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War begins

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During the 1620s the sons of Trinh Tung and Nguyen Hoang commenced a war that continued for fifty years and ended in stalemate. The exigencies of this war led to fundamental changes in both the north and the south, with the Trinh regime expanding its base of support to include the people of the Red River plain and the Nguyen regime expanding the reach of its armies into the Mekong region to become involved in Cambodian affairs. Also, during the first half of the seventeenth century, Europeans joined Chinese and Japanese as important par- ticipants in foreign trade, and Jesuits introduced a new religion from Europe that  was accepted by many thousands of Vietnamese in both the south and the north. Trinh Trang’s resolution of the succession crisis at Dong Kinh in 1623 and his relatively successful invasion of Cao Bang to subdue the Mac in 1625 produced a sense of momentum that led naturally to an invasion of the south. Trinh Trang’s eagerness to extend his hand into the south was demonstrated already in 1620, after his father’s failing health opened opportunities for him to exercise greater authority. In that year he conspired with two sons of Nguyen Hoang, Nguyen Hiep and Nguyen Trach, to overthrow their elder brother, Nguyen Phuc Nguyen. Trinh Trang sent one of his younger brothers with a small army of 5,000 men to the border to divert Nguyen Phuc Nguyen’s attention, enabling Nguyen Hiep and Nguyen Trach to mobilize their forces. Nguyen Tuyen, a son of Nguyen Hoang’s deceased eldest son, who was Nguyen Phuc Nguyen’s most able commander, learned of the plot and took precautions. When the rebellious brothers fortified Ai Tu, where Nguyen Hoang had resided from 1558 to 1570, Nguyen Tuyen attacked and captured them. They died in prison, and the Trinh army returned north without battle. Trinh Trang was married to a daughter of Nguyen Hoang named Nguyen Ngoc Tu (d. 1631). In 1623, after the succession uproar in Dong Kinh and the deaths of Trinh Xuan and Trinh Tung, she wrote a letter to her brother Nguyen Phuc Nguyen and entrusted it to Nguyen Cuu Kieu, a high official at the Le court who opposed the Trinh and was resolved to flee into the south. When he arrived in the south he told a dramatic story of being trapped at the Gianh River by pursuing Trinh soldiers, but in answer to his prayers a water buffalo appeared and carried him swimming across to the other side, allowing him to escape. Nguyen Cuu Kieu became a loyal servant of the Nguyen Phuc family, served as an able military commander, and died of battle wounds in 1656 at the age of 58. He married a daughter of Nguyen Phuc Nguyen and founded the Nguyen Cuu family, which produced talented southern generals in every generation for the  next two centuries. The letter he delivered in 1623 apparently contained infor- mation about political events in the north occasioned by the death of Trinh Tung.  The news of Trinh Tung’s death was cause for celebration in the south. Nguyen Phuc Nguyen ordered three cannon volleys and three shouts of joy at his court. One of those at court that day was Nguyen Huu Dat (1603–1681). He was the son of a general, well educated, and had received a court appointment while still in his teens. Already showing the irrepressible personality for which he would be known throughout his illustrious career, he reacted to the volleys and shouts by bursting out in a loud voice, “What is all this for? Why don’t we take the chance to invade the north?” Nguyen Phuc Nguyen instructed the young man’s father to take him aside and explain to him that it would not be right to take advantage of kinsmen in mourning. Nguyen Phuc Nguyen realized that Trinh Trang was intent upon war. He readied his soldiers but maintained a purely defensive posture, rejecting the advice of generals who wanted to march north. He was determined to avoid any gratuitous provocation, despite Trinh Trang’s rising crescendo of demands. In 1624, he sent away Trinh Trang’s tax collectors with the excuse that harvests had failed for several years. In 1626, he moved his court further south, from the Ai Tu area to the modern district of Huong Dien, in the northern part of the Perfume River basin. He was 64 years old and was relying increasingly upon his younger brother Nguyen Khe (1588–1646) for attending to details. In that year, Trinh armies began to assemble on the border and Trinh envoys arrived with a royal edict demanding taxes and summoning Nguyen Phuc Nguyen to the Le court. This reportedly provoked great indignation among Nguyen Phuc Nguyen’s followers, who were eager for war. He was said to have calmed them by saying that, although the Trinh sought to provoke hatred, he would not trouble himself with earning ridicule by replying in kind. He sent the northern envoys away with the message: “Do not pursue a petty feud.” He did not welcome war, but neither did he shrink from it when it came. At the beginning of 1627, Trinh envoys demanded that Nguyen Phuc Nguyen send a son to the Le court with thirty bull elephants and thirty large ocean-going ships, supposedly to bear tribute to the Ming. They also conveyed a request that the children of Nguyen Hiep and Nguyen Trach, the deceased rebels, be sent to stay with their aunt, the wife of Trinh Trang. Nguyen Phuc Nguyen understood that war was now imminent. He replied that the elephants and ships