The Insanity of Emperor Thanh Thai
         The reign of the last Vietnamese royal dynasty was hardly ever a peaceful one, neither was it often free of foreign, namely French, influences at the highest levels.  Vietnamese kings were set up an torn down in rapid succession, by both the French and the Vietnamese themselves in some cases. One such case was to involve a young man named Prince Buu Lan. He had been the seventh child born to the short-lived Emperor Duc Duc who had been deposed and later assassinated by the court regents after reigning nominally for only three days. Of the three kings who came after Duc Duc, two were assassinated and one was kidnapped to become the figurehead of a revolt against the French occupation. It is no wonder then that when the French enthroned the Emperor Dong Khanh he was extremely worried about any potential threats to his reign from among the Vietnamese elite.
         Emperor Dong Khanh put Prince Buu Lan and his mother, Empress Dowager Tu Minh, under close observation within the walls of Tran Vo palace. He simultaneously had to deal with the anti-French revolt led by his predecessor (or more accurately his captors) which was a long standing problem. Although he was the model colonial monarch, Dong Khanh suffered from frequent illnesses and hallucinations and as a result none of his children were allowed to succeed him. Instead, the royal family and the French administrators chose Prince Buu Lan. He was very young, inexperienced and expected to be quite pliable and easily influenced. Due to the unease surrounding their position and the scrutiny they had been subjected to Prince Buu Lan's mother was horrified at her son being chosen for the throne, terrified that he would meet the same fate as so many other of his predecessors on the Golden Dragon Throne.
         In light of the reputation he later gained, many questioned how someone like Prince Buu Lan could have been chosen. In all probability it was through the influence of the French Resident General's secretary, Diep Van Cuong, who was the lover of Buu Lan's aunt, Princess Cong Nu Thien Niem. It was Diep Van Cuong who had been charged with overseeing the process to select a suitable successor to the Dong Khanh emperor. Once upon the throne the new Thanh Thai Emperor soon disappointed those who had placed such high hopes on him.
         French officials asked to explain his character later commented that inheriting such a vast assortment of concubines at such a young age could not have been good for the healthy development of the new monarch. He soon began to exhibit behavior that was bizarre in the extreme, oftentimes even violent. However, Emperor Thanh Thai was a complex figure who could demonstrate intelligence and thoughtfulness. For instance, he was clearly unhappy about France holding final control over his country rather than himself and consistently refused to put his seal on any documents prepared by the French Governor. His attitudes were considered enough of a worry that when Sylvain Levecque became Resident General and placed agents throughout the imperial court to keep an eye on Thanh Thai and report any anti-French activities.
         The Emperor also broke alot of new ground, but while the French could have cared less, his actions did upset many of the more conservative and traditional members of the court. Thanh Thai would slip out of the palace in disguised to speak anonymously with his people, he was also the first emperor to cut his hair short in the Western style and to learn to drive an automobile. His support for French education over the traditional Confucian methods also caused a controversy among the conservative mandarins.  This is not, however, the behavior which ultimately caused him to be declared a lunatic.
         The French police files dealing with Thanh Thai are as numerous as they are bizarre. There were reports of a woman being found raped and chewed up all over, maids being strangled to death after a night with the emperor, a eunuch who was nearly flogged to death for not giving the emperor marbles and of Thanh Thai having an elderly maid beaten for drunkenness after forcing her to drink. Somewhat woman crazy, there were rumors that he was recruiting a secret female army and on one occasion paraded through the streets escorted by women on horseback. France, initially, was not terribly concerned by this behavior. In fact, it allowed them to dismiss the emperor as a lunatic and take over more powers themselves while Thanh Thai became a mere tourist attraction for writers seeking strange and shocking stories to relate to their readers about the strange world of southeast Asia. The imperial court, however, was deeply embarrassed, and though they could not utter a word against their "Son of Heaven" themselves, they eventually went to the French and demanded that something be done.
         On the first occasion of action being taken against Thanh Thai he was simply forced to take a vacation, during which time the aged and powerful Empress Dowager Tu Du held the reigns of power, but this did not help the situation as his antics continued after his return. Finally, the French arrested Thanh Thai while he was reportedly on his way to join the anti-French monarchist resistance movement under the royal claimant Marquis Cuong De in China. Since French interests seemed threatened, action was taken and Thanh Thai was declared insane and removed from the throne. The plan was to install a council of regency to rule in his absence, but perhaps remembering the terrible years of the regency following the death of Emperor Tu Duc, the loyal Prime Minister Truong Nhu Cuong firmly refused to do so and insisted that the throne be passed to one of the children of Emperor Thanh Thai. Ultimately, this was done and the young Prince Nguyen Vinh San took the throne as Emperor Duy Tan.
         However, the strange case of Emperor Thanh Thai did not end there. After being deposed he was reduced in rank to Duke and placed under house arrest on Vung Tau Island, taking with him a large number of women and children in 1907. There he continued to be problematic for both the French and the Vietnamese court. During the First World War he mocked the Legion of Honor, the most prestigious French order and was accused by some outraged French of purposely buying German goods during the war. He was also blackmailing his wife, the mother of Emperor Duy Tan , for money and was eventually taken to a French court for failing to pay back a debt of some 40,000 piastres. Embarrassed mandarins at court eventually paid the bill rather than see their former emperor suffer the indignity of going to debtors prison.
         All was not peaceful back at court however, and when the youthful Emperor Duy Tan was implicated in an attempted rebellion against the French, the opportunity was taken to be rid of both father and son. Thanh Thai was accused of being involved with the actions of his son, the Emperor, and both were exiled to La Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Emperor Duy Tan was reduced back to being Prince Vinh San but if exile and demotion were not bad enough, life with his father was to be no better. The day the two arrived on La Reunion, with their entourages, Prince Vinh San wrote to the French authorities demanding that his wife be sent back because she had committed adultery and incest with the former Emperor Thanh Thai. The French Governor General Albert Sarraut agreed with the mandarins to keep the embarrassing story out of public view and when the unfortunate Prince Vinh San requested a divorce shortly after, he was ignored.
Emperor Bao Dai and Duke Thanh Thai
         It was not until 1945 that Thanh Thai was allowed to return home, where he was kept under house arrest on Vung Tau, though he did meet the reigning Emperor, Bao Dai, in Saigon. He remained there until his death on March 24, 1954 after which he was laid to rest in the tomb he had built for his father Duc Duc. However, Thanh Thai remains a controversial figure. Most point to his many cruel oddities and denounce him as a lunatic, the quintessential "mad monarch" seen in countries all over the world, some even going so far as to call him the Vietnamese Caligula. Others though, will claim that all of that was a clever act and point to his poetry and political statements to argue that he was simply playing the fool and was actually a great Vietnamese patriot. The truth may be somewhere in between, but there can be no doubt that of all the emperors of the last Vietnamese dynasty, Thanh Thai was certainly the most unusual and colorful of them all.
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