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The Ly Dynasty

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Hoa Lu

During the forty years that Dinh Bo Linh and Le Hoan ruled from Hoa Lu (965– 1005), possibilities for rustic leaders from the southern provinces to govern the more populous Red River plain with its temples, schools, and heritage of imperial culture were fully explored and ultimately reached their limit. However, before this line of events had run its course, Le Hoan’s reliance upon a new class of leaders from Giao opened the way for an exit from this impasse. Le Hoan’s quarter-century reign reveals both his astuteness in solving immediate problems and his failure to establish a basis for long-term political stability.

Events of the tenth century were narrated in the previous chapter in the context of a progressive disengagement from the imperial world. When viewed from the perspective of local politics, these events become a story about relations between  the population of the Red River plain and the population of the southern prov- inces. These provinces have been differently organized and named through the  centuries. They comprise the modern provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Ha Tinh. Ha Tinh was separated from Nghe An only in recent times. For centuries, the basin of the Ma and Chu Rivers was Thanh Hoa and the basin of the Ca River was Nghe An. The uplands of Thanh Hoa communicate with the region of Sam Neua  in the modern Laotian province of Houaphan. The uplands of Nghe An communi- cate with the modern Laotian province of Xieng Khouang, a region known in  Western languages as the Plain of Jars and which the Vietnamese call the Tran Ninh plateau. These uplands were a borderland between Tai and Vietic peoples.

In the tenth century, the Red River plain was composed of three major politically defined areas. The heart of the plain was Giao, centered on a region bounded by the modern cities of Hanoi, Bac Ninh, Hai Duong, and Hung Yen. In the northwest was Phong, old Me Linh, where the Red River emerged from the mountains in the modern provinces of Son Tay and Vinh Phu. In the southwest was Truong, the region of Hoa Lu in modern Ninh Binh province, on the border of Thanh Hoa. Leaders in Phong drew upon the resources of the upland valleys inhabited by Tai-speaking peoples. In Truong, Hoa Lu drew upon the resources of the southern provinces. Giao contained the greatest residue from the imperial experience and leaders there vacillated between pursuing local experiments and looking north for alliances and political ideas.

The men who stood at the head of politics in the tenth century lived amidst shifting contexts, which, in the absence of an imperial regime, tested the unity of An Nam while at the same time opened the way for new kinds of leadership. Khuc Thua My was from eastern Giao, a man loyal to the empire who preferred to submit to a northern regional power than to resort to war. He perceived no vital benefit in fighting for local autonomy. However, Duong Dinh Nghe, from Thanh Hoa, was prepared to fight for local autonomy but did not aspire to more than that, resting content with being acknowledged by the neighboring northern power as the local governor. But this also meant subordination of the Red River plain to men from the southern provinces. Men of the Red River plain resisted this, and, after only six years, the leader of Phong killed Duong Dinh Nghe and made a bid to restore a closer political connection with the north. Ngo Quyen mobilized an alliance among warriors both from the southern provinces and from Giao to bring this scheme to naught at the Bach Dang estuary in 938. He then established a royal court in the mode of the so-called “ten kingdoms” that then ruled various regions in what had been the Tang Empire.

Ngo Quyen died at the age of 46, before he had time to stabilize his accom- plishment. His entourage splintered under the pressure of regional tensions, with  men from Giao supporting his young sons against his brother-in-law, Duong Tam Kha, the son and heir of Duong Dinh Nghe, who stood at the head of men from the southern provinces. Proliferating ambitions inhibited unity even within the Red River plain with warfare breaking out between the deltaic plains of Giao, led by Ngo Quyen’s heirs, and the region of Phong where the Red River issues from the mountains. Then, within fifteen years of Duong Tam Kha being pushed aside by leaders in Giao, the southern provinces were resurgent under the leadership of Dinh Bo Linh.

