TRAN DYNASTY (1225-1400)

TRAN DYNASTY (1225-1400)

In 1225 the Tran family, which had effectively controlled the Vietnamese throne for many years, replaced the Ly dynasty by arranging a marriage between one of its members and the last Ly monarch, an eight-year-old princess. Under the Tran dynasty (1225-1400), the country prospered and flourished as the Tran rulers carried out extensive land reform, improved public administration, and encouraged the study of Chinese literature. The Tran, however, are best remembered for their defense of the country against the Mongols and the Cham. By 1225, the Mongols controlled most of northern China and Manchuria and were eyeing southern China, Vietnam, and Champa.

The introduction of rice agriculture caused the population to expand, and new land was needed for the growing population. After the victory over the Chinese in A.D. 939, the Vietnamese expanded into present day South Vietnam. Periodically warlords and princes broke off and formed their own mini-states.

Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) Kings: 1) Tran Thai Tong (1225-1258); 2) Tran Thanh Tong (1258-1272); 3) Tran Nhan Tong (1279-1293); 4) Tran Anh Tong (1293-1314); 5) Tran Anh Tong (1314-1329); 6) Tran Hien Tong (1329-1341); 7) Tran Du Tong (1314-1369); 8) Tran Nghe Tong (1370-1372); 9) - Tran Due Tong (1372-1377); 10) Tran Phe De (1377-1388); 11) Tran Thuan Tong (1388-1398); 12) - Tran Thieu De (1398-1400)

The Tran continued the work of unification and nation-building until the end of the 14th century. During this 400-year period the country experienced vigorous development in many fields. The monarchy gave special attention to the building of a powerful army. Serfs were not recruited into the army, and positions of command were reserved for members of aristocratic families, with the highest posts reserved for members of the royal family. There was a special guard for the protection of the king and the royal palace. Military service was extended to cover the whole population except serfs. Conscripts underwent a period of training, then returned to their villages to continue their work in the fields. This peasant-soldier policy made the mobilization of large forces possible whenever necessary. Training was undertaken regularly and, according to a Chinese ambassador of the time, was of a high level. Under the Tran, the princes and lords who owned large domains had their own armies made up of serfs and slaves. The sons of prominent families were trained in the art of war in a military school. Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols, wrote a handbook on military tactics for the use of his officers. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Tran Dynasty Administration

Appanages and domains greatly increased in number under the Tran, when nobles and dignitaries endeavored to reclaim new lands, then taking possession of them. Some used their power to seize land belonging to villages and individuals. On these appanages and domains, the peasants were in reality serfs, while the lords kept a large number of domestic slaves. The Ly had forbidden the traffic of young men to be used as slaves, but the order was rescinded under the Tran. The slaves comprised former criminals, insolvent debtors, and prisoners of war. During periods of famine, children were sold by their parents as slaves. Some lords owned thousands of serfs and slaves. These could not own property or gain access to public positions. Under the Tran in particular, the nobles had their own armed forces. Buddhist monasteries also constituted large domains with serfs and slaves. The great societal movement for the liberation of these serfs and slaves was to shake the regime to its foundations.[Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The larger part of the land, however, belonged to the villages, which paid rent and taxes to the royal administration. The village population was periodically required to provide labor for the construction of roads, dykes and canals, and to do military service. Communal land was periodically distributed among the villagers, under the direction of nobles, naturally in a manner profitable to the nobles. Land appropriation by individuals became increasingly frequent under the Le; as early as the 11th century, the Ly had to promulgate legislation on the sale and purchase of land. A class of peasant-owners thus appeared to challenge the lords with their larger domains. ~

