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Monday, December 5, 2022

The state and law under the Tay Son dynasty (1776 - 1802)

Updated: 15:31’ - 24/02/2011

>>The Nguyen family of “Dang Trong” (1558-1786) – its state and law


The State and Law Research Institute


By  the end of the XVIIIth century, the feudal system in both the South and the North of Vietnam fell into serious crisis. The contradictions which had been accumulated and festering within the feudal society finally broke out into the open. The communal land and the land reclaimed by the peasants had been  usurped by the landlords and local tyrants.  Private estates extended continuously, especially in the South, but were mostly concentrated into the hand of the landlords. Crippling land rent and taxes brought complete ruin to the peasant economy and drove the peasants’ life to utter misery. The merchants and handicraft workers also came under constant harassment and oppression.

The bureaucratic and militarist State apparatus became more and more oppressive and further exacerbated the anger of all strata of the population. Added to this was the brutal exploitation and oppression of the ethnic minorities by the feudal state, thus aggravating the already acute contradictions between the latter and the broad masses of the population.

Left with no alternative the destitute people consisting mostly of the peasant masses rose up to wage a life-and-death struggle. Peasants revolts broke out in close succession and gained in strength and scope  and climaxed in the Tay Son Revolt which erupted in 1771 and won complete success in 1789.

The Tay Son Revolt first smashed the rule of the feudal lords in the South  (1784) and then took on the Le-Trinh rule in the North (1786), defeated the interventionist army of the Siamese (Thailand) king in 1784 and especially won a resounding victory over the strong interventionist army of the Ching empire in China in 1789. By these military exploits the Tay Son finally achieved the reunification of the long partitioned country,  set up a new State in Vietnam  and began a number of progressive reforms in all domains, political, economic, cultural and social. However, the limitations of the then historic conditions did not allow the Tay Son to go beyond the framework of a feudal State.

In the Spring of 1771 under the leadership of the three Nguyen brothers: Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu and Nguyen Hue, the peasants in Tay Son (1) rose in rebellion. But as the uprising progressed the three Nguyen brothers established their feudal states at various points of time which also ended at different dates.

- Nguyen Nhac: 1778-1793

- Nguyen Lu: 1786-1787

- Nguyen Hue: 1788-1792

and his son Nguyen Quang Toan: 1792-1802.

In fact, right from March 1776 after occupying the area which is now Quang Nam province and defeating the army of the Nguyen lord in Gia Dinh, Nguyen Nhac proclaimed himself Tay Son Vuong (King Tay Son), built the Do Ban citadel, cast a  royal seal in gold and conferred titles on  the generals who had distinguished themselves in the fight against the Nguyen lord. Nguyen Lu was made viceroy and Nguyen Hue, regent. In early 1778 Nguyen Nhac proclaimed himself Emperor and took the dynastic title of Thai Duc, renamed Do Ban citadel the Imperial Citadel, conferred the added title of commander in chief to Nguyen Lu and the title of Long Nhuong (Royal Guard) General (2) to Nguyen Hue. Thus the command of the Tay Son Revolt began to assume its monarchic character but still did not become a feudal  State in its complete sense.

In this period, the command of the revolt continued to lead the people in a bitter class struggle against the reactionary feudal forces in the country and remained a true representative of the interests of the oppressed masses.

In 1786 after many times defeating the Nguyen army, smashing the invasion army of Siam (Thailand), overthrowing the rule of the Trinh lord in the North, Nguyen Nhac proclaimed himself Central Emperor and chose Quy Nhon as capital city from which he controlled an area stretching from Quang Ngai to Binh Thuan. He crowned Nguyen Hue as Bac Binh Vuong (The King Pacifier of the North) to rule the area from Hai Van Pass to Nghe An province in the North and crowned Nguyen Lu as Dong Dinh Vuong (King Pacifier of the East) to rule over Gia Dinh area (the present Mekong River delta).

