Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Splendor and Neglect: The Tombs and Times of the Early Nguyễn Emperors

                                                         by Jim Goodman

       Huế was the last imperial capital of Vietnam.  It was a natural choice for the newly established Nguyn Dynasty regime, for the re-unified nation’s borders now stretched from north to south to what they are today.  Huế was roughly in the middle of the country and had already seen service, officially since 1744, as a capital for the Nguyễn Lords realm, which comprised everything in Vietnam south of the Ghanh River in Quảng Binh province.
mausoleum of Gia Long, Nguyễn Dynasty founder
       With the fall of the Nguyễn Lords’ regime and the triumph of the Tây Sơn insurrection, it became the capital of self-proclaimed Emperor Quang Trung in 1788.  But while the Tây Sơn controlled the north and center of the country, they never established a permanent presence in the south.  They did catch up with the Nguyễn royal family in 1777 and executed all but one of them.  The sole escapee was the teenaged Nguyễn Ánh.
       For the next 25 years Nguyễn Ánh pursued his relentless campaign against the Tây Sơn.  He won and lost Saigon a few times but by 1792, the year Quang Trung died, he had a base in Saigon and ten years later in 1802 marched into Hanoi, deposing the last Tây Sơn emperor.  Nguyễn Ạnh then announced the inauguration of a new dynasty and renamed himself Emperor Gia Long.  As for the country’s new capital, it would not be Hanoi, as it had been traditionally, but Huế, the capital of his forefathers. 
       Gia Long’s first order was the construction of the Citadel on the north bank of the Perfume River that runs through the two parts of contemporary Huế.  The imperial audience hall, royal residences, theater and family temples lay inside the walls, which were surrounded by a moat.  The commoners, shopkeepers and craftsmen lived east of the Citadel or on the other side of the river.
row of guardian statues
Court mandarin, Gia Long's tomb
       Gia Long modeled his administration and new Code of Law on that of Qing Dynasty China, emphasizing Confucian precepts.  That included state rituals like the Sacrifice to Heaven the emperor performed every three years at Nam Giao, following a procession over the river and south about 3 km.  He set up six ministries to run the government, but the Huế Court actually only directly governed the central provinces.  He left his favorite generals in charge of the north and the south.
graceful buildings of Minh Mạng's mausoleum
       He also picked the site of his tomb by riding an elephant to explore possibilities south of the city.  In 1814 he selected a spot 16 km south of the palace, in a pine forest beside a pond, with a view of distant mountains.  He died in 1820, when the compound was all but finished.  His body and that of his chief imperial consort (the Nguyễn Dynasty didn’t have Queens) lie in simple twin tombs in a separate courtyard. 
       The buildings are all aligned on a horizontal axis, one of the features, along with a tranquil natural environment, to be repeated in the mausoleums of succeeding emperors.  Another is the pair of white towers that, in this case, stand across the pond from the temple.  A third is the statues of mandarins, soldiers, horses and elephants that line opposite sides of the main courtyard.
       His successor Minh Mạng was an even more dedicated Confucian.  He viewed himself as an intellectual and all but memorized the works of Confucius and Mencius.  He encouraged education and promoted tuồng theater, the Vietnamese version of Chinese opera, because its stories emphasized Confucian virtues.  The adoption of these virtues, he believed, would establish the harmony essential to a nation and its society.
the natural setting of Minh Máng's mausoleum
       Certainly the principle of harmony dominated the planning of Minh Mạng’s mausoleum.  Geomantic experts took 14 years to find the right location, just over the other side of the Perfume River.  The geomantic team’s leader won a double promotion from the emperor, who died soon afterward, in January 1841.  Construction was completed less than three years later and, in general, the result takes the best ideas from Gia Long’s mausoleum and perfects them. 