On several occasions, the Tran had dykes repaired and canals dredged. In 1382, they ordered the digging of several canals in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces, and in 1390 the Thien Duc Canal, now the Song Duong. Dykes were built along the Red, Thai Binh, Ma and Chu rivers, and every year, following the harvest, the mandarins responsible inspected the dykes and directed maintenance and repair work. In August 1315, when the waters rose to a dangerous level, King Tran Minh Tong personally directed the work. A mandarin advised him against such work, saying that "it becomes a king to show great virtue, not to devote himself to small things"; but another dignitary retorted, "When the country is threatened by a major flood or severe drought, it is a king's duty to directly take part in carrying out the necessary measures. This is the best way to show great Virtue". ~

Dykes were also built along the coast so as to bring new land formed by silt accumulating at the mouths of rivers into production. With administrative centralization, internal peace and the safeguarding of national independence, agriculture, the cornerstone of the economy, was able to develop further. Historical records note few severe famines. The kings sometimes decreed a reduction in taxes to encourage the peasants. ~

Tran Dynasty Economy

Handicrafts as art forms and ways of making a living also saw rapid development under the Tran Dynasty. Cotton, silk and brocade weaving reached a high level. Multi-colored brocades were exported or presented to the Chinese imperial court. The development of silver, gold, tin and lead mining gave birth to numerous metal-working trades and jewelry-making. The state minted copper coins and set up workshops for the manufacture of weapons, religious objects and court attire. Bronze smelting, for the making of bells in particular, and pottery with high-quality enamels made great progress. The bricks, tiles, and ceramic statues made in the Le period were famous. Printing from engraved wooden plates contributed to the development of education and the dissemination of Buddhist literature. The development of handicrafts led the Tran kings to divide the capital into districts, each of which specialized in a particular trade. In the 13th century, the capital had 61 districts, each of which was occupied by a guild. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The growing shipbuilding industry was able to produce large junks with as many as one hundred oars. The capital Thang Long became the country's great commercial center, and markets were established in many places. A Mongolian ambassador who visited the country in the 13th century wrote that village markets were held twice a month, with "plenty of goods", and on the highways a market was situated every five miles. There were also inns established by the authorities where travelers could rest. ~

Trading between the delta and mountainous regions flourished. The plains exchanging salt and iron tools for forest products. Trade with China was effected at special places near the frontier or the ports. In exchange for fabrics, the Chinese obtained essential bibs, ivory, salt and other minerals. The silk trade was subject to rigorous regulation by the state, which itself sometimes engaged in commercial operations. Japanese and Siamese vessels came to the port of Van Don to buy Vietnamese goods. In 1280, King Tran Nhan Ton instituted a uniform unit of measurement for wood and textiles. Commerce thus began to develop, but merchants were not held in high esteem, and external trade was tightly controlled by the state. In 1242, a village administrative apparatus was instituted by the Tran. Up to that time, the royal administration had covered only province and district levels. ~

Tran Dynasty and Their Battles with Kublai Khan and the Mongols

Mongol warrior Kublai Khan completed his conquest of China in the mid-13th century. For his next trick, he planned to attack Champa and demanded the right to cross Vietnamese territory. The Vietnamese refused, but the Mongol hordes – all 500, 000 of them – pushed ahead, seemingly invulnerable. However, they met their match in the legendary general Tran Hung Dao; he defeated them in the battle of Bach Dang River, one of the most celebrated scalps among many the Vietnamese have taken. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The principal reason for the victory over the Mongols was the strength of the socioeconomic system established under the Ly and Tran, and the successful military policy followed by the Tran command. The monarchy and nobles had promoted the development of agriculture and instituted a peasant-soldier system so that when a war occurred, the whole nation united around its chiefs, each man becoming a combatant. Ethnic minority chieftains in mountainous regions also contributed to victory. National unity became a reality. National consciousness, moulded over the course of many centuries of struggle against foreign aggressors and consolidated by the establishment of stable centralized power had been considerably strengthened. General Tran Hung Dao never failed to seek the support of the population in his fight against an enemy superior in numbers and armaments, and he used appropriate strategies and tactics. He willingly left towns, and even the capital where necessary, avoided combat when the enemy was too strong, resorted to guerrilla harassment, and resolutely took the offensive whenever the circumstances were favorable. The fierce determination of his command galvanized the men. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

