Monday, November 7, 2016

Expanding and Adapting: When the Vietnamese Moved South

                                          by Jim Goodman

rice cultivation in the Red River Delta
Students of Vietnamese history know that, after over a thousand years of Chinese occupation, in 938 the Vietnamese finally expelled the Chinese and re-established their independence.   Books then go one to tell the story of the dynasties that followed, their defeat of Chinese attempts to take back the country, including three massive Mongol invasions, and the establishment of a distinct state and culture.  This development suffers a jolt in 1407, when the Chinese invade and occupy Vietnam for twenty years until an indigenous guerrilla movement throws them out and its leader founds the Lê Dynasty.  After that, the Vietnamese gradually expand south.
Chùa Dâu, the first Buddhist temple
       This is a summary of the history of the Vietnamese people, but not that of what today constitutes the territory of Vietnam.  The events just narrated concerned only the northern third of the country, called Đi Vit.  The narrow middle section, Central Vietnam, was home to several Chăm kingdoms, while the swampy, very sparsely populated Mekong Delta was part of the Khmer Empire. 
       Đi Vit was the most populated and centrally organized.  With the construction of dikes and canals, ancient Vietnamese had turned the swamps of the Red River Delta into productive rice-growing farms, enabling the formation of states based on agricultural revenue.  The long Chinese occupation didn’t change this, but imposed a Confucian system for organizing both government and everyday life, and introduced Mahayana Buddhism as a state-sponsored religion.
       Chùa Dâu in Bc Ninh province, constructed in the 3rd century, was the first Buddhist temple.  Vietnamese adopted the religion whole-heartedly and it spread throughout the north.  Buddhist monks served as advisors to Đi Viêt’s first kings and the Lý Dynasty lavished funds on temple construction and religious endowments.  Taoism also had its adherents, but in any case, animism never disappeared from the Vietnamese psyche.  The village’s main deity was its own guardian spirit, who was once a living person, quite often a general who fought northern invaders.
Quố Tử Giàm, the National University
       Like their former overlords, the Vietnamese followed Confucian ideals in everyday life, such as ancestral veneration, social hierarchies, models of behavior and respect for learning.  Confucian norms also characterized the government.  In 1076 the Lý Court established a National University (Quc TGiàm) to train officials.  Confucian classics dominated education.
       Besides the periodic invasions from Chins, Đi Vit also had problems with the Chăm kingdoms on its southern frontier.  Chăm people began migrating into Vietnam from the Philippines and Indonesia two thousand years ago, establishing different kingdoms along the coast of Central Vietnam from the late 2nd century, influenced by their Khmer neighbors to the southeast.  The religion was Hindu, the temples modeled on Khmer architecture and sculpture, the rulers god-kings, identified with Shiva, with occasional monarchs, as in Cambodia, Mahayana Buddhists.
Chăm Court, Đà Nẵng Chăm Museum
       The main difference between Chăm and Khmer kingdoms was that the Chăm were also great seafarers and supplemented their agricultural economy and national wealth by trading in ports throughout Southeast Asia.  After the 8th century, many of those involved in the maritime trade with Indonesia became Muslim, though Hindu Chăm still comprised the majority of the population. 
        They were also a very bellicose people, involved in frequent wars with Khmer princes and each other, as mercenaries for one Khmer contender for Angkor’s throne against another, and sometimes in alliance with the Khmer against the Vietnamese.  Northern Chăm states made a habit of raiding southern Đại Việt districts from the time of the Chinese occupation. The eventual Vietnamese response was always a punitive expedition that forced the Chăm to cede their own northern districts to Đái Việt. When Vietnamese began settling in these acquisitions the Chăm would start raiding them, provoking another expedition and another annexation.
