A Franco-Vietnamese government



The Le restoration

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After Mac Kinh Dien’s death in 1580, the Mac military position steadily weakened. Trinh Tung’s decisive defeat of the 1581 Mac invasion of Thanh Hoa was a turning point after which he gradually shifted from defense to offense. The last Mac effort to invade Thanh Hoa was repulsed in 1583. In that year, Trinh Tung made his first raid into the Red River plain, in Ninh Binh Province to collect rice, and the Mac general opposing him defected to the Le. Thereafter, the populations of Nghe An and Thanh Hoa lived in peace and slowly restored a more regular existence. In these years Mac Mau Hop came of age and his faltering influence was increasingly felt at the Mac court. He was an unlucky man with little evidence of talent for government. He had been struck by lightning in 1578 and temporarily paralyzed, and in 1581 he had suffered from a brief spell of blindness. In 1582 he built a pleasure palace that was no sooner completed than it burned down. He repeatedly moved in and out of the capital, spending much time at the Mac family estate in Co Trai, far from the battlefields. There is a story that in 1585 he heard that Nguyen Binh Khiem was on his deathbed and sent someone to ask the  dying sage for advice. Nguyen Binh Khiem reportedly foretold the fading for- tunes of the Mac dynasty by indicating that the Mac family would be able to find  refuge for a few generations in the upland valley of Cao Bang on the Ming border. Whether this message was thought to have given Mac Mau Hop fear or  comfort is not recorded, but his subsequent actions were erratic and self- destructive.  Trinh Tung conducted regular raids and patrols in Ninh Binh Province, immediately north of the Thanh Hoa border in the southwestern corner of the Red River plain. He lacked water transport, so he looked for a way to gain access to Dong Kinh from the mountains without having to cross major rivers. In 1585 he led a large reconnaissance force through the mountains to enter the lowlands northwest of Dong Kinh in the region of the modern city of Son Tay. This route  was difficult and impractical. He thereafter concentrated his attention on north- ern Ninh Binh Province in the districts of Nho Quan and Gia Vien. From there he  could ascend the Boi River to Lac Thuy district, Hoa Binh Province, and pass northward through the uplands to emerge into the Red River plain about forty kilometers southwest of Dong Kinh at My Duc district, Ha Tay Province. He was inactive in 1586 because of massive floods, drought, then unseasonable rains, and, finally, a palace fire that brought death to his mother. In 1587, however, he marched his men along the route to Dong Kinh via My Duc district. He defeated a Mac army that mobilized to block his way into the lowlands and gathered plunder before returning to Thanh Hoa. In 1588, he raided through Ninh Binh amidst drought, crop failure, and famine. The famine continued into 1589 and people scattered in search of food. In that year, Mac Don Nhung, Mac Kinh Dien’s youngest brother, who had overseen the Mac court since the late 1540s, concentrated his dynasty’s resources for an invasion of Thanh Hoa. He led a huge Mac army to the border where, in the Battle of Tam Diep, it was ambushed and dispersed by Trinh Tung. Trinh Tung counted over one thousand Mac dead. He captured some six hundred Mac soldiers whom he fed and released, now confident that the Mac family was in decline. The year 1590 was quiet as both sides rebuilt their armies and prepared for the next battle. In 1591, Trinh Tung mobilized a great host and marched from Tay Do to northern Ninh Binh then north through Lac Thuy district. However, rather than emerge into the lowlands at My Duc district as he had done in 1587, he continued through the uplands, cutting his way through the wilderness for over ten days, to debouch from the mountains directly west of, and only twenty kilometers away from, Dong Kinh. Mac Mau Hop personally accompanied the Mac armies as they concentrated against the invaders. In a climactic battle three days before the lunar new year of 1592, the Mac were defeated and fell back. Trinh Tung’s armies surged forward to envelop Dong Kinh. On the sixth day of the new lunar year, Trinh Tung took the capital after very bitter fighting during which the renowned Mac general Nguyen Quyen was captured and left to die in prison. Mac survivors fled to the north bank of the Red River where Mac Mau Hop relocated his court at Bo De. Lacking any means for crossing the river, Trinh Tung occupied himself during the next several months with extending his control over localities near the capital and with building floating bridges for crossing the river. During this lull in the fighting both sides held capital examinations in accordance with the academic calendar. The Mac at Bo De graduated seventeen men and the Le at Tay Do graduated three. The regular working of these exams despite the disruptions of war shows that the educational and administrative system established a century earlier had become ingrained in public life. At this time, Mac Mau Hop’s capacity for folly was fully revealed. His queen was a daughter of Nguyen Quyen. She had a younger sister named Nguyen Thi Nien who was the wife of Bui Van Khue, one of the few remaining senior Mac generals. Bui Van Khue had been prominent in many battles and he had fought stubbornly in defense of Dong Kinh. Nguyen Thi Nien sometimes visited her sister in the royal palace. Mac Mau Hop became so enchanted with her that he plotted to