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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Feudal state apparatus structures in Vietnam

Updated: 14:10’ - 25/02/2011

>>Local administration structures in feudal Vietnam

Tran Thi Tuyet
State and Law Research Institute


Unlike many other feudal states in the Orient, which  were characterized by  the absolute monarchy,  the feudal state in Vietnam was modeled after the centralist monarchy with concentrated power throughout the process of its development from the 10th to the 19th century. Under such type of monarchical regime, the central administration headed by the king was strengthened in all aspects with concentrated power. The monarchy in Vietnam was less severe, less authoritarian and less harsh than the feudal regimes in some neighboring countries.

Usually in the absolute monarchy, the king headed the State with all unrestricted powers-legislative, executive, judiciary and heavenly - in his hand. The king was often considered “The Heaven’s Son”, representing the Heaven to rule people.

Yet in Vietnam, the king took the top position in the State apparatus, but had limited power. The distance between the king and mandarins as well as his subjects was not so great, and as a rule, each time when the national sovereignty was threatened by the outsiders and the national territory was encroached upon, all Vietnamese, from the king, mandarins to the commoners, put aside their differences and internal contradiction, uniting together into a national unity bloc against foreign invasion and for the defense of the country.

Selected mostly through examinations and originating from the poor, mandarins were persons with real talents, who always kept close contacts with people and relied on the people’s strength to protect the interests of the community as well as the interests of their own class. It was, therefore, the exploitation of toiling people by feudalists, the innate nature of feudalism, was less barbarous and severe in Vietnam.

History has shown that many Vietnamese kings demonstrated their good virtues: being close to the masses, caring for people’s life; advising their children (particularly crown princes), courtiers and mandarins not to live in luxury, not to be corrupted and lazy and fully devoted to their assigned tasks. Still fresh in the hearts and minds of many Vietnamese are good impressions about patriotic and virtuous kings who were wise and clear-sighted, talented and prestigious, who loved their subjects and were dearly loved by the latter. This can be seen through temples and shrines erected elsewhere throughout the country by people to worship and keep good memory of such kings as well as mandarins of integrity who had done great services to the nation and people. Truly, these were the particular colorings of the monarchical State in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s central feudal administration was structured similarly to northern Chinese feudal states with the king as the supreme commander who was assisted by an apparatus consisting of mandarins and various agencies, who ran all affairs of the country and managed all aspects of the social life. The central administration apparatus, as required by historical realities of Vietnam, was constantly consolidated and perfected in order to concentrate all powers and govern the local administration system. All manifestations of and inclination to disintegration, regionalism and feuding, that weakened the country and the regime, were strictly forbidden or nipped in the bud. It was, therefore, the king’s assisting apparatus went through constant readjustment and re-arrangement in order to ensure its concentration, unity, flexibility and efficiency while bringing into the fullest play the community’s strength and resources.

The king’s assisting apparatus was headed by a mandarin called “Te tuong” (or “tuong cong”, “tuong quoc”, “thua tuong”, “thai te”… - the prime minister), who held great powers, running political affairs. With such important position, “Te tuong” was almost only selected from among the royal family members with real talents and loyalty to the king and the royal court. He was assisted by a deputy called “A tuong” or “tham tri chinh su”, “mat vien tham tri”… (considered the deputy prime minister). Yet, during king Le Thanh Tong’s tenure (1460-1497) and the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945), these two positions were not maintained with a view to cutting the intermediary links and ensuring the concentration of all powers into the hands of the king who directly managed the mandarins system in the State apparatus.

Under “Te tuong” were “Thai su” (the first highest-ranking mandarin of the court); “thai pho” (the second highest-ranking mandarin of the court); and “Thai bao” (the third highest-ranking mandarin of the court), who had talents and virtues to be worthy of being always by the king’s side. Then came “Thai tu thai su”, “thai tu thai pho” and “thai tu thai bao” who were in charge of educating and training the crown princes in all fields, having prepared all necessary conditions for the later to come to the throne. So, those mandarins had to be talented and virtuous, being always a bright example for the crown princes to follow.

The “Tam Thai” (meaning three highest-ranking mandarins: “Thai su”, “Thai pho” and “Thai bao”) were assisted by “Tam thieu” (three deputies), called “Thieu su”, “Thieu pho” and “Thieu bao” respectively), in performing their duties.

