Sunday, February 12, 2017

Monarch Profile: Emperor Gia Long of Vietnam

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Vietnam was a divided country. While the emperors of the Latter Le Dynasty continued to reign in Hanoi, actual power was held by two feuding families; the Trinh family in the north and the Nguyen family in the south. Most recognized the damage and stagnation this was causing but neither side wished to give up their hold on power. Rebellions increased dramatically but none were successful. Significant change was not sparked until 1771 when the Tay Son brothers, from an area in central Vietnam under the control of the Nguyen family, rose up in revolt. As usual, they promised to rob from the rich and give to the poor and also to restore the Le Dynasty emperor to actual power. In 1778 they accomplished what the Trinh never had and routed the Nguyen militia in front of Gia Dinh (Saigon) and massacred the family almost entirely. The only survivor of this bloodbath was one 16-year old prince named Nguyen Anh. Born in 1761, he would prove to be more formidable than any enemy the Tay Son would ever face.

Prince Anh during his sojourn in Siam
Prince Nguyen-Phuc Anh was the third son of Prince Nguyen-Phuc Luan, the second son and designated successor of Prince Nguyen-Phuc Khoat, lord of southern Vietnam. However, when Lord Nguyen Khoat died, a powerful mandarin named Truong Phuc Loan changed his will to keep Prince Nguyen Luan from power, imprisoning him until his death in 1765. It is then, not so surprising that Prince Anh would grow up to be such a formidable character. As a young child his father had been betrayed and imprisoned, denied his birthright and as a teenager he had witnessed the wholesale slaughter of his entire family by the rampaging forces of the Tay Son. To redeem the memory of his father and restore the achievements of his ancestors became the driving ambition of his life. Despite being left alone in the world, he was committed to doing whatever was necessary to regain all that had been lost, no matter how long or how difficult it would be. From there, he had higher aspirations still but focused, for the time being, on the battle at hand.

While the Tay Son turned their aggression on the Trinh, abandoning their earlier promise and ousting the Le emperor to establish their own, short-lived, imperial dynasty and even defeating a Qing Dynasty army from China sent in to rescue their Le Dynasty vassal, Prince Nguyen Anh rallied the remnants of his family’s forces. Despite his young age, he proved a very inspirational figure, cunning leader and, above all, a young man of boundless determination. After regrouping, he succeeded in re-taking Saigon from the Tay Son forces and, for a time, a sort of stalemate ensued as the two sides battled back and forth for domination of southern Vietnam. In 1783, however, the stalemate was broken and the Nguyen forces once again suffered a devastating defeat. Having earlier taken refuge in Siam, this time Prince Anh fled to Phu Quoc. A Catholic seminary was there and he was given a safe haven by the French missionary Pierre Joseph Pigneau de Behaine, a Catholic priest and eventual Bishop of Adran. Pigneau and Prince Anh quickly became very devoted friends.

The Tay Son had originally posed as the friends of the Christian minority in Vietnam but, after achieving power, began persecuting them. Pigneau wanted to do something to end the suffering of his fellow Catholics, naturally, and also to secure special favor for his native Kingdom of France in what was then known as Dai Viet. Prince Anh, likewise, knew that his own forces were far too depleted and he would need foreign assistance, particularly advanced foreign warships and firearms, to achieve his goal of victory over the Tay Son. Despite his setbacks, he was more determined than ever to not only regain his family’s rule over the south of the country but to reunite the whole country under his leadership.

Pigneau de Behaine
Toward this end, Prince Anh dispatched Pigneau to arrange an alliance with his country and, as a sign of his goodwill, sent along his first son, Crown Prince Canh (by his first wife Thua Thien), who was only five years old. Pigneau first went to Pondicherry, in French India, but the local governor would give him no support. Undeterred, he traveled all the way to France where little Prince Canh was quite the sensation. He met with King Louis XVI and made the offer of Prince Anh to His Most Christian Majesty; if France would provide ships and weapons to help Anh become emperor, there would be freedom of religion for Catholics, France would be ceded the island of Poulo Condore and part of the port of Da Nang along with special trading privileges. King Louis XVI was most agreeable and Pigneau and his young charge set out for the return voyage to Indochina confident that they had succeeded. Upon arrival in India, however, they found out that due to the growing threat of revolution in France, no official help would be extended after all. Still undeterred, Pigneau acted on his own to hire French mercenaries to act as advisors and obtain what modern ships and artillery he could.

Pigneau finally returned in 1789 with two ships filled with French soldiers of fortune and various war materials along with Crown Prince Canh, who had been baptized into the Catholic faith. Prince Anh would be forever grateful to his friend Pigneau for this and used these forces to regain control of his ancestral lands in the south. He won over the locals who had become disenchanted with the Tay Son who had promised much but delivered little. Prince Anh impressed the people with his honesty as he admitted that his family had made mistakes in the past, had acted incorrectly but promised to set things right with a renewed commitment to morality and good government based on the ethical code of the great Confucius. Spears were made, muskets and swords distributed, ships were stocked, cannon were loaded and the war elephants were prepared. Prince Anh launched a massive and devastating offensive against his enemies, sweeping inexorably north through the country until the Tay Son were totally defeated and he stood victorious as the master of all.

