Another cycle of Trinh misgovernment

01

Dec
2021

Trinh Cuong’s reforms

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When Trinh Can died in 1709, Trinh Cuong, then 24 years old, came to power surrounded by men keen to reform the government. One of Trinh Cuong’s first acts was to reissue “the six teachings” that had been promulgated in the late 1670s, just before Trinh Tac’s death: (1) great lords must not rely upon coercion to have their way; (2) military officers must constantly train and drill their men and must not be heartless and cruel toward the people; (3) civil officials must be honest and industrious; (4) court ministers must be loyal and without guile; (5) soldiers must follow orders; (6) the people must do their best to know the difference between right and wrong. These “teachings” were an echo of the idealism of the Hong Duc and Canh Tri eras. That they were again announced at this time is an indication that the undesirable behaviors they addressed were still very much in evidence. The small quiver of idealism expressed in Trinh Cuong’s accession to power and reflected in the recycling of these “teachings” was probably based on Trinh Cuong’s susceptibility to the influence of a group of officials inclined toward the rhetoric of good government. These officials apparently found their step up into power in alliance with Trinh Cuong’s mother, a woman who had achieved high status among the palace women. Trinh Cuong’s twenty years of rule displayed a flurry of legislation aimed at the country’s problems. Yet, the disconnection between government authority and a population in distress paradoxically increased. The literati families in the Red River plain that had been mobilized by Trinh Tac, with a few notable exeptions, simply added a new level of corruption and oppression between the Trinh regime and village agriculturalists. Trinh Cuong’s reforms produced little  more than opportunities for new forms of abuse. Meanwhile, rural impoverish- ment continued unabated while Trinh treatment of the Le kings eroded the moral  authority of the regime. If one were to take at face value the busy concern with which Trinh Cuong and his small circle of advisors appeared to have addressed government affairs, it would seem to have been a time of relatively enlightened rule motivated by strong  feelings of benevolence toward the common people. Trinh Cuong was an intelli- gent man who appears to have taken to heart the task of sorting out the mess in  which he found the country. However, he and his advisors found no way to translate ostensibly good intentions into real achievements. Whatever they tried to do got lost somewhere between plan and implementation. Furthermore, the gap that had always existed between the Trinh regime and the people of the Red River plain, instead of being mended, was being filled by a new class of locally produced rapacious officials and “notables.” Beneath the veneer of fine rhetoric and legislative activism, the regime continued down the path of corruption, factional intrigue, and virulently oppressive taxation. Trinh Cuong’s reputation as a reformer has been enhanced among historians by comparison with the disasters that followed. Trinh Cuong’s closest advisors were Le Anh Tuan (1671–1734), a graduate of 1694, and Nguyen Cong Hang (1680–1732), a graduate of 1700. Both were from localities near the capital. They had supported Trinh Cuong’s elevation during Trinh Can’s final years. According to an anecdote, Trinh Cuong was in the habit of summoning these men in the dead of night to discuss problems and policies over tea. However, their ideas did not fare well in the light of day. They were the architects of Trinh Cuong’s reforms. They also found ways to abuse their power and made many enemies. After Trinh Cuong’s death, they met untimely ends when their enemies were ascendant. Trinh Cuong’s reforms were not entirely hollow. They did have an effect on the country, even if not what was apparently intended, and they became a point of reference for legislative initiatives later in the century. Furthermore, they concentrated on the most intractable sector of Trinh government: land tenure and rural taxation. A detailed look at these measures reveals why Trinh Cuong’s so-called reforms were unsuccessful. It was a case of palace theory encountering the stubborn reality of a countryside where an ineffective central authority had to compromise every measure with the most predatory elements of rural society. The breakdown of dikes and devastating floods had become common in Trinh Can’s later years. Consequently, one of the first measures taken by Trinh Cuong was to take the responsibility for dike maintenance out of the hands of provincial officials and to centralize the supervision of dikes from the capital. While this was intended to eliminate provincial corruption of dike management, it was no guarantee against corruption at the central government level. Furthermore, this removed supervisory responsibility from people closest to the dikes and placed it in hands at some distance away. This measure does not seem to have significantly affected the frequency of dike breaches, even for dikes