As part of the diplomatic negotiations that took place after the Qing were defeated by the Tây Sơn, the Qing emperor, Qianlong, agreed to recognize Quang Trung as the “King of Annam,” but he also demanded that Quang Trung visit his court in person.

In 1790 the Tây Sơn delegation traveled to the Qing Dynasty capital and were then taken to the summer palace at Rehe (a.k.a. Jehol), where they were treated very well.

What was going on here?

I’ve always learned that the Tây Sơn sent someone disguised as Quang Trung, and that the reason Qianlong treated them so well was because he actually thought that the King of Annam had come to visit his court.

I have some problems with this story. The first is that I cannot find where this idea came from. I’m not saying it is not true, but I can’t find any evidence that anyone in Vietnam at the time knew anything about this. So when did it become known? How? Who mentioned this first? Where?

Another point that confuses me is that upon the return of this delegation, the poetry collection that one member of this group, Phan Huy Ích, had compiled was published. This was an extremely rare occurrence, as such documents were not usually published.

In his poetry collection, Phan Huy Ích was euphoric about the treatment he had received from the Qianlong emperor. And he said nothing about any “fake” Quang Trung being part of the delegation.

What was going on here? My guess would be that while it was probably true that someone went disguised as Quang Trung, this was kept secret from other people in Vietnam, and that when the Qing treated this delegation well, this point was “publicized” through the publication of Phan Huy Ích’s poetry collection in order to show the members of the elite who did not support the Tây Sơn that the Tây Sơn were more highly favored by the Qing than the Lê Dynasty ever had been.

In other words, rather than this being an instance of “the Vietnamese” tricking “the Chinese,” it was an instance of the Tây Sơn tricking Vietnamese who did not support them.

As for the great treatment that the Tây Sơn received at Rehe, was it simply because the Qianlong emperor had been “tricked” into thinking that Quang Trung had really come?

I recently came across a document that a Korean envoy, Seo Ho-su 徐浩修, who was present at the time wrote (Yeonhanggi 燕行記). Seo believed that the King of Annam had indeed come, and Seo was extremely critical of his behavior. He described how he knelt obsequiously in front of a high level Qing Dynasty official, Fu Kangan, and how “there was nothing that he would not do” (無所不爲) to curry favor with the Qing.

This is a fascinating episode which unfortunately has not been adequately researched. To the contrary, as I pointed out here, some have even tried to erase some of the evidence for what took place at that time.

Seo Ho-su’s travel account is a valuable source that historians of this period, and this episode in particular, should make use of.