The Tây Sơn Dynasty (1788-1802)There is a reason why I chose the words “incredible” and “unbeatable” to describe this next individual. Besides being the general that never lost, Emperor Nguyễn Huệ was the only man with the ambition of turning Vietnam into a modern superpower. Nguyễn Huệ emerged from the ashes of the Tây Sơn Rebellion to become Emperor Quang Trung, a visionary leader who would bring the Kingdom of Vietnam onto the brink of greatness.
A Nation in Peril
Before the rise of the Tây Sơn movement in 1770, Vietnam was facing a troubling period of lawlessness and civil destruction. After three centuries, the Lê Dynasty had crumbled into a puppet government of two governing factions, the Trịnh Lords in the North and the Nguyễn Lords in the South. Both the Trịnh and Nguyễn parties were afflicted with rampant corruption, tyranny, and criminal activities. As a result, the country was ravaged by anarchy.
The story begins with three brothers, Nguyện Nhạc, Nguyễn Lữ, and Nguyễn Huệ. Born in the western mountains of Bình Định, these brothers were well versed in literature, well taught in military, and well trained in the martial arts. Together, the trio came to be known as the Tây Sơn brothers. The name “Tây Sơn” literally means “Western Mountains,” attributing to their place of origin.
As they witnessed the civil strife of their country, the Tây Sơn brothers decided to take action. In order to save Vietnam from its self-destructive path, the Tây Sơn brothers would have to rise against the disgraceful governments and punish them for what they have done to the nation. The Tây Sơn brothers established an army from their village, quickly drawing support from nearby villages as well.
The Tây Sơn Rebellion
As the support for the Tây Sơn grew larger, so did their army. The people of Vietnam were also fed up with the tyrannical rule of the Trịnh and Nguyễn Lords and were happy to join the Tây Sơn movement. Interestingly, the slogan that the Tây Sơn ran by was “seize from the rich, distibute to the poor,” gaining them mass support from the peasant population.
Now that they had a powerful army, the time was right for the Tây Sơn to attack the ruling classes. First off were the Nguyễn Lords, since they controlled the south and were in closer proximity to the Tây Sơn. With Nguyện Nhạc as the leader, the Tây Sơn army attacked the Nguyễn controlled areas of Qui Nhơn and Gia Định (early Saigon), destroying the Nguyễn rulers and returning their land to the farmers.
With the Nguyễn Lords out of the way, the Tây Sơn moved north, swiftly defeating the Trịnh Lords as well. After eliminating the factions, the Tây Sơn brothers returned the throne to the emperor Lê Chiêu Thống, acknowledging him as the one true legitimate ruler of Vietnam. However, when the Tây Sơn brothers left, the Lê emperor lost control of his kingdom again, the same way as before. Once again, the country descended into civil chaos.
So far a second time, the Tây Sơn brothers had to march north and punish the corrupted officers of the Lê Dynasty. This time however, the brothers will not simply leave. Though they still acknowledged the emperor as the legitimate ruler, the brothers divided the territories of Vietnam among themselves, becoming the new de facto rulers of the country. Nguyện Nhạc controlled the North, Nguyễn Huệ controlled the Central, and Nguyễn Lữ controlled the South.
The Betrayal by Lê Chiêu Thống
When Lê Chiêu Thống realized that he had lost his kingdom yet again, the cowardly emperor fled to China, asking the Qing Dynasty to help him reclaim his kingdom. The Manchus’ response to Emperor Le’s request was a definite “yes!” The Qing Emperor was amazed by the foolishness of Lê Chiêu Thống, immediately taking this chance to capture Vietnam.
So with a large invading army, the Qing Dynasty marched into Vietnam and seized the capital city, Thăng Long. The Qing assured Lê Chiêu Thống that he was safe, and that the Manchus would handle everything for him. The weak-minded Lê Chiêu Thống accepted, becoming a puppet of the Qing and handing the entire country over to the invaders from China.
Emperor Quang Trung
Outraged by this betrayal, the Tây Sơn army, now under the leadership of Nguyễn Huệ, mobilized and prepared to attack the Qing occupants. Before the Tây Sơn marched north however, a leader needed to be chosen. With the support of his soldiers and the population, Nguyễn Huệ accepted this role, taking the name of Emperor Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung. As the new emperor of Vietnam, Quang Trung sent a warning to the Qing, promising to move his army into Thăng Long in fourteen days.
When Quang Trung’s message reached the Qing occupants at Thăng Long, they simply dismissed it as an empty threat. Marching from Central Vietnam to Thăng Long in only fourteen days? Taking on such an impossible task was laughable in the eyes of the Qing. To Quang Trung however, this was just another obstacle to overcome.
With his indomitable spirit, fierce determination, and the unbreakable support of the Tây Sơn Army, Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung did the impossible and reached Thăng Long from Bình Định in the time he promised. However, he decided to hide his presence from the Qing, who were still unaware of his arrival. The Qing were getting too comfortable, giving Quang Trung the perfect chance to launch a surprise attack.
The Lunar Offensive
When Quang Trung and his forces reached the outskirts of Thăng Long, he refrained from attacking the Qing right away. As a strategic maneuver, Nguyễn Huệ decided to wait until Tết, the Lunar New Year, to battle the Manchu, giving all of his soldiers time to rest in the meantime. It was during Tết when the Qing were most unprepared, distracted by the festivities of the Lunar New Year.
