So Nguyễn Trãi wrote about “southern people” and “northern people” in a letter to the Ming officers who were occupying Bắc Giang citadel. He then brought up the topic of a territorial division between “the South” and “the North” in a letter that he wrote to a certain Đả Trung 打忠 and Lương Nhữ Hốt 梁如笏, a Vietnamese collaborator.
I’m not sure who Đả Trung was. There was a Ming officer by the name of Hà Trung/He Zhong 何忠 who served in the region, and I can imagine that it would be possible for someone to mistakenly write “đả” 打 instead of “hà” 何. So perhaps this refers to Hà Trung/He Zhong.
In any case, Lương Nhữ Hốt was a Vietnamese collaborator, and as we will see below, the letter makes it clear that there were Ming troops in the citadel where Lương Nhữ Hốt was stationed, so we can assume that this letter was written to both a Vietnamese collaborator and Ming officers. The purpose of the letter was to get these men to surrender.
Nguyễn Trãi begins this letter by talking about an agreement that had been reached before. In the middle of the war the Ming agreed to return a Trần descendant to the throne, and Lê Lợi agreed to stop fighting. However, the Ming did not keep their side of this promise and Lê Lợi returned to fighting.
This is how the letter begins:
“You and I had an agreement from before, as Heaven, Earth and the spirits are witness, so how can it be that we are now in opposition? The steps that have been taken are all because of total service to the kingdom, and are because of anything personal.”
Tôi cùng các ông trước kia có giao ước với nhau rồi. Có trời đất quỷ thần chứng minh. Có ngờ đâu ngày nay thành ra chia cách. Xét lại việc đã làm là do ý vì nước, quên mình, chứ không phải vì cớ riêng.
In other words, Nguyễn Trãi begins this letter very respectfully by saying the opposition of Lương Nhữ Hốt and Hà Trung/He Zhong to Lê Lợi is due to their dedicated service. Having honored these men by praising their dedication, Nguyễn Trãi then tries to convince these men to surrender.
He does this by first arguing that An Nam is a separate kingdom that has come to be delineated by Heaven and therefore cannot be conquered. To quote,
“In the past, An Nam was occupied by the Middle Kingdom [Trung Quốc], from the Qin and Han onward. However, Heaven’s delineation of South and North, and [the delineation of] territories of high mountains and great rivers [*my comment* meaning the delineation of territories for kingdoms] have now been established. Although [a kingdom] might be as powerful as the Qin or as prosperous as the Sui, can it use its strength to do as it wishes [with our kingdom]?”
The irony here is that the Ming empire already had “used its strength to do as it wished” with An Nam, and at that time Lương Nhữ Hốt and Hà Trung/He Zhong probably still felt that the Ming had much more strength than Lê Lợi’s forces did.
So in an effort to convince these men otherwise, Nguyễn Trãi then went on to provide specific information about Lê Lợi’s strength.
He talks about the many citadels where people had “opened their gates, put down their arms, and come out with their wives and children to meet us, and to set a date for the troops to return to the capital,” meaning, the Ming capital.
Nguyễn Trãi talks about how well provisioned all of these citadels were, and how capable the soldiers and officers were. In other words, he tried to convince Lương Nhữ Hốt and Hà Trung that the officers in these citadels had surrendered because they understood the righteousness of Lê Lợi’s cause, and that Heaven had delineated a separate space for An Nam.
Just in case Lương Nhữ Hốt and Hà Trung didn’t see the righteousness in surrendering to Lê Lợi, or didn’t think that Heaven had delineated a separate territory for An Nam, Nguyễn Trãi went on to tell them that if they continued to defend the citadel they would not be caring for thousands of lives, and that this was no way for benevolent men to act.
[而不顧數千之性命，是可仁者之所爲哉 . . . không nghĩ đến tính mệnh mấy ngàn người. Người có đức nhân liệu có cử chr đó không.]
In other words, Nguyễn Trãi was essentially saying that if you do not surrender, we will kill all of your people.
One of the citadels that Nguyễn Trãi mentions as having surrendered was Xương Giang, that is, Bắc Giang citadel, and as we saw in the previous post, the people there did not “open their gates, put down their arms, and come out with their wives and children to meet” Lê Lợi’s troops. Instead, the citadel was forcefully captured and the people there, both soldiers and civilians, were slaughtered.
In any case, Nguyễn Trãi encouraged Lương Nhữ Hốt and Hà Trung again to surrender, and he followed those words of encouragement with another threat about what would happen if they did not.
Nguyễn Trãi said that an order would be given for 30-40,000 soldiers to attack the citadel that Lương Nhữ Hốt and his men were defending, and that “When that time comes, won’t it be difficult to protect the lives of your wives and children?”
[到此時節，欲保全妻子性命，豈不難在。Đến tình thế đó, các ngài có muốn bảo toàn tính mệnh vợ con, há cũng khó lắm thay!]
Nguyễn Trãi then ended his letter by encouraging Lương Nhữ Hốt and Hà Trung to make a calculation of the situation they were in. He said that there would be nothing better than surrendering and letting Cai Fu take the soldiers back [to “China”] and letting An Nam regain its territory, and that if they didn’t chose to do this, who knows what would happen next [如或不然，未之何也已 Nếu không như thế, thì chưa biết rồi sẽ tới đâu].
So before Nguyễn Trãi wrote about “the South” and “the North” in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” he wrote about “the South” and “the North” in a letter to the Ming collaborator, Lương Nhữ Hốt, and the Ming officers he served with. He used the idea that Heaven had delineated a kingdom in the south as a way to try to convince Lương Nhữ Hốt and his men that what they were doing was futile.
However, Nguyễn Trãi clearly understood that this idea that Heaven had delineated the territory for a separate kingdom in the south was not going to be sufficient to convince Lương Nhữ Hốt to surrender. That is why he also threatened to kill Lương Nhữ Hốt and the people, including the women, in his citadel.
Lê Lợi is quoted in the Đại Viết sử ký toàn thư as saying that Lương Nhữ Hốt told the Ming officer, Wang Tong (who we will meet in the next post), that when the Mongols were defeated, Trần Hưng Đạo had ships made available to send them back, and that when those ships went out to sea, Trần Hưng Đạo had men sink those ships so that all of the Mongol soldiers died.
Lê Lợi stated that Lương Nhữ Hốt was afraid that he would not survive after the Ming left and therefore told Wang Tong about this earlier episode to encourage him not to surrender.
Indeed, after the Ming left, Lương Nhữ Hốt did not survive. Lê Lợi had him executed. Apparently the idea that Heaven had delineated a separate territory for An Nam just wasn’t convincing enough for Lương Nhữ Hốt to side with Lê Lợi.
As for Ming soldiers who surrendered, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư states that “More than 10,000 of the people who surrendered at Ming citadels plotted to rebel and were executed.”
[明各城降人萬餘謀反，誅之。Hơn 1 vạn quân Minh đầu hàng trong các thành âm mưu làm phản bị giết.]
Really? They “plotted to rebel”?