One feature of politics at that time is the extent to which it was related to personal and family relations. Duong Dinh Nghe was a retainer of Khuc Thua My, and Ngo Quyen was a son-in-law of Duong Dinh Nghe. Dinh Bo Linh reportedly began his political career by fighting battles with his paternal uncle over the leadership of the southern provinces, where his father had governed in the time of Duong Dinh Nghe and Ngo Quyen. This brings to mind the struggle between Phung Hung’s brother and son in the late eighth century, a contest between lateral succession among brothers and patrilineal, or father to son, succession; such rivalry between uncle and nephew, also apparent in the case of Duong Tam Kha and the sons of Ngo Quyen, was not characteristic behavior in Giao, where a large Chinese-speaking population, isolated from regular contact with the north, began to shift from bilingualism to developing a high-register version of the local vernacular. This population tended toward the practice of strict patrilineal succession; on the other hand, brother-to-brother succession was apparently more plausible among the inhabitants of the southern provinces at that time.

After he had forced the submission of the Ngo clan in the 960s, Dinh Bo Linh endeavored to bind the Ngo to his family through marriage. He married one of his daughters to the last Ngo king; he married a younger sister of that king to his eldest son; and he took the Ngo queen mother as one of his wives. His practice of marrying prominent women from other powerful families established a tradition of multiple queens that was followed by his successors for a century. However, marriage politics were not always effective. The last Ngo king repudiated his Dinh wife and fled south to the Chams. When he heard of Dinh Bo Linh’s death, he persuaded the Cham ruler to launch a seaborne attack on Hoa Lu, though the fleet was destroyed by a typhoon.

Hoa Lu was rustic, but some quasi-Buddhist ideas related to exorcising demons and to karmic retribution were apparently current at Dinh Bo Linh’s court. Dinh Bo Linh’s eldest son and designated heir, Dinh Lien, erected one hundred stone columns inscribed with the Ratnaketu Dharani, a Buddhist text that is thought to expel demonic powers. In early 979, Dinh Bo Linh demoted Dinh Lien and replaced him as heir with an infant son. According to the annals, he did this out of extreme love for the infant’s mother. Unwilling to accept this, Dinh Lien slew the small boy, then erected several stone columns inscribed with the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra, believed to provide deliverance from the consequences of one’s evil deeds, ostensibly seeking to spare his dead brother’s soul from the torments of hell. The columns bear an inscription explaining that it was necessary for Dinh Lien to “bring doom to the life” of his brother because his brother had “strayed from the path of loyalty and filial piety toward his father and elder brother.” Here was the creative use of a Buddhist sutra to shift the karmic force of fratricide from the murderer to the victim.

