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.

After end of the Ly Dynasty, Vietnamese history in the 17th and 18th century was characterized by conflicts between Trinh lords in the north and Later Le and Nguyen lords in the south. The Trinhs were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to claim territory in the south while the Nguyens claimed territory from the Chams and Khmer in Mekong Delta.

Vietnam was not truly unified until the 18th century. Before then southern Vietnam was mostly in the hands of the Khmer and Cham dynasties. The great Le dynasty ruler Le Thanh Tong (1460-97) accomplished the conquest of Champa in 1471. After the Chams were conquered the Vietnamese moved into the Mekong Delta and drove out the Khmers. They also brought Laos under Vietnamese suzerainty and created a Vietnamese kingdom that was roughly the size of modern Vietnam—but it didn’t last long.

Fighting Between the Trinhs and Nguyens

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. [Source: Library of Congress *]

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. *

Partition of Vietnam into North and South and Hardships of Vietnam’s Peasantry

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. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to Lonely Planet: "In a dress rehearsal for the tumultuous events of the 20th century, Vietnam found itself divided in half through much of the 17th and 18th centuries. The powerful Trinh Lords were later Le kings who ruled the North. To the south were the Nguyen Lords, who feigned tribute to the kings of the north but carried on like an independent kingdom. The powerful Trinh failed in their persistent efforts to subdue the Nguyen, in part because their Portuguese weaponry was far inferior to the Dutch armaments supplied to the Nguyen. For their part, the Nguyen expanded southwards again, absorbing the Khmer territories of the Mekong Delta. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

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 organization 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. *

Tay Son Rebellion

In 1765 a rebellion erupted in the town of Tay Son near Qui Nhon. The Tay Son Rebels, as they soon became known, were led by the brothers Nguyen—Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu, and Nguyen Hue. In less than a decade they controlled the whole of central Vietnam. In 1783 they captured Saigon from the Nguyen Lords as well as the rest of the South, killing the reigning prince and his family. Nguyen Lu became king of the South, while Nguyen Nhac was crowned king of central Vietnam. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The Tay Son Rebellion (1771-1802), which ended the Le and Trinh dynasties, was led by three brothers from the village of Tay Son in Binh Dinh Province. The brothers, who were of the Ho clan (to which Ho Quy Ly had belonged), adopted the name Nguyen. The eldest brother, Nguyen Nhac, began an attack on the ruling Nguyen family by capturing Quang Nam and Binh Dinh provinces in 1772. The chief principle and main slogan of the Tay Son was "seize the property of the rich and distribute it to the poor." In each village the Tay Son controlled, oppressive landlords and scholar-officials were punished and their property redistributed. The Tay Son also abolished taxes, burned the tax and land registers, freed prisoners from local jails, and distributed the food from storehouses to the hungry. As the rebellion gathered momentum, it gained the support of army deserters, merchants, scholars, local officials, and monks. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1773 Nguyen Nhac seized Qui Nhon, which became the Tay Son capital. By 1778 the Tay Son had effective control over the southern part of the country, including Gia Dinh (later Saigon). The ruling Nguyen family were all killed by the Tay Son rebels, with the exception of Nguyen Anh, the sixteen-year-old nephew of the last Nguyen lord, who escaped to the Mekong Delta. There he was able to gather a body of supporters and retake Gia Dinh. The city changed hands several times until 1783, when the Tay Son brothers destroyed Nguyen Anh's fleet and drove him to take refuge on Phu Quoc Island. *

Thai forces were defeated by the Tay Son army in the Rach Gam-Xoai Mut front in 1785. Then, the Tay Son army marched to Dang Ngoai, and overthrew the Trinh dynasty. Le Chieu Thong, the last king of the Le Dynasty, fled to China, and asked for Qin dynasty's assistance. Nguyen Hue took the throne in Phu Xuan, now called Hue, in 1788. He led the army and marched north to defeat the Qin troop of 290,000 men in Thang Long in the first lunar month of 1789.