       The walled compound lies in a forest glade, with a rectangular peninsula jutting out into the Lake of Impeccable Purity.  The buildings are all laid out symmetrically on an east-west axis, beginning with the Honor Courtyard, flanked by statues of mandarins, soldiers, horses and elephants, then the Stele House and finally the wide-roofed family temple.  Crossing a narrow part of the lake here, the next stop is the elegant, two-story Pavilion of Pure Light, with frangipani trees on either side, as well as two tall white towers like those at Gia Long’s tomb.  In front of it lies a crescent-shaped pond and over its bridge on the hillside is Minh Mạng’s tomb, certainly a most serene location.
the Emperor carried to Nam Giao
Pavilion of Pure Light
       The layout of Minh Mạng’s mausoleum fully embraces the Confucian concepts of order, balance and harmony.  Unfortunately, these concepts did not carry over into Minh Mạng’s administration so much.  Gia Long had allowed the Chinese, Khmer and Chăm communities to retain local autonomy, keeping a promise he made when they joined his side in the war against the Tây Sơn regime.  He also granted autonomy to the northern and southern thirds of Vietnam. 
the lantern dance, a Nguyễn Court favorite
       Minh Mạng upended these arrangements by further centralizing power and expanding his own role.  He insisted on personally vetting, in private meetings, all high government and military officials before allowing them to take office.  He abolished the autonomy of the Mekong Delta provinces, sparking a revolt that he put down with stern ferocity.  He took over the administration of the last Chăm state of Panduranga and began a policy of forced assimilation in the Khmer and Chinese areas.
       He expanded the regime’s penchant for pageantry and spectacle as well.  He added hundreds of participants to the procession to Nam Giao for the Sacrifice to Heaven.  He patronized the royal theater and frequently attended performances of tuồng dramas, lantern dances, acrobatic acts and classical music shows.  He watched the battles staged in front of the Citadel between an elephant, representing the throne, and a tiger, symbolizing the emperor’s enemies.  The elephant always won, of course, but in 1830 a rebel tiger attacked Minh Mạng.  He escaped harm, but then ordered the construction of a Royal Arena across the river, where the contests were subsequently staged.
Thiệu Trị's mausoleum
       He was also an extremely amorous emperor, with 33 wives and 107 concubines, with whom he fathered 142 children.  With his pursuit of pomp and entertainment by day and sex by night, one wonders how much time he spent in contemplating the problems of the country he governed with such concentrated autocracy.  He had shut himself off from Western influence just at the time when Western powers, particularly France, were gearing up their colonial ambitions.
       Gia Long had also closed the country to Western influence, other than military technology.  But Westerners, particularly his long-time friend the Catholic priest Père Pigneau, had been instrumental in helping him win the throne.  In return, he tolerated the existence and even expansion of Christianity among his subjects.  Minh Mạng reversed this policy, arrested foreign missionaries and persecuted Christians, giving the French an excuse to get involved.  
       Things got worse with his successor, Thiệu Trị, who reigned from 1841-1847, a chip off the old block and just as determined as his father to follow strict Confucian orthodoxy, ignore the West and stamp out Christianity. A ban on its practice provoked a French naval expedition to sail into the harbor at Đà Nẵng in 1847 demanding its revocation.  Not getting acquiescence fast enough, they shelled and destroyed the coastal forts and sank three Vietnamese ships.
Stele House, Thiệu Trị's mausoleum
       Enraged, Thiệu Trị ordered the execution of all Christians in Vietnam, but died soon after the incident and the edict was never carried out. The construction of his tomb took place the following year.  It lies in a tranquil rural area 7 km south of Huế, divided into two sections, smaller than Minh Mạng’s, has no compound wall but basically features the same characteristics.  Here also is a courtyard with statue ranks of elephants, horses, soldiers and mandarins, ponds beside the compounds, two tall white towers, this time flanking the Stele House.  As fond of Chinese literature as his father, Thiệu Trị was himself a prolific poet, and several of his compositions adorn the temple walls.
