Sunday, March 26, 2017

An Overview of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam

The Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam has probably suffered from more unjust bad press than any other in the thousands of years of Vietnamese history. Part of this is because it was the last imperial dynasty, the most recent and thus the most intensely studied (though still nowhere near as much as it should be) and thus with greater coverage comes greater amounts of opinions and judgments, including negative and unfair ones. However, I have no doubt the biggest reason for the excessive and undue criticism of the Nguyen reign is simply because it was the last imperial dynasty and what came after it was a totally foreign system of government, based on a totally foreign ideology and, as in any such situation, those who usurped power from the Nguyen emperors had to make them look as bad as possible in order to justify their own treason and radical transformation of the “Land of the Soaring Dragon”. The last major force to stand by the Nguyen was the French but that was both a blessing and a curse as the Nguyen reign largely coincided with the period of French colonial rule and has, to date, remained tainted by it, whether rightly or wrongly.

Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy for the Nguyen Dynasty and not just because they were the last incarnation of traditional monarchy in Vietnam but because I have seen and known and talked to people on just about every side of the issue when the monarchy came down and Vietnam came apart. The Nguyen emperors, despite what their detractors say, were never negligent. One can look back with the benefit of hindsight and say they made mistakes but in every case one can see very easily, if one cares to, why they acted the way they did. The fact is that they were faced with a succession of insoluble problems that were unprecedented in the very long history of the Vietnamese nation. Once they became, not by choice, entwined with the French, it is also quite clear that the French made some serious errors in their approach to Vietnam. Yet, a careful study of those involved will show that many in the French colonial leadership were themselves acting in the way they thought best and were truly mystified by the increasing opposition to their presence in Vietnam.

Having looked at all twelve (or thirteen depending on how one chooses to number them) emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, I hope it will be easier to see that the negative interpretation given to their reign is a largely unfair one. The Nguyen era was one of great color, drama, heroism and tragedy with the Vietnamese emperors increasingly without exception being forced to choose between a selection of bad options. Starting with Emperor Gia Long, we see a prince who endured incredible hardships, who showed extreme tenacity and who rose, like a phoenix from the ashes, to reunite his country and establish a powerful empire. Today, he is often criticized for not modernizing and strengthening his country in preparation for the arrival of the French. However, he had spent his entire life fighting and was finally victorious and he decided, not unreasonably, that his country needed stability, a return to traditional values and an emphasis on infrastructure rather than a powerful military. Even with this emphasis, given the amount of peasant unrest that occurred, it would seem hard for any reasonable observer to find much fault in his priorities.

Under Emperor Minh Mang, Vietnam, or “The Great South”, reached a high point in its long history, yet he as well as his successors Thieu Tri and Tu Duc have had their reigns tainted by the persecution of Christians. There were some horrific acts of persecution to be sure, however, the Nguyen emperors were not the bloodthirsty beasts they were often portrayed as. They didn’t really want to kill Christians, they simply wanted to frighten them into leaving their country, fearing, and not unjustly so, that the colonizers would come after the missionaries. The Nguyen emperors also knew the situation was dangerous and were not ignorant of world affairs which is why they tried to time crackdowns to coincide with events in Europe that, they hoped, would ensure the French were too involved elsewhere to move against them. Ultimately, as we know, this did not work and the French armies arrived.

At that point, under Emperor Tu Duc, the Vietnamese fought back fiercely and rightly so. The Christians in Vietnam had, all too often, strayed for spiritual matters into the political sphere and attached themselves to rebel groups or rivals for the throne. They should not have done this and to my mind have little room to complain when they were then treated as enemies by the imperial court. However, it was the native anti-Nguyen dynasty forces which really doomed independent Vietnam and they should be held to blame more than Tu Duc and his immediate successors. The Nguyen imperial armies were doing quite well against the French who had no experience fighting in Southeast Asia and were dropping like flies from disease and heat exhaustion in the sweltering country. However, a native rebellion which aimed to take down the dynasty then rose up and the emperor could not effectively combat both. He recognized that while the French were demanding certain concessions and favorable treatment and so on, they were not threatening to tear down the dynasty as the rebels were. Like any good Confucian, upholding filial piety, Tu Duc came to terms with the French and turned his army on the rebels to preserve his dynasty.

