The Sino-Khmer War and renovation



Tran Manh and the late Tran literati

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In the 1320s, as the older generation of Tran nobles died and the younger  generation showed little interest in government, Tran Manh came to rely increas- ingly upon a new generation of educated commoners, scholars of the Confucian  classics who entered government by taking written examinations. There had been no exams since before the Mongol Wars when, in 1299, a call was issued for students to prepare for an examination. The exam was held in 1304 and  graduated 44 men with 330 others selected to pursue further study. The curricu- lum for exams was clearly announced and included taking dictation, writing  essays on the Confucian classics, writing poetry, and demonstrating knowledge of mourning regulations and of how to write royal proclamations and petitions to the king. Until the 1370s, when the political situation changed drastically, the court annals record further examinations in 1314 and 1344; another source indicates an examination in 1364, and there may have been others for which information has not survived. Other kinds of exams were also held during this time, for example in 1304 officials in the judiciary were examined on their knowledge of the law, and in 1321 monks were examined on their knowledge of the Diamond Sutra.

Apparently stimulated by the exam of 1304, a new type of poetry became fashionable. The exam included a type of prose poem that had been developed in the Han dynasty, called phu (Chinese fu). Subsequently, phu began to be written in the vernacular using Nom characters. Nguyen Si Co, a scholar and official with a reputation for being good at making jokes, is associated with this new poetic form. Younger scholars fondly remembered his collegial, friendly, and entertaining manner.

Quite different in personality were Truong Han Sieu and Nguyen Trung Ngan, both of whom had long and illustrious careers at court in the mid fourteenth century. After the death of Tran Thuyen in 1320, and with the thinning out of Tran princes interested in public affairs, Tran Manh brought many talented scholars into service at court. The court annal notes in 1323 that scholars had become more numerous at court and from that time were taking a larger role in court discussions. The names of thirteen scholars were listed in that year as the most prominent, and two of these were Truong Han Sieu and Nguyen Trung Ngan.

Truong Han Sieu (?–1354) had come to notice in the entourage of Tran Quoc Tuan, who introduced him to service at court before his death in 1300. Because of his erudition, the kings called him “teacher” rather than referring to him by his name. In the 1320s he had risen to the highest position at court for someone not a member of the royal family, a position that gave him personal access to the king. He had a reputation for being distant and arrogant toward other scholars. He socialized with eunuchs and married his daughters to men of wealth rather than of learning. In 1326 he accused two scholars working in the judiciary of taking bribes. When Tran Manh ordered an investigation, Truong Han Sieu remarked to someone that an investigation should not be necessary because he was himself someone of high position and his word should be good enough. When Tran Manh heard of this remark, he rebuked Truong Han Sieu, saying that no matter what their rank or position all officials served him and he would not take the word of one against another. The investigation revealed that Truong Han Sieu had no grounds for his accusation and so he was fined heavily. One of the men whom he had accused was found to be “honest and meticulous” and was accordingly promoted.

From the late 1330s into the 1350s, Truong Han Sieu again received important assignments at court. In 1339 he wrote an inscription on the occasion of renovating a Buddhist temple, and in 1343 he wrote another inscription on the occasion of renovating a stupa. In these inscriptions he expressed a complicated attitude that combined his Confucian education with both appreciation for Buddhism as a moral force and criticism of superstitious and corrupt practices that he believed were undermining this moral force. Later Confucian historians took his critical comments out of context to argue that he opposed Buddhism. Buddhists, in turn, have pointed to a poem of his that refers to his having made an “error” to suggest that he was expressing repentance for having opposed Buddhism; in fact, the poem says that the “error” was in being defensive about his reputation and plausibly refers to the 1326 episode. Truong Han Sieu died in 1354 on his way back from supervising soldiers sent to reinforce the southern border against Cham attacks after the unsuccessful expedition of the previous year.

Nguyen Trung Ngan (1289–1370) was a child prodigy who passed the exam- ination of 1304 and irritated colleagues with his boundless pride. He was famous  for writing a poem that read as follows: “I am a talented scholar at court; from childhood my spirit could swallow a water buffalo; at twelve I was an advanced student; at sixteen I passed the examinations; at twenty I was a government official; at twenty-six I was sent as envoy to Beijing.” In addition to excessive pride, he was also known to be careless with details, which led to a setback in 1326 when he incorrectly recorded the rank of a Tran nobleman. Tran Manh appreciated his ability so did not punish him for this but rather reassigned him away from court in Thanh Hoa. Six years later he was back at court and received a series of promotions until in 1342 he was placed in charge of the Privy Council. In that year, the Privy Council was given responsibility for selecting the palace guardsmen, and he personally supervised the guard units in Thang Long. In consideration of this, from 1351 he was allowed to wear a military uniform.

