Emperor Nhân Tông and the Making of Peace in the Postwar Period

Translation by Đạo Sinh

Emperor Nhân Tông and the Making of Peace in the Postwar Period


As our people were joyfully celebrating the victory in the capital of Thăng Long, Kublai Khan began to inflict severe punishments on the generals who had fortunately survived the fighting expedition. By his order, T’o-huan had to go into exile for life in Yangchou whereas Ao-lu-chih had to move to Kianghsi as in the words of Yuan Shih 117, p.5a1-2, and 131, p.7a9. On the part of Emperor Nhân Tông, as a precaution against some possible invasion by the Yuan Court in the coming years a diplomatic campaign was urgently carried out and, at the same time, some measures were taken for recuperating the country in the postwar period.

The emperor’s initial measure was to grant an amnesty for prisoners throughout the country and give orders for complete exemptions from taxes of all kinds and civil services for the people in the areas heavily destroyed by war and partial exemptions for those in other areas. In ĐVSKTT 5, p.55a1-3, we read: “In the summer, the 4th month, [of Mậu Tý, 1288] the Emperor-Father, who was then taking his imperial seat in the corridor of Imperial Guards’ building (because the palace had been burned down by the enemy), issued the decree of ‘nationwide exemption’. Those areas that had been heavily destroyed by war were completely exempted from taxes; the others were completely or partly exempted according to their different circumstances.” Thus, it was quite natural that all efforts had to be mustered, after such a terrible war, to make up the losses caused by the enemy; and the exemption from, or reduction of, taxes and civil services was inevitably the first target to be focused on. For this purpose, the decree was issued shortly after Emperor Nhân Tông and his father returned to the imperial capital on the 27th of the 3rd month of Mậu Tý (1288).

Apart from what concerns the issue of the emperor’s general amnesty ordinance, ĐVSKTT 5, pp.55a3-b5, further tells us a story from which we can acquire some more knowledge of history, culture and society of our country in those days. It says, “The King ordered the ‘Office of Administration’ to make good relations with the Academy. According to regulations, before announcing the King’s decree the Academy had to transfer its manuscript to the Office of Administration in advance so that the latter could have enough time to practice reading it. For, in the course of announcing, a functionary of the Office of Administration had to expound both sound and meaning of each word of the decree to the public since the positions in this office were all held by eunuchs alone. At that time the relationship between Lê Tòng Giáo, the left-assistant [of the Office of Administration], and Đinh Cũng Viên, the Decree-Scribe of the Academy, was not so good that the latter intentionally delayed the transfer of manuscript although the former had repeatedly asked for it and the date of issue was coming nearer. That day, it was just as the King was going out of the citadel that Cũng Viên agreed to pass the manuscript to Tòng Giáo. Not understanding the sounds and meanings of words of the decree, the latter had to stand silent. By the King’s order, the former had to dictate both sound and meaning to Tòng Giáo, at which the latter felt so much shame. The more loudly Cũng Viên dictated the decree, the more softly Tòng Giáo repeated it. Consequently, everyone there could hear only the voice of the former. On his return to the Inner Palace, the King summoned Tòng Giáo, saying, ‘Cũng Viên is a man of letters whereas you are a middle-ranking official; why do you dislike each other so much? As an official in Thiên Trường where shrimps and yellow oranges abound, why haven’t you thought of offering him some?’ Since then, their relationship became more and more friendly.

From the fact above, it may be assumed that in the Trần Dynasty, or rather, prior to the year 1288, there must have been the order that a king’s decree should be announced in both Chinese and Vietnamese. In the words of ĐVSKTT the event above is referred to simply as an old event, which connotes that the announcement of decrees in those two languages had been applied long before. Yet, the book does not tell us when it began. Was it, then, possibly employed in the reign of Lý, or even earlier in the reigns of Đinh and Lê? The latter is a possibility. For most of the kings of Đinh and Lê were not so well learned [in Chinese] as those of Lý as is mentioned in ĐVSKTT. Further, the issue of a decree was aimed not only at a king but chiefly at his courtiers and the masses. In those dynasties and even in those that followed, the Chinese language was scarcely needed by most of officials and people of Đại Việt. If any, it was employed simply for signing papers of some kind.

In this connection, we may come to admit that in the history of our country the Vietnamese language had ever been, in some measure, an official administrative language even though all of historical documents concerning the matter in question, with the exceptions of “The Mourning Speech in Memory of Nguyễn Biểu” by Trần Trùng Quang, “The Oaths Taken by Lê Lợi and His Men at Lam Sơn”, or Emperor Quang Trung’s “Proclamation of Fighting against Ch’ing Invaders”, and so on, were lost. Otherwise stated, it seems quite unreasonable to claim that the Vietnamese language might never have been employed in political life of Vietnam. On the contrary, it did play the role of an official language of the imperial court. There remains a single question as to whether this language was easy or difficult to read. In his Chỉ Nam Ngọc Âm Giải Nghĩa, Dhyāna Master Pháp Tính (1470-1550) tells us the fact that the script of our language employed in his time and earlier, that is, by the first half of the 15th century, was for the most part composed of “compound characters” [1]:

Formerly so many compound characters were created

That people of little education found it hard to read them.

Pháp Tính therefore held that a new script of ‘national speech’, easy to read and write, should be invented for the sake of the masses:

Today simple characters should be introduced to people of little education

So that they can read and understand them easily.

Thus, the Vietnamese language did have its own official bearing under the reign of Emperor Nhân Tông. This is evidently proved by the fact that the very amnesty ordinance of the emperor had to be further announced in Vietnamese. The emperor himself, too, had writings in Vietnamese that have been completely preserved so far, such as Cư Trần Lạc Đạo Phú and Đắc Thú Lâm Tuyền Thành Đạo Ca. They are among the oldest writings extant in the history of literature of our country, let alone Giáo Trò of Từ Đạo Hạnh and a much older text entitled Việt Ca in Thiết Uyển.

