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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Vietnam’s feudal law on residence

Updated: 17:07’ - 25/07/2007

Ethnological Institute of Vietnam

Residence and management of residence have constituted a matter of primary concern for many states. For the Vietnamese feudal state, residence management aimed at firmly grasping the population, including civil status, household registration and particularly the number of “dinh” (young men) in order to satisfy the requirements on poll taxes, military conscription, penal servitude and enhancement of defense potentials, as well as maintaining social order and safety and creating conditions for people of all strata to live and earn their living.

However, household registration and civil status can be considered the most prominent elements of Vietnam’s feudal law on residence.

Under the Ly dynasty, civil status was strictly stipulated: “dinh” (young men) were called “hoang nam” when reaching the age of 18 and registered in yellow-cover books, and “dai nam” when reaching the age of 20.

Under the Tran dynasty (1226-1400), King Tran Thai Tong, in 1228, instituted the management of population by household registration. In early Spring every year, communal mandarins reported on the number of people in every household, clearly stating their social status as “quan van” (civil mandarin), “quan vo” (military mandarin), “quan theo hau” (service mandarin), army men, “hoang nam” (men of 18 years old), old and weak persons, “bat cu” (disabled people), “phu tich” (permanent residents), and “xieu tan” (temporary residents).(1)

In 1401, during the Ho dynasty (1400-1407), preparing forces for national defense, Ho Han Thuong ordered household registration nationwide, registering all males aged two years and up. Meanwhile, all temporary residents from delta provinces were forced to return to their native places.

In the early Le dynasty (1428- 1527), King Le Thai To, immediately after coming to the throne in 1428, ordered all localities nationwide to make household registration, which was carried on in 1430, 1433, 1435, 1440, 1444, 1460 and 1465. In the year of Canh Dan (year of the tiger) in 1470, during the Hong Duc dynasty, King Le Thanh Tong set the regulation on household registration every three years, called “tieu dien” (minor registration), and every six years, called “dai dien” (major registration), which was maintained until the Le-Trinh dynasty, with residents categorized as either “thuc ho” (permanent residents) or “khach ho” (temporary residents).

The Tay Son and Nguyen dynasties also set regulations on civil status and household registration which were similar to those of the previous dynasties.

Common to all the feudal regimes of Vietnam was that they all set regulations to prevent and sanction cases of falsification of household registration books by non-declaration or false declaration of the number of male members. This spirit was clearly seen in Article 285 of the “Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat” (Criminal Code of the Royal Court), also called the Tu Duc Code.

Urban populations

From the Ly and Tran dynasties, the law provided for residence of the urban population in the capital city of Thang Long (former name of Hanoi). The population quarters were located outside the Royal Citadel. Many streets were grouped by guilds (with 61 guilds under the Tran dynasty). Each street or guild became a handicraft place where handicraft goods were turned out and traded or where fragrant rice and vegetables were sold for supply to the Royal Court and inner city dwellers.

Generally, the state allowed people from other localities to live and earn their living in Thang Long, provided that they had to observe the general regulations on security, order and firefighting and fulfill all tax and public labor obligations.

In 1434, the laissez-passer regime was applied for the first time to people’s travel and procedures for temporary residence implemented. It provided that local mandarins who traveled to the imperial capital on public or personal business had to carry along permits of the district mandarins in their places of residence; if military men residing in the imperial city or relatives of high-ranking mandarins of the Royal Court traveled on public or personal business, they had to acquire permits from the local chief mandarins; people traveling for business purposes also had to get the laissez passers issued by district mandarins. Those who failed to get such papers were not allowed to travel.

One year later, in 1435, it was further stipulated that people in guilds had to build their home at their places of household registration. This showed that household registration was then managed on the basis of dwellings in association with places of registration.

History also reveals that the feudal states were fairly open-minded on the relations between social order and security and the assurance of people’s livelihood to develop production and business, and extreme managerial measures which affected the people’s lives were avoided. Article 80 of Chapter “Ve Cam” (Imperial Guards) in “Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat” (Criminal Code of the Royal Court) provided that anyone could reside and open shops in streets or guilds, outside of the Royal Citadel.

