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Vietnamese Movie of Emperor Quang Trung-Nguyễn Huệ of Tây Sơn

Posted Aug 20 2011 11:23pm
email Vietnamese Movie of Emperor Quang Trung Nguyễn Huệ of Tây Sơn

Quang Trung Vietnamese Movie of Emperor Quang Trung Nguyễn Huệ of Tây Sơn Emperor Quang Trung -Nguyễn Huệ of Tây Sơn (1752-1792), Leader of Tay Son Rebellion and founding emperor of the Tay Son Dynasty in late eighteenth-century Vietnam. Nguyen Hue was the second eldest of three brothers from the village of Tay Son in An Khe District, Nghia Binh Province in Central Vietnam. The family, originally from Nghe An Province and reportedly descendents of the fifteenth-century figure Ho Quy Ly, were farmers and small merchants.   In the early 1770s the brothers, led by the eldest Nguyen Nhac, revolted against the rule of the Nguyen Lords, who controlled the southern provinces of Vietnam in the name of the Later Le Dynasty. In 1785, Tay Son seized the Nguyen capital of Saigon and began to move against the Trinh Lords, who controlled the North. Marching under the slogan of “Restore the Le, destroy the Trinh,” Nguyen Hue seized the imperial capital of Thang Long in July 1786.

At first, Nguyen Hue kept his campaign slogan and recognized the legitimacy of the aged ruler, Le Hien Tong, who had reigned as a figurehead under the domination of the Trinh Lords since 1740. In return, the emperor gave his daughter Le Ngoc Han to Nguyen Hue in marriage, who returned to the South. When Le Hien Tong died in late 1786, the throne passed to his grandson Le Chien Tong, who called on Chinese assistance to restore the power of the Le Dynasty and remove the influence of the Tay Son. When Chinese troops entered Vietnam in late 1788 and occupied the capital of Thang Long, Nguyen Hue declared himself emperor Quang Trung and launched an attack on the North. The invasion succeeded and the Chinese forces retreated across the border.

After the victory, Emperor Quang Trung set his capital at Phu Xuan (modern-day Hue) and offered tribute to China. He also moved vigorously to strengthen the state, reorganizing the military, promoting land reform, and stimulating trade relations with the West. To promote a sense of national identiy, chu nom was recognized as the official language at court and in the civil service examinations. But he died suddenly in 1792 at age 39, and was succeeded by his ten-year old son, Canh Thinh. The young emperor was unable to prevent the outbreak of internal dissention within the regime, and was overthrown in 1802.

Nguyen Hue was endowed with both political wisdom and military genius. With a single slogan “For Le, against Trinh,” he conquered all of Bac Ha.  In only seven days, he defeated a force of 200,000 Chinese, twice the size of his own army.  But what made him unique among the Vietnamese rulers was his daring vision for the conquest of China.

In 1776, Nguyen Nhac, having constructed fortresses and palaces in his capital, Qui Nhon, Proclaimed himself king of Tay Son.

At that time, Thuan Hoa was under Pham Ngo Cau , an impotent Trinh governor.  All of Bac ha was still affected by the commotion generated by the clash between Trinh Can and Trinh Khai ensuing the death of their father, Lord Trinh Sam.  In his last years, Lord Trinh Sam fell under the irresistible spell of the fascinating lady Dang Thi Hue, and consequently designated their son, Trinh Can, as his successor.  While Trinh Sam’s coffin was still exposed in the palace, the Kieu Binh staged a coup in favor of his eldest son, Trinh Khai.  The Kieu Binh were the elite troops traditionally recruited from the three districts of Ha Trung, Thieu Hoa, and Tinh Gia in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces.  Because they came from the ancestral abode of the Le dynasty, their loyalty was unquestionable.  As the first architects of the Trinh’s success, they were granted exceptional privileges.   But they gradually got out of control.  They became openly involved in brigandage and murder, causing deep misery among the Bac Ha population.  Even high dignitaries were no spared.  In 1663, under Trinh Tac and King Le Gia Tong, they killed the high mandarin Nguyen Quoc Hoe and ransacked the house of the national hero Pham Cong Tru.  In 1740, under Trinh Doanh and Le Hien Tong, they murdered the high mandarin Nguyen Canh. Now, for the succession of Lord Trinh Sam, they pitted Trinh Khai against his brother Trinh Can.

The population, which had been suffering from war and natural disasters, also had to carry the unjust burden of government excises. Indeed, the poor and landless had been exempted under former dynasties, but under Trinh Sam they had to pay taxes. In 1786, famine raged in Bac Ha. The Kieu Binh’s unchecked abuses added another dimension to the general misery. That anarchy prompted Nguyen Huu Chinh to urge the Tay Son to intervene. When Nguyen Hue objected, stating he had no order from Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Huu Chinh said that what counted was the result. In this case, there was more to gain than to lose. Furthermore, on the battlefield, the Commander had more authority than the King. His scruples quashed and his ego stirred up, Nguyen Hue ordered Nguyen Huu Chinh to march on nang Long. Nguyen Huu Chinh crossed over Hai Van Pass and attacked An Nong, where the defeated Trinh general, Hoang Nghia Ho, committed suicide. At Thuan Hoa, Governor Pham Ngo Cau was still worshipping his war spirits when Nguyen Huu Chinh arrived. All the garrison officers were killed or committed suicide. Pham Ngo Cau surrendered and was later executed in Qui Nhon. This battle cost the lives of thousands of starving refugees who had fled to Thuan Hoa looking for food.

