Until 1845, two men shared influence at the top of Thieu Tri’s court, Truong Dang Que and Nguyen Dang Tuan (1772–1845). Nguyen Dang Tuan was from Quang Binh, a short distance north of Hue. Both Nguyen Dang Tuan and Truong Dang Que had been prominent in implementing the administrative reforms and in suppressing the rebellions during Minh Mang’s reign. They also administered the examination system to diminish the dominance of northern scholars in favor of men from the south. While the percentage of junior doctors from the north declined only slightly from the reign of Minh Mang to the reign of Thieu Tri, from 60 percent to 58 percent, the percentage of northern doctors fell from 85 percent in Minh Mang’s reign to 54 percent in Thieu Tri’s reign. Nguyen Dang Tuan and Truong Dang Que led a southern reaction to northern success in Minh Mang’s examinations. The examinations were not simply objective measures of ability but were an aspect of administrative policy and of regional politics. After Nguyen Dang Tuan’s death in 1845, Truong Dang Que gained a dominant position at court. His management of the succession upon Thieu Tri’s death greatly weakened the monarchy. Thieu Tri’s two eldest sons were born only one hundred days apart in 1829. The eldest, Hong Bao, was Thieu Tri’s designated heir. Thieu Tri had conferred upon him duties and titles giving him precedence over his slightly younger brother, Hong Nham, including a dynastic ceremony upon the birth of Hong Bao’s first son in 1845. However, Hong Bao’s mother had died when he was 9 and Nguyen Dang Tuan had been his chief protector at court. Nguyen Dang Tuan’s son, Nguyen Dang Giai, was unable to compete with Truong Dang Que in court politics after the death of his father and spent years on an assignment to analyze the system of dikes in the Red River plain. Consequently, Hong Bao was nearly bereft of allies in the palace and in officialdom. Truong Dang Que favored Hong Nham because he was more malleable to his purposes. Hong Nham suffered a bout of smallpox in 1845 that was said to have left him sterile. Exceedingly erudite, he was sickly and less assertive than Hong Bao. But his mother was a dominant figure in the inner palace. Truong Dang Que or one of his assistants altered or forged Thieu Tri’s deathbed testament to designate Hong Nham over Hong Bao as heir. Truong Dang Que moved quickly to proclaim Hong Nham king, subsequently known by his dynastic title as Tu Duc. In this way, Truong Dang Que was able to maintain his dominant position at court, albeit at the expense of peace in the royal family, many members of which were disturbed by the denial of Hong Bao’s claim to the throne. Mean- while, Hong Bao was not reconciled to Truong Dang Que’s coup and began searching for ways to undo it. Some sources suggest that when Thieu Tri died there were other claimants to the throne besides his two eldest sons, for example Gia Long’s eldest grandson My Duong, who had been considered by some as a rival to Minh Mang and who had been disgraced in 1824. During Thieu Tri’s reign there was strong sentiment among members of the royal family to restore My Duong to his princely status, but he was not a plausible candidate for the throne in 1847. When he died in 1849, however, his family was reinstated into royalty under the leadership of his eldest son Le Chung, who was entrusted with the duty of maintaining the ancestral cult of his famous grandfather, Prince Canh. In consideration of the youth of Thieu Tri’s sons, there were reportedly some arguments in favor of Prince Kien An (1795–1849), a younger full brother of Minh Mang. Despite one of his junior wives being a niece of Le Van Khoi, he had a reputation as a competent and loyal stalwart of the royal family. There may have been discreet talk, but certainly no action, on his behalf. Hong Bao was kept in Hue under strict observation. Nevertheless, contacts with French missionaries on his behalf were made, leading Christians to believe that he favored their cause when in fact he may simply have been searching for a way to escape from Hue. In 1851, a scheme to smuggle him out of the country to Singapore was uncovered and he was imprisoned. What the scheme was about is obscure but it was said that he had planned to rally foreign support to claim what he considered to be his inheritance. In 1854, further intrigues led to his suicide in prison, whether voluntary or forced is unknown, but rumors spread by his partisans that it was a case of fratricide gained currency and this greatly dimin- ished Tu Duc’s reputation. The Hong Bao affair followed Tu Duc throughout his reign and kept him on the moral defensive. Twelve years later, in 1866, a conspiracy to place Hong Bao’s son on the throne was uncovered. Tu Duc became king under the handicaps of being widely viewed as a usurper and of being unable to have children. If he had been a strong ruler he could certainly have overcome these problems. But his erudition could not make up for his timidity. The passion with which he penned commentaries on ancient history turned to inarticulate fear and hatred when faced in his own time with the spreading disorder of his government