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Trinh Doanh and the age of rebellion

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Trinh Doanh was only 21 years old when he assumed power. He demonstrated a competence and a decisiveness that enabled the Trinh family to survive as lords of the palace for another generation. But most of his 27 years of rule were devoted first to surviving more than a decade of widespread rebellions and then to sorting out the chaos produced by those rebellions. His entourage included people who had been pushed aside by Trinh Giang for their criticisms of Trinh government, such as Bui Si Tiem, whose ten-point analysis of problems in 1731 had earned him dismissal. When Trinh Doanh took over at the beginning of 1740, he issued a fifteen-point blueprint for action that reflected the views of such people. First and foremost was a determination to suppress the ranks of eunuchs. This did not mean that eunuchs were to be utterly eradicated, but rather that their status would be reduced to what it had been before 1739, as personal servants of the ruler and not a third group at court equal to men who had earned their positions through literary examinations and military leadership. In fact, Trinh  Doanh benefited from the abilities of several eunuchs who were effective admin- istrators and successful generals.  Next were provisions to sort out and dismiss corrupt and incompetent officials. A favorite form of official abuse was false accusations leading to corrupt litigation and the confiscation of property. This was specifically forbidden. Trinh Doanh’s followers were keen to refurbish the image of officialdom from the shabby practices that had become endemic during previous decades. This intent, of course, would not  escape the feuds, personal animosities, and intrigues that had characterized govern- ment in the past, but, amidst the emergency conditions of the 1740s, a certain level  of competence was enforced by circumstances. Nevertheless, within weeks of issu- ing these good intentions, Trinh Doanh was dispensing honors, tax exemptions, and  appointments in officialdom to those contributing money and rice to fight the rebels. The generals were also to undergo an evaluation of their abilities to determine whether they deserved rewards or punishments. By the end of the year, a new group of generals appeared who had risen rapidly through the ranks from the level of common soldiers as a result of their ability. Hastening this phenomenon were multiple defeats in battle in which many Trinh generals were captured or lost their lives. As for the common soldiers, they were promised more fields to support their families. Merchants were placated by abolishing customs stations  at ferry crossings and by forbidding price fixing and the forcible sale of merchan- dise. Peasants were given an amnesty on all land and head taxes. The land tax in  Thanh Hoa and Nghe An was entirely discontinued. Furthermore, all of Trinh Giang’s and Hoang Cong Phu’s construction projects were halted. Instead, workers were sent to repair dikes. Finally, tax revenues were to go through the Ministry of Finance instead of through the Six Sessions. It appears that tax revenues being directed through the Six Sessions had a way of disappearing. In this year, major rebellions expanded from the northern border provinces and consumed every part of the Red River plain. The capital was an island of Trinh authority with a tenuous lifeline to Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. Recruitment of soldiers in these southern provinces was increased from one-fifth of the men available for conscription to one-third. Trinh Doanh also made an appeal for volunteers from the families of loyal officials. There was such a rush of disorderly recruits into the capital that undisciplined soldiers began acting as gangs of bandits. Trinh Doanh moved quickly to establish disipline over this mob, rejecting many undesirables and putting the rest into a regimen of training and drill. He also mobilized militia forces from localities near the capital. Bells and gongs from temples were seized and melted down to make weapons, and people contributing bronze and lead were given official appointments. With copper coins being melted down for weaponry, soldiers were paid in silver, causing the value of silver to drop, resulting in efforts to fix the value of silver. The greatest center of rebellion was in the old Mac territory of Hai Duong in the eastern part of the plain. The most prominent rebel leader at this time was a man named Nguyen Tuyen. Many battles were fought along the lower Red River as Trinh Doanh tried to prevent rebel forces from moving into this region, which was critical for water communication between Thanh Hoa and the capital. At one point, as he was occupied with rebel forces downriver, rebel armies from Hai Duong moved in behind him and threatened the capital. Desperate action from Trinh generals in the capital forced the rebel armies to move back. Probably because Trinh Giang had made him king, Le Duy Thin was forced to abdicate, becoming “senior king” until his death in 1759. A nephew of his, 24-year-old Le Duy Dieu, was made king. He was the eldest son of Le Duy  Tuong, the king who had died in 1735. Le Duy Dieu was king for a record forty- six years, and the short reign of his grandson, Le Duy Khiem, would mark the  end of the Le dynasty in the 1780s. In 1741, Le Duy Mat was pressing upon the capital from the northwest while Nguyen Tuyen advanced from the southeast. When Nguyen Tuyen died, other rebel leaders quickly took his place. Because of the fighting, there were no harvests in the Red River plain and famine spread through the land. So many soldiers were deserting to return to their villages that Trinh Doanh announced preferential treatment for villages if none of their soldiers deserted. Rice was transported from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, and more soldiers were recruited from those provinces. The soldiers from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, realizing their importance to the regime, demanded the right to collect taxes from villages in the Red River plain. When this was denied, they rioted and demolished the estate of one of Trinh Doanh’s high officials. Trinh Doanh seized and punished the ringleaders of this affair, but the soldiers continued to be volatile and prone to disorder. At that time, an official survey concluded that 1,730 villages in the Red River plain had been abandoned and 1,961 had been partially abandoned. Trinh Doanh took these abandoned lands to settle soldiers in a system of military colonies (don dien). At the same time, he changed the means of providing salaries for officials from calculating the tax on a certain number of taxpayers to calculating the tax obtained from a certain amount of land. This encouraged officials to get land back into production.  