Dynastic discipline



Trinh Giang and the collapse of government

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During the early years of Trinh Giang’s rule, the literati enemies of Nguyen Cong Hang and Le Anh Tuan gradually gained influence amidst chaotic efforts to deal with a deepening agrarian crisis. The first question Trinh Giang had for his officials in 1730 was to explain why tax revenues were decreasing. The answer was that impoverished peasants were wandering away from their villages to escape taxation, causing unpaid back taxes to accumulate. Officials counted  527 villages that had been deserted. Two solutions to this problem were pro- posed. One was simply to find ways of moderating the tax burden. To this end,  the head tax was abolished in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, and it was reduced in the Red River plain for people who provided labor for maintaining the dikes. The tax on private land was reduced, and customs stations on the rivers were abolished except for two at the capital. Furthermore, the triennial census, which  was the basis for the head tax and public service fees, was rescheduled for twelve- year intervals, thus putting into the relatively distant future any revision for this  source of popular aggravation. The other solution was to compel people to return to the villages where they were registered and pay their taxes there. An idea here was that people who had left their villages to escape taxation were doing financially better than those who remained at home, and so they should accordingly pay their tax at a higher rate. Villages whose people went back to pay their taxes were rewarded, while villages whose people did not go back were punished. Nguyen Cong Hang was put in charge of a group of officials sent out to implement this plan to reconcentrate people in their home villages. The results of this were not recorded, but it is unlikely to have been very successful, if at all. Just at this time the dikes downriver from the capital broke and a devastating flood inundated nine districts. In 1731, an official from the coastal region of the Red River plain (modern Thai Binh Province) named Bui Si Tiem (b. 1690) submitted a ten-point analysis of what was wrong in the country. It so infuriated Trinh Giang that Bui Si Tiem was dismissed and sent back to his home village. It nevertheless offers a glimpse into how one man viewed the situation. Le Duy Duong, the king that Trinh Cuong had forced to abdicate two years earlier, had just died, and Bui Si Tiem claimed that the manner in which he had been treated had damaged public morale. Another point was the need to reform the education and examination system to select men who could think and not just memorize passages. Several points had to do with officialdom. There were too many officials for too few people, and they were ignorant of how people lived, corrupt, hungry for bribes, oppressive, and abusive. Taxation was too heavy, and the administration of conscription for labor and military service caused unnecessary misery. Finally, there was a lack of supervision over foreign workers in the mines of the northern  mountains. This last point implies that Qing miners were in some way contrib- uting to the mood of popular disaffection as well as compromising the border.  In 1732, Nguyen Hieu (1674–1735), from Thanh Hoa and an examination graduate of 1700, emerged as Trinh Giang’s principal advisor. Nguyen Cong Hang and Le Anh Tuan were exiled to posts in the mountains. Nguyen Cong Hang was killed almost immediately. Le Anh Tuan was killed two years later. In addition to this coup at the top of officialdom, there was another intervention into the royal family. The king, Le Duy Phuong, was deposed and replaced with his elder brother, Le Duy Tuong. When Le Duy Tuong died three years later, Le Duy Phuong was killed, and a younger brother named Le Duy Thin was made king. Le Duy Thin was a cousin of Trinh Giang on his mother’s side and the eleventh son of Le Duy Duong. The only substantive administrative act this year was to abolish all taxes on “earth products” such as tin, iron, lumber, lacquer, silk, tea, flowers, salt, fish, and shrimp, ostensibly because the taxes on these items were causing people to stop supplying them. Strangely enough, in this year Trinh Giang imagined that the kingdom was in such a state of peace and prosperity that music was needed to celebrate. He began to have musicians accompany him wherever he went through the streets, playing the music of Ming and Qing composers. On the other hand, a traveler at an inn in Bat Trang, a village specializing in ceramics a short distance downriver from Ke Cho, thoughtlessly tossed a torch into a hole in the ground, causing the eruption of a huge flame that burned for a month. This gave rise to a rumor of imminent war that spread throughout the country.  