and the military might of France. During the early years of Tu Duc’s reign, Truong Dang Que continued to use the examination system in favor of the south, but he also particularly opened the system to candidates from Nghe An and Ha Tinh, discriminating between those provinces and Thanh Hoa, which bordered the Red River plain further north. Before moving to Quang Ngai, Truong Dang Que’s ancestors had been estab- lished in Ha Tinh, but to what extent any lingering sense of identification with that region influenced his policies is unknown. In any case, the rise of scholar families from Nghe An and Ha Tinh became a phenomenon of Tu Duc’s reign. For example, during the exams held under Minh Mang and Thieu Tri, 56 percent of graduating doctors were from Thanh Hoa and the Red River plain, while in the five exams held under Tu Duc before the beginning of the French conquest in 1858, only 39 percent of graduating doctors were from those places. At the same time, while only 15 percent of graduating doctors under Minh Mang and Thieu Tri were from the Nghe An and Ha Tinh region, 26 percent of the graduating doctors in Tu Duc’s first five exams were from those two provinces. During the same time, the graduating doctors from places further south increased from 29 percent to 35 percent. This trend continued during the remaining exams held during Tu Duc’s reign, between 1862 and 1880, when the number of graduates from the northern- most region remained fairly steady while those from Nghe An and Ha Tinh increased at the expense of the south: 42 percent for Thanh Hoa and the Red River plain, 30 percent for Nghe An and Ha Tinh, and 27 percent for the south. During Tu Duc’s reign, men from Nghe An and Ha Tinh became relatively more prominent in officialdom. Rather than identifying with the dynasty to the same extent as officials from places further south, they tended to be more committed to the abstract ideals of their Confucian education. In comparison, scholars from Thanh Hoa and the Red River plain were more diverse and more susceptible to a perfunctory and somewhat cynical obedience to Hue. None of the Nguyen kings was successful in using the examination system to unify officialdom. The system was an arena for the negotiation of personal and regional aspirations. During the first ten years of Tu Duc’s reign, while he was in his twenties and before the beginning of the French invasion, unrest and rebellion became endemic in many parts of the country, particularly in the north. A large number of royal officials were kept employed with chasing insurgents. The most famous rebel from this time is Cao Ba Quat (1809–1855). He was from a highly educated family in the Hanoi area. He passed the regional exam in 1831, but, although he quickly gained a reputation for erudition and poetic skill, his lack of regard for rules and regulations prevented him from gaining the doctoral degree at the capital examin- ations. When he somehow managed to gain an appointment as a regional examination grader at Hue in 1841, he revised the exam essays of some candidates who were acquaintances of his to give them a pass. When this was discovered, only Thieu Tri’s clemency kept him from the penalty of death. Two years later, Thieu Tri gave him a chance to rehabilitate himself with an assignment to go on a mission to Batavia, and thereafter he was posted as an education officer near Hanoi, a position that he considered to be an insult to his ability. In 1854, Cao Ba Quat joined with a Le dynasty pretender named Le Duy Cu and openly rebelled. For five months he and his associates spread havoc in Son Tay Province, west and north of Hanoi, until he was killed by musket fire during a battle. Le Duy Cu was not captured until the summer of 1855. Meanwhile, in early 1855, two of Cao Ba Quat’s former students were captured and killed when they led an uprising in Hung Yen Province, a short distance downriver from Hanoi. Later in the year, five of his disciples were captured in the Hanoi area and sentenced to death for their subversive activities. In 1859, when French forces were landing in the south, a son and a nephew of Cao Ba Quat were captured and killed while following one of the Le pretenders that proliferated in the north during the 1850s and 1860s. Le pretenders and men of Cao Ba Quat’s caliber were only the most prominent among the rebel leaders that sprang up at this time. In addition to “rebels” there were even more leaders of bandits and fugitives who were active not only in the north but also in other parts of the country. Furthermore, in 1850 the Taiping Rebellion, which ravaged Qing China for two decades, broke out in Guangxi, just across the northern border. The human debris of that great disorder spilled over into the northern mountains of Vietnam. Qing rebel leaders gained control of large parts of the northern uplands and became allies of local outlaws. According to the True Records of the Great South, three months after Cao Ba Quat’s death, Tu Duc reportedly made a lengthy analysis of the problems in the north. From his perspective, Cao Ba Quat had opened a floodgate of unrest in the north: “Suddenly last year, because of that