The Protectorate of An Nam

01

Dec
2021

The Protectorate of An Nam

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Less than two decades after having extended its southern frontier to Giao, the Sui dynasty collapsed in 618 and was superseded by the Tang. This transition was peaceful in Giao as Sui officials transferred their allegiance to the new dynasty. The Sui and Tang dynasties established a regime based on the success of prior Northern  Dynasties in centralizing their authority against the great families that had dom- inated the empire since Han times. The basis of this regime was the so-called  “equal field” system of land distribution that limited the amount of land any one  person could own and instituted a periodic redistribution of farmland to individ- ual taxpayers organized into military units. This ensured a stable source of tax  revenue and of soldiers for the imperial armies. It was most effective in areas that were newly opened up for agriculture and that did not already have powerful local families. Accordingly, in the seventh century, for the first time, the imperial headquarters for Giao was shifted south of the Red River, to the site of modern Hanoi. This was adjacent to lands in the southern and western parts of the plain that were prone to flooding from the Red River and where, beginning in the fifth century, the building of dikes had been making large-scale agriculture increasingly feasible. The appearance in the seventh century of an administrative center at what is now Hanoi was related to the organization of peasant-soldier communities south of the Red River as the foundation of Tang power in the region.

This was a time of peace and prosperity. Giao was a major stop on the land and sea routes between the Tang Empire and lands beyond. The sea route to India was well traveled by merchants and by Buddhist monks on pilgrimage. Fortunes were made from trade in tropical luxury goods. Imperial administrators garrisoned the upland frontiers and kept an eye on the peoples and markets there, under orders to enforce an embargo on trade in weapons. Information from Giao during the first three-quarters of the seventh century includes much detail about changes in administrative jurisdictions, culminating in 679 with the formation of the Protectorate of An Nam (“pacified south”), a kind of Tang jurisdiction that combined civil and military authority in the hands of a protector general that was considered appropriate for an exposed border region.

Tang records reveal concern about building walls and ramparts in the Hanoi area. During the three centuries of Tang rule these walls were repeatedly repaired, rebuilt, and expanded, and the place was known by several different names, most of them referring to particular kinds of wall. When the city was rebuilt near the end of the eighth century after a destructive war, it became known as Dai La, “big wall,” the name that will be used in this chapter for the sake of convenience. This was where administrators organized a peasant militia based on the “equal field” system

. There is only one report of political violence in the seventh century, and it reveals the presence of a large peasant militia in the Dai La area. In 687, a new and inexperienced protector general endeavored to double the rate of the harvest tax, provoking an uprising that besieged him within the walls of Dai La. Before Tang forces could be effectively mobilized from the north, the walls were breached and the protector general was killed. This episode shows that the peasants affected by harvest taxes also held the balance of military force and were capable of successfully besieging the seat of government. It would be a mistake to imagine that these rebels represented some kind of non-Chinese resistance to Tang authority. The rank and file included many local people, but the hierarchy of command and the specialized skills necessary to organize a siege of the protectorate headquarters required officers, engineers, and other experts that included men from the Tang heartland. The issue was not resistance to imperial government but rather to an inept governor general. The 687 uprising was focused on the administrative center and limited to the region south of the Red River that the Tang peasant militia had brought under cultivation during the preceding decades. This is the only recorded domestic unrest during the first two centuries of Tang rule, and it came from within the Tang system of government itself, not from supposedly indigenous anti-Tang forces seeking to expel the imperial regime altogether. For the most part, people in the lowlands accepted Tang government.

North of the Red River, in the region where the great families of the Han and the Southern Dynasties had been based, a different socio-economic situation developed as powerful local families transformed their private estates into temple estates. Some of their sons entered officialdom and others entered the monastic communities that presided over the temples. The Buddhist temples across the river north and east from Dai La flourished during Tang times. The earliest people to be cited in later works as prominent Buddhist patriarchs date from this time. In addition to the prominence of Buddhist relics and miracles, which date from the time of Shi Xie at the turn of the third century, there are indications of a new emphasis on erudition and the study of sutra texts among Buddhist monks in An Nam. Also, popular religious cults developed in Tang times to worship local spirits that protected imperial government.