Besides handicraft artisans and traders, a small section of the population worked the fields. The royal families and mandarins lived in the Royal Citadel. Later, some mandarins moved out, living among commoners in outlying areas. From the Ly dynasty, many mandarins began adopting children or taking house servants from other localities, some of whom had shirked penal servitude or committed wrongdoings. To ward off such a situation, various feudal administrations worked out different measures.

In 1137, it was stipulated that royal mandarins were not allowed to give up their children in adoption to others in order to benefit from the latter’s positions and powers or ask for favors; those who violated this regulation would be incarcerated.

In 1337, the state ordered all mandarins to inspect everyone under their jurisdictions; those with “cung ket” papers (similar to labor contracts) would be allowed to stay and those who failed to possess “cung ket” would be expelled to their native places.

In 1360, it was stipulated that all household servants of high-ranking aristocrats or royal family members had to have their foreheads clearly tattooed with their names and places of residence and their names registered in books; if not, they would be considered robbers and severely punished.

Residence was banned in some cases. For instance, in 1434, Le Thai Tong ordered the expulsion of a concubine of Le Thu, a high-ranking officer, as she had masterminded an overseas trip for Le Thu’s relatives for smuggling.

Article 214 of the “Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat” forbade mandarins in the Royal Court and localities to take other people’s sons as their own for enjoyment of “am” (the appointment of mandarins based on the ranks and positions of appointees’ fathers and grandfathers); those mandarins who committed violations would be charged with sheltering male citizens and those taken as sons would be enlisted into the army, if adults, or expelled to their native places, if minors.

Under Article 301 of the code, Royal Court mandarin who arbitrarily forced young males into their families to work as servants, would be fined at levels depending on the number of people forced to work. Meanwhile, Article 330 provided that high-ranking mandarins who took “hoanh nhan” (persons sentenced to penal servitude for their offenses) into their houses to work as servants would also be sentenced to servitede, demotion or relief from position, depending on their rank and the number of people taken by them.

In 1726, the Le-Trinh Royal Court promulgated regulations that army officers, yamen officials, mandarins and families in the capital city, that let their relatives to temporarily reside in their respective army units, offices or houses, had to file applications with full certification. Household masters who illegally sheltered people and security officials who failed to detect such cases would be severely penalized.(2)

During King Le Thanh Tong’s tenure (1460-1497), the regulations on state mandarins’ residence in public offices were promulgated, whereby mandarins were allowed to stay in state-owned official-duty houses while they were in office. Upon their retirement or resignation from office, they had to return such houses to the state. Mandarins were also not allowed to buy houses or land for construction of their own houses, nor allowed to marry women in localities under their charge. Such regulations were further specified in Article 223 of the “Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat” that those mandarins who worked outside the office building but in their personal houses would be beaten black and blue with wooden sticks for 80 times and subject to “biem” (degrading), relief from positions or “do” (servitude).

Rural populations

The feudal states took advantage of the village - a strictly self-controlled population unit of Vietnamese peasants - to keep a handle on the population through the commune-level administra-tions. In principle, the feudal states respected people’s rights to residence in their dwelling houses in villages and only prohibited the construction of houses on holy ground. These regulations existed during the reign of Thieu Binh (1434-1439).(3) In 1726, the state further stipulated that those district mandarins who neglected their duty and let people build houses at such places would be penalized with servitude or exile, and communal mandarins who knew of such cases but tolerated violators and persons who knew but failed to denounce violators would also be subject to servitude.(4)

The feudal states attached importance to temporary residence declaration as clearly seen in Article 293 of the “Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat”, which stipulated that villagers who had to notify their neighbors of strangers when the latter stayed and left their houses. Violators would be penalized with 60 beatings by wooden sticks.

In order to prevent villagers from leaving their home places due to crop failures, wars and out-dated customs and practices and help them return to their villages, the feudal states worked out a number of measures.

Article 298 of “Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat” stipulated that villages must not shelter people running away from their home places. If so doing, village chiefs would be subject to penal servitude or exile, depending on the number of such people, and the runaways would be forced to return to their villages.