The fact that the Vietnamese language was actually employed to announce imperial decrees is of great value in the social aspect. It reveals a historical fact that the king and the public had some desire to speak with each other in such an equal manner as those of one and the same great family, of the same national race. ĐVSKTT 5, p.61a4-8, gives a further detail in the Section “The Third Month of Nhâm Thìn (1292)”: “The King often went out. On the way, seeing servants of the nobles, he called them by name, asking ‘Where are your masters?’ and, simultaneously, forbade his escorts to drive them away. On his return to the palace, he called in his subjects, saying, ‘In ordinary days, my courtiers are always found around me; but only those people, [that is, the nobles], present themselves when the country falls into misfortune.’ Thus spoke the king since he had been deeply moved by their loyalty and assistance through his terrible times.” In reality, it was this intimate and friendly relationship that worked effectively as a motive for establishing the people’s powerful solidarity, setting the premise for our glorious achievements in the two wars of defense under the leadership of the emperor himself.

It was not until the year that followed the issue of decrees with respect to the general amnesty and the exemptions of taxes and civil services, i.e., in the 4th month of Kỷ Sửu, that Emperor Nhân Tông gave orders for acknowledging the achievements of those who had devoted themselves to the recent resistant war. ĐVSKTT 5, pp.56b7-57a8, writes down the task of rewarding as follows: “In the summer, the 4th month, having deliberated over the achievements [of our people] in [their efforts at] annihilating the Yuan enemy, [the King] conferred the title Đại Vương on Hưng Đạo Vương, Khai Quốc Công on Hưng Vũ Vương, Tiết Độ Sứ on Hưng Nhượng Vương. Those who had great merits were named after the ‘National Surname’. Among them was Khắc Chung, who himself was appointed Đại Hành Khiển. Đỗ Hành was appointed to be ‘official of internal attendance’ only because he did not turn over Wu-ma-er, whom he had captured in fighting, to the Emperor but to the Emperor-Father. Hưng Trí Vương did not get any promotion because he had halted the Yuan captives who were on their way back to their country by the Emperor’s order, according to which our officers were not permitted to hinder them. In addition, Lương Uất, the Chieftain of the Man minority group in Lạng Giang, was appointed to be Head of Camp Qui Hóa, and Hà Tất Năng to be Phục Hầu because they had commanded their men to fight against the enemy. Observing that some of his subjects showed seemingly unsatisfied with his decisions, the Emperor-Father said, “Tell me whether you are sure the Hồ enemy would no longer come and rob our country. If so, I would have no regret at all in giving you the highest titles. If not, what titles would be left for me to give you in case the enemy would come back and you would get more achievements? At this, everyone showed their satisfaction.

Thus, the fact of rewarding those officials who had had achievements in the two wars took place rather excitingly. The noteworthy point here is that Đỗ Hành failed to get higher promotion as he broke the imperial order by not turning over Wu-ma-er to the Emperor but to the Emperor-Father Trần Thánh Tông. This indicates that it was none other than Emperor Nhân Tông who was the Supreme Leader of Đại Việt and made, for the most part, ultimate decisions during the war time.

From the account cited above, too, we may acquire a further detail that the situation of fighting between our troops and Yuan invaders in many different fronts had permanently been kept under observation by the emperor himself. The most typical fact is Hưng Trí Vương’s failure to be promoted due to his halting Yuan troops on their return home without the emperor’s order. No doubt, the heaviest responsibility for our struggle against Yuan invasion was then actually entrusted to the Emperor with the assistance of his father as an advisor and Trần Hưng Đạo as a direct commander. It is necessary to clarify this fact so that everyone can precisely recognize the crucial role of Emperor Nhân Tông in the two wars of 1285 and 1288, a role of which many people today do have so poor knowledge and thus false evaluation, let alone those in the former days when

Civilization in East Asia has been so completely taken away by Heaven

That moral principles are being ‘turned upside down’ in society today.

Furthermore, such poor knowledge and false judgment may manifest themselves in terms of modest streets named after Emperor Nhân Tông in many different cities of our country today.

Following the rewarding just mentioned, by the 5th month the emperor gave orders for further rewarding, which was aimed at “conferring the additional title Liệt Hầu on Nguyễn Khoái and granting him a district (…) called Khoái Lộ”, and for recording names, biographies and portraits of those who “had pioneered in eliminating the enemy” in Trung Hưng Thực Lục.

Parallel to this was “the carrying-out of punishment on those who had surrendered to the enemy. Among them were functionaries, who would be punished according to their own faults. The soldiers and civilians who were not sentenced to death had to carry wood and rock for building palaces” as in the words of ĐVSKTT 5, p.57a8-b1. In addition, Emperor Nhân Tông paid special attention to the two villages of Ba Điểm and Bàng Hà, since, according to ĐVSKTT 5, p.52b5-6,  “on the 30th (of the 12th month of Đinh Hợi, i.e., February 2n , 1288) when the Yuan Prince A-thai and Wu-ma-er, having gathered their 300,000 men in an attack on Vạn Kiếp, moved downstream eastward, the people in Ba Điểm and Bàng hà surrendered to them.” And the punishment implemented by the emperor’s order is clearly described in ĐVSKTT 5, p.57b7-9, as “punishing troops and common people of the two villages of Ba Điểm and Bàng hà to serve in Thang Mộc Army, where they would never have opportunity to be promoted officers but merely employed as servants for consecratory affairs.

