IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > E. East Asia, c. 1500–c. 1800 > 5. Vietnam, 1527–1802
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1460–97)
5. Vietnam, 1527–1802
The Lê dynasty ceased controlling the country in 1527, though the Lê nominally continued to reign until 1787. Several smaller states and contending Vietnamese parties arose, and the country was divided in half for much of the period under consideration. The 17th and 18th centuries also witnessed the arrival of ever larger numbers of missionaries and travelers from the newly expanding West. The period ended in a great rebellion and eventually the founding of an apparently secure regime, only to fall victim later to foreign powers.  1
After eight kings were successively placed on the Lê throne (1505–27), and six of them assassinated, Mac Dang Dung, the head of one powerful family (the Mac), seized the throne and established the Mac dynasty. Other powerful families were unhappy, and all turned to China to act as mediator. China proposed a division of the land, with Mac ruling in the north and Lê, with its supporters, ruling in the south. During these years, the Nguyên, one of the most powerful families, was establishing a firm base in south central Vietnam, with a capital at Huê. This compromise lasted only a short time. In the civil wars that followed, the Trinh, another powerful house, actively supported the Lê in name, with a base at the capital in Thang-long. Throughout the period the population of Thang-long exceeded 100,000. Both Nguyên and Trinh cloaked their effort in the mantle of the Lê and sought to destroy the Mac.  2
The Mac were effectively eliminated as a force. Trinh and Nguyên continued their standoff, with the former still installing puppet Lê kings and running all affairs of government. From 1599 Trinh family leaders took over the title of prince, which was then passed on hereditarily. The Nguyên were not amused.  3
The Trinh in the north tried to run an efficient government by periodically examining officials, though with limited results. The legal codes were made less stringent and tax laws were made fairer. The examination system was rebuilt, with public schools preparing students for them at various levels of the society. In the south, the Nguyên ran an administration similar to that of the north, though after war later broke out with the Trinh, Nguyên began to fashion a regime more appropriate to the south. Its examination system was geared to train men in three areas—administration, taxation matters, and ceremonial issues—a more practically oriented variant of the traditional Chinese model. Both used Confucianism to strengthen state control, as both sought control over all of Vietnam; the more Confucian a state one built, the more worthy of control over the entire land it appeared. Vietnamese Confucian scholars participated in reform efforts in the hope of stabilizing a bureaucracy that could control the military.  4
With the arrival of Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660) and several other Jesuits, Catholic missionary work began in earnest, although Catholics had been in the country in the 16th century. In 1627, Alexandre was sent north into Trinh territory to found a mission. When it closed down (1630), there were nearly 7,000 Vietnamese converts; ten years later there were said to be 39,000 Christians in Nguyên territory and 82,000 in Trinh lands. Alexandre lived in Vietnam for many years and learned the language extremely well; he compiled an early Latin-Vietnamese-Portuguese dictionary and is considered the pioneer in romanizing the Vietnamese language. This romanization system, quôc ngu, enabled missionaries to acquire Vietnamese more rapidly. By 1700 there were 45 Vietnamese Catholic priests.  5
Nguyên-Trinh warfare erupted, lasting for several decades and involving huge campaigns (1648, 1661, 1672) by Trinh forces before a tentative peace agreement was reached in the late 1670s. The Nguyên continued to gain control over the Meking Delta region.  6
Domestic troubles were complicated by the arrival of European trading vessels in significant numbers from the early 17th century, first from Portugal and soon thereafter from Holland. Relations with the West were initially less problematic than elsewhere in East Asia. From the early 17th century, though, Chinese traders outnumbered other foreigners in Vietnam; many Chinese families stayed for generations and established extensive trading networks throughout the region. English and French ships had arrived by mid-century. At first, the Trinh favored the Dutch while the Nguyen favored the Portuguese, but this changed over time. By century's end, the French were the most active in Vietnam. Catholic missionaries (Dominicans) had arrived in Vietnam by the middle of the 16th century, and Jesuits followed by the early 17th. Both Nguyên and Trinh tried to use Catholic monks, especially the Jesuits, to acquire Western scientific information, although the clear success of the missionizing effort also made both regimes rather apprehensive.  7
Despite efforts to centralize control over its villages, the Trinh had no choice but to allow village leaders to allot public lands within their ken. Eventually, local elites were avoiding taxation, adding to the onus on the poorer or less resourceful. By 1713, only a third of the populace was being taxed.  8
The Trinh appointed officials to get peasants who had left their lands to return home; by 1740, it was estimated that a third of all villages under Trinh control had been deserted. Decline of social and public order meant that less land was under proper cultivation and less food was being produced. Famines ensued and rebellions brewed. Similar corruption and decay of the economic infrastructure characterized Nguyên lands. This striking decline of social norms led to serious rethinking of traditional Vietnamese identity, including sharp words from women writers, such as Hô Xuân Huong. Local rebellions became endemic, often coalescing around Buddhist temples, with monks arming their followers. Confucianism, closely associated with the discredited state, was openly abused. A crisis ensued.  9
The Tây-son Rebellion, led by three brothers surnamed Nguyên from the village of Tây-son in south central Vietnam, erupted and quickly gained wide popular support. It first toppled the Nguyên regime in the south in 1778 and then moved on the Trinh in the north. The country was reunited. At first, an effort was made to prop up the Lê house, but that was eventually abandoned in 1787. Chinese armies invaded in 1788 in an attempt to seize Hanoi for the Trinh but were defeated by the brilliant general Nguyên Huê (1752–92), who proceeded to place himself on the throne.  10
The reign of Quang-trung saw an effort to rebuild the economy through agrarian reforms and the establishment of communal population registers to return the wandering populace to the land. Tribute relations with China began again. The civil service examinations were reinstated, but in addition to competence in literary Chinese, successful candidates also had to demonstrate competence in works written in the demotic nôm.  11
In an effort to stimulate commerce and trade, a unified currency was instituted during the 31 years of Tây-son rule. Industry was also encouraged. Initial results were positive but proved short-lived. There were no strong rulers after the death of Quang-trung. As in other Southeast Asian societies and unlike elsewhere in East Asia, Vietnamese women played a considerable role in commerce and trade, including traveling aboard trading vessels internationally.  12
Rebellious forces under Nguyên Anh (1762–1820) took Saigon with French help. Successive victories ended with the capture of Huê (1801). He took the throne as Gia-long (r. 1802–20) of the Nguyên dynasty.  13
One of the great works of Vietnamese literature, The Tale of Kiêu, was written by Nguyên Du (1765–1820) at the end of the 18th century. A long poem or novel written in verse form, it combined Chinese characters and Vietnamese nôm ideographs. (See Vietnam, 1802–1902)  14
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.