The news of Thuan Hoa’s fall reached Thang Long, triggering numerous uprisings. The Kieu Binh party vigorously opposed any government attempts to quash the insurgents. No agreement could be reached either to stop the Tay Son invasion. Nguyen Huu Chinh’s troops surged along the mouth of the Viet An River and entered Nghe An, which had been abandoned by Bui The Tuy, the son of Bui The Dat.’ In Thanh Hoa, the Trinh general Ta Danh Thuy escaped leaving behind six million liters of rice, hidden there while tens of thousands were dying of starvation. Nguyen Huu Chinh’s army reached first Vi Hoang, the point of rally where the entire Tay Son expedition gathered for the final assault on Thang Long. The Trinh forces intercepted them at Son Nam (Hung Yen). The clash was extremely violent with heavy artillery fire on shore and on the junks. The Tay Son used decoys to lure their opponents. When they realized they had exhausted their munitions aiming at the wrong targets, the Trinh dis-banded. The loss of Son Nam was the prelude to the defeat of Bac Ha.



In a last attempt to protect Thang Long, Trinh Khai deployed his forces in the suburbs. But he was no match for Nguyen Hue. In spite of a few displays of heroism, the Trinh were crushed. Trinh Khai rode his elephant back home to find Tay Son flags displayed all over his palace. He fled in the direction of Son Tay. Arriving at the village of Ha Loi, he stopped to look for the faithful Ly Tran Quan, who had been among his first followers. Although Trinh Khai tried to conceal his identity, Ly Tran Quan’s deferential behavior aroused suspicion among his own attendants. Later one of them, Nguyen Trang, arrested Trinh Khai. Ly Tran Quan desperately begged for Trinh Khai’s release. As a last resort, blaming himself for Trinh Khai’s condition, Ly Tran Quan apologized and committed hara-kiri in front of Trinh Khai. Another man, Ba Chuc, who was an ex-servant of the Trinh, vainly tried to wrest the prisoner from Nguyen Trang. Finally both agreed to share whatever reward they could yield from the Tay Son. That night, the two men led Trinh Khai to a boat and sailed to the Tay Son camp. On the way, taking advantage of the darkness, Trinh Khai cut his throat, but the wound was too small, so he had to enlarge it with his bare fingers. He died later, at the village of Nhat Chieu. Nguyen Hue ordered his corpse be publicly exposed in front of the palace for three days, but gave him a princely funeral. Nguyen Trang received a promotion from Nguyen Hue, and Ba Chuc met a different fate in the hands of Nguyen Huu Chinh. During the identification of the dead body, Nguyen Huu Chinh asked Ba Chuc how he knew the body was that of Trinh Khai. Chuc replied that he was his servant. Chinh calmly declared that a servant who betrays his master deserves death, not reward, and he had Ba Chuc beheaded at once.

With the death of Trinh Khai, the house of Trinh was in jeopardy. While his two sons, Trinh Bong and Trinh Le, went into hiding, his supporters, the Kieu Binh, started a stampede. But they were tracked down by the population and slaughtered without mercy. As for Bac Ha’s regular troops, they went on a rampage. On July 21, 1786, Nguyen Hue entered Thang Long. Discipline was restored among the troops and the population. Justice was expeditious. Robbers, burglars, and rapists were decapitated publicly with no further ado. Possession of rice from illicit trade was condemned. Life and property were respected. Nguyen Hue had even secretly dispatched a group to protect King Le Hien Tong.

On July 26, after having advised the king of his impending visit, Nguyen Hue went with Nguyen Huu Chinh and other high officers to explain courteously that the only aim of the Tay Son was to destroy the Trinh and to reestablish the Le dynasty in accordance with the will of heaven. A few days later, Nguyen Hue returned to the palace at the head of an official delegation, respectfully kowtowed, and presented the national census as a sign of allegiance. The next day King Le Hien Tong bestowed on him the title of duke. Although he accepted it, he was infuriated by the modesty of the title since he had expected to be named Vuong. He sent an emissary to thank the king, but also to mark his displeasure. Nguyen Huu Chinh had to use all his eloquence to calm him down. He even advised King Le Hien Tong to offer Nguyen Hue the hand of his twenty-first daughter, Princess Ngoc Han, who was renowned for her incomparable beauty and her refined education. Nguyen Hue was finally subdued, but the old king Le Hien Tong could not survive so much stress in such a short time. As a Trinh puppet, he never had to worry about his life for he was sub-missive and unassuming. But he had a visceral fear of the Tay Son, in spite of their friendly manners. He died a few days later at the age of seventy, after forty-seven years of irresponsible reign.

Upon Ngoc Han’s pleading, Nguyen Hue agreed to the accession of her brother Prince Duy Ky to the throne as King Le Chieu Thong. That man did not stop making blunders all his life. He started to act against protocol by sitting on the throne in front of his father’s coffin. Then he forgot to include his brother- in-law Nguyen Hue among the mourners. His omission hurt Nguyen Hue personally and politically. On the one hand, it implied that Nguyen Hue did not belong to the royal family; on the other, his absence at the funeral destroyed the credit he was trying to build as the protector of the Le. He was so incensed that princess Ngoc Han had to bear the brunt of his rage. Subsequently she had the young king come and beg for his subject’s pardon.

