Administrative reform under the Nguyen Dynasty
The Nguyen dynasty went through a period of independence and sovereignty from 1802 to 1884 with four reigns: Gia Long, Minh Menh, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc. Though the idea of administrative reform emerged early during King Gia Long’s tenure, it was comprehensively accelerated and effectively enforced after King Minh Menh came to the throne.

Tran Hong Nhung, LL.D.

Administration-State Law Faculty Hanoi Law University

Mandarins of the Nguyen dynasty__Photo:

The Nguyen dynasty went through a period of independence and sovereignty from 1802 to 1884 with four reigns: Gia Long, Minh Menh, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc. Though the idea of administrative reform emerged early during King Gia Long’s tenure, it was comprehensively accelerated and effectively enforced after King Minh Menh came to the throne. The reform focused on key areas as consolidating the Confucian spiritual system; re-dividing administrative boundaries and levels; reforming the administrative apparatus from central to local levels, including an emphasis on improving administrative procedures. The objectives of creating an effective, elite, orderly and smoothly running administration were realized under King Minh Menh’s rule, and were subsequently inherited and promoted by his successors, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc, who continued to strengthen the state machinery.

Aiming to consolidate the state apparatus through administrative reform, the Nguyen dynasty implemented various measures, including:

Strictly complying with the process of elaborating and promulgating documents

Under the Nguyen dynasty, administrative documents were diverse in form and could be classified based on the promulgating jurisdiction into the following principal categories:

* Documents promulgated by the Emperor: “chieu” (royal proclamation), “chi” (royal ordinance), “du” (royal statement), “sac” (royal decree).

These documents were used for publicly announcing the king’s undertakings, policies or positions on important issues related to their tenure or national destiny; handling daily matters in management work or approving subordinates’ reports on conferment of titles and grades for mandarins.

* Documents under the promulgating jurisdiction of the “Hoi Dong Dinh Than” (the Royal Council). They were based on the king’s will or orders and were sent by the Council to central and local agencies.

* Documents under the promulgating competence of court officials and central and local mandarins: reports, complaints, and petitions used by “nha mon” (yamen) or commoners to report to the king for consideration or approval; directives of mandarins or court officials to communicate orders or decisions from the central administration to mandarins in the royal court or in localities; such documents as “tu di” and “tu trinh”, used by central and local mandarins of the same rank to exchange ideas on work.

The state provided specific procedures for drafting and promulgating the above documents, ensuring adherence to prescribed formats and content accuracy. Each type of document must include: the country’s name (for diplomatic documents), appellation of the document, issuing authority, recipients, names of drafting and examining persons, date of promulgation and seal of the issuing agency or person. The content of each document must be clearly presented, with terms suitable to the document type and the correct number of lines and words per page in compliance with regulations on tabooed names. The “Hoang Viet Luat Le” (the Royal Laws and Regulations of Vietnam) of the Nguyen dynasty set forth regulations to minimize errors and mistakes in document content:

- Adding or deleting content would be subject to 60 “truong” (strokes of heavy wood sticks), hard labor or exile (Article 69).

- Wrongly copying documents would incur a penalty of 100 “truong” (Article 322).

- Mandarins reporting issues or civil petitions with contradictory content would face hard labor or exile for severe offences, or demotion for minor violations.

To ensure the legality of documents, they must be signed and sealed according to specific and strict regulations:

- Documents must be carefully examined before submission to responsible authorities for approval.

- Documents submitted to the king must be signed by the heads or deputy heads of drafting agencies, as well as the document drafters and examiners.

- Mandarins within the same agencies are strictly forbidden from signing documents on behalf of others.[1]

To ensure the prompt, safe and confidential delivery of finalized documents, the state clearly prescribed the delivery modes, measures and time limits. According to the regulations of the Nguyen dynasty, those responsible for delivering documents, including the king’s orders, are prohibited from disclosing, dropping or losing the documents (Articles 60 and 61 of the “Hoang Viet Luat Le”). In 1820, King Minh Menh set up the “Ty Buu Chinh” (Post Office) under the “Bo Binh” (Ministry of Military Affairs) to facilitate the nationwide delivery of documents.

State management documents, once promulgated and processed, would be carefully preserved and archived for future reference or for compiling the history of the kingdom. King Minh Menh set up four “Tao Le” (sections) attached to the Cabinet to look after the seals, draft documents, and maintain copies of royal proclamations and decrees.

Simplifying clerical papers for fast, timely and careful handling of affairs

In a decree, King Minh Menh ordered yamens in various ministries to reduce paperwork, stating “using reference books instead of collections of reported cases, report once every three or six months instead of monthly, and archive unsettled cases pending adjudication…”[2]

Additionally, the king emphasized the need for timely handling of work. In his 12th year of reign (1831), he instructed the “Bo Hinh” (Ministry of Justice) to resolve all remaining cases within one month, warning that any delays would result in accountability.[3]

In his 14th year of reign (1833), the king ordered relevant ministries to handle reports from localities within one day for urgent matters, within three days for issues requiring careful examination, and within 10 days for complex issues needing input from other ministries or offices. If matters could not be settled within these time limits, extension must be reported to the king, prohibiting officials from delaying work at their discretion.[4]

