Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gia Long: The Founder of the Nguyen Dynasty

Gia Long
The 19th century opened for Vietnam with a new dynasty in power – the Nguyens. From overlords to the ruling family of Vietnam, it began its journey to power from the persevering and determined Nguyen Phuc Anh, who later took the name – Gia Long.

The later Emperor Gia Long was born originally with the name Nguyen Phuc Anh in the capital of the Nguyen family, Phu Xuan or Hue, in 1762. Prince Nguyen Anh was the grandson of the head of the Nguyen Family – Nguyen Vo Vuong. His family ruled southern Vietnam as overlords and competed with other ruling families like the Le and the Trinh, who reigned in the Northern Vietnam with Thang Long or Hanoi as their center.

Prince Nguyen Anh witnessed the political disintegration of Vietnam. The three ruling families, as mentioned ruled Vietnam. Nguyens ruled the Southern and Central Vietnam while the Trinhs ruled Northern Vietnam and the Le family ruled as puppet dynasty. The Nguyens and the Trinhs ruled their regions on behalf of the Le. However, in the 1760’s, the country disintegrated to political turmoil. Nguyen Vo Vuong passed away in 1765. Following his death, troubled brewed over succession. In addition to the crisis over succession, about five years after Nguyen Vo Vuong’s death, peasants began to rise up against the oppressive Nguyen rule. The strongest came from three brothers who led a rebellion from the village of Tay Son. By 1777, the Nguyens faced obliteration with the Tay Son rebels as wells the invasion of the Trinh Lords, who wanted to expand their reach to southern Vietnam. On that year, Nguyen capital of Hue fell to the Trinhs and Tay Son rebels and most of the Nguyen family faced death in the hands of their opponents. But some Nguyens like the young 15 year old Prince Nguyen Anh escaped to their southern bastion of Gia Dinh or Saigon. For a year, Prince Nguyen Anh and other remaining Nguyens sought refuge in the city until it fell too in the hands of the Tay Son. After the fall of Saigon, remaining Nguyens got killed except Nguyen Anh who escaped to the Ha Tien in the most southern tip of Vietnam.

Between 1779 up to 1783, Nguyen Anh and his supporter attempted to reclaim Southern Vietnam, however, it failed. He then once again became a refugee and sought refuge to the Siamese controlled island of Phu Quoc. He began to look for allies in his quest to retake Southern Vietnam. He asked the Dutch in Batavia and Malay Sultans for support but to a no avail. He then asked the new Siamese King, Rama I, for help. King Rama I, keen in extending his influence to Vietnam, agreed to support Nguyen Anh militarily by sending 20,000 soldiers and 3,000 ships to help the Vietnamese Prince. However, Rama I's gamble to Nguyen Anh became a misadventure and even a disaster when the Siamese forces fell to an ambush in 1785 near My Tho in Southern Vietnam. The ambush nearly annihilated the Siamese forces leaving only 2,000 out of the 20,000 alive.

After the defeat of the Siamese, he then began to look into the possibility of an alliance with the French. Pigneau de Behaine, a French Bishop and Vicar of Cochinchina, met Prince Nguyen Anh in 1777. With the failure of the Siamese expeditionary force, he then look to France for hope. Nguyen Anh sent Bishop Behaine to the French enclave of Pondicherry in India to negotiate the alliance with France. In addition, Nguyen Anh sent his son, Nguyen Canh, as his representative and accompanied Bishop Behaine. From Pondicherry, Behaine and Nguyen Canh needed to gain stronger support from France by going to the capital itself – the Palace of Versailles - and to the French King, Louis XVI.

