Ethos of the feudal mandarin regime in Vietnam
Through thousands of years of existence of the feudal regime in Vietnam, many political and legal institutions were created and consolidated. The mandarin regime is one of such institutions. Besides its substantive weaknesses and limitations, the feudal mandarin regime in Vietnam is characterized by its ethos worth of study.

Pham Dien

State and Law Institute of Vietnam

Through thousands of years of existence of the feudal regime in Vietnam, many political and legal institutions were created and consolidated. The mandarin regime is one of such institutions. Besides its substantive weaknesses and limitations, the feudal mandarin regime in Vietnam is characterized by its ethos worth of study.


Laureate candidates walk to the provincial examination session

ground in feudal Vietnam__Photo: Internet

Distintiveness in the mandarin regime

Usually referred in ancient historical books as “quan che”, the feudal mandarin regime in Vietnam is understood to cover the following basic issues:

- The regulations on mandarin recruitment, appointment and test.

- The regulations on positions and titles.

- The regulations on civil service.

- The regulations on mandarins’ salary, responsibilities and benefits.

These issues were recorded and evaluated in Vietnamese ancient historical books as “Viet Su Luoc” (Brief History of Viet), “Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu” (The Complete History of Great Viet), “Lich Trieu Hien Chuong Loai Chi” (Classified Rules of Dynasties), “Dai Nam Thuc Luc” (Chronicle of Great Viet), and “Kham Dinh Dai Nam Hoi Dien”(The Great Vietnam Administrative Records). According to these books, the mandarin regime was incrementally established, consolidated and completed by different royal courts.

Under the Ly and Tran dynasties (spanning from the 11th to 14th centuries), Dai Viet (Great Viet) enjoyed a firm status and stable society. With their existence over hundreds of years, the feudal dynasties then had favorable conditions for concentration on building the state apparatus. The “quan che” (mandarin regime) under the Ly and Tran dynasties was built toward regularity, with a size smaller and regulations simpler than those applied in feudal China. During the Le So (Early Le) dynasty in the 15th century, when the monarchy was built after the Confucian model, the “quan che” was further improved, especially through the reform initiated by King Le Thanh Tong, being considered a standard model not yet attained by the previous dynasties and followed by subsequent royal courts. During the Nguyen dynasty (the 19th century), the mandarin regime witnessed an important development though still after the model in the Le dynasty.

Panoramically, the mandarin regime in Vietnam’s feudal time was characterized by its distinctive ethos, especially in the regulations on mandarin recruitment and appointment and the regulations on mandarins’ responsibilities and benefits.

Distinctiveness in mandarin recruitment and appointment

To consolidate the state apparatus and raise its efficiency and effectiveness, various royal courts always attached importance to the recruitment, appointment and test of their mandarins, considering this a prerequisite and key issue.

In the feudal regime, mandarins were recruited and appointed by three methods:

- The method of “nhiem tu”, by which sons or grandsons of mandarins or aristocrats could be appointed to be mandarins thanks to their forefathers’ favor.

- The method of “tien cu” (recommendation), by which virtuous and talented persons were recommended by mandarins to the state for recruitment and appointment to be mandarins.

- The method of “khoa cu” (competitive examination), by which persons who passed with distinction such examinations as “thi huong” (inter-provincial examinations), “thi hoi” (Pre-court examinations) and “thi dinh” (Court examinations) were recruited and appointed to be mandarins.

If the method of “nhiem tu” aims to guarantee the positions and benefits of feudal aristocrats, the methods of “tien cu” and “khoa cu” aim to select talented and virtuous persons for the contingent of mandarins. Generally, in the feudal regime, most mandarins were recruited and appointed through competitive examination and recommendation. Especially in the Early Le dynasty, the regulations on recommendation, called “bao cu” (recommendation guarantee), were enacted, under which, the recommenders had to guarantee their recommendation of talented and virtuous persons. Commenting on the “bao cu” regulations of King Le Thanh Tong, historian Phan Huy Chu in the early 20th century wrote: “Thanks to the careful recommendation and severe punishment then, no one dared to make selfish recommendations, hence, talented persons were selected.”[1] Under the Nguyen dynasty, in 1831, the king promulgated a decree stating that “politics would be well built if talented persons were selected by good methods, talented people would recommend talented persons, and the subjects function to recommend talented persons to the king.”[2]

Together with the recruitment and appointment, tests were regularly organized for mandarins. Assessment of mandarins’ competence, uprightness and selflessness as well as industriousness would be a basis for promotion, demotion, dismissal or punishment of mandarins. The test regulations during the Hong Duc time at the end of the 15th century were exemplary, which were made into strict and clear laws by King Le Thanh Tong in 1470, 1478, 1488 and 1489. Under the then laws, tests were held once every three years, with the following distinctive contents.