But it was also from this time on that the conflict of interests and the difference among the three brothers about the way to manage the country arose and deepened, greatly affecting the whole cause of the Tay Son in the future. Nguyen Lu proved himself the most incapable of the three. Lacking popular support his rule weakened rapidly and collapsed a year later (1787). During that year Nguyen Lu’s role was reduced to that of a simple garrisoning officer. He failed to work out or enforce any policy of a progressive regime whether on the political, economic or social domain.

In the first years after the success of the revolt Nguyen Nhac, the elder brother, was also the initiator and the supreme leader. He made important contributions to the victory. Regrettably, after proclaiming himself the Central Emperor he spent most of his time consolidating his feudal kingdom thereby relinquishing his primary role of a peasant leader. In fact his power extended only from Quang Ngai to Binh Thuan. The areas under the control of Nguyen Lu and Nguyen Hue were almost completely detached from the rule of Nguyen Nhac. From an outstanding leader of the peasant insurrection Nguyen Nhac soon became a mediocre pleasure-seeking king. He obviously failed to build a strong centralized feudalist administration over the whole country in order to establish and defend a unified feudalist nation as was the original objective of the revolt.
To all intents and purposes Nguyen Nhac was rapidly satisfied with his position of a king, paid little or no attention to the building of a solid power base among the masses for failing to implement the necessary reforms to meet the demand of the popular masses. In fact, he lacked the political acumen of a prescient ruler (3).
In 1787 under the hard pressure of the Nguyen army Nguyen Lu abandoned one citadel after another and ended up in Quy Nhon where he died. Far from coming to the rescue of his brother and launching a counterattack to crush  the enemy while they were still weak Nguyen Nhac stayed put in his citadel in Do Ban (now Quang Nam province). From 1788 on the Nguyen army of Nguyen Anh was given a free hand to build their fortresses in Gia Dinh as a springboard to launch repeated attacks on the territory of Nguyen Nhac. In 1793 the Nguyen army besieged Quy Nhon citadel. Nguyen Nhac sent an envoy to Phu Xuan (Hue) to ask for reinforcements. Overcome with despair he fell seriously ill and died. There also ended his Central Empire.
Of the three kingdoms of the Tay Son, the one of Nguyen Hue was the longest and made the greatest contributions to the country’s power and prestige. During the revolt, Nguyen Hue was the most crucial army commander and took the greatest credit in the fight and victories over the armies of the Nguyen and Trinh families. It was also Nguyen Hue who made the decisive contribution to the defeat of the Siamese interventionist army. Even after his coronation as Binh Dinh Vuong (1786) Nguyen Hue always displayed a deep understanding of his role as the leader of the peasant insurrection, continuing this mission with an infallible sense of responsibility while Nguyen Nhac and Nguyen Lu had become self complacent with their new positions as feudalist rulers. In face of the overt betrayal to the country by the Le king who beseeched the Ching empire to save his tottering regime, Nguyen Hue organized a historic march from Phu Xuan (Hue) to the North and swept away the Ching interventionists together with the Le king  and put out all attempts at restoring the rotten regime of the Le dynasty. By 1787 the rule of Bac Binh Vuong Nguyen Hue had extended from Quang Nam to the whole of North Vietnam. In 1788 Nguyen Hue proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung and established his capital in Phu Xuan (now Hue city).
The State under the reign of King Quang Trung was a monarchy  patterned on the earlier feudal State. After proclaiming himself emperor Quang Trung consolidated the central rule according to the model of a royal court. Princess Le Ngoc Han  was made Queen of the Northern kingdom, the eldest son of Quang Trung, Nguyen Quang Toan, was made heir prince. The court was organized in almost the same way as in the former dynasties. The royal court established six ministries each headed by a minister and assisted by specialized agencies such as the Academy, the Royal Institute...
Quang Trung redistributed the administrative areas and organized the local administration into a unified and close-knit system. The local administrative units comprised the “tran”, “phu”, “huyen”, “tong” and “xa” (corresponding to the province, district and commune). Bac Ha (Northern Vietnam) was divided into 13 “tran” each headed by a district governor who was a military officer to look after the military affairs. He was assisted by an assistant governor of the same rank but who was a literary mandarin to look after administrative affairs. There was a similar posting at the district level: a military officer and a literary mandarin who were assisted by corresponding subordinates. In the counties and communes there was only a county chief and a commune chief to look after administrative affairs.