wayward official Cao Ba Quat, plots to incite the people to rise in rebellion were like the noise of many gathering mosquitoes becoming claps of thunder. At first they disturbed only hamlets and villages, but then they struck whole districts and provinces.” The young king, who never ventured far from his palace, tried to understand what was going on in the north and concluded that there were five reasons for the outbreak of rebellions. The first reason was misgovernment by local officials: Our court has often given generous assistance to the people with great expense to our treasury, but local officials, following their custom, greed- ily take the money for themselves no matter what the occasion, thereby defeating our generosity, and so royal favor does not reach down to the people; the people are full of resentment, they become careless of life, and desperately rush down the path of destruction without knowing what they are doing. Rebellion arises naturally not just because of the incite- ment of violent and cruel men, but more truly because of bad, greedy, heartless officials. The second reason was the poor quality of royal soldiers: “Soldiers are only concerned with satisfying their service contract with their villages. They are not properly trained and, without discipline, they become discontented and commit evil deeds.” The third reason was the selfish ignorance of villagers that left them vulnerable to rabble-rousers: Common people compete among themselves and are untrustworthy. They seek personal advantage and disdain righteousness. They encourage each other to gather in the markets to drink, gamble, and play around. Fortune-tellers mislead them and lying bullies victimize them. One cup of wine makes a gang of bandits. One idle word can provoke a battle. When they are defeated it is too late for them. The fourth reason was the gangsters who were nurtured in the households of the wealthy: “Among rural notables and village worthies, every wealthy house has servants, sixty to a hundred men, among whom accumulate hooligans with plenty of weapons. Local people are coerced to do their bidding and even local officials fear to report their lawless behavior, so higher authorities do not know what is going on in the villages.” The fifth reason was the dense population in villages and their maze-like intersecting roads and paths, which enabled fugitives to escape and hide. These five considerations apparently represented the best thought at the Hue court about how to explain the northern disorders. What they reveal is a lack of effective government. Tu Duc, or whoever wrote the analysis, appears to under- stand the structural problem of governing the Red River plain from Hue: “I want to establish a policy to maintain lasting order, but evil rises from the people, and I can but guess about unforeseen affairs so far away.” Yet, rather than addressing the problems with concrete measures, the analysis ends with a weak moral appeal for officials to work harder. The analysis and the conclusion are charac- teristic of Tu Duc’s intellectual perspicuity and practical incompetence. When he understood the problem, he could think of nothing better than to pass responsi- bility for plans and action to his officials.
The five-point analysis reveals corrupt magistrates, disaffected soldiers, and local bullies, phenomena that had been typical of Vietnamese villages for centuries. Yet the scale of dysfunctional government was apparently excessive, tempting desperate or alienated people into open rebellion. The repeated appear- ance of Le dynasty pretenders indicates, more than sixty years after the end of the Le dynasty, the inability of the Hue court to firmly establish its legitimacy among the people in the north. This inability was a failure to overcome the physical and mental distance between Hanoi and Hue. More prosaically, it was a failure to provide a modicum of security and justice.
Meanwhile, the Hue court returned to Minh Mang’s anti-Christian policy of the 1830s, thereby attracting the attention of the French navy and of Louis Napoleon’s government in Paris. Among the most prominent of Truong Dang Que’s collaborators was Nguyen Tri Phuong (1800–1873), from the Hue region, who specialized in military affairs. He had traveled to Manila and Singapore in the early 1830s, had assisted in putting down the Le Van Khoi rebellion, was prominent in the Siamese war of the 1840s, and spent much of the 1850s in Saigon suppressing southern unrest, watching the Siamese, and securing the Cambodian border. After the 1847 Battle of Da Nang, his attitude toward the French became hostile, and he accordingly became a determined foe of Chris- tianity. Under his influence and the influence of other officials with similar views, including Truong Dang Que, the persecution of Christians gained new life after the death of Thieu Tri. In 1848, an edict prescribed death for foreign missionaries and banishment or imprisonment for Vietnamese Christians. In 1851, the death penalty was extended to Vietnamese clergy. Within the next year, two French missionaries were beheaded in the north, and the execution of Vietnamese priests was resumed.