Archive for the Dynastic History Category

South Korea’s Syngman Rhee: A Descendent of the Ly Dynasty

Posted in Did You Know?, Dynastic History, Modern History, Politics with tags , , , , on October 12, 2010 by Ian Pham

Depending on your knowledge of this particular subject, this may or may not come as a shock to you.  Personally, I was quite surprised when I heard about this.  Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, is actually a Vietnamese descendent.  Rhee himself declared that he was of Vietnamese ancestry, tracing his origins all the way back to the royal Ly family.

How did the Ly land in Korea anyway?  In the 13th century, princess Ly Chieu Hoang abdicated the throne in favor of her husband, Tran Canh, marking the end of the Ly and the rise of the Tran Dynasty.  Many members of the Ly royal family disapproved, deeply resenting the Tran’s actions afterword.  Tran Thu Do, the man behind the Ly’s toppling, feared of rebellion.  Therefore, he decided to purge the entire Ly family. 

As a result, thousands of Vietnamese people were put to death.  Anyone bearing the name of Ly was hunted down and executed by the Tran.  In order to save his people, prince Ly Long Tuong gathered the remaining  members of the Ly and fled to Korea.  This courageous act salvaged the lives of several thousand Vietnamese people, who would later become proud members of the Korean nation.  One of these proud individuals would be none other than Syngman Rhee, the First President of South Korea.

In the 1950-60’s, Syngman Rhee contacted President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, seeking help in finding the origins of his ancestors.  President Diem accepted, assigning one of his ministers to assist President Rhee on his search for spiritual truth.  Unfortunately, since the tombs of the Ly family were located in North Vietnam, the proof of President Rhee’s ancestry could only be verified later on, after the death of Diem.

The fact is clear now: thousands of Korean citizens are actually of Vietnamese origin, the descendents of the Ly family.  Many Koreans, like Rhee Syngman, are very proud of their Vietnamese ancestry.  Every year, Vietnam enjoys visits by many Korean tourists, there to visit the shrine of their Vietnamese ancestors.  These people are the proud citizens of Korea, but they have never forgotten their Vietnamese beginnings.


The City of the Soaring Dragon: 1000 Years of Hanoi

Posted in Dynastic History, Modern History, Politics, Society with tags , , , , , , , on October 10, 2010 by Ian Pham

Today marks the 1000 year birthday of the city of Hanoi.  For the past week, the people of Vietnam have been celebrating the long life of this important historical setting.  Through various dynasties over the course of Vietnam’s history, Hanoi has most often been the capital of the country.  After a thousand years, through numerous wars and reconstructions, the city of Hanoi remains strong.  It is a symbol of resilience and strength, reminding us of the long and revering history of the Vietnamese people.

During imperial times, the city of Hanoi was named Thang Long, meaning “Soaring Dragon.”  The origin of Thang Long came from Emperor Ly Cong Uan.  As leader of the new independent nation of Dai Viet, Ly Cong Uan decided to move his capital to the city of Dai La.  In a dream, the emperor saw a golden dragon, soaring majestically in the sky.  When he awoke, the emperor took the dream as a heavenly sign, and therefore decided to bestow upon his city the name of Thang Long, the “City of the Soaring Dragon.”

The name “Hanoi” came in modern times, under the rule of the Nguyen Dynasty.  Emperor Minh Mang, arguably the only capable ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty, changed the name from Thang Long to Hanoi.  That leads us to the city we have today, where a celebration is currently taking place.  Red flags, pictures of Ho Chi Minh, the hammer and sickle, all integrated into the festivities in Vietnam.  Many people in Vietnam see little reason to be excited, having resentment for the Communists for their poor leadership and shameful representation of the people.

Even so, let’s just look past the embarrassment of the Communists and celebrate the history of our proud people.  Though the government has shamed our nation in so many different ways, the people of Vietnam have so much to be proud about.  The tradition of Viet has been under fire for thousands of years, in spite of that, we continue to stay strong.  The current situation will not last forever.  One day, Vietnam will become free.  Communism is dead, even the Communists know that.

