Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Three

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The Tran Dynasty

Between 1224 and 1257, a new royal family rules the Dai Viet, a new nation breaks away from the Khmer, and the Cham try to dominate the south

THE KING OF THE DAI VIET was not well.

Hue Tong of the Ly dynasty had been on the throne for fourteen years. His road to the throne had been a rutted and difficult one; before he was fifteen, his father, King Cao Tong, had been driven from the throne by a palace revolt. The royal family had fled to Nam Dinh Province, where they took refuge with the wealthiest family on the coast: the Tran, made prosperous by generations of skillful fishing. In exile, Crown Prince Hue Tong had married the young daughter of the house. This brought the entire Tran clan firmly over to his side, and with the help of his new wife’s father and brothers, the crown prince and the king were able to return to their capital city of Thang Long.

In 1210, at Cao Tong’s death, Hue Tong had assumed the throne of the Dai Viet. Still only seventeen years old, dependent on his in-laws for support and direction, Hue Tong had promoted his wife’s male relatives into higher and higher positions at court. Now thirty years old, the king had Tran generals, Tran ministers, Tran noblemen, Tran interests surrounding him on all sides.

What he did not have was a son.

Already inclined to melancholy, Hue Tong retreated further and further into a fog of despair. His mental state is recorded not in the official court histories of the Dai Viet kings, but instead in palace rumors that became often-told tales. “Sick and faint-hearted,” one story begins, “the King Ly Hue Tong abdicated, and retired into the country.” In his place, he left his seven-year-old daughter, Chieu Hoang.1

Little Chieu Hoang had no say in court; her Tran mother and in-laws acted as her regents, so Hue Tong’s abdication in 1224 effectively handed the country over to the Tran. The chief of the royal guard, the young queen’s uncle Tran Thu Do, arranged for the child to marry her first cousin Tran Canh, the eight-year-old son of another Tran uncle. And after the marriage was celebrated, Chieu Hoang obediently handed her right to rule over to her small husband. In December of 1225, Tran Canh was proclaimed emperor of the Dai Viet.2

Just months later, Hue Tong was dead in his Buddhist monastery. The stories say that Tran Thu Do visited him and suggested that his daughter’s reign would be peaceful only if Hue Tong removed the possibility of a revolt in favor of the Ly dynasty. “A few days after his conversation,” the tale concludes, “King Ly was found hanged on the boughs of a rose-wood tree.”3

The circumstances imply that Tran Thu Do did a little more than simply suggest suicide. But however it happened, Hue Tong’s death brought an end to over two hundred years of Ly rule. Tran Canh was child king of the Dai Viet; and his uncle Tran Thu Do immediately appointed himself to the office of Grand Chancellor.

Tran Thu Do was a vigorous man of thirty-one, and until his death in 1264, remained de facto ruler of the country, uncrowned king of the Dai Viet and the true founder of the Tran dynasty. He schemed to eliminate the remaining members of the Ly family; according to one contemporary chronicler, he built a temple over a huge pit, invited the Ly clan to come honor their ancestors in it, and then pushed the entire temple with all inside into the pit and buried them alive. Another history, the thirteenth-century Dai Viet su ky, explains that Tran Thu Do sent out geomancers to scour the entire Dai Viet kingdom for sites on which a future king of the Dai Viet might be born. When those places were located (apparently, they held a concentration of vital forces that could be detected only by those trained to detect the earth’s energy flows), Tran Thu Do ordered them razed, built over, or ruined.4

Under the direction of Tran Thu Do and the (usually) compliant Tran Canh,* the Dai Viet government got a complete overhaul. The countryside was divided into twelve administrative provinces; new taxes were introduced to help pay for a larger standing army and a series of dike projects; an accurate census was carried out; a Chinese-style academy, the National College, was founded to train scholars and future officials in the knowledge of the classic Chinese writings. But the Tran clan, while paying homage to the importance of Confucian education, remained thoroughly Dai Viet in their ways. “Our forefathers,” wrote a later Tran emperor, “since the very beginning of the Dynasty, established their own system of law and did not follow the Song laws and institutions.”5

The young king himself realized early on that he was more or less superfluous. In 1236, he attempted to leave his throne and enter a monastery, but Tran Thu Do intercepted his flight and forced him back to the palace. Trapped on his throne, Tran Canh devoted himself to composing treatises on Buddhist philosophical topics. The man who does not devote himself to the rigorous pursuit of self-knowledge, he wrote, is

always wandering in life, like a man full of vicissitude

he strays miles and miles further from his native village. . . .

