Another cycle of Trinh misgovernment



The Tran Dynasty

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Tran Thu Do The Ly family was based in the upper plains of the Red River where they enjoyed direct control of what was then the agricultural core of the country. The Tran family viewed matters from the perspective of the coast, which by the mid twelfth century had become part of a lively network of foreign trade stimulated by the economy of Southern Song. The port of Van Don was a gathering place for merchants and travelers from the coasts of southern China and elsewhere. Here, local products found a market and foreign goods were available. Wealth accumulated in the hands of producers, traders, officials, and those who were politically and militarily ascendant, namely the Tran. The founding of the Tran dynasty brought a new perspective to Thang Long, linking it more directly to the economy and culture of Southern Song than was possible by any overland connection. It was the result, however, of a long and violent struggle during the second and third decades of the thirteenth century. Nguyen Non and Doan Thuong partitioned the Ly dynastic heartland and resisted the upriver advance of the Tran.

Possession of the king gave the Tran an advantage that they were quick to exploit. Within days of finding protection with her brother Tran Tu Khanh, Thuan Trinh gave birth to the princess Thuan Thien. A thatched palace was quickly built on the southern edge of Thang Long for Ly Sam, the king. Thuan Trinh was elevated to the status of queen. Tran Tu Khanh, his eldest brother Tran Thua, and Tran Thua’s eldest son Tran Lieu, then 5 years old, all received prestigious court appointments. Reinforced by men who followed the king, Tran Tu Khanh resumed his attacks on the two local strongmen who were his chief enemies, Nguyen Non at Bac Ninh and Doan Thuong at Hai Duong, pushing both men back and putting them on the defensive. An effort to present a façade of royal normalcy was undertaken in 1217 with the king’s birthday festival, replete with a five-peak bamboo mountain and outings for the king to watch fishermen.

In 1218, a second daughter, the princess Chieu Thanh, was born to the queen. The king reportedly began to suffer from epileptic fits and to act irrationally. Whether this was an actual illness, an expression of sadness, or a flourish of Tran historians to indicate incompetence is hard to say. In the events leading to his death, during 1225 and 1226, there is nothing to suggest that he was not in good health at that time. Fighting with Nguyen Non and Doan Thuong continued. Tran forces gained the upper hand in battle but could not eliminate these old foes. In 1218, Tran Thua broke dikes to devastate Nguyen Non’s territories with floodwater, but Nguyen Non remained undefeated. Meanwhile, Tran Tu Khanh sent men to secure the southern provinces and the Cham border. He also sent patrols into the northern mountains to bring over to his side the chieftains there. Nguyen Non and Doan Thuong were too weak to threaten the Tran outside of their home districts but strong enough that the Tran preferred to avoid forcing the issue. They were neighbors, and the Tran found ways of keeping them at odds with each other. With possession of Thang Long and of the monarchy, the Tran had more urgent matters to address.

In 1223, Tran Tu Khanh died. His younger brother, Tran Thu Do, immedi- ately stepped forward. For the next quarter-century he was the actual ruler of  the country and the architect of a new dynasty. The elder brother, Tran Thua, was given formal precedence and did take an active part in government. But Tran Thu Do always had the last word. In 1224, Tran Thua was on the southern border pacifying rebels in Nghe An while Tran Thu Do was in the palace attending to court affairs.

Tran Thu Do was determined to ease Ly Sam off the throne and did so with the expedient of having him abdicate in favor of his second daughter, Chieu Thanh, then 7 years old. Ly Sam’s eldest daughter, Thuan Thien, then 9 years old, was passed over because she had already been married to Tran Thua’s eldest son, 14-year-old Tran Lieu. Tran Lieu had been introduced into the court in late 1216 at age 5 to be the playmate and eventual husband of Thuan Thien, born six months before. However, Tran Thu Do did not view Tran Lieu as a plausible king and instead favored Tran Thua’s second son Tran Canh. Chieu Thanh and Tran Canh were the same age. At the end of 1225, Tran Thu Do brought Tran Canh into the palace and arranged for the two children to be married, making Tran Canh king and his father, Tran Thua, the “senior king.” Ly Sam and his mother were sent to a temple in Thang Long. Within a year, worried that latent loyalties to the Ly dynasty might focus on the retired king, Tran Thu Do induced Ly Sam’s suicide. Tran Thu Do then took Ly Sam’s queen, his half-sister Thuan Trinh, as his own wife, for he dared not entrust a woman of her status to any other person. The death of a queen dowager was recorded in 1230, which can only have been Ly Sam’s mother. All the remaining women of the defunct Ly court were married to upland chieftains.