Nguyễn An: The Man Who Built the Forbidden City

Posted in Did You Know?, Dynastic History with tags , , , , , on September 8, 2010 by Ian Pham

During the Ming Dynasty’s invasion of Vietnam in 1407, many Vietnamese professionals, such as poets, military experts, architects, engineers, etc., were captured and brought back to China.  Among them was a prisoner named Nguyễn An (Juan An in Chinese), a man who would later design and oversee the construction of the Peking Citadel and the entire Forbidden City of Beijing.

Before being shipped to China, Nguyễn An was a talented official under the rule of the Trần Dynasty.  However, he was later taken by the Ming Dynasty and brought back to China as a gift from the illegitimate Hồ Dynasty.  From then on, he would be known in Chinese history as Juan An, a eunuch of the Ming’s imperial court.

For his talents, Nguyễn An was given the task of constructing the Peking Citadel and the Forbidden City of Peking (Beijing).  The size of his workforce was literally in the millions, composing of soldiers, workers, and prisoners.  Interestingly, a large number of the laborers who worked on the Peking Citadel were also Vietnamese, captured by the Ming on their invasions.

The fact that Juan An (Nguyễn An) was really a Vietnamese person had been obscured in Chinese history for centuries.  It is only recently, with long and intricate research, did these facts began to surface.  Research made by the University of Cambridge clearly states that “the chief architect was an Annamese eunuch named Juan An (d. 1453) who also played a major role in rebuilding Peking,” (Mote & Twitchett, 1988: 241).  Annam is what Vietnam was referred to by the Chinese during this period, even though that was never our official name.  Woo!  That was interesting.  Maybe next week I’ll tell you who really invented the cannon!


Le Thanh Hoa, Du Mien.  Vietnam: The Springhead of Eastern Cultural Civilization. Trans. Joseph M. Vo.  San Jose: The Vietnam Library Publications, 2010.

Mote, Frederick W. & Denis Twitchett.  The Cambridge History of China, Volume 7, Part 1. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1988.


Correction: A typo indicating that the source by Frederick Mote and Denis Twitchett was published in 1998 has been fixed to its correct publication year, which was 1988. Sorry for any misunderstandings or confusion this may have caused.

Gia Long Nguyễn Ánh: Mediocre Emperor of a Mediocre Dynasty

Posted in Dynastic History, Modern History with tags , , on August 29, 2010 by Ian Pham

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.

Coming Soon: Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” the English Translation

Posted in Announcements, Dynastic History, Poetry with tags , , on August 27, 2010 by Ian Pham

The “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” is a famous poem composed by the brilliant strategist Nguyễn Trãi in 1428.  It is a very inspirational piece of writing and an important piece of Vietnamese  history.  I have been trying to find a complete English translation, but with little luck.  However, I can find it in Vietnamese, which isn’t very helpful for what I am trying to do here.

I originally wanted to find the English version of the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” and share it with you readers.  Sadly, it is nowhere to be found.  For that reason, I’ve decided to translate the poem myself, using the version provided in the history book Việt Nam Sử Lược by Trần Trọng Kim, a respected Vietnamese historian.  It just so happens that I have a copy of that book lying around.

Expect a full, accurate, and concise translation of Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” sometime in the near future.  I well reference my sources and make it as academic as possible.  It will be correct, it will be inspirational, and it will be worth the read.

– Ian Pham

The Poem That Mobilized an Entire Nation: Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo”

Posted in Dynastic History, Poetry with tags , , on August 20, 2010 by Ian Pham

Nguyễn Trãi (1380-1442)
When the Ming Dynasty invaded Vietnam in 1408, two formidable leaders rose to liberate the country and chase them back to China.  The first leader was a military expert and excellent warrior by the name of Lê Lợi, the second was a poet, intellectual, and political genius by the name of Nguyễn Trãi.  Together, Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Trãi mobilized the Vietnamese people and obliterated the Ming occupants, establishing the Lê Dynasty.

The two leaders achieved this objective by uniting the people of Vietnam, rallying everyone for the good of the nation.  This was not, by any means, an easy task to accomplish.  It took enormous efforts, blood, sweat, and tears to make the people believe.  One of the pivotal pieces of writing that incited the patriotism inside the hearts of the Vietnamese people was the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo”, a poem/political essay written by Nguyễn Trãi in 1428.

