Writing on Vietnam

Scan Mar 29, 2021 at 4.29 PM

Some thoughts on Can Vuong and Tu Duc’s succession crisis

This is almost totally baseless speculation

I’ve been baselessly speculating about Keith Taylor’s account of the Tu Duc reign and how it figures into the more or less broadly accepted narrative of late Nguyen dynastic history. I say “more or less broadly accepted” because, despite some misgivings I have, Taylor’s book is the most recent textbook, undertaken by an actual Vietnam historian, that focuses on the court politics of the period. 

Taylor’s opinion of Tu Duc is given frankly at the outset, the heading for the section beginning the era is “Tu Duc’s accession and incapacity to rule” (!). Indeed, in Taylor’s account, the whole post Minh Mang era sees the progressive decline of the empire as powerful regents and mysterious consorts steamroll weak emperors. Tu Duc comes to power at the behest of the powerful regent Truong Dang Que, who skips over the rightful heir Hong Bao to enthrone the sickly, bookish, and apparently also ugly Tu Duc. Though he looks quite handsome in his portrait above! 

Hong Bao’s faction didn’t take it lying down, he was later accused to have made contacts with foreign forces to reclaim the throne. In 1851 a scheme to smuggle him to Singapore was uncovered, whereupon he was imprisoned. 1854 he supposedly committed suicide in prison, fueling further outrage. That Hong Bao’s legacy followed Tu Duc is visible in a 1966 coup attempt, which saw Tu Duc’s cousin rally riots at provincial examinations and court construction projects. The putsch attempt even broke into the palace in a bid to install Hong Bao’s son. They were all executed, but nevertheless this is all evidence that Tu Duc had an unusually tenuous grasp over his administration and was viewed as illegitimate by a powerful section of the royal family and administration officials.

Besides this lack of legitimacy, Taylor also argues that Tu Duc was simply unskilled.  Taylor analyzes Tu Duc’s response to the Red River Delta unrest of the 50s and 60s to make the case that Tu Duc was essentially uncreative and unequal to the task facing the kingdom. Tu Duc’s sole solution, according to Taylor, was a “weak moral appeal for officials to work harder.” This disjuncture between Tu Duc’s, albeit conventional, conceptualization and his political impotence, Taylor calls “characteristic of Tu Duc’s intellectual perspicuity and practical incompetence. When he understood the problem, he could think of nothing better than to pass responsibility for plans and actions to his officials.” Tu Duc appears in Taylor as a scold, who lacks both the trust of his subordinates and the will to confront them. 

Meanwhile the realm continued to deteriorate. The French, already occupying Cochinchina, made several attacks on Tonkin. Isolated rebellions raged around the kingdom seeking to unseat the emperor. The French had given up on establishing relations with Tu Duc (p. 468) and, soon after Tu Duc’s death, invade Hue directly and forced the court to submit to French oversight in the Harmand Treaty (1883). Taylor describes Tu Duc’s final years: 

whatever authority he still may have had was ebbing away as Rivière waited in Hanoi, new Qing armies crossed the border, and Vietnamese officials in the north prepared to resist the French despite their king’s passivity. Tu Duc seldom stirred from his palace unless to visit the gardens built at his nearby tomb. Unable to command the respect of his officials, he could not avoid relying upon men whom he did not trust. He faded into a shadow of impotent fear. Prominent members of the royal family and senior officials at Hue pulled in various directions in pursuit of personal interests or clashing policy agendas.

I’m mostly interested in Tran Tien Thanh, and this is where he appears (p.472). Taylor calls him “the most senior of the officials who favored” cooperating with the French. He was “from the Hue area and had earned his doctoral degree in 1838. He had been a close associate of Phan Thanh Gian, with whom he had traveled to France in 1864. He was a respected academician. He understood that resisting France was not a viable option”.  We’ll see in a later post how this compares to Dao Duy Anh’s account.

Tran Tien Thanh was one of three powerful regents of the late Tu Duc period, and Taylor’s description of the other two regents contrasts with his of Thanh in such a way that the Dove-Hawk division is made clear. First, Ton That Thuyet took over Nguyen Tri Phuong’s position after he died during the Garnier affair. Taylor describes him as “irreconcilably anti-French and … determined to resist any further assertion of French authority at Hue.”

Second, Nguyen Van Tuong began to climb the ranks from district magistrate in his home province of Quang Tri, where he policed the Cam Lo Road, a key merchant path to Thailand through the highlands. He was an invaluable expert on this constantly beset but nonetheless crucial trade route. Nguyen Van Tuong took over Hue police when the examination riots broke out in 1864. 1867 he accompanied delegation to Saigon to talk with French, and from then on gained power over French relations. 1869 sent to the “northern mountains to assist in combating the rebels and bandits that proliferated there”. During Garnier affair (1873) he was called to Hue. he travelled with Philastre to Hanoi, and negotiated the treaty of 1874. From then on, Taylor states, “all foreign relations were in his hands. By the time of Tu Duc’s death, …Tuong was having an affair with Hoc Phi, Tu Duc’s wife.”