Also in relation to the emperor’s measures of punishment, ĐVSKTT 5, pp.57b9-58a6, tells us a most remarkable fact that the Emperor-Father gave orders for burning all the papers concerning the officials who had given up to the enemy. It says, “In the former penetration of Yuan invaders into our country, some of our nobles and officials had sought to surrender to them just in their encampment. After their withdrawal, our troops discovered a case [in their command post], in which were some papers [concerning the Vietnamese traitors] stored…The Emperor-Father ordered all the papers burned for the purpose of allaying the traitors. Only those who had fled to the enemy’s country were delivered judgment by default. They were sentenced to death or exile, their properties confiscated and their national surname stripped. As for Trần Kiện and Tính Quốc’s son, for instance, their surnames were changed into Mai; so were others such as Mai Long and his companions. Regarding [Trần] Ích Tắc, though a relative of the emperor’s, he was still treated in the same manner as other traitors except that his surname was allowed to remain. Yet, he was simply called Ả Trần, which implies the one who was as cowardly as a woman. In contemporary accounts, they were all called Ả Trần, Mai Kiện, etc. Furthermore, Đặng Long, who was a low-ranking official but well versed in literature and very close to the king, was sentenced to death. Formerly he had ever been listed in the promotion and the king had intended to appoint him to the Academy but the King-Father did not agree. Unsatisfied [with the King-Father’s decision,] he had, too, surrendered to the enemy. When the enemy were defeated, he was captured. To prevent some wrong-doing like this from being committed again among the officials, the emperor gave the order for him to be cut down.

The facts mentioned above point out not only the emperor’s humane policy of allaying the people in their attempts to build the country in the postwar period but also his tolerance towards a minority of people who had unfortunately been driven into wrong-doings. Moreover, it was necessary to reorganize the machinery of administration that had been militarized during the war. According to ĐVSKTT 5, p.58a5, in the spring, the 2nd month, of Canh Dần (1290), Emperor Nhân Tông “appointed officials of literature to the Routes” to implement the policy of ruling by law, laying a firm foundation for the people’s living and production.

Simultaneously, he also carried out the inspection of those officials’ tasks. ĐVSKTT 5, p.60b1-4, tells us the story of Phí Mạnh, who was struck with poles due to bribery but later became a very qualified official, in 1292: “Shortly after being appointed An Phủ Sứ of Diễn Châu, Phí Mạnh began to show corruptive. The King sent for him and punished him with poles. Having been reinstated in his former office, however, he became so well known for his justice and purity. The inhabitants of Diễn Châu District all said, “An Phủ of Diễn Châu is as pure as water.” Emperor Nhân Tông also appointed such men of good achievements as Phùng Sỹ Chu to be Hành Khiển, Trần Thì Kiến to be An Phủ of Yên Khang, and so on. As a consequence, the State’s machinery equipped with functionaries well versed in law and capable of stabilizing the people’s living could gradually operate as effectively as before.

Thus, the reorganization of civil administration had been carried out rather systematically. Yet, it did not mean that there would be more officials to be appointed to central and local administrative positions. We have seen how strictly the task of rewarding those who had had great contributions in the two wars of 1285 and 1288 was restricted by the emperor to the point that some officials had asked for further rewarding and how tactfully the Emperor-Father set forth his own explanation, let alone the task of appointing officials and bestowing titles. And we will later see that when reading the register of officials appointed and titles bestowed in the reign of Trần Anh Tông, Emperor Nhân Tông had to utter, “Why can such a small country as a ‘palm’ have so many officials appointed and titles bestowed?”, as in the words of ĐVSKTT 6, p.36a9. It was this very thought of Emperor Nhân Tông that gave rise to the concept “officials increasing, populace perishing” advanced later by Ngô Thời Nhiệm. It may be said that the status of a government as a service but not as a support for the authorities to exploit the masses was definitively conceived in our country long ago, undoubtedly in the days of Emperor Nhân Tông. Accordingly, though it was necessary for Emperor Nhân Tông to civilize the administrative machinery, he surely did not make it a cumbersome one to exploit ‘blood and fat’ of the masses.

Therefore, according to ĐVSKTT 5, pp.58b4, 59a5-60a7, 59b9-60a1, when, due to the unfavorable change of weather, “drought lasted from the summer, the 6th month, to the winter, the 10th month, [of the year 1289],” then “the Tô Lịch River ran upstream (i.e., owing to heavy rains the water rose and flowed in the direction opposite to the regular movement of the river) in the summer, the 4th month, [of the year 1290],” and “many people died of famine on roads [in 1291],” Emperor Nhân Tông urgently ordered “the delivery of free rice to and exemption from poll-tax for the poor”. It was thanks to such ingenious measures that on their arrival in 1293 Liang Seng and Trần Phu witnessed a rich and beautiful postwar Đại Việt with well-developed agriculture, prosperous commerce, and powerful industry.

Agriculturally, “four crops of rice are gained a year; seedlings grow well even in cold winter” and the fields of mulberry, banana, longan, litchi, jackfruit, coconut, etc., were verdant. Concerning commerce, “every village has its own market, which is held every two days, with a large variety of goods. Every five miles is a three-apartmented house built, all sides of which are arranged with stands for displaying goods”, “nothing needs to be stored by the state, all depending on supplies from merchant ships.” And our people’s business was carried on not only in the country but also in the neighboring countries: “in Chinghua Prefecture, i.e., Huanchou in the T’ang Dynasty, over 200 miles far from the town of Giao Châu there come a great number of ships from the ‘barbarian’ countries. The business on ships is very busy.” To reach such a foreign trade Đại Việt had to develop handicraft and industry well apart from its prosperous agriculture.

For such prosperous agriculture and commerce to be achieved within just four years after war, our country must have developed industry in a parallel direction with handicraft. This development was aimed, in the first place, at rebuilding the postwar country in which numerous palaces, towns, temples, pagodas, homes, and so on, had been burned down by the enemy, and countless roads, bridges, and so on had been destroyed on account of strategic requirements of warfare. Despite such terrible aftermath of war Trần Phu, on his arrival in Thăng Long, could see four bridges around the imperial capital. In the words of his An Nam Tức Sự, “there are no ramparts but very low earthen walls in Giao Châu. In the west is Hoa Phúc District, encircled by the river, in front of which are four bridges named Mạc Kiều, Tây Dương, Ma Tha, and Lão Biên for traffic into and out of [the district].” A little far from the capital, still in the words of Trần Phu, that is, “sixty miles far from the House of Messengers, is the An Hóa Bridge, a mile from which is the Thanh Hóa Bridge. On this bridge is a house of nineteen apartments.

