For westerners, the idea of monarchy is difficult to compartmentalize. Almost every modern country has it woven into its contemporary cultural fabric in some way or another, but in Asia, the role of the monarch continued to carry significant weight long after most western countries had relegated it to a symbolic relic of a time long past. So what happened?
In part four of our four-part series, we’re going to take a look at Vietnam, which has one of the most complicated royal histories of any country out there. Believe it or not, the story begins over 5,000 years ago, about the same time that the Sumerians were discovering written language.
Unlike other countries in the series, Vietnam is not so much a tale of monarchy as it is a tale of dynasties – some linked by blood, but almost completely independent of each other. There are enough salacious murders, back-room deals, palace intrigues, double-crossings, wars, rebellions, and invasions during those 5,000 years to fill a book, but we can’t possibly get to them all here. With that in mind, here’s a quick summary of how things went down.
In roughly 2879 BCE, a fellow by the name of Lộc Tục came to power in northern Vietnam. He consolidated various local tribes and firmly established the Hồng Bàng Dynasty, which lasted for over 2,000 years. It wasn’t hereditary, however, as successive kings adopted the Hồng Bàng name as they came to power through victories, alliances, and various other means of gaining influence (CoughMurderCough). Records are vague, but it was a period of magic weapons, powerful sorcerers, and intervention by the Gods, so… take that with a grain of salt. Eventually, a usurper broke from tradition to found the Thục Dynasty, which lasted from 257-207 BCE.
By the time the Triệu Dynasty came around in 207 BCE, Vietnam – then known as Nam Việt and comprising basically what is now northern Vietnam – was thoroughly intertwined with the powerful Han Chinese. After a while tempers flared, and in 111 BCE the Han Dynasty conquered the Triệu, leading to a period called the First Chinese Domination.
In the interest of brevity, we’re going to skip over the next 1,000 years, which is roughly how long the Chinese held sway. During that time, there were only 61 years when Vietnam was not under Chinese control, both times due to revolts by locals. The first lasted for 3 years, the second for 58 years, but eventually the Chinese brought things back under their influence.
But in 938 CE (all dates after this are Current Era), Ngô Quyền took advantage of a Chinese rule weakened by domestic power struggles and founded the Ngô Dynasty. Alas, his sons proved inept, and it collapsed soon after his death. Đinh Bộ Lĩnh swooped in to mop up the mess, defeating the lords of 11 rival clans to found the Đinh Dynasty in 968.
In 980, Đinh Bộ Lĩnh and his elder son were murdered by a Chinese agent, leaving his infant son the only heir. Luckily, Dowager Empress Dương Vân Nga stepped in to rule as the boy’s regent… and promptly married army commander Lê Hoàn, who deposed the young boy, founding the Early Lê Dynasty in 981. Most notable was the last Lê Emperor, a charming fellow by the name of Lê Ngọa Triều, who has been compared to Roman Emperor Caligula for his love of torturing innocent people to death for his gleeful entertainment.
When the sadistic Lê Ngọa Triều died in 1009, the fairly successful Posterior Lê Dynasty began. Ruled over by a direct heredity line, it saw the founding of the still-standing Temple of Literature (Vietnam’s first university), a reorganization of the government bureaucracy, defeat of an aggressive invasion by the Chinese Song Dynasty, and moves south into what was then the territory of the Champa civilization. The dynasty was capped when Lý Chiêu Hoàng took the throne at 6 years old, becoming the only reigning empress in the history of Vietnam. It’s not hard to imagine a young female royal during this time being used as a tool for power-hungry generals, and this was no exception. General Trần Thủ Độ married the young empress to his nephew Trần Cảnh. She was then forced to abdicate in 1225, and thus began the Trần Dynasty.
Not long after they took power, the Trầns had to deal with the first of three invasions by the fearsome Mongols, but it was relatively smooth sailing after that. At least, it was until the late 1300s, when the dynasty began to crumble under a series of inept leaders. It all ended when a court official named Hồ Quý Ly forced the emperor to cede the throne to his own three-year-old son and – surprise! – promptly overthrew the pesky kid himself to found the Hồ Dynasty in 1400. But in 1407, Hồ Quý Ly and his son were captured and killed by the Chinese Mings as China, again, took control of Vietnam.
Turns out that running an empire isn’t as easy as some of these guys think.