in the immediate vicinity of the capital. Just a few months before Trinh Cuong’s death in 1729, there were serious dike failures with floods along the Red River. Floodwaters broke through a dike directly across the river from Ke Cho, washing away a palace that Trinh Cuong had built for his mother only two years before. In 1725, the collapse of dikes in Hai Duong, east of the capital, had produced the unusual calamity of  seawater invading the rice fields. The example of dike management is an indica- tion of the quality of Trinh Cuong’s reforms. They did not improve adminis- tration so much as reallocate opportunities for the personal enrichment of  officials. Famines are recorded in 1713, 1721, 1724, 1726, and 1728. In 1721, famine created such panic in the capital that special police units were deployed to keep order in the streets as dying peasants invaded the capital. In 1715, an epidemic  ravaged Nghe An, prompting authorities to make prayers to Buddha for deliver- ance. Missionary accounts from this time attest to the utter misery of the rural  population. Farmers lived on the edge of starvation. Taxation and conscription pushed large numbers of people to flee, leaving empty villages and abandoned fields. Wealthy notables and predatory mandarins accumulated land. Trinh  Cuong spent vast sums on new palaces and gardens. His eunuchs were every- where seeking ways to fill their pockets.  In 1711, Trinh Cuong’s advisors noted the basic outline of the rural problem. Powerful families had accumulated land into big estates worked by fugitives and refugees who thereby had escaped from village tax and conscription registers. Many villages stood deserted, and a large part of the rural population had disappeared from administrative oversight. There was no prospect of changing the general dynamic of this situation. Trinh Cuong’s advisors understood that  they could not stop people from leaving their villages and seeking their liveli- hoods elsewhere. All they could propose was that when people did move to  another place they were supposed to register with the authorities in that place to be included in the rolls for taxation and conscription. They were also concerned about the common fields that were meant to support landless widows and widowers, childless elderly people, the disabled, and soldiers. There was a perception that village common fields were not being allocated properly, so Trinh Cuong’s advisors proposed to conduct a survey of these fields every six years to make sure that they were sufficient to meet the demands placed on them. The main concern here, however, was not with the landless, the elderly, or the disabled, but with the soldiers, and the soldiers in question were men from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An who were garrisoned in the Red River plain. Men in the Red River plain were conscripted as soldiers in times of emergency or for periodic training, or for rotational duty in the northern border provinces, but they were not maintained as part of the regular, standing military force in the lowlands. In 1722, this was changed, and men from the Red River plain were integrated into the regular standing army. As part of this new scheme, the common fields in the villages of the Red River plain were reassigned for the support of soldiers from the Red River plain. Although this provided some temporary relief to local populations that no longer had to allocate land to support soldiers from other provinces, in the long term it created a new class of villagers with military training who would turn against the Trinh during the rebellions that broke out in the 1730s. A common means by which local officials accumulated wealth at the expense of villagers was through litigation in courts of law that resulted in the penalty of confiscation, either of land or of other forms of property. The abuses of this procedure had been entrenched in village life for centuries, but they had reached such a level of virulence that Trinh Cuong’s advisors took note of them in 1715 by ordering a triennial inspection of confiscations to ensure that they were appropriate, not too much or too little. This measure neither ended the practice nor did it ensure an end to abuse. It simply brought the central authorities into the picture and gave them opportunities to participate in managing this method of transferring wealth from villagers to government officials.  