A period of chaos ensued caused by Tu Duc having no sons of his own and by the French pressing for greater control over more and more of the country. Vietnam had three emperors in one year, 1883, two of which were murdered and one forced to commit suicide. The French, of course, took full advantage of this confusion to strengthen their own position and were able to pose as the guardians of the emperors against the scheming mandarins who were trying to usurp or murder them. In the years that followed, some emperors opposed the French (Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai, Duy Tan) and all ended up exiled while others cooperated, albeit always more grudgingly than is generally known (Dong Khanh, Khai Dinh) and were able to retain their position. Personally, I can sympathize with both positions. On the one hand, the French were overreaching and many educated Vietnamese who appreciated the advancements France brought to their country still pressed for them to simply adhere to the protectorate treaty they had agreed to and to stop violating it. It is understandable that the Vietnamese would want to fight to restore their independence. However, they could never win and I can also understand those who cooperated with the French, who recognized that resistance would see them destroyed and that taking the time to strengthen the monarchy and use more subtle methods with the French to obtain similar goals was the wiser policy.

Looking particularly at the period of the last two Nguyen emperors, Khai Dinh and Bao Dai, both of whom were as cooperative as possible with the French, we can see that the French should have been more faithful to the protectorate treaty and stopped taking power in local government at the expense of the emperor. They assumed that the deference showed him and the sacrosanct nature of his spiritual position was sufficient to maintain his lofty place with the public. This was not so and the French had a hard time dealing with this, some sincerely wondering why the emperors were so unpopular with certain segments of society, it never even occurring to them that *they* were the reason and that monarchs who were most agreeable to the French were often the most ridiculed by the unhappy public.

When the traditional monarchy came to an end, in the last year of World War II, the dynasty was again placed in an impossible position. Starting out under the control of the French, they were then offered independence under the control of the Japanese. Realistically, there was nothing the emperor could do but go along with this and take the opportunity that presented itself. The brief months of the Japanese-sponsored Empire of Vietnam, offered immense promise if only it had been adhered to and maintained. By the time it was established, the Japanese were clearly fighting a losing battle and would soon be gone. If all had come together at that point, Vietnam could have emerged as an independent power, maintaining their existing, traditional system (which, to their credit, the French had never done away with) and avoiding the decades of fratricidal warfare that followed. However, that was not to be and, again, it was through no fault of the dynasty.

The French Republic had done themselves no favors by inculcating the educated Vietnamese with the perverse values of the Revolution. The Vietnamese could see as well as anyone that, not only did “liberty, equality and brotherhood” run contrary to their own traditional form of government but the French republicans themselves did not live up to it in their dealings with the Vietnamese. During the war years, prior to the Japanese takeover, there was a much more harmonious situation between the values espoused by Vichy France, particularly the writings of Charles Maurras, and the traditional values of Imperial Vietnam. That, however, proved short-lived. Added to this volatile situation was the American OSS, forerunner of the CIA, which showed its usual lack of foresight in arming and training the VietMinh dissidents with the intention of their fighting the Japanese. As it happened, they had little need to ever fight the Japanese who were soon withdrawn but this communist-led movement would go on to bring down the traditional monarchy in the “August Revolution” of 1945 and thereafter plague the French and later the Americans in the new form of the VietCong.

Emperor Bao Dai gave up his throne in 1945, having little to no choice given the situation but soon realized that the new republican government, led by Ho Chi Minh, was a total lie and he soon escaped from them. When the French returned, the former Emperor and the forces of France were undoubtedly on the side of the angels and though the French could have handled things better, they were undone by a lack of devotion to the struggle at home where they were undermined by pro-communist elements as well as a lack of solidarity and sufficient support from the British and Americans on the world stage. The French war in Vietnam was far more critical than the one fought later by the United States. It was that war which determined whether or not the communist clique in North Vietnam would be recognized as a legitimate government and which determined whether or not the Nguyen dynasty would continue to play a leadership role in Vietnam.