Regarding the Thăng Long capital, when it was brought under T’o-huan’s control in the war of 1285, the palaces therein were simply described, in Yuan Shih 209, p.7a12-13, as follows: “the palace has five gates, above which is [a tablet] engraved ‘Đại Hưng Gate’; on both sides are smaller gates. The central building named Thiên An Ngự Điện has nine apartments. Its south door is named Triều Thiên Pavilion.” According to ĐVSKTT 5, p.55a2, the palace was completely burned down. In the words of Chang Shang-shu Hsin Lu cited by Lê Sực in An Nam Chí Lược 3, p.46, however, on a mission to our country in 1291 Chang Li-tao claimed that the palaces that were then in such perfect condition could not have been burned down by T’o-huan. In reality, some of these might have been destroyed by T’o-huan’s troops but they could have been rebuilt later by our court. Consequently, it was not surprising at all that when he arrived in 1293, Trần Phu had seen Đại Việt, particularly the Thăng Long capital, in such a greatly magnificent appearance.

Still in An Nam Tức Sự, Trần Phu described the residence of our emperor as follows: “Its gate is called Dương Minh, above which is the pavilion Triều Thiên. The small gate on the left is called Nhật Tân, the small one on the right called Vân Hội. Inside is a large ‘celestial well’ about tens of feet deep. Behind it is a stair leading to the Tập Hiền Palace, above which is a large pavilion called Minh Linh. A corridor on the right leads to a large palace called Đức Huy, the left door of which is called Đồng Lạp, the right one called Kiều Ứng. The inscriptions on the tablets are all gilded.

For such bridges and palaces to be perfectly built, the industry of producing tiles and bricks must have been well developed. Trần Phu gave us a description of special tiles in our country at that time: “the tile has the shape of a board, the upper half of which is square but the lower haft pointed, similar to the balance for weighing rice in the old days. Fixed to wooden rafters with bamboo nails, the tiles overlap one another from the lower ends of rafters on to the ridge of roof as scales of fish.

In addition to the production of tiles and bricks for construction, the Vietnamese ancestors could learn how to use boats as skillfully as the Hồ barbarians could ride on horses. Especially, in the time of Emperor Nhân Tông this skill was put to its best use in such naval battles as Vân Đồn, Vạn Kiếp, Bạch Đằng. And in the progress of trade with foreign countries at seaports, the industry of building ships received special attention from our court. Trần Phu ever mentioned the warships of Đại Việt as follows: “Made of very thin boards, the ship is light and long. Its bows look like the wings of mandarin ducks; its sides curve rather highly and normally seat thirty oarsmen. When manned with a hundred oarsmen, it can move as fast as flying.

Just as civil industry, military industry was well developed, too. In the defense of Thăng Long in 1285, as we have seen before, Đại Việt troops are said to have employed ‘cannons’. Today, although we are not quite sure whether these cannons were designed to shoot stones or ‘fire-balls’, they were no doubt used by Đại Việt troops on the battlefields as is recorded in Yuan Shih. In addition, in the two wars of 1285 and 1288 some generals of the enemy asserted that many of their troops such as A-pa-chieh had been shot down with our poisoned arrows. Thus, even the manufacturing of bows, arrows, spears, scimitars, etc., was of special interest, too. In An Nam Tức Sự, Trần Phu gives us further information on another kind of weapons called ‘water-bow’, which is not mentioned in history books of Vietnam and China: “water-bows, otherwise called ‘xá sa’, are designed to shoot out water by the force of compressed air. If being shot, the skin where the water touches will turn into a pink round swelling, which causes a fatal itch unless it is cut off.

Further, in the economy under the reign of Emperor Nhân Tông not only weapons and materials of construction but such a variety of goods as cloth, ingredients, ornaments, and so on, were also produced. According to Trần Phu, for example, a kind of incense called long nhụy[2] is made from pollen of ‘dragon-flowers’ mixed with oil of gum penzoin, which is rolled into small sticks about one meter long. They are usually hung on the wall and can produce very sweet smell for more than a day when burning.” As to cloth, various kinds were produced such as silk, satin, tulle, muslin, canvas, cotton cloth, paper cloth, etc. and they were of various colors; but, according to Trần Phu, the black was the most popular for the people.

In short, in spite of several famines caused by so many natural disasters as drought and rains lasting for months, the postwar economy of Đại Việt began to recover its strength by early 1293. Through tactful policies, Emperor Nhân Tông was capable of recovering an economy that had been destroyed by war and natural disasters so that the country could soon regain its beautiful appearance as what was described by Trần Phu in An Nam Tức Sự.

Parallel to the reconstruction of the country and the improvement of living conditions of the people, Emperor Nhân Tông took special care for spiritual life of the people. He attempted to preserve the sacred past, which his predecessors had sacrificed their lives to found, by conferring sacred titles upon those who had devoted themselves to the country, such as Phù Đổng Thiên Vương, Triệu Quang Phục, Lý Phật Tử, Phùng Hưng, Lý Thường Kiệt, and so on. With respect to the heroes who had sacrificed their lives in the two wars of defense in 1285 and 1288, Emperor Nhân Tông showed his gratitude by giving them noble posthumous titles.

The fact above was not found in ĐVSKTT, yet it was, fortunately, written down in Việt Điện U Linh Tập. In effect, the fact that the heroes and those who made great contributions to the country were granted noble titles had occurred long before the time of Emperor Nhân Tông. Emperor Lý Thái Tổ, for instance, did the same toward the young hero Phù Đổng Thiên Vương. [3] The task, however, had not been carried out so formally and systematically until Emperor Nhân Tông’s time. For the first time in the history of Vietnam, a sacred shrine has been officially built for the genuine characters, whose careers and achievements for the sake of the country were recognized by the history, but not for some gods or saints either imported from abroad or invented by people in the country.