In 1733, following the recommendation of Nguyen Hieu, the policy of con- scripting soldiers for the regular army from the Red River plain was discon- tinued. Nguyen Hieu, perhaps reflecting the prejudice of his home province,  Thanh Hoa, claimed that the men recruited from the Red River plain were poor soldiers, being mainly orphans and youths who loitered around the markets, and that the cost of maintaining them was too high. He was particularly opposed to the policy established ten years earlier of allotting to them common land, which he argued brought misery to villagers. Three years later, all men from the Red River plain serving in the army were dismissed, and the regime went back to relying on their levies from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. One effect of this was to fill the villages of the Red River plain with men who had learned military drills and had been trained in the use of weapons. In 1735, Nguyen Hieu died while trying to adjust taxes in villages where the  population had scattered from floodwaters when the dikes again broke down- river from the capital. Thereafter, eunuchs gained dominance over Trinh Giang  under the leadership of Hoang Cong Phu, who did not shrink from homicide to eliminate rivals and to advance his allies. In 1736, as an epidemic spread death through the countryside, Hoang Cong Phu instituted the practice of selling appointments in officialdom as a means of raising money. Trinh Giang was busy building temples and improving the roads and dikes in his mother’s home district, several kilometers east of Ke Cho. The transport of lumber and stone from Thanh Hoa kept large numbers of farmers from working their fields. In 1736 Hoang Cong Phu persuaded Trinh Giang to change the traditional location of the palace examination from the king’s palace to his own. He then manipulated the results to give unusually high honors to Trinh Tue (b. 1704), a protégé of his who was a member of the branch of the Trinh family that had remained in Thanh Hoa. Trinh Tue thereafter received high appointments and was a loyal ally of Hoang Cong Phu. The appointment of military men to high civil positions in 1737 provoked dismay and laughter, but more serious than this was that the northern border provinces began to pull away from Trinh authority, that bands of bandits began to “swarm up like bees” across the countryside, and that a ragged army of peasants from the upper plains gathered on Mount Tam Dao, about fifty kilometers north of the capital, where they gave battle to Trinh army units. People began to bury their valuables and to hoard food. Inhabitants of the capital fled into the countryside. More ominous still was that, in 1738, Le Duy Mat (d. 1770), a brother of the king, along with several other Le princes and a group of disaffected officials, failing in a plot to unseat the Trinh, fled to the uplands of Thanh Hoa and raised the flag of revolt. The effect of this was like a signal igniting insurrection nearly everywhere. What followed was a year in which the eunuchs, led by Hoang Cong Phu, endeavored to use the crisis to advance their power, while Trinh efforts to raise solders gave fresh impetus to rebellion. And then, Trinh Giang, at his wit’s end while looking for ways to subdue the rebels, suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1739, the status of eunuchs was raised to be equal to that of the regular military and civil officials. The number of eunuchs at this time is not known, but missionary accounts estimated their population in Ke Cho at four to five hundred in the 1680s. There is likely to have been even more of them fifty years later. Trinh Tue was by now the leader of a group of officials who were willing to  cooperate with the eunuchs. Meanwhile, Hoang Cong Phu was occupying him- self with building a palace in his home village a short distance northeast of the  capital. The most urgent military problem seemed to have been the spread of disorder coming out of the northern border provinces, so military units were ordered to set up defensive positions to protect the lowlands from rebels coming from these provinces. Efforts to pacify the border provinces included allying with Nung chieftains, forgiving unpaid taxes, reducing taxes on merchants doing business in these provinces, and forbidding the forced sale of lumber on credit, which seemed to be a particular grievance in the border areas. Trinh Giang insisted on calling up the soldiers from the Red River plain who had been previously demobilized, despite strenuous objections from many of his officials who predicted that this would simply add to the uproar. The result was as the objecting officials feared. Rebellion gained momentum daily. Trinh Giang organized militia units in villages still under his command, but the distribution of weapons to men in these units became a means of supply for the rebels. He proclaimed a tax amnesty, but it was too late to have any calming effect. He called for more soldiers from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. He began to suffer from panic attacks and could no longer endure noise, reportedly after being struck by a thunderbolt. He retreated to an underground chamber and refused to emerge; government affairs were left in the hands of Hoang Cong Phu and Trinh Tue. In 1736, Trinh Giang had made his younger full brother, Trinh Doanh, the commander of all military forces. As the Trinh situation deteriorated in 1739, men who were concerned and dismayed began to look to him for leadership. They gathered around his mother and the leaders of her family, who encouraged him to act. His reluctance to openly oppose his brother was finally overcome when one of those urging him forward, an official from a western suburb of Hanoi named Nguyen Cong Thai, who had recruited a large militia force from that place, prevailed upon the king to call upon Trinh Doanh to step forward. On the day designated for “opening the government” to begin official business following the lunar new year in 1740, Trinh Doanh with soldiers loyal to him and Nguyen Cong Thai with his militia moved against the eunuchs, who had  their own military force. There was a battle in the capital. Trinh Doanh pre- vailed, and there was a slaughter of eunuchs as Hoang Cong Phu, Trinh Tue, and  other prominent men in their group fled. Trinh Giang lived until 1761, under what conditions is not known.

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