After defeating the Ming army that had occupied Đại Việt for some 20 years, Lê Lợi faced a new problem, one that he was unprepared for. He had to find a way to rule over Đại Việt and to show people that he had the legitimacy to do so.
Why was this a problem? There are a couple of main reasons.
First of all, throughout the conflict Lê Lợi (through his well-educated assistant, Nguyễn Trãi) had tried to get the Ming to restore the Trần Dynasty to power. That is what the original Ming mission had been, and Lê Lợi repeatedly demanded that the Ming officials in the region uphold that original mission.
In the end, they did. Lê Lợi found a Trần descendant by the name of Trần Cảo. Nguyễn Trãi informed the Ming court about this and requested that Trần Cảo be invested as the “King of An Nam.” The Ming emperor agreed, and sent down a letter of investiture.
And then not long after that, Trần Cảo disappeared/died.
The information that the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư contains about this is very interesting. It contains both “official” and “unofficial” versions of what happened.
The official version is that court officials encouraged Lê Lợi to eliminate Trần Cảo. They argued that Trần Cảo had not achieved any merit towards the people, and that therefore it was not right for him to be on the throne.
Lê Lợi, reportedly was reluctant to do this, and instead, treated Trần Cảo even more nicely.
However, Trần Cảo understood the situation and tried to flee, but he was captured and brought back to the capital where he drank poison and died.
Was Trần Cảo forced to drink poison, or did he do if of his own will in order to grant Lê Lợi the right to ascend the throne? The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư doesn’t make this clear.
This “official” version of Trần Cảo’s death is then followed by a series of “rumors” about what happened.
One said that Trần Cảo realized that he had not achieved any merit and yet was on the throne. He then said that “just as the sky cannot have two suns, so can the kingdom not have two kings” meaning that he felt that Lê Lợi was the true king, but he (Trần Cảo) was only a king in name. Trần Cảo therefore decided to make way for the real king by getting on a boat and sailing out to sea where he died.
Another rumor said that Trần Cảo realized that the people did not support him and tried to flee, but Lê Lợi ordered people to follow and kill him, after which they threw his corpse in some bushes.
As he was dying, Trần Cảo supposedly prayed to Heaven, and those who heard this prayer felt deeply sad. After this All Under Heaven (meaning “everyone”) felt that Trần Cảo had suffered an injustice.
Later, in the early sixteenth century, a man of the same name – Trần Cảo – rebelled against the Lê Dynasty. The Đại Việt sử ky toàn thư states that people at that time believed that this was a reincarnation of the Trần Cảo that Lê Lợi had wrongfully ordered killed.
Finally, yet another rumor was that Trần Cảo was an imposter who saw that when Lê Lợi was fighting the Ming the people still longed for the Trần, so he claimed to be a descendent.
Later, however, when the war had ended Lê Lợi secretly cursed this man, saying “With 100 battles I won All Under Heaven but now Cảo is on the throne.” This “Trần Cảo” imposter became afraid and fled, but Lê Lợi ordered people to follow and kill him, after which they threw his corpse in some bushes.
It is astonishing that such negative depictions of Lê Lợi, the founder of the Lê Dynasty, appear in the Đại Việt sử ky toàn thư, a text compiled by Lê Dynasty officials. What this indicates to me is that there must have been a deeply-rooted dislike of Lê Lợi by some members of the educated elite concerning his treatment of Trần Cảo (and by extension his refusal to restore the Trần Dynasty), such that decades later when Lê Dynasty officials compiled the Đại Việt sử ky toàn thư those comments made it into a text which was meant, among other things, to demonstrate the legitimacy of their dynasty.
This does make sense because as it became clear that Lê Lợi would defeat the Ming, Nguyễn Trãi wrote a document that called on people help. This documents indicates that Lê Lợi did not have the manpower to govern over the land.
Called the “Decree on Instructing Worthies” (諭豪傑詔 Dụ hào kiệt chiếu), this document mentions the various positions that Lê Lợi had yet to find capable people to fill, such as grand councilor (相國 tướng quốc) grand guardian (太保 thái bảo) grand mentor (太傅 thái phó), defender-in-chief (太尉 thái úy) and chief military commander (都元帥 đô nguyên súy).
And in the second year of his reign he was still looking for people. In that year he issued a document called the “Decree on Seeking the Wise and Talented” (求賢才詔 Cầu hiền tài chiếu) in which he stated that,
“I order civil and military officials, dukes, marquises and grand ministers at the third rank or above to each recommend a person. He can be at court or not and it does not matter whether he has served or not. As long as he has civil or military knowledge, and can govern over the people I will follow [you recommendation] and hire him.”
Nay lịnh cho văn vũ đại thần, công hầu đại phu, từ tam phẩm trở lên, đều phải tiến cử một người, hoặc tại triều, hoặc tại dã, không cứ đang làm quan, hay chưa làm quan. Xét cứ có tài văn hay vũ, đáng coi dân chúng là trẫm giao cho việc.]
Chinese sources, by contrast, talk about the many educated Vietnamese that the Ming were able to encourage to take the civil service exam.
