In the previous post we saw that Nguyễn Trãi wrote to the Ming soldiers who were defending Bắc Giang citadel 北昌城 (also referred to as Xương Giang citadel 昌江城) and tried to get them to surrender by promising them that if they did so, they would be accepted as “brothers.”

What actually happened in the end? After months of fighting, Bắc Giang citadel eventually fell to Lê Lợi’s forces.

According to the History of the Ming, when this happened several of the Ming commanding officers committed suicide, and “the soldiers, common people and women in the citadel who died rather than submit numbered in the thousands.” (城中軍民婦女不屈死者數千人。)

The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, meanwhile, mentions that the citadel was captured, but it doesn’t say anything about what happened to the people there after that.

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So what really happened? If we look at what warfare was like around the world at this time, I think it’s safe to assume that a lot of people died. Did they die because they fought until the death? Or were they indiscriminately killed by soldiers who finally captured the citadel after months of fighting?

There is no way of knowing, but there is nothing in the Classic of Poetry or the Classic of Documents which justifies killing common people. So whatever happened, it did not abide by the principle of righteousness, nor did it respond to Heaven or accord with the people (as Lê Lợi/Nguyễn Trãi said their actions always followed).

So regardless of whether northern people or southern people (or both) were to blame, what happened when Bắc Giang citadel was captured had nothing to do with the ideals of a domain of civility (or a domain of Poetry and Documents).

One thing that is clear though is that when Bắc Giang citadel fell, Lê Lợi’s soldiers did not treat the Ming soldiers as brothers, but then again Lê Lợi/Nguyễn Trãi had warned them in advance that this would be the case if they did not surrender, so perhaps that was understandable.

letter 1b

There was, however, a Ming soldier who Lê Lợi himself did view as a brother at this time. That was Commander-in-chief Cai Fu (蔡福 Thái Phúc). According to the History of the Ming, Cai Fu was captured by the “rebels” (meaning Lê Lợi’s soldiers), and was then “forced” to try to get the Ming soldiers at Bắc Giang citadel to surrender.

I am not sure if he delivered the letter that Nguyễn Trãi wrote, or some other letter, but one of the Ming officers there, Li Ren (李任, Lý Nhậm), supposedly stood on the citadel ramparts and cursed Cai Fu, saying to him, “You’re a big general who can’t kill rebels, but instead, is used by rebels. Even dogs and pigs wouldn’t eat you!”

時都督蔡福為賊所獲,逼令招任降。任於城上罵福曰:「汝為大將,不能殺賊,反為賊用,狗彘不食汝餘。」

letter 2b

So Li Ren clearly did not view Cai Fu as a “brother,” but Lê Lợi did. Nguyễn Trãi drafted a couple of letters to Cai Fu on Lê Lợi’s behalf and in one of these letters Lê Lợi referred to himself as “little brother Lam Sơn” (弟藍山 đệ Lam Sơn) and referred to Cai Fu as “my old friend Master Cai” (老兄蔡公 lão huynh Thái Công).

What is more, in contrast to the claim in the History of the Ming that Cai Fu was captured, the letters that Nguyễn Trãi wrote (on behalf of Lê Lợi) suggest that Cai Fu was “wooed” over to the Vietnamese side.

One letter, for instance, clearly points out that Cai Fu had not been rewarded for his “accomplishments” in An Nam, and offered him the opportunity to join Lê Lợi who would definitely reward him for his work.

What is more, this letter also tried to point out to Cai Fu that the Ming realm was suffering problems elsewhere, and therefore probably did not have much of a future. He was thus better off “abandoning a sinking ship,” so to speak, and joining Lê Lợi.

There is then another letter that indicates that Cai Fu came out of the citadel where he was based and met with the Trần lord, meaning Trần Cảo.

bac giang

Cai Fu is mentioned in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, but only as a Ming military official, not as someone who switched sides and collaborated with Lê Lợi.

The fact, however, that someone like Cai Fu did collaborate with Lê Lợi, however, is yet another sign of why this period was something much more complex than a war between “the Vietnamese” and “the Chinese.”

This will be important to keep in mind when we move on to look at another complex issue, the question of who the term, “Ngô,” referred to.