The Le Dynasty and Southward Expansion
Le Loi, one of Vietnam's most celebrated heroes, is credited with rescuing the country from Ming domination in 1428. Born of a wealthy landowning family, he served as a senior scholar-official until the advent of the Ming, whom he refused to serve. After a decade of gathering a resistance movement around him, Le Loi and his forces finally defeated the Chinese army in 1428. Rather than putting to death the captured Chinese soldiers and administrators, he magnanimously provided ships and supplies to send them back to China. Le Loi then ascended the Vietnamese throne, taking the reign name Le Thai To and establishing the Le dynasty (1428-1788).
The greatest of the Le dynasty rulers was Le Thanh Tong (1460-97), who reorganised the administrative divisions of the country and upgraded the civil service system. He ordered a census of people and landholdings to be taken every six years, revised the tax system, and commissioned the writing of a national history. During his reign he accomplished the conquest of Champa in 1471, the suppression of Lao-led insurrections in the western border area, and the continuation of diplomatic relations with China through tribute missions established under Le Thai To. Le Thanh Tong also ordered the formulation of the Hong Duc legal code, which was based on Chinese law but included distinctly Vietnamese features, such as recognition of the higher position of women in Vietnamese society than in Chinese society. Under the new code, parental consent was not required for marriage, and daughters were granted equal inheritance rights with sons. Le Thanh Tong also initiated the construction and repair of granaries, dispatched his troops to rebuild irrigation works following floods, and provided for medical aid during epidemics. A noted writer and poet himself, he encouraged and emphasized of the Confucian examination system.
A great period of southward expansion also began under Le Thanh Tong. The don dien system of land settlement, borrowed from the Chinese, was used extensively to occupy and develop territory wrested from Champa. Under this system, military colonies were established in which soldiers and landless peasants cleared a new area, began rice production on the new land, established a village, and served as a militia to defend it. After three years, the village was incorporated into the Vietnamese administrative system, a communal village meeting house (dinh) was built, and the workers were given an opportunity to share in the communal lands given by the state to each village. The remainder of the land belonged to the state. As each area was cleared and a village established, the soldiers of the don dien would move on to clear more land. This method contributed greatly to the success of Vietnam's southward expansion.
Although the Le rulers had ordered widespread land distribution, many peasants remained landless, while the nobility, government officials, and military leaders continued to acquire vast tracts. The final conquest of Champa in 1471 eased the situation somewhat as peasants advanced steadily southward along the coast into state-owned communal lands. However, most of the new land was set aside for government officials and, although the country grew wealthier, the social structure remained the same. Following the decline of the Le dynasty, landlessness was a major factor leading to a turbulent period during which the peasantry questioned the mandate of their rulers.
In the Confucian world view, emperors were said to have the "mandate of heaven" to rule their people, who, in turn, owed the emperor total allegiance. Although his power was absolute, an emperor was responsible for the prosperity of his people and the maintenance of justice and order. An emperor who did not fulfill his Confucian responsibilities could, in theory, lose his mandate. In practice, the Vietnamese people endured many poor emperors, weak and strong. Counterbalancing the power of the emperor was the power of the village, illustrated by the Vietnamese proverb, "The laws of the emperor yield to the customs of the village." Village institutions served both to restrain the power of the emperor and to provide a buffer between central authority and the individual villager. Each village had its council of notables, which was responsible for the obligations of the village to the state. When the central government imposed levies for taxes, for corvee labour for public projects, or for soldiers for defense, these levies were based on the council of notables' report of the resources of the villages, which was often underestimated to protect the village. Moreover, there was a division between state and local responsibilities. The central government assumed responsibility for military, judicial, and religious functions, while village authorities oversaw the construction of public works projects such as roads, dikes, and bridges, which were centrally planned. The autonomy of the villages, however, contributed to the weakness of the Vietnamese political system. If the ruling dynasty could no longer protect a village, the village would often opt for the protection of political movements in opposition to the dynasty. These movements, in turn, would have difficulty maintaining the allegiance of the villages unless they were able both to provide security and to institutionalize their political power. Although it insured the preservation of a sense of national and cultural identity, the strength of the villages was a factor contributing to the political instability of the society as it expanded southward.