In 1711, in light of the situation that authorities and rich and influential people bought the land of poor fleeing villagers to add to their own farms, employing people from all social strata, including tax and penal servitude evaders, and robbers, the Le-Trinh Royal Court issued a three-point regulation:

(1) Rich and influential people, mandarins, and yamen officials are not allowed to take advantage of the difficult plight of the poor to buy land and build up their own farms and employ runaways. Those who have already built such farms must abolish them within three months; if not, they would be punished according to law; local mandarins who neglect in enforcing this regulation would be severely punished.

(2) Ordinary people who live in their villages and buy newly reclaimed land in other villages for business purposes and poor people who flee and reside in other villages and work fields borrowed from others to earn their living or have reclaimed virgin land into their fields and gardens are allowed to reside there and do their farming. Local people must not drive them away.

(3) Those mandarins who have land but arbitrarily build farms to accommodate runaways would be fined with 300 “quan” (a feudal currency unit equivalent to one hundred coins), if they hold first or second rank; or be subject to severer penalty, if they hold third rank.(5)

In 1725, the Trinh Lord’s palace ordered those who know run-aways must denounce them to district mandarins so that the latter might send their officers to force them to return to their native places and perform penal servitude.(6)

Village regulations

Each Vietnamese village had its own rule on residence with clear distinction between “chinh cu” (permanent residents) and “ngu cu” (temporary residents). Under regulations of most villages, people coming from other localities and temporarily residing in villages could become their permanent residents only after three or even seven generations (as in Dong Ngac village of Tu Liem district, now in Hanoi). The temporary residents had to suffer material and spiritual losses: they had to build their houses at the edges of villages; were not given public land; had no right to bid for land, ponds, lakes and other assets in the village; were not permitted to participate in village activities at communal houses; and had to shoulder heavy taxes and do forced and public labor. Moreover, the temporary residents were disdained by permanent residents or could even not marry villagers.

To manage villagers in households, all villages had to each compile two male registration books: one book, which was called “so hang xa”, would be recorded with all male villagers (from the infant to eldest male villager), and the other, called “dinh ba”, registered all male villagers aged between 18 and 60 years old, who were liable to poll tax. Persons in charge of civil status and household registration, called “ho lai”, had their own seals.

Temporary residence was stipulated in all village rules. Those families who had strangers to stay had to report to the “khan thu” in charge of village patrol; if not, they would be held accountable for any loss in the villages during the strangers’ stay.

Residence law applied to foreigners

Foreigners’ residence in Vietnam during the feudal time was not so complicated as only a few foreign nationals resided in the country due to the states’ policies of attaching importance to agriculture while restricting commerce, except in the 17th and 18th centuries when the Trinh Lords in the North and Nguyen Lords in the South adopted open-door policies for trading in order to develop economic and defense potentials.

The most prominent problem for foreign residents in Vietnam was related to Hoa (Chinese) residents who came from different social strata in feudal China: scions of Chinese mandarins in Vietnam during the Chinese feudalists’ domination, traders coming to the country for business, hunted opponents of the Chinese administration, and a large number of poor laborers who came for their livelihood. They were district or provincial folks and when they arrived in Vietnam, they were grouped into “bang” mainly in urban centers. Each “bang” had its own leader to keep contact with local Vietnamese administrations and opened its own book called “so hang bang” for registration of households. All of them were permitted by Vietnamese feudal administrations to reside and given favorable conditions to earn their living. Most Hoa residents considered Vietnam their second native place and constituted part of the community of nationalities in Vietnam, having made certain contributions to the construction and defense of Vietnam.

However, as Chinese feudalists sought to conquer Vietnam, taking advantage of Hoa residents to materialize their schemes, the Vietnamese kingdoms heightened their vigilance. The first measure they applied was to ward off acts of abusing business activities on land and by sea to conduct espionage. On land, the Vietnamese feudal states set up many “bac dich truong” (trade exchange places) at some border points for trade exchanges by nationals of the two countries. On the sea, King Ly Anh Tong operated a commercial port in Van Don district, Quang Ninh province, for trade by Hoa people and traders from Indonesia, Siam, Singapore.

