The Nguyen Dynasty

01

Dec
2021

The Nguyen Dynasty

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Between north and south The country that appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century stretching from the southern border of China to the eastern border of Cambodia had never existed before. The name Vietnam can be found in some earlier Vietnamese texts, and the Qing court used this name when recognizing the new country as a vassal kingdom, but it was not commonly used until the twentieth century. The Qing continued to routinely refer to this place as An Nam, a name that dated from the Tang dynasty and that later became the French name for the central part of the country. In 1802, Vietnamese envoys to the Qing court were instructed to propose Nam Viet as the name of their new country. The message sent with the envoys cited the ancient kingdom of Nam Viet founded by Zhao To in Guangdong and Guangxi at the beginning of the Han dynasty as an auspicious precedent because it had pacified and civilized all the southern territories. Furthermore, the message gave the name a new contemporary meaning as representing the unification of all the Vietnamese lands: “Now, the South (Nam) has been swept of rebels and the whole realm of Viet has been restored to normalcy.” The Qing court, however, objected to the name Nam Viet for the very same reason proposed in its favor by the Vietnamese. In imperial historiography, contrary to Vietnamese historical tradition, Zhao To’s kingdom was an inauspicious rather than an auspicious precedent because it had rebelled against the Han dynasty. Arguments about the name shuttled between Hue and Beijing for nearly a year before the Qing court  finally turned the name to Viet Nam, thereby avoiding the unpropitious conno- tation of insubordination and separatism in the name Nam Viet. The name  Vietnam eventually entered popular usage with the spread of alphabetic literacy and nationalist ideas in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. Nguyen Phuc Anh, subsequently remembered by his dynastic name of Gia Long, established his court at Hue, old Phu Xuan, where his ancestors had ruled since the seventeenth century. Putting the central government at Hue is under- standable, considering the ruling family’s long and illustrious association with  this place, and it is even plausible as being more or less equidistant from the two main centers of population and economy in the plains of the Red and Mekong Rivers. However, Hue suffered from disadvantages that crippled the efforts of kings to govern the new country. Hanoi was around 650 kilometers to the north and Saigon was around 900 kilometers to the south. For a majority of people in the country, either Hanoi or Saigon was the administrative and economic center that governed public life. Experience eventually showed that a ruler had to have a firm grip on one of these places in order to be able to control the other. Sitting at Hue, rulers had difficulty controlling either the north or the south. Hue was previously well situated to guard the northern border of the southern domain, but that border no longer existed. Furthermore, it was located in a narrow, relatively isolated, coastal strip without a seaport. Nguyen Phuc Anh’s military campaigns had shown the importance of shipping and access to the sea for establishing his new regime, but, after gaining success, he turned away from the sea and chose to place his court near the tombs of his ancestors. Hue was masked from the sea behind the shifting sands of dunes and the shallow currents of lagoons. Da Nang Bay became the main point of access for Hue to the sea, but it was sixty kilometers south over a major mountain pass. The old seaport of Hoi An, even further south, was no longer usable because the Thu Bon River had silted up by the end of the eighteenth century. The disconnection of Hue from the rest of the country became increasingly obvious as time went on. The main population centers, in the plains of the Red and Mekong Rivers, could not be easily governed from this place given the speed of communication at that time. Historians have faulted the Nguyen dynasty of the nineteenth century for its rigid and unimaginative response to changing conditions, but the passivity of leadership at Hue during this time also reflected the palace-bound routines and limited perspectives of men in a quiet corner of the country while in the northern and southern plains people were experiencing dramatic encounters with the forces of a new age. Gia Long’s successor, Minh Mang, ruling from 1820 to 1840, understood the problem and endeavored to centralize the dynastic system, but his ambition to enforce unity led to rebellion and confrontation with Siam. His successors, overwhelmed by court politics and befuddled by unprecedented seaborne threats, stiffened into spectators at the palace windows. Gia Long understood that the peoples of his newly conquered realm needed time to put behind them not only the wars of recent decades but also the sense of separation that had been enforced for generations at the walls in the Nhat Le River basin. He ruled with a relatively light touch. He governed as he had learned to do at Saigon during wartime, with a strict assertion of his authority combined  with pragmatic improvisation and a reluctance to act without careful prepar- ation and the assurance of success. Furthermore, in the urgent pressures of  wartime he came