Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.
The Origins of Vietnam
The ancient history of Vietnam was recorded by the Chinese and later by the French—the latter being heavily involved in archaeological work throughout the country during the century of their occupation. Intense curiosity during that period about anthropology and archaeology has been renewed in recent years.
Archaeologists working in Vietnam have found remains of humans from as far back as the Paleolithic era (c.10,000b.c.e.), but little else is known for certain about this period. Some anthropologists have linked the cultural traits of the Vietnamese to the people whom archaeologists have found living along the coast of southern China, from the Yangtze River to the border of modern-day Vietnam during the first millennium b.c.e. Others see them as coming from south central China, migrating to the Red River Delta at a later stage. Ethnographers see links between several customs of the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, tending to suggest that if they did come from China, their migration could have been the result of a failure to assimilate with the Han Chinese. Certainly there are links between these early tribes and the Muong, the hill tribes of modern-day Vietnam, with the differences between most Vietnamese and the Muong explained by the myths that surround the legendary figures Lac Long Quang and Au Co, and their separation, although these are clearly representations to explain differences which arose long before recorded history.
Linguists tend to agree with the premise that the Vietnamese and the Muong have a common ancestry, as the Vietnamese language has been shown to be a fusion of the languages of the region, with some words from the monotonic Mon-Khmer, basic words adapted from Tai (Thai), and the tones and grammar from Chinese. Certainly most of the literary, political, philosophical, and technical vocabulary is drawn from the Chinese language. Analysis of these latter terms has taken place only recently, however, and the influence of Chinese rule over the country for nearly 1,000 years would go a long way to explain the latter.
In about 9000-7000 b.c.e., a culture flourished close to the modern-day city of Hoa Binh, in the remote northwest of present-day Vietnam. Discovered in 1927, it has become known as the Hoa Binh culture, distinguishable because of the chipping of large numbers of stones to make implements for hunting, for preparing foods and skins, and also for agriculture. There is some evidence of the cultivation of plants and the making of pottery, but much of the latter is identified with the later “Bac Son culture” (or “late Hoa Binhian culture”), which flourished in the same region. These people used stones to fashion into axes. This culture lasted until 3000 b.c.e.
The Phung Nguyen culture thrived in the mountains north of the Red River Delta from 2500-1500 b.c.e., and it definitely involved the use of slash-and-burn agriculture, the domestication of animals, and houses made from wood and bamboo and raised on stilts. Decorated pottery also exists that was made with the use of some bronze implements, thus marking the start of the Bronze Age in Vietnam. That culture developed into the Dong Son period, which started about 600 b.c.e., and is noted for the manufacture of large bronze drums. Initially, it was thought that the drums had been imported from either China, or even Europe, but it is now clear that they were only one element in the Vietnamese Bronze Age, which included the manufacture of agricultural implements such as ploughs and weapons.
It was from these cultures that the semi-legendary Hung kings of Vietnam came. Vietnamese tradition traces the origins to their country to King De Minh who descended from a divine Chinese ruler called Chen Nong, well known in China as the “father of Chinese agriculture.” It was said that De Minh met an immortal woman who lived in the nearby mountains. They married and their son, Loc Duc (or Kinh Duong), became the ruler of Xich-Quy, the “land of the red devils.” Loc Duc married the daughter of the Dragon Lord of the Sea, and their son, Lac Long Quang, became the Dragon Lord. The Chinese were nervous about the marriage, and so Lac Long Quang married Au Co, an immortal daughter of the Chinese emperor. She laid 100 eggs, from which were born 100 sons. From them descend the Vietnamese people who were known, in old poetry, as the “grandchildren of Lac.” The couple did not remain together, however, as he was a dragon and she was a fairy. They decided to divide their sons. Au Co took 50 of them into the mountains, and Lac continued ruling the lowlands with the other 50. Lac’s eldest son then founded the Hung Bang dynasty, which is said to have ruled Van Lang, “land of the tattooed men,” from 2879 b.c.e. to 258 b.c.e.
When the Hung dynasty was overthrown in 258 c.e., the Kingdom of Au Lac was established in its stead by the warlord Thuc Phan. He united the land previously ruled by the Hungs with his own territory. It is not certain who Thuc Phan actually was; some suggest that he might have been the ruler of a kingdom set in the hills of northern Vietnam called Au Viet. Certainly when he defeated the Hung dynasty, he declared himself King An Duong and built a new capital at Coa Loa, set in the lowlands about 20 miles north of modern-day Hanoi. The citadel of Coa Loa was protected by three walls and guarded by many watchtowers.
