By Lawyer TRAN THI TUYET
State and Law Research Institute
Though in power for six years, the House of Mac was unable to pacify various feudal factions which rose up in many localities against the Mac under the pretext of “supporting the Le dynasty”, but in fact wrangled for power.
In 1533, Nguyen Kim gathered anti-Mac forces, restoring the Le dynasty under a separate administration in the region of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces, which was known in history as the Le Trung Hung (Restored Le) dynasty. This marked the beginning of the decline of the feudal regime in Vietnam.
When Nguyen Kim died in 1545, his son-in-law Trinh Kiem grasped all powers in his hand, forming the Le-Trinh feudal group. So, from 1533 to 1592 there existed in Vietnam two administrations, having always conflicted with each other in interests and powers. With Son Nam township (in the present day province of Ninh Binh) as their temporary border line, the Mac dynasty was in the North and the Le Trung Hung (with the active support of the Nguyen Family, and later the Trinh Family) was in the South. So, this period was known in history as the period of North and South dynasties and a period of interminable and fierce civil wars between various feudal forces.
By 1592, the House of Le had nominally regained its complete power to rule the country when it captured the capital city of Thang Long (now Hanoi), driving the House of Mac to the northern border province of Cao Bang, then having conditions to consolidate the ruling apparatus as well as its legal system, which had been neglected for long due to wars. But it was from then on acute conflicts appeared within the Le Trung Hung dynasty, first of all and mainly between the Nguyen Family and the Trinh Family, one-time allies in the fight against the House of Mac for the restoration of Le kingdom. This compelled Nguyen Hoang (a son of Nguyen Kim) to flee to Thuan Quang area, having attempted to separate the southern region from the Le kingdom and set up a separate administration (1600). The conflict between the two feudal groups of Trinh and Nguyen led to a civil war between “Dang Trong” (southern territory) and “Dang Ngoai” (northern territory), having caused untold sufferings for the people and hindered the social and economic development then. After nearly 50 years’ fighting (1627-1672) and neither side won the war, the Nguyen and Trinh Families agreed on a temporary cease-fire, taking Gianh river (in Quang Binh province) as the border line between the two territories. The territory north of Gianh river was called “Dang Ngoai” and jointly ruled by the Trinh Family and Le Trung Hung dynasty; and the territory south of Gianh river was called “Dang Trong” and dominated by the Nguyen Family. In fact, following the outbreak of the war there were in Vietnam two separate feudal States (“Xu Dang Trong” and “Xu Dang Ngoai”) with two different administrations and two different legal systems.
In “Dang Ngoai” (northern territory), the feudal monarchy was nominally headed by the Le king with the support of the Trinh Family. But in fact, the Trinh Family controlled the army and took all State powers, manipulated the king. It established its own ruling apparatus besides the Le administration in order to clench power in its hand. So, a two-head institution (a State with two heads) appeared.
At the beginning, the Le-Trinh administration kept almost intact the ways of organizing the State and enforcing the laws promulgated during king Le Thanh Tong’s tenure. It was due partly to its involvement in wars, having had no time to care for that and perhaps partly to the fact that it feared changes might cause public discontents as the golden time of the Le So dynasty in the national construction and defense still deeply imprinted in the mind of the people. Only after defeating the House of Mac, recapturing the capital city of Thang Long and particularly during the period of the civil war between “Dang Trong” and “Dang Ngoai” were considerable changes seen in the structural organization of the administration and the legislative activities of the Le-Trinh administration with a view two concentrating all State powers in the hands of the Trinh Lords.
At the central level, there existed in parallel two administration systems: the Royal Court and the Lord’s Palace. The Royal Court was still headed by the Le king who and the entire Court were but puppets, grasping no real power. The king could only enjoy ceremonial powers and receive foreign envoys. The Le king was only given 5,000 guards to defend the royal palace and render services therein; 7 couples of elephants; 20 royal boats; and the right to collect yearly taxes from 1,000 communes for the royal spendings, including salaries. High positions in the Royal Court were maintained and given to mandarins with merits in defeating the House of Mac and in restoring the Le throne more tokenly as rewards thereto than as working positions.
In 1599, the Trinh Lord pressured the Le king to seek the consent from the Ming kingdom (of China) for his self-proclamation of being Lord and the establishment of the Lord’s Palace which was the body to assist the Trinh Lord alone. As the head of the Lord’s Palace, the Trinh Lord gave himself more powers and higher authority even than the king’s. It was him and his Palace that really clinched the power, managing and deciding and affairs of the Royal Court and the State. Every decisions made by the king had to be approved by the Trinh Lord. All royal proclamations, orders... to be signed by the king for promulgation had also to be prepared by mandarins in the Lord’s Palace.
The Trinh Lord selected his close and reliable men for the highest posts in the Royal Court, who could, together with the Lords, discuss and decide national affairs.
Apart from the ministries and agencies maintained in the Royal Court, in 1718 Lord Trinh Cuong set up in the Lord’s Palace similar bodies and agencies in order to consolidate his power.
By the late 17th century and early 18th century, the Trinh Lord reorganized administrative units into “tran” (province), “phu”, “huyen” or “chau” (district) and “xa” (commune). The administration in “tran” was modeled after that during Hong Duc time with three agencies: “Thua ty” taking care of the administrative and personnel affairs; “Tran ty” attending to the military affairs; and “Hien ty”, the judicial affairs. Almost all “tran” were headed by military officers.
The heads of all these administrative units took charge both the administrative and legal affairs in their respective localities. In far-flung and mountain areas, all powers were usually given to military agencies and officers.
To meet the requirements of interminable civil wars, the Le-Trinh dynasty attached importance to building and developing the armed forces. The recruitment of men into the regular army was carried out regularly and through coercise measures. Besides, the State promulgated policies giving special preferential treatment to armymen who were allowed to till public land; fallen officers and men were posthumously conferred titles and given land and their children were exempted from public duties.
Besides the regular army having stationed in the capital city, by the 18th century the State set up the local army by recruiting people in the localities to suppress peasants’ uprisings and defend key regions. The army of “Dang Ngoai” (northern) administration was fairly strong with various corps and services: infantry, elephant troops, artillery, navy. Particularly the navy was very strong with thousands of warboats, big and small, including sea-going boats given by a foreign country. Many military schools were opened to train out commanding officers.
In the legal field, the Le Trung Hung basically applied the legislation of the Le So dynasty with some little amendments to laws concerning economy, finance and culture. The Hong Duc Code, particularly its civil legislation, was kept intact without any change.
Most noteworthy in the legislative activities, which reflected the positive aspect and big legal achievement during this period, was that the laws on procedures were amended and perfected and various economic laws (first of all the tax law) were enacted. After many years of wars, the private economy developed vigorously, thus leading to a trend that disputes among people increased. The number of lawsuits was on the constant rise. This required the Le-Trinh administration to improve its judicial system by clearly defining the time limit and procedure for settling a case, the order for making a claim, the responsibility of the plaintiff and many other details on legal proceedings. The fairly rich laws and regulations on legal proceedings enacted by the “Dang Ngoai” State were collected, compiled in a book called “Kham tung dieu le” (Procedure Laws and Regulations) which was published in 1777.
So, the colossal heritage of legal documents left behind by the Le So dynasty were further supplemented and perfected by the Le Trung Hung State as an instrument to rule the country. However, such a fairly rich and complete legal system could not help the Le Trung hung State stabilize the troubled social situation in the late 17th century and especially the early 18th century. It was the inefficiency of the executive and judicial machinery and the rulers’ indifference to the common interests of the nation... that led to the inevitable decline then the fall of the dynasty.-