Saturday, April 11, 2015

Minh Mang: The Rise of Confucianism in Nguyen Vietnam

Minh Mang
The Nguyen Dynasty had ruled a unified Vietnam for two decades by 1820. Its founder, Gia Long passed away. His son then ascended to the throne as Emperor Minh Mang. Under his rule, Vietnam plunged into orthodox Confucianism and towards centralization and conquest.

Emperor Minh Mang ruled as the second Nguyen Emperor. Born with the name Nguyen Phuoc Dom (Dam) in 1791, he was the son of Prince Nguyen Anh who later became Emperor Gia Long. He had an eldest brother, but he died in the early 1800’s, making him next in line to the throne. In 1816, it became official when he received the title of Crown Prince, hence heir to his father Gia Long.

Gia Long preferred Prince Nguyen Phuoc Dom to succeed him as Emperor. Unlike his eldest son Nguyen Canh, Phuoc Dom did not fell to the influence of the French or he did not had any strong connections with the French or westerners. Gia Long treated the westerners with courteousness but also felt suspicious about them as well. The First Emperor owed the French for his crown and rule. Hence, he allowed western missionaries to conduct their evangelization of Christian faith but then he began to mistrust them. Gia Long saw them as a threat to the dynasty and to the Vietnamese tradition and culture. This he knew why Prince Phuoc Dom would be a good choice as the next Emperor because he did not had any previous connections with the foreigners and thus he could act against them.

In 1820, after two decade reign, Emperor Gia Long passed away and Phuoc Dom ascended to the throne with the name Minh Mang.

Upon taking the throne, he enacted reforms in the administration of the country.  He wanted to centralize the government further. And he began with abolition of the positions of Tong Tran Bac Thanh (Governor of the North) and Tong Tran Gia Dinh Thanh (Governor of the South) that his father had created. He replaced it by creating 31 provinces of tinh. Each tinh had a governor of tong duc that the Emperor appointed. A governor served as long as the Emperor’s desires.  In the top levels of the government, he established the Noi Cac Vien (Grand Secretariat) in 1829 and followed it with the establishment of the Co Mat Vien (Privy Council) in 1837. The Bureaucracy of the Mandarins or officials faced reorganization and Minh Mang limited them to nine ranks.

Minh Mang also made changes in the training and recruitment of officials. Civil service exams became frequent and wide. From being held only few in six years and only in regional level, during Minh Mang’s reign, aspiring official took their exams in regional levels (Thi Huong), Capital Level (Thi Hoi), and in the palace of Hue itself (Thi Dinh). The Emperor also made improvements to the national college or the Quoc Tu Giam. He made the college to focus more in Confucian ideals that became a base for the strong Confucian fundamentalism within Minh Mang’s court.

But the Confucianism did not only become accessible to scholars. Minh Mang wanted to promote Confucianism throughout his domain. He wrote the Huan Dich Thap Dieu or the Ten Moral Maxims based on Confucian principle and proliferated it throughout the country.

Following the relationship between the ruler and his subjects in Confucianism, Minh Mang took good care of his mostly peasant subjects. He viewed himself as the father and his subjects as his sons. In addition, a ruler must serve his subjects benevolently in order to keep harmony between the two. Indeed, he did this by improving Vietnam’s agriculture. He provided relief for peasants during times of bad harvest. In 1831, he gave land titles on idle lands for cultivation. As additional incentives, he lowered land taxes on new farmlands and provided the needed materials like buffaloes and farming tools.

On the other hand, Minh Mang’s suspicion and great dedication to Confucianism resulted to a strained relation with the Christians and foreigners.  His agitation towards foreigners made his western advisers leave the country by 1824. In 1825, his great adherence to Confucianism led to his attempt to ban Catholicism and ordered a halt in the activities of missionaries. However, his orders did not stopped their activities and so he decided to take though actions in the 1830’s. From 1833 to 1838, he began the execution of Vietnamese Christians and resulted to the death of nine French and Spanish missionaries.

His views against the Christians also reflected in his dealings with Westerners. He developed a paranoia towards them and even their technology. His reign avoided the establishment of permanent missions by Westerners. On January of 1833, Edmund Roberts, envoy sent by President Andrew Jackson to the east, arrived in Vietnam aboard the ship the Peacock. His request for an audience with Minh Mang failed to materialize because of cultural and language barriers. In dismay with the differences, Roberts left Vietnam. Although skeptical of the westerners, Minh Mang allowed trade with other countries including westerners, like the Dutch in Indonesia, Americans, and British in Malaya Peninsula.