An Duong relied on the support of the aristocrats known as the Lac Lords, but his kingdom did not last long. During the reign of the Chinese Emperor Chin Shih Huang Di, a Chinese commander called Trieu Da was sent by the emperor to subjugate the semi-independent kingdoms in the south of China. In 207 b.c.e., Trieu Da invaded Au Viet, and in the following year, when the Chinese Emperor died, Trieu Da decided to break away from China and form a new kingdom of his own, which he called Nam Viet (“Southern Viet”), with the capital at Guangzhou (formerly Canton). He established good relations with the new Han Dynasty in China, and most of the people in the kingdom were ethnic Vietnamese who had moved south of the Yangtze as the Chinese population expanded. Trieu Da and his descendants were involved in diplomatic brinkmanship, and sometimes war, for the next hundred years. Nam Viet maintained its independence until 111 b.c.e. when the Han Emperor Wu Ti decided to invade.
Chinese Rule and the Trung Sisters
The Chinese managed to conquer the Vietnamese people in what is now southern China and northern Vietnam with relative ease. Many of the Vietnamese villages were isolated so that the people were unable to form any cohesive military force capable of resisting the Chinese. As the Chinese people gradually moved south, so did the Vietnamese people, which meant that when the Han Chinese conquered them, the Vietnamese were living in what is now northern Vietnam.
Initially the Chinese ruled the Vietnamese through the existing landowners and military chiefs. Gradually, however, most of these rulers were steadily replaced by court-appointed functionaries who ruled the area that was divided into three provinces, which together contained 56 districts. According to a surviving Chinese document, the population was 981,375, a precise figure showing the semblance of an intrusive system of ruling. Tribute had to be paid to the Han imperial court, with taxes and labor duties required by the local administrators.
Altogether Chinese rule lasted nearly a thousand years, but during that time the Vietnamese managed to retain a significant degree of national identity. Their use of Chinese agricultural practices and other elements of Chinese civilization made the Vietnamese some of the most intensive cultivators of the region. This period saw the introduction of buffalo to help plough and till the fields, as well as to pull carts. The Vietnamese may have had two annual rice crops before the Chinese. Certainly during the Chinese occupation, they were able to manage this production rate.
Before the Chinese occupation, the Vietnamese had followed animist religious beliefs, with supernatural spirits often found within dangerous wild animals. This gradually gave way to Chinese Confucian practices such as ancestor worship and filial piety, combined with Taoism and later Buddhism. In addition, Chinese weaponry allowed for greater success in hunting and fishing. Bronze arrowheads were often treated with poison to make them more effective against animals such as elephants, whose ivory was traded with China in exchange for iron.
The position of most people during Chinese rule, however, had hardly changed. The hereditary Vietnamese lords were gradually replaced by Chinese lords, with the vast majority of the population remaining poor farmers, who were kept in a state of near serfdom. Many were also often called on to give their labor to make roads, build canals, and fashion harbors to improve communication and trade. This led to greater sinicizing of Vietnam through an increase in access to Chinese culture and customs. The Chinese greatly wanted access to the resources of Vietnam—ivory, pearls from the sea, and precious metals from small mines in the hills. They also saw ports in Vietnam as a convenient place for their ships to shelter from storms while traveling to and from the East Indies. Together with all of this, the taxes paid by the Vietnamese not only maintained the local bureaucracy but also provided wealth for the Chinese court. Although many of the Vietnamese aristocracy resented Chinese rule, it was not necessarily harsh.
In the first century c.e., there was a major change in the Chinese style of governing Vietnam. A local governor realized that the local Vietnamese nobility were eager to retain control of much of the area. His plan was to replace many of the local Vietnamese administrators with Chinese rulers. The Chinese prefect Su Ting introduced many other changes. No longer were Chinese customs and rites encouraged—they were now enforced and Taoism and Confucianism became obligatory. In addition, Chinese became the official language of the region. These changes seriously upset the nobility, but they clearly did not affect many of the peasants. The surviving documents of the period are in Chinese, but it seems likely that the educated Vietnamese administrative class would have to speak to the peasants in Vietnamese in the same way that European colonial powers were later to introduce their changes on the elite while the majority of the population continued with their own customs.