The “Tam tu” titles including “Tu do”, “Tu ma” and “Tu khong” (having appeared from the Tran dynasty) were given to mandarins who helped the king in protocols, consultancy and other administrative affairs. meanwhile, mandarins with such titles as “hanh khien”, “thai uy”, “thieu uy”… helped the king in running military affairs throughout the country and also participated in the political affairs of the court.

Most of these high-ranking positions and titles were given to the king’s relatives and vassals who had done great services to the royal court. These top-ranking mandarins were trusted and given key positions by the king. They were allowed to join discussion with the king about important affairs of the court, and sometimes were authorized to settle other important issues.

Under such top-ranking mandarins were civilian and military officials assigned directly by the king to manage or work at various assisting agencies of the king and the court. They included “thuong thu” (ministers) who led various ministries and directly helped the king in managing different affairs. They were civilian mandarins trusted by the king and allowed to join the political affairs of the court. Assisting “thuong thu” were mandarins with such titles as “ta thi lang” and “huu thi lang” (third-ranking mandarins).

Besides, mandarins of lower rankings worked in such specialized bodies of the royal court as the king’s office to assist the king in administrative affairs: dispatching the king documents, decrees, orders to mandarins and subjects and submitting the mandarins’ reports and people’s complaints to the king; stamping the seal on documents, decisions and orders of the king; explaining and commenting on books and literature for the king…

Among the specialized agencies, the ministries were the central bodies to assist the king manage one or several affairs. Usually, the feudal state was composed of 6 ministries with specific functions and duties determined in the mandarin regulations by the king. Each ministry was structured with a leading board, some specialized agencies to handle the daily routines and a number of functional bodies called “so” or “ty”. The number of staff members of a ministry depended on its workload.

- “Bo Lai” (Organization and Personnel Ministry) was in charge of mandarin affairs, including the appointment, selection, examination, promotion, demotion, transfer… of mandarins. It was staffed with from 60 to 80 persons.

- “Bo Le” (The Ministry of Protocol) was in charge of all protocols, ceremonies and activities in the royal court, including worshipping, parties, study and examinations, the king’s and mandarins’ costumes, seals, stamps, report forms, overseas postings, astronomy, medicine, religion, musics and arts. Its payroll was around 60 to 80 persons.

- “Bo Binh” (The Ministry of Military Affairs) took charge of military affairs, the protection of royal family; carriages and horses for transport, weapons, defense of national borders, suppression of riots; as well as other affairs related to the political security and social order. It was staffed with around 80 to 130 persons.

- “Bo Hinh” (The Ministry of Justice) was in charge of matters related to laws, trials, detention of criminals, penalties…, with a payroll of 60 to 170 persons.

- “Bo Ho” (The Ministry of Civil Affairs) took charge of land administration, civil affairs, warehouses, salary and wage, budget collection and allocation, taxation… It was staffed with 80 to 110 persons.

- “Bo Cong” (The Ministry of Public Works) took care of the construction, renovation, repair of public works such as bastions, bridges and sluices, roads; the protection of forests, gardens, rivers, lakes…, with the total staff members of 40 to 60.

These 6 ministries were not necessarily set up all by various feudal regimes in Vietnam. Depending on the managerial requirements and historical conditions of the country, the number of such agencies might be more or less. During the early days of Vietnamese feudalism, the Ly dynasty (1010-1225) set up only two, namely “Lai” and “Le”, which were added with two others: “Binh” and “Hinh” by Tran, then pre-Le dynasties (1226-1400). From King Le Nghi Dan’s time (1459) on, “Ho” and “Cong” were added, making all 6 ministries in operation with more and more specific functions and tasks. From the second half of the 16th century on, the Trinh lords gradually usurped the Le kings’ powers, placing the lords’ palace called “lieu” besides the royal court and 6 “phien” besides the 6 ministries.

In 1459, king Le Nghi Dan also set up 6 other agencies called “khoa”, including “Lai khoa”, “Le khoa”, “Binh khoa”, “Hinh khoa”, “Cong khoa” and “Ho khoa” with their functions to inspect and supervise the work performance by the 6 corresponding ministries.

Having succeeded to the throne, king Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497) established 6 more agencies called “Tu” to help some ministries in doing a number of specific jobs. For instance,

- “Dai ly tu”, having carried out the work of “Bo Hinh” (the Ministry of Justice), would review severe sentences such as “phat do” (hard labour), “phat luu” (exile) and “tu” (death sentence), then submitted the investigation results to “Bo Hinh” which would later reported to the king for decision.