In 1716, Trinh Cuong’s advisors began to discuss what to do about the Stabil- ization Act that had been implemented in the 1660s by the Canh Tri reformers to  fix a final, definitive survey of village land ownership as the basis for taxation. This survey, made when there was little difference between landowners and village  populations, produced a set of census registers that were also used for the con- scription of laborers and soldiers when needed. Since the brunt of military service  was borne by men from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, the conscription of men from the Red River plain was not a high priority for routine administration and could be accomplished when needed on an ad hoc basis. However, by the time of Trinh Cuong, this was changing, and the idea of incorporating men from the Red River plain into the regular standing army was growing. In order to accomplish this, an up-to-date census of village populations would have to be taken. The first step in the minds of Trinh Cuong’s advisors was to distinguish between surveys of land ownership and census registers. They regarded these as different issues and began to make plans for both a survey of land ownership and a census of the population as separate procedures. The record of land ownership that had been produced by the Stabilization Act was absurdly out of date, which increasingly distorted the tax burden. Villages were taxed according to rates that had been calculated half a century earlier. This was not a problem for villages that had grown or become wealthier, but, for the more typical villages that had fallen on difficult times and seen much of their land go into the untaxed hands of powerful families, this made their tax burden  oppressively out of proportion to available resources. Meanwhile, rich land- owners were not bearing an equitable share of the tax burden. In 1619, a field  survey to record land ownership for purposes of taxation was ordered so that “the rich will bear their proportional share of the tax burden and the poor will not be oppressed.” But a survey of land ownership would not help to administer labor and military conscription or the head tax and the public service fees levied to support local shrines, temples, dikes, bridges, storehouses, and examination halls, so in 1722 the first of what were to be triennial censuses was taken. The census of 1722 resulted in a redrawing of the administrative maps and became the basis for the new system of conscripting soldiers from the Red River plain into the standing army. It was also the basis for new tax legislation announced in 1723, which was supposedly based on the “Tang dynasty model.” The main source for field taxes was on the common lands that were mostly apportioned to the families of men serving on active military duty. Private land was taxed at less than half the rate of common land, and the private land of officials was exempt from taxation altogether. The head tax, which in the past had been levied according to a schedule of variable rates, was simplified to a fixed rate for all men eligible for military service, with students and the elderly paying half the regular rate. The public service fees were likewise simplified to a fixed rate to be paid by all men eligible for military service. Fields were designated for the support of schools. Furthermore, a school tax was added to the head tax in the Red River plain and to the public service fee in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An; the school tax in Nghe An was half that in the Red River plain, and in Thanh Hoa it was less yet than that. Other innovations to the tax system were duties on the sale of cinnamon  bark and of bronze. Inspection stations on the rivers taxed boats at the rate of one- fortieth the value of merchandise they carried. A special tax scheme was estab- lished for salt makers, who were exempt from regular taxation.  The new tax policy was modified as soon as it encountered reality. In 1724, the head tax was abolished in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, and the land tax rates in those provinces were reduced by half. In the Red River plain, the schedule of tax rates was reduced “in accordance with local conditions.” When a drought ruined the rice harvest, taxes were reduced even further. In an effort to find new sources of revenue, a survey was ordered of land that had appeared as a result of changes in the courses of rivers, and a new tax was levied on the sale of fruits and vegetables. Plans were made for the second triennial census in 1725, but this census apparently never materialized as problems overwhelmed Trinh Cuong’s advisors. In 1725, all unpaid taxes were forgiven and Nguyen Cong Hang was assigned to personally tour the countryside to sort out the mess. The survey of fields had produced a great snarl of disputes over ownership of land and over access to water that was made available from dikes and dams. The policy of conscripting soldiers from the Red River plain into the regular army resulted in large numbers of men fleeing their villages to avoid military service. The only government initiative recorded this year was to issue rules on how much property various grades of officials were allowed to possess, which gave the Trinh regime an opportunity to appropriate what it decided was the excess property of officials, basically skimming off its share of what local authorities had acquired. The regime also issued an invitation to villagers to speak up in praise or blame of local magistrates, thus acknowledging a certain concern about popular opinion. Thereafter, the initiatives taken to survey land ownership and to establish a system of taxation were overwhelmed by the poverty of rural life and by the culture of corruption that had become endemic to officialdom. In 1727, new rules for collecting taxes were published. It is unclear what exactly they were, but they were ostensibly meant to