Le Dynasty (1428-1788)

The Le dynasty, which ascended the throne in 1428, was overturned in 1528 by the Mac family, again established in 1533, by the head of the Nguyen family, and entirely subverted in 1788. During the greater part of this period, however, the titular sovereigns were mere puppets, the reality of power being in the hands of the family of Trinh in Tongking and that of Nguyen in southern Annam, which in 1568 became a separate principality under the name of CochinChina.

Until the year 1427 Dai Viet was an outlying province of the Chinese Empire. At that time, availing themselves of the distance from the Imperial armies, the people rose in rebellion and massacred the Chinese forces. The leader of the movement to restore independence was Le Loi, an aristocratic landowner. Le Loi, one of Vietnam's most celebrated heroes, is credited with rescuing the country from Ming domination. Born of a wealthy landowning family, he served as a senior scholar-official until the advent of the Ming, whom he refused to serve. Employing guerrilla tactics, he waged a 10- year fight against the Chinese. After a decade of gathering a resistance movement around him, Le Loi and his forces finally defeated the Chinese army in 1427-1428. Rather than putting to death the captured Chinese soldiers and administrators, he magnanimously provided ships and supplies to send them back to China. Shortly after the Chinese left the country, Le Loi then ascended the Vietnamese throne, taking the reign name Le Thai To and establishing the Le dynasty which lasted for 360 years(1428-1788).

The Celestial Empire was not one which readily acquiesced in the loss of territory, nor didi it readily forgive the assumption of independence on the part of distant provinces. Armies were accordingly despatched toward the revolted districts, and, after years of undecided warfare, both parties were glad to arrive at a peaceable solution of the difficult question raging between them. Annam was to retain its independence, but its Kings were to pay triennial tribute to the Emperor, and all new sovereigns were required to demand recognition of these rights by the Court of. Pekin on ascending the throne. Little by little the Kings of Annam, descendants of the Lc Loi who had succeeded in gaining independence for the country, increased their territories, but they still remained tributaries of China, and each sovereign still paid homage to the Emperor.

During the early years of the dynasty, the kindgom grew more powerful than it had ever been, partiCUlarly under Le Thanh-Tong, who is oue of the most celebrated rulers in Vietnamese history. The triennial tribute to China was paid regularly, and relations with the Chinese were peaceful. At the same time, war was vigorously pushed against the Kingdom of Champa; when it was finally conquered in 1471, all Champa territory north of Mui Dieu (formerly Cap Varella or Varella Cape) was annexed. The remaining territory became a vassal state in tribute to Dai-Viet. The Vietnamese, however, continued to absorb Champa until it disappeared as a political entity. All that remains of this once-advanced culture in present-day Vietnam is a small rural ethnic minority called Cham and impressive ruins in the Central Lowlands.

The greatest of the Le dynasty rulers was Le Thanh Tong (1460-97), who reorganized the administrative divisions of the country and upgraded the civil service system. He ordered a census of people and landholdings to be taken every six years, revised the tax system, and commissioned the writing of a national history. During his reign he accomplished the conquest of Champa in 1471, the suppression of Lao-led insurrections in the western border area, and the continuation of diplomatic relations with China through tribute missions established under Le Thai To.

Le Thanh Tong also ordered the formulation of the Hong Duc legal code, which was based on Chinese law but included distinctly Vietnamese features, such as recognition of the higher position of women in Vietnamese society than in Chinese society. Under the new code, parental consent was not required for marriage, and daughters were granted equal inheritance rights with sons. Le Thanh Tong also initiated the construction and repair of granaries, dispatched his troops to rebuild irrigation works following floods, and provided for medical aid during epidemics. A noted writer and poet himself, he encouraged and emphasized of the Confucian examination system.

A great period of southward expansion also began under Le Thanh Tong. The don dien system of land settlement, borrowed from the Chinese, was used extensively to occupy and develop territory wrested from Champa. Under this system, military colonies were established in which soldiers and landless peasants cleared a new area, began rice production on the new land, established a village, and served as a militia to defend it. After three years, the village was incorporated into the Vietnamese administrative system, a communal village meeting house (dinh) was built, and the workers were given an opportunity to share in the communal lands given by the state to each village. The remainder of the land belonged to the state. As each area was cleared and a village established, the soldiers of the don dien would move on to clear more land. This method contributed greatly to the success of Vietnam's southward expansion.

Although the Le rulers had ordered widespread land distribution, many peasants remained landless, while the nobility, government officials, and military leaders continued to acquire vast tracts. The final conquest of Champa in 1471 eased the situation somewhat as peasants advanced steadily southward along the coast into state-owned communal lands. However, most of the new land was set aside for government officials and, although the country grew wealthier, the social structure remained the same. Following the decline of the Le dynasty, landlessness was a major factor leading to a turbulent period during which the peasantry questioned the mandate of their rulers.

