Another cycle of Trinh misgovernment



The Beginning Of Inter-Regional Warfare

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Return of adolescent kings and great lords

Le Tranh had six sons. The eldest, although reported to have been intelligent and well educated, was so obstinate that while still small he poisoned his mother because she opposed his will. But what most disqualified him to be king was that he liked to wear women’s clothing. The second and third sons were born only seventy-five days apart in 1488. In 1499, Le Tranh had designated the third son, Le Thuan, as crown prince. He reportedly passed over the second son, Le Tuan, because he was “immature, without moral goodness, incompetent, and unworthy.” While the younger three sons and members of their entourages appear to have played roles in later intrigues, no further specific information about them has been recorded. Le Thuan’s mother, a royal concubine, had died when he was small. His paternal grandmother, the Truong Lac queen mother, was his adoptive mother.

Objections to Le Tuan being named crown prince were about more than his personal qualities. His mother had begun as a poor peasant across the river from Dong Kinh. Destitute, she had sold herself into slavery. When her owner was arrested for some unrecorded offense, she was confiscated and became the property of an official who brought her into royal service where she became a servant of Le Tranh’s mother. Le Tranh took her as a concubine. She died shortly after giving birth to Le Tuan. Another royal concubine named Nguyen Kinh raised the motherless boy and attached her aspirations to the prospect of him becoming king. Nguyen Kinh and members of Le Tuan’s mother’s family were disappointed when he was not named crown prince. However, this did not put an end to their hopes.

When Le Tranh died, despite his having designated Le Thuan as his successor, there was a struggle for the throne among “all the princes.” Le Tuan appears to have been the most determined of the claimants, but the actions of two officials thwarted him. Dam Van Le, an examination graduate of 1469, was Minister of

Rites and had possession of the royal seal. Nguyen Quang Bat, an examination graduate of 1484, was the head of the Censorate. They considered it their duty to ensure the accession of the designated crown prince. Dam Van Le hid the royal seal in his home and the two officials, with the support of the queen mother, called on the nobles and high officials of the court to proclaim Le Thuan king, which they did. Le Thuan died after less than seven months as king. No cause of death has been recorded. Le Tuan and his supporters moved with alacrity to take the throne. The main obstacle to Le Tuan’s elevation was opposition from the Truong Lac queen mother, his paternal grandmother. She was the daughter of Nguyen Duc Trung, a prominent Thanh Hoa lord who had helped Le Xi raise Le Tu Thanh to the throne in 1460. She did not want her former servant, a peasant waif and confiscated slave, to be the mother of a king, even posthumously, because it would open the palace gates to her low-class relatives, a rabble of peasants and slaves. Furthermore, she was endeavoring to bring another prince to the throne. Historians have been unable to ascertain the identity of this prince, but it appears that he was not one of Le Tranh’s sons. Her plans were in vain, however, for a eunuch in Nguyen Kinh’s clique named Nguyen Nhu Vi moved quickly upon Le Thuan’s death to seal off the palace and isolate the Truong Lac queen mother from potential allies. It is recorded that large sums of gold passed from Le Tuan’s surrogate mother Nguyen Kinh into the hands of certain great lords. Three months after becoming king, Le Tuan had the Truong Lac queen mother killed. Several weeks after that, he obtained the deaths of Dam Van Le and Nguyen Quang Bat, the two officials who had prevented his accession after the death of his father. These two men, who stood in the first rank of officialdom, had such a reputation for rectitude that their murders provoked a widespread outcry of dismay. Le Tuan was consequently moved to cast all the blame for their deaths upon Nguyen Nhu Vi and to have him killed. The murder of a queen mother by a new king was not unprecedented, but the appearance of Dam Van Le and Nguyen Quang Bat in the middle of a succession dispute is an indication that Le Tu Thanh’s new structure of government offered the possibility of  scholar-officials participating in royal politics to an unprecedented degree. How- ever prophetic for the