No need to go a long way!

One can come home.6

The birth of a son in 1240 gave Tran Canh the hope that, one day, he too might be able to abdicate to the sanctuary of a Buddhist cloister. But that longed-for retreat was still almost two decades away.

Instead, he did his duty by his country, which included leading, in 1252, an attack on his southern neighbors.

KHMER, once the greatest enemy of the Dai Viet, had exhausted itself. The kings who had followed the conqueror Suryavarman had watched the outer edges of his empire flake slowly away. In 1238, the shrunken Khmer shed another chunk of land, this one in the fertile western valley of the Chao Phraya river, laced with smaller rivers and cut through by mountains. The people who lived there were known to the Khmer and Champa as the Syam; on the bas-relief scenes of battle carved at Angkor Wat, the Syam march with the armies of the Khmer king, but they march apart, wearing their own battle dress.7

For a time, the Khmer ruler Indravarman II—an obscure king almost unknown to the chroniclers—had managed to keep the Syam in the upper valley loyal by granting one of their chiefs a royal title and a princess for his wife. But in 1238 this chief, Pha Muong, made an alliance with another Syam clan leader who had never fallen under Khmer domination. Together, the two men led a short sharp attack on the Khmer officials in Sukhothai, the largest city in the valley, and drove them out.

Pha Muong, perhaps realizing that his willingness to violate his oath of loyalty to the Khmer king had weakened his authority, then led the way in proclaiming his ally, Bang Klang T’ao, king of the valley. This was the first independent kingdom of the Syam, the root of the Thai nation.8

To the east, the downtrodden Champa had also shaken off the Khmer yoke. The country was a faint shadow of its own self, but under Jaya Paramesvaravarman II was making a comeback.

He had inherited the rule of Champa in 1227 and had immediately begun an extensive rebuilding program: temples and palaces, dams and ships. Champa ships began to raid the Dai Viet coast, carrying off both goods and slaves. “He reinstalled all the lingas of the south . . . and the lingas of the north,” read the inscriptions from his reign; he was reasserting his own rule as Hindu monarch over his country, wiping out the claims of the Khmer god-king who had overwhelmed it.9

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43.1 The Four Kingdoms of Southeast Asia

For a time, Champa seemed poised to tip the balance towards itself, becoming the most prosperous nation in the southeast. Cham ships took aloewood, elephant tusks, and rhinoceros horns north to Chinese ports and brought back silk and porcelain. Jaya Paramesvaravarman himself laid in stores of jewels and gold, flaunting them in his royal costume to show his power.10

Around 1252, Jaya Paramesvaravarman demanded that the Dai Viet return three provinces between the two countries, seized long ago by the Ly dynasty. The provinces were a sore point between the two thrones, and together Tran Canh and his uncle took the opportunity to strike back. A Dai Viet army stormed into the north of Champa; in the battle that followed, Jaya Paramesvaravarman fell and his daughter, the crown princess Bo Dala, was taken captive back to Thang Long.

The kingdoms of the southeast now lay in an uneasy four-way truce. Champa’s aggression had been checked, and Tran Canh’s son was growing towards adulthood. Retirement was almost within his grasp. But before the crown prince could reach his eighteenth year, all four kingdoms were shaken by the approach of a threat greater than any of them.

The Mongols were approaching.

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*Tran Canh is more often known by his posthumous royal name, Thai Tong.

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