Destruction of the Tran aristocracy The fortunes of the Ly and Tran dynasties waxed and waned in step with the Song and Yuan dynasties. There was a vital connection between regimes in the Red River plain and the successors to the northern dynasties that had governed there during earlier centuries. Both sides carefully observed the tributary rela- tionship. Books, medicine, theater, music, weapons, and government policies in the north were easily perceived, understood, and adopted in the south. Disorders and political troubles in the south were monitored and any potential for requir- ing or enabling intervention was evaluated in the north. In both the Song–Ly cycle and the Yuan–Tran cycle, the rise of the northern dynasty was accompanied by the rise of the southern dynasty, and the decline of the northern dynasty was accompanied by the decline of the southern dynasty. The relative sizes of the two sides ensured that initiative in the relationship came from the north. The role of the south was to answer northern initiative. Moments of warfare climaxed both cycles, the outcomes of which confirmed the general basis of the relationship between vassal and suzerain. The ebbs and flows of power and prosperity in the north and in the south reveal that, in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, northern challenges evoked southern responses. Similarly, in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, northern weakness gave slack to the relationship and led to weakness in the south. In the late fourteenth century, the rise of the Ming dynasty fundamentally altered the strategic and cultural environment in eastern Asia. The Ming rulers redefined civilization and the sphere of government while at the same time they sought to restore the borders and to equal the glories of the Han and Tang Empires. Early Ming policies are commonly considered to be conservative and expansionist in aiming to erase the humiliation of Mongol rule by reanimating the Han–Tang imperial legacy. The result was a centralizing mobilization of human and material resources that led to extending Ming rule over neighboring regions.
At the same time, and not by coincidence, there was a fundamental change in the structure of politics among Vietnamese speakers with a strong effort to centralize control of resources. However, this was insufficient to prevent the Ming from asserting regional dominance and restoring imperial government in the lands of old Giao Chi and An Nam. Although the Ming would eventually abandon this ambitious policy and return to a reformulation of the tributary relationship, the Vietnamese regime that emerged from these tumultuous events was shaped not only by the challenge from the north, but also by an internal shift of power away from the Red River plain and into the southern provinces, with dramatic consequences for the structure of dynastic government. Le Quy Ly was the first Vietnamese leader to respond to the Ming challenge and to envision a new future for Vietnamese government.
Le Quy Ly traced his ancestry to an immigrant of the Ho surname who in the late 940s came from Zhejiang Province on China’s east coast and received an appointment as governor of the province in the Ca River basin, presumably from Duong Tam Kha, who was endeavoring to rule at that time. Leaders in subse- quent generations of the Ho family served as commanders of an outpost in that province and on one occasion were honored with marriage to a Ly princess. In the thirteenth century, a branch of the family moved to the region of modern Vinh Loc district, beside the Ma River in the foothills of Thanh Hoa Province. It was adopted into the clan of a local strongman with the Le surname. Le Quy Ly, born in 1336, was in the fourth generation with this surname. Although infor- mation is lacking, the family probably earned merit with the Tran kings during the Mongol Wars, for two of Le Quy Ly’s aunts had entered the palace in the early fourteenth century as consorts of Tran Manh.
Le Quy Ly was well educated, a writer of both prose and poetry. He promoted writing and reading in the vernacular. He learned how to organize and lead armies, with some successes yet many failures on battlefields. But he was first of all an astute politician who spent most of his adult life preoccupied with the question of dynastic change. He was ruthless yet rational. He imposed radical solutions upon a society that in the 1370s could no longer protect itself. He did not care if he was hated so long as he was obeyed. With great energy and willpower he laid the foundations of a new dynasty at a new location and with a new base of power.
Unlike the founders of the Tran dynasty, who had time in which to establish their rule before being tested by the Mongols, Le Quy Ly had to deal with Ming expansionism before he had gained the loyalty of the people in his kingdom, many of whom remained attached to remnants of the Tran dynasty. By the late fourteenth century, the Tran aristocracy had become an accumulation of autono- mous private estates that had to be destroyed before an effective central government could be rebuilt. Le Quy Ly did not shrink from the task. He understood the Ming threat and hastened to prepare for it.
After the death of Tran Phu in 1394, Le Quy Ly tightened his grip on the Tran court. He wrote a book of instructions for the 16-year-old king, Tran Ngung, who showed no aptitude for government and was easily isolated from court affairs. Le Quy Ly moved into a palace beside the central court where his close associates were given the highest positions. Officials were prohibited from wear- ing robes at court with large sleeves in which objects, such as weapons, could be concealed, and anyone heard conversing about people previously killed for conspiring against Le Quy Ly were put to death.
Before directly challenging the Tran royal family, Le Quy Ly moved to gain control of the four other major groups with influence in the kingdom: monks, merchants, scholars, and soldiers. In 1396, he attended to all of these groups. Monks younger than 50 years old were defrocked and returned to secular life, and an examination for knowledge of Buddhist sutras was given as the basis for appointing people to govern temples, shrines, and monasteries.
As for those who accumulated wealth by commerce, Le Quy Ly attempted to cut down their power by prohibiting the use or possession of coins, which until then were the only form of money. All coins had to be exchanged for paper money. This measure was intended to force the wealth of merchants out into the open, to make it difficult for them to avoid paying market taxes, and to make their assets vulnerable to government inspection.