Another Defeat of the Chinese and the Tay Son Dynasty

By 1786 the Tay Son had overcome the crumbling Trinh dynasty and seized all of the north, thus uniting the country for the first time in 200 years. The Tay Son made good their promise to restore the Le dynasty, at least for ceremonial purposes. The three Nguyen brothers installed themselves as kings of the north, central, and southern sections of the country respectively, while continuing to acknowledge the Le emperor in Thang Long. In response, the third brother, Nguyen Hue, proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung. In 1788, however, the reigning Le emperor fled north to seek Chinese assistance in defeating the Tay Son. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Chinese moved in to take advantage of the power vacuum. Eager to comply to the Le Emperor’s request , a Chinese army of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) invaded Vietnam, seized Thang Long, and invested the Le ruler as "King of Annam."That same year, the second eldest Tay Son brother, Nguyen Hue, proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung. Marching north with 100,000 men and 100 elephants, Quang Trung attacked Thang Long at night and routed the Chinese army of 200,000, which retreated in disarray. Immediately following his victory, the Tay Son leader sought to reestablish friendly relations with China, requesting recognition of his rule and sending the usual tributary mission. Nguyen Hue’s overwhelmingly defeat of the Chinese army at Dong Da in 1789 is another important event in Vietnamese history. *

Kings of Tay Son Dynasty (1778-1802): 1) Thai Duc (1778-1793); 2) Quang Trung (Nguyen Hue) (1789-1792); 3) Canh Thinh (1793 - 1802).

In 1788, the second eldest Tay Son brother, Nguyen Hue, proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung and founded the Tay Son Dynasty He implemented progressive policies on land and education but died in 1792. Quang Trung stimulated Vietnam's war-ravaged economy by encouraging trade and crafts, ordering the recultivation of fallow lands, reducing or abolishing taxes on local products, and resettling landless peasants on communal lands in their own villages. Quang Trung also established a new capital at Phu Xuan (near modern Hue), a more central location from which to administer the country. He reorganized the government along military lines, giving key posts to generals, with the result that military officials for the first time outranked civilian officials. Vietnamese was substituted for Chinese as the official national language, and candidates for the bureaucracy were required to submit prose and verse compositions in chu nom rather than in classical Chinese. *

Nguyen Anh

Nguyen Anh, supported by the French, returned to the Mekong River Delta to fight Tay Son army. Tay Son was defeated in 1802 and Nguyen Anh conquered Phu Xuan and became emperor Soon after the 1783 Nguyen defeat, Nguyen Ahn met with French missionary bishop Pigneau de Behaine and asked him to be his emissary in obtaining French support to defeat the Tay Son. Pigneau de Behaine took Nguyen Anh's five-year-old son, Prince Canh, and departed for Pondichery in French India to plead for support for the restoration of the Nguyen. Finding none there, he went to Paris in 1786 to lobby on Nguyen Anh's behalf. Louis XVI ostensibly agreed to provide four ships, 1,650 men, and supplies in exchange for Nguyen Anh's promise to cede to France the port of Tourane (Da Nang) and the island of Poulo Condore. However, the local French authorities in India, under secret orders from the king, refused to supply the promised ships and men. Determined to see French military intervention in Vietnam, Pigneau de Behaine himself raised funds for two ships and supplies from among the French merchant community in India, hired deserters from the French navy to man them, and sailed back to Vietnam in 1789. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Quang Trung died in 1792, without leaving a successor strong enough to assume leadership of the country, and the usual factionalism ensued. By this time,Nguyen Anh and his supporters had won back much of the south from Nguyen Lu, the youngest and least capable of the Tay Son brothers. When Pigneau de Behaine returned to Vietnam in 1789, Nguyen Anh was in control of Gia Dinh. In the succeeding years, the bishop brought Nguyen Anh a steady flow of ships, arms, and European advisers, who supervised the building of forts, shipyards, cannon foundries and bomb factories, and instructed the Vietnamese in the manufacture and use of modern armaments. Nguyen's cause was also greatly aided by divisions within the Tay Son leadership, following the death of Quang Trung, and the inability of the new leaders to deal with the problems of famine and natural disasters that wracked the war-torn country. After a steady assault on the north, Nguyen Anh's forces took Phu Xuan in June 1801 and Thang Long a year later. *

In 1802 Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long, thus beginning the Nguyen dynasty. When he captured Hanoi, his victory was complete and, for the first time in two centuries, Vietnam was united, with Hué as its new capital city.

Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945)

The Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) came to power after the Tay Son Rebellion (1771-1802), a revolt lead by members of the Nguyen family (with a little French help) that eventually toppled the Trinh leaders in the north in 1802. The Nguyens made Hue the imperial city of Vietnam. A total of 13 Nguyen emperors lived in Hue between 1802 to 1945.

The first ruler of the Nguyen dynasty was Gia Long (Nguyen Ahn, reigned 1802-1819). He established the imperial city of Hue in 1804, brought scholars, poets, philosophers and artists from all over Vietnamese to Hue, tried to keep Vietnam isolated from Europe, brought back Chinese institutions, and began large scale public works programs that improved Vietnam's infrastructure with a great deal of hardship on the Vietnamese people in the form of burdensome taxes and forced labor.

Kings of Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945): 1) Gia Long (1802-1819); 2) Minh Menh (1820-1840); 3) Thieu Tri (1841-1847); 4) - Tu Duc (1848-1883); 5) Duc Duc (1883, 3 days); 5) Hiep Hoa (1883, 4 months); 5) Kien Phuc (1883-1884); 6) Ham Nghi (1884-1885); 7) Dong Khanh (1886-1888); 8) Thanh Thai (1889-1907); 9) Duy Tan (1907-1916); 10) - Khai Dinh (1916-1925); 11) Bao Dai (1926-1945). [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Gia Long and Minh Mang, the first kings of the Nguyen Dynasty, unified the country and set up a healthy state. In regards to the internal policy, the Nguyen kings cleared land for cultivation, encouraging irrigation. In regards to the external policy, kings Minh Mang and Thieu Tri sent merchant ships to trade with France, England, Indonesia, and India. The Nguyen kings ordered that books on national history and geography be written and printed important books which had a great impact on the national culture. Confucianism was becoming the basis of the Nguyen dynasty's conservative ideology. The Nguyen Dynasty imposed a closed-door policy and dispelled diplomatic missions who wanted to set up relations with Vietnam.

Nguyen Dynasty Rule

In June 1802, Nguyen Anh adopted the reign name Gia Long to express the unifying of the country--Gia from Gia Dinh (Saigon) and Long from Thang Long (Hanoi). As a symbol of this unity, Gia Long changed the name of the country from Dai Viet to Nam Viet. For the Chinese, however, this was too reminiscent of the wayward General Trieu Da. In conferring investiture on the new government, the Chinese inverted the name to Viet Nam, the first use of that name for the country. Acting as a typical counterrevolutionary government, the Gia Long regime harshly suppressed any forces opposing it or the interests of the bureaucracy and the landowners. In his drive for control and order, Gia Long adopted the Chinese bureaucratic model to a greater degree than any previous Vietnamese ruler. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Vietnamese bureaucrats were required to wear Chinese-style gowns and even adopt Chinese-style houses and sedan chairs. Vietnamese women, in turn, were compelled to wear Chinese-style trousers. Gia Long instituted a law code, which followed very closely the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1911) model. Under the Gia Long code, severe punishment was meted out for any form of resistance to the absolute power of the government. Buddhism, Taoism, and indigenous religions were forbidden under the Confucianist administration. Traditional Vietnamese laws and customs, such as the provisions of the Hong Duc law code protecting the rights and status of women, were swept away by the new code. *

