Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Nguyen Dynasty - The Last Ruling Family of Vietnam

Gia Long
They once ruled Vietnam. They were in fact, the last family to rule it as a monarchy. They faced constant threats from rivals at home and later, from abroad. It took toils in order to win and to establish their rule. It took also defiance to survive in a changing world. And it took a communist icon in order to remove them. The Nguyen Dynasty was last ruling monarchial family.

The Nguyen Dynasty held power for more than a decade. It began with the reign of Emperor Gia Long in the early 19th century. It faced threats during the middle of the same century. But by 1880’s, Nguyen fell prey and became puppets of the French. They role as puppets smeared their reputation and by 1945, through the decision of the largest independence movement of that time, the Nguyen Emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated.

Ruling for almost a century, not to mention, during the rise of colonialism, colonialism itself, and the formation of modern Vietnam, How did the Nguyen’s played a role in Vietnam’s History? How the Dynasty began? How did it weakened? Finally, how did this dynasty ended?

The Imperial Dynasty of the Nguyen traced their origins from the 17th century. During that time, the Nguyens and the Trinhs divided the nation. They both ruled under the name of the powerless Le Kings. The Trinhs ruled the north while the Nguyens ruled the south with their capital at Phu Xuan (later called Hue). The two families competed for power and domination of whole Vietnam.

In the 18th century, however, the Nguyen and the Trinh Lords faced a new player in Vietnam. The Tay Son Rebellion erupted. It weakened the authority and control of the Nguyens in 1771. In 1775, with the Tay Son Rebellion ravaging, the Trinh Lords took advantage the waning power of the Nguyens and invaded their territory. Their invasion led to the fall of the Nguyen capital Hue to their hands. The Trinh and the Tay Son then decided to work together against the Nguyens. Eventually, the Trinh decided to withdraw back to the North. But the Nguyens did not lose all of its dominions. The province of Gia Dinh remained under its control with the center located in a city also called Gia Dinh (later known as Saigon and present day Ho Chi Minh). The Nguyens made it their bastion. But in 1776, the Tay Son Rebels attack the province successfully and the city of Gia Dinh fell. Many of the Nguyens died. A surviving Nguyen Prince, named Nguyen Phuc Ahn escaped to neighboring Cambodia. In 1783, Nguyen Anh attempted to retake Southern Vietnam from the Tay Son Rebels. However, it failed tremendously and he fled to the island of Phu Quoc. A year later, King Rama I, wanted to expand his influence to Vietnam, decided to support Nguyen Anh. In 1785, Nguyen Anh along with a huge Siamese expeditionary forced attacked the Mekong Delta. However, the Tay Son inflicted a humiliating defeat to Nguyen Anh and the Siamese. The defeat made Nguyen Anh to flee to Siam. Although defeated, Nguyen Anh never lose hope in recovering his family’s honor, lands, and power.

Meanwhile, during the time when Nguyen plotted military campaigns against the Tay Son, he also became friends with some French missionaries. Pigneau de Behaine became one of Nguyen Anh’s closest associates. De Behaine and other missionaries soon became a player in Nguyen Anh’s re-conquest of Vietnam. The French missionaries also had a displeasure with the Tay Son because the rebels showed dislike towards Christians and discriminated and persecuted them. Hence, they decided to support Nguyen Anh. These missionaries convinced Nguyen Anh to seek help from France. In the late 1770’s, he made a visit to France personally. He went to the Palace of Versailles and had an audience with King Louis XVI himself. The French and the Nguyen forged an agreement where France would provide an army to the Vietnamese Prince in exchange of control over two Vietnamese ports. However, it never materialized. The French Revolution erupted ending the French monarchy and its commitments to Prince Nguyen Anh.