Bánh Ít Chăm towers in Bình Định
       By the 14th century, the Vietnamese had pushed the Chăm south of Quảng Nam.  But the largest Chăm kingdom, Vijaya, with its capital in present-day Bình Định province, rose to new strength later that century under the charismatic King Chế Bồng Nga.  For nearly two decades, starting in 1371, he launched several invasions of Đại Việt, sacked the capital twice and would have done so a third time, but was killed by Vietnamese artillery after a defector had revealed which ship he was on.
royal court, Lê Dynasty
       Some decades later, grossly underestimating his enemy’s strength, the King of Vijaya resumed raids on Đại Việt territory.  However, his opponent this time was Lê Thánh Tông, the Lê Dynasty’s most talented king, who was determined to end the Chăm menace once and for all.  With an overwhelming invasion force, backed by the latest artillery technology, he captured Vijaya, obliterated its defenders and annexed the state, extending Đái Viết’s borders down through Phủ̉ Yên.  Many Chăm fled by sea north to Hainan Island, east to Cambodia or south all the way to Acheh, Indonesia. Others moved to the hills or simply stayed, adopted Vietnamese names and assimilated to the new order.
       Lê Thánh Tông then set up an immigration system of military colonies to promote Vietnamese settlement in the conquered territories.  But aside from political exiles, runaway convicts, criminals and dubious adventurers—the usual frontier riffraff—nobody went south.  Vietnamese are very conservative and don’t like to leave their ancestral lands without a serious compelling reason.
countryside near Huế--the heartland of old Thuận Hoá
       After two decades of four successive depraved, bloodthirsty, reckless and incompetent teenaged kings (with absolute power), each of whom was killed at the end of his rule, in 1527 Mạc Đăng Dung, the Court security chief, seized power and started a new dynasty.  Lê followers escaped to Laos and several years later launched a protracted war against the Mạc regime.  Every few years contending armies marched across the Red River Delta territories, conscripting every able-bodied man in the villages, fought furious battles, beheaded all their prisoners and retreated to regroup and campaign again later.
       In many places there were no men left for agricultural work.  Dikes fell into disrepair, rice fields became weed patches and famines stalked the land.  This bleak situation provided the motives for emigration, not over-population.  Đại Việt’s population fell sharply in the 16th century, especially in the Delta.  Life became untenable in the ancestral homelands.
       Vietnamese had already been settling in Thuận Hoà, the area below Quảng Binh down to the Hải Văn Pass near Đằ Nẵng.  Their numbers multiplied in the 16th century, while some continued on to Quảng Nam and former Chăm areas further south.  They were refugees fleeing a land they had no hope of returning to, pioneers that included hardy farmers, skilled crafts workers, canny merchants and dedicated soldiers.  
Thiên Mụ Pagoda
      Up north, two rival families, the Trịnh and Nguyễn, allies and inter-married but suspicious of each other, led the Lê forces.  Trịnh Tùng commanded the forces that drove the Mạc out of the capital in 1592 and installed the restored Lê king as a figurehead, keeping real power himself.  His rival Nguyễn Hoàng had been governor of Thuận Hóa since 1558 and made it his own autonomous fief.  He set up an efficient administration, dominated by military officers, and essentially broke away from the Lê government by refusing to send taxes back.  Visiting the Perfume River in 1601, he sponsored the building of the Thiên Mụ Pagoda, still standing and a major tourist attraction.       
       When he died in 1613 the country was effectively split.  The Trịnh Lords of the north were not yet strong enough to compel the Nguyễn Lords’ submission, but Nguyễn Hoàng’s capable successor, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, knew the showdown was imminent.  He married off one of his daughters in 1623 to Chay Chetta II, King of Cambodia, to insure the supply of war elephants and rice to his small and vulnerable realm.  To secure his southern flank, he also married off another daughter to Pôrômê, the Chăm King of Panduranga, south of former Vijaya.
       The long-expected invasion came in 1627 and the southerners turned it back. They resisted more invasions in the next decades and made one unsuccessful campaign into the north before finally, in 1672, the two sides signed a truce, dividing the country at the Ghanh River just above Đồng Hợt, Quảng Binh. 
       These campaigns were intermittent, leaving the south long periods of peaceful development.  Vietnamese settlers, less tradition-bound and more open to changes than they were up north, made several adaptations in the new lands, where they would be a minority for generations to come.  Farmers found the soil in Thuận Hóa the soil was different from that up north.  The plow they used there was not very strong in the sole or the blade, light enough to be drawn by a single animal, and quite suitable for the less compacted soil of the Delta.  But it would not work well with the thick grass and harder soil of Thuận Hóa.  So they used the Chăm plow, stronger in the sole and better suited for the fields.  Then they improved it by adding a part to alter the angle of the blade.
