Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-Five

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After the Mongols

Between 1351 and 1399, a new nation takes root in southeast Asia, and a Chinese general uses Chinese weapons to change the fate of his country

THE MONGOLS had retreated from the south of China, but their invasion had changed the landscape.

The Khmer, weary even before the arrival of the Mongols, had finally become a Mongol vassal to buy peace. Ever since, the power of Angkor Wat had been in decline. The last inscription recording the rule of a Khmer king at Angkor Wat, the obscure Jayavarmaparamesvara, comes from 1327; the kings after him are faceless. Building had almost ceased. Rice fields had grown over with weeds. And now the Khmer faced a new enemy—an enemy that had once been subject to them.1

A century before, the western valley, occupied by a vassal people known to the Khmer as the Syam, had slipped out of Khmer control and founded a kingdom centered at the city of Sukhothai. This “Syam” kingdom was the first independent state governed by the people of the valley, known to us as the Thai. Soon it was joined by a handful of other little Thai enclaves, scattered from the Mekong river over to the Irawaddy.

The first Thai kingdom had taken the city of Sukhothai, the largest in the valley, as its capital. But by 1351, a strongman from the Thai city of Lopburi had been “anointed as king” over his own clan; and from Lopburi, he began to build an even stronger rival kingdom.

Some accounts suggest that this ambitious leader, named U Thong, was the son of a Chinese merchant who had settled at Lopburi, one of a number of Chinese expatriates to carry on a lucrative trade with the Thai valley as their home. Other chroniclers call him a native of Lopburi. An early version of U Thong’s own Royal Chronicles notes that U Thong had married into a rich merchant clan at another Thai city-state, Suphanburi, and had claimed leadership of it as well. Whatever his origin, U Thong changed his name to the royal Ramathibodi, and the two cities together became the twin nuclei of his new domain.2

According to the Royal Chronicles, an epidemic of smallpox then drove King Ramathibodi out of his home city of Lopburi. Leaving it under military rule, he moved the remaining population into the countryside until they found a “circular island, smooth, level, and apparently clean,” at the triple juncture of the Chao Phraya and Pasak rivers. There, U Thong founded his new capital city of Ayutthaya. The Chronicles give an exact date and time: the year 712, on the sixth day of the fifth month, three nalika and nine bat after sunrise; Friday, March 4, 1351, nine o’clock in the morning.3

Ramathibodi proved to be an aggressive ruler, worried about possible Khmer retaliation, and in 1352 he led the new kingdom of Ayutthaya into its first out-and-out conflict with the diminishing Khmer. Over ten years of slow, excruciating war followed. Victories were balanced by defeats; Ramathibodi’s own son, the Prince Ramesuan, was taken prisoner by the Khmer and had to be rescued by his uncle. When Ramathibodi died, in 1369, Ayutthaya was thoroughly rooted into the countryside, but Khmer still threatened.4

The Thai kingdoms, like most brand-new states, had no tradition of father-to-son succession. Ramesuan managed to get himself crowned as his father’s successor, but his mother’s brother, Borommaracha of Suphanburi, soon arrived at Ayutthaya and demanded the throne.

Borommaracha, a short-tempered but experienced soldier in his sixties, had almost the entire city behind him. He was the uncle who had rescued the humiliated Ramesuan from Khmer captivity, and had followed this up with an impressive (although temporary) victory outside the walls of Angkor Wat itself. Ramesuan had no victories of his own to boast of; seeing his uncle’s popularity, he left the throne and retreated to Lopburi.

Borommaracha then turned his attentions not towards the Khmer but towards the next-largest Thai kingdom, Sukhothai. Ramathibodi had followed a policy of peace with his Thai neighbors, but Borommaracha spent almost the entire eighteen years of his rule mounting attacks against the Sukhothai borders: “A war-minded ruler,” one contemporary chronicle remarks, “a lover of weapons.” By the time of his death, in 1388, he had managed to force the king of Sukhothai into swearing allegiance to him.5

Ramesuan then returned to claim his father’s throne himself, after the eighteen-year parenthesis in his rule. His uncle had doubled the size of his kingdom; Ramesuan repaid the favor by executing his teenaged cousin, Borommaracha’s son and heir Thong Lan, in the traditional manner: placing him in a velvet sack and then beating him to death.6

Ramesuan then began a second war with the Khmer. His strategy was not simply to conquer the Khmer but to enfold the people themselves into the Thai. Captive Khmer—particularly if they were artists, writers, musicians, or high-ranking civil officials—were deported to Ayutthaya, where they were encouraged to continue their work. The Thai and Khmer cultures had already entwined around each other, during the years when the Khmer had dominated the valley; the Thai already used the Khmer writing system, had already borrowed Khmer ways of irrigating their crops. Now that the Khmer had diminished, the exchange continued: not just entwining but mingling, evolving into something new.7

The two families—the clan of his father, and the merchant tribe of his mother—were less inclined to mix. Until the end of the century, Ramesuan held the throne of his father; but his mother’s family waited, ready to seize their opportunity at the crown.