After the coronation of Le Chieu Thong, the court performed the posthumous consecration of his late father, King Le Hien Tong. This time, as his son-in- law, Nguyen Hue appeared dressed in a white mourning gown. During the ceremony, he caught a smile on the face of a young attendant and had him beheaded at once for contempt for the king. A shudder went through the entire court, but everybody a greed that Nguyen Hue had observed dynastic rites to the perfection.

Now Nguyen Hue had to deal with his brother the emperor Nguyen Nhac, who was approaching Thang Long with an escort of 2,500 elite troops and 100 elephants, creating an enormous commotion in the capital. His contention was that Nguyen Hue had invaded Bac Ha without his authorization. Actually, he feared Nguyen Hue would keep the North for himself. Anyway, he should have realized that his action would deal a serious blow to Nguyen Hue’s ego. He soon had to pay for that psychological error.

King Le Chieu Thong was devastated by the news but, after consulting with his court, decided to surrender to Nguyen Hue’s boss. As he entered the capital, Nguyen Nhac found the new king and his entire court kneeling on the sidewalk in total submission. He did not stop, but had Le Chieu Thong ordered to go home. Overnight, the two brothers hammered out their differences, and at dawn, King Le Chieu Thong reappeared humbly offering to share his kingdom with Nguyen Nhac. But Nguyen Nhac emphatically refused saying: “We came here to help you against the Trinh. If Bac Ha had belonged to them, we would take every inch of land. But as it is yours, we shall not touch a single inch. All we hope is for you to secure your kingdom so that our two nations can have a lasting friendship.” This was a threefold statement. First, it deemed to appease Bac Ha. Second, it implied that the Le were no longer masters of the South. Third, it was a clear order for Nguyen Hue to pack up and go home.

As they prepared to leave, Vu Van Nham, who hated Nguyen Huu Chinh, suggested that Nguyen Hue leave Nguyen Huu Chinh behind to deal with Bac Ha. He said that the Northern people didn’t like him. After they killed him, Hue could still go back and take the whole North. Nguyen Hue promptly agreed. On the day of his departure, Nguyen Hue kept Nguyen Huu Chinh at his side, making sure he knew nothing about his plan. That night, the Tay Son left surreptitiously after having secretly bid King Le Chieu Thong farewell and not without taking along all the royal treasures.

At dawn, Nguyen Huu Chinh learned of the news and, with a small retinue, ran down to the pier, where he was stoned by a menacing crowd. He seized a boat after killing its occupants and sailed to the South. He met the Tay Son in Nghe An, where an uneasy Nguyen Hue explained that Bac Ha was not to be trusted and that was why he had left Nguyen Huu Chinh behind to watch. He also said that Nguyen Huu Chinh should stay in Nghe An to prevent any attempt from the North. Chinh was no dupe. He admitted the fact that his boss did not want him, but at that time he saw no way out.


When he returned to Nam Ha, Nguyen Hue stayed at Phu Xuan and kept for himself all the Bac Ha booty. Nguyen Nhac went home to Qui Nhon. Later, he sent an emissary to summon Nguyen Hue, who refused to comply saying he was still preoccupied with Bac Ha. Then Nguyen Nhac dispatched a second envoy to bestow on Nguyen Hue the title of Bac Binh Vuong (North Pacification King). He also asked Nguyen Hue to turn over the Bac Ha booty. After what had happened in Thang Long, for Nguyen Hue this was the last straw and he taught his eldest brother a good lesson. Without notice, he had Qui Nhon surrounded by his troops. For the defense of Qui Nhon, Nguyen Nhac hurriedly withdrew his forces from Gia Dinh. Finally, convinced he could not resist, Nguyen Nhac resorted to an appeal to their blood ties. Although he was furious at his brother, Nguyen Hue was deeply moved and consented to withdraw. History does not say whether he shared the contested booty with Nguyen Nhac. But by moving his troops from Gia Dinh, Nguyen Nhac made a strategical error with incalculable consequences. It left Gia Dinh to the mercy of Nguyen Anh, who later used it as a springboard for his reconquest of the North.

Then Nguyen Nhac blundered again. He called for a meeting to divide Nam Ha into three parts. As the “Central Emperor,” Nguyen Nhac remained in Qui Nhon, in charge of Quang Nghia, Qui Nhon, Phu Yen, and Nha Trang. As Bac Binh Vuong (North Pacification King), Nguyen Hue was stationed in Quang Nam and controlled Phu Xuan and Bac Ha. As Dong Binh Vuong (East Pacification King), Nguyen Lu ruled Gia Dinh, Binh Thuan, Dong Nai, Dalat, and Ha Tien. But the seeds of division were sown; the Central Emperor had lost the control of his empire


Nguyen Huu Chinh was bom in Nghe An and came from a well-to-do merchant family. He was articulate, courteous and extremely intelligent and later succeeded the Trinh in Bac Ha. A diviner who passed in front of Nguyen Huu Chinh’s house at the time of his birth and heard his first cry predicted that Nguyen Huu Chinh would become a “scoundrel of troubled times.” So goes the legend. Nguyen Huu Chinh went on to get a master’s degree in philosophy.