Partition of a Dynasty and the Advent of the Europeans
The degenerated Le dynasty, which endured under ten rulers between 1497 and 1527, in the end was no longer able to maintain control over the northern part of the country, much less the new territories to the south. The weakening of the monarchy created a vacuum that the various noble families of the aristocracy were eager to fill. In 1527 Mac Dang Dung, a scholar-official who had effectively controlled the Le for a decade, seized the throne, prompting other families of the aristocracy, notably the Nguyen and Trinh, to rush to the support of the Le. An attack on the Mac forces led by the Le general Nguyen Kim resulted in the partition of Vietnam in 1545, with the Nguyen family seizing control of the southern part of the country as far north as what is now Thanh Hoa Province. The Nguyen, who took the hereditary title chua, continued to profess loyalty to the Le dynasty. By the late sixteenth century the Trinh family had ousted the Mac family and had begun to rule the northern half of the country also in the name of the Le dynasty. The Trinh, who, like the Nyuyen, took the title chua, spent most of the seventeenth century attempting to depose the Nguyen. In order to repulse invading Trinh forces, the Nguyen in 1631 completed the building of two great walls, six meters high and eighteen kilometers long, on their northern frontier. The Trinh, with 100,000 troops, 500 elephants, and 500 large junks, were numerically far superior to their southern foe. The Nguyen, however, were better equipped, having by this time acquired Portuguese weapons and gunpowder, and, as the defending force, had the support of the local people. In addition, the Nguyen had the advantage of controlling vast open lands in the Mekong Delta, wrested from the Khmer, with which to attract immigrants and refugees from the north. Among those who took up residence in the delta were an estimated 3,000 Chinese, supporters of the defunct Ming dynasty, who arrived in 1679 aboard fifty junks and set about becoming farmers and traders. The Nguyen, aided by the Chinese settlers, succeeded in forcing the Khmer completely out of the Mekong Delta by 1749.
After major offensives by the Trinh in 1661 and 1672 foundered on the walls built by the Nguyen, a truce in the fighting ensued that lasted nearly 100 years. During that time, the Nguyen continued its southward expansion into lands held, or formerly held, by the Cham and the Khmer. The Trinh, meanwhile, consolidated its authority in the north, instituting administrative reforms and supporting scholarship. The nobility and scholar-officials of both north and south, however, continued to block the development of manufacturing and trade, preferring to retain a feudal, peasant society, which they could control.
The seventeenth century was also a period in which European missionaries and merchants became a serious factor in Vietnamese court life and politics. Although both had arrived by the early sixteenth century, neither foreign merchants nor missionaries had much impact on Vietnam before the seventeenth century. The Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French had all established trading posts in Pho Hien by 1680. Fighting among the Europeans and opposition by the Vietnamese made the enterprises unprofitable, however, and all of the foreign trading posts were closed by 1700.
European missionaries had occasionally visited Vietnam for short periods of time, with little impact, beginning in the early sixteenth century. The best known of the early missionaries was Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit who was sent to Hanoi in 1627, where he quickly learned the language and began preaching in Vietnamese. Initially, Rhodes was well-received by the Trinh court, and he reportedly baptized more than 6,000 converts; however, his success probably led to his expulsion in 1630. He is credited with perfecting a romanized system of writing the Vietnamese language (quoc ngu), which was probably developed as the joint effort of several missionaries, including Rhodes. He wrote the first catechism in Vietnamese and published a Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary; these works were the first books printed in quoc ngu. Quoc ngu was used initially only by missionaries; classical Chinese or chu nom continued to be used by the court and the bureaucracy. The French later supported the use of quoc ngu, which, because of its simplicity, led to a high degree of literacy and a flourishing of Vietnamese literature. After being expelled from Vietnam, Rhodes spent the next thirty years seeking support for his missionary work from the Vatican and the French Roman Catholic hierarchy as well as making several more trips to Vietnam.
The stalemate between the Trinh and the Nguyen families that began at the end of the seventeenth century did not, however, mark the beginning of a period of peace and prosperity. Instead the decades of continual warfare between the two families had left the peasantry in a weakened state, the victim of taxes levied to support the courts and their military adventures. Having to meet their tax obligations had forced many peasants off the land and facilitated the acquisition of large tracts by a few wealthy landowners, nobles, and scholar--officials. Because scholar--officials were exempted from having to pay a land tax, the more land they acquired, the greater was the burden that fell on those peasants who had been able to retain their land. In addition, the peasantry faced new taxes on staple items such as charcoal, salt, silk, and cinnamon, and on commercial activities such as fishing and mining. The disparate condition of the economy led to neglect of the extensive network of irrigation systems as well. As they fell into disrepair, disastrous flooding and famine resulted, unleashing great numbers of starving and landless people to wander aimlessly about the countryside. The widespread suffering in both north and south led to numerous peasant revolts between 1730 and 1770. Although the uprisings took place throughout the country, they were essentially local phenomena, breaking out spontaneously from similar local causes. The occasional coordination between and among local movements did not result in any national organisation or leadership. Moreover, most of the uprisings were conservative, in that the leaders supported the restoration of the Le dynasty. They did, however, put forward demands for land reform, more equitable taxes, and rice for all. Landless peasants accounted for most of the initial support for the various rebellions, but they were often joined later by craftsmen, fishermen, miners, and traders, who had been taxed out of their occupations. Some of these movements enjoyed limited success for a short time, but it was not until 1771 that any of the peasant revolts had a lasting national impact.
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