|Facts and Fiction Concerning GOVERNMENT in the Vietnamese Monarchy|
| It has become a very disasterous, yet all too common modern habit to equate anything of the past with inferiority. All too often we view anything old as negative and anything new as good and inevitable. We sometimes wonder how our poor ancestors managed to survive living back in those horrible "dark ages" before we all became as "intelligent" as we are now. As any good traditional conservative will tell you, in many ways this is total nonsense. Human nature does not change overnight, and we would not be here today if those who have gone before us did not manage to establish some highly advanced methods of organizing human society.
Particularly in Vietnam, where it is often taught that the world didn't start turning until Uncle Ho founded the 'Democratic Republic of Vietnam' in 1945, there has been a concerted effort to portray any and all pre-Communist governments (which were all monarchist) as backward, feudal tyrannies (as opposed to a progressive, Marxist tyranny I suppose). This can be understood as an innocent misconception only up to a certain point. It is true that the traditional Vietnamese government, embodied by the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors, had taken a severe plunge in public opinion due to their history of association with the French, particularly in the latter years of the imperial era under Khai Dinh and Bao Dai. Many if not most Vietnamese had come to view their traditional government as a failure. At best they were powerless figureheads intended to give a degree of legitimacy to colonial rule, or at worst they were blatant French collaborators. Exactly how fair this attitude was is discussed elsewhere, but the simple fact is, the educated class of Vietnamese society was already biased to their ancestral government when Communism began to spread among them. The result was an unfair image of the pre-colonial imperial government.
Today, the monarchy is often dismissed out of hand as an oppressive, totalitarian institution, when in fact the truth is quite the opposite. While it is true that the Emperor was an absolute monarch, the "father and mother" of the country, the highest priest, supreme judge and the "Son of Heaven" in actuality his power extended scarcely farther than the walls of the Dai Noi. The vast majority of the people were unaware of national politics and the Emperor had almost no involvement at all in their daily lives save in times of national emergency, usually a war. Taxation was never enforced to the same level as China or Japan, and even in the Nguyen era taxes were comparitively light (at least until the French arrived). The village was the basic societal unit and most were almost totally self-sufficient and had no need of government interference other than the occasional road or irrigation system project.
The Emperor, while seemingly absolute, was largely kept from arbitrary rule by the very nature of his claim to power. The "Mandate of Heaven", which conferred his legitimacy to rule, also imosed on him very high standards of behavior and the principles of Confucian morality for leaders, a system known as the "Kingly Way" which generally stressed virtue and benevolence. The Emperor was a semi-religious figure and so always had religous authorities balancing out his own position. Likewise, the size and population of the country, combined with poor communication, meant that he could not have harassed his people to great extent even if he wanted to. For example, as an illustration of the un-obtrusive nature of the traditional governments of the area, as late as the 1950's more than half of the people of Laos were reportedly unaware that they were even living in Laos. The presence of the king or emperor was usually only felt in a time of crisis.
Most day to day business of government was handled on the local level with village elders and maybe religous leaders and the occasional local mandarin in charge of their little area. The old saying was that the power of the Emperor bowed to village tradition. However, the Emperor did see to it that a social safety net existed which many people even of today would find familiar. There were communal farmlands with a portion of the land set aside to be used solely for the care of the elderly, widows, orphans and the sick. Similarly, if there was a bad season of crop production, the Emperor would not collect taxes from the farmers at all. They also forbid rice exports so that in the event of a famine there would be granaries filled with rice to distribute to the people. The Nguyen also discouraged the growth of huge estates, anxious as they were to avoid rivals from a powerful, land-owning aristocracy.
Naturally, all of this changed with the arrival of the French when the country was converted to being simply a source of raw materials for French factories and a market for French goods. Government regulations were imposed, taxes went through the roof and rice was exported at record levels, even if the people starved. Naturally, the French kept native officials in place in the hopes that the people would blindly submit to such abuse; they did not, but it did manage to ruin the reputation of the imperial system to a whole generation of young Vietnamese. However, we cannot forget and we cannot dismiss the fact that for thousands of years before anyone in Vietnam ever heard of Communism, capitalism, democracy or republics, they had a system of government which served them well for thousands of years, one that was not oppressive nor heavy-handed but one which focused on moral leadership, leadership by example and one that did take care of the people and ensure them a stable and safe environment.