However, realizing that in times of war a military career was more profitable, he turned to the study of the science of war, but failed to pass the required examination. He offered his services to the Trinh governor Hoang Ngu Phuc and, following successful campaigns against sea pirates, rapidly became his best general. In 1775, Hoang Ngu Phuc dispatched him to commission Nguyen Nhac, who was then quite impressed by Nguyen Huu Chinh’s talents. Back home, Nguyen Huu Chinh reported to Hoang Ngu Phuc that the Tay Son were very ambitious and would not remain in his service for long. After Hoang Ngu Phuc died, Nguyen Huu Chinh continued to serve his adopted son Hoang Dinh Bao, who was involved in the Trinh Sam succession contest. As Hoang Dinh Bao had sided with the losing party, he lost his life. Fearing the same fate, Nguyen Huu Chinh threw his lot in with those trying to revolt against the Trinh. He secretly approached General Vu Ta Giao for help. But Vu Ta Giao refused and Nguyen Huu Chinh had to flee to Qui Nhon with his family and sought Nguyen Nhac’s protection. Soon he became the most trusted of Nguyen Nhac’s officers. But Nguyen Hue had some misgivings. One day, as Nguyen Huu Chinh tried to convince him to invade Bac Ha, Nguyen Hue, raised some objections. Chinh insisted that he not be so concerned because now that Nguyen Huu Chinh had left, no one could find a single good, leader in Bac Ha. Nguyen Hue laughed and replied that he was not worried about their leaders, but about Chinh.

In Thang Long, as soon as the Tay Son turned their backs, the Trinh remnants began fighting for Trinh Khai’s succession. His two sons, Trinh Bong and Trinh Le, who were hiding from the Tay Son, now reappeared to claim the succession. King Le Chieu Thong appointed Trinh Bong, thus triggering a revolt by Trinh Le, who lost the ensuing battle at Can Muong. Left alone, Trinh Bong gradually unveiled his despotic nature, offending King Le Chieu Thong in many ways and abusing the people more than ever. Bac Ha again sank into chaos. Entire villages rose up, fighting each other, while inundations and tornadoes played their part in destroying houses, animals, and people. Le Chieu Thong tried to enlist a few faithful supporters. Finally he realized that only Nguyen Huu Chinh could deal definitely with the Trinh and sent him an emissary.

In Nghe An, Nguyen Huu Chinh had long understood that he had no future with Nguyen Hue, but had yet to find a way out. When King Le Chieu Thong’s envoy arrived, it was for him the light at the end of the tunnel. He left the Nghe An command to his lieutenants Le Duat and Nguyen Huu Due and moved with his troops to the North. On the way, he crushed Trinh Bong’s forces and entered Thang Long in triumph. Trinh Bong fled. He sought refuge in religion and was not seen again. Nguyen Huu Chinh took over Trinh Bong’s palace and functions after King Le Chieu Thong appointed him commander in chief. Later, the king thought he had made a mistake and plotted the murder of Nguyen Huu Chinh.

Nguyen Huu Chinh was no petty character. Politically and militarily, he was the perfect match for Nguyen Hue, and sheer jealousy was the source of their mutual hatred. His ambition was not limited to the North, he also wanted the South. While consolidating his grip on Bac Ha, he kept a close watch on the Tay Son. Through Nguyen Huu Due, his man in Nghe An, he learned of the discord among the Tay Son. Nguyen Huu Due was also a complex character. He had once served Nguyen Nhac, and now he was plotting with Nguyen Huu Chinh against Nguyen Hue. The latter, aware of the conspiracy, charged Vu Van Nham with keeping an eye on Nguyen Huu Due.

Vu Van Nham himself was no altar boy. He had been Nguyen Anh’s commander at Gia Dinh, and when he lost it to Nguyen Hue, he tried to commit suicide but did not succeed. As he was a good soldier, Nguyen Hue convinced him to join the Tay Son. Later Vu Van Nham managed to marry Nguyen Nhac’s daughter and became Nguyen Hue’s hatchet man. He was slyly competing with Nguyen Huu Chinh for the Bac Ha command, but lost due to King Le Chieu Thong’s preference. From that time on, Vu Van Nham spied on Nguyen Huu Chinh and his men in Nghe An.

Eventually Vu Van Nham’s vicious reports led Nguyen Hue to order the arrest of Nguyen Huu Chinh in Thang Long and the transfer of Nguyen Huu Due to Quang Nam. Fearing Nguyen Hue’s punishment, Nguyen Huu Due left Nghe An under his assistants and ran for safety to Qui Nhon- and Nguyen Nhac’s protection. Subsequently, Vu Van Nham took over Nghe An without a single shot. Then he set out for Bac Ha with 10,000 of his best troops. Nguyen Huu Chinh, who had just escaped from a murder attempt by Le Chicu Thong, was coerced into another contest.

At this point, King Le Chieu Thong, unaware of his impending doom, made an absurd move. Counting on the Tay Son family dispute, he sent his minister Tran Cong San to claim back Nghe An Province. When Tran Cong San arrived at Nguyen Hue’s headquarters, he learned that Vu Van Nham’s troops were on their way to punish Bac Ha. Of course, Nguyen Hue rejected vehemently the king’s request, reminding him of the Tay Son’s past contributions and accusing him of ingratitude. He sent Tran Cong San into seclusion, but upon Princess Ngoc Han’s pleading, he allowed him to go back to Thang Long. With 100 taels donated by the princess, Tran Cong San and his retinue boarded a junk which would later be destroyed by Nguyen Hue’s men on the high seas. So all of Bac Ha delegation lost their money and their lives.

