A Franco-Vietnamese government



The abandonment of Ming Giao Chi

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After 1424, Zhu Di’s successors abandoned the Giao Chi project because they deemed its cost to be greater than its benefit. Despite the accumulation of private fortunes by some Ming officials in Giao Chi, government there was a net loss for the state treasury. This problem may have abated if Zhu Di’s successors had been as committed as he was to completing the task of governing the Vietnamese. As soon as he was gone, however, Ming Giao Chi rapidly collapsed. One result of Ming rule is that for two decades Chinese was again the prestige language and most educated people learned to speak Chinese. This resulted in certain words and pronunciations of words that were particular to Ming entering the Vietnamese lexicon. For example, a seventeenth-century dictionary indicates that some words had both pre-Ming and Ming pronunciations. The dictionary  registered a preference for the pre-Ming pronunciations over the Ming pronunci- ations, which were not considered as authoritative as more venerable usages.  Another feature of the linguistic dimension of Ming rule was to hasten, if not provoke, a phonological trend to abandon sesquisyllabic words, which had an initial “half syllable,” in favor of true monosyllabic forms.

In 1416, Zhang Fu yielded military matters to Li Bin, a competent commander who had participated in the initial conquest in 1407. The security situation was basically stable, but the potential for rebellion, particularly among people in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, lay beneath a surface calm and it required constant vigilance. When uprisings broke into the open, Li Bin was able to suppress or to contain them with relative ease. Nevertheless, there were large numbers of people living in the shadow of the law, particularly in the foothills, who readily rallied  behind plausible rebel leaders, and there were local men serving in Ming govern- ment who could not always be trusted.

In 1419, a local officer in Nghe An, angry about the extortions of a Ming official, rebelled and besieged the provincial citadel. Li Bin led reinforcements that quickly raised the siege and dispersed the rebels across the Laotian frontier. Meanwhile, a group of six men in localities surrounding Dong Kinh, noting that the best soldiers had left with Li Bin for Nghe An and that only a small force remained in the city, united their followers to attack the capital. Li Bin returned and easily defeated them.

One of Li Bin’s officers, a man named Lo Van Luat from Thach That district just west of Dong Kinh, had disappeared into the mountains during the Nghe An campaign. He reappeared in 1420 leading a rebel army in Thach That. Li Bin quickly defeated him. He fled to Laos as Li Bin destroyed the villages of his followers and pursued them into the nearby mountains where they took refuge in caves. Li Bin built fires at the mouths of the caves and filled them with smoke, killing the people inside.

The most famous event of 1420 was the uprising of Le Nga, a former slave who was reportedly handsome and charismatic and who, seeing how aspiring rebel leaders were fighting among themselves in the mountains northeast of the Red River plain, rallied large numbers of their followers by saying: “If you want to be rich, follow me!” He proclaimed himself king in the mountains of Lang Son Province and marched down to seize Xuong Giang (modern Bac Giang). His former master recognized him and attacked him but was defeated. Li Bin then arrived and sent Le Nga and his followers fleeing into the mountains. News of Le Nga having captured a major town, however, had reached the imperial court and Zhu Di angrily demanded that he be captured and transported to the Ming capital. Unable to lay his hands on Le Nga, Li Bin seized an innocent man and sent him instead, claiming that he was Le Nga. This caused a stir among local people against this injustice, which required Huang Fu’s intervention.

During these years, a local strongman in the foothills of Thanh Hoa named Le Loi was a minor nuisance. He was from the region of Mount Lam, around twenty kilometers southwest of Tay Do, where Kinh and Trai peoples mingled. Born in 1385, he became the head of a prominent family that gained control of a parcel of land during the years of Tran dynastic decline. After the Ming conquest, he became a follower of Tran Quy Khoang. In 1413, after Tran Quy Khoang’s defeat, he swore allegiance to Ming. He then became involved in a feud with a neighboring strongman who denounced him as a rebel to the Ming. Attacked by the Ming, he fled into the mountains.