In 1787, Behaine and Nguyen Canh arrived in the Palace of Versailles. Prince Nguyen Canh became a sensation in the majestic and opulent royal court. Many of the French aristocrat saw the orient as an exotic place that differs from their culture and lifestyle. Seeing Prince Nguyen Canh, wearing a more Indian like clothing, became a hot topic in the court of King Louis XVI of France. The visit culminated with the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles on November 28, 1787. French foreign minister promised a massive military support with 1650 troops plus warships in exchange for control over Tourane or Da Nang and Con Son Island. However, the French army would only be provided by and approved by the Governor of Pondicherry, Thomas Conway. However, in 1788, when they returned to Pondicherry, the Governor, who also received a letter from Versailles ordering to reject the sending of the troops, refused to send French troops. In addition to that, France wouldn't be able to commit again to Vietnam because of the French Revolution.

Behaine refused to abandon Nguyen Anh and decided to create a mercenary army to suffice. Behaine managed to hire 100 men that would help in training of an army and a navy, as well as in artillery and fortification. Indeed, the Behaine’s army brought an advantage to Nguyen Anh’s Army. French advisers trained Nguyen Anh’s troops with modern tactics. They also helped in designing fortifications based on the designs of the famed French engineer Marshal Sebastian Vauban. They highly improved Nugyen Anh’s navy by making new warships designed with European and Chinese elements. With Bishop Behaine's army, the Nguyen force became a reliable and a formidable force.

On 1788, Nguyen Anh and his forces began the reconquest of Vietnam. At the time Nguyen Anh started his quest to retake Vietnam, the Tay Son unified Vietnam. In 1787, the Tay Son turned against the Trinh Lords and the Le Dynasty. The Trinh and the Le failed to stop the Tay Son rebels, who after their victory established their own dynasty – the Tay Son Dynasty. Nguyen navy secured the coastlines of southern Vietnam and the army succeeded in capturing Saigon on September of 1788. He then expanded his territory across southern Vietnam and gained the control of the significant rice supply of all Vietnam. He then constructed a citadel in Saigon based on the star design of French fortresses by Vauban. From Southern Vietnam, Nguyen Anh began to push northwards.

The Nguyen Anh campaigned for a decade. He had developed a good management skills during this campaign. In order to keep his army, his forces worked the fields from January to June and when the monsoons came and rice harvest completed in June, his army launch attacks against the Tay Son Dynasty, until December. Thus, Nguyen Anh’s campaign became known as the Monsoon Wars. In July 1799, after decades of constant bombardment and harassment by the Nguyen navy, Nguyen Anh captured the Tay Son capital of Qui Nhon. His victories continued and in two years, he retook the capital of the Nguyen Family – Hue. And by the following year, the major city of Northern Vietnam, Hanoi, fell in July 1802. Nguyen Anh captured and executed the last Tay Son emperor. It marked the end of the Tay Son Dynasty and the beginning of a new.

Although the Tay Son dynasty ended on July, in June 1802, Nguyen Anh already established the Nguyen Dynasty and declared his rule all over Vietnam. 

Following his military campaigns, he then turned to the affair of the recovery of Vietnam from the ashes of war and consolidating his rule. When Nguyen Anh took power, he displayed huge veneration towards China. In order to secure his legitimacy as the new ruler of Vietnam, he sent envoys to Beijing to gain recognition or investiture for him and a new name for his Kingdom. China gave him recognition as the ruler of Viet Nam or the Pacified South, a name that he and his officials disliked. In 1806, after receiving the recognition of China, he crowned himself the Emperor of Vietnam, choosing Gia Long, a combination of Gia from Gia Dinh of Saigon in the south and Long from Thang Long of Hanoi in the north, symbolizing the unification of Northern and Southern Vietnam. He then chose the city of Hue as the center of his new Kingdom.