On forced marches, Vu Van Nham’s troops reached Thanh Hoa, where Le Duat, one of Nguyen Huu Chinh’s generals, was killed in the first encounter. The news rocked the capital. Nguyen Huu Chinh dispatched his son, Nguyen Huu Du, to halt the Tay Son but he was defeated at Ha Nam and Ninh Binh. A few miles from Thang Long, in a desperate battle, Nguyen Huu Chinh’s troops opposed Vu Van Nham’s. The result was the total disintegration of the Bac Ha forces. Then Nguyen Huu Chinh ordered the evacuation of Thang Long. King Le Chieu Thong wished to retreat to ancestral Thanh Hoa, but finally joined Nguyen Huu Chinh and went to Kinh Bac.

In Bac Giang Province, Nguyen Huu Chinh met his fate. His horse was killed under him, and he was captured by the Tay Son Nguyen Van Hoa, along with his son Nguyen Huu Du. Both were taken to Thang Long where a delighted Vu Van Nham read him a long list of accusations, to which Nguyen Huu Chinh responded that it was because of the circumstances. He died atrociously, torn apart limb from limb by four giant elephants yanking his arms and legs. His son Nguyen Huu Du was beheaded. Nguyen Huu Chinh had had only ten months in which to reorganize the near total collapse of Bac Ha. His efforts to rebuild the North’s army and administration were undermined by a hostile court and a suspicious King Le Chieu Thong, who wished him dead. He persisted in being loyal to a chief, Nguyen Hue, who had rejected him. These were the circumstances which history should take into account: what Nguyen Huu Chinh was lacking was not intelligence or talent or even a measure of loyalty, but time, only time.


Now a word must be said about Vu Van Nham, Nguyen Huu Chinh’s rival. In 1786, he surrendered to Nguyen Hue after his demise at Gia Dinh. Then he managed to enter the Tay Son family as King Thai Duc’s (Nguyen Nhac) son- in-law and was wise enough to sit on the fence while the two brothers were clashing. But when he and his wife applied for permission to visit Nguyen Nhac in Qui Nhon, he aroused Nguyen Hue’s suspicion. In response, Nguyen Hue sent him to Nghe An with the mission of fighting Nguyen Huu Chinh. For canny Nguyen Hue, no matter what the outcome between these two potential traitors, he could always get rid of one-or maybe both, if they managed to kill each other at the same time.

After Vu Van Nham had executed Nguyen Huu Chinh, it was his turn to assume power in Bac Ha. He was not aware that General Ngo Van So, his military counterpart, was Nguyen Hue’s spy. One day, following the escape of Le Chieu Thong to China, an argument arose between them over the choice of Prince Le Duy Can as regent. Ngo Van So told Vu Van Nham that they did not need a puppet and to take over Bac Ha. But Vu Van Nham brushed him off saying that he should fight his war and leave the political matter to him. Resenting these harsh words, Ngo Van So willfully reported that Vu Van Nham was eyeing Bac Ha for himself. Since that was all he wished to hear, Nguyen Hue entered Thang Long furtively at night, stormed Vu Van Nham’s bedroom, and had him stabbed to death while he was still sleeping. Of course, Ngo Van So was promoted to Vu Van Nham’s post.


While Nguyen Huu Chinh was being captured, King Le Chieu Thong managed to escape and arrived in Kinh Bac (Bac Ninh), where he found a rather lukewarm welcome from General Nguyen Canh Thuoc. Frustrated, Le Chieu Thong and his retient on to Bao Loc and were greeted by Nguyen Trong Linh. After their defensive dike was overrun, the king fled to the South as he had originally intended. Many trials and tribulations occurred before the king arrived at Nghe An and Thanh Hoa, where traitor Dinh Tich Nhuong, whose family had served the Le for eighteen generations, informed the Tay Son of his whereabouts. Eventually, he had to escape to China where he was granted asylum.

In Peking, the Le Chieu Thong’s case was seriously debated within Emperor Ch’ien Lung’s circles. The doves, reminiscing about the disaster two hundred years before, wished to stay away from a conflict with the South, but General Sun Shih Yi succeeded in persuading Ch’ien Lung to send 200,000 troops to the Bac Ha border. They were to intervene only if Le Chieu Thong’s forces could not deal with the Tay Son. In fact, before leaving Sun Shih Yi unveiled his real intent, telling his Emperor that they should take this opportunity to have Annam back.

The Chinese forces were divided into three armies. The first, from Yunnan, marched on Tuyen Quang; the second, from Kweichow, moved in direction of Cao Bang; and the main corps, under Sun Shih Yi himself, came from Kwang- tung and Kwangsi and aimed at Langson.

In Thang Long, Ngo Van So summoned a war meeting. To those who suggested guerrilla tactics, Ngo Thoi Nham, one of Nguyen Hue’s advisors, said that they could succeed only with popular support. But since the Ch’ing had come under the Le banner, the Bac Ha people would not fight against their king. The best way was to lure the Chinese deep into the country and let Nguyen Hue exterminate them. Be that as it may, no one was in a position to resist 200,000 Chinese troops.

In 1788, at the first clash on Tam Tan Mountain, the Ch’ing artillery set fire to the Thi Cau citadel, killing hundreds of Tay Son soldiers. As their commander Phan Van Lan forced a retreat through the nearby river, many soldiers died from drowning and the rest were killed by hostile peasants. Finally Phan Van Lan arrived back at the capital with only twenty-eight horsemen. Under these circumstances, Ngo Van So ordered the evacuation of Thang Long.