In 39 c.e., a nobleman, Thi Sach, complained about the demands made on the Vietnamese by the Chinese administration headed by Su Ting. Thi Sach was then arrested and executed, causing great consternation among the other Vietnamese lords. His wife, Trung Trac, the daughter of one of the “Lac Lords,” along with her younger sister Trung Nhi, then raised the flag of rebellion. They gathered together local chieftains who supported them. The rebels then proclaimed Trung Trac as Queen of an independent Vietnamese kingdom and rallied together many nobles and peasants, forcing Su Ting to flee to China. After three years of Trung Trac’s rule, a massive expeditionary force sent by the Chinese emperor arrived in Vietnam. It was commander by Ma Yuan, one of the best Chinese generals of the period who had the title “Tamer of Waters.” Trung Trac was abandoned by many of her supporters, and she and her sister were both defeated in battle by the Chinese. They were both captured and executed, with stories from folklore often having them dying bravely in battle or committing suicide. Although the rebellion ended in failure and led to Chinese repression, it became recognized by later historians as the first great Vietnamese nationalist uprising.
The Chinese then responded to the rebellion by deposing many of the local nobles who had either supported the Trung sisters or whose loyalty was in doubt. They also increased the level of sinicization, with Vietnamese being written in the Chinese script. For nearly 900 years, Vietnam remained firmly under Chinese rule. There were some revolts and rebellions, but most did not seriously threaten Chinese rule as much as that by the Trung sisters. In 412, a revolt in China had led some of the defeated Chinese rebels to flee to Vietnam where they tried to stir up trouble. A much more important event took place when a nobleman, Ly Bi, an ethnic Chinese whose ancestors had fled to Vietnam, launched an attack on the local Chinese administrators in 542, defeating a Chinese army sent against him the next year. He then tried to establish an independent kingdom but was unable to stand up to a large Chinese army in 545-546. At his death in 548, one of his aides, Trieu Quang Phuc, took command of the rebels and managed to use the disturbances in China to carve out his own kingdom, which survived until 603.
While the Chinese dominated northern Vietnam, in central Vietnam, the Kingdom of Champa was established in 192c.e., becoming heavily influenced by Indian culture by the fifth century c.e. It maintained extensive trade connections with Muslim Indian traders, and with them, the Arab world, leading the kings of Champa and eventually the population to embrace Islam. Champa also established some trade ties with China and gradually became a problematic southern neighbor to the Chinese and later to independent Vietnam.
With the coming to power of the Tang dynasty in China in 618, there was a concerted effort to colonize Vietnam, which became the Protectorate of Annam (“Pacified South”). During this period Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism began to permeate through the peasant villages and was embraced by most of the people of Vietnam. When the Tang dynasty in China fell in 907 c.e., Vietnamese rulers decided to try to break away, and in 931, Duong Dinh Nghe made himself a regional governor. After his murder, the battle for independence was continued by Ngo Quyen. The Chinese attempted to deal with this uprising by sending a large fleet. According to popular folklore, Ngo Quyen sank iron-tipped stakes in the riverbed through which the Chinese were to attack. The Chinese launched their attack at high tide, with the Vietnamese fending them off until low tide. In the battle of Bach Dang, the Vietnamese then threw their full weight against the Chinese who tried to flee but ran aground either on sandbanks or on the stakes.
Early Medieval Vietnam
The Ngo dynasty ruled in Vietnam from 939 to 965. Led by Ngo Quyen, the dynasty marked the first time after a thousand years of Chinese rule that the Vietnamese had been independent. The kingdom was unstable, however, with local nobles forming factions. When Ngo Quyen died in 944, he was succeeded by his brother-in-law Duong Tam Kha, who was also a son of Duong Dinh Nghe who had started the rebellion against the Chinese. Officially Duong Tam Kha was a regent for one of the sons of Ngo Quyen, but being the son of the originator of the revolt, he thought he should rule the new kingdom. The son of Ngo Quyen took control, however, deposing Duong Tam Kha, and in 950 declared himself Nam Tan Vuong (king of Southern China). He sent an unsuccessful mission to the emperor of China with tribute to try to enlist Chinese support, but instead was killed in battle in 963, and the country was split among 12 local chieftains. The next three years became known as the “Period of the 12 Warlords.”