were beyond the normal tribute schedule, that all the children were busy preparing weapons to defend the border, and, implying a threat, that his family would come to pay their respects to the king in a few years, which would be soon enough. By this time, Trinh Trang had placed the palace women and his treasury in Tay Do for safekeeping and was already moving south, King Le Duy Ky in tow, with a large fleet, while the bulk of his army marched by land. He issued a long proclamation accusing the Nguyen of rebellion and announcing his punitive expedition against them. The Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes (1593–1660) observed the expedition as it went down the coast. He described an advance guard of two hundred ships filled with soldiers followed by twenty-four large ships bearing the headquarters staff and the royal retinue. Five hundred boats carrying provisions brought up the rear. Three hundred elephants bearing artillery accompanied the land force. De Rhodes estimated the total number of men in the expedition, both on land and on sea, at two hundred thousand. Most were probably recruits from the Red River plain with likely no more than one-quarter of the number from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. Many men from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An would have been left at Dong Kinh to ensure security while Trinh Trang was away in the south. This war among Vietnamese broke out in the context of Ming dynastic weakness. In the early seventeenth century, the empire to the north was steadily declining and about to collapse. Trinh Trang understood that there was no danger of a Ming threat materializing on his northern border to take advantage of his being preoccupied with war in the south. The significance of this is clear from the fact that the Trinh ceased the war as soon as the nascent Qing dynasty was firmly established later in the century. The Trinh campaign of 1627 lasted several weeks in the spring of the year. There was heavy fighting around the mouth of the Nhat Le River both on land and on water until a southern elephant charge somewhat pushed back the northerners. Nguyen Huu Dat, the youth who had cried out for war in 1623, was in the midst of the southern effort, and he played on Trinh insecurities by forging a letter that was passed to Trinh Trang implying that members of his family were plotting against him at Dong Kinh. Trinh Trang’s nerve broke, and he rushed back north with his army following after. This turned to his advantage as he learned while on the way back that Mac Kinh Khoan had led his men out of the mountains and was moving through the waters of the Red River plain with large numbers of boats, once again rallying the people of the plain still loyal to his family. Trinh Trang’s sudden appearance with his army marching north out of Thanh Hoa sent Mac Kinh Khoan fleeing back to Cao Bang. After the Trinh retreat, the governor at Qui Nhon, Tran Duc Hoa, came to congratulate Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, to whom he introduced his son-in-law Dao  Duy Tu. Dao Duy Tu (1572–1634) became Nguyen Phuc Nguyen’s most prom- inent advisor during the next few years. His ideas about defending the south  from the north, both militarily and diplomatically, shaped the southern attitude toward the northern threat. He was from a Thanh Hoa family of musicians and theatrical performers but had devoted himself to study. In 1625 he went to seek his fortune in the south. Hearing of Tran Duc Hoa’s reputation, he sought and  obtained service in the entourage of this venerable and highly respected gov- ernor. He wrote and sang vernacular poetry, which reportedly won him the  attention of Tran Duc Hoa, who gave him a daughter in marriage. Nguyen Phuc Nguyen was quick to perceive that Dao Duy Tu was a man of unusual qualities: erudite in both literary and military matters, wise, and utterly loyal to the southern cause. Dao Duy Tu was a breath of fresh air for Nguyen Phuc Nguyen. He had come of age during the final years of fighting between the Le partisans and the Mac during the 1590s and had watched the Trinh fight their way into power from their stronghold of Thanh Hoa. He spent many years studying the dynastic histories and classical literature, but he was blocked from seeking a government  career because his father was an entertainer, a profession despised by the north- ern scholars. When he went south, he was in some sense going home, to a place  where his abilities were appreciated and to a culture of public service that valued ability over ancestry. Dao Duy Tu was one of the first poets to write long vernacular poems in the “six-eight” (luc-bat) mode, which became increasingly popular thereafter and is commonly regarded as a typical Vietnamese form of poetry, easy to memorize and to recite or sing because of its complicated but regular tonal and rhyme scheme. The poem that he wrote and supposedly sang to catch the attention of Tran Duc Hoa, and which Tran Duc Hoa passed to Nguyen Phuc Nguyen by  way of introducing him, was a “six-eight” work in 136 lines about the third- century general Zhuge Liang, who spent many years in study and thought before  becoming the most brilliant strategist of his generation. Zhuge Liang was prom- inent in the battles of the “Three Kingdoms” era that followed the collapse of the  Han dynasty in the third century ce. Many southerners came to regard Dao Duy Tu as a Zhuge Liang