Wednesday, August 5, 2015
Monarch Profile: Emperor Minh Mang of Vietnam
Described as a gentle man, almost feminine in his delicate grace and manners, Emperor Minh Mang was, nonetheless, a strong ruler. He refused all French trade agreements, rebuffed the first American visit to Vietnam and would not allow anyone to do business with his empire who did not conform to their laws and customs. The westerners, who he referred to as barbarians, were to be shunned. Although much is usually made of his anti-Christian policies, he was not exactly lenient when it came to East Asian religions like Daoism or Buddhism. He believed in Confucianism and ancestor worship and thought that religious diversity could only be a weakness. Moreover, these other religions tended to be egalitarian to an extent, disregarding or even denying the divine authority of the Emperor as the “Son of Heaven” and so they were suspect in their loyalty. Christianity, being foreign and also insisting that even the Emperor was a sinner who would have to accept Christ to attain eternal life, was naturally singled out for particular scrutiny. When revolts against the dynasty sprang up, whether instigated because of foreign meddling or simply corrupt local mandarins, Minh Mang was convinced that the Catholics were behind it all and that the “perverse religion of the Europeans” must be to blame.
Most Vietnamese, after all, were not Christians and had no contact with the religion. The Emperor was not consumed by the subject and generally regarded the westerners, who he considered “barbarians” to be unworthy of much consideration. He was most interested in traditional cultural pursuits. He was a very skilled writer and poet, writing the poem that would be used to name future generations in keeping with their place in the line of succession to the throne. And there were many of them. Emperor Minh Mang reputedly had a huge number of concubines and fathered 142 children. One wonders when the man found time to rule a country. He was also a great builder and left behind many beautiful monuments that are today cultural treasures of Vietnam such as the Mieu Temple build in 1821 which honors ten of the Nguyen emperors and his magnificent tomb complex which attracts many visitors to this day. It was also he who ordered the casting of the nine large urns outside the Hien Lam Pavilion and Mieu Temple which had great spiritual significance. His motto as emperor was to “conform to the constant movement of Heaven” and this was his guiding principle. There was a cosmic order that Emperor Ming Mang wanted his country to be in harmony with and he sought to encourage that in all instances while rooting out anything that might disrupt that harmony.
Not long after, Emperor Minh Mang died on January 20, 1841 at the age of 49. His reign had, overall, been more glorious than troubled. He was strict about the Confucian bureaucracy and social system but he was also gentle, lessening the use of forced labor and showing concern for the peasants. He had defeated all rebellions against his authority and an attack from Siam that tried to take advantage of the most serious of these. The Great South had endured, united and secure under the reign of Minh Mang. The harmony that he so focused on had been protected and his policies would persist into the future, perhaps even more so, under his son and successor Emperor Thieu Tri. The persecution of Christians is a dark spot, though it was not as bad nor as completely unfounded as some choose to think. However, this would build to be a greater problem in the future and that is the only negative that can be attributed to Emperor Minh Mang. According to his traditional, conventional Confucian mindset, he had done everything right and everything had mostly gone well. The problem was what would happen in the future as the combination of internal unrest, the persecution of Christians and the isolationism that led to Vietnam being left behind in terms of technical advancement, would ultimately have negative repercussions for the Nguyen Dynasty. Still, one can hardly expect a monarch to be able to foretell future events. Emperor Minh Mang was a very traditional monarch and by the standards of his own traditions, the Confucian system of authority, virtue and piety, he was a successful monarch and a very great emperor.