In his delicately written essay, Nguyễn Trãi outlined the reasons why Vietnam will prevail in face of foreign aggression, raising the spirits of the Vietnamese people, and ultimately leading them to victory.  Using the heroes of the past, Nguyễn Trãi showed the resilience of the Vietnamese people and their refusal to give up.  In a bold statement, he clarified that Vietnam has been independent of China since antiquity, and that Vietnam will continue to be free from China.  Not only that, Nguyễn Trãi also made clear that both countries stood on equal ground, regardless of strengths and weaknesses.

One of the famous lines in his poem says that, “Tuy mạnh yếu từng lúc khác nhau, song hào kiệt thời nào cũng có.”  This line literally states that, “Whether weak or strong at different times, a nation’s hero will always rise.”  I have used this quote in several articles, paraphrasing it into, “It is true that our nation has sometimes been weak and sometimes been strong, but never in time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”

The poem’s title, “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” is somewhat difficult to translate into english, since each character has it’s own significant meaning.  In Vietnamese, “Bình” means “Peace,” “Ngô” means “Idiots,” “Đại” means “Great,” and “Cáo” means “to inform or proclaim.”  If we put this together, the essay can be called “Great Proclamation For Peace From the Idiots.”  However, this is just a rough translation, since the context of these words have to be taken into consideration.

In the Vietnamese language, four simple words can be used to convey a powerful, complicated message.  Nguyễn Trãi used these four simple characters as the title of his poetic declaration.  The word “Ngô,” in this context, has more meaning than just “idiots,” it can be perceived as “troublemaker,” “disruptor,” or most fitting of all, “the invader.”  Taking this into consideration, “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” can translate into “The Great Declaration to Achieve Peace and Defeat the Invaders.”  Even so, this is still not the precise meaning of the poem.

In Vietnamese, the words “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” makes perfect sense, but in English… well that’s a whole different story. If I were to go deeper into this particular subject, it would take very long, much too long for a quick read.  All I want to do, for now, is bring to light the significance of this beautiful poetic achievement and the role it played in conclusively vanquishing the Ming invaders.

The name “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” can be interpreted in many different ways, as I have just demonstrated.  Believe it or not, I was only scratching the surface.  Of the many translations, I’ve decided, for now, to go with the “Great Declaration on the Victory Over China.”  Though it doesn’t 100% reflect the meaning of its Vietnamese counterpart, “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” it covers the basic aim of the original, to signify the defeat of the invaders and bring peace to the nation.   Also, it is easy to understand.

***For further reading, check out the article, “Nguyễn Trãi’s Bình Ngô Đại Cáo of 1428: The Development of a Vietnamese National Identity” by Stephen O’Harrow:

Trần Bình Trọng: The Definition of a Patriot

Posted in Dynastic History with tags , , on August 7, 2010 by Ian Pham

“I would rather be a demon of the South than a king to your Northern Nation.”

– Trần Bình Trọng, 1285

Trần Bình Trọng was a young general who fought for the Trần Dynasty, alongside the ranks of Trần Hưng Đạo, against the Yuan Dynasty during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.  As a talented young leader, Trần Bình Trọng was chosen to lead a division of Đại Việt’s forces against the northern invaders.

He was a capable general, helping the Trần defeat the Mongols on several occasions.  However, as a young commander, he was defeated in one crucial battle, captured by the Mongols, and taken back to China.

Though they were enemies, Kublai Khan recognized the talents of the young leader and tried to convince Trọng to defect to the Mongols.  To this offer, Trần Bình Trọng declined, stating his unwavering loyalty to his homeland.

For the second offer, Kublai offered a reward for Trần if he were to provide information on the nation of Đại Việt and their army.  Again, Trọng’s response was a resounding “no!”  Unafraid of the Mongol threats.

As a last attempt, the Mongols asked Trần Bình Trọng if he would like to become a prince of the Yuan Dynasty.  To this, Trần Bình Trọng responded by saying that he’d rather be a Vietnamese demon than a king of their country.

This was the last straw, the Yuan Dynasty could no longer stand the insult of General Trần Bình Trọng.  As a result, the Mongols had him executed.  Trần Bình Trọng sacrificed his life to defend the honor of the country.  His actions are remembered today by the people of Vietnam as the prime example of courage, loyalty, and patriotism.