future it may be thought to have been, their case was  nevertheless an episode enabled by the residue of Le Tu Thanh’s reign and not part of a trend for the future. In 1505, Le Tuan was 17 years old. Gathered around him were relatives of his deceased mother, men of low origins with little respect for the royal family. In 1506 he brought into the palace the family of two sisters with whom he became infatuated, making the eldest his queen. The family of these sisters claimed descent from the mother of a Tran king and came from a village near the capital named Nhan Muc, by which name the family came to be known. There was also the family of the king’s adoptive mother, Nguyen Kinh, which came from Thuy Nguyen district in the east of the Red River plain, just north of the modern city of Hai Phong. The influence of her family members and of those allied with them spread through the eastern plain and brought people from that region into the capital. One such person was Mac Dang Dung, who was appointed an officer in the palace guard in 1508. Twenty years later he would be the king. During Le Tuan’s short reign, his deceased mother’s family dominated the region north of the capital and the Nhan Muc family dominated the region west of the capital. Roving bands of armed men scoured the countryside for plunder and for pretty girls to bring back to the palace. Villagers fled at their approach and hid until they had passed. Although the examination system continued to function and produced large groups of new officials in 1505 and 1508, the atmosphere of officialdom had become stormy. Officials were dismissed or imprisoned for speaking against the will of the king. Those who in previous years had been cashiered for various offenses were reappointed. Those who had not supported Le Tuan’s accession were killed. In one famous case, a relative of the king’s mother seemingly beat a scholar-official to death and the corpse was tossed over the palace wall, but the man revived as his family prepared to bury him, and he thereafter lived in hiding until after Le Tuan’s death.  Le Tuan organized new groups at court, mainly using eunuchs and the rela- tives of his birth mother, of his queen, and of his adoptive mother. He established  a new military unit to guard his palace and also units of men armed with staves who staged mock battles for his amusement. He instigated a pogrom against the Cham population at the capital that came from captives brought north in 1471. He reportedly developed a nightly habit of drinking himself into a stupor while cavorting with women whom he afterwards murdered. The relatives of his deceased mother who seized the powers of government presided over a homicidal regime that produced shock and fear in the population. Terrorizing common people was one thing. But Le Tuan’s crowd of followers came to understand that the royal family was their mortal enemy and that with it there would be a fight to the death. In 1509, Le Tuan ordered surveillance on twenty-six princes, his brothers, his uncles, and his cousins. One fled and was not heard of again. The others were imprisoned. Only one of these managed to escape after passing bribes to his jailors. He was Le Dinh, the second son of Le Tu Thanh’s fifth son. Meanwhile, lesser members of the royal family and refugees from officialdom gathered at Tay Do under the leadership of Nguyen Van Lang, a brother of the murdered Truong Lac queen mother. Nguyen Van Lang was leading an army out of Thanh Hoa when he encountered the fleeing Le Dinh. Together they returned to Tay Do, issued a call to rally people behind them, administered a blood oath, and marched against Le Tuan. There followed days of bitter fighting at Dong Kinh, during which Le Tuan killed his prisoners, including Le Dinh’s mother and three of his brothers (his father had died in 1502). These murders so infuriated Le Dinh that after Le Tuan was captured and forced to drink poison the royal corpse was shot from a huge cannon with but a few grains of ash retrieved for Le Tuan’s tomb. Le Dinh was proclaimed king without delay. He was 15 years old. Despite the king’s youth, many officials entertained optimism about the future, believing that after the reign of Le Tuan things could only get better. Luong Dac Bang (b. 1472), a graduate of the 1499 examination, was a Deputy Minister of Personnel when he was forced into retirement in the time of Le Tuan. Now he was recalled for reappointment. He refused, being pessimistic about prospects for improvement. His refusal was denied, and so he wrote a long appeal in which