war  ; finally, the two most recent centuries during which the modern country of Vietnam came into being

During the millennium when what is now northern Vietnam was a frontier province of Chinese imperial dynasties, the people living there were acculturated to what we call East Asian civilization. In art, music, architecture, dress, cuisine, education, language, literature, religion, philosophy, social organization, and political behavior, nearly all the distinguishing features of Vietnamese culture were acquired at this time as a consequence of contact with the Han-Tang civilization of China.

A thousand years is a relatively long time in human history and it is hard to  overemphasize the changes that occurred during this age of belonging to north- ern empires. The people who lived in the Red River plain before this time and  those who lived there after this time would surely be unrecognizable and unin- telligible to each other. Important changes can be attributed to any people during  such a period of time, but the effect of being governed by a succession of imperial dynasties surely accelerated the pace of change in particular directions that reflected the course of imperial history. During these centuries, local culture, society, and political organization passed through many vicissitudes, some of them utterly transforming. Crafts, erudition, and political thought were mostly focused upon mastering the elements of imperial civilization. At the same time, from generation to generation and from dynasty to dynasty, a population of “northerners” accumulated and became a critical mass of people that were the governing class and its most reliable followers. Furthermore, there were a great variety of interactions, overlaps, and adaptions between local and imperial societies. It is not surprising that, intellectually, Vietnamese history later came to be written as a discussion, even an argument, with imperial Chinese history, for Vietnamese history can be understood only in reference to Chinese dynastic history. Accordingly, the earliest large event in Vietnamese history has to do with the arrival of northern imperial power near the end of the third century bce and the eventual absorption of the region into the realm of northern dynasties. This situation was not altered until the tenth century after basic changes in imperial society and politics made it impossible for Chinese dynasties to continue to rule this region, thereby bringing the provincial relationship with northern powers to an end.

During the period from the late tenth to the early thirteenth centuries, political leadership shifted from the individual charisma of kings to leadership by men related to the mothers of kings. The Ly royal family came from the upper plains northeast of Hanoi.

Two brief wars with the Northern Song dynasty confirmed a relationship of formal vassalage with autonomy. The culture at royal courts combined popular spirit cults with the moral teachings of Buddhist monks, the occult skills of Daoist priests, and the erudition of Confucian scholars. The dynastic scheme of authority that was established at this time unraveled in synchrony with the decline of imperial power in the north. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Tran dynasty, based on the coast downriver from Hanoi, endeavored to eliminate the power of maternal families by ensuring that queen mothers were always from the royal family itself. In place of individual charisma, a group charisma was nurtured among the many talented princes of the royal family, who gained fame by leading soldiers against Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, as the royal family lost interest in governing the country, kings nurtured a new class of educated commoners to provide talent for their courts. In the late fourteenth century, the dynasty failed to respond to new military, political, and ideological pressures from the rising Ming dynasty in the north and an echoing resurgence of Cham power in the south. The prevailing syncretistic attitude toward the “three religions” of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism faded amidst dynastic collapse as the ascendant Ming dynasty trumpeted a new affirmation of Confucianism in China.

Beginning in the late fourteenth century, there were four successive experi- ments in government that responded to the rise of a new power base in Thanh  Hoa Province, located immediately south of the Red River basin in the plains of the Ma and Chu Rivers. This opened a new age in Vietnamese history that would for the next four centuries be marked by regional conflict as Vietnamese migrated into the southern coastlands and began to challenge the ascendant position of the Red River plain. At the turn of the fifteenth century, a leader from Thanh Hoa assembled an entourage to pursue a series of experiments in educational, fiscal, agrarian, social, and political reform. Resistance to him in the Red River plain assisted the Ming conquest in the first decade of the fifteenth century. The Ming then experimented for two decades with efforts to turn the region into an  imperial province. They built schools and propagated a curriculum that pro- moted Confucian forms of social and political organization. Although the Ming  assembled a large local following drawn from erudite families in the Red River plain, resistance to them formed in Thanh Hoa. When the Ming eventually abandoned their policy in Vietnam, a coalition of Thanh Hoa clans proclaimed a new dynasty.

There was an era of relative peace, prosperity, and power in the late fifteenth century during the reign of a king who combined personal charisma with a court aspiring toward the forms of bureaucracy practiced in Ming China. During his rule, Confucian values were propagated as never before; new laws governing  education, administration, land tenure, taxation, conscription, and public mor- ality were promulgated; the writing of vernacular as well as classical poetry  flourished; soldiers were sent to conquer lands along the southern coast and over the mountains as far as the Mekong River. However, in the early sixteenth century, royal authority collapsed and was superseded by a struggle for power between leaders from Thanh Hoa and a new dynasty in the Red River plain that  survived for seven decades before being pushed aside by armies from the south- ern provinces.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a new Vietnamese perspective emerged on the southern frontier. This perspective was produced by close contact with other peoples such as Chams, Khmers, Malays, Siamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans and by a sense of options and possibilities that drew Vietnamese  speakers away from the relative sense of discipline and confinement that pre- vailed in the provinces around Hanoi. Northerners and southerners tested each  other on battlefields for fifty years in the seventeenth century; an uneasy truce then lasted for a hundred years before another era of warfare erupted in the late eighteenth century. By the mid eighteenth century, the southern kingdom had  pushed its southwestern border to the extent of the current Khmer–Viet bound- ary. European merchants and missionaries arrived during this time and found  two rival Vietnamese kingdoms that they called Tonkin and Cochinchina. The military and political deadlock was eventually broken at the beginning of the nineteenth century when a new dynasty established its capital at Hue, in central Vietnam, uniting for the first time all Vietnamese speakers in the territories that now make up the country of Vietnam.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Vietnamese encountered the global forces that drove the emergence of what is commonly called the modern world, giving rise to various visions of social and political organization. In the early nineteenth century, the dynastic regime looked to China for culture and ideas about government. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a  French colonial regime subordinated Vietnamese life and thought to a European- based imperial system that for the first time cut the Vietnamese off from their  historic relationship with China. When the French era came to an end in the mid twentieth century, northern and southern governments fought for twenty years over competing visions of a future Vietnam. The government in the north was  allied with the communist world, being communal and disciplined. The govern- ment in the south was allied with the capitalist world, being relatively more  individualistic and free. The northern regime conquered the south and then was at war with its neighbors and in relative international isolation for another fifteen years. At the end of the twentieth century, with the end of the Cold War confrontation, the Vietnamese state began a process of integration into the global system of economic and political relationships that presently exists. One of the most enduring features of Vietnamese history is that the rulers of China and Vietnam have maintained a common worldview amidst all the experiments undertaken through the centuries.

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