In 966, Dinh Bo Linh, a chieftain from the Red River Delta, seized power and declared himself the emperor of the new kingdom, Dai Co Viet. He moved the capital from Co Loa, where it had been throughout Chinese rule, to Hoa Lu and tried to build up an administrative elite to rule the new entity. His main problem was succession, and when he designated his youngest infant son Hang Lang, as his heir, his eldest son Lien had his youngest brother murdered. A few weeks later, assassins killed both Dinh Bo Linh and Lien, leaving only a middle brother, 5-year-old Toan. With the court in chaos, the Chinese Sung Empire raised an army to retake Vietnam. To forestall takeover, Le Hoan, a general in the army of Dinh Bo Linh—also rumored to be a lover of the queen—took power and established the Le Dynasty. Because there was a later Le Dynasty, the one established by Le Hoan became known as the Early Le Dynasty.
Le Hoan ruled for 25 years, much of which was dominated by wars. In 981, he managed to defeat the Sung Chinese when they invaded China. Le Hoan then turned his attention to the Kingdom of Champa (in modern-day central Vietnam), seizing some of the land and forcing the inhabitants to move their capital from Indrapura to Vijaya. Le Hoan died in 1005 and was succeeded by his son Le Long Binh. He killed many members of his family and died two years later, leaving an infant boy to inherit the throne. With so many members of Le Hoan’s family having been killed, a palace mandarin, Ly Cong Uan, took power and founded the Ly Dynasty, which is often known as the Later Ly Dynasty to differentiate it from the brief rule of Ly Bi in 544-545.
The Ly Dynasty
The Later Ly Dynasty became the first major dynasty to establish itself after the end of Chinese rule. Much of the success occurred because the Ly rulers were able to avoid the bloody succession disputes of the previous short-lived dynasties. This in turn allowed them to establish a series of political and social institutions. The founder, Ly Cong Uan, took the dynastic name of Ly Thai To. He had grown up as an orphan, being raised in a Buddhist temple in modern-day Bac Ninh Province near modern-day Hanoi. He then became a palace guard at Hoa Lu, which Le Hoan had turned into his capital. Ly Cong Uan managed to become a mandarin and, when Le Long Binh died in 1009, he used intrigue to take control.
The major administrative change during the reign of Ly Thai To was to move the capital to Dai La, which later became Hanoi. He named it Thang Long (Soaring Dragon) after he claimed that when he approached the site, he saw a dragon rise in the clouds above the place. The move of the capital from the mountains, where its location had primarily been chosen for defensive reasons, to the banks of the Red River, where it could be a major center of trade, signified increased confidence in the new nation. This decision might also have been heavily influenced by the terrible succession crises that had wrecked the previous dynasties, thereby creating a new power base away from the problems at Co Loa and Hoa Lu.
Ly Phat Ma succeeded his father Ly Thai To in 1028 and ruled under the name Ly Thai Thong until 1054. During that time, he strengthened the power of the state and also established a strong army. He created the Thien Tu Binh (“Army of the Son of Heaven”) to serve as an Imperial Guard and also introduced conscription on an organized scale. To erode the power of the nobility, he created a professional class. The nobles continued to be granted large tracts of land, but their holdings were no longer hereditary, although in practice many did hold land for many generations. Philosophically, Emperor Ly Thai Thong was a follower of a form of Buddhism not unlike the Japanese Zen. He was also a strong believer in Confucian values. During his reign, the country was regularly at war with Champa to the south, and the lands captured from them were given to the nobles. In the north, his armies fought the Nung tribal people.
The third emperor of the Ly dynasty was Ly Thanh Tong, the first of the rulers to have been born during the life of the dynasty. He changed the name of the empire to Dai Viet and continued centralizing the power of the state. In 1068, he launched an attack on Champa, capturing their king and sacking their capital. He released the king of Champa in exchange for three provinces, which cover the modern-day provinces of Quang Binh and Quang Tri. His great achievement was the construction of the Temple of Literature in Thang Long (Hanoi) to serve as a center of learning for the country, the training of officials, and the contemplation of Confucian values.
