Rise of the east



Tran Phu

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Nine months after the death of Hien Tu, a group of Tran nobles led by Tran Nguyen Trac advanced into the palace to depose Nhat Le. Nhat Le escaped over a wall and hid under a bridge. His pursuers could not find him and dispersed. Nhat Le then gathered his followers and sent them to track down and kill his enemies, eighteen men in all, including not only Tran Nguyen Trac and his son, but also two sons of Hien Tu’s daughter Ngoc Pha. This signaled open war between Nhat Le and the Tran royal family. Tran Phu retrieved his daughter from the palace and fled to the safety of his mother’s family in Thanh Hoa. Tran Kinh also fled thither, for his mother and Tran Phu’s mother were sisters. A nephew of these sisters, Le Quy Ly, was the leader of the family.

They were joined by Tran Nguyen Dan, a great-grandson of Tran Quang Khai, and by Hien Tu’s daughter Ngoc Pha. All the soldiers that Nhat Le sent from Thang Long against these people joined them instead of attacking them. Tran Phu was the senior member of the group. Everyone looked to him for leadership, but he was diffident. Ngoc Pha and others urged him forward. After several days of hesitation he set out for Thang Long with Ngoc Pha and Tran Kinh at his side, leading a growing army of Tran followers. When they arrived at  Vu Ban, about fifteen kilometers southwest of Nam Dinh, Tran Phu was pro- claimed king and an edict was published dethroning Nhat Le.  On the occasion of proclaiming his accession at Vu Ban, Tran Phu is reported to have said: Formerly, our court established the country with its own governing system and did not follow the regulations of Song, for in the north and in the south each ruler has his own kingdom and they did not imitate each other. In the Dai Tri era [1358–1369], pale-faced scholars were used in public service who did not understand the exact purpose of drawing up laws, and all the old laws of our ancestors were changed to go toward northern customs; whether it be things like clothing or like music, they are too many to count. Consequently, we will now begin to govern according to the regulations in the Khai Thai era [1324–1328]. This remarkable statement rallied members of the Tran aristocracy who flocked to join Tran Phu in his triumphal march on Thang Long. It analyzed the troubles in the country as the result of excessive northern influence instigated by educated commoners.  Tran Phu singled out the time of Tran Hao as the time when northern influ- ence threatened the Tran dynastic legacy. He believed that the scholars, with  their arguments based on northern books, did not understand how the southern country really worked. Only the Tran princes understood this because, after all, their house had established the country, and the country belonged to them. They had more at stake in governing the country than did the scholars, whose ideas about government were detached from loyalty to any particular dynasty. Whether in the ephemera of opera, medicine, sorcery, dress, music, or in the stiffer legal framework that disciplined a society, Tran Phu and the people around him were convinced that change had destroyed the basis of their coun- try’s strength and prosperity. The unrest and rebellion that had broken out since  the 1340s, the inability to maintain ascendancy over the Chams, and the fact that a traitor had been nurtured in the bosom of the dynasty were all indications that something had gone wrong. Tran Phu proposed to go back to the time before the death of Tran Quoc Chan in 1328. That event had resulted in a king whose mother was not a Tran woman. The premature death of this king, Tran Vuong, unexplained in the records, may well have been the work of people who sought to rectify that event after a grandson of Tran Quoc Chan, Tran Hao, was available for the throne. With the failure of Hien Tu’s experiment to legitimize Nhat Le by adoption, there were no surviving male heirs of Tran Manh with Tran mothers. Nothing could be done about that. In fact, Tran Phu was able to restore a semblance of the Tran heritage because he could call upon the resources of his mother’s family in Thanh Hoa. As it turned out, this was the most important aspect of the events in 1370, for Le Quy Ly, the leader of his mother’s family, spent the next thirty years gradually gaining control of the country until he was in a position to completely destroy the Tran dynasty.

Tran Phu with his entourage and army entered Thang Long in triumph. Nhat Le offered no resistance to his demotion, but then he strangled a Tran nobleman who had remained with him as a secret agent of Tran Phu, and because of this he was killed. For the next four months, in late 1370 and early 1371, Tran Phu and his followers were busy celebrating and thinking about how to set things right. Chu An came out of his retirement to congratulate Tran Phu, then died soon after. Tran Nguyen Dan, the next most senior Tran prince, was a literary man and had deep respect for Chu An. Despite the repeatedly expressed scorn of Tran  noblemen for “pale-faced scholars” with their schemes for reforming govern- ance, many of these men were nevertheless valued for their loyalty and learning.  Furthermore, many scholars were dismayed by the leadership of Tran Hao and of Nhat Le and were ready allies of Tran Phu.

Le Quat, one of Chu An’s disciples, wrote an inscription at this time that expresses his respect for how Buddhism had penetrated people of all social classes, for how eagerly people contributed their money and possessions to the temples and monasteries, and for how temples were to be found everywhere and were constantly being repaired or renovated. In comparison with this, he expresses his embarrassment that, although he had spent his youth studying the sages of antiquity and how to instruct the people in proper behavior, there was not yet even one hamlet that followed these teachings and nowhere in the land could he find a school or shrine that was dedicated to classical learning. This reveals that scholars were intellectually alienated from the mainstream of Tran society and culture, which remained focused on Buddhist temples. They earned a place in dynastic affairs with their literary skills, their competence, and their  loyalty. Despite Le Quat’s gloomy inscription, which apparently described con- ditions in the countryside, Truong Han Sieu, who had died in 1354, was honored  at a shrine to Confucius in Thang Long in 1372. When dynastic affairs fell into disarray in the late fourteenth century, the scholars were in a position to increase their role in government and society.

Tran Phu had time to celebrate his birthday festival and to abolish two laws from Tran Hao’s time before an unexpected disaster struck. One law had regulated the reclamation of land from the sea by Tran nobles and one had provided that when a man died his property would be inventoried for royal inspection and potential confiscation. Abolishing these laws removed ways for a greedy king to bite into the aristocracy’s freedom to amass land and wealth. But the agenda of re-establishing the prerogatives of the Tran nobles was suddenly superseded by calamity.

Nhat Le’s mother had fled to the Cham king Che Bong Nga and, seeking revenge against the Tran lords, suggested to him that following the recent turmoil the situation at Thang Long was an opportunity. In spring of 1371, Che Bong Nga led his seaborne forces up the Red River to plunder Thang Long. He burned down the city along with the palaces before withdrawing unscathed. The Tran were caught completely off guard and no defense was offered against this attack.

Tran Phu had no heart for dealing with this crisis. Within days, he elevated his half-brother, 34-year-old Tran Kinh, to be crown prince. A year and a half later, Tran Kinh was made king and Tran Phu became senior king. The next few years were spent in mobilizing the resources of the kingdom to send armies into the south. Tran Kinh was the leading spirit in this endeavor and made it clear, despite protests from officials at court, that he would lead the soldiers in person.

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