to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his top-ranking generals, and he learned to delegate authority to them if not to entirely trust them. The two most capable of his generals were Nguyen Van Thanh (1757– 1817) and Le Van Duyet. They were in the midst of the hardest fighting during the last years of the war, often being yoked together in collegial command of critical campaigns. Yet, they were very different from each other, and they disliked one another. Nguyen Van Thanh’s ancestors came from the northern border region of the old Nguyen domain, in modern Quang Binh Province, but he grew up in Gia Dinh. His father was a general in the Gia Dinh army who died fighting the Tay Son in the mid 1770s. Nguyen Van Thanh was well educated in both literary and military studies. He began his career on his father’s staff and, after his father’s death, entered the circle of Nguyen Phuc Anh’s closest retainers. In 1802, Gia Long made him his viceroy at Hanoi with responsibility for governing the old Trinh domain. This appointment was ostensibly made because his education and political cunning made him suitable for dealing with the large number of literati in the north, many of whom retained lingering loyalties to the Le dynasty. He was susceptible to pride and ambition. Le Van Duyet’s ancestors were peasants from Quang Ngai Province. He grew up in the vicinity of My Tho on the Mekong River. Reportedly born without genitals, he entered royal service as a eunuch and was with Nguyen Phuc Anh in 1780 when he was proclaimed king at Gia Dinh. Like Nguyen Van Thanh, he followed Nguyen Phuc Anh into Siamese exile and survived many perilous adventures. Without literary pretensions, he often dressed as a peasant, was informal, brusque, and even rude, in his manners. His entourage of adopted sons included Chinese merchants and members of upland minorities. He enjoyed cockfighting, southern folk theater, and he worshipped local goddesses. After 1802, he became Gia Long’s most trusted man in the far south and eventually occupied the post of viceroy at Saigon with responsibility for the volatile Khmer frontier. He was known for being utterly loyal to Gia Long. According to a famous anecdote, on the eve of battle in 1800, Nguyen Van Thanh offered Le Van Duyet a cup of wine, saying, “Let us drink to give us strength.” But Le Van Duyet refused, saying, “Only those who are afraid borrow strength from wine. As for me, I see nothing to be afraid of, so what use have I for wine?” Embarrassed, Nguyen Van Thanh thereafter nurtured resentment against Le Van Duyet. Whatever truth may be in this anecdote, the two men came to represent conflicting tendencies in Gia Long’s entourage. Nguyen Van Thanh eventually found himself among erudite northerners who were seeking a point of entry into the Hue court. Le Van Duyet remained among a diverse population of southerners who were devoted to Gia Long but content to have as little to do with Hue as possible. In 1810, Nguyen Van Thanh requested to be replaced as viceroy at Hanoi in order to mourn the death of his mother. This enabled him to reside at Hue where  he was soon among Gia Long’s closest advisors. Nguyen Van Thanh occasion- ally submitted confidential messages to Gia Long proposing various measures  that he considered to be propitious. His ideas tended to be astute and timely, and Gia Long generally followed his advice. With one such message in 1812, he proposed four courses of action, to all of which Gia Long indicated his assent. The four priorities addressed by his message were major issues during Gia Long’s reign: publishing a unified code of law; selecting Confucianists for high office; pacifying the Cambodian border; and selecting a crown prince to safeguard the succession. In 1811, Gia Long had assigned Nguyen Van Thanh to work on sorting out the codes of law being applied in different parts of the country. In 1812, what came to be called the Gia Long Code was issued. Modern scholars have dilated about the extent to which this code simply copied provisions from the Qing dynastic law code, often expressing surprise that Gia Long did not make more use of the Le Code that had developed at Hanoi since the fifteenth century, which presumably was more resonant with local practice than the code that had developed in China. French colonial administrators were particularly critical of the Gia Long Code, not only because it was so different from their own practice of law but also because they were inclined to romanticize the Le Code and what they perceived as indigenous Vietnamese culture as a way of justifying their efforts to eradicate Chinese influence among the Vietnamese. Gia Long saw the matter quite differently. For him, the Le Code did not represent the legal experience of the Vietnamese people. It represented the practice of Vietnamese in the north. His ancestors had ruled the south for two centuries without any explicit reference to the Le Code. There is no evidence that civil law was ever standardized in the south. In fact, there is very little evidence of concern for standardizing civil law in the south at all. The reason for this is that southern society developed under the pattern of military authority prevailing at  frontier garrisons. The application of law in the south depended on the vicissi- tudes of contact with non-Vietnamese peoples, local conditions in places distant  from the central government, and the educational level and personal predilec- tions of relatively unsupervised