Ly Nhan Tong was only seven when his father Ly Thanh Tong died, and during the regency of the mandarin Ly Dao Thanh, in 1076, the first competitive civil service exams were introduced based on the Chinese model. Taking place in the Temple of Literature, it provided opportunities for both talented wealthy and poor students to have access to careers in government service. These reforms were quickly overshadowed by the Chinese Sung Dynasty decision to attack Vietnam. Taking advantage of the Regency to launch a land and sea attack on the new state, the Chinese soldiers were repulsed by General Ly Thuong Kiet, who threw up a defensive line north of Thang Long (Hanoi). The Chinese, unable to maintain their long supply lines, had to sue for a peace agreement. There was then a period of stability and Ly Nhan Tong died in 1127, after a reign of 56 years.
As Ly Nhan Tong died childless, his adopted son Sung Hieu Hau succeeded him as Emperor Ly Than Tong. He was 13 years old and his reign saw continued fighting with Champa, as well as some trouble with the Angkor Empire in modern-day Cambodia. Ly Than Tong died in 1137 at the age of 23, and his infant son, Ly Anh Tong, became the next emperor. During his reign, Vietnam prospered and started trading extensively with its former enemies Angkor and Champa. Beset by illnesses, however, Ly Anh Tong handed over power to To Hien Thanh, a well-respected general, and died the next year, in 1175, at age 37. His son and successor, Ly Cao Tong, was only three when he became emperor and the regency lasted only three years. There was instability at court and when Ly Cao Tong did gain his majority, he became corrupt. As a result, in 1208, Pham Du staged a rebellion, forcing the emperor to flee the capital. The emperor managed to gain the support of the Tran family and staged a comeback, retaking Thang Long (Hanoi).
In 1210, Ly Cao Tong died, with the dynasty very weak and the Tran family helping to control the court. Ly Hue Tong succeeded his father, and when he became the emperor, he married Tran Thi whom he made his queen. Frequently ill and battling depression, in 1224, he was eventually persuaded to commit suicide by his wife’s cousin, Tran Thu Do. The emperor’s daughter Phat Kim then became the Empress Ly Chieu Hoang with another of the Tran family, Tran Tu Khanh, as her regent. She was then married to the eight-year-old nephew of Tran Thu Do, who was then declared the Emperor Tran Thai Tong, starting the Tran Dynasty in 1225.
The Tran Dynasty
Being a child when he became the Emperor Tran Thai Tong, the boy was dominated by his uncle Tran Thu Do. The scheming uncle managed to get the boy to divorce his wife and tried to force him to marry her elder sister who was already married to another member of the Tran family. In desperation, the adolescent fled to a Buddhist monastery, but was later persuaded to return to the palace where he reigned for 20 years. Although most of the country remained peaceful, there were some problems in the south with Champa, which was quickly defeated, and also in the north. In 1257, the new Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan demanded that the Mongol troops be allowed to enter Vietnam to strike at the Southern Sung—remnants of the previous dynasty. Tran Thai Tong refused and when the Mongols attacked, he was forced to flee Thang Long (Hanoi). The Mongols did not have enough men to hold the city, however, and, facing attacks on their supply lines, they retreated. Tran Thai Tong immediately abdicated the throne in favor of his son who was proclaimed the Emperor Tran Thanh Tong. He reigned for 20 years, with his father acting as his adviser for 19 of those years.
During the reign of Tran Thanh Tong, another threat came from the Mongols. Initially, the Vietnamese emperor decided to send tribute to the Mongol emperor, in the hope of avoiding war. He also massively strengthened the military. His reign, however, passed without the much anticipated attack from the north, and, in 1278, he abdicated in favor of his son, Emperor Tran Nhan Tong, acting as his royal adviser until he died in 1291.
The Mongols, who had established the Yüan Dynasty in China, finally decided to attack in 1279. They sent 300,000 soldiers into the Red River Delta region to try to restore full Chinese rule over the whole area. Tran Nhan Tong lost control of the capital, but waged a massive guerilla war against the invaders. The Mongols incurred so many casualties that they were forced to withdraw. In 1287, they attacked for a second time and were again driven back and were defeated at the second battle of Bach Dong. The Mongol weak point, for the third time, proved to be their supply lines, especially through the mountains that marked the Chinese-Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese commander-in-chief who defeated the Mongols was Tran Hung Dao; he is still revered for his brilliant defense strategies and his ability to wage a guerilla war against a foreign invader.
