Lawyer Tran Thi Tuyet
State and Law Research Institute
Tay Son dynasty, with its glorious achievements, big plans and bold reforms initiated by national hero Nguyen Hue, ended in 1801.
Following King Quang Trung’s sudden death at the age of 39 (1792), his successor and the young State could not stand the heaped-up difficulties confronted by the nation after more than two centuries of wars and partition. Meanwhile, Nguyen Anh recuperated and restored his influence, having opened attacks against Tay Son dynasty and destroyed the latter, setting up the central monarchy, the last kingdom of Vietnam’s feudal regime - the Nguyen dynasty which existed from 1802 to 1945 after the last king, Bao Dai, abdicated and the revolutionary State came into being following the August Revolution in 1945.
Yet, the Nguyen dynasty existed in reality as the ruler of an independent, unified and sovereign Vietnam and the true representative of the nation only from 1802 to 1884 when the Patenotre Treaty was signed between the French colonialists and the then feudal regime of Vietnam which was but the puppet regime of the French colonialists.
After defeating the Tay Son regime and barbarously suppressing the peasants’ movement then, Nguyen Anh and other kings of the Nguyen dynasty during the first half of the 19th century, built a strong monarchial state from the central to grassroots levels. Under king Minh Mang’s rule (1820-1840), the third biggest administrative reform in the history of Vietnam’s feudalism was conducted.
Nguyen Anh came to the throne, proclaiming himself Emperor under the title of Gia Long, having inherited a unified country which had developed and been well protected by many proceeding generations. Young but having to rule a territory biggest ever as compared with the previous feudal regime under the conditions of serious consequences of the protracted civil wars and opposition by various hostile forces, the Nguyen dynasty could not help gathering all State powers into the hand of the central administration headed by the king.
In order to build a strong monarchical State under such circumstances, king Gia Long temporarily reformed part of the old State apparatus. Basically, his administrative apparatus was similar to that of the Nguyen Lords in “Dang Trong” (southern territory) and of the Le dynasty-Trinh Lords regime in “Dang Ngoai” (northern territory).
The royal court was headed by the king who held all powers in the country. Under the king were high-ranking mandarins of the Civil Affairs Council and the Military Affairs Council. However, the civil mandarins held nothing but nominal titles while the military officers took the real power, who were placed directly under the king. In order to seize all powers in his hand and prevent any usurpation of power, king Gia Long set the “four-no” rule in organizing the central State apparatus, that is “no” prime minister, “no” first laureate, “no” queen, and “no” conferment of royal titles.
The functional agencies in the royal court included 6 ministries headed by ministers. In addition to such ministries there also existed specialized departments in charge of different affairs and responsible before the king.
The local administrations were temporarily rearranged by king Gia Long on the basis of the former administrative units of the previous regimes, including three “thanh” (regions). The Central Region with the capital city as its center was placed directly under the royal court, embracing 11 provinces and one city. The Northern Region, called “Bac thanh”, included 11 provinces and cities. The Southern Region, called “Gia Dinh thanh”, included 5 provinces and cities. Each “thanh” was ruled by a high-ranking military officer called “Tong tran”, who represented the king in handling all affairs in the region. Besides, there were in each “thanh” three “tao” (departments) in charge of the military, civil and judicial as well as other affairs of the region.
At the provincial/municipal level, Gia Long replaced three leading agencies (Do ty, Thua ty, Hien ty) by two agencies called “Ta thua” and “Huu thua” with 6 sections in charge of all affairs in the province or city.
So, under concrete conditions, king Gia Long ruled the Northern and Southern Regions through the intermediate level, that is “Tong tran”, but ruled the whole country through a system of 6 ministries, 3 departments and 6 sections and the local administrations.
Under king Minh Mang’s tenure (1831 - 1832), the State apparatus of the Nguyen monarchy was strengthened and perfected through a number of nation-wide administrative reforms.
First, the central administration was further consolidated through the enhancement of the king’s power, which was considered absolute and the king himself was considered son of Heaven, ruling the people on behalf of the latter. The central agencies such as 6 ministries, departments and sections as well as specialized agencies were further strengthened and perfected with respect to their organizations, tasks and power.