kill Bui Van Khue in order to have her. When Nguyen Thi Nien learned of this, she informed her husband. They withdrew with their retainers to Bui Van Khue’s home estates near Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh Province. Bui Van Khue sent word to Tay Do that he wished to submit to the Le. There followed a series of battles in which Mac forces endeavored to prevent his submission to the Le and Le forces sought to render him aid. During the course of these battles, Bui Van Khue gained possession of large numbers of Mac boats, which gave Trinh Tung the capability of crossing the Red River. Many Mac generals and officials submitted to the Le as Trinh Tung crossed to the north bank. Mac Mau Hop fled while abdicating in favor of his son Mac Toan, but both he and his son were captured and killed. Trinh Tung pursued the retreating Mac armies into the eastern part of the plain. Mac Kinh Chi, the eldest son of Mac Kinh Dien, rallied Mac forces at the strategic site of Chi Linh and began to push back. He constructed a rampart along the Thai Binh River, which flows through the modern city of Hai Duong. After weeks of fruitless efforts to break through the Mac defenses, Trinh Tung withdrew to Dong Kinh at the end of the year to organize reinforcements. A few weeks later, early in 1593, he returned to the offensive, broke through the Mac lines, captured Mac Kinh Chi along with ten Mac nobles, and beheaded them all. Fifty-four Mac officials were taken into custody and brought back to Dong Kinh. Two months later, Mac Kinh Cung, the seventh son of Mac Kinh Dien, rallied surviving Mac soldiers and people from all parts of the Red River plain and proclaimed himself king. He briefly established his headquarters at Bo De before Trinh Tung crossed the river on floating bridges and pushed back his followers. It became clear that most of the people in the Red River plain remained loyal to the Mac and were prepared to assist them. Trinh Tung could pacify the western edge of the plain on the right bank of the river, but Mac followers were busy building defensive walls to protect the east. Hoping to change the political atmosphere, Trinh Tung brought King Le Duy Dam from Thanh Hoa and  enthroned him at the battle-ravaged capital in a newly built palace. The restor- ation of the Le dynasty was proclaimed, but the Mac were far from subdued.  It was at this time that the far southern provinces of Thuan Hoa and Quang Nam added their full weight to the contest as Nguyen Hoang arrived with ships,  soldiers, elephants, horses, cannon, rice, and treasure. After leading his entou- rage south in 1558, Nguyen Hoang established a reputation for maintaining  well-disciplined and up-to-date military forces while governing with a light hand, encouraging agriculture, sericulture, commerce, and a level of private wealth significantly higher than was possible in the north. The international port at Hoi An attracted Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese merchants. Rice was plentiful. Sugar and silk were exported for manufactured goods from Japan, including ceramics, utensils, weapons, and armor. Hoi An was a convenient port of call for the Portuguese between Malacca and Macau; European artillery and musketry were quickly mastered. A discernible contrast between northern poverty and  southern prosperity became fixed in Vietnamese regional perceptions. Conse- quently, the theme of northern tax collectors arriving with their demands even- tually became a focus for southern resentment.  In addition to his relative wealth, Nguyen Hoang had the benefit of a new kind of Vietnamese population in the south, people who had learned to rely on their own resources and initiative to a degree not possible in the north. For several generations this had already been a place of exiled criminals, fugitives, refugees, adventurers, and pioneers, and of Chams acculturating to Vietnamese ways of life. The land was rich and productive. Nguyen Hoang obtained a generous portion of the surplus without being oppressive. The relative freedom enjoyed by the civil population was protected by the strict regime he designed for his soldiers under the command of trusted lieutenants in his close-knit entourage.  Any challenge to his authority was quickly subdued. But beyond that he inter- fered very little in the lives of the people he ruled so long as they tendered him  sufficient revenue and conscripts. While Trinh Kiem regarded Nguyen Hoang with equanimity, Trinh Tung was less secure. In the early 1570s, amidst Mac invasions and struggles with rivals both in his own family and in the Le royal family, Trinh Tung viewed Nguyen  Hoang with mistrust. There is evidence that he secretly encouraged Mac parti- sans in Thuan Hoa to attack Nguyen Hoang. Nguyen Hoang never gave any  public indication of knowing about this. He benefited from the art of dissembling learned from his maternal uncle Nguyen U Di. The moment of anxiety passed as Trinh Tung established himself and both he and Nguyen Hoang accepted the need for a working relationship. The year 1586 was a troubled year for Trinh Tung with floods, drought, and hunger in Thanh Hoa that led to cancellation of the examination scheduled for that year and precluded any military operations; furthermore, his mother,  Nguyen Hoang’s sister, died in a Tay Do fire. Whether it was his needy circum- stances or the removal of his mother’s restraining hand or both, Trinh Tung for  the first time sent an “inspector general” to investigate the tax base and to collect revenue in Nguyen Hoang’s jurisdiction. Nguyen Hoang ignored the