Le So Dynasty (1428-1527)
Towards the end of the 14th century, a great crisis shook the country. The Ming court, then reigning in China, took advantage of this to invade Dai Viet and to impose a form of direct rule which was to last for twenty years (1407-1427). However, the invaders encountered stiff resistance from the beginning, and national independence was eventually wrested back in 1427 by Le Loi, the founder of the Le Dynasty.
Land system and economic development
After achieving victory, Le Loi ordered the confiscation of all lands belonging to Ming functionaries, traitors and Tran princes and dignitaries who had died or left. State land was utilized in part by the administration itself and partly distributed to dignitaries and mandarins. In contrast to the Tran estate owners, the benefiting mandarins could only collect land rent, but not do as they pleased with the peasants themselves, who were subject to the direct authority of the state. Administrative centralization was thus promoted and the status of the peasants improved.
Le Loi in 1429 and then Le Thanh Tong in 1477, regulated and improved the distribution of communal rice fields based on the following principles:
- All were entitled to distribution according to respective title and rank;
- Distribution was to take place every six years;
- Rent was paid to the state and was generally lower than that demanded by the landlords.
The distribution of communal lands had been a practice since far back in time, but it was the first time that the monarchical state had intervened so directly in communal affairs. Given that the area covered by such lands was significant, the regulations resulted in increased production.
The kings Le paid great attention to the development of agricultural production. Lands left fallow during war time were quickly brought into cultivation, while the state set up state farms on uncultivated land so as to, in the words of King Le Thanh Tong, "concentrate our strength in agriculture and increase our potential". Individuals were also encouraged to cultivate virgin lands. New areas were thus cleared, both in the highlands and reclaimed coastal regions. Dykes were kept in good repair and in emergencies, students and soldiers were mobilized in order to repair them. Soldiers and palace staff were sent in turn to the fields to work. Harvests and cattle were given particular attention.
This policy greatly encouraged agricultural production, and no serious famines occurred during the 15th century.
Handicrafts were still a subsidiary activity. However, they were widely practiced, and many villages came to specialize in certain occupations such as silk weaving, wine making, pottery or porcelain making, lime burning, etc. Leather processing was introduced from China. In towns, particularly in the capital Thang Long, craftsmen lived in certain quarters and were grouped in guilds with strict rules. Silver, tin, iron, lead, gold and copper mines were opened.
Royal workshops were run by a special royal department and produced items needed at court, not to be sold on the market. They also minted coins. The personnel comprised craftsmen forced into service and slaves. This did not favour the progress in handicrafts.
The development of trade was encouraged by the spread of regional markets. Le Loi abolished the paper currency issued by Ho Quy Ly, ordered the use of copper coins and had units of measurement (length, weight, volume, and area) and the sizes of certain goods (fabrics and paper) standardized. Foreign trade was strictly controlled by the state; transactions could be conducted only with government authorization and in specified places. Many foreign trading vessels were banned from entering port. This restriction on foreign trade remained one of the main characteristics of feudal monarchy.
Administrative, military and judicial organization
With the disappearance of large estates, administrative centralization reached its peak. The court was reorganized with six ministries; the posts of prime minister and general were abolished, these functions being taken over by the king himself. Provincial and regional administration was handled by the mandarin bureaucracy. Functionaries were appointed to head villages in numbers which varied according to population. The establishment of new villages and the election of notables became subject to detailed regulations. In 1467, Le Thanh Tong ordered maps of all villages and one of the whole country, the first ever to be drawn up. The country was divided into regions(dao), provinces, districts, and villages.
The army, 250,000 strong towards the end of the war of liberation, was reduced to 100,000 and divided into five sections which took turns doing military service and agricultural work. The peasant-soldier system inaugurated under the Ly was thus maintained. Besides conscripts there were also reservists.
The mandarin bureaucracy enjoyed special privileges - land, houses and special attire - but were no longer entitled to own large estates with serfs and have their own armed forces as in the time of the Tran. Members of the royal family enjoyed even more privileges, but not to the extent of being allowed to participate in the nation's leadership or administer important provinces, as had occurred under the Tran.
The legislative apparatus was streamlined to serve the centralized administration and evolving society. In 1483, the Hong Duc Code was promulgated, grouping the rules and regulations already in forte in a systematic way; this was the most complete code to be drawn up in traditional Vietnam and remained in force until the end of the 18th century. Completed under subsequent reigns, it comprised 721 articles and was divided into six books.
The Hong Duc Code sought in particular to safeguard ownership of land by the state and landlords, and ensure the authority of the father, first wife, and eldest son. It also determined the rites of marriage and mourning. The "ten capital crimes" were severely punished, especially rebellion and neglect of filial duties. Feudal and Confucian in inspiration, the Hong Duc Code was, however, progressive in several respects. The rights of the woman were protected; she could have her own property and share equally with men in inheritance. Where there was no male offspring, daughters could inherit the whole family fortune. A wife could repudiate her husband if he had abandoned her for a certain time. All these points were to be suppressed in its most reactionary form. The Hong Duc Code was specific to the Vietnamese society of the time and showed no Chinese influence.
With the first kings Le, Le Thanh Tong in particular, the feudal monarchy in Viet Nam reached its peak; for some more time, the monarchical regime and mandarin bureaucracy were to play a positive role in the history of Vietnam.
Ethnic minority policy
Viet Nam comprises many ethnic groups; minority groups live in mountainous regions, while the majority group, the Kinh (Viet), are plain-dwellers.
During the insurrection against the Ming, ethnic minorities living in the highlands allied themselves with the Kinh to fight the occupiers. After liberation, the feudalists in the delta resumed their policy of exploitation and oppression vis-a-vis the minorities. The Le monarchy ruled over the highlands through tribal chieftains upon whom the monarchy bestowed mandarin titles. These chieftains collected taxes. Control over mountainous regions was tighter than under the Tran. The Kinh mandarins ruling over the uplands also sought to exploit the ethnic minorities.
This policy provoked frequent revolts among the mountain dwelling minorities, which was for centuries one of the weak points of the feudal monarchy. The Thai of the northwest rose in revolt in Lai Chau in 1432, in Son La in 1439 and in Thuan Chau in 1440; the Tay of Lang Son, Cao Bang and Tuyen Quang also did so on many occasions. In the western part of Nghe An, the head of the Cam family succeeded in holding out from 1428 to 1437.
All these revolts were firmly suppressed by the Le troops. The secession advocated by the rebel chiefs also ran counter to historical trends of the deltas and highlands being complementary economically. But antagonism among ethnic groups was to disappear only with the advent of socialism.
Cultural development in the 15th-17th centuries
While the plastic arts and architecture made little progress compared with the Ly-Tran period, literature flourished. Buddhism was relegated to second place. Confucianism becoming the official ideology inspiring mandarin competitions and national literature.
Confucianism and the scholar
Confucian works, as interpreted by Chu Hi (of the Sung period in China), made up a body of doctrine which had to be digested by candidates entering mandarin competitions. In 1484, the names of laureates at the central competitions were inscribed on stone stele erected at the Temple of Literature in Ha Noi. The doctrine was carefully studied by the kings. Le Thanh Tong was an outstanding scholar and wrote moral texts intended for the people.