Within a few months of this, Dinh Bo Linh and Dinh Lien were slain by a courtier as they slept off their drunkenness in a palace courtyard. The assassin, reportedly mesmerized by portents indicating his own elevation to the throne, was quickly seized, killed, and, in an unusual case of cannibalism, eaten. Not much is known about Dinh family politics, but behind these events probably lay a struggle among the maternal clans of Dinh Bo Linh’s sons, and possibly even Le Hoan’s design, for the mother of the only surviving son of Dinh Bo Linh was succession; such rivalry between uncle and nephew, also apparent in the case of Duong Tam Kha and the sons of Ngo Quyen, was not characteristic behavior in Giao, where a large Chinese-speaking population, isolated from regular contact with the north, began to shift from bilingualism to developing a high-register version of the local vernacular. This population tended toward the practice of strict patrilineal succession; on the other hand, brother-to-brother succession was apparently more plausible among the inhabitants of the southern provinces at that time. After he had forced the submission of the Ngo clan in the 960s, Dinh Bo Linh endeavored to bind the Ngo to his family through marriage. He married one of his daughters to the last Ngo king; he married a younger sister of that king to his eldest son; and he took the Ngo queen mother as one of his wives. His practice of marrying prominent women from other powerful families established a tradition of multiple queens that was followed by his successors for a century. However, marriage politics were not always effective. The last Ngo king repudiated his Dinh wife and fled south to the Chams. When he heard of Dinh Bo Linh’s death, he persuaded the Cham ruler to launch a seaborne attack on Hoa Lu, though the fleet was destroyed by a typhoon. Hoa Lu was rustic, but some quasi-Buddhist ideas related to exorcising demons and to karmic retribution were apparently current at Dinh Bo Linh’s court. Dinh Bo Linh’s eldest son and designated heir, Dinh Lien, erected one hundred stone columns inscribed with the Ratnaketu Dharani, a Buddhist text that is thought to expel demonic powers. In early 979, Dinh Bo Linh demoted Dinh Lien and replaced him as heir with an infant son. According to the annals, he did this out of extreme love for the infant’s mother. Unwilling to accept this, Dinh Lien slew the small boy, then erected several stone columns inscribed with the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra, believed to provide deliverance from the consequences of one’s evil deeds, ostensibly seeking to spare his dead brother’s soul from the torments of hell. The columns bear an inscription explaining that it was necessary for Dinh Lien to “bring doom to the life” of his brother because his brother had “strayed from the path of loyalty and filial piety toward his father and elder brother.” Here was the creative use of a Buddhist sutra to shift the karmic force of fratricide from the murderer to the victim. Within a few months of this, Dinh Bo Linh and Dinh Lien were slain by a courtier as they slept off their drunkenness in a palace courtyard. The assassin, reportedly mesmerized by portents indicating his own elevation to the throne, was quickly seized, killed, and, in an unusual case of cannibalism, eaten. Not much is known about Dinh family politics, but behind these events probably lay a struggle among the maternal clans of Dinh Bo Linh’s sons, and possibly even Le Hoan’s design, for the mother of the only surviving son of Dinh Bo Linh was  which apparently explains why a shrine was eventually built at Hoa Lu to worship her. In this shrine, her statue was placed between statues of Dinh Bo Linh and Le Hoan. This was a scandal to later Confucianists, who considered such a reputation to be immoral. According to later writings, in the fifteenth century, after the royal court began to adhere to a relatively strict Confucianist code, an official was sent to Hoa Lu to destroy this shrine and to punish Duong Van Nga for adultery. The official tied the statue of Duong Van Nga to a rope and pulled it behind his boat all the way back to the capital at Hanoi, ritually drowning her for her sin. A popular tale claims that this official died suddenly in great pain after reaching the capital, thereby paying the price exacted by Duong Van Nga’s spirit for his disrespect toward her. The rebels at whose hands Duong Van Nga’s son perished were people against whom Le Hoan arduously and continuously fought in the later years of his reign. They were from the southern provinces and neighboring upland areas. This may seem to be odd considering that Le Hoan was himself a native of Thanh Hoa. As a boy he had shown sufficient intelligence to be adopted into a prominent family, which gave him an opportunity to earn the notice of Dinh Bo Linh’s eldest son, chief assistant, and designated heir Dinh Lien, who brought him into the Dinh entourage. In the 970s, when he was in his 30s, he was assigned by Dinh Bo Linh to command soldiers recruited in Giao as well as to command the palace guard at Hoa Lu. This shows that Dinh Bo Linh felt safer under the protection of disciplined soldiers from Giao than with men from the southern provinces, who were difficult to control. It also shows that Dinh Bo Linh was careful to place a southerner in command of the Giao military units. After both Dinh Bo Linh and Dinh Lien were assassinated in 979, Le Hoan defeated his rivals with the Giao army, and it was Giao that supported his taking the throne and that supplied the wealth and manpower that enabled him to resist the invasion from Song China in 980–981

. In the Song War, and in later diplomatic relations with Song, Le Hoan relied heavily upon the advice of an erudite Chinese named Hong Xian. When Hong Xian died in 988, Le Hoan began to assign fiefs in Giao to his sons, suggesting that until then Hong Xian may have held administrative responsibility for Giao. Le Hoan built his primary base of support in Giao, and he championed the interests of Giao against the southern provinces. This is very understandable considering that Giao was the center of agricultural resources, of manpower, of educated talent, and of expertise in dealing with the northern empire.