Tran Nhan Tong abdicated in 1293, in favor of his son, Tran Anh Tong, who managed to usher in a period of peace, not only with the Mongols, but also with the Chams. His daughter married the king of Champa, and peace was achieved in return for Champa ceding another two provinces. When the king of Champa died, Tran Nhan Tong refused permission for his daughter to be buried with her husband. The Chams saw this as a slight, which led to a major diplomatic incident and war. Although the Vietnamese were victorious, these wars had seriously weakened the country, which had lost many of its young men, as well as civilians in the fighting. Tran Minh Tong acceded to the throne when his father, as was by now the custom, abdicated. He tried to avoid war, but did launch an attack on Champa, seizing their capital in 1318. He was famous for issuing a decree to stop Vietnamese soldiers from being tattooed—many having the phrase “Death to the Mongols” marked on them. He was succeeded by his two sons, first Tran Hien Tong, and, when he died after a short reign, Tran Du Tong.
Tran Du Tong was an extravagant ruler, perhaps a trait made more obvious by his expenditure coinciding with a period of drought and disease. With the Yuan Dynasty in China collapsing, the Chams attacked the Vietnamese. In 1369, Tran Du Tong died without issue, and was succeeded by a younger brother Tran Nghe Tong who was, in turn, succeeded by Tran Due Tong, who was killed in battle in 1377. Tran Nghe Tong’s son then became Emperor Tran Thuan Tong. He was deposed in 1398 and appealed to the Chinese for help.
The Ho Dynasty
Ho Quy Ly had emerged as a powerful court figure at the end of the Tran dynasty. Descended from a family that had migrated from China many generations earlier, he had married a cousin of the Emperor Tran Nghe Tong who then appointed him to the palace. During the 1380s, he had distinguished himself in commanding the Vietnamese armies in their fighting against the Chams. He was also a schemer and managed to influence the succession in the late 1380s. When he forced Tran Thuan Tong to abdicate in 1398, it was not long before he founded his own dynasty, assassinating Tran Thuan Tong soon afterwards.
Anxious about the succession, Ho Quy Ly abdicated after a year of being emperor in favor of his son, Ho Han Thuong, but he remained in actual power as his son’s chief adviser. Although Ho was a usurper and keen on taking over power in the country, he was also anxious to reform the administration, and, within months of taking power, he had introduced reforms to the civil service, the administration, and the educational services, and reformed the system of raising taxes. He limited the amount of land that could be held by one person and redistributed the excess to poor peasants. It is possible that the support he built up in Vietnam might have led to a long and popular dynasty were it not for renewed Chinese intervention.
The new Ming dynasty in China decided to comply with the request of the last emperor of the Tran dynasty and, in 1407, invaded Vietnam. Although the Chinese stated that they planned to restore the Tran dynasty, they were actually interested in reestablishing Chinese rule over Vietnam. Ho Quy Ly was captured along with his son and senior officials, who were all taken to China. Ho, who was over 70 years old, was then conscripted into the Chinese army as a common soldier, where he died. Vietnam was once again ruled by the Chinese emperor from Beijing.
The Le Dynasty
Chinese rule over Vietnam was unpopular and it was not long before rebel groups started to form. In 1418, a former Vietnamese imperial bureaucrat, Le Loi, staged a revolt. He took the title Binh Dinh Vuong (“Pacification King”) and rallied his supporters for a battle with the Chinese. With other smaller guerilla and bandit bands roaming through Vietnam, it was not long before the Chinese decided to negotiate with some of them, and in 1423 reached a truce with Le Loi. When the Chinese Emperor Yung Lo died in 1424, Le Loi decided to attack and quickly won control of much of the land in the Red River Delta. In 1426, he defeated the Chinese forces near Hanoi, and two years later the Chinese left, leaving Le Loi in control of the country. Initially Le Loi had campaigned with the plan of restoring the Tran dynasty, and some of the family had accompanied him on his travels. With the final victory, however, he established himself as emperor and founded the Le Dynasty, which lasted from 1428 until, nominally at any rate, 1778.
Le Thai To, the second emperor of the Le dynasty, codified the legal system and promoted art, education, and literature. He also promoted better agricultural practices and prevented some powerful landowners from encroaching on communal land. As the population increased, the Le dynasty decided that territorial expansion would be the main way of accommodating landless people. The Chams had taken advantage of the fighting between the Vietnamese and the Chinese, and in 1446 they were able to retake Vijaya; however their successes were relatively short-lived. Under Le Thanh Ton (reigned 1460-1497), the greatest of the Le rulers, Champa was invaded for a final time and their capital Vijaya was sacked in 1471. Champa was then turned into a client state, with later rulers absorbing it into the Vietnamese Empire. Many of the soldiers started settling in the areas around Danang and Nha Trang, with subsequent incursions into Cambodian-held land in the Mekong Delta.