Early in 1418 he mobilized an army and openly challenged Ming authority. He successfully ambushed a Ming column on the upper Chu River but was then betrayed by a turncoat who showed Ming units a way to attack him by surprise from the rear. His followers scattered and he briefly went into hiding before collecting enough men to ambush a Ming patrol and force it to withdraw. In 1419, he seized an outpost near Mount Lam held by another local strongman, apparently the man with whom he was in feud, and he reportedly beheaded 300 men captured there. He then spent more than a year marching around in the uplands recruiting more men. In late 1420 he ambushed a Ming patrol. Li Bin responded by mobilizing Ming and local military forces against him, but Le Loi achieved a victory over them in the region of Quan Hoa district on the upper Ma River.

In late 1421, a large Ming army ascended the Ma River valley to attack Le Loi. A Laotian army approached down the valley from the opposite direction. Le Loi was under the illusion that the Laotians were his allies. However, Lo Van Luat, who had fled to Laos after being defeated by Li Bin the previous year, viewed Le Loi as a rival, and he persuaded the Laotians to join the Ming in attacking Le Loi. After a year of fighting, the Ming and Laotians gained the upper hand. By the end of 1422, Le Loi was utterly defeated and sued for peace. In 1423, he returned to Mount Lam, paid an indemnity with unspecified amounts of gold and silver, and promised the Ming that he would live in peace. In return, the Ming provided him with fish, salt, rice, and farm implements. This was the situation when news arrived in 1424 of the emperor’s death.

Within a month of taking the throne, Zhu Gaozhi (r. 1424–1425), Zhu Di’s son and successor, issued a proclamation indicating a dramatic change of policy in Giao Chi; calling for “reform,” he abolished the collection of commodities. In other initiatives, he moved to end Zheng He’s voyages, and he downgraded the role of the military. He wanted to consolidate the core of what had been achieved by his father and grandfather but had no taste for costly adventures. He recalled Huang Fu from Giao Chi and lowered the priority of holding that distant place. After only one year as emperor, Zhu Gaozhi died suddenly of a heart attack, but his son and successor, Zhu Zhanji (r. 1425–1435), continued his policies. Zhu Zhanji considered affairs in Giao Chi an unnecessary distraction from more serious threats on the northern frontier. In 1425, he expressed the opinion that it would be better to restore the Tran dynasty and return to the old tributary  relationship. When in 1426 Zhang Fu requested permission to reassume com- mand of Giao Chi to deal with the worsening situation there, the emperor  refused.

In 1426, Zhu Zhanji proclaimed a general amnesty and abolished all taxes in Giao Chi except for land taxes to be paid in rice, needed to supply Ming garrisons. The abandonment of commodity collections and taxes was the beginning of an administrative withdrawal from Giao Chi that represented a more realistic appraisal of the long-term interests of the Ming dynasty. Zhu Di’s exuberant expansionism exceeded what the Ming empire was capable of  sustaining given its governing structure. The relatively high degree of bureau- cratization and the pacifist tendencies of Confucian scholar-officials made the  Ming more like the lesser empire of Song than the greater empires of Han and Tang.

Considering the degree to which Ming government had been established in Giao Chi, the promises made to local people, the commitments made by local leaders, the interests that had become attached to the imperial project, and especially the fact that tens of thousands of Ming soldiers and officials were still stationed there, Zhu Di’s successors could not terminate imperial policy in Giao Chi simply with the strokes of a writing brush. The emperor had severely  diminished the priority of holding Giao Chi, but he had no plan for implement- ing the logical conclusion of having done so. Instead, the shift in Ming policy  offered an opportunity for Ming enemies in Giao Chi, and it was they who drove events to a final conclusion. Ming officers went on the defensive amidst a lack of imperial interest in their plight and minimal pro forma responses by officials in neighboring jurisdictions.

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