After decades of turmoil, from the Southern Han expedition of 930 to Dinh Bo Linh’s conquest in the 960s, political leadership in Giao came to rest in the Buddhist temples among the monks who administered the extensive lands that had been donated to or acquired by these temples. A new generation of young men were educated in the temple schools of Giao, both in the Confucian classics and in the Buddhist sutras. The monks were indispensable to the Hoa Lu kings for administering Giao and for dealing with the Song Empire, and these monks found ways to introduce the most promising of their student protégés into the Hoa Lu court. Within four years of Le Hoan’s death, one of these young men, Ly Cong Uan, became the king and shifted the royal court from Hoa Lu to Dai La in the center of Giao.

About eighty-five kilometers almost directly north of Hoa Lu (one hundred kilometers by boat) lay Dai La, surrounded by rice fields and at the center of the riverine communication network uniting the Red River plain. By contrast, Hoa Lu is a natural fortress of limestone outcroppings at the southern extremity of the plain; it commands the main land route to the southern provinces. Hoa Lu lies at the entrance of what resembles an antechamber to the Red River plain, about twenty square kilometers bounded on three sides by uplands and open to the plain on the east; this is modern Ninh Binh province. Hoa Lu is about forty kilometers northwest of the seacoast. It is comprised of two connected natural antechambers located in a small but impressive massif. Enclosed on three sides by towering cliffs, brick walls were built across their open sides. In one of the enclosures the kings kept their personal wealth and family retainers; in the other, they stationed the soldiers of their principal followers and held court. Dinh Bo Linh was known for rough justice, boiling malefactors in large cauldrons and feeding them to caged tigers. However, such resort to cruelty for enforcing obedience was not attributed to Le Hoan. During the course of his reign, Hoa Lu became the base for Giao to dominate the southern provinces rather than the other way around as it initially was under Dinh Bo Linh.

The Cham king, ruling at Tra Kieu near the modern city of Da Nang, was emboldened by Dinh Bo Linh’s death and by the Song invasion to pursue an aggressive policy toward Hoa Lu. Enemies of Dinh Bo Linh had assembled at the Cham court and news of his death entangled the Cham king in their hopes for revenge. As noted previously, a Cham fleet was lost in a storm when about to attack Hoa Lu in late 979. In 982, after the Cham king detained his envoys, Le Hoan led an expedition that plundered and destroyed the Cham capital, killing the king and capturing hundreds of soldiers along with scores of palace women and even a Buddhist monk from India. A Vietnamese adventurer ruled from the devastated Cham capital until his death in 989, meanwhile fending off soldiers sent by Le Hoan to capture him. Shortly after his death, a man sent to collect taxes in the southern provinces instead led them in revolt and petitioned the Cham king, then ruling at Vijaya near the modern city of Qui Nhon, to accept his submission and to join him against Hoa Lu. The Cham king refused to embroil himself in this scheme and Le Hoan led his soldiers south, killing the renegade tax collector as well as “immeasurable” numbers of this man’s followers in the southern provinces. In the 990s, the Cham king relocated back north at Tra Kieu, and there was chronic fighting between his soldiers and those of Le Hoan.

Much of Le Hoan’s reign was spent in recruiting armies in Giao and sending them into the southern provinces to build roads, dig canals, and kill rebels. The Cham frontier beyond the southern provinces, in the old Han jurisdiction of Nhat Nam, became a lair for renegades and adventurers from both north and south; it was patrolled by both Le Hoan and the Cham king but controlled by neither. Nevertheless, the balance of power was tilting against the Chams. After the death of the Cham king in 999, his successors ruled from Vijaya further south and never again attempted to rule from Tra Kieu.

Le Hoan’s policy of using soldiers from Giao to discipline the southern  provinces and to establish in them an infrastructure for transport and communi- cation was the initial step in a long process of bringing people from the Red River  plain into this region and of pushing rebels into the uplands. Many of those who resisted this process went further south beyond Ngang Pass into the Cham frontier where they found larger scope for their ambitions and where eventually they and their descendants would be caught up in the patrols and expeditions of Le Hoan’s successors during the eleventh century.

