The north For seven weeks in late 1618 and early 1619, sky gazers around the world watched what came to be called “the great comet of 1618.” Europeans called it “the angry star” because of the remarkable length and reddish hue of its tail and because it was visible even during daylight. Astronomers, astrologers, and doomsayers in all parts of Europe wrote about it, whether as an interesting natural phenomenon or as a portent of calamity. The comet prompted such a degree of popular fear and agitation that King James I of England penned a poem to remind his subjects that, although it may well be a divine sign, there is no way to know what it means, for human thought cannot penetrate the purpose of God. Vietnamese also watched this comet, and the recorded reactions to it in the two Vietnamese realms show that northerners and southerners were on different paths of historical experience. Southerners may have felt wonderment, if not fear, as they viewed the comet but made no recorded connection between it and public affairs; they simply noted it as a celestial event. Men in the north, however, viewed it as the climax of a series of heavenly warnings that public affairs were in disorder. Celestial phenomena had been cited as omens at dynastic courts in China and Vietnam for centuries. Sometimes, an omen implying criticism of government policy was written into the record by later historians to express their judgment of events. In 1618 at Dong Kinh, however, the comet brought to a climax recorded discussions about the problems of government that had been accumulating during the previous eight years. During that time, officials from all regions of the northern realm addressed missives to Trinh Tung describing problems and proposing reforms. In these years, Trinh Tung was beset with serious difficulties. He had spent his life leading the fight against the Mac family to restore the Le dynasty and was baffled by any problem that could not be solved with soldiers. After Nguyen Hoang’s departure for the south in 1600, Trinh Tung continued to encounter resistance, sometimes passive and sometimes active, from the popu- lation of the Red River plain. This was encouraged by the continuing Mac threat based in the mountain valley of Cao Bang. For two years, the outbreak of warfare accompanying Nguyen Hoang’s departure kept Trinh Tung fully occu- pied with battling his enemies. When Trinh Tung had hastened with the king to Thanh Hoa in fear that Nguyen Hoang was planning to seize that province, Mac Kinh Cung emerged from the northern mountains, rallied wide support in the lowlands, and gained possession of Dong Kinh. Within a month, Trinh Tung had expelled the Mac from the capital and from most territories west of the Red River, but his armies were unsuccessful in penetrating beyond the river to the east and south until the following year when Mac Kinh Cung was dislodged from his family’s home region near modern Hai Phong and pressed back into the moun- tains. Not until autumn of 1601 did Trinh Tung consider the capital sufficiently safe to bring the king back from Tay Do. With a disaffected and potentially rebellious population in the Red River plain and an active enemy based nearby in the mountains, Trinh Tung relied upon soldiers recruited in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An to enforce his authority. This was in effect a military occupation of the Red River plain by men from the southern provinces, but the burden of heavy military conscription in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provoked distress and unrest even there. Furthermore, the bounty in men and treasure that Nguyen Hoang had provided from the far south during the 1590s was no longer available. Trinh Tung was paralyzed by the magnitude of his problems. Meanwhile, as the years passed, the question of his successor came to the fore but resisted resolution. In 1610, Trinh Tung was 61 years old. In that year, he received two urgent recommendations from Le Bat Tu (1563–1627), a senior official from Thanh Hoa, the Trinh homeland, who had gained literary distinction in the 1598 examination. First, Trinh Tung must name a successor to take command of the military and to stabilize the loyalty of the people in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. And second, he must destroy the Mac and Nguyen separatists who held the northern and southern borderlands. Le Bat Tu argued that the military was presently in excellent condition with experienced officers, well-trained men, thousands of boats, and hundreds of elephants. However, it was doing nothing but maintaining the security of the capital, enabling rebels to nurture their strength in remote places. He foresaw that continued inaction would wear away the readiness of the soldiers and lead to trouble in the future, and he cited historical precedents from the Tang dynasty for emphasis. That Trinh Tung’s heir was still undesignated in 1610 shows that this was a complicated matter. Trinh Tung had nineteen sons. His eldest son died young. His second son, Trinh Trang, was already 34 years old, had held the rank of grand duke since 1598, and had accumulated years of experience leading soldiers. However, his third son, Trinh Xuan (d. 1623), also had ambitions, was virtually the same age as Trinh Trang (1576–1657), also a grand duke, and moreover had allies in the Le royal family as well as in the Trinh family. Trinh Tung could not find a way to resolve the issue. Within