Vietnam Law & Legal Forum Magazine is your gateway to the law of Vietnam

Official Gazette

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Nguyen family of “Dang Trong” (1558-1786) – its state and law

Updated: 15:30’ - 24/02/2011

>>"Le Trung Hung" dynasty: the state and law (1533-1789)


The State and Law Research Institute


Following the civil war that brought the House of Le back to power under the “Le Trung Hung” (the Restored Le) dynasty, the Trinh Family tried to grasp all powers while the Nguyen Family sought ways to consolidate their feud as a separate territory in Thuan-Quang region, comprising almost all areas of Quang Binh province, the provinces of Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Nam, and part of the present-day Quang Ngai province. The armed conflict between the two feudal groups lasted from 1627 to 1672, resulting in no victory for either side but fierce and acute contradictions. The country was once again divided and weakened by the two factions: The Trinh Family ruled regions north of Gianh River called “Dang Ngoai” (northern territory) and the Nguyen Family ruled a vast area stretching from southern bank of Gianh River downward, called “Dang Trong” (the southern territory).

The Nguyen Lords expanded their territory from Thuan-Quang region southward to the Mekong River Delta, which was then thinly inhabited mainly by people of Cham, Khmer and Viet ethnic groups. This was a vast and fertile area left almost unreclaimed before the 17th century.

Making full use of the favorable conditions endowed by nature to the region, the Nguyen Family encouraged large-scale land reclaimation for agricultural production, thus quickly developing this vast and rich region into a separate feudal territory opposing the ”Dang Ngoai” feudal regime of the Trinh Lords. From then on, members of the Nguyen Family succeeded one another in ruling the territory, forcing the people to call them “the Nguyen Lords”.

The territory directly under the reign of the Nguyen Lords (mainly the Thuan-Quang region) was divided into 6 “dinh”. The main “dinh” where the governing bodies of the Nguyen Lords were headquartered was called “chinh dinh”. At the beginning, the ruling apparatus of the Nguyen administration was simply organized comprising of only three agencies called “ty”, each took care of a number of certain affairs. For instance, “ty xa xai” was in charge of the administrative and judicial affairs and headed by a mandarin titled “do tri”. “Ty tuong-than” was in charge of the financial matters including tax collection and salary and allowance payment and headed by a mandarin called “cai ba”. “Ty lenh-su” was in charge of protocol and ceremonial affairs and headed by a mandarin called “nha uy”. Each “ty” was staffed with 50-60 persons.

Each of other “dinh” was headed by a military officer called “tran thu” and also comprised several “ty” which were, however, staffed with a smaller number of people. A “dinh” was organized into various district administration.

In order to create a contingent of mandarins loyal to and heavily dependent on their administration, the Nguyen Lords appointed new mandarins in replacement of ones formerly appointed and sent by the Le-Trinh administration in the North.

After the civil war ended temporarily, particularly from the early 18th century, the Nguyen Lords feverishly built up their administration different from and opposing to the “Dang Ngoai” (northern territory) administration. They made known their intention to abandon the royal titles bestowed on them by the Le king, then ask the Chinese feudal kingdom of Man Tsing to recognize their own kingdom.

In 1744, Nguyen Phuoc Khoat abandoned the royal title bestowed on him by the Le king and claimed himself king, making the Nguyen administration in Phu Xuan (now Hue City) a separate royal court with Phu Xuan as its capital city called “Do Thanh”.

After breaking up its relations with the “Dang Ngoai” administration of the Le king and Trinh Lords, the State apparatus of the Nguyen administration form the central to grassroots levels witnessed numerous changes, aimed at turning a local administration into a central government of a new kingdom.

Do Thanh (Phu Xuan) was rebuilt and renovated with many new palaces, mansions, a system of agencies assisting the royal court. Nguyen Phuoc Khoat appointed relatives and loyal mandarins to important posts, and recruited mandarins and public servants for the administrative machinery through the system of examinations, which, however, did not strongly develop as in the north due to the lack of attention from the feudal rulers.

In the central government, “ty” were dismantled and replaced by 6 ministries (“Lai” (Personnel ), “Binh” (Defense), “Hinh” (Justice); “Cong” and “Ho” ( Civil Affairs), which were modeled after the Le dynasty’s.

The local administration system was strengthened, formulating with the central government into a bureaucratic and cumbersome State apparatus of more military and repressive characters.

The local administrative units of the “Dang Trong” administration included “dinh” (province); “phu”, “huyen” or “chau” (district); “xa” (commune). The southern territory was divided into 12 “dinh” or “tran”, each of which was headed by a military officer called “tran thu”.