Sun Shih Yi’s troops entered Thang Long, which had been evacuated by Ngo Van So. The Ch’ing transferred the power to Le Chieu Thong, who apparently did not know what to do with it since he went to report to the Chinese headquarters everyday. Toward his own people, Le Chieu Thong was brutal and merciless. Despite war and famine, he compelled the people to supply food and provisions to his court every day. Severe punishments were reserved for those unable to comply.

Then he started a bloody cleansing of his harem. Ladies found pregnant by the Tay Son were disembowelled and their fetuses were thrown to the dogs. Three of his uncles who had married their daughters to the Tay Son had their legs cut off and exposed on the marketplace. Many high dignitaries were put to death or banished. These excesses even outraged the queen mother, who went on to predict the end of the dynasty.

After Le Chieu Thong had been back for a month, his orders reached only the suburbs of Thang Long. Even in Nghe An, the ancestral abode of the Le, nobody was aware of his return. Instead of reorganizing his army, Le Chieu Thong relied solely on the Ch’ing forces. As for Sun Shih Yi, his first success had given him nothing but contempt for the Tay Son. He repeated that defeating Nguyen Hue was as easy as putting things in his pockets. When the Viet prime minister Le Huynh was in Peking, he used to boast that Le Chieu Thong had the support of the entire population. This induced Sun Shih Yi to rely on the Le’s cooperation. As Le Huynh was now insisting that he attacked the Tay Son, he realized that the Viet had lied to him. He was furious because if Le Huynh had told him the truth, he would not have stopped in Thang Long. He would have pursued the Tay Son to the South. But actually, Sun Shih Yi was enjoying the queen mother’s company and so decided to postpone the operations until the spring. When Le Huynh persisted, he sarcastically told him to go ahead and fight himself if he wished.


While Le Chieu Thong was busy purging his harem, Nguyen Hue was preparing for war against the Ch’ing. On November 24, 1788, he received from Ngo Van So news of the Chinese invasion. Showing no concern, he told them that the Chinese had come to be massacred.

Since the people of Nghe An wanted a king to lead the war, on December 22, 1788, Nguyen Hue proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung. Whether this was a spontaneous idea from his followers or it was at his instigation (history is rather reticent on this point), the obvious result was that now Vietnam had three emperors-two self-appointed, Nguyen Nhac and Nguyen Hue, and the third, Le Chieu Thong, supported by the Chinese. To solve that puzzle, a show- down was inevitable. Nguyen Hue was ready. He had recruited 100,000 men and several hundred elephants.

On December 26, Nguyen Hue issued a proclamation:

The Ch’ing have invaded our country. The men of the North (China) are a different race. In the past, the Trung sisters, Dinh Tien Hoang, Le Dai Hanh, Tran Hung Dao, Le Thai To had thrown them out. Men of conscience and virtue join us in this great undertaking. Do not have two hearts. Traitors will be executed without mercy. They could not blame me for not having warned them.

While Tran Hung Dao’s proclamation had referred to Chinese role models, Nguyen Hue only mentioned Viet heroes. After a thousand years, the fight for independence had its own martyrs.

Nguyen Hue’s forces unfurled like a tidal wave, covering the distance from Ban Son to Nghe An (around 300 miles) in four days. To preserve the strength of his troops, Nguyen Hue ingeniously set up three-man teams, two in turn carrying a hammock in which the third could rest. When he arrived at the border between Ninh Binh and Thanh Hoa, he found Nguyen Van So and his assistant Nguyen Van Lan ready to accept punishment. But Nguyen Hue comforted them. Actually, he realized that his advisor Ngo Thoi Nham was right. Thang Long was indefensible because the Tay Son were caught between an internal revolt from the Le loyalists and an external offensive by the Ch’ing. Furthermore, it was not such a bad idea to lose the first match in order to give the enemy a false sense of superiority. For Nguyen Hue, too, psychological warfare was an important concept.

Pretending to negotiate, he sent a letter to Sun Shih Yi suggesting he abandoned the Le and recognize Quang Trung. As expected, the arrogant Sun Shih Yi tore up the message and put the Viet envoy Tran Danh Binh to death. He even had a price on Nguyen Hue’s head, showing he considered him no better than a petty thief. In reply, Nguyen Hue had only this to say: “We shall throw out the Ch’ing in ten days. Today, let’s celebrate the Tet in advance. In spring, we will celebrate again in Thang Long.”

On December 30, he chased the Le general Hoang Phung Nghia out of Nam Dinh, forcing him to withdraw to Ha Nam. In Ha Dong, the entire Le advance guard was captured.

On January 3, 1789, at the Citadel of Ha Hoi, Nguyen Hue surprised the Ch’ing at night during their sleep. They surrendered without combat.

Before dawn on January 5, Nguyen Hue donned a yellow scarf as a symbol of total sacrifice and led an elephant attack against the heavily fortified post of Ngoc Hoi. Wounded by the enemy’s artillery, the Viet elephants became mad and went on a wild rampage, killing thousands of Chinese. The Tay Son infantry followed with thick wooden shields, which they used to pave the way over underground stakes. In total darkness, surrounded by suffocating smoke, waves of Viet soldiers submerged the Chinese positions. The hysterical screams of human beings, the delirious trumpeting of elephants, and bloody eruptions of flesh and bones provided the background for the final hand-to-hand fighting. It was a bitter defeat for the Ch’ing, but the worst was yet to come. When the news of Ngoc Hoi’s defeat reached Sun Shih Yi, Nguyen Hue was already in the suburbs of Thang Long. Sun Shih Yi and Le Chieu Tbong and his family only had time to escape undressed on unsaddled horses. On his way to the capital, Nguyen Hue conquered the three outposts of Van Dien, Yen Quyet, and Kiem Luong and killed five Ch’ing generals.