The great Mandarin Road, used by couriers and scholar-officials as a link between Gia Dinh, Hue, and Thang Long, was started during this period in order to strengthen the control of the central government. Although chu nom was retained as the national script by Gia Long, his son and successor Minh Mang, who gained the throne upon his father's death in 1820, ordered a return to the use of Chinese ideographs. *

Vietnam's foreign relations were a drain on the central government during this period. Tributary missions were sent biennially to the Qing court in Beijing, bearing the requisite 600 pieces of silk, 200 pieces of cotton, 1,200 ounces of perfume, 600 ounces of aloes wood, 90 pounds of betel nuts, 4 elephant tusks, and 4 rhinoceros horns. Other missions to pay homage (also bearing presents) were sent every four years. At the same time, Vietnam endeavored to enforce tributary relations with Cambodia and Laos. In 1834, attempts to make Cambodia a Vietnamese province led to a Cambodian revolt and to Siamese intervention, with the result that a joint Vietnamese-Siamese protectorate was established over Cambodia in 1847. Other foreign adventures included Vietnamese support for a Laotian rebellion against Siamese overlordship in 1826-27. *


The new capital at Hue, two kilometers northeast of Phu Xuan, was patterned after the Chinese model in Beijing, complete with a Forbidden City, an Imperial City, and a Capital City. Fought over for centuries by local warlords, Hue became the imperial city of Vietnam in 1802, when Emperor Nguyen Gia Long established a new Vietnamese dynasty here and brought in scholars, poets, philosophers and artists from all over his kingdom. The city was set up out according to principles of feng shui (geomacy) in "the posture of an undulating dragon and sitting tiger" laid out on the river.

Since 1306, after the wedding of the princess Huyen Tran of the Tran Dynasty with Che Man, the Cham King, the territories of Chau O and Chau Ly (comprised of Quang Tri, Thua Thien - Hue and part of Northern Quang Nam today) took the name of Thuan Hoa. In the second half of the 15th century, under the reign of King Le Thanh Tong, the name of "Hue" appeared for the first time. In 1636, the residence of the Nguyen Lords was settled at Kim Long (Hue). In 1687, it was transferred to Phu Xuan – where is the Citadel today. Early in the 18th century, Phu Xuan became the political, economic and cultural center of the southern part of Vietnam. Then, from 1788 to 1801, it became the capital of the Tay Son Dynasty.

Hué served as the administrative center of southern Vietnam in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gia Long, first ruler of the Nguyen dynasty, made it the national capital of united Vietnam in 1802, a position that it held until 1945. It was selected because it is situated in the geographical center of the country and with easy access to the sea. The new capital was planned in accordance with ancient oriental philosophy in general and Vietnamese tradition in particular; it also respected the physical conditions of the site, especially the Perfume River and Ngu Binh Mountain (known as the Royal Screen). The relationship between the five cardinal points (centre, west, east, north, south), five natural elements (earth, metal, wood, water, fire), and five basic colours (yellow, white, blue, black, red) underlies the conception of the city, and is reflected in the names of some important features. The Perfume River, the main axis, divides the capital in two.

The detailed planning was entrusted to Nguyen Van Yen, commander of an army unit specializing in the construction of citadels. Four citadels or defended enclosures made up the city Kinh Thanh (Capital City), for official administrative buildings; Hoang Thanh (Imperial City) for Royal palaces and shrines; Tu Cam Thanh (Forbidden Purple City) for the Royal residences (the two last-named are known collectively as the Dai Noi or Inner City); and Tran Binh Dai, an additional defensive work in the northeast corner of the Capital City, designed to control movement on the river. A fifth fortress, Tran Hai Thanh (Coastal Bastion), was constructed a little later to protect the capital against assault from the sea.

Planning lasted two years, from 1803 to 1805, and it was not until 1832 that construction was complete. The new capital was much larger than its predecessor, Dong Trang, and encompassed several villages as well. Over 30,000 workmen and soldiers were involved in the work, which involved filling in two small tributaries of the Perfume River and digging new moats and canals. The fortress itself was modelled on the European style of Vauban, the first of its type in southeast Asia, but the complex suffered considerably as a result of military operations in 1885, 1947 and 1968.