The grassroots administrative units of the Nguyen feudal regime were the commune for the delta region and hamlet, ward for the mountainous and coastal region. The Nguyen Lords paid heed to the building and consolidation of the grassroots administrations, particularly in the mountainous and coastal regions, by appointing a large number of mandarins to manage the communal or sub-communal administrations(1).
Yet, the “Dang Trong” administration became more cumbersome and bureaucratic with the existence of a contingent of tax officers called “ban duong quan” who were totally independent from the administrations of all levels and managed only by a single agency under the central government, which was called “noi phu”. This constituted a good ground for corruption to develop.
A young feudal administration like the Nguyen Lords’, which just got out of a civil war, had naturally to rely on its military strength to survive; hence great attention was paid to building a mighty army. By the early 17th century, the Nguyen army had only 30,000 men. The figure swelled to 160,000 at the end of the civil war.
The Nguyen administration’s army comprises the regular army and the regional army. The regular army, which was often mobilized for large-scale combats or expeditions, included the royal guards recruited from among sons of high-ranking mandarins and the nobles to defend the capital city and mobile forces stationed in localities. Meanwhile, the regional army was built up with men recruited right from the localities, and stationed there. It was placed under the direct command of the local administrations and used to maintain law and order in the localities or suppress people’s uprisings if any.
A strict periodical conscription regime was applied by the Nguyen Lords together with the regime of preferential treatment to armymen. Men of the regular army were given portions of public land larger than civilians’ and men of the regional army were exempted from taxes and fees.
With the assistance of some Western countries, the army of the Nguyen regime was well equipped, strongly developed with different services: the artillery; the navy equipped with warships and cannons; the infantry equipped with modern weapons including cannons. It really became an effective instrument of the Nguyen Family to defend the territory, protect the privileges and interests of the ruling class, to suppress the people’s uprisings and to fight the hostile forces of the Trinh Family from the North.
In order to expand its feudal territory and build an independent agricultural economy as logistic bases for its war with the Trinh Family, the Nguyen administration stepped up economic activities which were of positive significance. Various measures and policies were adopted, land reclaimation was ecouraged; new hamlets were set up for homeless people, taxes and fees were reduced for virgin land reclaimers; favorable conditions were created for the private ownership of land to develop, State farms and plantations were established. All the above-mentioned economic activities helped expand the territory of the Nguyen Lords and develop the agricultural economy and particularly gave rise to the stratum of small and medium landlords.
During more than 200 years’ ruling by 10 Nguyen Lords, the legal system of the “Dang Trong” administration was underdeveloped, which was basically different from that of the "Dang Ngoai” regime of Le-Trinh. The Nguyen Lords paid little attention to the legislative work. One could hardly find any historical document that mentioned any laws passed by the Nguyen administration.
Regarding the competence to promulgate laws, the Nguyen Lords were not the ones that had the supreme power. Every laws and orders had to be discussed and approved at the supreme meeting of 9 top mandarins in the Royal Court, including 5 military officers and 4 civilian officials. The Nguyen Lords presided over the meeting.
The legislation promulgated by the “Dang Trong” administration were simple and unsystematic, which concentrated mainly on two domains: economic-financial matters and criminal. The economic-financial legislation was promulgated with a view to strengthening the new economic order and ensuring the increase of revenue for the State. Mandarins, rich people and free persons were allowed by the State to recruit homeless people for reclaiming virgin land which they were entitled to own. These regulations created conditions for the regime of private ownership of land to develop vigorously, which were totally different from the land legislation of the “Dang Ngoai” regime. The private land owners were obliged to pay taxes to the State, enjoying the regime of preferences for certain period of time.
The Nguyen administration also adopted the open-door external economic policy, allowing foreign traders to enjoy trade privileges, to set up their own shops and enjoy autonomy in the commercial port of Hoi An.
Regarding criminal and civil legislation as well as the law on marriage and family, the Nguyen administration, in the early stage of its tenure, applied laws promulgated during the Le king’s time, with less severe punitive forms intended to win the hearts and mind of people. Yet, from the 18th century on, the punishment became more and more severe, with death sentence even to robberies, fighting, corruption, harassment against people by mandarins, betrayal, etc.
For areas where State laws did not exist, conventions and customary practices in each locality were applied to regulate different aspects of the social life. This, however, complicated the enforcement of laws.
A newly set up feudal regime, the State apparatus of “Dang Trong” administration was incomplete, showing its limitations. Struck by cumbersomeness, red-tape, military character and imperfect and unsystematic legal system, the State saw little efficiency in its activities. Just for their own interests, the two feudal groups of Le-Trinh in “Dang Ngoai” (northern territory) and Nguyen in “Dang Trong” (southern territory) divided and weakened the country, obstructing the national development in all aspects.-

A commune of under 70 inhabitants was ruled by 1 military officer or a commune chief; a commune of under 400 inhabitants was ruled by 8 chiefs and military officers; and a commune of some 1,000 inhabitants was ruled by 18 chiefs and military officers.-

Send Us Your Comments:

See also:


Vietnam Law & Legal Forum