The reinforcements dispatched by Emperor Ch’ien Lung, under Phue An Khang’ had to retreat to Bac Ninh because of Tay Son pressure. The two armies from Yunnan and Kweichow, hearing of the disaster, also withdrew without fighting. The Tay Son victory was complete. With only half strength, Nguyen Hue had defeated the 200,000 men of the Ch’ing expeditionary force. This superb campaign had lasted a total of forty-two days-thirty-five were spent in preparation and only seven in actual fighting.

Now, it was the time for negotiations. Phuc An Khang suggested Nguyen Hue write a nice petition to the Ch’ing emperor promising to back him up. Nguyen Hue charged Ngo Si Tham with drafting the message. It was a disaster.

After insinuating that the Ching emperor was responsible for the conflict, it went on to imply that he had been asinine enough to listen to Sun Shih Yi’s inventions. The plea ended on a sordid note. It revealed that Sun Shih Yi had become a toy in the hands of Le Chieu nong’s luscious mother, who used him to destroy the Tay Son. Phuc An Khang had not even finished reading it when he hastily destroyed the message. Then he muttered, “You do not really want peace, do you?” Hence Phuc An Khang took the matter into his own hands and persuaded his emperor to recognize Nguyen Hue. In this instance, Ch’ien Lung displayed a rare gift for fair play. He readily agreed on the conditions for Nguyen Hue to come and pay homage in Peking in accordance with tradition. Phuc An Khang suggested that for the emperor to save face, Nguyen Hue should erect a temple for the Chinese warriors he had killed. Naturally, the emperor would have no objection to any other conciliatory gestures. This meant that a great amount of gold and silver had to be offered, of which Phuc An Khang secretly took 100 taels for his mediatory efforts.


As for King Le Chieu Thong, he arrived at Nanning together with Sun Shih Yi. But his fate was sealed. Friendly Sun Shih Yi was soon replaced by the Tay Son’s accomplice Phuc An Khang, whose ruthless schemes would eventually lead him to destitution and death.

In 1789, Phuc An Khang promised Le Chieu Thong that he would send troops to Annam in the fall. In 1790, he suggested that Le Chieu Thong first go back to his country, but for his own protection he was to wear a Chinese costume and shave his head in Manchu fashion. Le Chicu Thong fell into this vulgar trap. He shaved his head and donned chinese garb. Then Phuc An Khang reported to the emperor that the Viet king had decided to stay in China and had adopted local customs. Happy to see a Viet king renounce his crown to be his simple subject, Ch’ien Lung allocated to Le Chieu Thong a minor title for his subsistence.

Realizing that he had been duped, Le Chieu Thong made a petition in which he asked to be given the two provinces of Thai Nguyen and Tuyen Quang for his dynastic rites, or else to be sent back to Gia Dinh where he could help the Nguyen against the Tay Son. In vain he tried to approach Ch’ien Lung. One day, while the emperor was in his summer garden, he forced the entrance. Apprehended by the guards, Le Chieu Thong and his party were severely beaten and imprisoned for a month. Once out of jail, to prevent further collusion, Phuc An Khang ordered Le Chieu Thong’s entourage to be scattered to remote provinces, leaving Le Chieu Thong alone. In 1792, Le Chieu Thong lost his son in a smallpox epidemic. The following year, he succumbed to despair and disease. The Ch’ing Emperor ordered a ducal funeral for him. His tragedy was not a lack of will, but of judgement.

In 1802, the new Nguyen dynasty authorized the transfer of Le Chieu Thong’s remains back to Annam. According to the annals, only his heart was found intact. After the funeral, his widow, who had remained in Vietnam during his exile, refused food and died.

When Le Chieu Thong escaped to China, his brother Prince Duy Chi led sporadic resistance in Bao Lac (Tuyen Quang) for more than one year. With his Lao allies from Tran Ninh and Vientiane, he attacked Nghe An. In 1790, General Tran Quang Dieu, with 5,000 troops, pursued the king of Vientiane to the Siam border. Duy Chi was captured and executed. So ended the Later Le dynasty.


Having reached an accord with the Ch’ing, Nguyen Hue gave himself a ten- year respite to prepare for the conquest of China. If the Mongols and the Manchus had been able to do it, why not Nguyen Hue?

This early decision to attack China led him to evade any act of personal allegiance to the Chinese. For this reason, he refused to take part in an investiture ceremony. On July 26, 1789, he received notice of the impending ritual, which was to be held in Thang Long in accordance with tradition. Claiming one excuse after another, at Phuc An Khang’s secret suggestion he finally dispatched his nephew Pham Cong Tri disguised as Emperor Quang Trung to perform the allegiance ceremony.

From then on, relations between the two countries improved because the Chinese emperor, whose Manchu ancestors had fought against Chinese domination, had developed the greatest admiration for Nguyen Hue, who had defeated him in loyal combat. When Nguyen Hue’s mother was in need of thousand-year-old ginseng to cure an illness, the Chinese emperor ordered the use of the imperial relay to dispatch his gift without delay.