Pô Nagar, the main Chăm goddess
whale temple wall, Bạc Liêu
       The immigrants took to eating some of their food raw, like the Chăm, and wrapping their hair in headscarves, male and female, like the Chăm.  They also adopted the Chăm way of capturing, training and using elephants.  Northern armies had been using elephants in warfare for a long time, but now Vietnamese, like the erstwhile Chăm kings, also employed them as royal entertainment and to execute criminals.
       In spiritual matters, too, Chăm culture influenced immigrant Vietnamese.  The latter erected new temples on the site of ruined Chăm temples because they accepted the Chăm belief that the particular site was charged with holy power.  They adopted the cult of the whale, Cá Ông, in Phú Yên and took it with them further south.  Most significantly, they incorporated Pô Nagar into their own cult of the Holy Mothers, one that had only become part of Vietnamese culture since the 16th century.  They renamed her Thiên Ý A Na.
Khleang Temple, Sóc Trăng, originally built 1533
       After the truce with the Trịmh Lords, the Nguyễn regime focused on the south.  By this time Cambodia had fallen into a long series of succession struggles among its royal princes.  Since Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên’s daughter married Chay Chetta II, Cambodia had become weaker and the Nguyẽn Lords’ realm stronger.  Rival princes needed outside help to win and in return for Vietnamese help; ceded provinces in the Mekong Delta over which the Cambodian government had had no control for centuries. In this way, the Vietnamese were able to set up direct administration of Saigon in 1698 and in the following century gradually annexed the entire Mekong Delta.
       The Mekong Delta at that time was mostly an uninhabited swamp.  The Khmer lived mainly near the mouth of the Mekong, far from Cambodia proper, in communities virtually autonomous since their founding.  Vietnamese migrants did not displace them, but moved into the adjacent areas and beyond, cleared the swamps and created big rice plantations.  Local Khmer by then were Theravada Buddhists and while that did not influence the migrants, they did adopt the custom of field shrines to the land spirit, the use of split palm leaf to make houses, Khmer farming tools and the types of rice grown.
Khmer house of split palm leaf
       The late 17th century also saw the introduction of Chinese settlers in the Mekong Delta, when political refugees were allowed to settle in Biên Hoa and Mỹ Tho.  Other Chinese refugees established the port of Hà Tiên, now on the southwest border of Cambodia.   Vietnamese were still a minority, but their numbers increased with the arrival of Vietnamese Christians fleeing periodic persecutions by the Nguyễn regime. 
       By the mid-18th century the Nguyến regime was in decline.  The Tây Sơb revolt, named after a village in south central Vietnam where it began, broke out in 1771 and in a few years overthrew the regime.  They later went on tọ conquer the Trịnh regime in the north.  The Nguyễn family escaped to the south, but the rebels caught up with then and massacred every member except the teenaged prince Nguyễn Ánh.  The next chapter of Vietnamese history is the story of how this indomitable prince waged a 25-year campaign to finally defeat his Tây Sơn opponents.
Chinese stage show, Hồ Chị Minh City
Chợ Lợn Chinese market, Hồ Chí Minh CIty
       After several reverses and recoveries, he consolidated control over the Mekong Delta and used this as his base to slowly, methodically advance north.  As his close friend and advisor, as well as link to Western military technology, was the French priest Pére Pigneau, Nguyễn Ánh tolerated the practice and spread of Christianity.  He also promised local autonomy to the Chinese, Khmer, Chăm and other non-Vietnamese communities in return for their support for his cause.   And he kept those promises after victory.
       With this multi-ethnic army, Nguyễn Ánh ultimately rolled into the northern capital in1802, terminated the Tây Sơn regime, founded the Nguyễn Dynasty and took the reign name of Gia Long.  His triumph was more than just the restoration of his family’s power.  This was a new country, Vietnam, bigger and more culturally enriched than Đại Việt, with the boundaries it still has today.
Vietnamese-made canal in rural Vĩnh Long
                                                                           * * *   
                  For the full story, see my book Delta to Delta:  The Vietnamese Move South

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