officials. Many Vietnamese chose to live in the  south exactly to put distance between themselves and the kind of society adjudi- cated by the Le Code in the north. Any attempt to enforce the Le Code in the south, however appropriate it might seem to later scholars, would have been anachronistic and unacceptable to southerners in Gia Long’s time, for whom the habits of governance in the north represented the oppressive practice of what for generations had been their enemy. At the same time, any legal system designed in the south would have been unacceptable to northerners. In northern eyes, southerners had turned away from a properly ordered society and were naturally lawless. Nguyen Van Thanh and Gia Long resolved the conundrum by importing the Qing Code while adding and subtracting particular provisions to make it a feasible framework for legal practice among all Vietnamese. The word “framework” is important, for the Gia Long Code was never strictly or uniformly applied. Hundreds of edicts were subsequently published to supplement the code, connecting it to conditions  existing in the country. Legal practice followed a variety of regional adminis- trative adaptations. The Gia Long Code gave a gloss of unity over a new country  without a common sense of law. The reason that it was possible to adapt the Qing Code was that legal ideas and practices among the Chinese and Vietnamese were not excessively dissimilar, at least in theory and to a large extent even in practice. Furthermore, Gia Long’s judicial administration was neither adequately staffed with qualified officials nor sufficiently concerned with a systematic application of law as to be able to strictly implement the code. This helped to ensure that potential points of dissonance between provisions in the code and the actual practice of law did not generate unsolvable problems. Nguyen Van Thanh’s years of administrative experience at Hanoi among the northern scholars probably turned his mind to the Qing Code as an admirable solution to the legal morass in the country that would be acceptable to northerners who valued their membership in the larger East Asian world and would also be unobjectionable to southerners for whom law was of little interest. Nguyen Van Thanh’s idea to appoint more Confucianists to high positions was designed to appeal to the northern scholars, who made up the bulk of Confucianists in the country. Gia Long had encouraged the allegiance and participation in government of educated northerners from the beginning of his reign, but while this was readily implemented in the viceroyalty at Hanoi, the central court at Hue remained populated mostly by southerners who had earned  their positions through wartime service. Most of these southerners were experi- enced soldiers with mediocre educations and little, if any, interest in Confucian- ism. Le Van Duyet was a prominent example of such a man.  Gia Long understood the tensions between the northern men with their classical educations and his loyal entourage of pragmatic southerners, but he was not eager to open opportunities for these tensions to disturb his government. Consequently, he promoted education and appointed men of trust and talent wherever he found them, but he did not establish a system of literary exams at the capital nor did he particularly aim to promote the ambitions of northern scholars. In 1807, in response to a proposal from Nguyen Van Thanh, Gia Long opened regional literary exams at four locations in the Red River plain plus one each in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. A total of sixty-two men were selected at these exams. Those who entered officialdom after excelling in this exam did so in the northern viceroyalty. Thereafter, Gia Long followed the practice of his ancestors in holding exams at the regional level every six years. He never instituted a capital-level exam because “peace had but recently been established and literary study was still weak.” In 1813, regional exams were expanded to include the southern provinces. Surviving information about the results of these exams and about the regional exams of 1819 is sketchy and incomplete. However, some details of the notorious 1819 exam at Saigon were recorded. When students were on the verge of rioting because the questions were too difficult, the examiners gave them easier questions. Then, there were accusations that one candidate had concealed the fact that he was in mourning in order to take the exam and that another candidate had hired a substitute to take the exam for him. Disciplinary action was taken against both the offending candidates and the examiners. Gia Long’s relative lack of interest in establishing an examination system is in contrast to the practice of previous founders of new regimes in the north, such as Le Loi and Trinh Tung, who held examinations even before achieving success on the battlefield. It is also in contrast to the Mac, who maintained an examination schedule amidst the disorders of civil war. The explanation for this is that in the south a literary education had never been the means for advancing a public career to the extent that it had become in the north. Aside from the fact that Gia Long viewed education primarily from a southern perspective as the acquisition of practical skills, he was not in a hurry to force southerners into academic contests with northerners, which could only exacerbate regional friction.

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