In 1632, Nguyen Phuc Nguyen’s eldest son and heir, Nguyen Phuc Ky, who had been governing the southern territories from Dien Ban in Quang Nam since 1614, died. Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, now 70 years old, immediately designated his second son, Nguyen Phuc Lan, as his heir, keeping him at his side while sending his third son, Nguyen Anh (d. 1635), to replace Nguyen Phuc Ky at Dien Ban. Nguyen Anh coveted the family inheritance and began to plot with Trinh Trang to coordinate an attempt to seize power with a northern invasion. To facilitate his conspiracy, Nguyen Anh wanted to obtain command of the border region. He won over to his side the ranking civil official there and, by spreading false rumors, succeeded in having the prince in charge of the border dismissed and having himself named to replace him. But he was off on an extended hunting expedition when his father wanted to confer with him about his new appointment. This demonstration of disrespect and indiscipline so angered Nguyen Phuc Nguyen that he appointed another prince to the northern border instead. Despite this setback, Nguyen Anh continued his plans, evaluating the new commander on the border as likely to be timid in battle, which he imagined would offer an opportunity for his plans to prevail. In late 1633, after twice sending out officials to examine the performance and loyalty of local administrators and, when necessary, appointing new men whom he trusted, Trinh Trang led his armies south and, for the first time, saw the walls. He hesitated to attack until his supposed ally, Nguyen Anh, showed his hand. However, the southern forces were vigilant and Nguyen Anh had no opportunity to implement his plot. Trinh Trang fired his cannons giving the prearranged signal to Nguyen Anh, but there was no response. In early 1634, as Trinh Trang paused in indecision, Nguyen Huu Dat led a southern attack that sent the Trinh army fleeing back north. Both countries were absorbed in their internal affairs for several years after this. In 1634, Trinh Trang was 58 years old. He increasingly relied upon his son Trinh Tac, already around 40 years old. Both men were concerned to cultivate the loyalty of people in the Red River plain where most of the human and material resources of their realm were located. They aimed to do this by bringing literati families who had served the Mac into the government and following their ideas about how to govern. These families had been squeezed into poverty after the Le restoration but had maintained a tradition of learning and were respected by local people. One such family was the Vu lineage, which traced its ancestry back to a ninth- century Tang governor who had settled near the modern city of Hai Duong. Five brothers in this family, great grandsons of a man who had risen to high position at the Mac court in the sixteenth century, enjoyed public careers and prospered under the patronage of Trinh Tac. One of the brothers, Vu Duy Chi, became Trinh Tac’s closest friend and confidant. Pham Cong Tru, the scholar-official mentioned above as a close associate of Trinh Tac and the leading literatus of his generation, came from the same area as the Vu in the eastern plain, as did many other literati who rose to eminence in the mid seventeenth century. Trinh Tung had been chiefly concerned with military matters and gave little attention to the examination system. During his time, relatively few candidates were selected at the triennial capital exam, only enough to staff the royal court and to attend to diplomatic relations with Ming. During the eleven examinations during the thirty years from the Le restoration in 1592 until the death of Trinh Tung in 1623, sixty-eight men had graduated. During the next eleven examinations, held during the time Trinh Trang was in power, there were 150 graduates. Six of these eleven exams were held during times of war, when an average of only eight men were graduated in each exam. During the five exams held in years of peace, an average of twenty-one men were graduated in each exam.
The six exams held during the celebrated Vinh Tho and Canh Tri reign periods (1658–1671), which marked the ascendance of men from the Red River plain and the apogee of Trinh Tac’s rule, saw 104 men selected, despite one of these exams, in 1667, yielding only three graduates during a time of intense conflict among officials.
The Trinh had two constituencies during these years. One was the generals and their associates from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An who were determined to pursue the war against the south. Victory in the south would offer them prospects for enrichment in a conquered land. The other constituency was the literati officials and their allies in the Red River plain. They were in a position to mobilize the men and wealth of their region that was necessary to continue the war, thereby earning a place for themselves in Trinh government. Yet, they saw no long-term benefit for themselves in continuing a war that nurtured the prerogatives and aspirations of the Thanh Hoa and Nghe An warriors. While the warriors saw the restoration of the Le dynasty as a purely military matter of subordinating separ- atists, the literati understood the restoration as a process of rebuilding the kind of government that had been established by King Le Tu Thanh in the late fifteenth century. This was not simply a regional contest. Each constituency had allies in the other camp, and Trinh Tac spent most of his life balancing the interests of the two groups while leaning his weight toward the literati at critical times.
After the expedition to the south in 1633–1634 ended in fiasco, the Trinh were confronted with the familiar problems of drought and famine. In 1638 another effort to subdue the Mac in Cao Bang ended in defeat. It was nearly a decade before the Trinh were in a position to attempt a new attack on the south. Meanwhile, as a signal to men in the Red River plain that their loyalty to the regime would be rewarded, a 79-year-old man, Nguyen Thuc (1555–1637), from the vicinity of Dong Kinh, who had graduated in the exam of 1595 and had served the regime faithfully for decades, was in 1634 honored as an “elder of the country,” and when he died three years later he was given an especially high posthumous title. The examinations in 1637 and 1640 together selected forty- two men, many of whom would play prominent roles in reorienting the govern- ment during the next three decades.
