The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 3

The myth of Le Loi, like the Arthurian legend of Excalibur, depicts him as a simple fisherman who one day cast his net into a lake, only to bring up a magic sword that made him superhuman. In reality, he was a wealthy landowner from Thanh Hoa province who rebelled against the Chinese after having served them. “Every man on earth,” he said, “ought to accomplish some great enterprise so that he leaves the sweet scent of his name to later generations. How, then, could he willingly be the slave of foreigners?”
In 1418, proclaiming himself the Prince of Pacification, Le Loi raised the banner of revolt. He withdrew to the mountains near his home and rallied relatives, friends, villagers and even local brigands to his cause, teaching them the guerrilla tactics that had worked for Tran Hung Dao, who had vanquished the Mongols. The Chinese became increasingly insecure as the insurrection spread. They clung to the towns, venturing out only by day, their big battalions sticking to the roads. Adopting a defense that would fail the French five centuries later, they built fortified towers along main routes. Gradually, as the balance of forces tilted his way, Le Loi struck at the Chinese directly, deploying platoons of elephants against their horse cavalry. His ad¬viser, the poet Nguyen Trai, set down the Vietnamese strategy in an essay that shows remarkable similarities to the twentieth-century Communist doctrine of insurgency. Subordinate military action to the political and moral struggle, it stated; “Better to conquer hearts than citadels.”
In 1426, fighting in rain and mud, the Vietnamese finally routed the Chinese on a field at Tot Dong, west of Hanoi. In an accord signed two years later, the Chinese recognized Vietnam’s independence and Le Loi resumed the tributary tie to China as insurance. He generously furnished the Chinese with five hundred junks and thousands of horses to carry them home, and apart from a last abortive attempt in 1788, China never again launched a full-scale assault against Vietnam. Ngu-yen Trai celebrated the victory with a poem of hope:
Henceforth our country is safe.
Our mountains and rivers begin life afresh.
Peace follows war as day follows night.
We have purged our shame for a thousand centuries,
We have regained tranquillity for ten thousand generations.
Le Loi established his capital at Hanoi, calling the city Dong Kinh— hence the name Tonkin, northern Vietnam. He distributed land to poor peasants and rewarded loyal nobles with big estates, and he set up agencies to construct dikes, dams, irrigation systems and other projects designed to increase agricultural production, which had been crippled by years of war. But one of his successors, Le Thanh Tong, who ascended to the throne in 1460 and ruled for thirty-eight years, lifted Vietnam into its golden age.
The political and bureaucratic structure of Le Thanh Tong’s admin¬istration in the fifteenth century served Vietnam until its disruption by the French four hundred years later. Modeled along Confucian lines, it consisted of six ministries that shaped policy, each paralleled by a department to implement decisions. A communications network passed decrees to thirteen provincial headquarters, which in turn trans¬mitted them through district offices down to some eight thousand communes, each governed by the equivalent of a mayor. This complex hierarchy was contrived to assure both central authority and local flexibility, and a corps of inspectors toured the country regularly to monitor the civil service—and, in theory at least, listen to the com¬plaints of the people.
Le Thanh Tong also created a standing army of nearly two hundred thousand men, organized in units assigned to five military regions. A nationwide census, carried out every three years, was used to draft conscripts. Qualified youths could become officers by passing com¬petitive examinations, which Le Thanh Tong himself devised. Fore¬shadowing yet another Communist practice, he formed colonies of soldiers to farm virgin areas.
A scholar in the great Confucian tradition, Le Thanh Tong devoted much of his energy to the advancement of learning. He expanded the national university to include a new library and lecture halls, and he perfected examinations through which students could become man¬darins, whose ranks were rigorously classified into nine grades, de¬pending on their experience and performance. Encouraging literature, he organized poetry contests in which candidates improvised rhymes in response to his own verses. He patronized the publication of math¬ematical and scientific treatises, anthologies of legends and a journal of his own reign. In addition, he directed provincial officials to prepare charts that featured, along with geographical details, the history and folklore of their localities, and he issued the first complete map of Vietnam.
His major achievement was a comprehensive and unusually liberal legal code. Its provisions protected citizens against abuse by mandar¬ins, and entitled women to possess property, share inheritances and repudiate their husbands under certain conditions. But, consistent with Confucian concepts, it prescribed severe punishment for crimes that threatened order and stability and, by implication, the emperor’s di¬vine authority. Disobedience to a teacher or an official could be chas-tised by banishment—a severe sentence that prevented exiled convicts from worshiping at the graves of their ancestors. Strangulation, one of the penalties for treason or rebellion, was considered preferable to decapitation or slow dismemberment, since it left the body intact to join the spirit in the afterlife.
Actors and slaves were virtual outcasts under the code. Male actors could not become mandarins, nor could actresses marry aristocrats. Slaves, either foreign captives or the offspring of criminals condemned to suffer for the guilt of their parents, could be sold, mortgaged or even put to death for showing disrespect toward their masters. But, in a progressive innovation, the former practice of branding slaves on the face was repealed.
The law’s cruel clauses were no harsher than those then being enforced on the scaffolds and in the torture chambers of Europe. They also expressed the constant apprehensions of the Vietnamese emperor, who, his sacred mandate notwithstanding, sat uneasily on a throne that rebels, conspirators and even his own family could topple over¬night. Indeed, court intrigues, regional revolts and other strife con¬tinually menaced Le Thanh Tong’s heirs, whose dynasty ruled only nominally after his death.

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