It can be said that the 17th and 18th centuries saw the thriving of Vietnamese commerce, with increasing numbers of traders coming from China, Japan, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands for trade. Generally, they were given favorable conditions by Vietnamese feudal rulers to reside and do business in the country through the establishment of emporiums in Thang Long, Pho Hien, Hoi An, etc.

However, the Le-Trinh dynasty still kept an alert attitude toward Hoa nationals as seen in regulations promulgated in 1696: “Chinese people who are admitted to reside in Vietnamese villages or communes must observe Vietnamese customs and practices by speaking the Vietnamese language and dressing in Vietnamese costumes instead of speaking strange languages and wearing strange attires; those who violate these regulations will be penalized with 50 wooden-stick beatings; other peoples who come from commercial boats to various localities throughout the country to do business or enter the capital city under the guide of their acquaintances will be exempt from these regulations; if without guides they will also be punished according to law.”(7)

In early 1717, new regulations on foreign traders were promulgated Foreign traders who come by sea were allowed to reside in Van Kien (now the town of Mong Cai in Quang Ninh province); if they come by land, they were allowed to reside in Dieu Dieu (now in Lang Son province); those who had resided for a long time in such urban centers as Mao Dien of Hai Duong township, Bac Can Street of Thai Nguyen township, Ky Lua Street of Lang Son township, Van Ninh Street of An Quang township, and Muc Ma Street of Cao Bang township were permitted to continue their residence there. Those who had resided in villages and communes, streets and guilds of the imperial city were allowed to seek naturalization but had to follow Vietnamese customs and practices.(8)

The Nguyen dynasty in November 1829 set two bans:

(1) Only people who come from Manchu (former feudal China), resided in Vietnam, became Vietnamese citizens and were registered in “so hang bang” could marry Vietnamese citizens; those who come to do business were not allowed to marry Vietnamese citizens. Those who violated these regulations would be penalized with 100 wooden-stick beatings and be divorced; the principals and accomplices, the matchmakers, the “bang” chiefs and neighbors would also be punished; local mandarins who knew but tolerated offenders would be degraded and transferred to other localities.

(2) Manchu men who had married Vietnamese women and wished to return to their country had to return alone without bringing along their Vietnamese wives; those who acted against these regulations would be enlisted into the army in border areas while their wives would be sent to work as servants; the wedding ceremony masters, the matchmakers, the “bang” chiefs and neighbors would be penalized with 100 wooden-stick beatings. Local mandarins who deliberately tolerated offenders would be degraded and transferred to other localities.


It can be realized through the historical data, though incomplete, that the Vietnamese feudal states had the following prominent features regarding the questions of residence and management of residence:

- The feudal states of all dynasties permitted people to freely reside at their own will, considering the stable residence a principal measure to develop production and business, and maintain political security, social order and safety as well as create bases to secure tax collection, labor, and military conscription.

- In the management of residence, the household registration in association with dwelling houses was most important. Different feudal states had their own ways of managing residence of urban and rural populations. For foreigners, besides favorable conditions created for them to permanently reside and earn a living in Vietnam, the states always paid attention to the protection of national security and the preservation of national traditions and customs.

- The states applied various measures to prevent the mandarins’ abuse of state preferential policies applicable in difficult circumstances such as natural disasters or wars to seek self-interest, create illegal migrations or cause other difficulties for the Royal Court and people.-



(1)  Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (The Complete History of Great Viet), the Van Hoa-Thong Tin (Culture-Information) Publishing House, Hanoi, 2004, volume 1, p. 439.

 (2) Lich Trieu Tap Ky (Past Dynasties; Recollection), the Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi (Social Science) Publishing House, Hanoi, 1975, volume II, p.127.

(3) Hong Duc Thien Chinh Thu, translation version, Nam Ha publisher, Saigon, 1959, p.71.

(4) Lich Trieu Tap Ky, volume II, Ibid, p.117.

(5) Lich Trieu Tap Ky, volume I, the Khoa Hoc-Xa Hoi Publishing House, Hanoi, 1975, pp. 186-187.

(6) Lich Trieu Tap Ky, volume II, Ibid, p.106.


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