- “Thai thuong tu”: In carrying out the work of “Bo Le” (the Ministry of Protocol), it organized rites, managed the music band of the court, looked after shrines in worship of heaven, earth, devines, demons…

- “Quang loc tu” also helped “Bo Le” in supplying and supervising liquors, offerings, foods for various rituals, royal festive occasions, banquets.

- “Thai boc tu” helped also “Bo Le” by taking care of the royal boats, the king’s horses and the protection of wild life in the country.

- “Hong lo tu” carried out the work also of “Bo Le”, organizing the ceremony of calling out the names of laureates of or the graduate from the court competition-examination (the highest national examination during the feudal time to select the best graduates for high-ranking mandarins’ posts); arranging ceremony to welcome guests; and organizing funerals for high-ranking courtiers.

- “Thuong bao tu” also performed the work of “Bo Le”, stamping the seals on examination books of candidates at the pre-court competition-examination (the second highest national examination).

Besides, other work of the central administration was also done by various functional bodies such as:

- “Ngu su dai”, which supervised mandarins in performance their duties, the settlement of lawsuits, the trail of big cases, enhanced the court disciplines; maintained customs and rules…

- “Han lam vien” which was responsible for drafting the court documents and headed by a mandarin called “Thua chi”.

- “Dong cac vien” which finalized documents and materials drafted by “Han Lam vien”, and was assigned some minor tasks by the king. It was headed by a mandarin called “Dai hoc si”.

- “Quoc su vien” or “Quoc su quan” which jotted down the history of the royal court and the nation as well, and was headed by “‘thuong thu”.

- “Quoc tu giam”, which, under the king’s order, took care of the literary temple, the education and training of candidates.

- “Ton nhan phu” which noted down the king’s family annals, considered the talents and virtues of the royal family members and proposed to “Bo Lai” for recruitment, selection and appointment; considered lawsuits and disputes in the royal family. It was headed by a mandarin called “Ta huu ton chanh”.

In addition, there were agencies specialized in judiciary matters, such as “Tham hinh vien”, “Tam ty vien”, “Binh bac ty, vien do sat”…, which contributed to the purification of the State apparatus and the prevention of law offences.

Such a feudal ruling apparatus with too many mandarins and agencies could not have operated well and effectively without a clear determination of rights and duties of mandarins as well as agencies, particularly in such an agricultural society as Vietnam’s. Mandarins were given grades and ranks by the king according to their respective positions in the ruling apparatus. These included 9 grades called “pham” and two ranks, called “bac”, for each grade: “chanh” (principal) and “pho” or “tong” (meaning deputy). So, the highest grade among the feudal mandarins of Vietnam was “chanh nhat pham” (the principal first-grade mandarin), then “tong nhat pham” (deputy first-grade mandarin), “chanh nhi pham” (the principal second-grade mandarin), “tong nhi pham” (the deputy second-grade mandarin), “chanh tam pham” (the principal third-grade mandarin), “tong tam pham” (the deputy-third-grade mandarin).

The mandarins’ positions were also reflected through the titles conferred by the king, including “vuong” (prince), “cong” (duke), “hau” (marquisate); “ba” (earl); “tu” (viscount); and “nam” (baron). The “vuong” title was conferred almost only to members of the royal family, rarely to great courtier with great services to the royal court. Meanwhile “cong” was conferred on courtiers with merits and “hau”, “ba”, “tu” and “nam” were conferred on high-ranking mandarins.

In 1471, king Le Thanh Tong’s royal proclamation on the amendment to the mandarins’ charter demonstrated clearly his ideas on the management of the State apparatus with determination of roles and functions of various royal agencies: “The six “kha” will supervise and inspect mandarins. The six “tu” are tasked to do odd jobs. The “ngu su hien sat” is tasked to punish bad habits of mandarins and consider complaints of people… To allocated and collect money is the tasks of “Bo Ho” which is assisted by “Koa Ho”. If “Bo Lai” recruits people without talents, “Khoa Lai” is entitled to object it. If “Bo Le” let ceremonies in disorder, the “Khoa le” will fix it… By so doing, high-ranking mandarins and low-ranking officials are bound together in their duties in order that the common sense of the country will not be affected by personal feelings and the country’s great cause will not be shaken…” (Phan Huy Chu: Lich Trieu hien chuong (The royal court’s chronicle), page 482).

The above way of organizing the central administration during the feudal time in Vietnam constituted an important factor, creating the strength of the central administration and contributing to the existence of the centralized monarchy of Vietnam throughout 9 centuries.-


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