Besides, also to further concentrate the State power into the hand of the royal court thereby to create conditions for the king to better manage the country, Minh Mang set up a number of new agencies. In 1834, the “Vien Co Mat” (secret affairs institute) was set up for the first time in the feudal history of Vietnam, comprising four high-ranking mandarins. This was the key agency in the royal court, just besides the king, which was entitled to know and discuss issues of military and national secrets.
Minh Mang reformed the administrative institutions in the royal court with the establishment of the cabinet in replacement of the administrative bureau, which had more tasks and powers. Ranking after the 6 ministries, the cabinet was staffed with 28-30 mandarins. It not only did the clerical work but also controlled, on behalf of the king, the 6 ministries. The cabinet and the Secret Affairs Institute were the king’s administrative offices, functioning as the consultancy apparatus to help the emperor firmly grasp the activities of the 6 ministries and localities throughout the country.
For the local adminitration, Minh Mang abrogated the intermediate levels of “Bac Thanh” (the Northern Region) and “Gia Dinh Thanh” (the Southern Region) respectively in 1831 and 1832. 24 provinces and cities and the royal capital were redivided into 30 provinces and Thua Thien city (the capital city). The managerial apparatus of the provincial level was reformed with the abolition of “Ta ty” and “Huu ty” set up by Gia Long, which were replaced by three “ty” of “An Sat” (judicial affairs); “Bo Chanh” (taxation and financial affairs) and “Lanh Binh” (military affairs). The function and power of the provincial administration were specifically defined; and each province was headed by “Tong doc” or “Tuan phu”, who, together with the heads of the “An Sat”, “Bo chinh” and “Lanh Binh managed the administrative affairs, taxation, financial, military and judicial affairs.
In addition, the district and communal administrations also underwent minor reforms. So, the reform of the central and local State apparatus during Minh Mang’s time gave rise to a four-level (central, provincial/municipal, district and communal) administration system, thus making the central State of the Nguyen monarchy in the first half of the 19th century tightly organized, perfect and strong.
Building and strengthening the army became a must to defend the central monarchical State. The Nguyen dynasty’ army was well trained and equipped, including different services: infantry, artillery, elephant troops, marine. The national borders, territorial waters, islands, river mouths, sea ports and other key locations were consolidated with bastions and carefully watched day and night.
As a strong monarchy, the Nguyen State during this period recorded important achievements in various domains, boosting the national development. Like previous regimes, the Nguyen dynasty attached importance to the development of agricultural production with waste land reclaimed, canals digged, rivers embanked, irrigation stepped up. Land and waterway transport strongly developed. Handicraft and industries such as shipbuilding, weapon production, leather tanning, textile, food processing... also witnessed a strong boost.
In the fields of culture and education, the Nguyen dynasty also had merits in expanding culture and education. The greatest success of the Nguyen regime was recorded in the collection, compilation and protection of many cultural, art and historical projects of the nation. It can be said that none of the feudal regimes in Vietnam made such great historical achievements like the Nguyen dynasty.
With respect to its external relations, the Nguyen regime continued to maintain good relations with regional countries, Western trading companies and missionaries, that had earlier set up relations with “Dang Trong” of the Nguyen Lords and “Dang Ngoai” of the Le dynasty - Trinh Lords regime. Yet, at the time when Western capitalist countries were seeking markets, stretching their hands to the Orient, the Nguyen kings worried and sought ways to cope with the situation, having applied a close-door policy and isolated the nation from the rest of the world. However, this policy proved to be an ineffective measure to ward off the foreign invasion as clearly seen through the French colonialists’ 1858 attacks on Da Nang, commencing their invasion of Vietnam. It caused adverse impacts on the development of the country.
The policy of promoting agriculture while restricting commerce adopted by the Nguyen dynasty also obstructed the development of the commodity economy as well as the expansion of the national market. The Nguyen regime’s negative aspects could be seen through its policy of heavy taxation and exploitation against the people, repressing the peasants’ uprisings, massacring religious people, intellectuals, particularly those who had supported the Tay Son movement. Under the historical conditions of Vietnam during the 19th century, such policies weakened the national community in the cause of construction and defense.-