Could it be that there were (many?) members of the educated elite who did not like Lê Lợi? That certainly seems to be the case.
Yet another problem had to do with the wealthy, and people who had sided with the Ming.
There is a passage in the Đại Việt sử ky toàn thư from the year 1427 just as the war was coming to an end that is brief but revealing. By that time Lê Lợi had captured all of the main Ming-controlled citadels except for Hanoi, but that didn’t matter as the Ming officer based there, Wang Tong, surrendered.
The Đại Việt sử ky toàn thư then reports that:
“An aboriginal incense dealer Vương Manh, and others, brought their wives and children, 39 people, to [Wang Tong] and presented him with fine incense. At that time, Wang Tong ordered that the false officials [meaning collaborators], aboriginal soldiers, and gold, incense and other traders present [in the citadel] decide on their own whether to go to the North or to stay in the South. Many were willing to stay, only a few were willing to go.”
[Note: the translation of this passage in the modern Vietnamese translation of the Đại Việt sử ky toàn thư has mistakes in it.]
Why did an aboriginal incense dealer offer Wang Tong fine incense? Clearly he wanted some kind of favor from him. What kind of favor? Well let’s think about this. For 20 years this guy had probably been benefiting from the “peace” that Ming rule had maintained, and had become wealthy as a result (as had gold traders), and now that everything was changing, this guy wanted some kind of protection.
Wang Tong, however, couldn’t offer any protection, other than to say that this incense dealer and other people who were associated with the Ming regime (from “false officials” to aboriginal soldiers to gold dealers) could go to the North (China) with him.
What I have translated here as “aboriginal” is “thổ” (土). The modern Vietnamese translations I’ve seen of this passage and other passages where it is used at this time all translate “thô” as “địa phương” which literally means “local” but essentially means “provincial.”
However, I don’t think that’s what “thổ” means here. “Thổ” was also used to refer to people who were different, particularly in terms of language and customs.
It therefore makes more sense here to see this person as a rich incense trader who was originally from a mountainous area (where the incense wood was, and where people spoke a different language than the Việt in Hanoi) who was now based in Hanoi, where he sold incense.
The term “aboriginal soldiers” (土軍 thổ quân) has the same meaning.
During the war against the Ming, Nguyễn Trãi once wrote a letter (on behalf of Lê Lợi) entitled “A Letter of Instructions to the Aboriginal Soldiers of Điêu Hào Citadel” (喻刁鴞城土官書 Dụ Điều Hào thành thổ quan thư) which makes it clear that “thổ quan” meant “aboriginal soldier.”
This document stated that,
“You are all Western Việt people [西越之人 Tây Việt chi nhân], people who wear caps and robes [衣冠之族 y quan chi tộc]. Suddenly because of the Hồ’s loss of virtue, the Ngô rebels came to lord over [the land]. Whether you fell into [employ] at the Northern barbarians’ court, or sought fame as a false official, the conditions were not of your making, so how could this be your true intent?”
From the way that Lê Lợi/Nguyễn Trãi described these people as “Western Việt people” who wore “caps and robes,” we can see that this was probably a group of somewhat “Sinicized” non-Việt peoples (Mương?). In other words, the term “thổ” here did indeed mean “aboriginal” rather than “local/provincial” (địa phương).
In this document Lê Lợi/Nguyễn Trãi goes on to urge these “aboriginal soldiers” to surrender, but also warns that if they refuse and their citadel is captured, “your crimes will exceed those of the Ngô” [ 罪浮於吳矣tội phù ư Ngô hỹ].
We will talk about the term “Ngô” soon, but what should be evident from the above information is that there were a lot of people in Đại Việt who did not support Lê Lợi.
Rich people were wary of him, Vietnamese collaborators didn’t support him, people who were loyal to the Trần Dynasty didn’t like him, members of the educated elite didn’t join him, and people from non-Việt ethnic groups fought against him.
This is why, as the Đại Việt sử ky toàn thư states, “After the emperor pacified the Ngô, he made a Great Pronouncement to All Under Heaven”
Sau khi dẹp yên giặc Ngô, vua ban bố Đại cáo khắp thiên hạ.]
As can be seen here, this document was not referred to at that time as the “Great Pronouncement on Pacifying the Ngô” (Bình Ngô đại cáo). That is how it became known later, when it was anthologized in works like the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển and the Ức Trai di tập.
At first, it was simply a great pronouncement (đại cáo/dagao) like the Great Pronouncement in the Venerated Documents/Classic of Documents.
And like the Great Pronouncement in the Venerated Documents/Classic of Documents, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was a document that was created just after a dynasty was established by a weak monarch’s (Lê Lợi’s) very capable advisor (Nguyễn Trãi) in an effort to demonstrate the legitimacy of that monarch to people who were very skeptical, or even outright opposed to, that monarch’s claim to power.
Now that we know what the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was, and what the historical conditions that it addressed were, let’s move on to look at some of the terminology in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” that have been the subject of debate. This will help us gain a sense of how this document sought to demonstrate to skeptical people that Lê Lợi had the legitimacy to rule.