On that night, while the Qing soldiers were celebrating, the forces of Nguyễn Huệ struck. The ferocious surprise by the Emperor Quang Trung left the Qing army dumbfounded. In the five day battle that followed the Lunar Offensive, the smaller army of Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung , consisting of only 100,000 soldiers, astonished the disoriented forces of the Qing army, composed of more than 200,000 soldiers.
As a result of his excellent leadership and brilliant strategies, the Tây Sơn Army destroyed the Manchu invaders, driving them out of Vietnam. With his mission complete, Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung unified the entire country in 1788, under the wing of the Tây Sơn Dynasty. After his rise, Emperor Quang Trung immediately instituted ground-breaking reforms through all corners of Vietnam, drawing out an ambitious plan to modernize the entire country.
The Emperor’s Plan
In only four years, from 1788-92, Emperor Quang Trung was keen on transforming Vietnam into a modern superpower. Nguyễn Huệ wanted to rebuild the army of Vietnam, starting the transition from blades and arrows to more modern weaponry, such as guns and other firepower. The navy was also an important part of his agenda. Emperor Quang Trung aspired to create a powerful navy, using newly developed weapons and technology.
Emperor Nguyễn Huệ then drew out plans to reform the education system of Vietnam. From the start, he realized that the teachings of Confucius had become obsolete, useless in terms of economic growth and societal benefits. As a new way of thinking, Quang Trung pushed for an education system similar to the west, where science and technology would be the main focus of the enlightened mind. The Chinese writing characters were replaced with the Nôm characters of ancient Viet, promoting the literature of Vietnam and rejecting that of the Han.
In order to modernize the country, Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung understood that the economy was important. To stimulate international trade, the emperor began to establish closer relations with the west. As the ruler of an aspiring nation, Emperor Quang Trung was open to having closer ties with the European powers and America. He was tolerant of the western thinkers, allowing his people to come in contact with their ways of thinking.
The Victory Over the Qing
The final item on his agenda, was the containment of China. In beginning to modernize his military, Emperor Quang Trung sent a clear signal to the Qing, that if they ever tried to invade again, the losses would be much, much greater than the gains. Every Chinese Dynasty in the past demanded that Vietnam send gifts as a sign of respect to the Chinese Empire, symbolizing their tributary relationship. Nguyễn Huệ, however, rejected the Qing’s demands, clearly stating that Vietnam and China are equal, and that it was out of the question to comply with such a trivial request.
Nguyễn Huệ wanted more than just the containment of China, he also aimed to retake the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong (Quảng Tây and Quảng Đông). In ancient times, Guangxi and Guangdong were part of Vietnam. However, the Han Dynasty captured these provinces during their invasion of Nam-Viet. For this reason, Emperor Quang Trung was determined to take them back.
Using his diplomats, Nguyễn Huệ demanded the Qing return these provinces, and that failure to comply would result in the invasion of China by the army of Vietnam. Fearing further conflicts with the Vietnamese Emperor, the Qing Dynasty reluctantly accepted. With his plans in motion, the future looked bright for Vietnam. In four years of his reign, Vietnam was starting its transition from a medieval kingdom into a powerful modern state. However, before Quang Trung could complete his ambitious goals, tragedy struck.
Nguyễn Huệ’s Legacy
After four short years of rapid progress, Vietnam was struck a fatal blow in 1792. For unknown reasons, Emperor Quang Trung had simply passed away. No one could figure out the causes of his death. Some theorized that it was an illness, others believe he was assassinated. The first idea seems unlikely, since the emperor was only 40 years old at the time. He was an athletic individual who was well trained in the martial arts. The second reason appears more plausible, since Nguyễn Huệ had many enemies, defeating the lords of Trịnh, Nguyễn, and even the Manchu Qing.
Emperor Quang Trung was a military genius who never lost a single battle. Under his leadership, the Tây Sơn defeated the Trịnh and Nguyễn Lords, the Qing Dynasty, and even obliterating the invading armies from Khmer and Siam. Through the eyes of the emperor, Vietnam was an empire just waiting to emerge. Sadly, the emperor passed away, unable to fulfill his dream.
When Nguyễn Huệ died, he left behind a blueprint that no one could fulfill. He was a visionary leader who steered Vietnam in the right direction, creating the foundations for a powerful, modern nation. However, his successor was much too young to make this plan come true. At the tender age of ten, Cảnh Thịnh, Quang Trung’s son, was launched into the position of emperor. Though he was a bright young man, he was still just a kid.
As a result, the Tây Sơn Dynasty fell apart, leaving behind a plan that would never come to be. One could only imagine what would happen if Emperor Quang Trung lived to the end of his life. The nation would have been strong, the people would be prosperous, and the sick disease known as Communism never would have infected the country. To lose a leader of such extraordinary proportions is simply heartbreaking. His legacy, the brief rise of Vietnam, was the flower that never blossomed, and the empire that never was.
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That concludes our special event, Heroes of Vietnam! I Hope you found this experience somewhat educational, or at least entertaining. Thanks for reading!