In the Confucian world view, emperors were said to have the "mandate of heaven" to rule their people, who, in turn, owed the emperor total allegiance. Although his power was absolute, an emperor was responsible for the prosperity of his people and the maintenance of justice and order. An emperor who did not fulfill his Confucian responsibilities could, in theory, lose his mandate. In practice, the Vietnamese people endured many poor emperors, weak and strong.

Counterbalancing the power of the emperor was the power of the village, illustrated by the Vietnamese proverb, "The laws of the emperor yield to the customs of the village." Village institutions served both to restrain the power of the emperor and to provide a buffer between central authority and the individual villager. Each village had its council of notables, which was responsible for the obligations of the village to the state.

When the central government imposed levies for taxes, for corvee labor for public projects, or for soldiers for defense, these levies were based on the council of notables' report of the resources of the villages, which was often underestimated to protect the village. Moreover, there was a division between state and local responsibilities. The central government assumed responsibility for military, judicial, and religious functions, while village authorities oversaw the construction of public works projects such as roads, dikes, and bridges, which were centrally planned.

The autonomy of the villages, however, contributed to the weakness of the Vietnamese political system. If the ruling dynasty could no longer protect a village, the village would often opt for the protection of political movements in opposition to the dynasty. These movements, in turn, would have difficulty maintaining the allegiance of the villages unless they were able both to provide security and to institutionalize their political power. Although it insured the preservation of a sense of national and cultural identity, the strength of the villages was a factor contributing to the political instability of the society as it expanded southward.

The power and prestige of the Le dynasty declined after the death of Le Thanh-Tong in 1497. At the close of the fifteenth century, the king of Tonquin occupied certain provinces bordering upon his territory, but subject to the sovereign of Champa. In the sixteenth century, a Tonquinese family, called Nguyen, having deserved well of their sovereign, obtained from him the office or dignity of Chita, that is, Lord, or Viceroy; the rank of Vua, or king, being reserved for the sovereign himself. The government of the two provinces taken from the king of Champa was given to the family of the Chua Nguyen.

In 1527, General Mac Dang Dung usurped the throne and established a new dynasty for which he was able to purchase the unenthusiastic approval of the Chinese. Early in the sixteenth century, the dynasty of Le was nearly overthrown by a rebellion which for years ravaged the kingdom, and when this was quelled, the grateful sovereign bestowed on the successful general (one Nguyen Dzo) who had restored peace, the title of Chua or hereditary viceroy of the country. The powerful Nguyen family set up a descendant of the deposed Le dynasty as head of the government-in-exile south of Hanoi - an event which marked the beginning of a century and a half of regional strife and of division between the north and the south which lasted until the latter part of the eighteenth century. In this struggle, the place of the Mac was taken by another family, the Trinh, which in 1592 defeated the Mac ruler and reinstalled a puppet Le emperor on the throne in the north.

At the commencement of the seventeenth century, the governors of Champa asserted their independence, and though recognising the nominal supremacy of the Le dynasty, refused to acknowledge subservience to the Chuas. Under the Nguyen, Vietnamese expansion, at the expense of Cambodia, was vigorously pursued. The remaining coastal territories of the Champa were gradually absorbed and, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a series of short but decisive wars were waged with the Cambodians, who then occupied the Mekong Delta and most of the south-central portion of the Indochinese peninsula. The acquisition of the vastly fertile Mekong Delta represented a gain of major proportion for the land-hungry Vietnamese. By the end of the eighteenth century, Vietnamese control extended to the limits of what later became South Vietnam.

It was in the name of the Le emperor, the symbol of mational unity, that the Nguyen and the Trinh carried on their war against each other. Both the Trinh, who controlled the Le emperors at this time, and the Nguyen, who ruled as independent autocrats, claimed support of the Le as justification for the legitimacy of their respective regimes. The Nguyen were able to consolidate power in the region south of the seventeenth parallel. On Nguyen Dzo's death, his eldest son succeeded him in the office of Chua; his younger son, an able general and skilful diplomat, being appointed governor of the newly conquered provinces of Champa, which formed the southernmost possession of the kingdom.

During the whole of the seventeenth and the greater part of the eighteenth century, the northern and southern portions of Annam formed virtually distinct kingdoms; the one ruled over by representatives of the Lé, the other by the Nguyen family. The enervating influence of the viceregents over the Kings of Annam had long been felt, and for many years all real power had passed into the hands of the detested Chuas. In 1673, after half a century of bloody and inconclusive fighting, a truce was concluded which lasted for 100 years. This 100 years of peace brought a great cultural resurgence, especially to the north, where the Vietnamese civilization was well established. Along with the Buddhist renaissance that occurred, there was much literary and artistic effort. The north produced great works of history and historical criticism.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century a formidable insurrection arose in the northern provinces of Tonkin; it was fostered and fed by the mountaineers of Southern China, and, sweeping all before them, the rebels demanded the execution of the vice-regent and the annulment of his commission. The rebel leader now became virtual ruler of Annam, though for two years Chien Tong, the last of the Le's, reigned as a puppet monarch by his side, when, finding his position insupportable, he fled to China and vainly sought the armed assistance of the Emperor.