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75.1 Conflict in Southeast Asia

ALONG THE COAST OF THE CHINA SEA, the Dai Viet and the Cham celebrated the departure of the Mongols by attacking each other.

Decades of territorial conflict over their common border ramped up, around 1360, into a full-scale war. Leading the fight was the warlike Che Bong Nga of Champa, known to the Dai Viet as the Red King. Like Ramathibodi of the Thai, his origins are obscure; all that we know is that, by 1361, he had roused the Cham into their first major assault on the Dai Viet. More attacks followed; and in 1369, Che Bong Nga managed to gain the imprimatur of the Chinese emperor on his kingship, a recognition that gave yet more energy to his attempts to conquer the Dai Viet.

In 1371, Che Bong Nga organized a massive sea invasion, landing his soldiers along the Dai Viet coast. They rampaged inland all the way to the capital city of Thang Long, which the Cham soldiers sacked and burned. Girls and young men alike were kidnapped and hauled back to Champa as slaves.8

Unable to halt the raids, the Dai Viet king abdicated and handed his throne over to his brother, Tran Due-tong. Far from rallying the country against the invaders, Tran Due-tong soon gained a reputation as a cowardly and greedy king; during one invasion, he fled from the capital city on a raft and waited at a distance until the Cham had retreated; to prepare for the next, he took all of his treasure up into the mountains and buried it so that neither the Cham nor his subjects would be able to get their hands on it.9

The Red King sacked Thang Long for a second time; and then for a third time. In all, he launched at least ten major campaigns against the Dai Viet. But despite his harassment of the Dai Viet and the apparent ease of penetrating to the capital, he was unable to take hold of it. He was resisted, fiercely, not by the kings of Dai Viet but by the chief general, Le Quy Ly, a soldier of Chinese blood who had risen through the ranks of the Dai Viet army to become its supreme commander.

Le Quy Ly led the long tiring years of resistance to the Cham, again and again driving back the invading army at enormous cost. In 1389, he suffered the greatest defeat of his career. Fighting on the Luong river, his soldiers were massacred, his officers scattered; he was forced to scramble away through the rough countryside with one of his surviving captains, who moaned, “The enemy is stronger than we are, and resistance is impossible!”10

But Le Quy Ly had been arming his soldiers with weapons imported from his Chinese homeland. The Dai Viet army had no vocabulary for these new weapons: they simply borrowed the Ming Chinese terms for them. In the next desperate engagement against Cham, a river battle in 1390, they carried huochong: a brand-new military technology, handguns sold by the Ming.

A defector from Cham’s ranks had, for a price, told them which of the river vessels carried the Red King, and the Dai Viet trained a hail of gunfire on it. Che Bong Nga died, pierced with a bullet. His army panicked and retreated. In a more traditional gesture, Le Quy Ly ordered his head cut off and taken to the capital city. With the Red King’s death, Champa’s brief flowering into a major power came to an end.11

Nine years later, Le Quy Ly usurped the throne of the Dai Viet.

The usurpation seems to have been born of frustration. For over ten years, he had watched the royal family fumble, retreat, and panic in the face of the Cham. The nation was bankrupt and demoralized; Champa’s armies had “crisscrossed [the country] as they might an empty land,” one of the chroniclers notes; the capital had been sacked again and again.12

The great general had married one of his daughters into the royal family, and in 1395 he convinced the sitting emperor Tran Thuan Tong, his son-in-law, to relinquish the throne to Prince An, aged three: the emperor’s son, grandson of the general. Le Quy Ly then executed the abdicated emperor and declared himself regent for his grandson.

The child obediently abdicated in 1399, aged seven, and relinquished the crown to his grandfather. Le Quy Ly changed his name to the Chinese Ho and began to claim descent from the legendary Second Sage Emperor Yu of antiquity. He even renamed the country itself: from Dai Viet, to Ta Yu, after Yu himself.13

The science of China had saved his country; now he intended to remake it.

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