remedy the “chaos” of existing practice. In 1728, the rate of taxation on land was increased, and there were new rules for allotting common land to the families of soldiers. Trinh Cuong died the following year without having solved the agrarian problems that seemed to occupy so much of his advisors’ attention. Trinh Cuong’s advisors also made innovations in education and the examination system during the 1720s. The curriculum for military examinations was published in 1721. Designed to produce officers, it included the study of Sunzi, an ancient author on “the art of war,” and the demonstration of skill in horsemanship, in the use of shield and sword, and in handling knives. The focus of concern about literary examinations was directed at the regional exams and the procedure for students to gain access to regional exams. The same questions were being used in regional exams year after year and were well known to students, so in 1711 officials were directed to change the questions for each exam. But this did not end the chicanery. In 1720, the setting of regional examination questions was taken out of the hands of provincial officials altogether and was thereafter to be done in the capital. In 1722, new regulations for the conduct of regional examinations were issued. The most significant departure from previous practice had to do with the pre-exams that determined the eligibility of students to advance to the provincial-level regional exams. Pre-exams had previously been held at the village level under the supervision of district magistrates, but they were now to be conducted at the district level under the supervision of provincial education officers. One effect was that the quotas for students who could pass were now set at the district level rather than at the village level, so whereas before every village could theoretically be represented at the regional exam, this was no longer the case, and there was greater opportunity for notoriously corrupt provincial education officials to determine the results. Another innovation was that, while those who passed the pre-exams had before been sorted into two categories of achievement, “completely good,” and “less good,” with the “less good” having to wait for the next regional exam, now a third intermediate category of “rather good” was inserted into the scheme and allowed to advance directly to the regional exam. There were two effects of this. One was that the “rather good” category became a fast track for favorite candidates of education officials and the other was that large numbers of aspiring students began to collect in the “less good” category, waiting for their chance to advance to the regional exam. The abuses occasioned by the “rather good” track led to this category being abolished in 1741, but in 1750 it was reinstituted to normalize a growing practice of people buying their way into the regional exam. The principal administrative innovation of this time was the institution in 1718 of the Six Sessions (Luc Phien). There had been up to three sessions prior to this, but they were simply part of the Trinh military command structure and were in charge of handling the finances of the land army, the naval forces, and the headquarters. Now, sessions directly under the authority of the Trinh lord were established as part of the civil government to handle the finances of each of the Six Ministries (Luc Bo). In practice, the Six Sessions took over the functions of the Six Ministries, although the Six Ministries continued to exist with certain appellate duties, at least in theory. In practice, the Six Sessions were a new level of authority over the entire system of government located at the “court” of the Trinh lord. This authority was based upon the control of revenue. This may appear to have tightened the chain of command from the Trinh lord to the various offices of government, but it also inserted another layer of officialdom at the top of the system that offered excellent opportunities to favored officials for cultivating power and for personal enrichment. At the same time, another layer of fiscal administration was added with the formation of the Six Treasuries (Luc Cung). The flow of tax revenue was redirected from the Ministry of Finance to the Six Treasuries, which were attached to the Six Sessions. While the creation of the Six Sessions and Six Treasuries may superficially appear to have been a means for the Trinh lord to centralize his control over the government, it also opened the stream of tax revenues to the hands of more officials in the lord’s inner circle of favorites. The formation of the Six Sessions and the Six Treasuries was shortly followed, in 1720, by a reform in the hierarchy of appointments, ostensibly modeled on the Hong Duc official registry, although, in the words of the annalist, “the importance of positions was not the same.” At the time of this reform, the group of officials closest to Trinh Cuong were recognized for their service during the preceding ten years. Nguyen Cong Hang and Le Anh Tuan, along with three  others, were given top honors. Nine men received lesser awards. The adminis- trative innovations of 1718 were apparently related to the ascendance of this  group of officials. Pensions for retired officials were also established at this time.  