in their own time. Dao Duy Tu is widely thought to have introduced theater into the south, and his poetry is distinctive for its musicality, its exuberant joy in nature, and the  absence of the weary cyclicity, eremitism, veneration of the past, and preoccupa- tion with poverty and disappointment that had come to characterize northern  poetry. He wrote a 332-line “six-eight” poem in praise of the Nguyen rulers and  can easily be considered as the first southern poet. His more immediate contri- bution to the south, however, lay in his analysis of how to respond to the  diplomatic and military challenges from the north, for Trinh Trang was fixed on a policy of quelling the south to complete the Le dynasty restoration. After the failure of his southern campaign and the brief reappearance of the  Mac ghost, Trinh Trang was faced with the familiar problems of natural calam- ities, rural distress, misgovernment, and fear of treachery. There was drought  and famine in 1629 and there were floods and famine in 1630 when even the capital was inundated. In 1631 there were devastating storms with destructive winds and deadly hailstones accompanied by fires and floods in the capital. Furthermore, signs and wonders accumulated from year to year. An investigation revealed that most military commanders were corrupt and habitually abused the people and that the worst of this was in Thanh Hoa, the regime’s homeland. Another investigation revealed that two high ministers had been playing a profitable scheme of appointing large numbers of corrupt officials who were seizing land in their jurisdictions and oppressing the people. Amidst these problems, Trinh Trang endeavored to identify men he could trust and who knew how to govern. He promoted those who had stood with him during the crisis of 1623, and he turned to the examination system to bring new talent into government. In the capital examination of 1628, sixteen of the eighteen passing candidates were from the Red River plain. One of them was Pham Cong Tru (1602–1675), from the eastern part of the plain that had once been the Mac stronghold. Pham Cong Tru became the foremost scholar and  statesman of his generation, and under his leadership a major reform of govern- ment was implemented at mid century. This became possible because of his close  personal relationship with Trinh Trang’s son and heir, Trinh Tac (d. 1682). The date of Trinh Tac’s birth is unrecorded, but he was given the rank of grand duke in 1614, which is likely to have been conferred sometime between the ages  of 7 and 12. In 1631, he was put in command of the southern border jurisdic- tions of Nghe An and Bo Chinh, an important assignment that showed he had  earned his father’s confidence. During the next fifty years, Trinh Tac, through many vicissitudes, implemented changes that eventually brought men from the Red River plain into the center of government and eased the generals from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An out of the arena of decision-making. Meanwhile, after 1627, both sides prepared for the next campaign. Realizing that the south was stronger than he had expected, Trinh Trang needed time to overcome his difficulties and to assemble a larger military force. He also wanted to strengthen his argument with his brother-in-law Nguyen Phuc Nguyen. In 1629 he had a royal appointment sent to confirm Nguyen Phuc Nguyen as governor of the southern territories while at the same time summoning him to bring soldiers to help suppress the Mac in Cao Bang. His thinking was that in the unlikely event that the appointment and summons were accepted and obeyed then it would be easy to dispose of the southern leader as he came north, but if the appointment was rejected then he would be clearly justified in pursuing the war since the south would unambiguously be in a state of rebellion against the king. When the royal appointment arrived in the south, Nguyen Phuc Nguyen heard  two conflicting opinions. Men who were nervous about the accusation of rebel- ling against the Le dynasty advised that since the appointment was from the king  there was no way it could be refused. Men who were ready to throw over the Le monarchy countered: “We have our own kingdom here. Why do we need this appointment?” Dao Duy Tu’s view was focused on practicalities. He saw that the Trinh were trying to ensnare the southerners with a royal edict and that refusing it would certainly elicit another invasion from the north, for which the south was not prepared. There had been a major mobilization of men into the military during 1628, but no definite steps for defending the northern border had yet been taken. Furthermore, a Cham invasion of Phu Yen was just then drawing attention to the southern border. Dao Duy Tu advised to pretend to accept the appointment in order to buy time for preparing border defenses and then find a way to return it. This is what Nguyen Phuc Nguyen did. The apparent acceptance of the royal appointment elicited a northern request to forward taxes from the southern territories. Nguyen Phuc Nguyen was inclined to meet this demand, believing that the south was so small and weak compared with the north that the best way was simply to pay the north off. Dao Duy Tu disagreed, reportedly saying: “Times are changing. This land is no longer part of the royal domain. Here you are the lord. Build walls to keep the northerners out.”v

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