implication that he had been neglecting his administrative duties and warmly welcomed the official. There was no system for registering fields and wealth in the south comparable to what was standard practice in the north, so Nguyen Hoang persuaded Trinh Tung’s tax collector that it was unnecessary to calculate the amount due but that he would simply pay a negotiated amount. The amount he was willing to pay was generous enough that the official was satisfied, and they parted amicably. Thereafter, as Trinh Tung pressed his attacks into the Red River plain he was sustained by annual contributions of treasure from Nguyen Hoang. When Trinh Tung announced the restoration of the Le dynasty in Dong Kinh in early summer of 1593, Nguyen Hoang arrived to pay his respects to the king, but also to bring his military assets to bear upon the conquest of the Red River  plain. He went directly into battle, applying his cannon to demolish Mac defen- sive walls and providing the breakthrough that led to a series of successful battles  that pushed Mac Kinh Cung out of the lowlands and into the northern border province of Lang Son. For the next two years, major battles continued not only in the mountains of Lang Son and of Thai Nguyen but also in many parts of the lowlands, particularly in the east and south where loyalty to the Mac remained strong. During these years the Red River plain suffered from famine during which it is recorded that one-third of the people in the eastern plain perished. In early 1596, a large Mac army emerged from the mountains into the eastern plain but was defeated and Mac leaders withdrew to the northern border valley of Cao Bang. The famine continued for a third year in 1596 and annalists recorded that more than half the people in the plain died. Uprisings subsided but great disorder prevailed with armed bands of desperate people roving at will, burning, looting, and killing. According to the annalist, large bands numbered from three to four thousand and small bands numbered from seven to eight hundred. Ming border officials reported on the uproar and, in 1596, the Ming court sent a committee to investigate. Mac officers told the Ming that the Le family had died out and that the Trinh had usurped power. A large delegation that included King Le Duy Dam, Nguyen Hoang, and Phung Khac Khoan traveled from Dong Kinh to the border and argued the case for the Le. The Ming court was fully occupied with the Japanese invasion of Korea and had no intention of getting involved in the situation. Nevertheless, whatever it did would have an effect either to confirm or to deny the relationship it already had with the Mac. Ming officials were not prepared to make a decision to change the status quo, so they temporized, sending the Le delegation away with hopes for further talks while accepting tribute from the Mac in exchange for confirming their version of events. In early 1597, the Mac ambushed a Le delegation on its way to the border and seized the gold and silver it was bearing as tribute. Shortly after this, the Ming, seeking to maintain a show of impartiality, sent an envoy to Dong Kinh and invited the Le to attend a conference at the border. Once again, the king, Nguyen Hoang, and Phung Khac Khoan went to meet with the Ming officials, which resulted in Phung Khac Khoan being invited to go to the Ming capital to make the Le case at the imperial court. His erudition and poetic prowess were reported to have made a favorable impression on the emperor, but at the end of 1598 he arrived back at Dong Kinh in disappointment, for the emperor decided that for the time being he would grant equal recognition to both the Mac and the Le. This allowed Ming to enjoy the competition between Mac and Le tribute offerings while continuing to avoid any final decision. Many Ming border officials were sympathetic with the Mac, with whom they had long-standing relations. The Ming dynasty was already in the early stages of decline and collapse, but its dual recognition of the Vietnamese rivals helped the Mac to survive in Cao Bang for another seventy years. Meanwhile, crops continued to fail in 1597, 1598, and 1599, with endemic famine amidst continued unrest and uprisings in the Red River plain. In 1597, Mac partisans set fires in the capital and an army of Mac supporters gained temporary control of the eastern plain until scattered in battle. In 1598, several Le armies pushed into the mountains but could not penetrate the Mac stronghold in Cao Bang. Trinh Tung’s soldiers were getting old and efforts were made during these years to recruit new soldiers in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An to fill vacant ranks and to allow veterans to retire. Despite continued hostilities with Mac partisans, those fighting under the Le banner were gradually gaining control of the Red River plain, and Trinh Tung was looking into the future. In 1599, he received a princely title that raised his status above all others at court save the king. When the king died soon after,  Trinh Tung set aside the crown prince, considering him to be “without intelli- gence,” and raised to the throne a younger prince named Le Duy Tan, for whom  he became the regent. Trinh Tung thereby ensured his continued domination of the Le court. A remaining question for Trinh Tung was what to do about his uncle Nguyen Hoang and about government in the far southern territories. He wanted to keep Nguyen Hoang close at hand under his surveillance and to gain more direct control over the south. Nguyen Hoang, however, was looking for a way to return south without provoking a confrontation