Tu Duc dies in 1883 and the court more or less collapses. Childless he had adopted three nephews, Duc Duc, Dong Khanh, and Kien Phuc. Taylor implies that Tran Tien Thanh, Ton That Thuyet, and Nguyen Van Tuong conspired to lift the eldest Duc Duc to the throne, despite the king’s wish that he be succeeded by Kien Phuc. Taylor explains that

 there are indications that pressure from the palace women enforced this observation of primogeniture. Three senior women, known collectively as ‘the three chambers’ were particularly powerful. These were Tu Duc’s mother, Pham Thi Hang, his wife Hoc Phi, and a surviving consort of Thieu Tri. These women enforced a strict hierarchy among the palace women and any violation of the rule of seniority in succession to the throne would have serious repercussions on their control of the inner quarters.

(Apparently one of the more consequential people in Vietnamese history, Thieu Tri’s surviving consort, remains completely anonymous here.) 

Duc Duc was king for three days before being imprisoned and killed by the regents. Why did they promote him in the first place? Taylor only offers that

“something passed between Duc Duc and the regents that caused them to do away with him. The 31-year-old king may have made it clear that he did not want the tutelage of the three older men, and they were surely unwilling to give up the power to which they had grown accustomed under Tu Duc’s weak rule. Perhaps seeking to minimize any objections from “The Three Chambers” the regents passed over the two young surviving adopted nephews and brought to the throne Hiep Hoa, a 36 year old half brother of Tu Duc.

 A month later a French fleet overran the forts guarding Hue and Nguyen Van Tuong signed the Harmand Treaty, which held among its provisions, that the court would be placed directly under French supervision. Instead of retarding the dissolution of the court this seems to catalyze it.

Taylor states that Hiep Hoa relied on Tran Tien Thanh for advice, while detesting Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong. Ton That Thuyet dominated the army, and Nguyen Van Tuong dominated the palace security. Taylor argues that:

Ton That Tuyet realized that with Hiep Hoa as king it would be impossible to organize resistance to the French. He persuaded Nguyen Van Tuong to join him in a coup. In late November 1883, both Hiep Hoa and Tran Tien Thanh were put to death, and the two remaining regents then brought to the throne the 14 year old Kien Phuc. They expected that Kien Phuc’s youth would ensure his compliance with their wishes.

After Kien Phuc is lifted onto the throne, however, according to Taylor, he too resists Ton That Thuyet’s hawkishness. Taylor mentions that “Ton That Thuyet, with the approbation of Nguyen Van Tuong, began to organize a private army, separate from the regular military forces, loyal to him personally.” which Taylor describes as part of Thuyet’s desire to attack the French and “drive them into the sea”. Kien Phuc resisted this. Additionally, Kien Phuc was angry with Nguyen Van Tuong over his relationship with Hoc Phi the late king’s wife… So, naturally, Nguyen Van Tuong and Ton That Thuyet collaborated again, this time to kill Kien Phuc in July 1884. This put the 12 year old Ham Nghi on the throne, and subsequently leads to the futile Can Vuong movement, where effectively ending the era of “traditional anti-colonialism”. 

Before moving on to Dao Duy Anh, there are a couple aspects of this narrative worth remarking on. First of all, to Taylor’s credit, it is much more detailed than his rivals. Joseph Buttinger, who wrote the first major history of the era in English, deals with the whole Tu Duc succession crisis in a single paragraph (p.383), not even bothering to name Duc Duc or Kien Phuc. David Marr brushes the whole affair aside as a “tragi-comic power struggle”. Another recent major survey, by Christopher Goscha, employs a chronologically scattered and thematically organized narrative structure, so apologies if I’ve missed a relevant section somewhere. But if I haven’t, then Goscha simply ignores the crisis altogether, writing: 

As Tu Duc’s health deteriorated in 1883, Thuyet increasingly asserted his influence and backed the young Prince Ham Nghi as heir to the throne. In late 1883, Thuyet got his wish and had Ham Nghi named as emperor. However the young emperor only ruled for 1884 and part of 1885 until the French took over by force. (p.90) 

So, considering the short shrift given to this event by other scholars, Taylor’s account is really commendable. One reason why I believe this should be commended is because it provides a path OUT of the hawk-dove/ colonial-anti colonial dead end. IF you look only at Goscha’s account, then you will come away with one possible explanation for events: Ton That Thuyet was brave, and after long pushing for vigorous, though futile, resistance to the French, he found his chance with Ham Nghi: going out in a romantic blaze of patriotic glory. But the extra details Taylor gives us allow us to speculate a little more. One possible scenario: Thuyet and Tuong were both positioning themselves to supplant the Nguyen. Thuyet dominated the military, Tuong was carrying on an affair with the empress and dominated the capital security, two classic praetorian positions if ever they existed! This makes the Can Vuong movement equal parts “anti-colonial” and, beyond the impact-response binary, the development of a local dynamic which reached much deeper into Vietnamese political history and sociology. 

And doesn’t this hypothetical help pad out some of the apparent contradictions? For example why would the women’s power in the “thee chambers” be so decisive for the three regents’ manipulation of Tu Duc’s heir, only to subsequently fall silent. And if Kien Phuc was so unacceptable to all involved, then why would they settle on him after killing Hiep Hoa and Tran Thanh Tien, only for Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong to part ways over the Can Vuong? The point would be to class the Can Vuong movement alongside the various rebellions that plagued the Nguyen, particularly alongside the Hong Bao rebellion, instead of classifying it as the original, but too late, attempt at “anti-colonialism” which prefigured later mountain-bound guerrilla war. Tu Duc was constantly in danger of usurpation, and Can Vuong was one final such attempt. 

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