two years of Le Bat Tu’s advice, he indicated his preference by conferring the position of “grand teacher” (thai pho) on Trinh Trang and the lesser position of “grand protector” (thai bao) on Trinh Xuan. But this did not put an end to intrigue and uncer- tainty. The competition between the brothers and their followers could not be dispelled. As for military operations, the insecurity of the regime immobilized the thou- sands of soldiers from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An who were stationed in the capital and in other administrative centers. Nearly all the martial energy of the Trinh was absorbed in simply maintaining control of the large but disaffected population of the Red River plain. Not until 1613 was an army, commanded by Trinh Trang, sent to secure the mountainous eastern coastal province bordering Ming China. The emphasis upon military occupation and control enabled cor- ruption and abuse, and it hindered civil officials from developing what they regarded as normal administration. In 1612, Pham Tran (b. 1567, a graduate of the Mac exam of 1592 who then shifted to serve the Le) and Nguyen Duy Thi (1572–1652, a graduate of 1598), both officials in the Censorate and both from the Red River plain, addressed a long memorandum to Trinh Tung describing how the population was oppressed and impoverished by corruption. After an introductory passage affirming that rulers must care for the people and nurture their happiness, they observed that “the righteous will” of the ruler was not being followed by “those who imple- ment policy,” who “are diligent only in being heartless and cruel and in compet- ing to live in luxury.” According to the memorandum: Those in charge of a district bring misery to the people of that district, and those in charge of a village bring misery to the people of that village. They harass the people in every possible way, neglecting no method of oppression, which is why the sons and daughters of our country lack clothing, why there are no feasts with singing, why poverty makes wedding ceremonies impossible, why the living are nowhere nurtured and the dying are nowhere comforted. The means for obtaining daily food and the necessities of life are lacking everywhere. The poor and lowly are like bugs in the grass, unable to live like human beings. The two authors of the memorandum believed that this pitiful situation was the cause of natural disasters indicating heaven’s judgment against bad government: Because of these conditions, Heaven and Earth are affected and reveal to us that the will of Heaven above is not in agreement with our human affairs, for the calamity of successive floods exceeding what is normal is certainly related to current government affairs. How can we not be afraid and mend our ways considering that these woes in the natural world are a result of crimes among human beings? Apparently acting in response to a perception of the problem analyzed in this memorandum, in the following year Trinh Tung sent officials out to all jurisdic- tions to investigate “the misery of the people.” He also cancelled corvée obliga- tions during three years so that debtors who were wandering about could go home and make their living. This measure implies that excessive requisitioning of labor was driving peasants off their land. Peasants were being forced to sell or to mortgage their land to pay their taxes or to meet living expenses when taken from field work to provide public labor, apparently for the soldiers whose garrisons functioned as local government authority. In 1615, an elderly official from the Red River plain named Nguyen Le (1543– 1619, a graduate of the Mac exam of 1568 who shifted to serve the Le), then serving as Minister of Justice, submitted to Trinh Tung a list of eight “evil practices” that required reform. Trinh Tung praised and rewarded him for this initiative, but no record has survived of what the eight items were or of what, if anything, Trinh Tung did in response to them. Up until this point, voices calling for reform came from men of the Red River plain, presumably reflecting the effects of the military regime imposed on that region. In the following year, Trinh Tung received a report about troubles affecting his ability to maintain the strength of his armies. In late autumn of 1616, a procedure to conscript soldiers from Thanh Hoa provoked a memorandum from two high officials, both from Thanh Hoa: Le Bat Tu and Luu Dinh Chat (b. 1566, a graduate of the 1607 exam). They reminded Trinh Tung that, “for the past five or six years, during the season for growing crops, there has been drought and the farmers have lost hope. This year, as rice ripened for the autumn harvest, again there was a great drought everywhere, making two droughts in one year. With disaster coming again and again, the villagers are resentful.” Le Bat Tu and Luu Dinh Chat then deliver the punch line that was becoming a common refrain in these years: “Surely this is related to current government affairs.” Such criticism of public policy, even from men representing the home recruiting grounds of the Trinh, reveals how widespread the perception of misgovernment had grown. The two officials recommended that the round of conscription in Thanh Hoa be cancelled. Trinh Tung’s reaction to this memorandum is not known. In 1617 there were unseasonable storms and floods. Insects infested fields near the mountains that had escaped the floods, and the autumn harvest