with his nephew. He had arrived from the south several years before in the heat of battle and the excitement of the Le restoration. Now, with the Trinh solidly entrenched at Dong Kinh, his family had no scope for its ambitions except in the south. But lacking royal assent, which he understood would never be given, he could not return south without  putting himself in a state of rebellion. He was 75 years old. Trinh Tung appar- ently hoped that in time the Nguyen family could be destroyed after Nguyen  Hoang’s death. Meanwhile, Nguyen Hoang resided with his men in an encamp- ment outside the capital near the river where his boats were kept. He had been  assigned a fief there, and Trinh Tung claimed to covet his counsel in governing the country. At mid summer in 1600 three of Trinh Tung’s generals, who were stationed with their troops along the lower Red River south of Dong Kinh, rebelled. Nguyen Hoang requested permission to attack them, which was readily granted. Burning his encampment, he embarked with his men, passed through the rebels, gained the coast, and returned to Thuan Hoa. Trinh historians believed that Nguyen Hoang instigated the rebellion as a cover for his departure. There is no direct evidence for this, but he is likely to have been in communication with the rebels, for they commanded the exact route he needed to depart from the Red  River plain. Their complicity in his escape may not have arisen from his instiga- tion. They may have believed that assisting him to return to the south would earn  them an ally in that quarter. The uprising of these generals was a more general signal for Mac partisans to rise up in the east and for Mac Kinh Cung to emerge from the mountains. Mac forces converged on the capital. Trinh Trang sent men in pursuit of Nguyen Hoang, but when he saw that Nguyen Hoang had eluded him, he hastened to Tay Do with the king in fear that Nguyen Hoang intended to seize Thanh Hoa. Mac Kinh Cung entered Dong Kinh. Seeing that Nguyen Hoang had disappeared into the south, Trinh Tung mobilized soldiers from Thanh Hoa and marched back to Dong Kinh. After several months of fighting, he defeated the Mac armies and Mac Dinh Cung withdrew back into the mountains. Nguyen Hoang did everything he could to make it easy for his nephew to let him go in peace. He left behind a son and a grandson as pledges of his loyalty and explained that he had hastened south to ensure the security of the frontier. Trinh Tung sent a letter to Nguyen Hoang complaining of his behavior and demanding the payment of taxes. In reply, Nguyen Hoang proposed a covenant of peace and sent a daughter to marry Trinh Tung’s son Trinh Trang, thereby renewing the family connection for another generation. Neither of these men wanted war with the other. Trinh Tung was still occupied with the Mac and Nguyen Hoang needed time to organize his domain before his death. A quarter-century later, their sons would bring the family quarrel to the battlefield. The events of the sixteenth century reveal that no resolution of differences between Thanh Hoa and the Red River plain was possible without war. There was no negotiation and no reconciliation. The matter was settled by conquest and coercion. There were two kings in the land and, despite the circulation of merchants and scholars and side-shifting commanders, there was no basis for common ground. There was no center to hold the country together. There was even a linguistic dimension to this separation. The language spoken in lowland Nghe An today remains closer to dialects spoken in the adjacent mountains than to standard lowland Vietnamese. In the sixteenth century, this was probably also true of Thanh Hoa.  Educated Vietnamese later proposed the idea that sixteenth-century intellec- tuals constituted a cultural center that affirmed a single country despite the clash  of regions and dynasties. The stories of how Trinh Kiem, Nguyen Hoang, and Mac Mau Hop all consulted Nguyen Binh Khiem at critical moments in the fortunes of their families have served this affirmation. Instead of being united in loyalty to one king, the Vietnamese were united in following the advice of one sage. In the absence of a king whom all were willing to serve, a sage announced the fates of the combatants and thereby the fate of the country. The superficial impression that Nguyen Binh Khiem was a voice from the center of a unifying Vietnamese cultural authority ignores the fact that his advice confirmed later generations in sundered realms. According to one popular myth, Nguyen Binh Khiem and Phung Khac Khoan, exemplars, respectively, of Mac and Le intellectuals, were half-brothers, born of the same mother. Stories about Nguyen Binh Khiem’s mother emphasize her ambition to give birth to a king and her chagrin at not marrying Mac Dang Dung. A clairvoyant, she reportedly abandoned Nguyen Binh Khiem in his childhood after realizing that he would not be a king. Vietnamese still savor the improbable idea that she became the mother of Phung Khac Khoan. This provides a common mother, albeit attenuated, for the realms of Mac and Le. As noted in previous chapters, the potency of one’s mother’s family was a theme entrenched in Vietnamese political thought for centuries. What is more certain than this myth is that, despite close family relationships between the Trinh and the Nguyen, when Nguyen Hoang sped down the coast in 1600, his men mending their cracking oars with silken cords to outrun their Trinh pursuers, he was inaugurating an age of separation that would last for two centuries.

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