According to Lý Tế Xuyên’s account in Việt Điện U Linh Tập, those who were conferred in the years of Trùng Hưng the First (1285) and the Second (1288) amount to twenty-seven, and this is not a small number. Further, from the records in relation to the task of conferring, we are aware that his Việt Điện U Linh Tập could be based on some documents concerning the saints, which had been submitted to Emperor Nhân Tông for consideration. It should be noticed that according to his preface to the work, Lý Tế Xuyên was ever entrusted with the task of commanding the transportation of the Chinese Buddhist Canon[4] , a position that was more or less related to Buddhism. The fact that twenty-seven heroes and heroines were sanctified and many gods of mountains, rivers and land officially enshrined points out that Emperor Nhân Tông had the intention of establishing a sacred and heroic past for our people, acknowledging these great characters brilliant examples for them to follow in their efforts to lead a living deserving what their ancestors have left just in their Fatherland. Hence, it may be said that patriotism and heroism of the Vietnamese were cultivated at their best in the reign of Emperor Nhân Tông on the basis of the sacred past just mentioned. Furthermore, it may also be a great contribution by the emperor to our people’s spiritual life.

Simultaneous with the measures taken to reestablish a prosperous postwar Đại Việt, materially and spiritually, Emperor Nhân Tông initiated a tactful diplomatic policy shortly after the enemy’s defeated generals T’o-huan and Ao-lu-chih had run away beyond the frontier and had their troops encamped at Szŭming in Kwanghsi on the 18th, Nhâm Dần, of the 3rd month of Mậu Tý. This policy was aimed at discouraging the enemy from carrying out their plot of invasion and, at the same time, keeping peace for the country. Pen Chi of Yuan Shih 15, p.3a9, tells us that on the same day (the 18th) Emperor Nhân Tông “ordered his messengers to come for excuse and offer a golden human form in place of himself.” The fact is not recorded in our history books but it is mentioned in An Nam Chí Lược 14, p.140, with full details of each member of this mission. It says, “In the spring of Chih-yuan, Mậu Tý (1288), Chên-nan-wang withdrew his Army. Thế Tử ordered Lý Tu and Đoàn Khả Dung to offer local gifts with his apology [for not coming].” On recording the withdrawal of T’o-huan’s Army in the spring and the mission of Lý Tu and Đoàn Khả Dung to the Yuan court, An Nam Chí Lược must have mentioned the date ‘the third month’, that is, the 18th day, Nhâm Dần, since at that time Emperor Nhân Tông and the court of Đại Việt sent no other mission than that just mentioned. This must have been a mission sent for investigating the enemy’s situation after they had been swept out of our country.

In effect, just a month after his triumphant return to Thăng long, i.e., the 27th, Canh Thìn, of the 4th month of Mậu Tý, Emperor Nhân Tông ordered Trần Khắc Dụng to offer local gifts to the Yuan court as is recorded by Pen Chi of Yuan Shih 15, pp.3b13-4a1. This mission is not dealt with in An Nam Chí Lược, but Từ Minh Thiện’s Thiên Nam Hành Ký in Thuyết Phu 51, pp.18b4-19b6, recorded a letter sent by Emperor Nhân Tông to Kublai Khan. From the letter, we know that the objective of Trần Khắc Dụng’s mission was not merely to offer local gifts but mainly to carry out a diplomatic task, that is, managing to smash the enemy’s plot of invasion.

In the letter mentioned above, Emperor Nhân Tông pointed out clearly the reason why the war had taken place and stated explicitly the responsibility of those who had waged it. He wrote, “In Chih-yuan 23 (1286), P’ing-ch’ang A-li-hai-ya, due to his own desire for making merits in the border areas, disobeyed the Emperor’s edict. As a consequence, the people of this small country had to suffer misfortunes. (…). In the winter of Chih-yuan 24 (1827), the Great Army came here, destroying and burning all pagodas and temples across our country, digging our ancestors’ graves, killing our innocent countrymen, damaging the common people’s properties—none of any brutal destructive offenses were not committed by them.(…). Taking control over the sea, Wu-ma-er ordered his troops to arrest all the inhabitants along the coast, among whom the old were killed, the young taken captives. The bodies of those who had been hanged, tied, cut, were scattered everywhere. The people were all compelled to face death; so there accrued the situation of beasts ‘that were being chased against the wall’.”

Thus, from Emperor Nhân Tông’s standpoint, the two recent wars should be regarded as having been caused not by Kublai Khan himself but by his commanding officers on the borderland, who, in thus doing, attempted to make some merit of their own. Obviously, this was an ingenious diplomatic tactics aimed at maintaining Kublai Khan’s honor in his unsuccessful plot to invade our country. Furthermore, the passage above indicates our people’s state of seething with anger at the enemy’s brutal crimes. It may be considered our emperor’s official statement concerning not only Kublai Khan’s military subjects, who had received his orders of implementing their genocide crime, but also his own brutal policy of waging wars. It may be said that this is one of the earliest documents condemning war crimes not only of our people but also of the world.

However, the more war and crimes were condemned, the more strongly our supreme leader’s tolerance was made possible to manifest itself to the world. He was deeply aware that war could not be totally ended by means of war itself but necessarily by some other measure, that is, tolerance and humaneness. It should be kept in mind that it was one of the deepest impacts exerted by Buddhism upon everyday attitudes and behaviors not only of Emperor Nhân Tông but also of Đại Việt’s highest-ranking generals such as Trần Hưng Đạo, Trần Quang Khải and common people. And this is verified through the letter in which Emperor Nhân Tông, following his condemnation of Yuan generals’ savage crimes in the two recent wars, is said to have actively shown his humaneness by giving orders for the release of prisoners of war.

