Saturday, April 25, 2015

May 8, 1516 – Le Tuong Duc Wins the Loyalty of his Guard

A zealous peasant rebellion in Vietnam rose up under the popular Tran Cao in the spring of 1516. Believed by some to be a Taoist sorcerer clad in his crimson robes, Tran Cao began gathering his warriors at the Quynh Lam Pagoda. He declared that he was the avatar of the god Indra, master of weather and warfare, and that this body was meant to rule as it had been born with links to both the ruling Le family and the previous dynasty, the Tran. His following expanded to form an army of ten thousand warriors that marched on the capital, Thang Long (later to be known as Hanoi).

As the massive peasant-army approached, the young emperor Le Tuong Duc stood up to address his personal guard. Tuong Duc was the latest in a line of disappointing emperors since the golden age under his grandfather, Le Thanh Tong. Thanh Tong had come to power through invitation as a teenager in 1460 when a counter-coup knocked his half-brother from the throne. Through his thirty-seven year rule, Thanh Tong instituted Confucian ideals into government. He wrote the Hong-duc, a comprehensive and systematic law, ordered detailed maps and a census, and personally toured the empire to alleviate issues with corrupt local officials. While highly popular with the Vietnamese, Thanh Tong notoriously opposed to outsiders, instituting isolation against trade and repeatedly campaigning to conquer land to the south and west. Foreign sailors who washed ashore in storms were castrated and impressed into military service.

After Thanh Tong’s death, his son Le Hien Tong continued the Confucian kingship until 1504, but the cruel five-year rule of Le Uy Muc made the imperial family very unpopular with peasants and nobles alike. He pitted palace guards against one another like gladiators for his amusement while he studied martial arts. Uy Muc’s cousin Tuong Duc, just fourteen years old, organized the emperor’s assassination and seized power. He worked to bring back the golden days of his grandfather, chasing out Uy Muc’s violent favorites and filling the court with scholars. To emulate greatness, he began costly projects like artificial lakes, pleasure palaces, and building an enormous harem that included many of his father’s concubines (breaking both Confucian and Vietnamese law). Heavy taxes to fund the projects spawned rebellions, and Tran Cao was the latest in a series of disputes. Le Tuong Duc expected his soldiers to put them down. Anyone who tried to show their disapproval was whipped, including the captain of his guard, Trinh Duy San.

With only the river between the capital and the oncoming army of rebels, Le Tuong Duc was suddenly shown the obvious errors of his ways as his heavy taxes logically led to such rebellion. He broke down and confessed his failures as a Confucian and emptied his harem, granting the wives to his guard to make up for the pain he had caused them. If this infighting continued as people acted beyond their positions, he predicted a Vietnam of weakness on a national scale. If strength did not come from within, it would oppress them from without.

Trinh Duy San swore his loyalty, and he led the defense as a veteran of the 1511 rebellion, once fighting a battle down to the last thirty men. The defenders attacked wherever the peasants attempted to make a beachhead on the river, finally driving back their superior numbers with superior weapons. Tran Cao fell in the battle, and the leaderless rebels dispersed.

Le Tuong Duc made good on his word, adhering to the law of his grandfather and repealing taxes. As the economy recovered, he found resources to organize more campaigns into the south against the growing power of the Tai and maintain Vietnam’s independence from China. In Tuong Duc’s later reign, the great general Mac Dang Dung stormed the lands of the dying Khmer Empire, conquering huge swaths of which he was made governor. Children of major families were brought to court schools and imbued with Confucian ritual and teaching: most importantly, to uphold the emperor.

In the seventeenth century, European ships began to appear on the coast. Portuguese and Dutch traders attempted to broker deals with emperors, but the boarders remained largely closed. Some technology had to be proven useful, such as the printing press that was installed to decrease dependence on China. Firearms were strictly regulated. Foreign luxuries and religions were banned, despite the efforts of French Catholic missionaries to make inroads.

It was not until the nineteenth century that the warships of the Kaiser opened Vietnam for trade with Germany, following the example of the United States Navy in Japan. A flood of western technology and cheap manufactured goods caused reprisals from locals suddenly being undersold. The German-Vietnam War briefly turned the empire into a colony, but Germany’s collapse in World War I liberated the country thanks to Woodrow Wilson’s vote of confidence at Versailles. Japan similarly seized and lost control in WWII. Vietnam transitioned to a constitutional monarchy supported by a vocal parliament with members such as the outspoken Nguyen Ai Quoc, who gained his attitudes of anti-socialism while being educated in Germany. 


In reality, Trinh Duy San and others in the imperial guard assassinated Le Tuong Duc for his wasteful hedonism. They seized his nephew Chieu Tong as a puppet and retreated as the country fell into anarchy. Generals acted as warlords, looting as they pleased. Tran Cao was eventually defeated by a confederation of the two major houses, the Trinh in the north and the Nguyen in the south. While Vietnam would be united from time to time through the years, it would suffer a constant north-south division of power, even to the twentieth century when it was again united by Ho Chi Minh.

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