Le Thanh Ton then turned his attention to administrative reform and divided his empire into 13 parts. He instituted a national census, conducted an extensive geographical survey of the entire country, and introduced a new penal code known as the Hong Duc Code. This code, which had 721 articles, introduced heavy Confucian ethics into the civil and criminal laws. Containing six books, the Hong Duc Code remained in force until the nineteenth century. The Code granted women many rights including the right to own property and share equally with males in inheritance. Women were also recognized in common law marriages and even had some rights to gain a divorce from their husbands.
Between 1497 and 1527, ten kings came to the throne, four of them being usurpers. This great instability at court led a number of powerful landowners and mandarins to exert enormous power and amass vast wealth, the most prominent being the Nguyen family of Hue. The mandarin Nguyen Kim (d. 1545) helped the Le dynasty during the sixteenth century, and, when the military commander Mac Dang Dung established his Mac dynasty in 1527, the Trinh and the Nguyen families remained loyal to the Le. The Mac dynasty ruled in the northern part of Vietnam until 1591, when supporters of the Le seized the Mac capital at Thang Long (present-day Hanoi) and captured Mac Mao Hop, the last of the Mac dynasty, although some of his family managed to hold out at Cao Bang, along the Chinese border, until 1667 when they were finally defeated.
While the Mac dynasty had been able to establish itself in the northern part of Vietnam, the Nguyens consolidated the control of the south, a power vacuum having been created with the final destruction of Champa, and also the decline of the Khmer Empire at Angkor. In 1698, the city of Saigon was officially founded, and, by the mid-eighteenth century, most of modern-day southern Vietnam was ruled by the Le dynasty, but it was administered by the Nguyens, while the Le emperors became figureheads.
By 1757, Vietnam had reached its present size, with the exception of the province of Soc Trang, which was not annexed from Cambodia until 1840. The country was by no means unified, however, with the virtual partition of the country between the north, which supported the Mac, and the rest, which remained loyal to the Le. This division was perpetuated by the Trinh lords who had helped crush the Mac and then ruled northern Vietnam, although they continued to pay lip service to the Le emperors. The vast majority of the population was now ethnically Vietnamese, but there were also many Chinese, Khmer Krom (Cambodians in southern Vietnam), Muong tribesmen in the mountains, and the remnants of the Cham.
The Tay Son Rebellion
In the 1760s, there were some isolated peasant attacks on administrators of the Nguyen lords who controlled southern Vietnam. Initially the rebellions were leaderless and were fueled by resentment rather than by any major political goals. In 1771, however, three brothers raised the standard of revolt in the village of Tay Son, in modern-day Nghia Binh Province. The uprising became known as the Tay Son Rebellion and was specifically directed against the Nguyen lords and the way in which they were ruling their lands. Although the fighting started in the south, it quickly spread to central Vietnam and was soon imitated by other uprisings in the north. In 1785, the Tay Son rebels destroyed the Nguyen army sent against them, capturing Saigon; and in the next year, Nguyen Hye, the second of the three brothers, led an army into Thang Long (Hanoi). Nguyen Hue proclaimed that he wanted to restore the legitimacy of the emperor, Le Hien Tong, and the emperor gave his daughter in marriage to Nguyen Hue.
Le Hien Tong died in late 1786 and his grandson, Le Chien Tong, called on Chinese soldiers for help so that he would no longer have to rely on the support of the Tay Son brothers. In 1788, Chinese soldiers took Hanoi and Nguyen Hue replied by proclaiming himself the Emperor Quang Trung, launching a surprise attack on the Chinese soldiers who were forced to retreat into China. He established his capital at Phu Xuan (modern-day Hue) and sent tribute to China to try to placate the emperors of China. He also tried to improve the wealth of the country by promoting trade with European countries. A good administrator, Quang Trung died in 1792, at age 39, and was succeeded by his 10-year-old son Canh Thinh. This immediately weakened the new regime, and in 1802 the Nguyen lords were able to establish the Nguyen dynasty under Nguyen Anh, who in 1802 founded the Nguyen dynasty as Emperor Gia Long.