The letter dated 1288 of Emperor Nhân Tông reads, “Since the people turned over Tich-le-co, who is reportedly a ‘great king’ and a noble relative of Your Majesty in the Great Nation, to me, I have treated him in the greatest respect. Whether this is true or not is naturally to be known by him. As for Wu-ma-er’s cruel actions I dare not tell anything beyond what the great king has seen for himself. In my small country, the climate is originally unfavorable for health and hence a great deal of climatic diseases, so I fear that [he] might get sick if he would stay here long. Even though I have done my best to have him well cared for, I think it hard to avoid being falsely accused by those who have desire to make merits on the border. I, therefore, have had everything necessary for his journey sufficiently prepared, and given orders for accompanying him back to the Great Nation (…). Further, by my order, more than a thousand men of the Great Army are released, too. Later, if anyone is discovered, he will be allowed to return home.

It is obvious that even though their action of waging war could be supposedly motivated by their own desire of making some merits, the Yuan generals and their officers’ crimes were worth punishment. For they had not only made wars but also destroyed the peaceful existence of other communities, let alone their various cruel actions of looting, burning houses, killing people so savagely that “the bodies of the dead were scattered everywhere.” In face of such brutal actions, however, our people could show mercy to them, sparing their lives so that they could safely return to their homes. Suffice it to say unquestionably that the Vietnamese of that time seemed to possess some subtle and profound feeling for the sufferings of others. Indeed, few peoples in the world have had enough compassion and patience to compose such literary works expressing their genuine sympathy for their own enemy as a poem titled Thương Kẻ Thù Bị Bắt [5] by Trạng Nguyên Lý Tải Đạo, later Dhyāna Master Huyền Quang (1254-1334), of our country at that time:

In this letter written in blood my words are to be sent to you,

A lonely wild goose among the icy clouds over the frontier pass.

Who would feel their melancholy under the moon tonight?

Though far away in different places, we are surely of the same mind.

Thus, humaneness did manifest itself not only within the leaders of the nation but also in the minds of common people typified by Lý Tải Đạo. In 1288 when the war ended and the enemy’s captives were being kept in our country, Lý Tải Đạo was probably just at the age of 34. As a man of a country in time of war, he could not fail to join the army in the two wars of defense in 1285 and 1286 and thus had seen for himself brutal actions the enemy caused to his country. Nonetheless, in face of their miserable situation of being homeless, he could not suppress his utterly spontaneous feeling for their sufferings. Never before in our history had our people’s hatred for the enemy been so violent as that in the struggle against Yuan invaders, which was self-evident in terms of the two words “sát thát” engraved on the arm of each of our soldiers. Yet, never before had our people and soldiers’ sympathy for the enemy been so highly cultivated that it was once expressed in verse as in the period of these two wars.

Indeed, the fact that Emperor Nhân Tông gave orders for the release of prisoners of war does not only verify his ingenious diplomatic policy but obviously shows our people’s sympathy and pity for individual human beings in their suffering, regardless of whatsoever races or nationalities they were pertained to. It was the national tradition of humaneness that was, more than a hundred years later, inherited and developed by Lê Lợi, a national hero of our country’s, in his declaration of general release for more than ten thousand Ming troops captured by his army. Besides this, he also gave orders for rebuilding roads, bridges and providing boats, horses, supplies so that they could go back to their country safely. From such historical evidence, despite some description found on Li Tien-yu’s tombstone of his “having been shaved or given no food or unendingly insulted during his imprisonment”, we are evidently convinced that, if any, it might be a single and peculiar reaction hardly controlled by our people in face of the unimaginably savage and barbarian action of digging the late Emperor Trần Thái Tông’s grave by Wu-ma-er’s war criminals.

Around six months after the sending of a mission headed by Trần Khắc Dụng, Emperor Nhân Tông ordered another mission headed by Đỗ Thiên Hứ,[6] as recorded in ĐVSKTT 5, p.56a4: “In the winter, the 10th month, [the King] ordered Đỗ Thiên Hứ to go to the Yuan court. The latter was recommended by his brother Đỗ Khắc Chung, who was once successful in a mission to the Yuan.” This mission is not written down in Yuan Shih and An Nam Chí Lược. It must be said that the diplomatic acts above were aimed at allaying the situation when our country had just won the two wars in which the enemy’s veteran and famous generals such as So-tu, Wu-ma-er, P’an Chieh, T’ang-wu-tai, A-pa-chih, etc., were either eliminated or captured alive.

Subsequent to our three missions, on the 18th of the 11th month of Mậu Tý, Kublai Khan ordered a mission headed by Li Szŭ-yen to arrive in our country for the purpose of asking our emperor to go to the Yuan court for audience with the threat that they would launch another invasion unless the emperor accepted their request as is recorded in Pen Chi of Yuan Shih 15, p.7a5-6: “On Kỷ Hợi (of the 11th month) Li Szŭ-yen was appointed Li-pu-shih-lang in a mission to Annan, in which he was assisted by Wan-nu, who was working as Ping-pu-lang-chung. They carried the decree that Trần Nhật Huyên would have to come for audience or he would be punished again [by our Yuan].” Thus, this mission consisted of Li Szŭ-yen and Wan-nu but not Liu Ting-chih, who was recorded in other documents as being the head of the mission.

The first document in question is An Nam Chí Lược 3, p.45, where the name Liu Ting-chih was added: “Chih-yuan the 26th (1288), (…) Liu Ting-chih, Li Szŭ-Yen, Wan-nu, accompanied by our (Annan’s) messengers, that is the group of Nguyễn Nghĩa Toàn, were ordered to go to [our] country for issuing the [Yuan] king’s decree.” The second is Annan Chuan of Yuan Shih 209, p.10a7-8, where it runs, “in the 11th month (of Chih-yuan 25, 1288), Luu Ting-chih, Li Szŭ-yen, Wan-nu were chosen to be messengers to Annan, carrying the decree that Trần Nhật Huyên would have to come for audience.” The last is Từ Minh Thiện’s Thiên Nam Hành Ký in Thuyết Phu 51, p.21a2, where not only Liu Ting-chih is named but also T’ang-wu-tai, Ko-san-la (Qasar), Yung-ko-la-tai (Onggiradai) and even Từ Minh Thiện himself as being Ts’an-i-chung-shu.