On a visit to Tran Hung Dao shortly before died in 1300, King Tran Anh Tong asked him, "What should we do in the event of a new invasion from the north?" Hung Dao replied, "The enemy relies on numbers. To oppose the long with the short - therein lies our skill. If the enemy makes a violent rush forward, like fire and tempest, it is easy to defeat him. But if he shows patience, like the silkworm nibbling at the mulberry leaf, if he proceeds without haste, refrains from pillaging, and does not seek a quick victory, then we must choose the best generals and effective tactics, as in a chess game, the army must be united and of one mind, like father and son. It is essential to treat the people with humanity, so as to strike deep roots and ensure a lasting base". Ever since then, the memory of Tran Hung Dao has been honored at the Kiep Bac Temple. ~

Battles with Champa and Decline of the Tran Dynasty

The Vietnamese displaced and assimilated the Cham as they extended their territory down the coast to the plains and footthills east of what is now Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). By the 15th century they had overcome the Kingdom of Champa. Afterwards the Vietnamese expanded into the western Mekong Delta at the expense of the Cambodians, forming boundaries that more or less correlate with the boundaries of modern Vietnam.

The fourteenth century was marked by wars with Champa, which the Tran reduced to a feudatory state by 1312. Champa freed itself again by 1326 and, under the leadership of Cham hero Che Bong Nga, staged a series of attacks on Vietnam between 1360 and 1390, sacking Thang Long in 1371. The Vietnamese again gained the upper hand following the death of Che Bong Nga and resumed their southward advance at Champa's expense.

Despite their earlier success, the quality of the Tran rulers had declined markedly by the end of the fourteenth century, opening the way for exploitation of the peasantry by the feudal landlord class, which caused a number of insurrections.In 1400 General Ho Quy-ly seized the throne and proclaimed himself founder of the short-lived Ho dynasty (1400-07). He instituted a number of reforms that were unpopular with the feudal landlords, including a limit on the amount of land a family could hold and the rental of excess land by the state to landless peasants; proclamations printed in Vietnamese, rather than Chinese; and free schools in provincial capitals. Threatened by the reforms, some of the landowners appealed to China's Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to intervene. Using reinstatement of the Tran dynasty as an excuse, the Ming reasserted Chinese control in 1407. [Source: Library of Congress]

Battle Between Buddhism and Confucianism in the Tran Dynasty

Buddhism was not confined solely to spiritual exercises. It was the state religion with all its pomp and vigor; it provided people with spiritual consolation, the ruling class with divine prestige, and some minds with a means of escape; it was imbued with superstition in many of its manifestations and with Taoism in its doctrine. It left a lasting imprint on the Vietnamese soul. However, as the monarchical order was gradually consolidated, the social hierarchy became increasingly complex, and the royal administration extended its power to the detriment of the aristocracy. Buddhism was no longer enough.[Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Confucian culture grew in importance under the Tran: the competitions were better codified and held more regularly. The title of "doctor" was bestowed, enhancing the prestige of Confucian literature. Institutes were created in the capital for the study of Confucian literature, subjects in the competitions comprised in particular the composition of poems, royal ordinances and proclamations, and essays on classical literature. As well as public schools, private schools also appeared under the direction of famous people, the most prominent of these being Chu Van An. In the field of culture, Buddhist monks were increasingly eclipsed by Confucian scholars; in 1243, the title of doctor was awarded to Le Van Huu, who was to become Vietnam's first great historian. Confucian scholars monopolized more and more positions in public life, displacing Buddhist monks and nobles of military origin, who were often uneducated. ~