From 1802 to 1945, Hue was the capital of unified Vietnam under the reign of the 13 Nguyen Kings. During these years, architectural works of a high cultural and historic value were built: the Citadel, especially the Imperial City (including 253 buildings), 7 Royal tomb compound of 9 kings of the Nguyen Dynasty, the Esplanade of Nam Giao, the Ho Quyen arena and the Hon Chen Temple.

See Hue Under Places

Organization of the Imperial City of Hue

The main enceinte of Hue, the Capital City, is square in plan, each side measuring 2,235 The defensive walls have six projecting bastions on each side and ten gates. The external defensive works comprise a berm, ditch, and glacis. The buildings inside the Capital City include various former ministerial buildings, the Royal College and the Hué Museum. The Inner City is rectangular in plan and defended by brick walls, supplemented by a moat and wide berm; there is a single entrance on each of the walls. Inside it is divided by walls into a number of zones - the Great Ceremonies Zone, the Worshiping Zone, the residential zone of the King's Mother and Grandmother, the storage and workshop zone, the garden and school zone for royal princes, as well as the Forbidden Purple City. The palaces within the Inner City are similar in style and design, set on a raised podium, with wooden trusses (usually ironwood), gilded and painted pillars and rafters, brick walls, and roofs of yellow- or blue-glazed cylindrical tiles. Roof edges are straight, and the decoration, both internally and externally, is abundant. Among the most important buildings are the Palace of Supreme Harmony, the royal reception hall; the Mieu Temple, the royal place of worship; the Queen Mother's Palace; and the Pavilion of Dazzling Benevolence.[Source: UNESCO]

At the heart of the complex is the Forbidden Purple City, surrounded by brick walls. There is a single gate in the front wall, reserved for the use of the king, and the other walls have several entrances, each with a specific purpose. Originally there were over 40 buildings within the walls, but most are now in ruins and only their foundations survive.

Outside the Capital City there are several associated monuments of importance. These include the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty to the south of the Perfume River. Other structures along both banks of the river are buildings related to the spiritual life of the dynasty, including the Temple of Literature, the Esplanade of the Sacrifice to the Sun and Earth, the Royal Arena and the Temple of the Roaring Elephant, and the Celestial Lady Pagoda.

Each tomb reflects its owner’s life and character: the magnificence of Gia Long’s tomb in the immense landscape of mountains and jungles represents the spirit of a general in war; the symmetry and majesty of Minh Mang’s tomb combiners both man-made and natural mountains and lakes and reveals the powerful will and solemn nature of a talented politician who was also an orderly poet; the peaceful and sombre qualities of Thieu Tri’s tomb reflects the innermost feelings of an outstanding poet who made few achievements in political life; the romance and poetic atmosphere of Tu Duc’s tomb evoke the elegant and subtle tendency of a poet rather than the strong characteristic of a politician.

Forbidden Purple City

Three emperors, beginning with Emperor Khai Dinh (1916-1925), lived in Hue’s Forbidden Purple City (a scaled down version of China's Forbidden City in Beijing) that was forbidden to everyone except for the emperor, the immediate royal family, their servants and concubines, and select imperial members of court.

The Forbidden Purple City of Hue (inside the Imperial City, behind the Throne Palace) was reserved for Emperor and his family. Known in Vietnamese as Tu Cam Thanh (Forbidden Citadel), it was established early under reign of Emperor Gia Long in 1804 but built mostly by Emperor Khai Dinh and occupied until the 1940s by his son, Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam.

Like its counterpart in Beijing, the Forbidden Purple City was forbidden to everyone except for the emperor, the immediate royal family, their servants and concubines, and select imperial members of court. Much of it was destroyed during wars with France and United States. A short stairway, a couple brass cannons, empty pedestals and a few floor tiles is virtually all the remains of the former palace. The library has been restored but buildings such as theater, the tea pavilion are little more than crumbling free-standing walls and foundations, which have been engulfed by vegetable and cassava fields and are home to a couple of wandering cows.