Le Hoan acknowledged eleven sons and one adopted son with the rank of prince. The three eldest, all of similar age, were given titles in 989 when they were 6 or 7 years old. While these three remained at the Hoa Lu court, the younger sons were entitled and assigned fiefs during the years 991–995. Being children at the time, the small princes were served by trusted adults. Eight of the nine princely fiefs were in Giao and one was in Thanh Hoa. The fiefs of the fourth, fifth, and sixth sons were the most strategic locations for defending the Giao heartland: Phong, modern Viet Tri, on the northwest, where the Red River and its confluents flow out of the mountains; Phu Lan, modern Pha Lai, on the northeast, where a large fortress guarded the land route to China and access to four rivers; and Dang, modern Hung Yen, on the south, where watch was kept over points of coastal access to the Red River. Ambitious men gathered in the entourages of these three princes. None of the other fiefs offered comparable prospects as a potential base for promotion in what, as the years went by, was expected to be a fraternal competition for the throne. Le Dinh, the fifth son, based at Dang, nearest to Hoa Lu, was best situated to be in the middle of events.

The eldest son and designated crown prince died in 1000. Le Dinh, then 15 years old but already a strong personality, pressed his father to make him the crown prince. Le Hoan was disposed to agree to this but was dissuaded by  advisors who argued that Le Dinh’s full brother, the third son, Le Viet, out- ranked him in age. In 1004, Le Hoan accordingly designated Le Viet to be his heir while at the same time he promoted Le Dinh, Le Viet, and the second son, Le Tich, all three, to the same rank equivalent to crown prince. Le Hoan’s death in the following year, at the age of 64, was immediately followed by eight months of fighting in which Le Tich, Le Viet, Le Dinh, and the ninth son, Le Kinh, were all involved in ways that surviving information does not reveal, but it is clear that the primary conflict was between partisans of Le Tich and Le Viet. Le Tich was eventually defeated. He fled south seeking protection with the Cham king but was killed near the southern border.

Shortly thereafter, Le Viet was proclaimed king at Hoa Lu. Three days after that, Le Dinh killed Le Viet. After proclaiming himself king, conferring high rank upon his mother, and naming four women as his queens, Le Dinh proceeded to besiege Phu Lan, where Le Kinh had taken refuge with the sixth brother, Le Can. At the point of starvation, Le Can gave up Le Kinh to be beheaded by Le Dinh in exchange for being allowed to submit. Le Dinh then moved his army to confront the fourth brother in Phong, who quickly surrendered. He then completed his wars of accession by marching into the southern provinces to suppress the people with whom his father had been fighting for years and who had taken the opportunity to once again rebel. Le Dinh was 19 years old when he became king. He died four years later, reportedly of hemorrhoids brought on by his debaucheries. He was the last king to rule from Hoa Lu.

Le Dinh’s short reign was portrayed by later historians according to the Confu- cian idea of “the last bad king” of a dynasty whose depravity justifies the rise of a  new dynasty. He is said to have delighted in cruelty. Much of his energy was spent campaigning in the southern provinces and attacking the uplands, in the course of which he assembled large numbers of prisoners, whom he roasted alive, drowned in cages, felled from trees, or fed to poisonous snakes. He was known for a nasty sense of humor. He entertained himself by having a Chinese actor spend several days dissecting a man to death with “a small dull knife” while making jokes in response to the man’s screams. He thought it was funny when he used a seated monk’s head to support a stick of sugar cane he was whittling and seriously wounded the man when his hand slipped. He cooked and fed cats and lizards to his court officials and laughed when they vomited. He surrounded himself with actors and jesters who kept up a constant chatter, making light of all that was said and twisted the words of officials to make them ludicrous. He slid into a state of drunkenness and unrestrained self-indulgence. His final days were spent in a prone position because of his hemorrhoids, which is why later historians gave him the posthumous title Ngoa Trieu Hoang De, “Emperor who Held Court Lying Down.” The speed with which he dissipated his youthful vigor may indicate that the stereotype of a dynasty’s last bad king may in this case not be entirely amiss. Those eager for him to pass from the scene possibly even encouraged his excessive

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