he detailed how officialdom had been corrupted and listed fourteen points that he considered necessary to correct the government. His fourteen points restated all the essential lessons that Le Tu Thanh had endeavored to drill into the minds of  his officials during his long reign, revealing the shortness of the court’s insti- tutional memory. It was recorded that the king agreed with what Luong Dac  Bang wrote. The educational system continued to function normally. The examinations of  1511 and 1514 were held on schedule and yielded numbers of graduates com- parable to previous years. In 1512 an exam in reading and math was held for  children of officials to select students for higher study in the Confucian classics. There was a strong interest in historical writing at this time. In 1511, a book produced by the court developed the points that had been made by Luong Dac Bang. It presented a record of all the iniquities of Le Tuan and argued that now there would be a return to the ideals and practices of Le Tu Thanh, which were elaborately itemized. Also in 1511, Vu Quynh (1452–1516), an examination graduate of 1478, presented a revised version of the history of the country that had been compiled by Ngo Si Lien in 1479. In 1514, Le Tung, an examination graduate of 1484, presented an interpretive summary of the works by Ngo Si Lien and Vu Quynh. Around this time, Dang Minh Khiem, an examination graduate of 1487, also wrote a book of history and a collection of poems in praise of exemplary people in the past. The perspective on public morality and good government shared by these men had been formed during the reign of Le Tu Thanh. They sought comfort for the present in connections with the past. Regardless of whatever degree of administrative competence that may have been retrieved from Le Tuan’s witless reign, something had gone seriously awry in the kingdom. It was easier to tear down a structure of government than it was to build it back up. The disorders of Le Tuan’s reign had weakened, where it had not removed, a regime of authority that had given decades of peace to the Red River plain. The serpents of chaos had been awakened and were testing the currents of change. Literally, in 1513 and 1514, plagues of snakes emerged from the Red River at high water during the summer rains. In 1514 the infestation lasted for four months. There was a constant shooting of guns and a beating of drums in Dong Kinh to frighten the reptiles off. The dragon of sovereignty had become a mass of writhing serpents. In early 1510, shortly after Le Dinh took the throne, an attempted coup by supporters of another prince led to a battle in the palace. Less than a year after this, an official who had graduated in the exam of 1508 and who had served Le Tuan organized a rebellion northeast of the capital, the home region of Le Tuan’s mother. This rebellion was quickly put down, but later, in 1511, Tran Tuan, a grandson of an official who had served Le Tu Thanh, led a rebellion in the region northwest of the capital that was much more serious. As the rebel army marched on Dong Kinh, the city’s inhabitants fled across the river for safety, leaving the streets deserted. The king was so angry at what he viewed as cowardice that he sent an official to investigate which families had sent their wives and children away. When he discovered that this very official had also sent his family back to his home village he had the man publicly executed. Armies sent against the rebels were defeated and Tran Tuan’s men were breaking through the defenses of Dong Kinh. At this point, a general named Trinh Duy San, in desperation, strode boldly into the rebel camp and slew Tran Tuan with his sword before anyone could react. The rebels fled. Trinh Duy San was from Tho Xuan district in Thanh Hoa, near Mount Lam, the hearth of the Le dynasty. He and his elder full brother Trinh Duy Dai had followed Nguyen Van Lang and Le Dinh during the march from Thanh Hoa against Le Tuan. The brothers were subsequently honored for their service in raising Le Dinh to the throne. They had the same surname and were from the same village as the woman who became Le Dinh’s queen, which makes it likely that they were related to her. In 1512, groups of Tran Tuan’s followers were still being tracked down through the mountains when a rebellion broke out in Nghe An. The army sent to suppress it was defeated and the rebels advanced into Thanh Hoa, causing panic in Dong Kinh. Trinh Duy San once again proved to be the royal protector as he led his men south and put down the uprising. In 