Similarly, in 1859, King Tu Duc urged royal and local offices to reduce paperwork. For issues other than important national issues, murders or foreign invasions, the king requested that ministries, royal offices, yamen and local chief mandarins provide summarized year-end reports.[5] In 1874, he further instructed royal officials to cut down on clerical work, shifting from semi-annual to annual reports, and annulling unnecessary paperwork.[6] He also reminded mandarins inside and outside the royal court to carefully assess what should be eliminated, by-passed, done as prescribed, or reported to the king, ensuring that political issues would be well managed and people would be at peace”.[7]

Mandarins’ responsibility for handling work without delay, errors, or mistakes was mandated not only by the king’s decrees but also by law. The “Hoang Viet Luat Le” contained 14 articles on penalties for lazy mandarins,[8] and 67 articles requiring mandarins to carefully handle work to avoid errors or mistakes.

Clearly defining modes of receiving and handling clerical papers against overlapping, shirking of responsibility

In 1834, King Minh Menh ordered royal court officials to discuss and promulgate regulations on the delivery and receipt of decrees and ordinances by court agencies as well as the receipt of reports submitted by localities. Specifically:

- All reports submitted by court or non-court agencies must be handed over to the standing member of the “Do Sat Vien”, who would examine them and forward them to the concerned bodies. Matters involving two or three ministries would be handed over to the more relevant ministry for handling.

- Decrees, reports and books already stamped with royal seals must be immediately handed over by the cabinet to concerned agencies for action.

- Reports and clerical papers submitted by localities must be carried in bamboo tubes from station to station by envoys to the post office director. The director would examine the red paper outside the envelopes and report urgent important military issues immediately. For normal matters, he would open the envelopes and forward them to concerned offices for handling. Matters involving two or three ministries would be forwarded to the most relevant ministry.

Enhancing coordination in the process of handling work

In the state apparatus of the Nguyen dynasty, the functions, tasks, and relationships between ministries, sections, and the central and local administrations were clearly defined. Mandarins in the royal court and at different administrative levels cooperated with and supervised one another, collectively answering to the king. This principle of mutual support and oversight applied at all administrative levels, including the royal court, ministries, functional bodies and localities.

Members in an agency closely coordinated in handling work. Decisions must be made collectively, adhering to the principle that “all cooperate together”[9]. Reports submitted to the king by ministries must be inscribed with the words “than dang” (equal subjects), rather than with the names of individuals ministers. If there were differing opinions among mandarins, the reports must include these different views along with the full names of those involved.[10]

For issues requiring coordination among agencies, the king assigned them to any agency for handling or coordination with other agencies for handling.[11] In his nineth year of reign, King Minh Menh decreed: “Matters related to any ministry shall be assigned to such ministry for handling. Matters involving two ministries shall be assigned to the principal one to keep such decree for implementation. This will be established as regulation”.[12]

Coordination among ministries was evident during court sessions where national issues were addressed publicly, allowing all participating civil and military mandarins to monitor and understand the king’s decisions. In a decree during his first year of reign (1820), King Minh Menh stipulated: “At these sessions, attending mandarins from six ministries must note down what has been done and what has been decided by the king. Any matter requiring coordination from their respective ministries must be acted upon immediately”.[13]

Although the administrative reform in feudal Vietnam did not bring about the expected results, the viewpoints, undertakings and measures during the Nguyen dynasty remain valuable in the present context.-

[1] Nguyen Toan Thang: Outline of clerical work in feudal Vietnam, Review of Pham Hung political school, http//

[2] Quoc Su Quan Trieu Nguyen (National History Office of the Nguyen dynasty), “Dai Nam thuc luc” (Chronicles of Great Viet”, vol. 3, p. 868.

[3] Ibid, p. 175.

[4] Ibid, “Kham dinh Dai Nam hoi dien su le” (The Great Vietnam’s Administrative Records), vol. 2, p. 394.

[5] Ibid, “Dai Nam thuc luc”, vol. 7., p. 652.

[6] Ibid, vol. 8, p. 44.

[7] Ibid, vol. 7, p. 905.

[8] Article 7 Danh le phan thuong; Chapter I:  Lai Luat (Articles 7, 8 and 9); Chapter 2: Lai Luat (Articles 7, 8 and 9); Chapter I: Binh Luat (Article 4); Chapter 2: Binh luat (Articles 6 and 7); Chapter 13: Hinh Luat (Articles 5 and 8); Chapter 14: Hinh luat (Article 3); Chapter 15: Hinh Luat (Article 4), the History Institute, Ancient Laws: Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat and Hoang Viet Luat Le. The order of six ministries: Lai, Ho, Le, Binh, Hinh, Cong.

[9] Nguyen Minh Tuong, the Administrative Reform during Kinh Minh Menh’s Tenure (1820-40), master thesis of history science, the History Institute, 1994, pp. 155-156.

[10] Vu Van Mau, Legislation History, Sai Gon, 1971, p. 111.

[11] “Hoi dien” (Administrative records), vol.1, pp. 161-162.

[12] Ibid, vol. 2, p. 421.

[13] Ibid, vol.2, pp..392-393.

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