Nevertheless, the French missionaries made ways to raise an army for Nguyen Anh. In the early 1790’s, the French missionaries managed to form mercenary army in India. This army then landed in Vietnam and helped Nguyen Anh in achieving his desire. By the time Nguyen Anh returned to Vietnam in early 1800’s, the Tay Son had defeated the Trinh Lords, dethroned the Le Kings, and ruled a unified Vietnam. Thus, if Nguyen Anh defeated the Tay Son, he would also take the whole of Vietnam. In 1802, Nguyen, along with his mercenary army, landed in Vietnam. On June 1, 1802, he succeeded in defeating the Tay Son. As a result, he finally achieved his long time quest.

Afterwards, he established the new Nguyen Dynasty. He crowned himself Emperor. And in the process, he wanted to show the unification of Vietnam. He took the reign name of Gia Long. Gia from the southern capital of Gia Dinh and Long from the northern capital of Thang Long. To complete his display of unity, he moved the capital back to his family’s traditional capital in the middle of Vietnam – the city of Hue. There, he built a palace complex similar to that of China’s Forbidden City. As a reward for his missionary supporters, he relaxed the control over the evangelical mission of Western missionaries. For the following years, Gia Long consolidated the power of the newly established Nguyen Dynasty until he passed away in 1820.

After the deceased Gia Long, succession of Emperor continued to consolidate and even expands the power and control of the Dynasty. Gia Long’s successor, Minh Mang, launched a local administration reform and competed with Siam for control over Cambodia. His successor, Thieu Tri, attempted to modernize the country but failed due to stringent opposition from conservative Confucian elements within the court. Under both Emperors, the state began to restrict the activities of Christian missionaries, especially the French. The condition became worse to the point that Vietnamese authorities began to launch persecution campaigns against the Christians, both foreigners and Vietnamese. The cause of the shift in policy towards the Christians lay in the fact that they saw them as an initial waves leading to a foreign invasion. They saw them threatening the religious, cultural, and social balance of Vietnam.

Eventually, the issue of Christian missionaries fell to the hands of Emperor Tu Duc. During his reign, persecution of the Christian continued. However, the missionaries began to fight back. The missionaries exploited the fact that the French wanted colonies in the east. They urged the French government to intervene in Vietnam and with the concluding idea to annex the whole country. Later on, the French government agreed and from 1850’s to 1880’s, they carefully and slowly absorbed the whole of Vietnam along with Cambodia, and, in the 1890’s, Laos. These three countries eventually formed the French colony of Indochina. While in the process of conquest, the Nguyen’s power weakened to the point that by 1880’s they only became figureheads for the French colonial administrations. After Tu Duc, successive emperors served as puppet rulers.

In 1925, a new young Prince became Emperor. Emperor Bao Dai ascended to the throne of Vietnam. However, the French kept him in France during the first seven years of his reign. He attempted to revive the Emperor’s power but failed. This failure made him realize that he was only a puppet and decided to live his life in the most luxurious way. However, his hope of regaining power never died.

In 1945, World War II reached Vietnam. With the fall of France in Europe, the Japanese invaded Indochina, in the process, Vietnam. Japan invaded Asian countries in the name of liberation from western control. They promised independence to the countries that fell to them. And in Vietnam, they saw Emperor Bao Dai to show an illusion of independence and sovereignty. Emperor Bao Dai, in turn, collaborated with the Japanese in hope of regaining power and control. But, from a French puppet, he became the Japanese’s figurehead.

At the end of World War II, a new political force emerged that promoted the independence of Vietnam – Viet Minh. The Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, wielded vast popular support. They had more support than the Bao Dai Emperor, whom many Vietnamese saw as a collaborator of the French and the brutal Japanese. In 1945, the Viet Minh forced the abdication of the Bao Dai Emperor. The Emperor agreed. With just one quick swoop, the century old Nguyen Dynasty ended.

The Nguyen Dynasty helped in the formation of modern Vietnam. In a way that it consolidated Vietnam into a unified Empire. Its administrative system helped to keep the kingdom united. Controversially, some and the Nguyens claimed, without them, the French might had inflicted harsher treatment of the Vietnamese people during the colonial times. But the Nguyens are better known as the last monarchical dynasty of Vietnam.
Corfield, J. The History of Vietnam. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Tucker, S. (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011.

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