1515, Trinh Duy San successfully attacked rebels on Mount Tam Dao, about forty kilometers north of Dong Kinh. A rebellion in Thanh Hoa later that year was also suppressed. In early 1516, the king, now 21 years old, personally directed soldiers that repulsed rebel armies gathered north of the capital. Two months later, the most spectacular rebellion of this era emerged from the eastern plains led by a man named Tran Cao. This provoked a series of events that brought a sudden end to Le Dinh’s reign. The great rash of uprisings in these years, emerging from virtually every part of the kingdom, show that the administration emplaced by Le Tu Thanh had ceased  to govern. For more than a decade the kings were teenagers without the educa- tion, the moral judgment, the experience, or the sense of duty needed to supervise  a structure of administration that could not be maintained without a strong, competent royal hand. Moreover, it was not simply a matter of neglect. Like Le Tuan, Le Dinh became a force of negativity at the center of the government. In  1513, a Ming envoy reportedly remarked to a colleague that “his face is hand- some but his body is tilted; he is fond of debauchery and is nothing but a hog  king; rebellion will soon put an end to him!” His appetite for women was seemingly insatiable. Large numbers of women were brought into the palace. Annalists disapprovingly noted that he also spent time with the women of his predecessor. He relished staging battles between elephants and tigers. But it was his neglect of government and administration that opened the countryside to rebels. His attention was absorbed with building projects at the capital. In 1512, amidst a drought and famine, he consulted with an engineer named Vu Nhu To who had plans for a palace with more than one hundred rooms. In 1513, he announced a major construction project, which was the beginning of an unending frenzy of remodeling and construction that involved expanding the walls of the royal city, raising extravagant palaces, and digging canals between palaces and West Lake. Over the next three years these schemes consumed the energy of thousands of soldiers, laborers, and craftsmen. Presiding over it all was Vu Nhu To, whose grandiose and constantly expanding visions gave pleasure to the young king. Agricultural work and military training suffered as peasants were dragooned to the construction sites and soldiers were exhausted with digging and carrying. The sucking of human and material resources out of the countryside and into the capital, including the transport of logs from the mountains and of food to feed the workers, disrupted normal military, agricultural, and administrative activity, leading to chaotic conditions that encouraged rebellion. The king was apparently unconcerned about this. He was not an astute ruler. He could not discern between what was important and what was not. For example, he was constantly sending people into the countryside to collect cotton blossoms; when a court official objected to this wasteful practice he had the man demoted to a post in Thanh Hoa. However much misery he brought to his people, Le Dinh brought disaster upon himself personally by turning against the royal family and the great lords who were its protectors. In 1514, excited by false accusations against prominent Le princes, he had fifteen of them killed. Trinh Duy San, a stalwart of the dynasty who had repeatedly risked his life fighting against rebels, had begun to irritate the king with his arguments against the way he was ruling. The king had him publicly flogged. It was a fatal error. In late spring of 1516, riding widespread rumors that a sovereign would arrive from the east, a man named Tran Cao, from Thuy Nguyen district, just north of modern Hai Phong, proclaimed himself king. He claimed descent from the Tran royal family on his father’s side and from Le Tu Thanh’s mother’s family on his mother’s side. He also claimed to be an incarnation of Indra. He gathered a group of talented followers, including a Cham named Phan At, who became his chief military strategist. In less than a month, Tran Cao’s army was camped at Bo De, just across the river from Dong Kinh. Armies sent to dislodge him were defeated and three royal generals were killed. A new army was advancing to attack Tran Cao led by Nguyen Hoang Du. He was the son of Nguyen Van Lang, brother of the murdered Truong Lac queen mother, who had rallied against Le Tuan and raised Le Dinh to the throne.  