After 20 years of Chinese rule, a noble by the name of Lê Lợi raised an army and booted them out, founding the Later Lê Dynasty in 1428. Known for the construction of roads and bridges, the switch from Buddhist to Confucian teachings, legal and social reforms, and further expansion south (nearly wiping out the Champas in the process), the Later Lê Dynasty is seen as Vietnam’s “golden age.” However, after 80-odd years in power, the dynasty began to crumble.
Now, believe it or not, this is where it starts to get complicated. In 1518, the 16-year old Emperor Lê Chiêu Tông was kidnapped and taken south by nobles from the powerful Nguyễn and Trịnh families – for his “protection” – while their rival Mạc Đăng Dung stayed in the north. Not long after, the young emperor was assassinated and leaders of the Nguyễn and Trịnh factions were executed, which is when Mạc Đăng Dung decided to make his play, declaring the Mạc Dynasty open for business in 1527. However, there were plenty of clans and families who didn’t see it this way, and a civil war broke out.
The next 250-odd years saw a multi-party tug-of-war, as the Mạcs fell by the wayside, the Trịnhs ruled from Hanoi, the Nguyễns ruled from Hue, both of them claimed to support the puppet Lê emperors, backing for both sides was fluid at best, and no one was formally in charge of anything. It was a complete mess.
Finally, a major rebellion called the Tây Sơn Uprising (or even the Tây Sơn Dynasty, depending on who you ask) shook things up enough that a peace treaty was signed between the Nguyễn and Trịnh families. After the Trịnh broke apart and fled into China, the Nguyễn Dynasty was established in 1802. It would be the last ruling family of Vietnam.
Much like previous dynasties, the Nguyễns dealt with their share of uprisings and invasions, but this time it was in the modern age. The rising power of Siam was reshaping the region, new technology was introducing terrible and wonderful innovations in equal measure, and European powers were knocking at the door, most especially the French, who had supported several failed attempts to overthrow the Nguyễns and install a Roman Catholic-friendly government. This was a perpetual thorn into the side of the Nguyễns, and it came to a head in 1883 when Emperor Tự Đức died childless. A succession battle broke out, several emperors reigned (and were killed) in short order, and the French, already ruling over three southern provinces (called Cochinchina), stepped in and took over the whole show.
The Nguyễns ruled in name only after this. The French introduced the writing system we know today, a healthy dose of culinary influences, worked to entrench Catholicism and began a campaign of Mekong development. World War I slowed things down though, as 140,000 Vietnamese were drafted into the French war effort. In 1916, the popular sixteen-year-old Emperor Duy Tân tried to lead an uprising, but the French caught it before it started, executed the leaders, and exiled Duy Tân to Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar.
But Vietnam, as we know it today really, began to take shape in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the chaos of World War II. That’s when names like Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong appeared, not to mention the birth of the Chinese Communist Party, which all helped reshape ideas of what king and country actually meant. In 1940 the Japanese took Vietnam from the French but when the war ended in 1945 a power vacuum ensued. This led to a struggle between the French and a group of communist rebels called the Viet Minh led by a fellow named Ho Chi Minh. The French even tried to bring back exiled Emperor Duy Tân from Madagascar to rally patriotic support, but his plane crashed in central Africa on the journey, ending their dreams of empire.
The last Nguyễn emperor, Bảo Đại, abdicated the throne on 25 August 1945 and, somewhat regretfully, handed control to the Viet Minh. Soon after, he went into exile in Hong Kong but returned in 1948 as “Chief of State” to the French forces, which were at war with the Viet Minh. When the French were defeated at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, the Viet Minh got northern Vietnam, and the south became the Republic of Vietnam. However, the unpopular Emperor was overthrown by his own Prime Minister in a flagrantly corrupt election in 1955. Bảo Đại went into exile again, this time in Paris, where he died in 1997.
His son Bảo Long took over the title of head of the Imperial Family, but it was in name only. He lived in France, served in the French Foreign Legion, and spent his remaining years as an investment banker. He died in 2007.
Currently, Bảo Long’s younger brother, Bảo Thắng, is the head of the Imperial Family and, like his father and brother, lives in France. He even has a Facebook page. He is supported by a US-based group called the Vietnamese Constitutional Monarchist League, which aims to re-establish a constitutional monarchy in Vietnam. However, just like his older brother Bảo Long, Bảo Thắng does not support their efforts.
Vietnam’s empire is no more.
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