Famine continued through 1742 and spread into Thanh Hoa. The only infor- mation recorded in this year was focused on Thanh Hoa, where Trinh Doanh  battled with Le Duy Mat and finally forced him into the uplands of Lang Chanh district. Trinh Doanh raised land taxes and increased the conscription of soldiers in Thanh Hoa during this year. The year 1743 saw fighting nearly everywhere, including the border province of Lang Son, and especially in the eastern plains where a new rebel leader named Nguyen Huu Cau had risen to prominence. Trinh Doanh managed to besiege him at Do Son on the coast by the end of the year. The year 1744 began ominously when a strange huge fish, described as one hundred meters long and with a head like an elephant, was observed swimming up the Red River to the limit of saltwater, about thirty kilometers south of the capital, then turning and going back out to sea. Shortly after, Nguyen Huu Cau broke the siege of Do Son and advanced upriver to the northeastern part of the plain. Meanwhile,  another rebel leader, Nguyen Danh Phuong, had gained control of the territor- ies north and northwest of the capital, and a third major rebel leader, Hoang  Cong Chat, was holding fast in the region downriver from the capital. The following year did not see much change except that Nguyen Huu Cau was driven further east into Yen Quang Province, Mac partisans attacking south out of Cao Bang were repulsed, and Hoang Cong Chat managed to capture and kill a Trinh governor. During the next five years, to 1750, the battlefield situation gradually changed but without a clear indication of any side gaining an advantage. Nguyen Huu Cau built up his position in the eastern plains. He developed a navy and obtained rice from abroad to distribute to the starving people of that region. He spread his  authority throughout the districts east of the capital, reportedly winning popular- ity by shielding villagers from rapacious Trinh officials. Nguyen Danh Phuong  retained control of the region northwest of the capital. Hoang Cong Chat shifted his base of operations from the south to the northeastern part of the plain. Meanwhile, in 1749, Le Duy Mat emerged from the Thanh Hoa uplands to attack into the region south of the capital. The most significant piece of information about Trinh Doanh from these years is that he began to take a strong interest in the problems of government. Perhaps he decided that the best way to counter the appeal of rebel leaders was to provide a plausible alternative. He published measures to improve the courts of law, to end the abuses of corvée service, to allow militiamen time off to work in their fields, to forgive unpaid taxes in the capital region, to reinstitute the salt tax, to  stabilize the agrarian situation in Thanh Hoa that was under stress from con- scripting so many soldiers, and to postpone taxes on private property in Thanh  Hoa and Nghe An. In 1750, he published a twelve-point manifesto that shows a modicum of normal government to have been restored in areas under his control. The manifesto covers the familiar ground of behavior expected of all classes of  people: great lords, high ministers, military commanders, censors, nobles, judi- cial commissioners, magistrates, soldiers, and common people. This manifesto is  in itself not remarkable, but the fact that it was issued at this time shows that Trinh Doanh had moved out of the phase of emergency management and was now thinking of how to establish a regular system of administration. The examination system received close attention from Trinh Doanh and his advisors during the early years of his rule. The class of men aspiring to gain status through participation in this system was not only large but also influential in  forming public opinion. The few men who gained entry to the palace examin- ation were but a tiny minority of all those who received some social capital from  their participation in the exams that preceded it, from the district pre-exam through the provincial regional exam and on to the capital exam. There was intense pressure on this system of examinations, not only from aspiring students, but also from the officials in charge of administering them, who endeavored to ensure the success of students from families with whom they were allied or of their own protégés. In 1741, the “rather good” category of achievement for pre-exams and regional exams was abolished. But without this convenient track into the regional exams, corruption became even more open and rampant as powerful families used their money and influence to affect the outcome of exams. In 1743, the regional exams in Nghe An were so chaotic that a riot erupted in the middle of the exam and students destroyed the examination place. In 1747, Trinh  Doanh ordered an investigation of abuses in the regional exams and subse- quently reinstated the “rather good” stream. He also reduced district quotas  for entry to the regional exams, thereby giving more power to provincial educa- tional officers. At the same time, a way was opened for wealthy but poorly  educated students to buy admission to part of the regional exam and thereby gain a certain status. Aside from the mainstream of literary examinations, there were more specialized academic evaluations. For example, in 1762, clerks and accountants were recruited into government service with examinations in writing and mathematics, resulting in 978 men selected for writing and 120 selected for math. In 1750, the need for revenue led to a new scheme in which students of at least 10 years old could buy tickets to skip the pre-exam and to enroll in the regional exam, which in itself conferred a coveted social status. Furthermore, they were allowed to have substitutes take the exam for them. If the student showed sufficient academic ability by the time of the next exam, he could compete with  the possibility of being promoted to the capital exam. This practice was motiv- ated by a need to raise money and a desire to bring wealthy families into  officialdom. But the result was to make marketplaces out of the regional exam- inations. In 1751 there was such disorder and scandal in the regional exams that  Trinh Doanh stepped in and annulled the results of over two hundred successful candidates who were not even students. Virtually all of the education officials in charge of the exams that year were demoted or dismissed, but corruption of the examination system continued unabated. In 1765, according to a new rule, admission tickets to the regional examinations were openly sold without any conditions.

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