Scholars were given a new curriculum for the civil service examinations. Le Quy Ly issued an edition of the classical texts in vernacular Nom characters. This edition no longer exists, but, according to annalists, he wrote an introduction that presented “his own ideas” rather than following the orthodoxy of Zhu Xi. Aware of the importance of palace women, he sent female teachers to instruct them with this edition. The exam for scholars was prescribed to have four parts: an essay of at least 500 words on the classical texts that followed a prescribed format for developing a philosophical theme; a poem following Tang prosodic rules and an essay of at least 500 words in rhyming prose (phu, which had become popular in the fourteenth century and was often written in the vernacu- lar); examples of proclamations, remonstrations, and petitions in prescribed styles; and a 1,000-word essay based on the classics, histories, and current affairs. The first exam under this new regime was held in 1400. Until then, education officials and aspiring scholars were fully absorbed in preparing for it.
To keep soldiers busy, military leaders were aimed at Champa. An expedition into Champa in 1396 resulted in the capture of a Cham general, who was given a military command and who faithfully served Le Quy Ly thereafter. In the following year, another Cham general along with his family and entourage submitted. He was assigned to guard the southern border. These men owed their allegiance to Le Quy Ly and not to the Tran dynasty.
With the ranks of monks limited to the elderly and erudite, the monetary assets of merchants inventoried and shifted from metal to paper, the scholars busy studying for exams, and generals occupied with the Cham borderlands, Le Quy Ly was ready to confront the Tran nobles. Thang Long was a Tran city. Le Quy Ly decided to move the capital to his home district of Vinh Loc in Thanh Hoa Province, thereby removing the seat of government from the Red River plain where loyalty to the Tran was strong. The new capital was 115 kilometers south of Thang Long over mountainous terrain; it was 170 kilometers by boat down- river from Thang Long to the seacoast then up the Ma River.
In 1397, within a few months, a wall of about 850 meters square was built nestled among the foothills on the north bank of the Ma River. Palaces were hastily constructed within. Near the end of the year, the 19-year-old king was taken to the new capital; officials who attempted to warn him that shifting to the new capital was part of Le Quy Ly’s plan to seize the throne were killed. Thang Long palaces were dismantled for transport to the new capital, which became known as Tay Do (western capital). Thang Long was known by different names over the next few years but in the second quarter of the fifteenth century became known as Dong Kinh (eastern capital), from which derives the modern term Tonkin.
In 1398, Tran Ngung, the king, was persuaded to yield the throne to his 2-year-old son, Tran An, a grandson of Le Quy Ly. A year later, Tran Ngung was sent to a Daoist temple near modern Dong Trieu in Quang Ninh Province, where he was killed on Le Quy Ly’s orders. A conspiracy among Tran nobles against Le Quy Ly was uncovered at the annual blood oath ceremony, held at Tay Do in 1399. Le Quy Ly took the opportunity to kill over 370 people and to imprison hundreds more. This dealt the Tran royal clan a mortal blow. Le Quy Ly imposed tight security measures throughout the kingdom; travel permits were required to be outside of one’s home district and villagers were afraid to give hospitality to strangers. A rope was stretched across the Ma River downriver from Tay Do, forcing boats to stop for inspection. Prisoners were set to work digging canals in the southern provinces or were scattered among colonies in the mountains.
Resistance nevertheless emerged under leadership from an unexpected source. Someone identified as a counterfeiter gathered an army of rebels, reportedly ten thousand strong, in the northwest of the Red River plain. Le Quy Ly managed to suppress this uprising after six months of fighting.
As he shifted his government to Tay Do, eliminated the potentially obstreper- ous young king, and subdued the royal family by killing and imprisoning hundreds of nobles and their followers, Le Quy Ly also enforced limits on land ownership that were aimed at the Tran aristocracy, families allied with the Tran, and ambitious commoners, all of whose power rested upon large private estates worked by peasants in a slave or serf-like status. Except for the very highest princes and princesses, land ownership was to be limited to ten hectares. Le Quy Ly particularly targeted land that in recent generations had been reclaimed from the sea in modern Thai Binh and Nam Dinh Provinces, which is where many of the largest private estates existed. All landowners had to declare the size of their holdings, with excess land passing to the state. Strict rules were laid down for establishing claims of ownership, and those convicted of crimes had their land confiscated.
At the same time as these measures were being put into effect, a new system of provincial government was instituted with differently organized jurisdictions and new names. Provincial officials were required to make annual reports about men available for military conscription, tax revenues in rice and in money, and judicial proceedings. Public land was set aside to support schools, and teachers were to annually send their best students to the capital for further study or for appointments in the government.
In 1400, Le Quy Ly took the throne and restored to his family the surname Ho. He named his kingdom Dai Ngu, “Great Ngu” (Chinese Yu), thereby claiming kinship with the ancient sage-king Shun, also called Yu Shun (Vietnam- ese Ngu Thuan), a descendent of whom had later received from the founder of the Zhou dynasty (around 1000 bce) a ducal appointment with which he acquired the surname Hu (Vietnamese Ho), from whom Ho Quy Ly now claimed descent. This did not signify an effort to be associated with the imperial history of northern empires, for Vietnamese considered their inheritance of classical antiquity to be as authentic as that of the northerners. The invocation of Shun as Ho Quy Ly’s ancestor evoked the principle of succession based not on blood but on merit, for Shun was related neither to his predecessor, who chose him, nor to his successor, whom he chose. Ho Quy Ly aimed to portray the change of dynasty from Tran to Ho as following a pattern for which the sage-kings of antiquity were praised.
Ho Quy Ly demoted his small grandson Tran An from the throne, then raised his second son, Ho Han Thuong, to be king, himself becoming senior king. He passed over his eldest son Ho Nguyen Truong because his mother was not a Tran woman. Ho Han Thuong’s mother was a daughter of Tran Manh, so, when Ming envoys began to invoke the legitimacy of the Tran dynasty, Ho Han Thuong could be presented as Tran Manh’s grandson. Ho Han Thuong seems not to have had any particular ability. On the other hand, Ho Nguyen Trung ably served his father in making plans and leading soldiers.