By Lawyer Tran Thi Tuyet
State and Law Research Institute
By the early 16th century the Le dynasty had weakened. The central government was no longer able to manage the country and maintain the social order and law. Following the death of king Le Thanh Tong (1498), the new feudal rulers proved incapable and vicious, having lived a luxury and depraved life with such notorious kings as Le Uy Muc (1505-1509) nicknamed the “demon king” or Le Tuong Duc (1509-1516), the “pig king”. The society was in great turmoil, with feudal factions (1) being deeply engaged in power wrangling. High-ranking mandarins in the royal court worked hand in glove with feudal lords, attempting to dethrone the king. Soldiers mutinied, attacking the capital city.
Meanwhile, the peasantry was driven into bitter misery with their land being taken by warlords and local rulers, with heavy taxes, repeated crop failures due to natural calamities. All these led to many uprisings by peasants(2) during the early 16th century, shaking the Le dynasty to the roots.
Against such political and social background, Mac Dang Dzung took power, setting up the Mac dynasty (also mentioned in history as the Northern dynasty). As an officer of the royal guard under king Le Uy Muc (1505-1509), he gradually manipulated the armed forces of the royal monarchy, expanding his power and influence and winning the hearts and minds of people. Then feudal historians, though having disliked the House of Mac which, according to them, was not a legitimate regime but a “rebellious dynasty”, had to admit that Mac Dang Dzung had “enjoyed the trust of everyone; pacified many big hostile forces; expanded his power and influence” while the royal army became weak and the people’s minds turned to Mac Dang Dzung(3). It was also recorded in “Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu”: “By then, people throughout the country had followed Mac Dang Dzung.”
So, Mac Dang Dzung emerged as an inevitable of history, meeting the requirement of history by founding a new dynasty that ruled the country for more than six decades (from 1527-1592) and subsequently existed for more than 80 more years in the mountain province of Cao Bang until 1677 when it came under strong attacks by the Le-Trinh administration from the South.
The House of Mac’s State apparatus and legal system were basically modeled after the Le So dynasty’s. Mac Dang Dzung only changed what he deemed necessary and suitable to the then practical conditions. It seemed that he did not want to change what had been done by the Le kings in organizing the State apparatus making laws. Is it because the State apparatus and the legal system of the Le So dynasty were to perfect? Or because the House of Mac had not acquired enough conditions to conduct a reform and perfect the new dynasty? Or is it true that the halo around the golden age of the Le dynasty had not faded away, which was so deeply rooted in the people’s minds that Mac Dang Dzung feared any change would cause discontents?
Whatever the reason might be, one thing we know for sure is that all what were done by the House of Mac demonstrated its great efforts to consolidate the new dynasty. After taking power, Mac Dang Dzung appointed members of the royal family and people who had helped him in setting up the new dynasty to various posts in the feudal administration.
Many feudal historians had to admit that the feudal regimes under two talented kings of the Mac dynasty: Mac Thai To (1527-1529) and Mac Thai Tong (1530-1540) enjoyed prosperous and peaceful times. Moreover, many high-ranking mandarins of the Le So dynasty, from the first laureates, military officers and civil officials in the royal court to the officials and mandarins in the frontier regions, from the ministers to mandarins in charge of various departments of the former royal court..., were employed by Mac Dang Dzung. This demonstrated not only the strong support of the Le mandarins for the setting up of the Mac dynasty, but also the talents and virtues of Mac Dang Dzung who adopted a policy of satisfactory preferential treatment to the mandarins. At the same time, the House of Mac attached importance to the qualifications of mandarins by regularly organizing examinations to select people who were knowledgeable and loyal to the new regime. Trust, privilege and appointing good and qualified people to important positions became a guiding principle that helped the Mac rulers restore and maintain public law and order in the early stage of the new dynasty.
Yet, later, the State apparatus under the Mac became more and more military. In order to defend the new regime against the attacks of the Le-Trinh administration from the south and to suppress the hostile forces, the House of Mac strengthened the regular army which was tightly organized to defend the capital city and localities.
Though feudal historians, who considered the House of Mac a “rebellious dynasty” wrote little about its contribution to the social and economic development during its six-decade tenure and more than eight-decade existence, one could not deny what the House of Mac had done for the development of the country - Dai Viet - then.
From a society with great turmoil and an economy in serious recession, the House of Mac, through its policies, restored the social laws and order, pacified feudal factions, developed agriculture, husbandry, handicrafts, commerce, culture, education. It was recorded in “Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu” and “Dai Viet Thong Su”: “The House of Mac forbade people to carry spears, long-handled machete and other weapons on the roads; those who disobeyed the order would be arrested. From then on, the traders and other people traveled on roads without carrying weapons; there were no burglaries at night; cattle were free-ranched without being driven home at day-end. So, for several years, people got repeated bumper crops, the society was stabilized.”
Though more land was given to armymen, first of all generals and people close to the king, the permanent allocation was restricted. The land policy of the House of Mac, which was worked out in a broader scale with more attention paid to the traditions of communes and villages, benefited the mass more than that of the Le So dynasty.
It was revealed through historical books that under the Mac reigns, thousands of “mau” (each “mau” is equivalent to 3,600 m2) of virgin land along rivers in present-day Hai Duong province and Haiphong city were reclaimed; hundreds of kilometers of sea dykes were built along the coasts of Quang Ninh province and Haiphong; irrigation canal networks were built in An Lao and Thuy Nguyen district of Haiphong; more roads were newly built or repaired in Quang Ninh.
Unlike the previous regime which had adopted the policy of promoting agriculture and checking trade, the Mac encouraged the development of industry, trade, agriculture as well as traditional trades such as sericulture, weaving, pottery, bamboo weaving, carpentry, wood carving... Pottery items were found not only on domestic markets but also in almost all Southeast Asian countries.
As a result, urban areas were expanded; local markets, trade centers and townships were set up to satisfy the demand for the consumption and exchange of farm produce and handicraft items. Coins were produced, thus facilitating trade and economic growth. During this period, river and marine shipping also developed with fleets of merchant ships in service of the expansion of foreign trade.
Under the Mac, Confucianism no longer occupied the monopolistic position in the then society which saw the resurrection of Buddhism and Taoism too. Pagodas and temples were renovated or newly built in a very typical architectural style of the Mac.
Regarding external relations, the Mac still pursued a wise and flexible policy so as to avoid conflicts and wars with other countries.
With regard to the work of legislation, feudal historians wrote little about the regulations on military regulations, land distribution and reward offering. It was recorded in Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu: “Mac Dang Dzung had to maintain the legal system of the Le dynasty, having dared not to make any change for fear that it might cause public discontent because people still admired the old regime.”(4) So, it is certain that the Hong Duc code remained effective in regulating social relations as an important instrument of the State management of the Mac regime. And, naturally the centuries-old customs and practices of the Vietnamese were still followed by people in villages and communes.
So, all the political, economic, cultural and ideological achievements mentioned above reflected an open-door policy pursued by the House of Mac, which resulted in the development of a commodity economy. Hence, the House of Mac can not be considered a “rebellious dynasty” as written by feudal historians in many books. It must be given a worthy position as other feudal dynasties in the Vietnamese history.-
(1) Typical are feudal factions of Trinh Duy San, Trinh Tuy, Nguyen Hoang Duu, Tran Chau...
(2) Typical were the peasants’ uprisings led by Tran Xuan (1511), Tran Cao, Tran Cong, Phung Chuong...
(3) Le Quy Don, “Dai Viet Thong Su”, the Social Sciences Publishing House, 1978, p.260.