Quang Trung had power under firm control, he built up and strengthened his rule but the reactionary forces among the overthrown feudal dynasty were not reconciled to defeat but attempted restoration. Externally, although the invasion by the Ching Empire had suffered a bruising defeat, Quang Trung knew that he still had to rely on a powerful defense if he was to maintain durable  relations with the northern empire. He paid great attention to building a strong and comprehensive army to defend the royal court and the national sovereignty.
The army under the Quang Trung reign was a powerful and elite army closely organized and possessed of high combativity. By 1788 this army already had more than 1000,000 men under arms, several hundred battle elephants and a strong Royal Guard to defend  Phu Xuan capital and Thang Long, a citadel of strategic importance for the defense against a possible invasion from the North. The army was divided into five “doanh” (one doanh is equivalent to a division): central, frontguard, rearguard, left-wing and rightwing. Later on Quang Trung recruited more troops and set up new categories of troops. From 1790 on Quang Trung ordered the registration of the population to recruit one soldier from every three male citizens.
Thanks to this army Quang Trung succeeded in suppressing the reactionary feudal forces in the country, safeguarding the newly established kingdom and effecting a diplomatic policy which was both supple and resolute, thus raising the prestige of Dai Viet, the then name of Vietnam.
In the archives of the feudal dynasties, the orthodox historians classified the leaders of the Tay Son Peasant Revolt among the “rebels” and the Tay Son royal court among the “usurpatory rulers”. The fact remains that the Quang Trung kingdom is a progressive feudal regime which has put forth and carried out progressive reforms in the political, economic, cultural and social fields, meeting the urgent demands of society in those days.
Even as the then Northern King, a title bestowed on him by his elder brother Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Hue already paid special attention to political reforms. In 1788 he spent much time reconstructing the ruling apparatus in North Vietnam. He created new administrative agencies to replace the rickety bureaucratic ruling machine of the Le king, appointed capable and loyal generals to key posts for the defense of Thang Long and for the administration of Northern Vietnam as a whole. He also solicited the collaboration of many progressive personalities and appointed them to key posts in the new administration. He planned to move the capital to Nghe An province to facilitate his control over both Northern and Southern Vietnam. After ascending to the throne   and especially after his resounding victory over the Ching aggressive army, and reestablishing peace and order in the country, Nguyen Hue had gathered the necessary conditions to carry out his plan of winning the hearts and minds of the people in Northern Vietnam, and accomplish his plan of building a close-knit, strong and unified administration from the center to the localities. Nguyen Hue assigned his sons to head regions of vital importance but with powers restricted to those of garrisoning officers. He forbade them to establish their own estates with the obvious intent to prevent any possible future partitioning of the country. In this way he also wanted to maintain and strengthen the concentrated and unified character of the central power.
In the economic field, Nguyen Hue also carried out many policies to restore the economy, first of all agriculture which had fallen into stagnation and serious decline, to strengthen the small farmers economy in order to pave the way for the development of the commodity economy. More and more waste land were reclaimed. Quang Trung abolished the policy of “restricting trade” conducted by the earlier kings and allowed the broadening of trade with foreign countries. Handicraft shipbuilding, coin casting and arms manufactures together with a number of workshops for the production of some essential goods controlled by the State were encouraged to develop. Quang Trung also allowed the opening of many border gates and markets on the border with China. Western Catholic missionaries and foreign merchants received good treatment from the Vietnamese court.