When the time came for Nguyen Hue to pay homage in Peking, he dodged again and finally appointed a double . Authors disagreed on the identity of that man. But as Nguyen Hue, he received the warmest welcome from Ch’ien Lung, who did everything to charm him. He was treated as a close member of the imperial circle, sat with the emperor on his personal couch, and enjoyed multiple marks of affection. Rare precious gifts and the highest titles were bestowed on him. Although Prince Quang Thuy had been mistaken for the heir Quang Toan, Ch’ien Lung persisted in taking him for the crown prince of Annam, and when he fell sick, the emperor personally ordered doctors and medications for him.

The Viet delegation numbered 150 persons, including princes, dignitaries, and entertainers. The Phu Xuan royal music and dance troop received a special invitation to teach the Viet arts in the inner court. Finally when the man posing as Nguyen Hue left, Ch’ien Lung gave him the highest mark of affection, an imperial portrait made especially for him and a red leather pouch with gold decoration, usually reserved for the emperor’s nearest relatives. Embracing the supposed Nguyen Hue, the emperor said he wished him to consolidate his kingdom so that both could enjoy a long friendship. Not so long before, Nguyen Nhac had said the same to his king Le Chieu Thong, who was now running for his life.

At home, the real Nguyen Hue was preparing his secret plan for the final elimination of Nguyen Anh. First, Nguyen Nhac and his Chinese mercenaries would attack Gia Dinh from the East. Second, from Phu Xuan, Quang Trung’s forces would land at Ha Tien and take Gia Dinh to the rear. Third, another one of Quang Trung’s columns, with Khmer troops, would attack from the northwest via the Hauts Plateaux.

Taking advantage of Ch’ien Lung’s apparent friendship, Nguyen Hue ventured to ask China for the return of Kwangsi and Kwangtung, which had been part of the original Nan Yueh (Nam Viet). Upon the stern refusal from the Manchu emperor, he intensified his preparations for war. To manufacture more heavy guns, he ordered the confiscation of all copper coins. At the same time, he financed the mighty Heaven and Earth secret society to carry out raids against the Chinese in the important region of Tu Xuyen. Later he openly refused to deliver the two traditional gold statues, part of Vietnam’s regular tribute. The Chinese court knew all about these provocations but chose to ignore them.

In 1792, pushing his arrogance further, he wrote Emperor Ch’ien Lung asking for the hand of his daughter with the provinces of Kwangtung and Kwangsi as dowry. To carry his message to Peking, instead of a professional diplomat, this time Nguyen Hue appointed a military expert, Admiral Vu Quoc Cong, whose other mission was to spy on Chinese naval defenses. Contrary to Nguyen Hue’s expectations, Emperor Ch’ien Lung showed an unusual willingness to accede his impertinent request. Not only did he give him his daughter, but he also consented to yield Kwangsi. He even pressed the princess to journey to Vietnam at once. Thus, one is left to wonder whether Nguyen Hue had not finally found his nemesis in the person of Ch’ien Lung, whose passive behavior might have concealed some ulterior motives. For the Manchu emperor was shrewd enough later to use his family ties to claim back Vietnam and Kwangsi. The fact that once both had been part of the Chinese province of Chiao Chou could only bring grist to the imperial mill.

But the will of heaven prevailed. Suddenly, on September 16, 1792, Nguyen Hue died, apparently of a stroke. With him ended the most fascinating episode of Vietnam’s history. He was the only one among the Viet to have dreamt of the conquest of China. He was also the only one capable of succeeding, for his military genius was unmatched. Even after his death, the Tay Son forces kept drawing the admiration of their enemy. It took Nguyen Anh four campaigns to capture Qui Nhon, where three French officers were in command of the Nguyen troops. One of them, the famous Chaigneau, wrote: “Before, I had nothing but contempt for the Tay Son but now I realize I was deadly wrong. They are an unbeatable force.”‘

Granted, the merchant class had not obtained the benefits they expected when they enrolled in the Tay Son movement. Also the classical scholars, who clung to the Chinese script, would not identify themselves with the efforts to develop a national language such as the Nom. But at least there was peace in the North enabling the development of ceramics, silk production, and the fishing industry. Many Chinese works were translated into Nom, thus enriching the national culture. Under the Tay Son, literature flourished and Vietnam’s most celebrated authors, such as Nguyen Du (Kim Van Kieu) and Nguyen Dinh Chieu (Luc Van Tien), and poetesses Ho Xuan Huong, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, Doan Thi Diem produced numerous works. Princess Ngoc Han, widow of Nguyen Hue, was herself acclaimed for her Ai Tu Van (Lamentations) and Van Te Vua Quang Trung (Eulogy to Emperor Quang Trung). Small Buddhist pagodas were razed to be replaced by larger temples staffed with prominent priests. Those monks who failed to respond to government criteria of virtue and knowledge were returned to productive life. Agriculture and demography were the two pillars of economic policy. Peasants away from their native villages on nonvital assignments, such as extended family visits, had to go back to work their land. Abandoned properties were returned to the community and redistributed for cultivation. In bad years, peasants were exempted from taxes. The Quang Trung coins had replaced Chinese currency, and markets were installed in Nanning, Cao Bang, and Langson to promote international trade. According to some Western observers, the Tay Son had carried out a better policy than their Southern opponents. But no sustained reform could be carried out as long as war existed. First Nguyen Hue had to deal with Nguyen Anh.

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