Another man found on the 1323 list of scholars was Doan Nhu Hai, who had begun to serve at court in the 1290s. He gained favor when he assisted the reconciliation between Tran Kham and Tran Thuyen during their feud over Tran Thuyen’s drunkenness. He later distinguished himself as an envoy to Champa and with administration on the Cham frontier. In 1335, he led an army up the Ca River in Nghe An against encroaching Lao. After initial success he led his army into a trap. More than half of his men were lost, and he was drowned trying to escape. Tran Manh eulogized him by warning his officials to beware of excessive ambition and of trying to achieve too much. In fact, this class of scholars was socialized to compete for the attention of the king, and the desire for acclaim was for them conflated with public service. They were not members of a bureaucracy in which promotions and demotions followed a prescribed procedure. As Tran Manh made clear in 1326, they were members of the royal entourage and stood equally in relation to him for assignment as he saw fit; he did not recognize any appeal to hierarchy among them.

An episode demonstrating Tran Manh’s attitude toward court officials occurred in 1342 when he appeared early one morning at the Censorate office after it had been renovated. The two ranking Censorate officials had not yet arrived, so a subordinate greeted the king and facilitated the visit. When the two officials arrived later and discovered what had happened they petitioned the king to punish the subordinate for allowing anyone to visit the Censorate when they were not present. Tran Manh replied that he could go wherever and whenever he wanted and instructed them to drop the matter. They nevertheless persisted and became very heated. Although Tran Manh repeatedly told them to stop, they stubbornly continued the argument until they were finally dismissed. Commoner officials were beginning to be excessively attached to what they considered to be the privileges of court appointments.

The increase of educated commoners at court reached a point where many unauthorized people gained admittance to the royal compound and loitered about. In 1337, an edict specified that all people coming to court must present their credentials, and that those found without proper identification, “doing nothing,” were to be expelled. In 1342, an edict specified that all officials were to be reviewed for retention or dismissal, making it clear that they served only at the pleasure of the king.

From the 1340s, Pham Su Manh and Le Quat, two scholars on the 1323 list, became increasingly prominent in royal service. They were both students of Chu An, the son of an immigrant Chinese and a Vietnamese woman from the outskirts of Thang Long. Chu An was a highly respected scholar who instead of entering government service remained a teacher and a critic of public affairs. Eventually, Tran Manh persuaded him to be the teacher of the young king, Tran Hao. After Tran Manh’s death, Chu An criticized Tran Hao’s favorites in high position as disreputable characters and advised that seven of them be beheaded. When Tran Hao ignored him, he withdrew from the capital and went to live in retirement at Chi Linh, sixty kilometers east of Thang Long

. Pham Su Manh and Le Quat, like their teacher, were known for their integrity. They were also competent royal officials who were given important assignments. 147 / The Tran dynasty  Downloaded from Cambridge However, when they petitioned Tran Manh to “change the system of govern- ment” to be in accord with their understanding of Confucian principles, Tran  Manh understood them to mean a bureaucratic system such as existed in China since Song times and reportedly said: “Each country perfects its own pattern; South and North are different from each other. If I listen to pale-faced scholars seeking to market their plans, there will be rebellion.”

Despite increasing reliance upon men whose education encouraged a Con- fucian bias, Tran Manh considered their arguments as excessively drawing  distinctions and establishing unnecessary hierarchies. His bias was toward the non-duality and sense of inclusiveness that traced back to the thought of Tran Canh and that had been a core value of Tran leadership for over a century. In his time, however, there were no external conditions in the form of a cohesive band of princes to give material expression to this thought.  Instead, he had to work with bickering intellectuals who were full of self- importance, erudite theories, and their own competing ambitions. The echo  of Tran Canh’s thought that reached him after four generations was expressed in naïve, sometimes self-effacing, even simplistic, assertions that there was nothing to worry about. He instinctively looked beyond the posturing of his officials to a firm belief that everyone and everything was in some fundamental way related and that there were no insurmountable incompatibilities in his kingdom.