In the financial domain Quang Trung ordered the rearrangement and adjustment of different taxes. Some taxes were reduced. The taxes levied on traders and craftsmen were abolished.
In the cultural and social field, Quang Trung broadened education and put a premium on the national culture and the respect for traditions. Different from the earlier feudal regimes which attached importance only to Chinese literature and Confucian ethics, and which recognized Chinese as the official written language and despised the “nom” (Vietnamese language in Chinese transliterations), Quang Trung encouraged literary creation in “nom” script which was also used as the official script in the recording of historical events, in the literary examinations as well as in the propagation of literature and science. In 1791 he ordered the creation of the Sung Chinh (Literature) Institute to translate the classical works of Confucianism into the “nom” script. For the first time in the national history schools were opened down to the village level staffed by local teachers who had to be approved by the State. The rules of examinations were amended to better suit the need of reform.
Though himself an adept of Confucius Quang Trung nevertheless did not discriminate against any religious beliefs. Pagodas were repaired and the discrimination and repression against the followers of Catholicism practiced by the former regime was prohibited.
In his external relations, first of all and chiefly with the Ching empire in China, Quang Trung adopted a reconciliary attitude after putting to rout a 200,000 strong army of the Ching  and accepted the coronation as the king of An Nam by the Ching Emperor. On the other hand, Quang Trung made it explicit enough for the latter to understand that he was resolved to safeguard national independence and ready to cope with any aggressive scheme. He even wrote a letter to the Governor of the Chinese provinces of Guang Xi and Guang Tung asking the return to Vietnam of seven districts which had belonged to Hung Hoa province of Vietnam but later annexed by the Ching empire.
For most time of their reigns, the Tay Son kings had to concentrate on defense work against the revanchist attempts of the Le dynasty in the North and the Nguyen lords in the South as well as new aggressive schemes of the Ching empire. Accordingly, in the first period of his reign Quang Trung had little time to devote to the building of a new legislation and had to rule by royal edicts, decrees and orders. Since the orthodox historians of the Le and Nguyen dynasties always regarded the Tay Son as a rebel court, very little about the Tay Son rule were recorded or left behind. Nevertheless, besides a number of documents concerning the readjustment and elaboration of a new administrative system or the regime of recruitment of government mandarins and officers,  some edicts and orders of Quang Trung can still be found such as the edict on encouragement to agriculture which called for the return of the people dispersed by war and social disorder to their places of origin in order to resume agricultural production, or the edict on education which provided for the generalization of education and the reorganization of the system of examinations or the Tax Decree which amended the tax and rent regime in agriculture, handicrafts and trade. Most interesting perhaps is the Order on compulsory use of the “nom” script. On the whole, the aforesaid laws and decrees clearly enshrined the spirit of national sovereignty and also reflected the stronghanded measures used by Quang Trung to restore and strengthen public order at the earliest possible date.
Continuing the work of his father, King Nguyen Quang Toan also made praiseworthy efforts in the legislative work. A newly discovered document reveals that in 1795 Quang Toan ordered the minister of justice to consult the Hong Duc Code of the Le dynasty in Vietnam and the Civil Code of the Ching dynasty in China to compile a new Penal Code of Vietnam. Unfortunately, no copy of this Code has been found so far.
From 1800 on Nguyen Anh, the Nguyen lord who was to become the first king of the Nguyen dynasty which lasted until 1945, began his military campaign against the Tay Son and won repeated victories. By 1802 he  wiped out the last pockets of resistance of the Tay Son and reestablished the rule of the old feudal regime. The Tay Son dynasty was brought to its end but the glorious achievements of the peasant revolt and especially of its outstanding leader Nguyen Hue will forever live in the mind of the Vietnamese people.-
(1) Tay Son village, Phu Ly county, Quy Nhon district, now Binh Dinh province
(2) History of the Feudal Regime in Vietnam, Volume III. Education Publishing House. Hanoi, 1960,  page 318.
(3) History of the feudal regime in Vietnam.-

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