was lost. Early in 1618, Trinh Tung roused himself to action in the way he knew best, by sending soldiers against his enemies. He dispatched armies into the northern mountains against the Mac, led jointly by his two sons, Trinh Trang and Trinh Xuan. The Mac avoided large battles and fighting continued inconclusively for several weeks until an epidemic swept the Trinh camps as the summer rains began. There was a great loss of men and horses, and the brothers returned in disarray. There followed a series of signs and wonders. An avalanche was reported on Mount Dong Co in Thanh Hoa where the mountain spirit resided in whose name the Trinh performed their annual oath of loyalty. Two odd stars were observed in the night sky. Then there was successively a yellow rain, a black rain, and a rain that tasted like sweet wine. Finally, the comet appeared, stimu- lating a rush of memoranda expressing consternation. The first missive was from three officials who came from all parts of the Trinh realm. Pham Tran, who had co-authored the memorandum of 1612, was from the Red River plain. Le Bat Tu, who had submitted recommendations in 1610 and had co-authored the memorandum of 1616, was from Thanh Hoa. Ngo Tri Hoa (1565–1626, a graduate of the 1592 Le exam) was from Nghe An. These men noted the strange happenings of the previous months followed by the comet’s appearance and concluded that all these unusual events “are surely related to current government affairs.” They itemized a list of reforms that included restrain- ing bullies, forbidding petty harassment of the people, forbidding luxurious living, and suppressing thieves and bandits. Also on the list was “to practice virtue in order to beseech Heaven’s mandate,” a remarkable proposal implying that the regime had either lost or was in danger of losing its legitimacy to rule. This was followed by an appeal to Trinh Tung from Luu Dinh Chat, the other co-author of the 1616 memorandum about conscription in Thanh Hoa. There were apparently those who claimed that the various celestial signs were auspi- cious, for Luu Dinh Chat argued against this. He wrote that although the black and yellow rains were definitely bad omens, some avoided saying so and instead claimed that they were signs of good luck: Heaven has surely displayed admonitions but we have failed to wake up. So, now for weeks we see this comet in the southeastern sky. Everyone can see it and everyone is afraid. Truly this is not an insignificant sign. Does not our lack of virtue display shortcomings sufficient to provoke such a sign? Government policies are not implemented as in times past. Orders and instructions from those wielding power are not in accord with benevolence but are busy with cruelty and evil, scraping away the people’s livelihood. The sound of the people sighing and groaning is enough to move Heaven to warn us with this unusual omen. Those who rule, seeing this, must examine themselves. I humbly request that Heaven’s rebuke be taken to heart, that the powerless people be given love and care, that whatever harms and hinders their welfare be elimin- ated, and that sound policies be adopted toward them. Luu Dinh Chat pointedly concluded: “The generals must be ordered to stop their brazen appropriation of the country’s wealth so that the source of the country’s strength can be renewed.” This was not a new analysis. But Trinh Tung was in an impossible position. He relied on his generals to maintain his power while being given to understand that their depredations were ruining the country. He made no recorded response to this appeal. Discussion then spread to senior officials more generally. “Court officials” submitted a memorial to the king that recited the signs and wonders, the desperate condition of the country, and the need for reform. It was recorded that the king made no reply. Finally, “court officials” addressed to Trinh Tung a long itemization of abusive government practices that explicitly placed the blame on the subordination of civil administration to military domination and even implied that treasonous conspiracies were afoot: When we see strange signs appear successively like this, is it not certain that those in authority have yet to mend their virtue, that there is disorder in government affairs, that there are those who are scheming with evil intent? … evil men go in and out of the inner palaces inciting turmoil … illegal appointments are made … tax collectors compete in their oppressive exactions … false charges are made to imprison people and to seize their possessions … men are illegally conscripted and military duty is excessively harsh … Dynastic laws and regulations exist from past times decreeing that generals are to supervise only soldiers and not civilians, but now military officers specialize in supervising the people, taking their possessions, killing them, seizing them to be soldiers, and using them as their personal servants … taking taxes at exorbitant rates … they scheme with local officials to investigate and litigate … they set up unlawful customs stations on roads and waterways. We beg a proclamation to the generals to urgently command them to stop this behavior. As for those who secretly have evil intentions, they are conspirators outside of the law. The mention of conspiracy was not without substance. As if punctuating the outpouring of anxious criticism provoked by the comet, fire destroyed an entire district of the capital at the beginning of the 