After Bao Dai abdicated, he, his wife and their five children left the Forbidden City and moved to Paris. Doan Huy, the Queen mother, wife of Khai Dinh and mother of Bao Dai, stayed in Hue after the abdication. She moved out of the Forbidden Purple City into a two-story stucco house. She stayed on in Hue to attend the tombs of her ancestors. "I am very sad, exceedingly sad. When I was young, Hue was so beautiful, She told an interviewer in 1974, Then it was ruined." She died in Hue at the age of 91 in 1980.

The compound is surrounded by brick walls: 3.72 meters high, 0.72 meters thick, about 1,230 meters in circumference. The front and back sides are 324 meters each while the left and right side are more than 290 meters. There were 50 buildings of different sizes and seven gates. Dai Cung Mon (the Great Palace Gate) is in the front side. It was reserved for the Kings. Important buildings include Can Chanh Palace (the office and place for daily working of the Emperors), Can Thanh (Emperor's Private Palace), Khon Thai Residence (Queen's Private Apartment), Duyet Thi Duong house (Royal Theater), Thuong Thien (the kitchen for the Kings' food) and Thai Binh Lau (King's reading room).

Life in the Nguyen Court

The emperors at Hue used to entertain themselves by watching tigers and elephants fight to the death in the imperial amphitheater. Their treasures included super rare orange pearls, a collection of “blue de Hué” porcelain, and jade chessboards. There were separate palaces for separate kinds of treasures. The symbols of the emperor were a golden seal and a ceremonial sword.

One former member of the Nguyen court told Smithsonian magazine, "Burma was famous for jade, Thailand was famous for ruby, and Vietnam was famous for pearl. Many, many people were assigned to dive for pearls, also to look for other tribute objects, such as ivory and sandlewood. And it was considered mandatory to bring any fine specimens to the emperor."

The emperors ate meals with 50 courses, each one prepared by a different chef who specialized only that dish. A chef that made steamed duck, for example, often made steamed duck everyday for 50 years. The dishes were served in succession.

The Vietnamese court was known for its savagery and intrigues. The emperors ordered their enemies to have their limbs hacked off and bones broken. Particularly hated enemies were slowly stripped of their skin with pincers. Gia Long disposed of one of his rival by having him tied to four elephants, which were each driven off in a different direction.

Nguyen Emperors

Emperor Gia Long (ruled 1802-1819) returned to Confucian values in an effort to consolidate his precarious position. Conservative elements of the elite appreciated the familiar sense of order, which had evaporated in the dizzying atmosphere of reform stirred up by the Tay Son Rebels. Gia Long’s son, Emperor Minh Mang, worked to strengthen the state. He was profoundly hostile to Catholicism, which he saw as a threat to Confucian traditions, and extended this antipathy to all Western influences.The early Nguyen emperors continued the expansionist policies of the preceding dynasties, pushing into Cambodia and westward into the mountains along a wide front. They seized huge areas of Lao territory and clashed with Thailand to pick apart the skeleton of the fractured Khmer empire.

Emperor was Minh Mang (ruled 1820 to 1840), Gia Long's son, was that the second Nguyen king. He was known as reformer and an isolationist. Educated as a traditional Chinese scholar, he created an assembly of mandarins that advised him on important matters and approved royal decrees. He also banned Christianity, and restricted missionaries who he feared he might "enter furtively, mix with the people and spread darkness in the kingdom." He had 300 wives and concubines, and fathered 142 children.

The forth Nguyen Emperor, Tu Duc (1848-1883), came to power after he murdered his older brother. He spent much of his time at a pleasure palace where he composed more than 4,000 poems, was entertained by dancing girls, made love with his 104 wives and drank tea made from dew condensed off lotus blossoms. Tu Doc's rule was marked by concessions to the French. Even with all those wives Tu Doc died with no heirs. On his death bed he was reportedly overtaken by guilt. A French chronicler wrote: "He pleaded before the phantom of a murdered brother he believed was standing before him."