Neither Pigneau nor Crown Prince Canh had lived to see this triumph but it marked the beginning of the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802. Prince Anh, to show that the country was now united, with neither the north ruling the south or the south ruling the north, moved the capital to Hue in the central provinces and took as his reigning name Gia Long, a combination of the words Gia Dinh (Saigon) and Thanh Long (Hanoi). He immediately set to work to establish his dynasty. He sought and received the recognition of the Qing Emperor in Peking for his reign over Nam Viet, though the Qing court reversed the name of the country to Viet Nam. Emperor Gia Long set to work keeping the promises he had made. Vietnam became a staunchly conservative Confucian country with the imperial commands implemented by a bureaucracy of mandarins trained in Confucian morality.

To their annoyance, France did not receive the pride of place they had expected due to the fact that they had not fulfilled their promise to aid Gia Long. He knew that what help he received was due to Pigneau and not to the government in Paris. Therefore, out of respect for his late friend, Christianity would be tolerated in Vietnam as long as Gia Long was alive. He was, however, not entirely pleased that his late son and heir had been converted to Christianity and was careful not to allow western influence to spread in his country. Rather than any particular religion, Confucianism was to be the backbone of the country under Gia Long and trade and contact with the west was restricted. This was the basis of what has become the major criticism of Emperor Gia Long, which is that he isolated Vietnam and allowed the country to stagnate and thus become vulnerable to French expansion in later years. This, however, is not entirely fair.

Emperor Gia Long did do his best to secure the country, strengthening the military and building a series of modern fortresses across the country. However, neither he nor anyone should be expected to foretell the unprecedented events that would happen in the future. He had restored his dynasty to power, consolidated control over the whole country, reunited the country and ended the fratricidal north-south divide. He had the recognition of Imperial China, the traditional powerhouse of East Asia and no one then expected that the European powers, about which most in East Asia still knew very little, would so soon come to dominate the whole region. Some of his domestic policies, such as heavy taxation and mandated periods of forced labor, were quite unpopular, however they were essential to rebuilding and strengthening the country quickly after such a long period of turmoil and civil wars. Furthermore, while he did work to curtail western influence in his country, he continued to maintain contact and trade with East Asian powers such as China. The Nguyen lords in the south had even maintained quite active trade ties with the Empire of Japan prior to the shogun adopting its isolationist policy.

Most of the reign of Emperor Gia Long was concerned with consolidation. Fairly early on there developed two different factions at the imperial court, one of which was more focused on establishing ties with the west, based around the family of the late Crown Prince Canh, and the other which favored closer ties with China and isolation from the west which was focused on the family of Prince Nguyen-Phuc Dam and this was the faction that Emperor Gia Long favored, naming Dam as his heir and successor. Emperor Gia Long was obliged to neglect the navy so as to have funds for the building of fortresses and an extensive infrastructure project of building roads to improve travel and communication as well as canals and other waterway projects to boost agricultural production. Again, not all of these were popular at the time, but all of them paid dividends in the long run though the lack of a modern navy would be problematic when the French came calling in the years to come.

Emperor Gia Long enacted a new legal system, basically a combination of the old Le Dynasty legal code and that of the Qing Dynasty in China. The focus, again, was on the authority of the Emperor, the centrality of the mandarins as his instruments and the traditional family values of Confucian ethics. To placate the spirits of his family, he took his revenge on the Tay Son, executing those who had survived and desecrating the remains of those already gone. He did away with their political innovations and restored the traditional laws that had preceded them. He had sense enough to advise his heir not to provoke or offend the western powers but told him to take his example from the Empire of Japan which was careful to shut them out.

Emperor Gia Long, first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, founder of the last Vietnamese imperial line, died at the age of 57 on February 3, 1820. He was buried at Thien Tho Tomb, which he had originally built in 1814 for his beloved wife Empress Thua Thien, but which has since, sadly, fallen into disrepair. For someone who had such a remarkable life, rising from the ashes of defeat and the massacre of his entire family, to triumph over his enemies and forge an empire, the historical legacy of Emperor Gia Long has been grossly distorted due to the political bigotry of those who have come to power since the Nguyen reign. While generally dismissive of the entirety of traditional Vietnamese history, the Communist Party seized on Emperor Gia Long as a particular enemy in their propaganda. Taking the side of the Tay Son rebels, they tended to heap all blame for any misfortunes which befell Vietnam on Emperor Gia Long and his policies. This is quite unfair and quite outrageous considering the extent to which Emperor Gia Long is responsible for what most recognize as traditional Vietnam even today.

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