Seo Ho-su’s Criticism of the King of Annam

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.

3 thoughts on “Seo Ho-su’s Criticism of the King of Annam

  1. Hi Khai:
    If you read thoroughly the essays and poems of Phan Huy Ích, Đoàn Nguyễn Tuấn, Vũ Huy Tấn on the envoy to Peking in Canh Tuất (1790) plus all the documents from National Correspondences (Đại Việt Quốc Thư) to compare with archives from the Qing dynasty at the same time, you will find out a lot of discrepancies in the “giả vương” conspiracy.
    This is a national fake story that I am trying to reveal.
    Chinh Duy Nguyen

  2. Thưa thầy, thank you very much for commenting!!

    I came across a brief reference to Seo Ho-su’s account in something a Korean scholar wrote. Then I looked it up and wrote this brief piece.

    Not long after that, I was introduced to the journal Nghien cuu va phat trien, which I had never read before. In looking through some of the issues, I saw that you have written EXTENSIVELY about that period, and that you have also made use of Seo Ho-su record.

    So I haven’t written any more about this, because I need to read what you have written first, but 1) you have written A LOT!!, and 2) I just don’t have time to look into this at the moment. I can see that you have produced detailed and well-documented articles, and I want to read carefully through what you have written and to look at the sources you are looking at too.

    I don’t have time for that at the moment but at some point before too long I very much look forward to reading what you have written about that time period. It’s a fascinating time period and you have obviously examined and thought about it a lot.

    But yes, I’ve read the poems by Phan Huy Ích and Vũ Huy Tấn, and I agree, there is definitely a “national fake story” that has been invented.

    My theory is that the Tay Son sent someone who claimed to be Quang Trung. However, this was not done to “trick” the Chinese, but instead to trick the elite in Vietnam who did not support the Tay Son. Because when those envoys came back, Phan Huy Ich’s poetry was published, and it “advertised” how well the delegation had been treated.

    So if you were a member of the elite, that would surprise you to see the “preferential treatment” that the Tay Son delegation received.

    Không biết thầy có đồng ý với tôi hay không? I also have no idea when the idea that the Tay Son sent a fake started to be talked about. I haven’t found mention of it in materials from that time. It looks to me like it started later, but I don’t know when. Thầy có biết không?

    Someone pointed out to me the other day that there is a new book out called “Demystifying China: New Understandings of Chinese History,” and that person said to me that we need a book like this for Vietnamese history. I agree, and if such a book ever appears, a chapter on this topic of the “giả vương” should definitely be included.

    Fortunately it looks like you are already writing that chapter. 🙂

  3. Dear Khai:
    Thank you very much for your prompt feedback.
    Actually, I am writing two large articles. 1/: Did King Quang Trung really go to the Qing court? and 2/ The diplomatic convoy of Dai Viet to Emperor Qian-long’s birthday celebration.
    Although they are not finished and not ready to disclose, I am happy to share with you for your comments.
    Send an e-mail to me if you want to look at them and exchange extensive ideas.

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