Last Nguyens, See Emperors Under French Rule.

Burdens on Vietnamese Peasants and Peasant Uprisings Under Nguyen Rule

Taxes that had been reduced or abolished under the Tay Son were levied again under the restored Nguyen dynasty. These included taxes on mining, forestry, fisheries, crafts, and on various domestic products, such as salt, honey, and incense. Another heavy burden on the peasantry was the increased use of corvee labor to build not only roads, bridges, ports, and irrigation works but also palaces, fortresses, shipyards, and arsenals. All but the privileged classes were required to work on such projects at least sixty days a year, with no pay but a rice ration. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Military service was another burden on the peasantry; in some areas one out of every three men was required to serve in the Vietnamese Imperial Army. Land reforms instituted under the Tay Son were soon lost under the restored Nguyen dynasty, and the proportion of communal lands dwindled to less than 20 percent of the total. *

Peasant rebellion flared from time to time throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, fueled by government repression and such calamities as floods, droughts, epidemics, and famines. Minority groups, including the Tay-Nung, Muong, and Cham, were also in revolt. Although they were primarily peasant rebellions, some of these movements found support from, or were led by, disaffected scholars or some of the surviving pretenders to the Le throne. *

Expanding French Influence Under the Nguyen Dynasty

The most serious foreign policy problem for the Nguyen rulers, however, was dealing with France through the French traders, missionaries, diplomats, and naval personnel who came in increasing numbers to Vietnam. The influnce of missionaries was perceived as the most critical issue by the court and scholarofficials . The French Societe des Missions Etrangeres reported 450,000 Christian converts in Vietnam in 1841. The Vietnamese Christians were for the most part organized into villages that included all strata of society, from peasants to landowners. The Christian villages, with their own separate customs, schools, and hierarchy, as well as their disdain for Confucianism, were viewed by the government as breeding grounds for rebellion--and in fact they often were. The French presence did, however, enjoy some support at high levels. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Gia Long felt a special debt to Pigneau de Behaine and to his two chief French naval advisers, JeanBaptiste Chaigneau and Philippe Vannier, both of whom remained in the country until 1824. There were also members of the Vietnamese court who urged the monarchy to undertake a certain degree of westernization and reform in order to strengthen itself in the areas of administration, education, and defense. In the southern part of the country, Christians enjoyed the protection of Viceroy Le Van Duyet until his death in 1832. Soon thereafter the Nguyen government began a serious attempt to rid itself of French missionaries and their influence. A series of edicts forbade the practice of Christianity, forcing the Christian communities underground. An estimated ninety-five priests and members of the laity were executed by the Vietnamese during the following quarter of a century. *

In response, the missionaries stepped up their pressure on the French government to intervene militarily and to establish a French protectorate over Vietnam. During this period, French traders became interested in Vietnam once more, and French diplomats in China began to express the view that France was falling behind the rest of Europe in gaining a foothold in Asia. Commanders of a French naval squadron, permanently deployed in the South China Sea after 1841, also began to agitate for a stronger role in protecting the lives and interests of the missionaries. Given tacit approval by Paris, naval intervention grew steadily. *

In 1847 two French warships bombarded Tourane (Da Nang), destroying five Vietnamese ships and killing an estimated 10,000 Vietnamese. The purpose of the attack was to gain the release of a missionary, who had, in fact, already been released. In the following decade, persecution of missionaries continued under Emperor Tu Duc, who came to the throne in 1848. While the missionaries stepped up pressure on the government of Louis Napoleon (later Napoleon III), which was sympathetic to their cause, a Commission on Cochinchina made the convincing argument that France risked becoming a second-class power by not intervening. *

Image Sources:

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.

Last updated May 2014

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