THE ROAD TO UNIFICATION
The Fall of the Le Dynasty
      The Later Le dynasty had been founded by one of thos most revered and legendary heroes of Vietnam, the Emperor Le Loi. Starting out as a commoner, he drove out the Chinese occupation and gained the 'mantle of Heaven' as the new Vietnamese emperor. By the 1600's however, time had taken its toll on the Le dynasty. Although the Emperor remained in place, revered and sacrosanct, the country was divided between feuding clans: the Trinh in the north and the Nguyen in the south. Both claimed to represent the Le Emperor, and both accused the other of usurping his power. In 1558 the Trinh forced the Nguyen into south Vietnam and gained control of the traditional national boundaries, exercising near total power, but still recognizing the Le Emepror in a nominal way. The war between the two clans was to last throughout the mid 1500's until the late 1700's.
      It was also during this period that the first Catholic missionaries began to arrive and convert Vietnamese people to Christianity. One of these men was Father Alexandre de Rhodes (right) who developed a Latin alphabet for the Vietnamese language in order to more easily translate Christian literature. This form of writing, called Quoc Ngu, was more easy for Europeans to work with than Chinese or the Chinese version of Vietnamese writing Chu Nom.
       Officially, all condemned the introduction of Christianity, particularly as Pope Innocent X had forbidden Asian converts to continue their Confucian rites and the doctrines of the religion stressed that God was above the Emperor. However, the Le were all but powerless and both the Trinh and the Nguyen each needed all the support they could get. So, in order to make use of the new Christians, while both condemned the religion officially, they looked the other way for the most part and made use of them.
      The Nguyen established themselves at Hue, starting what would become a succession of nine 'Lords of the south' as they looked for new opportunities and continued the rivalry with the Trinh. This led to the "Nam tien" or Southward movement, in which the Nguyen clan conquered the rest of what is now southern Vietnam and established a base of further resistance against the Trinh. Their territory was rich in rice production and soon they began to rebound. However, both the Trinh and the Nguyen were becoming increasingly unpopular. To carry on their war each taxed the local peasants heavily, conscripted large numbers into their armies and both failed to live out the Confucian principles of good and benevolent government. In time, the people began to look for a third option.
        This opportunity was seized upon in 1771 with the begining of the Tay Son uprising, led by the brothers Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu and Nguyen Hue. The defeated the Trinh, almost wiped out the Nguyen completely and by 1788 had defeated all opposition. Originally, they had stated their intent to
restore the Le Emperor Canh Hung, however, ambition later drove them to do what no one else had dared and they overthew the Le dynasty, taking power for themselves and naming Nguyen Nhac Emperor Thai Duc.
          However, the last emperor, Le Chieu Thong, was not about to give up. He called upon the Chinese Emperor Qienlung for help and in 1788 a massive Imperial Chinese army marched on and occupied Hanoi, restoring the Vietnamese emperor to the throne. However, though most Vietnamese recognized the legitimacy of the Le emperor, they would not abide Chinese occupation. Nguyen Hue (left) launched a surprise attack on the Qing army during the traditional Tet Holiday, completely destroying them and forcing Le Chieu Thong beck into China.
         Nguyen Hue then proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung and instituted many changes and reforms throughout the country. However, the brothers divided the empire among themselves and soon began to fight each other. Although their land reforms were popular, people still tended to view them as usurpers. They were also confronted by a new worry in the south, where the sole survivor of the Nguyen family was trying to return to power.
         Prince Nguyen-Phuc Anh (right) had fled to Siam for safety, but returned to oppose the Tay Son and rebuild the power of his family. He openly acknowledged the mis-rule of his unpopular ancestors and vowed to keep the traditional Confucian ethics which neither the Trinh, Nguyen or Tay Son ever had. In fact, the Tay Son were increasingly seen as a state more similar to a tyrannical police state than a principled, virtuous monarchy in the traditional form.
          During his time in exile, Prince Anh had made the friendship of Monsignor Pierre Pigneau de Behaine (below), who had saved his life from the Tay Son, who now worked energetically on his behalf. He took his son, Nguyen-Phuc Canh, to France to negotiate a treaty with King Louis XVI. The boy was a favorite at court and adored by Marie Antoinette. Ultimately, while a treaty was made, the French government was never able to fulfill her obligations. Behaine, however, continued to work to gain
support for Anh's cause. The Nguyen prince proved to be a capable ruler. He employed experienced foreign mercenaries to train his men in modern war and obtained large sums of money from French
merchant investors, eager for a return on their money. With these men and funds, Nguyen Anh built the first modern Vietnamese military and enriched the south Vietnamese economy, which was extremely helpful in portraying himself as a generous, benevolent ruler.
          He was also supported by the Christian community due to his friendship with Behaine and promise of religious tolerance. There was also the fact that the Tay Son had been broken by infighting and had lost most of the public support they had once had. Mobilizing all of his forces, as well as a modern, heavily armed naval squadron, Nguyen Anh began a campaign to wipe out the Tay Son and reunite all of Vietnam from north to south.
1