Nguyen Non continued to be a thorn in the side of Tran Thu Do. In 1228, Nguyen Non killed Doan Thuong and took possession of all his lands, people, and treasure. In combining the resources of the two remaining anti-Tran regions, Nguyen Non was in a position to launch a serious challenge to the new dynasty. Tran Thu Do reinforced his defenses and sent a letter to Nguyen Non appointing him to a high rank along with a Tran princess to be his wife, hoping that she and her entourage would be able to maintain close watch on him. However, Nguyen Non isolated her from his household and took for himself an even grander rank. But only three months later he fell ill. When Tran Thu Do sent members of his entourage to visit him, Nguyen Non made a great effort to appear strong and healthy, eating and riding his horse, but he died shortly after.

Nguyen Non’s second-in-command was a Cham slave who had previously been a merchant in Laos and was famed for his mastery of weapons and of battlefield strategy. Much of Nguyen Non’s success was attributed to him. Some Vietnamese historians have pointed out that Nguyen Non’s home region included the estates of the Ly royal family where large numbers of Cham prisoners were settled after the expeditions of 1044 and 1069 and that this gave a distinctive cultural and linguistic character to Nguyen Non’s ambitions. It is commonly thought that Nguyen Non’s long and successful resistance to the Tran was in some measure a result of his use of cavalry, which the relatively elevated and hilly terrain of his region made practical. After Nguyen Non’s death, his Cham lieutenant galloped off on horseback to no one knew where, and the Tran, after nearly twenty-five years of war, finally stood unchallenged in the Red River plain.

In 1226, the new king, Tran Canh, celebrated his birthday festival, following a tradition that had been initiated by Le Hoan two and a half centuries before. In 1227, the Tran revived the annual oath of loyalty to be taken with a draught of blood by their men at the shrine of the mountain spirit where Ly Phat Ma had begun this practice after his accession in 1028. In these ways, the Tran continued some ritual practices of kingship from the previous dynasty. However, the Tran had participated in the long and painful disintegration of the Ly dynasty and were determined to learn from that experience. The lesson they took from the Ly failure was the importance of maintaining the integrity of the Tran family by ensuring that the mothers of future kings be Tran women. The only exceptions to this were Ly Sam’s daughters, who had been absorbed by marriage into the Tran family at an early age and thereby separated from the Ly.

In 1232, determined to have done with any nostalgic intrigues among the Ly aristocracy, Tran Thu Do arranged that a ceremony for Ly noblemen to honor their ancestors be held in a hall prepared over a deep pit. In the midst of the ceremony, when all were drunk with banqueting, he collapsed the floor and buried them alive. After this, the Ly family, for the most part, ceased to exist. Some members of the Ly royal family fled across the sea and found refuge with the Koryo dynasty of Korea, where their descendents maintained a memory of their royal past into modern times. Once he had finally erased the likelihood of any resurgence of loyalty to the Ly, Tran Thu Do began to worry about who would be king in the next generation. The next king’s legitimacy would be difficult to challenge if his mother was Chieu Thanh, former child queen and the king’s consort. In the mid 1230s, however, Chieu Thanh remained childless. On the other hand, her elder sister, Thuan Thien, had already given two sons and a daughter to the king’s elder brother, Tran Lieu. In 1234, the death of Tran Thua, father of both Tran Lieu and the king Tran Canh, left Tran Thu Do free to solve the problem in his characteristically callous style. In 1237, Tran Thu Do and the mother of the two young women, now his wife, decreed that Tran Canh abandon his wife and take the wife of his brother, who happened to be three months pregnant.

One year earlier, Tran Lieu had suffered a reduction in his rank for having been intimate with a former concubine of the Ly court. Now, suffering the humiliation of being deprived of his wife, he went into rebellion. Tran Canh, dismayed by the turn of events, rebelled in his own way by running away to a temple on Mount Yen Tu, some 120 kilometers east of Thang Long, begging to be allowed to abdicate and become a monk. Unable to persuade the 19-year-old king to return to the capital, Tran Thu Do began building a palace complex around the temple where the king had taken refuge, saying that wherever the king happened to be was where the capital would be. This was too much for the Buddhist patriarch at the temple, a former teacher of Tran Canh, who told the young king to go back to the capital before the precious solitude of the temple was ruined.

A couple weeks after Tran Canh had returned to Thang Long, Tran Lieu, despairing of his prospects as a rebel, eluded Tran Thu Do’s men by pretending to be a fisherman and approached the king’s boat to ask for mercy. The two brothers embraced and wept. Tran Thu Do, in a nearby boat, came rushing over and ordered his men to “Kill that rebel Lieu!” Tran Canh clung to his brother and refused any harm to him. Tran Thu Do was angry and reportedly said, “I am nothing but your dog! How can I know what’s going on between you two brothers?” Tran Canh spoke to calm down Tran Thu Do and asked him to withdraw his soldiers. Tran Thu Do grudgingly complied but made sure that everyone who had followed Tran Lieu in his rebellious adventure was tracked down and killed. Tran Canh assigned his brother a fief where he lived quietly until his death in 1251. Five years later, one of the sons that Thuan Thien had borne Tran Lieu, harboring resentment at the treatment of his father, took his family and dependents and attempted to escape to Song China. He was captured and returned by an upland chieftain who was loyal to Thang Long.

