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Friday, August 18, 2017

Ethos of state power supervision in feudal Vietnam

Updated: 17:29’ - 03/07/2014

Pham Diem
State and Law Institute of Vietnam

In a feudal system, the king held state power, which was in reality exercised through the system of state organs and mandarins from the central to local level. State power was exercised under the monistic mechanism, by which in each sector and at each level, power was concentrated in the hands of chief mandarins. Therefore, in order to protect the king’s power and ensure the effective and efficient exercise of state power, the feudal dynasties in Vietnam paid great attention to supervisory work.

Together with the consolidation of the state apparatus, various dynasties intensified the supervision of the exercise of state power. Under the Le So (Early Le) dynasty in the 15th century, with the administrative reform initiated by King Le Thanh Tong, the mechanism for supervising state power exercise was greatly improved and regarded as an exemplary model by subsequent kings and dynasties. Then, under the Nguyen dynasty, especially through the administrative reform conducted by King Minh Mang in the 19th century, this mechanism became the most sizeable and perfect.

Supervision was conducted regularly, strictly and fairly comprehensively, focusing on executive-administrative and judiciary-adjudicatory work. Subject to supervision were the entire contingent of mandarins and the system of administrative organs from the central to local level. The supervisory power rested with the king, full-time supervisory bodies, and superiors over their subordinates. The commoners, to some extent, also participated in the supervision through exercising their right to complaint and denunciation against madarines.

The supervisory mechanism in feudal Vietnam was characterized by the following prominent peculiarities:

Full-time supervisory bodies

In the feudal regime, the full-time supervisory body was Ngu su dai (an office in charge of personnel affairs in the bureaucratic system and jurisdictional judgment), set up by the Tran dynasty during the 14th century. According to historical books, Ngu su dai functioned to consider and examine the achievements as well as wrongdoings of mandarins nationwide for reporting to the king; inspect and supervise the adjudication throughout the country; and advise the king on the royal court’s policies[1].

Under the reign of King Le Thanh Tong, the organization and functions of Ngu su dai were further enhanced with its branches called Hien sat ty established in various localities, which conducted regular and accurate supervision to directly oversee local mandarins.

During the Nguyen dynasty, the supreme supervisory body was Do sat vien, which was well organized from the central to local level to enhance supervision within the royal court and in provinces. The heads of Do sat vien were directly selected and appointed by the king. As a ministerial-level organ, Do sat vien performed  administrative and judiciary supervision. It was also tasked to examine mandarins’ personal qualities in administering political affairs.

According to Dai Nam Thuc Luc Chinh Bien (the Chronicles of Great Vietnam)[2], the national history book of the Nguyen dynasty, Ta and Huu Do ngu su, the dual heads, of Do sat vien were tasked to “supervise the duties of mandarins and strictly maintain customs and morals as well as state principles.” Their deputies would “take care of the office’s work and explain the right from the wrong” to their heads.

Giam sat ngu su, member supervisors of Do sat vien, would inspect localities and punish local mandarins who committed corruption and other illegal acts.

So, working in Ngu su dai or Do sat vien were non-corrupt and upright mandarins who could be able to oversee mandarins and dare to advise the king.

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Vietnamese mandarins in early 20th century __Photo: Internet

Supervision of the six ministries

In the Vietnamese feudal state, there were six ministries (Bo) that assisted the king in managing different fields, including Bo Le (in charge of foreign affairs and royal ceremonies), Bo Lai (in charge of promotion, appointment, recruitment, legal affairs, training and mandarins), Bo Ho (in charge of marriage and family, real and personal estates), Bo Cong (in charge of public works: irrigation, construction of mausoleums and monuments), Bo Hinh (in charge of adjudication ), and Bo Binh (in charge of military affairs). As the backbone of the feudal state, these ministries were delegated with real power. All dynasties paid great attention to supervising the affairs of these six ministries.

Exercising the right to oversee the six ministries were the king, Te Tuong (the Prime Minister) and six specialized bodies, called luc Khoa, which were set up in the Early Le dynasty.

In a legal document titled Dao du hieu dinh quan che (Decree on adjustment of the mandarin system), enacted by King Le Thanh Tong, luc Khoa were described as follows:

“Allocating and collecting money are the business of Bo Ho, which is assisted by Ho Khoa. If Bo Lai wrongly recruits talents, Lai Khoa can reject them. If Bo Le fails to maintain proper ceremonies, Le Khoa may intervene. Hinh Khoa is entitled to discuss the right and the wrong in adjudication work of Bo Hinh, Cong Khoa can inspect activities of Bo Cong,....”[3].

So, luc Khoa were placed under the direct control by the king and had the power to supervise and control the six ministries.

Under the Nguyen dynasty, luc Khoa supervised not only the six ministries but also almost all central agencies. For example, Lai Khoa supervised Bo Lai and Han lam vien (Royal Academy); Binh Khoa supervised Bo Binh and Thai boc tu (Royal horses’ farm); Hinh Khoa supervised Bo Hinh and Dai ly tu (Procuracy), etc.

At the same time, luc Khoa also coordinated with Do sat vien supervisors in overseeing localities.

Supervision of local mandarins

Since local mandarins directly exercised the state power, whether or not the national policies were materialized depended largely on them. Moreover, as direct rulers of local inhabitants, they were prone to harass people. For such reasons, feudal dynasties often attached great importance to the supervision of local mandarins.

In addition to the supervision by Ngu su dai or Do sat vien and luc Khoa, and by superiors over subordinates, feudal dynasties often applied the following noteworthy supervisory methods.

The first method is organizing the king’s inspection tours to localities. Many Vietnamese kings regarded “than dan” (loving the people and regarding them as the root) as a policy to govern the country. These kings, particularly those of Ly, Tran and Nguyen dynasties, themselves made inspection tours, through which they could thoroughly understand the lives of their subjects as well as the truths about local mandarins so as to commend or penalize them.

The second method is applying the “kinh luoc su” (special inspection mission) regime. The kings selected high-ranking mandarins who were known for their uprightness, integrity and honesty, to make inspection missions on the king’s behalf to investigate and deal with cases in localities and punish corrupt mandarins. King Minh Mang spoke of “kinh luoc su” as follows:

“Being well-selected high-ranking mandarins, you must develop good ideas to promote the good and get rid of the bad, and handle injustice done in localities. All things you do must be fair and honest as I myself do in my inspection tours.”[4]

The third method is organizing tests to assess and oversee mandarins. A peculiarity of the ancient test regime consisted in its specific and practical criteria. For example, the Early Le dynasty decreed that the tests of mandarins’ conduct, capability and work must be based on such specific criteria as whether they had taken good care of people or not; whether local inhabitants had left their native places in large or small numbers; whether or not they had harassed people for bribes; whether or not they had been complained about or denounced by locals; the numbers of unjustly handled cases and unsettled cases.-



[1] Phan Huy Chu, Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi (Classified Rules of Dynasties), Volume II, the History Publishing House, 1961, p. 40.

[2] National Historian Office of the Nguyen Dynasty: Dai Nam Thuc luc chinh bien (Chronicles of Great Viet) Volume XI, History Publishing House, Hanoi, 1964, p.154.

[3] Phan Huy Chu: id., p. 33-34.

[4] National Historian Office of the Nguyen Dynasty: id., p.51.


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