Obviously, this was an important mission entrusted with two great tasks, that is, requesting Emperor Nhân Tông to come for audience and give the order for the release of all Yuan prisoners, particularly Wu-ma-er. In addition, they also transmitted Kublai Khan’s statement of the cause of the two wars. These requests were essentially aimed at responding to the three issues Emperor Nhân Tông had set forth in his letter carried to Kublai Khan by our messenger Trần Khắc Dụng. Reading the responses in his letter cited below, we can realize how consistently and difficultly our mission had fulfilled their diplomatic task in the Yuan court.

Concerning the cause of the war, Kublai Khan fixed all the responsibilities on Emperor Nhân Tông. His edict was completely written down by the traitor Lê Sực in his An Nam Chí Lược 2, p.36, and later copied by Từ Minh Thiện in Thiên Nam Hành Ký as follows: “I am ruling ten thousand countries, where those who have talent and virtue are all employed by me. It is said that you are always subject to me but you have never come for audience. Though I have many times sent for you, you have refused on the pretext of sickness. When I ordered your uncle to conduct national affairs, you dared to kill him, explicitly protesting me. As far as A-li-hai-ya’s attack on Champa is concerned, when he asked you to have the road opened up, bridges repaired, and grass and rice transported, you did not only break your word but also resisted my Army. In face of such actions, may the king’s laws remain meaningful if I do not give the order for an attack on your country? Whether your people are eliminated and your country destroyed will all be caused by yourself.

Concerning the request for audience at his court, Kublai Khan set forth his persuasion accompanied with his threat: “Why do you not come here to profess everything if you are truly loyal to me? Why have you always managed to escape on my generals’ arrival but then sought to offer gifts in their retreat? In such a manner of respecting the superior, it is hard for you to conceal your disloyalty. What have you ever thought would be better: continuing to hide yourself in the mountains or at sea with constant anxiety of my Army’s attack or coming for audience by my order to be granted wealth and honor on your return home? Of these two ways, which is good and which is bad? (…) If you have got ready to come here immediately as does a faithful subject, I will forgive all your faults, reinstating you in all of your former titles. If you go on to show your caution and hesitation, I can hardly forgive you. Rebuild your ramparts, sharpen your weapons at will to wait for my Army.

Concerning their request for releasing prisoners of war and Emperor Nhân Tông’s polite treatment to Hsi-li-chi, Kublai Khan pointed out that “the reason you have respectfully treated Hsi-li-chi and let him return is that you have clearly known him to be a relative of mine. Nonetheless, with such a fault he will have to go into exile. If you intend to belie your disloyalty in such ostensible actions, you had better release Wu-ma-er and So-tu’s officers and troops to show your obeisance. By the time you receive this edict, Wu-ma-er’s officers and troops must return together. If they need to be somehow treated, it will be my affair. Let them all return.” That Kublai Khan mentioned directly the case of Wu-ma-er is obviously aimed at responding to Emperor Nhân Tông’s accusation of his crimes. In reality, he was a notorious general for his cruelty who had commanded his troops to kill common people, burn their homes, rob their properties and dig their ancestors’ graves in Thiên Trường as has been said before.

Despite their requests and threats mentioned above, Emperor Nhân Tông maintained his calmness in receiving the Yuan mission, as in the words of Thiên Nam Hành Ký of Thuyết Phu 41, pp.4b-5a: “On the 28th of the 2nd month of Kỷ Sửu (Chih-yuan 26, 1289) [our mission] reached the citadel gate of that country. There we were received by Thế Tử’s brother…, then rode on horses to the House of Messengers. On the 29th Thế Tử and the messengers met with each other. Earlier, he had entered through the back door of the pavilion behind the House of Messengers, ordering the middle door to be opened for the messengers. He greeted them and wished, through them, the King longevity. On the 1st of the 3rd month, having had flags, yellow parasols, trumpets, drums arranged sufficiently, he received the edict into the citadel. At the door of the palace, he dismounted his horse and walked inside. That was the Tập Hiền Palace, where, after the ceremony of receiving the edict, he gave the order for a banquet to be held for the sake of our messengers for two days.” In the section “Shih Chiao-chih” of his Chue Kêng Lu 4, Tao Tsung-i further mentioned that Emperor Nhân Tông ordered gold given to those messengers. And An Nam Chí Lược 17, p.158, adds that Li Szŭ-yen was, too, granted gold and silver.

Generally speaking, the mission was warmly received but Kublai Khan’s requests were all rejected. The messengers went back with their empty hands: the emperor did not go for audience, Wu-ma-er could return to his family only in a pot.[7] His death is described in ĐVSKTT 5, p.56a6-8 as follows, “In the spring, the 2nd month, of Kỷ Sửu (1289), Hoàng Tá Thốn was ordered to accompany Wu-ma-er back to his country. According to Hưng Đạo Vương’s plot, only those troops who were good at swimming were chosen to be oarsmen. One night, they sought to sink the ship by breaking holes at the bottom. Wu-ma-er and his companions were all drowned.” In his letter sent to Kublai Khan, however, Emperor Nhân Tông told him about Wu-ma-er’s death as follows, “Wu-ma-er selected the date when he would go back. Since the way ran across Vạn Kiếp, he asked to meet Hưng Đạo [Vương] for preparation of luggage. During its course at night, the ship on which he was traveling was hit and soon filled with water. Due to his tall big body, it was impossible to rescue him. As a result, he was drowned. So were all the oarsmen of my small country. His wife and concubines and boy-servants were nearly drowned but we could rescue them because they were not so tall and big. I had them buried at the seashore, which Tien-shih-lang-chung saw for himself. If I had any impolite words, I were not able to deceive his wife and concubines who had been present there. I had enough gifts prepared for the journey of his wife and concubines and Shê-jen-lang-chung.