Tran Thu Do’s policies opened fears of a feud within the Tran family. Some thought that Tran Lieu, as the eldest son of Tran Thua, should have been king. These people looked for a champion in another son that Thuan Thien had borne Tran Lieu, the man later to be famous as commander-in-chief of all military forces during the Mongol invasions of the 1280s, Tran Quoc Tuan (later known as the Hung Dao Prince, or Tran Hung Dao). Tran Quoc Tuan was able and bold. Because of this, and because of the wrong done to his father, relations between him and the king, his uncle, were strained.

Tran Quoc Tuan famously tried the king’s patience in 1251 when, at the age of 19, he broke into the house of a Tran prince whose son had been promised the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage. The princess had been sent to reside in the household of her future father-in-law. Tran Quoc Tuan, enamored of the princess, his half-sister, surreptitiously entered her bedchamber at night and carried her away. He was spared punishment and allowed to keep the girl, who was at most in her early teens, only through the intervention of his aunt, the king’s full sister, who had raised him as her son after his father’s rebellion fourteen years before.

In 1240, Thuan Thien bore the king a son, Tran Hoang, who became the crown prince. In order to knit the two sides of the family together, a daughter that Thuan Thien bore Tran Lieu, Princess Thien Cam, became the queen of Tran Hoang, her half-brother. She subsequently became the mother of the next king, Tran Kham. Tran Kham’s queen was his cousin, a daughter of Tran Quoc Tuan, who became the mother of the next king, Tran Thuyen. Tran Thuyen took as queen a granddaughter of Tran Quoc Tuan, but her failure to bear an heir would, among other things, lead to a breakdown in the Tran marriage policy in the fourteenth century. What the Tran had learned from the failure of the Ly dynasty is that mothers of kings must come from within the royal family. This rule was the initial basis for the Tran dynastic experiment. So long as it functioned, the Tran dynasty remained strong.

The Tran policy to exclude other families from the palace was consonant with centralizing policies in other areas as well. In 1228, village leaders in Thanh Hoa, notoriously difficult to govern, were instructed to conduct annual censuses to update population registers that distinguished people of different ages, abilities, states of health, and family status as a basis for military conscription and recruitment of officials. This was the first recorded effort by rulers in Thang Long to connect their authority directly with villages in a southern province. Three years later, perhaps building on this, a canal was dug to connect Thanh Hoa with the Ca River plain further south. In 1234, Tran Thu Do took direct personal responsibility for Thanh Hoa, an indication that after settling matters in Thang Long he directed his attention to the southern provinces. In 1238, he approved the population registers of Thanh Hoa after four years of work.

In 1242, a new scheme of jurisdictions was established for the entire kingdom. Groups of officials responsible for each jurisdiction were sent to categorize villages according to their sizes and to establish population registers indicating how much land, if any, was owned by each family and the amount of taxes to be paid accordingly. This is the earliest surviving evidence of a centralized land tax regime being proclaimed by a royal court at Thang Long. Nevertheless, the differences between the Red River plain and the southern  provinces were great and in 1256 the kingdom was divided for certain pur- poses into two categories. The Red River plain and the people there were  called Kinh, meaning “capital.” The southern provinces of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, which at that time also included the modern province of Ha Tinh, and the people there were called Trai, meaning “garrison” or “outpost.” The Tran instituted an unprecedented centralization of authority in both areas, but relied primarily on the Kinh people for soldiers and taxation, since they were most numerous, most accessible to the capital, and most socialized to respond to authority. The distinction between Kinh and Trai people gave rise to the usage, still current today, of referring to the Vietnamese as Kinh in contrast to other ethnic groups in the country. The Trai people can plausibly be associated with ancestors of the various groups of people categorized as Muong in modern times.

Within the Red River plain, the dynastic regime built by Tran Thu Do expressed the rising power of the coast based on trade and land claimed from the sea. The Tran homeland was in the region of the modern city of Nam Dinh. The most stubborn enemies of the Tran were based in the upper plains in the Bac Ninh and Hai Duong areas, which had been the heartland of old Giao Province. While the Ly had looked from Thang Long across the river to their home estates in that old heartland, the Tran made the river a pulsing artery connecting Thang Long with their second royal palace complex near Nam Dinh, which was connected in the other direction with the international commerce centered at the seaport of Van Don. This is an example of change and vitality breaking into old centers from frontier areas, a theme prominent in Vietnamese history as it also is in the histories of many other countries.

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