Although conservative in the face of westerners, he showed ruthlessness and aggression towards his neighbors, in particular, Laos and Cambodia. His father, Emperor Gia Long had challenged Siam’s domination of the kingdom. And with his reign, Vietnam launched a full scale invasion of Cambodia and waged a military confrontation with the Siamese. Minh Mang had great territorial ambitions. In fact his ambition became visible when in 1838 he changed the name from Dai Viet or the Great Viets to Dai Nam or Great South, implying that his rule doesn’t only encompassed Vietnam and the Vietnamese people but a larger territory. The involvement of Vietnam in the hinterlands of mainland Southeast Asia started in 1827 up to 1831. In 1827, Siamese forces invaded Laos because it deemed the area as part of its sphere of influence. But Vietnam wanted to challenge the claim and she invaded the country too, bringing the two Kingdoms in confrontation over Laos. In 1833, it escalated and became further complicated.

Minh Mang had many revolts during his reign. In 1826, he faced a rebellion in the north under Phan Ba Vanh and another in 1833 under Nong Van Van. But no more so great as the rebellion in the south.

In South Vietnam, the governor and trusted General of Emperor Gia Long, Le Van Duyet passed away. Minh Mang despised Le Van Duyet for his moderate stand towards the westerners. And so, after Le’s demise, he sentenced him posthumously guilty of treason. Le’s son, Le Van Khoi then began a revolt against Minh Mang to avenge his father’s disgrace. Le did not had any problem from gaining support. Many in the south also had their grievances. Chinese merchants, Champs, and Khmers, hated the policy of assimilation that Minh Mang began. They did not like the imposition of rigid Vietnamese Confucian culture to their lives and wanted to retain their cultural identity. Christian missionaries and Vietnamese, who had sought refuge in the south because of Le Van Duyet, also support Le Van Khoi’s revolt. In addition to minority support, Le Van Khoi gained also the support of the Siamese under King Rama II.

Rama II invaded Cambodia in support of Le Van Khoi as well as strengthen his control over the weak kingdom. Rama II viewed that the disturbance in southern Vietnam was an opportunity to kick out Vietnamese intervention in Cambodian affairs. Under the command of Chaophraya Bodin, Siamese forces overran Cambodia and attempted to link up with Le Van Khoi in southern Vietnam. By 1834, Siamese forces invaded Vietnam.

But Minh Mang, however, launched a counter attacked. He sent troops to southern Vietnam to quell Le’s rebellion and halt the Siamese advance. His generals succeeded in crushing Le’s revolt. In addition, they repelled Bodin’s forces and pushed them back and captured the capital of Phnom Penh. After the fall of Phnom Penh, Minh Mang made his conquest official by declaring it as a province of Vietnam with the name Tran Tay Thanh with Truong Minh Giang as its governor. Governor Truong Minh Giang received instructions to use Cambodian officials to govern the new province. However, to his disappointment, the Cambodian officials had more interest in corruption and receiving brides that administering the province. In addition, Minh Mang also installed his own ruler to the Khmer throne – Queen Mei/Mey.
Minh Mang attempted to get a hold of Cambodia. Once again, he launched a policy of assimilation, sending officials to teach Vietnamese Confucianism and culture. Economically, he wanted them assimilated to. He ordered the survey of Cambodia’s farmlands, irrigation, rainfall, etc. But his efforts failed to stop the chaos that followed the 1834 invasion. Rebellions of Cambodian continued at a tremendous rate.

Much of the burden of the conflict in Cambodia fell to the provinces in southern Vietnam. Mobilization of armies led to huge cost of rice, money, and manpower. Rice had to be taken from peasants in the south. In 1836, Minh Mang ordered a massive land survey of the south as a precondition for increasing land taxes. After the same year, most of the 21,000 men that Vietnam sent to Cambodia came from southern Vietnam. Hence, it was not a surprise that three or more rebellions erupted in the southern Vietnam before Minh Mang’s reign ended.

In 1840, the war escalated once more. In 1840, Chaophraya Bodin launched another invasion of Cambodia. Minh Mang then ordered the evacuation of Queen Mei and other members of the Cambodian family to Saigon. Bodin continued to press on and in the process, he captured thousands of Vietnamese troops. Many of the captured faced deportation back to Siam.

In January 11, 1841, Emperor Minh Mang passed away. He left the kingdom as an isolationist, expansionist, and also, highly conservative. His high regards to the Confucianism led to his bad and good decisions. Much of his legacy fell to his successor and son, Emperor Thieu Tri, who faced the momentous task of facing the greatest threat to Nguyen power – French Imperialism.

See also:

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

Miller, Robert. The United States and Vietnam, 1787 - 1941. Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1990.

Moses, Dirk (ed.). Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History. Berghahn Books, 2008.

Pham Cao Duong, "Minh Mang" in The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by Spencer Tucker. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011.

Phan, Peter. "Christianity of Indochina." in Cammbridge History of Christianity: Volume 8, world Christianities, 1815 - 1914. Edited by Sheridan Gilley & Brian Stanley. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Reid, Anthony. A Hsitory of Southeast Asia. Chichester, West Sussex: John wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2015.

Sharrock, Peter & Vu Hong Lien. A Hsitory of Vietnam. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2014.

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