In the late 18th century, the country was partitioned into Northern and Southern regions, with the Le Dynasty ruling the North and the Nguyen Lords ruling the South. However, in the North, the Le Dynasty was completely powerless with the dictator Trinh Lord taking command. The peasants across the country at this time are tired of having to pay huge taxes and being forced into military service for the ongoing battle for political power between Trinh and Nguyen. The uprising of the Tay Son Farmers' Movement in 1771 inevitably occurred in Quy Nhon, an area under the Nguyen Lords' control. The leaders of the Tay Son Movement were three brothers: Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu, and Nguyen Hue (not related to the Nguyen Lords). In 1786, Nguyen Hue and his troops moved into Thuan Hoa and cleared the Trinh army out of Phu Xuan. With an obvious victory, he then expanded his operations to the North and annihilated the Trinh authority, which resulted in the Trinh Lord, Trinh Kai, commiting suicide after his defeat.

The last emperor of the Le Dynasty, Le Chieu Thong, fled to China and petitioned to the Qing Emperor for help in defeating the usurper. The Qing Emperor, Qianlong, provided Le Chieu Thong with a massive army of 200,000 men so that Le Chieu Thong can regain the throne, with the Chinese behind him to pull the strings of course. Because of this, Le Chieu Thong is viewed as a traitor by the Vietnamese people for asking the Chinese to invade Vietnam and take control. Nguyen Hue defeated the Qing troops (with his 100,000 men) in a 5-day campaign during the Lunar New Year, 1789. Viewed as a savior, Nguyen Hue then proclaimed himself as Emperor Quang Trung. After his death in 1792, at the age of 40, the country once again fell into war again for political power.

Despite his short reign, Quang Trung (Nguyen Hue) is revered by the Vietnamese people as a hero for defeating the last invasion by the Chinese forces. He is remembered as a military leader of astounding prowess and an inspiring reformer in political leadership who personified the brilliant rise and rapid fall of the Tay Son Movement. He is always seen as a champion of the Vietnamese people and a defender of the country against any foreign invasion. Quang Trung's victory against the Qing army is usually celebrated on the 5th day of Lunar New Year every year.

The pioneering voyage of Vasco da Gama to India in 1498 showed the way from Europe to Asia by sea. The Portuguese ships which followed drove rapidly eastward, establishing, sometimes by peaceful means but often by force or the threat of force, a line of trading and missionary outposts which in two generations extended from Goa, through Malacca, the Indies and Macao, to Nagasaki. The Spanish, meanwhile, coming across the Pacific from their holdings in the New World, were installing themselves in the Philippines and seeking to challenge the Portuguese monopoly of the coveted spice trade. Other European powers - Holland, England and France - joined the maritime procession eastward, ultimately overshadowing the Portuguese in a sanguinary competition, at first for trade and later for colonial possessions.

The European wave reached Vietnam in 1535 with the arrival in Vung Da Nang (Da Nang Bay) of the Portuguese captain Antonio da Faria. For a century the Portuguese, trading through the port of Faifo (later named Hoi An), a few miles to the south, dominated European commerce with Vietnam. Confronting a strongly organized state power and a sophisticated, resourceful officialdom, they could not, as in the Indies, impose their will or deal purely on their own terms. In the Nguyen, locked in conflict with the Trinh, they found a market for Western weapons and advice. The Dutch, coming in 1636, similarly purveyed to the Trinh. The English and French finally got a commercial foothold in the latter part of the century, but, after the truce between the Nguyen and Trinh in 1673, Vietnamese interest in armaments, which had made up the bulk of the trade, subsided.

The European merchants had been badly hurt by the ferocity of the Western political and economic rivalry of which they were the agents in Asia. Trade declined and after 1700 almost ceased. The first Catholic missionaries entered Vietnam in the sixteenth century, and with the near halt in trade in the eighteenth century they remained almost the only Europeans in the country. Prominent among them were the French, who had been left a relatively clear field by the decline of Portuguese power and the preoccupation of the British and the Dutch with India and the Indies. In both northern and southern Vietnam the Confucian-oriented officials had their misgivings about the new religion. They suspected it as the possible forerunner of conquest, and they feared the effect upon the traditional order of a doctrine which founded its morality on the will of God rather than on a concept of duty to family and state. Missionary activity was forbidden, but only at intervals was the ban enforced. Christianity spread among the poor, and Jesuit scholars trained in the sciences were welcomed at the northern and southern courts where they were able to make their influence felt among the privileged and educated.

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