First, test of mandarins’ educational and professional qualifications with test questions given by the kings. Civilian mandarins were tested in writing poems, debating political affairs, settling administrative circumstances and adjudicating specific cases. Military mandarins were tested in martial arts.

Second, assessment of mandarins’ conduct to see if they were upright, impartial and industrious, as well as of their performance. For accurate assessment, yamens assessed their subordinates to see whether or not they had taken good care of their commoners; local inhabitants under their rule had to wander for livelihood in large or small number; they harassed people for bribe; criminal cases took place in large or small number and the cases they had adjudicated justly or unjustly; they were sued by locals, etc.

Particularly, mandarins of genius would be promoted under the kings’ special orders while mandarins who committed serious mistakes or crimes would be severely punished at once without going through the above regulations. Commenting on the test regime for mandarins in the Hong Duc time, Phan Huy Chu wrote: “The test regulations of the Le dynasty were perfect, especially in the Hong Duc dynasty. The upright and industrious persons were commended while despicable and untalented persons were dismissed. Hong Duc dynasty was the best in ruling the country with dedicated mandarins and judicious political affairs.”[3]

So, with feudal intellectuals spending years reading up the classics and history and books of philosophy before being recruited and appointed to be mandarins, and with the mandarin recruitment and test using strict, specific and practical criteria, feudal mandarins were deeply imbued with the gentlemen’s stuff and virtues, and thoroughly grasped the skills of rulers.

Distinctiveness in the regime of mandarins’ responsibilities and interests

In countries greatly influenced by Confucianism, being recruited and appointed to be mandarins was considered by people, including feudal intellectuals, an extremely important event and the special privilege offered by the kings. Hence, mandarins vowed to shoulder the responsibilities to show gratitude to the kings. For its part, the state usually guaranteed worthy benefits for mandarins so that they fully devoted themselves to the kings and the nation, and at the same time, the state put on their shoulder heavy duties and liabilities commensurate to their benefits.

Mandarins’ benefits include “danh” and “loi”. “Danh” means the spiritual benefit demonstrated mainly through the position and title granted by the king, and also through their stuff and morality in the mandarindom. “Loi” means the material benefit, comprising mainly salaries and bonuses bestowed by the state to ensure the livelihood of mandarins and their families. According to historian Phan Huy Chu, feudal state officials in the Hong Duc time were well paid, aiming to ward off harrassment. Meanwhile, local mandarins during the Minh Mang time (1820-1840) were given an allowance called “tien duong liem” (honesty and selflessness-fostering money), in addition to their salaries, aiming to foster the mandarins’ incorruptibility. To King Minh Mang, local mandarins were in direct contact with people and could easily harass people for bribe. Whether the royal policies were implemented or not, it was largely up to the pool of local mandarins.

The proportionality between salaries and responsibilities of feudal mandarins constitutes a basic principle of “quan che”. Feudal mandarins had three major responsibilities:

- To be completely loyal to the king and the country.

- To love commoners, taking them as the root. Under the king’s authorization, mandarins functioned not only to rule people, but also to protect them, care for their lives, and not to oppress people. This is a very important responsibility of feudal mandarins as, according to ancient ideas, if people are at peace, the country can exist; if the people are rich, the country can be strong. The guiding ideology of the ancient politics was summarized in only eight words “dan ton chinh cu, dan vong chinh tuc” (meaning only if the people survive, can the politics prosper; if the people suffer, the politics can come to an end.)

- The legal liability: The mandarin regime is one of the most important institutions in feudal laws. Mandarins had to shoulder not only the moral responsibility but also the legal liability if they failed to fulfill their duties. The Hong Duc Code in the 15th century and the Gia Long Code in the early 19th century spared many articles to define the crimes, which are now known as the position-related offenses, such as the crime of delayed performance of public duties, the crime of false report, the crime of taking bribe, the crime of harassing people, etc.

In a nutshell, during the feudal time in Vietnam, various dynasties attached importance to the establishment and consolidation of the mandarin regime, which was characterized by many distinctive ethos. It not only simulated the mandarin regime of feudal China but also demonstrated the typical features of Vietnam’s mandarin regime then, contributing no small part to the consolidation of royal courts, social stability and national strength in the course of national construction and defense.-

[1] Phan Huy Chu: Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi (Regulations of Successive Dynasties by Subject-Matter), Volume II, History Publishing House, Hanoi, 1960, p. 97.

[2] Quoc su quan trieu Nguyen” (National History under the Nguyen Dynasty), “Dai Nam thuc luc chinh bien” (The Main Part of The Chronicles of Dai Nam), Volume X, Social Science Publishing House, Hanoi, 1983, p.104-105.

[3] Phan Huy Chu: Id, p.106

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