In the 13th century, the ideological struggle between Buddhism and Confucianism became increasingly acute, a struggle which reflected the antagonism facing the nobles, owners of great domains, from the fast-growing class of peasant owners of lowly origin. The great domains were also shaken by revolts among serfs and domestic slaves at the close of the 13th century. Thus, divisions appeared between the aristocracy and Buddhist clergy on one side, and on the other side, the class of peasant-owners allied with the serfs and slaves with Confucian scholars as their spokesmen in the field of ideology. "In face of Buddhism which affirmed the vanity, even the unreality of this world, preached renunciation, and directed men's minds towards other worldly aspirations, Confucianism taught that man is essentially a social being bound by social obligations. To serve one's king, honour one's parents, remain loyal to one's spouse until death, manage one's family affairs, participate in the administration of one's country, contribute to safeguarding the peace of the world - such were the duties prescribed by Confucianism for all. To educate oneself, to improve oneself so as to be able to assume all these tasks, this should be the fundamental preoccupation of all men, from the Emperor, Son of Heaven, down to the humblest commoner. ~

Tran Kings Who Became Monks

After his victory over the Mongols, King Tran Nhan Tong gave up the throne in 1293, retired to the monastery and together with two other monks founded the Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) sect. A doctrinal work from the Tran period, the Khoa Hit Litc, has been preserved with the following lines: Nothing, is born,/ Nothing dies./ When this has been understood/ The Buddha appears,/ The round of avatars ends. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

King Tran Thai Tong, who reigned from 1225 to 1258, also became a monk. One stele describes how he had sought the monastic life: "Ever since the king, my father, handed over the kingdom to me, then only a child, I have never been free from care. I told myself: 'My Parents are no long here to give me advice; it will be very difficult for me to win the people's confidence. What should I do?' After thinking deeply, I came to the conclusion that to retire into the mountains, to seek the Buddha's teachings in order to know the reasons for life and death and to pay homage to my parents would be the best way. I decided to leave. On the third day of the fourth month of the fifth Year of Thien Ung's reign, I dressed as a commoner and left the palace. To the guards I said,' I want to mix with the people, learn about their hardships, and know their thoughts'. Seven or eight men followed me; when the hoi hour had passed, I crossed the river then told the truth to the guards, who burst into tears. The next day, while passing the Pha Lai Ferry, I hid my face in order not to be recognized. We spent the night at Gia Chanh Pagoda. ~

The next day, we went straight to the top of the mountain on which the Great Master Truc Lam resided. Overjoyed, the Great Master greeted me with these words: 'The old monk that I am, who has retired into the midst of forest, whose body is nothing but skin and bone, who lives on wild herbs and berries, drinks from the stream and wanders among the trees, has a heart as light as the clouds and unburdened like the wind. Your Majesty has left Your sumptuous palace to come to this remote place. May I ask you what compelling need has prompted you to make this journey? With tears in my eyes, I replied: 'I am very young, my parents are no longer in this world and here I am, alone, reigning over the people, without any support. I think that thrones have always been fragile and so I have come to these mountains with my only desire that of becoming, a Buddha.' The Great Master replied, 'No, the Buddha is not to be found in these mountains, he is in our hearts. When the heart is at peace and lucid the Buddha is there. If Your Majesty has an enlightened hear, you immediately become the Buddha; why then seek else where? (The Court came to beseech the king, to return and the prime minister threatened to commit suicide if the king refused). ~

"The Great Master took my hand and said, ' Since you are king, the will of the kingdom must also be your will, the heart of the kingdom must also be your heart. The whole kingdom is now asking you to return, how can you refuse? There is however one important thing you should not forget when you are back in your palace: studying the sacred books'. I returned to the palace, and against my will, remained on the throne for several decades. In my leisure time I would gather together eminent old men for the study of the Thien doctrine (Dhyana) and of the sacred books, none of which was omitted. When studying the Diamond sutra, I often stopped at the sentence: ' Never let your heart cling to any fixed thing'. I would then close the book, and remain along time in meditation. Enlightenment came to me and I composed the initiation to the Thien…" ~