Two years later, a new set of regulations for making appointments to govern- ment offices was published.  Most of the reforming zeal of these years was directed at organizing access to public revenues. Other aspects of government, for example the administration of justice, were ignored. In 1723, following a routine established in the time of Trinh Can, officials were sent out to clear up the backlog of litigation in the  provinces. This was yet another opportunity for squeezing money into official- dom through fees, fines, and confiscations.  The first peacetime conscription of soldiers from the Red River plain was initiated in 1721. In the following year, these men were integrated into regular military units along with men from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. Among other things, this was part of an effort to remove the army from the politics of the Trinh family. In 1722, Trinh Cuong began to retire members of the Trinh family out of military positions because he did not want disaffected kinsmen with military commands. He was also worried about problems on the Qing border and felt the need to bring the manpower of the Red River plain into the equation of frontier security. In 1724, soldiers from the northern jurisdictions of the plain began to be rotated for service in Cao Bang. In 1726, at a time of unrest in Cao  Bang, ten thousand freshly recruited men from the Red River plain were mobil- ized to the capital for training and drill.  Security issues on the northern border were a chronic source of concern. In 1714, a campaign against pirates along the coastal border with Qing was launched. In 1715, Nguyen Cong Hang went to Cao Bang to deal with unrest occasioned by someone claiming to be a descendent of the Mac. In 1717, the large numbers of men from Qing gathering in the northern mountains to work in the gold, silver, copper, zinc, and iron mines so worried Trinh Cuong that he decreed their number should be limited to three hundred. Vietnamese officials resisted taking assignments in the northern border provinces. Those appointed to serve there were in the habit of staying in the capital and pretending to fulfill their duties at a distance. In 1712, Trinh Cuong forced officials appointed to the northern border provinces to actually go there. These officials then apparently discovered the opportunities for personal enrichment available in these relatively remote but productive regions. Their style of administration resulted in large numbers of people fleeing across the border to live under the Qing. When this became apparent in 1720, Trinh Cuong decided there were too many officials in the border provinces and ordered that their number be reduced. One year earlier, Trinh Cuong reportedly had become concerned about the quality of officials in the provinces and issued an edict charging them with five priorities: suppression of bandits, prosecution of criminals, repair of dikes and  roads, vigilance at border gates, and maintenance of military discipline. Add- itional charges were issued specifically for Cao Bang that included border defense  and keeping in readiness post stations for sending dispatches. None of these priorities had anything directly to do with governing the people. The only indication of interest in moral behavior comes from an edict in 1720 exhorting students to learn propriety, righteousness, loyalty, and trustworthiness; forbidding marriage among people in the same family; forbidding clothing and material possessions beyond one’s station in life, evil habits that wasted one’s assets, superstitious practices, and a lazy playboy lifestyle; and advocating moderation and thriftiness. It appears that this exhortation was aimed at people seeking to enter officialdom through the examination system and not at the population in general. The qualities featured in this exhortation are primarily about how one appears in society and indicate a certain bottom line for maintaining a plausible public reputation. Despite his seeming susceptibility to a group of scholars, Trinh Cuong also made use of eunuchs, sending them to govern provinces and to supervise building projects, among other assignments. He was also impervious to the opinions of his literati advisors when dealing with the issue of succession in both the Trinh and the Le families. In 1727, Trinh Cuong named his eldest son Trinh Giang as his heir, despite Nguyen Cong Hang and Le Anh Tuan arguing that Trinh Giang was stupid and unequal to the task of governing the country. In the same year, he also demoted the Le crown prince, Le Duy Tuong, whose mother was not from the Trinh family, and replaced him with a younger brother, Le Duy Phuong, whose mother was a Trinh woman. Then, in 1729, shortly before he died, Trinh Cuong forced the king, Le Duy Duong, to abdicate in favor of Le Duy Phuong. So, Trinh Cuong left an heir who lacked the confidence of his closest advisors and a royal family with an upstart king and a recently deposed king and crown prince.

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