1619 lunar year. But the accumulation of tensions within the regime was fully revealed when late in the spring of that year an attempt was made on Trinh Tung’s life. He was ambushed as he returned to his palace from watching a boat race on the river. At a crossroads, someone shot a firearm at him. His parasol bearer fell, but he was unharmed. The would-be assassin was quickly captured and identified as a retainer of Trinh Xuan. Further investigation revealed that Le Duy Tan, the 31-year-old king, had plotted with Trinh Xuan to kill Trinh Tung. The king hoped to remove Trinh Tung’s suffocating hand from his royal aspirations, while Trinh Xuan hoped to remove the benefit of his father’s favor from his fraternal rival, Trinh Trang. The man who fired the shot was executed. The king was forced to commit suicide and was replaced with his 12-year-old son, Le Duy Ky, a grandson of Trinh Tung. Unwilling to order the execution of his own son, Trinh Tung imprisoned Trinh Xuan, but later allowed him to be released. Trinh Xuan had influential allies. Trinh Tung was 70 years old in 1619. He lived for another four years, but he increasingly relinquished authority into the hands Trinh Trang. Meanwhile, Trinh Xuan endeavored to keep the succession question alive and assembled a large armed following. As Trinh Tung lay dying in 1623, Trinh Xuan led his men into the capital, chased away the palace guards, and took possession of his barely conscious father. He sent Trinh Tung, carried in a hammock, to his headquarters outside of the city as his men looted the capital of its valuables and set it afire. Trinh Tung’s younger full brother, Trinh Do, had been a prominent and active member of Trinh Tung’s entourage. Hearing of what Trinh Xuan had done, Trinh Do saw an opportunity for himself. He sent his son, Trinh Khai, to intercept those carrying Trinh Tung and to bring his dying brother to his own house. His plan was apparently to separately summon the disputing brothers in the name of their father and put them to death, thus opening a path to power for his own son. Trinh Khai met with Trinh Xuan and persuaded him that Trinh Tung wanted to confer highest authority upon him. Trinh Xuan carelessly walked into the trap and was killed. Trinh Trang, however, was warned by an official, and he instead secured the young king, summoned all the men loyal to him, and set out for Thanh Hoa, understanding the logic of the regime that whoever controlled Thanh Hoa would prevail. Trinh Do and his son were hastening, with Trinh Tung being carried along, in pursuit of some now obscure errand on the southwestern edge of the capital when the old man died. They abandoned the corpse beside the road. A eunuch picked it up and hastened with it by boat to join Trinh Trang, who gave his father a proper burial. Realizing his folly, Trinh Do hastened with his son to make peace with Trinh Trang, who forgave them. As Trinh Trang concentrated his forces in Thanh Hoa, Mac Kinh Cung’s nephew, Mac Kinh Khoan, emerged from the mountains, rallied thousands of recruits from throughout the Red River plain, and marched on Dong Kinh, camping just across the river at Bo De and making common cause with the group of nobles and officials who had supported Trinh Xuan. But within a month Trinh Trang had defeated his enemies. Mac Kinh Khoan’s daughter led a valiant but suicidal rearguard attack to enable her father to make his escape back to Cao Bang. Two years later, Trinh Trang sent one of his sons to invade the Mac territory. Mac Kinh Cung was captured and killed. Mac Kinh Khoan begged to submit, was forgiven, and assigned to govern Cao Bang. After another two years, Trinh Trang was ready to lead his soldiers against the Nguyen in the south. Trinh Trang became known for opening the way for an era of civil adminis- tration and relative prosperity in the villages. Many educated men trusted him. The official who warned him against Trinh Do was Luu Dinh Chat, a co-author of the 1616 appeal to cancel conscription in Thanh Hoa and the author of the 1618 argument against military interference in local government. Amidst the uncertainties of the events provoked by his brother’s attempt to kidnap his dying father, Trinh Trang was advised by Nguyen Danh The (1572–1645, a graduate of 1595), who was from a locality near Dong Kinh. Trinh Trang’s ideas about government were influenced by the agendas for reform that had accumulated in the time of the comet. Some of the agrarian distress due to natural calamities recorded in the early seventeenth century may plausibly be attributed to what has been called “the little ice age,” an era of relatively colder weather whose effects were especially felt in the early seventeenth century, a time when even the River Thames froze in winter giving Londoners the pleasure of annual “frost fairs” on the ice. However, misgovernment due to military rule was a salient factor in writings from that time. The situation was further aggravated by the prolonged stalemate between Trinh Trang and Trinh Xuan that prevented resolution of the leadership ques- tion. Trinh Tung’s great achievement had been to restore the Le dynasty to Dong Kinh, but in his later years, in the seventh, eighth, and ninth decades of his life, he was irresolute and incapable of surmounting the contradiction of having restored a dynasty over a population in which loyalty to another dynasty remained strong. This contradiction could be dispelled only with the passing of time.