The direction of this reorientation is apparent from edicts promulgated at this time. In 1635 a proclamation of twelve articles was aimed at corruption in the judiciary. In 1639, an edict restored a 1503 law forbidding excessive confiscation of property as compensation in litigation. This law specified that compensation could be taken only from property belonging to the person at fault along with his wife and children. If this was not enough, the law could obtain additional compensation from the person’s parents and siblings, but the whole family lineage or the entire village could not be held responsible for compensation. This edict reveals a kind of judicial abuse, against which it was aimed, that had apparently become prevalent, and it also shows a vision of returning to the model of relatively benevolent government that had been envisioned by Le Tu Thanh. Also in 1639, another proclamation of twelve articles was published urging officials to follow the law, to serve dutifully, and to win the affection of the people. What in 1618 had been ineffectual cries for justice by comet watchers was now embedded in official government policy.
In 1642, Trinh Trang sent four of his sons to the four major administrative jurisdictions of the Red River plain to wipe out bandits and to adjudicate accumulated litigation. Assigned to each prince was a literati-official. The team sent to the southern part of the plain containing the strategic routes linking Dong Kinh with Thanh Hoa was Trinh Tac and Pham Cong Tru. This exercise in bringing order and justice to the Red River plain was apparently intended to stabilize administration while mobilizing men and material for a new expedition into the south, which was scheduled for the following year.
Although the participation of literati in government was being encouraged and the examination system was becoming a focus of access to public careers, the general level of learning and erudition had greatly deteriorated since the Le restoration in 1592. The Mac had maintained an educational level comparable to what had been achieved under Le Tu Thanh, but the Trinh, preoccupied with war and with their entourage of warlords, gave no particular attention to learning and simply made passive use of the examination system as a source of the few men needed to draft edicts and maintain relations with the Ming. Some of these men made themselves useful in other ways, for example by actively assisting Trinh Trang in the succession struggle, although others of them were penalized for having been too close to King Le Duy Tan or to Trinh Xuan.
There are many anecdotes recorded in the eighteenth century about the low level of learning in the seventeenth century and of how this was demonstrated during capital examinations. Discipline was not enforced in the examination yard so that candidates consulted among themselves about how to respond to questions, resulting in many identical answers. Those thought to be most erudite among the candidates took the lead in composing answers that were copied by others but were sometimes ludicrous with error. The examining officials often failed to recognize mistakes and passed exams based on trivial or random considerations.
A famous example of the low level of learning at this time was the story of Nguyen Minh Triet (1578–1672), from Chi Linh in the Red River plain, who spent decades in study and took the exam of 1631 at the age of 53. His exam was so erudite that none of the examiners could read it. Finally, it was discovered that a woman known as Le Phi, who had once passed a Mac examination in Cao Bang disguised as a man and was subsequently captured during the Trinh attack on Cao Bang in 1625, was able to read the exam. She was employed as a teacher of the palace women.
One of the palace women who may have benefited from Le Phi’s learning was a daughter of Trinh Trang named Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc. She had been married to an uncle of King Le Duy Ky, but in 1630 her father imprisoned her husband so that she could be made Le Duy Ky’s queen. The king, whose mother had been a daughter of Trinh Tung, was 23 years old at that time. King Le Duy Ky was known as a well-educated and intelligent man with a great devotion to Buddhism, a particular dislike of being king, and a lack of discipline over the kinds of people he allowed into his palace. In 1643, he was able to escape his royal tasks when allowed to raise his 14-year-old son Le Duy Huu to the throne. He is known to have traveled extensively to visit Buddhist temples. But his son died in 1649, and he was forced to return to the palace and to be king once again.
Queen Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc and the palace instructress Le Phi were both fervent Buddhists. Both took nun’s vows in their later years, and in the 1640s Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc endowed fields and money to rebuild the But Thap Temple, several kilometers east of Dong Kinh. These women may also have been concerned about the problems of education in their time. A Han–Nom (Literary Chinese–vernacular Vietnamese) dictionary entitled Chi Nam Ngoc Am (Explanation of the South’s Pearly Sounds) was published at a Buddhist temple in Dong Kinh, possibly in 1641. Some evidence encourages the conjecture that it was compiled under the supervision or patronage of Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc. According to the prefaces to the dictionary, it was prepared as an aid for students to master the literary language in order to pass the examinations. It was written in “six-eight” prosody making it easy to memorize. Furthermore, it paired Han literary expressions with vernacular equivalents that were mostly written in forms of Nom based on single Han characters used for their pronunciation rather than in the more common compound forms of Nom that combined elements of two Han characters to indicate meaning as well as pronunciation.
This dictionary reveals that Nom was used as a pedagogical tool for mastering Han. The prefaces argue that complex Nom characters were too difficult for students to learn, since their semantic elements already required mastery of Han in order to be understood. The dictionary was meant to address the pedagogical problem of how to provide students with an accessible form of Nom that could be used as a step into Han. The compiler expects resistance to more simplified forms of Nom and admonishes readers not to laugh at them, for using them will assist students to be successful. The arguments in the prefaces of this dictionary imply a solution to an apparent pedagogical crisis. Nom writing, which according to some traditional thinking was simply a means of amusement for retired scholars, was being reformed to be a more effective aid for teaching Han. This apparently lies behind the temporary shift toward simpler forms that Nom scholars have perceived in seventeenth-century texts. It was a response to the decline of education after the Mac had been expelled from Dong Kinh.
In the 1630s, both the Nguyen Phuc and the Trinh adjusted their policies of domestic governance to more efficiently mobilize their populations for war. Southerners organized to defend their northern border. In the north, people from the Red River plain were brought into the government and used to establish a regime of civil administration capable of mobilizing men and rice, while the warrior clans of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An were diverted from their occupation of the old Mac kingdom to focus on overrunning the separatists in the south.