Some historical events appear with such little context that it is impossible to evaluate what exactly happened or what significance they might be imagined to have had. One such event is the great spasm of violence that broke into the southern Tang frontier in 722 under the leadership of a man remembered in Tang records as the Black Emperor, presumably because he was black. He came from a coastal village at the extreme southern frontier of the Tang Empire, in modern Ha Tinh Province, near Ngang Pass at the Hoanh Son massif. This was not only on the border of Tang with peoples on the southern coast; it was also near the terminus of the main route from the middle part of the Mekong over the mountains through Mu Gia Pass to the coast. According to Tang records, the Black Emperor assembled a host of four hundred thousand, comprised of a multitude of peoples from the mountains, the coasts, and the seas beyond the Tang frontier. What led to this breakdown of Tang frontier vigilance is as  mysterious as what may have elicited and enabled the Black Emperor’s leader- ship. The Black Emperor and his followers marched north and, surprising the  fleeing Tang authorities, soon had the entire Protectorate of An Nam under their plundering regime. Tang forces in the north immediately mobilized, marched back into the Protectorate, and slaughtered the Black Emperor and his horde.

Forty-five years later, in 767, a somewhat similar episode occurred when people identified in Tang records with terms generally applied to the islands of what is now Indonesia invaded from the sea and briefly overran the Protectorate of An Nam until armies mobilized in the north arrived to expel them. As in the case of the Black Emperor, our knowledge of events in Southeast Asia during that time is insufficient to allow any sense of clarity about what may have provoked or elicited this event. What bears consideration, however, is that the Protectorate of An Nam was organized to prevent such threats from materializing or to respond to them when they did. The fact that during the course of two centuries there occurred only two such episodes of frontier security being breached, and that in each case a successful Tang response was organized with alacrity, shows the stability of Tang authority during that time

During the last half of the eighth century, the Tang Empire was greatly weakened by a series of rebellions led by commanders of the peasant-soldier armies that had been the basis for the rise of the dynasty. These rebellions came on the heels of serious defeats in the early 750s suffered by Tang armies in Yunnan, in Central Asia, and in Manchuria. In the late 750s and 760s, military units were withdrawn from An Nam to fight against the rebellious generals in northern China. News of this may have encouraged the 767 seaborne invasion mentioned above.

By the 770s and 780s, Tang government in An Nam gave way to military commanders vying for ascendancy. Some of these men were of local origin. Tang records identified one of them, named Phung Hung, as a “frontier garrison indigenous leader.” He came from the region of old Me Linh, associated with the Trung Sisters and pre-Han traditions. According to local lore, he was from a prominent family and claimed an indigenous rather than an imperial title.

Phung Hung gained control of An Nam sometime in the mid 780s as Tang authority faded from the southern frontier amidst the fighting among contenders in northern China. It is recorded that he peacefully entered Dai La after the death of a protector general. When Phung Hung died in 789 there was a struggle in the Phung family between partisans of his brother and of his son. Those in favor of his son prevailed. Phung Hung’s son reportedly honored him with a posthumous title that contains the earliest known use of what became the Vietnamese word for king (vua), which is generally considered to be related to another Vietnamese word for father (bo), and which some have also conjectured to be related to a word in the Tai languages of Southeast Asia that means chieftain.

By this time, the rebellions in the north had been put down and the Tang Empire was regaining a measure of stability. In 791 a newly appointed protector  general appeared and the Phung family submitted peacefully. The brief ascend- ancy of the Phung family was a local response to a temporary withering away of  imperial government in An Nam, an effort by local powers to maintain a semblance of political order in a time of dynastic emergency in the north. Tang government in An Nam was fundamentally stable. This is evident considering that it held together for thirty years after the outbreak of rebellions in the north, and when it was reconstituted in the 790s the local people readily acknowledged it without resistance.

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