Confucianism Wins Out Over Buddhism During the Tran Dynasty

Confucian scholars directed their attacks not only at Buddhist beliefs, but also against the place granted to them by the State and society. The historian Le Van Huu wrote: "The first King Ly , hardly two years after his accession to the throne, at a time when the ancestral temples of the dynasty had not yet been consolidated, had already had eight pagodas built in Thien Duc district, and many others restored in different provinces; he kept more than a thousand monks in the capital; much wealth and labor had thus been wasted! These riches had not fallen from the sky, this labor had not been supplied by the gods; to do such things was to drain the blood and sweat of the people." [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The scholar Le Quat lamented: "To implore the Buddha's blessing, to dread his malediction- how had such beliefs become so deeply rooted in the hearts of men ? Princes of the blood and common people alike squandered their possessions in venerating the Buddha, quite happy to give them away to pagodas, as if they had been given a guarantee for life in the other world. Wherever there was a house, one was sure to find a pagoda next to it; a crumbling pagoda was soon replaced by a new one; bells, pagodas, drums, towers - half the population were engaged in making these things." ~

Truong Han Sieu also made a direct attack on the monks: "Scoundrels who lost all notion of Buddhist asceticism only thought of taking possession of beautiful monasteries and gardens, building for themselves luxurious residences, and surrounding themselves with a host of servants… People became monks by the thousand so as to get food without having to plough and clothes without having to weave. They deceived the people, undermined morality, squandered riches, were found everywhere, followed by numerous believers, very few of them were not real bandits." ~

But several centuries were to pass before Buddhism was eliminated from the scene, at least from public office, and Confucianism could stand alone. Competitions in the three doctrines (Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism) still took place under the Kings Tran. No war of religion ever broke out in Vietnam. By the 14th century, however, Confucianism had risen to pre-eminence.

Birth of a National Literature Under the Tran Dynasty

With the recovering independence, a national literature took shape and gradually developed. Popular and oral literature in the national language became ever richer, but it is difficult to date most of the works, songs and stories handed down from generation to generation. In the l0th century, a scholarly literature appeared in classical Chinese, the common language of the culture of the Far East, using Chinese characters. However, more and more a need for the development of a script for the Vietnamese language was felt; the nom script, derived from Chinese, was thus created. The exact date of its creation is not known, but the first works written in nom appeared in the 14th century. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The first works in classical Chinese were mostly Buddhist texts expounding the doctrine or expressing the monks' reactions to certain events, for example a poem by the monk Van Hanh, who died in 1018: / Mail is a shadow, gone as soon as born,/ The trees, so green in spring, are bare in autumn./ Greatness and decline, why, should we care?/ The destiny of men and empires is like a dew-drop on a grass leaf./ The monk Vien Chieu (98-1090) was also it poet who wrote:/ Escorted by the wind, the sound of the horn slips through the bamboo grove,/ With the moon rising behind, the shadows of mountains climb the ramparts. ~

With the consolidation of the kingdom, Buddhist inspiration on the evanescence of things gave way to the contemplation of nature; then with the struggle for national independence, patriotism prevailed in the writings. The same men who in peace time sang of the beauty of the land took up their pens at critical moments to exalt the nation's struggle. King Tran Nhan Tong, the victor over the Mongols left this twilight landscape: Villages grow dim in the mist,/ They now vanish, now reappear in the sunset./ Buffalo-herds blowing their horns take their cattle home,/ A flock of white egrets swoop down oil the fields. ~

Great Writers from the Tran Dynasty

Among the author who left great literary works were Mac Dinh Chi (died in 1346), Truong Han Sieu (died in 1354), Chu Van An (died in 1370), Nguyen Trung Ngan (1289-1370), Pham Su Manh who in 1345 led a mission to China, and Le Quat. Truong Han Sieu glorified the two victories won in 939 and 1288 on the Bach Dang River, in a famous poem ending with these verses: The enemy has fled, peace is restored for centuries to come, / Terrain played no role, noble virtues were decisive. Of this period two works of religious tendency remain: Viet Dien U Linh, a collection of texts on genii, divinities, and deified famous men, which was attributed to Ly Te Xuyen, and Thien Uyen Tap Anh, a collection of texts and biographies of monks up to the Tran Dynasty. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Literature in nom appeared in the l4th century with Nguyen Thuyen and Nguyen Si Co whose works, though mentioned in the annals, have not survived. Tradition has it that when King Tran Nhan Tong married Princess Huyen Tran to the king of Champa in exchange for the O and Ly districts, this act was severely criticized in satirical poems written in nom. The appearance of poems in nom was an important landmark in the development of a national literature. By the end of the 13th century, Ho Quy Ly had translated the Kinh Thi (Book of Poems), a Confucian classic, into nom. ~

