By NGUYEN VIET HUONG
The State and Law Research Institute
Le Thanh Tong (1442-1497) was a prominent king, a reformist and a noted poet of Vietnam in the latter half of the 15th century. He was also one of the kings who reigned the longest in the history of feudal Vietnam. During his 38 years' reign, he made great contributions to the country and the nation, taking Dai Viet, former name of Vietnam, into a period of prosperity and glory.
In the 15th century, Confucianism became the orthodox ideology of the ruling feudal class which was also the national religion. A great promoter of the basic Confucian principles, Le Thanh Tong on the one hand advocated “the rule by morality” (using moral precepts to educate people, rule the country by fostering personality), and on the other hand realized the importance of legislation in governing the country, i.e. ruling by laws. His name was closely associated with a series of important legal documents promulgated in this period such as “Hong duc thien chinh thu”, “Thien nam du ha tap” (with the forewords written by Le Thanh Tong himself)... In 1483, he promulgated the “Quoc Trieu hinh luat” (the Penal Code of the Royal Court), commonly known as the “Hong Duc” Code or the Penal Code of the Le dynasty, which was later used as a legal basis for governing the country.
Some people theorize that the “Quoc Trieu hinh luat” was drafted much earlier, right in the first years of the Late Le dynasty under the reign of King Le Thai To. It was later amended and supplemented through various dynasties, and the most important amendments and supplements were made during the Hong Duc era (1470-1497), in fact comprising the most important clauses of the Code. Even if this assumption is correct, it is undeniable that King Le Thanh Tong made great contributions during his glorious era of Hong Duc, and the “Quoc Trieu hinh luat” in its capacity as the penal code of the Le dynasty can be considered a penal code of the Hong Duc era.
In fact, this is the oldest and most comprehensive feudal code which has been preserved intact in Vietnam. The Han-Nom Institute in Hanoi still keeps three copies of the code "Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat" and three copies of a hand-written book called "Le Trieu Hinh Luat" (The penal code of the Le dynasty).
The first part of the Hong Duc Code comprises three diagrams on the sizes of funeral service tools, funeral dresses and ways of mourning. The remaining part includes 722 Articles arranged in 13 Chapters and 6 Volumes (each Volume containing 2 Chapters, except Volume 3 with 3 Chapters). The Articles are not numbered but the total number of Articles is written at the beginning of each Chapter.
It can be said that this is a general code which provides for the institutions of various juridical branches: penal law, civil law, the law on marriage and the family, the administrative law, military law, international law, the law on court proceedings... Of all these, the institutions on the penal law and the law on marriage and the family occupied the most important place. There is a clear distinction between various juridical branches in this code. What the then law-makers tried to do was to arrange Articles regulating similar social relations in one volume. All the legal provisions in the Code were compiled in the form of penal law provisions accompanied with penal measures.
In Vietnam's legislative history, the Hong Duc Code is considered an achievement of special value. It was not only the legislative culmination of the previous feudal dynasties but also demonstrated its superiority over another feudal code compiled in the early 19th century: The “Hoang Viet Luat Le” promulgated by King Gia Long of the Nguyen dynasty in 1812.
The typical features of the Hong Duc Code were manifest not only in the structure of the entire Code but also in the details of each Article. Researchers highly value the fairly progressive legislative method and standards as clearly seen in the form of the Code which has been also highly appraised for its progressive contents demonstrating a high level of rationalism and humanism, and summing up the best national traditions. The legal provisions truthfully reflected the social situation of Vietnam during the Late Le era as well as the then rulers' ways of settling social issues: Respecting the interests of individuals and the whole society; restricting the serfdom regime and protecting production; caring for the people's welfare...
Particularly, the Hong Duc Code was the only feudal code in Vietnam that recognized the women's role and some degree of equality between men and women and determined women's civil legal capacity (Articles 308, 322, 375, 388, 391...).
Evaluating the Hong Duc Code and the legislation of the Le dynasty in general, the noted historian Phan Huy Chu wrote: “Indeed, that is the model to govern the country and to discipline the people”(1). Many researchers also held that it was a progressive legislation with a number of functions similar to those of the modern juridical ideas of the West, which played a very positive role in the executive activities of the State. The Code, in fact, became an effective instrument for the Le Kings to manage the country with stability and development during more than 300 years' existence of the Late Le dynasty. Moreover, the Code had far-reaching impacts on legislative work as well as the modes of managing the feudal societies in subsequent periods.
Even today, the Hong Duc Code is stil considered one of the outstanding achievements of the Vietnamese civilization, and a valuable document for the study of the history of legislation in particular and the history of social systems in general. Through its undistorted and unadorned legal provisions we can have a truthful picture of the feudal society under the Late Le dynasty.-
(1) Phan Huy Chu: Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi (Bibliology of Monarchical Publications, Volume III, the History Publisher, Hanoi 1961, p.94.-