For example, a son was born to the Bao Tu queen after Tran Manh had become king. Since the Bao Tu queen was from the senior line of the Tran family while Tran Manh’s mother was from the junior line, it could be claimed that her son ranked ahead of the king. When some sought to give his half-brother the rank and privileges of a crown prince, he quickly agreed, despite many officials advising him to think more carefully about it. His reply to objections was that there was nothing to worry about since he believed that his half-brother did have a stronger claim than himself and so he was merely occupying the throne temporarily until the other came of age. The potential problem foreseen by his advisors never came to pass because the half-brother died young.

When officials reported to him that there were great numbers of unemployed people wandering around who did not have families, did not pay taxes, and did not obey royal edicts, he replied, “If this were not the case, how would I be able to follow my calling to pacify the realm? You want me to punish these people, but to achieve what purpose?” He understood that attempting to punish people in distress would push them into rebellion. He also understood government to be a process and not a plan to solve everything to perfection. Later historians considered him to be wise, intelligent, humane, and deeply conservative in resisting any change to what he had inherited from his forbears. He was also motivated by a Buddhist, even Daoist, sensibility that was reluctant to take any unnecessary action for fear of an inevitable and unwanted reaction. He did send soldiers to attack rebel leaders, but he wanted nothing to do with activist schemes for disciplining mere unfortunates. He made a point of instructing his sons to be kind and gentle to their subordinates.

He imagined that the political stability achieved by his fathers would last forever. He did not know that his world was on the brink of disaster and that later historians would see his reign as the last sunny era of his dynasty. His was a time when, despite accumulating worries, the momentum of Tran power remained a plausible source of confidence and comfort for educated people. Consequently, books were compiled that mapped the past from a Tran vantage and took the Tran achievement for granted.

The Thien Uyen Tap Anh (Compiled Extracts about Zen Worthies) was first arranged some time in the fourteenth century, almost certainly during the reign of Tran Manh and probably in the 1330s. It consists of biographies of monks and nuns who lived from the sixth to thirteenth centuries in Giao Province/An Nam/Dai Viet. The intent of the compiler was to document lineages through which the “mind seal” of enlightenment was passed to the Tran dynasty. It was modeled upon “transmission of the lamp” texts written during the Tang dynasty and aimed to show that the Tran had received true Zen doctrine. The last people mentioned died in the time of Tran Canh who had developed a particular line of Buddhist thought that became characteristic of Tran royalty. Tran Canh, as well as his son and grandson, Tran Hoang and Tran Kham, were regarded as Zen masters by some temple dwellers. Tran Kham spent his last years, died, and was cremated on Mount Yen Tu, where he propounded the Bamboo Grove (Truc Lam) School, a short-lived royal sect that later writers associated in various ways with worthies in the Thien Uyen Tap Anh.

In the 1320s, Ly Te Xuyen, the royal librarian of Buddhist texts and sutras, compiled two books. The Co Chau Phap Van Phat Bon Hanh Ngu Luc (Record of What has been Said about the Origin and Deeds of the Cloud Dharma Buddha at Co Chau) is a history of the cult of the first Buddha in the land, dating from its origin in the time of Shi Xie at the turn of the third century. It is an accumulation of materials over a period of a thousand years. The text as it presently exists contains several “endings” where compilers at particular times finished their work. The last ending before the eighteenth century contains a description, dated in 1322, of Tran royal officials giving thanks to the Buddha for answering prayers for rain, and it also gives a description, written by Ly Te Xuyen, of the new year festival of this Buddha as it was celebrated both at its temple and in Thang Long.

In 1329, Ly Te Xuyen compiled the Viet Dien U Linh Tap (Departed Spirits in the Vietnamese Realm). This book contains biographies of twenty-seven deities beginning with Shi Xie and ending with cults established during the Ly dynasty. These deities were considered to have responded to the prayers of Tran kings to grant success to their armies during the Mongol Wars and the 1312 expedition to Champa. Information is cited from earlier texts and from oral tradition about the spirits worshipped by Tran kings as guardian deities of the kingdom. Titles conferred on the deities by Tran kings in gratitude for their protection of the realm are recorded.

These works view the Tran dynasty as sustained by the divine forces that govern human affairs and by the wisdom of correct teaching about the Buddha. The rising class of scholars included those inclined to look askance at what they perceived as superstition, corruption, or wastefulness among the adherents of Buddhism. However, at least until the death of Tran Manh in 1357, they knew that they served a king who venerated the Buddha. Tran Manh was inclined to  dismiss their ideas about how to organize society and government but appreci- ated their loyalty and competence. He shrank from interfering in the existing  scheme of things to bring change but dutifully intervened, when necessary, to restore order.

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