For a very realistic and dispassionate look at the opportunity that was squandered by those who refused to support the last Emperor of Vietnam, I highly recommend the book “Background to Betrayal” by Hilaire du Berrier, written by an American who does not hesitate to point out the mistakes made by his own countrymen in Indochina. When the French war did come to an end, America and Emperor Bao Dai were on the same side and both boycotted the peace agreement, rightly seeing it as nothing more than the prelude to an unopposed communist takeover of the country. The U.S.A. did not, as we know, keep faith with Vietnam, though they fought the good fight there, and after the downfall of Nixon the Democrats took control of Congress and refused to keep faith with South Vietnam altogether, abandoning the regime they themselves had first sponsored. The Emperor, the last reigning member of his dynasty, was powerless and exiled, able to do no more than urge his people to stop killing each other and come together but it was too late for that. The poison of revolutionary republicanism and western political ideologies had done their work well and few even bothered to listen to him.

All in all, the story of the last imperial dynasty in Vietnam is a tragic one more than anything else. Should the country ever come to its senses and return to its traditional ways, it would be keeping with precedent to elevate a new dynasty. However, I have a hard time imagining that because the Nguyen have been treated so unfairly. It would be my wish to see them restored, to see the narrative corrected and all those who spread the lies and slander about them to be forced to recant. That, however, is indulgent fantasizing, which I freely admit. As stated at the outset, those who maintain the “official” historical accounts of the Nguyen today are those who usurped and displaced them and so their narrative is unlikely to ever change. However, I hope people will at least be able to see that their view is tainted by self-preservation and will take a fresh look and a more dispassionate one at the last imperial dynasty of Vietnam, to whom the Vietnamese owe everything from their national dress to the very name of their country, and realize that they were, on the whole, a dynasty of patriots who did the best they could under very difficult and unprecedented conditions.

Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty
I     Gia Long
II    Minh Mang
III   Thieu Tri
IV   Tu Duc
       Duc Duc
V    Hiep Hoa
VI   Kien Phuc
VII  Ham Nghi
VIII Dong Khanh
IX   Thanh Thai
X    Duy Tan
XI   Khai Dinh
XII  Bao Dai

"The sky is still there. 
So are the Earth and the dynasty.
We wish long life to the Emperor"


  1. Hi, Mad Monarchist, this is a very informative article about the Nguyen Dynasty here. You seem to possess a very rare view on them, especially on the last two emperors, Khai Dinh and Bao Dai. I am wondering what material did you base your research on that influence your view on them? Also, if I wish to contact your privately, would I be able to do that? Thanks.

    1. A great many books, most of which I do not have as a great deal comes from when I had vast libraries at my disposal, many years ago, which I do not any longer, having withdrawn from the world of education. Also, as I said, I have talked to many people, mostly all gone now, who remembered those days, one very old lady for example could just remember the Khai Dinh era and even caught a glimpse of the Emperor once. As for contacting me, I have an email account, not publicized but easy to guess, but I am always behind in answering mail, the quicker way to contact me is on comments such as these, you can leave any comment and if you wish it to be private simply say it is private, you don't want it posted and I will delete it after reading it.

  2. What an articulate article on the last dynasty of Vietnam! It is extremely outrageous how children in Vietnam are taught in schools that King Gia Long set the fox to keep the geese by asking for help from the French to take the throne for himself, paving way for them to infiltrate into the country. The government completely disregards and refuses any credit to him for uniting the country's territory as of now. Without the Nguyen dynasty, the southwards expansion would never be successful so that the current highly corrupted and incapable government could have a larger playground for their foolish lying game.


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