In 1804, when he ordered the construction of a new capital in Hue, he insisted that it emulates the design of the Chinese capital Beijing, complete with the capital city, imperial city, and a Forbidden City. In a modest scale, it did came true. Until his demise in 1820, Gia Long's laborers and both Vietnamese and Chinese artisans worked to complete the city. The result truly resembled that of Beijing. They divided the city into three parts: the Kinh-Thanh or the Capital City; Hoang-Thanh or the Imperial Enclosure; and Tit-Cam-Thanh or the the so-called Forbidden Purple Palace. At the heart of the Forbidden Purple Palace laid the main palace called Thai Hoa or the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Following the recognition of his reign and the construction of his majestic capital, Gia Long began to take on the issue of setting up his absolute government. Initially, he relied upon his military officials and old Le dynasty officials to serve as public officials. Although he continued to set up a centralized and absolute government, he reinstated the overlord system that prevailed during his childhood. To the north of Boc Thanh, he placed his trusted general Nguyen Van Thanh to administer the region, and to the south he placed Le Van Duyet. And in order to gain the loyalty of the officials as well as to avoid corruption and extortion within the government, Gia Long issued monthly salaries for officials.

Many of Gia long’s administrative policy had Chinese influence. For example, he copied the idea of civil service examinations that took place for every 6 years. It became a way for Gia Long to recruit scholar and civilian officials to replace military ones. Also, he placed emphasis on Confucian ideas in the education system. Even in the land distribution, Confucian social status became a basis when the government launched a massive land survey in 1805, which became also the guide for taxation. Moreover, from the Vietnamese lettering called Chu Nom, Gia Long made Chinese lettering system as the official writing system of Vietnam. But the institution of the Gia Long Code in 1812 that replaced the Le Dynasty Hong Doc Code embodied Gia Long’s emulation of the Chinese. The Qing Dynasty Laws inspired the creation of the Gia Long Code that served as the administrative as well as penal code of Vietnam.

Other than administrative, Gia Long also spent time in rebuilding the country. He build canals, granaries, dams, as well as roads. Gia Long rebuild also the famous Mandarin Road that connected Southern China, traversing Vietnam, ending in Cambodia.

Under Gia Long, Vietnam also began to play a role in the region by competing with the Siam for Cambodia. Siam had dominated Cambodia for generations. However, in 1813, Cambodian King Ang Chan sought the aid of Gia Long in exchange for his loyalty in order to combat his Siamese backed rival to the throne. Gia Long responded positively by dispatching 13,000 troops to defend Ang Chan. The event marked the start of the competition of Siam and Vietnam for influence and control over the political affairs in Cambodia.

On the other, Gia Long also had to handle the issue of the Europeans. Gia Long owed his throne to the French in particular. In 1799, Bishop Pigneau de Behaine passed away. Nevertheless, Gia Long showed some gratitude towards the Europeans. During his reign he allowed the missionaries to continue their missions. Emperor wanted and welcomed the learning from the west, however, he mistrusted them. He knew that anytime, any western countries could turn against Vietnam and subdue them.

On February 3, 1820, Emperor Gia Long passed away at the age of 58. He left his throne to his second son, Chi Dam, after his first son Nguyen Canh passed away in 1801. Even as he passed away, Gia Long warned his successor not to trust the westerners and remain cautious of them. Surely enough, when Prince Dam ascended to the throne as Emperor Minh Mang, he began a discriminating policy against the Europeans and the missionaries.

Emperor Gia Long sowed the seeds of future Vietnam. He established the last ruling family of Vietnam. Under his reign, he set up an orthodox Confucian tradition in his Kingdom, which later became problem for its stringency and purist views that Europeans exploited to their advantage. His contact with the French became a new chapter in the relation between the two countries. He began with cooperation but later mistrusted them. His successors inherited this mistrust and even acted it out. But in the positive note, Gia Long’s reign saw the start of 50 years of stable and united Vietnamese Kingdom. He ended almost 40 years of political chaos and in the process, set up the Nguyen Dynasty that led Vietnam’s monarchy until its abolition in 1945.

See also:

Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Andaya, A History of Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1400 - 1830, New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Cecil Currey, "Nguyen Phuc Anh" in The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Spencer Tucker (ed.), Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011.

Justin Corfield, The History of Vietnam, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Nguyen The Anh, "Nguyen Anh (Gia Long)" in Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclpedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor, v. 1., Santa Barbara: California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2004.

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