       Another trait he shared with his father was multiple wives and concubines.  In his short life of 37 years he fathered 29 sons and 35 daughters.  His second son became Emperor Tự Đức at 19 years of age and reigned 35 years.  Brought up to revere the Confucian classics, he became more immersed in them after he was emperor.  He spent long hours reading them, composed poems himself, and held lengthy discussions with his mother, also a literary aficionado, on the lives and morals of ancient Chinese heroes, sometimes scribbling down her comments in a notebook.  He was at least equally devoted to theater and was responsible for the writing and production of a couple of the longest tuồng dramas ever, with over a hundred scenes each. 
Stele House, Tự Đức's mausoleum
       In frail health throughout his life, he made virtually no tours of his country and relied totally on squabbling ministers.  In foreign policy his view was that the isolationism that was good enough for his predecessors was good enough for him.  He even banned all foreign trade.
       Unfortunately for him and his country, it wasn’t.  In these rapidly changing times the classic Confucian model of government wasn’t going to work anymore.  It was already failing in China.  The West was growing stronger all the time, in the mood for expansion, and Vietnam’s isolationism only undermined its ability to deal with the threat.  Having a ruler more concerned with the production of a play and the architecture of his mausoleum than discontent in the countryside and threats to the nation’s sovereignty didn’t help.  
       In 1862 the French pressured Tự Đức’s government to cede Saigon and three provinces.  Tự Đức continued to resist his ministers’ calls for reform, French ambitions grew and in 1883, the last year of the emperor’s life, the French forced the Huế government to recognize the entire southern third of the country as a French colony. 
a palace while Tự Đức lived, the family temple after he died
       Construction of Tự Đức’s mausoleum was completed halfway through his reign and he used to spend much leisure time there.  The walled compound, just 5 km south of the city, features a lake on its eastern side, opposite buildings aligned on an east-west axis.  Tự Đức used what is now the main temple as a palace while he was alive and this compound includes a royal theater and quarters for the emperor’s concubines.  He also liked to drink wine and compose poems at an elegant pavilion beside the lake.  His tomb and Stele House are in a smaller compound north of the temple.  Like Ming Mạng’s mausoleum, that of Tự Đức exemplifies harmony and grace in design.
       Tự Đức had scores of consorts, but was apparently sterile, for he had no children.  A violent faction quarrel broke out among the Court mandarins, with the next three successors murdered.  The French proceeded to annex central and northern Vietnam, in 1885 setting up ‘protectorates’ in each.  When the young Emperor Hàm Nghi protested, French troops drove him from the Citadel, ransacked the royal palace, stole everything of any value from gold ornaments to mosquito nets, and from then on, other than the brief Japanese occupation, controlled Vietnam until 1954.
actors as the Nguyễn royal family at the Huế Festival
       Time passed.  People stopped looking after the mausoleums.  20th century wars wrecked damage and after 1975, the government couldn’t care less about the Nguyễn legacy.  Only from 1990 did attitudes begin changing.  Huế people had always been proud of their Nguyễn Dynasty relics and started pushing for restoration and preservation.  The government changed its attitude and began embracing anything characteristic of Vietnam’s special historical and cultural identity. 
       Since early this century the city has also hosted a bi-annual Huế Festival.  With international participation, the program includes everything from Thai classical dances to Germans walking on towering stilts, and on the local side kite-flying contests and village crafts competitions.  Performances at the Citadel and other venues feature Vietnamese dances, new and old, but also actors dressed in imperial garments impersonating the Nguyễn royal family attending the shows, and an early morning re-enactment of the procession to Nam Giao and the Sacrifice to Heaven.
       Nowadays most of the Nguyễn legacy damaged by war has been repaired and mausoleum buildings crumbling from neglect have been restored.  The people of Huế are pleased.  They like having reminders of the city’s past glory around them and in good condition.  They still take pride in Huế’s history. Whatever the failings of the Nguyễn Dynasty, it was the only one Huế could call its own.

the lakeside pavilion where Emperor Tự Đức drank wine and composed poems
                                                                                * * *           
     A stop in Huế is part of the program on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through the country.



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