An annals department was created under the Tran. Tran Tan wrote Viet Chi, a monograph which the great historian Le Van Huu often referred to in 1272 when he compiled the Dai Viet Su Ky (History of Dai Viet) in 30 chapters covering the period from Trieu Da to the end of the Ly dynasty. Le Van Huu's work was also lost, but it was the major inspiration for the complete history of Dai Viet written later by Ngo Si Lien. At the close of the Tran Dynasty, the Dai Viet Su Luoc (Short History) was written by an anonymous author. This book was to be reprinted in China in the 18th century. It is reported in the annals that Ho Ton Thoc wrote two historical chronicles, the Viet Su Cuong Muc and Nam Viet The Chi. Both these works have been lost. Under the Tran, chronicles were also written describing military exploits in the wars against the Mongols and the kingdom of Ai Lao. Le Tac, who had taken refuge in China, wrote the An Nam Chi Luoc at the beginning of the 14th century. ~

Tran Dynasty Music, Art, Architecture and Science

According to the An Nam Chi Luoc, in Tran times "people played small cylindrical drum, introduced from Champa, which had a clear, pure sound. This drum was used in the great music play only for the king; even princes and dignitaries were not allowed to play great music, except at ceremonies. Guitars - cam, tranh, ti ba with seven or two strings, and flutes of various kinds could be used by all nobles or commoners, Countless pieces were played". [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The art of the Tran period continued that of the Ly Palaces and royal mausoleums continued to be built. Pho Minh Tower, built in 1305, is 14 stories high with the lowest two levels made of stone and the rest of brick. The base was shaped like a gigantic lotus flower emerging from the water. The Binh Son tower still stands to this day, leaning slightly with its remaining 12 storeys totalling 15 meters in height. The whole construction is of terra-cotta and the surfaces arc richly decorated with lotus and other flowers, dragons, lions, and leaves of the bo tree. The dragons have lost their "natural" look and the S-shaped decoration on their heads. Remarkable wood carvings have survived from the Tran period. This art form appeared during a much earlier period, but the works have suffered badly from the ravages of climate and insects. Wood carving also used all the above-mentioned motifs and themes. ~

Among the great monuments from the Tran period are the Tay Do citadel, built by Ho Quy Ly in Thanh Hoa Province in 1397, and which served as a capital for a short time. Rectangular in shape, 900 meters long and 700 meters wide, with 6 metre-high ramparts, it was built of large stone blocks, some of them 6 meters long, 1.7 meters wide and 1.2 meters high and weighing 16 tons. Of the ancient palaces, only a few traces have survived,such as stone dragons decorating flights of steps. The arched porticoes were built from huge stone blocks. Architecture had thus reached a high level. ~

Among other forms of technology was the casting of cannon. Ho Nguyen Trung, taken prisoner by the Ming, was entrusted by the Chinese emperor to make cannons for the Chinese army. Astronomy also developed to some extent. It is recorded in the annals that the mandarin Dang Lo, in charge of astrology under the Tran, invented an instrument used to observe celestial phenomena. During the reign of Tran Due Tong (1341-1369), lived the famous physician Tue Tinh who made a special study of the healing properties of local plants and herbs. In 1352, he was invited to China to attend the Chinese empress. He left several medical treatises, the most famous of which is the Nam Duoc Than Hieu (About the Marvelous Effects of National Medicines). ~

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2015

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