Nguyen Hoang Du had ridden with his father on that occasion and had accord- ingly been given honors upon Le Dinh’s accession. Nguyen Van Lang had died in  1513 and Nguyen Hoang Du was now the leader of the family, which came from Ha Trung district in Thanh Hoa, about twenty-five kilometers east of Tay Do, on the main route leading north from Thanh Hoa to the Red River plain. This family would be prominent in Vietnamese politics into the twentieth century, by which time it was the royal family. In the troubles of 1516, Nguyen Hoang Du was a potent but unpredictable figure. Just as he was about to attack Tran Cao, news reached him that the king had been slain. Burning with anger at being publicly humiliated by Le Dinh, Trinh Duy San took advantage of the confusion in the palace provoked by Tran Cao’s approach to track down the king and kill him. The princes and great lords who gathered around the king’s corpse shed no tears, but they were in disarray about what to do next. Two nephews of Le Dinh, both of their fathers having been killed by Le Tuan, were considered candidates for the throne. Trinh Duy San favored Le Quang Tri, 8-year-old son of a younger brother of Le Dinh. Others proposed Le Y, 16-year-old son of Le Dinh’s elder brother. The leader of those who supported Le Y was murdered, and Le Quang Tri was proclaimed king. Nguyen Hoang Du’s reaction to the news of Le Dinh’s death was not exactly rational. Apparently dismayed that anyone would kill the king, he led his army into Dong Kinh intent on seeking revenge against the regicides. Then, apparently excited by the chaos that had seized the city and frustrated by what had become of the kingdom, he went on a rampage of looting and destruction that found an object of rage when he captured the evil architect Vu Nhu To, to whom he gave a lingering public death that delighted the mob. Trinh Duy San, seeking to placate Nguyen Hoang Du, sent Le Quang Tri to Tay Do and proclaimed Le Y king instead; then, fearing what Nguyen Hoang Du might do next and perceiving the need for more soldiers, he hastened to Tay Do with Le Y in tow. Nguyen Hoang Du withdrew from the city as Tran Cao crossed the river and took possession of the capital. At this point, some people of reputation decided that Tran Cao held the best prospect for restoring order to the kingdom. The most prominent of these was a senior prince of the royal family named Le Quang Do, who had supported the accessions of both Le Tuan and Le Dinh. He and others joined Tran Cao. Within days, however, fighting erupted in and around the city as Tran Chan, an adopted son of Trinh Duy San whose home base was in the region west and north of the capital, fought a series of battles with Tran Cao’s general Phan At. Nguyen Hoang Du soon joined him, as did Trinh Duy San, arriving with reinforcements from Thanh Hoa. Only twelve days after entering Dong Kinh, Tran Cao was forced to flee. Two days later, Le Y was paraded into the city as king. Back at Tay Do, Le Quang Tri was killed to erase any future repercussions from his brief abortive reign.  Fighting continued through 1516 as Tran Cao was gradually pushed north- eastward away from the capital. During the course of this fighting, both Phan At  and Trinh Duy San were captured and killed by their enemies. By the end of the year, Tran Chan had driven Tran Cao beyond the Cau River. Tran Cao stepped aside in favor of his son Tran Cung, shaved his head, and disappeared into the monkhood. For the next five years, the Cau River was the border between the competing dynastic courts of Le Y and Tran Cung. In 1417, Nguyen Hoang Du and Trinh Tuy, a younger brother of Trinh Duy San, joined their forces to campaign against Tran Cung, but without success. The two Thanh Hoa armies returned to Dong Kinh, where junior members of the two families publicly disparaged one another. Angry words provoked a feud resulting in battles being fought between the two sides in the streets of the capital. When the matter was discussed at court, the Nguyen spokesman accused the Trinh of plotting to overthrow the king. In the uproar that ensued, a royal command was obtained for the deaths of leading Trinh family leaders, including Trinh Duy Dai, the eldest of the Trinh brothers and the nominal head of the family. Nguyen Hoang Du took advantage of this to launch a sudden attack on the Trinh warriors and to drive them out of the city. Trinh Tuy withdrew to Thanh Hoa. Tran Chan, the Trinh ally based near Dong Kinh, then led his soldiers into the city and attacked Nguyen Hoang Du, who was defeated and also took the road back to Thanh Hoa.

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