Gia Long Nguyễn Ánh: Mediocre Emperor of a Mediocre Dynasty

The Nguyễn Dynasty (1802-1945/French Occupation)

The Fall of the Tây Sơn

After the death of Emperor Quang Trung in 1792, his son Canh Thinh Quang Toan stepped up to succeed his throne.  He was a smart kid who reflected the qualities of his late father.  The problem however, is that the boy was only ten years old, not yet ready to run an entire country.  For this reason, the Tây Sơn Dynasty was unable to sustain itself.  Without the guidance of a strong leader, the dynasty become highly vulnerable.

The defeated Nguyễn lords, who took refuge in the south, recognized the sudden weakness of the Tây Sơn Dynasty and saw the chance to strike back.  During the rise and reign of Emperor Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung, the Nguyễn lords have been continuously obliterated by his Tây Sơn Army.  Now that he was gone, the opportunity came for another attempt by the Nguyễn faction to seize power.

The Last Nguyễn Lord

After more than a decade of living in hiding, the Nguyễn faction were ready to come out and fight.  Under the leadership of Nguyễn Ánh, the last royal survivor of the vanquished family, the Nguyễn ignited another war against the politically fragmented Tây Sơn Dynasty.  Sadly, the Tây Sơn would lose this time.

With the help of the French colonists, Nguyễn Ánh defeated Canh Thinh, the teenage son of the late emperor Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung, and consolidated his power in 1802.  He then took the name of Emperor Gia Long and proclaimed the establishment of the Nguyễn Dynasty.

Gia Long and the Nguyễn Dynasty

After his inauguration, Gia Long would undo all of the progress that Nguyen Hue had made in the previous decade.  As the new ruler, Gia Long repealed the new education system created by Quang Trung, putting back the centuries-old Confucianist examination system of the Chinese.  In the economic realm, Gia Long would cut off the ties that Nguyễn Huệ had established with the west, turning inward and looking to China for primary support.

When Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung was still alive, the Qing Dynasty did not dare to invade Vietnam.  The Tây Sơn Emperor wielded the confidence and power to sway the Chinese.  Not only did Quang Trung not pay tribute to the Qing Empire, he even convinced them to cede the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi to Vietnam.  Gia Long Nguyễn Ánh did not have these capabilities.  Under Gia Long’s Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam became a tributary state to China and did not receive the provinces that were promised to Nguyễn Huệ.

The Great Leap “Backwards”

Gia Long’s reactionary ways shifted the Vietnamese nation in another direction, away from the path of modernization led by the Tây Sơn Dynasty.  From Quang Trung, the Nguyễn Dynasty inherited an aspiring state with an improved economy, a powerful army, and a developing navy.  The foundation was there, Vietnam was rising.  Unfortunately, Emperor Gia Long could not utilize the resources of his great predecessor and lacked the intelligence and mental capacity to capitalize on the numerous opportunities presented to him.

Instead of using the myriad of talented people under Quang Trung’s administration, Gia Long decided to take revenge on them.  As an act of vengeance for his numerous humiliations at the hands of Nguyễn Huệ and the Tây Sơn army, Gia Long purged all of Quang Trung’s men and erased all the progress that the Tây Sơn Dynasty had done in the past 12 years.

After revoking the reforms, the Nguyễn Emperor re-instituted the Confucian governmental model and mimicked the Chinese form of government, piece by piece.  The “Nguyễn Code,” which are the laws of the nation, were copied almost directly from the “Qing Code” of China.  When fortresses and temples were built in Vietnam, they were modeled after the Chinese buildings as well.  In Quang Trung’s time, western ideas were respected and debated, but under Gia Long, they were dismissed and casted aside, replaced by teachings obsolete for centuries.

Isolationism and the West

Gia Long modeled everything after the Qing Dynasty, turning Vietnam into a mere copy of the Chinese Kingdom.  Through countless uninspired and slave-like policies, Emperor Gia Long Nguyễn Ánh had miraculously stunted the rise of the Vietnamese Empire and became a tributary state to the Kingdom of Qing.  Because of these actions, the Vietnamese nation would remain stagnant for the next hundred years, falling prey to the imperialism of the western colonists.

Gia Long’s predecessor, Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung, had a great vision.  He wanted a strong navy, backed up by a powerful army, to deter and withstand the influence of the west.  At the same time, Quang Trung wanted his people to learn from the west, using their modern ideas to move the country forward.  Gia Long did not have this vision, or even a plan, to make the country powerful.  All he had in mind was the power of the crown, and the approval the Chinese Empire.

The backward thinking of Gia Long and his successors would become detrimental to the nation of Vietnam, opening the doors for western exploitation and the conquest of the French.  For more than half of the Nguyễn Dynasty’s reign, from 1859 all the way to 1945, the country was colonized and ruled by the invaders from France.  It was only until the end of World War II that the country became temporarily free, and finally 1954 when the Viet Minh defeated the French, once and for all, at the Battle of Dien Binh Phu.

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