Such was the death of Wu-ma-er on his way back home. No matter how he died, it is evidently true from the letter above that Emperor Nhân Tông promised to release more than eight thousand Yuan captives. Thus, within only more than half a year after Yuan troops had been swept out of our country, nearly ten thousand men of the enemy were set free by our court. It should be kept in mind that it was the first time in our history when such a large number of enemies, who had owed blood to our people, were released. This fact has since then become a precedent that Lê Lợi, another national hero of ours, applied to his treatment of Wang Tung’s defeated troops at Đông Quan. Indeed, it was Emperor Nhân Tông’s humane and tolerant policy combined with the victories at Tây Kết, Bạch Đằng, where most of Yuan’s veteran generals had been eliminated, that partly deterred Kublai Khan from carrying out his plot of invasion.

No doubt, whether Đại Việt would be retaliated upon must have been discussed by Kublai Khan and his close subjects such as Huan-chai (Oljäi) and Pu-hu-mu (Bigmiš), who all proposed a diplomatic solution, according to which Chang Li-tao would be appointed messenger to Đại Việt as is recorded in Chang Li-tao Chuan of Yuan Shih 167, pp.2a13-b2. On the side of Đại Việt, on the 25th of the 5th month of Canh Dần (1290), by Emperor Nhân Tông’s order, Ngô Đình Giới went to Tatu to announce the Yuan court of the Emperor-Father Trần Thánh Tông’s death. And in the 9th month of the year that followed, the mission headed by Nghiêm Trọng Duy and Trần Tử Trường was sent with the task of “offering local gifts and an excuse for Emperor Nhân Tông’s absence for audience” as recorded in Pen Chi of Yuan Shih 16, p.11b8-9 and An Nam Chí Lược 14, p.140.

In the 10th month of the same year, Chang Li-tao came to our country with the same task as before, that is, seeking to persuade Emperor Nhân Tông to go for audience. During his stay in our country the former was always well treated “with music played by a great band at the lower apartment and by a smaller band at the upper one, in both of which were served a variety of wine, rare fruits, meat, seafood at eight tables. Besides, areca-nuts and betels with lime were occasionally served, too. The King himself received them, reading his own poems to them. Li-tao also responded with his poems right at table.” Though having much experience in negotiating with our court, Li-tao did not fulfill his task this time. Emperor Nhân Tông maintained his refusal for any audience at the Yuan court, especially after his successful resistance against their invasions in the years 1285 and 1288.

In the 6th month of Nhâm Thìn (1292), Chang Li-tao went back to his country, accompanied by Nguyễn Đại Phạp and Hà Duy Nhan. According to ĐVSKTT 5, p.60a8-9, the latter went to explain the reason Emperor Nhân Tông could not go for audience, that is, he was going into mourning for his Emperor-Father’s death. ĐVSKTT 5, pp.61a8-b4, further tells that when Nguyễn Đại Phạp reached the Hall of Ngohchou, he saw Trần Ích Tắc there but did not greet him. Thereby, the latter asked, “Are you a scribe at Chiêu Đại Vương’s?” Đại Phạp answered, “Everything in life constantly changes. Formerly I was a scribe at Chiêu Đại Vương’s, but now I am a messenger. Similarly, you, Bình Chương, were formerly the son of a royal family, but now you have given up to the enemy.” Then ĐVSKTT concludes, “Ích Tắc appeared to be shameful. Since then, on their arrivals that followed, our messengers could no longer see him at the Hall.

Three months after Chang Li-tao’s failure to persuade Emperor Nhân Tông to come for audience, i.e., the 9th month of Nhâm Thìn (1292), Liang Seng and Trần Phu came with a letter from Kublai Khan, in which the same request as before was set forth. In the words of ĐVSKTT 5, p.63a2-3, Emperor Nhân Tông refused it again on the pretext of sickness but he ordered Đào Tử Kỳ to go to the Yuan court with local offerings. On the Kỷ Tỵ of the 7th month of Chih-yuan 30 (1293) when Liang Seng’s mission did not return yet, Kublai Khan hurried “to order Liu Kuo-chieh to accompany Mieh-chi-li[8] (Ikirädai) in their army to attack Giao Chi” as in the words of Pen Chi of Yuan Shih 17, p.11a5. In the meantime, having had Đào Tử Kỳ detained in Kiangling and Hukwang Annan-hsin-shêng founded, Khublai Khan ordered Liu-er-pu-tu to dispatch troops to Shêngkiang, preparing for a blow on Đại Việt. In the words of Annan Chuan of Yuan Shih 209, p.10b3-10, “In [Chih-yuan] 30 (1292), after Liang Seng’s return from a mission [in An Nam], Nhật Tôn ordered his subject Đào Tử Kỳ to come for offering. Knowing Nhật Tôn’s refusal to come for audience, the subjects of [our] court discussed the plan of attacking Giao Chi, detaining Tử Kỳ in Kiangling. The [Yuan] King ordered Liu Kuo-chieh and Mieh-li-chi-tai[9] to go to Ngohchou to discuss the plan of attacking An Nam with Trần Ích Tắc. In the 8th month, Pu-hu-mu proposed founding Hukwang Annan-hsin-shêng entrusted with two ‘seals’, at disposal of which were 1,000 hundred-holded ships, 56,570 men, 35,000 piculs of rice, 20,000 piculs of horse-food, 210,000 ‘kilograms’ of salt, 700,000 weapons of all kinds, allowances for officers, salaries for infantrymen and sailors each two coins. With a staff of eleven officers [Liu] Kuo-chieh ordered the advance, both by sea and by land. In addition, Ch’ê-li-man (Cäriman), Assistant-Messenger of Kianghsi Hsin-chü-mi-yuan, was appointed Yu-chêng of the fighting expedition; Ch’ên Yen, Chao Hsiu-chi, Yün Sung-lung, Chang Wen-hu, Ts’en Hsiung, all were also ordered to assist Ích Tắc in the army to Trường Sa.

An Nam Chí Lược 4, p.56, also gives the same account: “In Chih-yuan of the year Quý Tỵ (1293) [by Thế Tử’s order] Đào Tử Kỳ came for offering. Having refused the [Yuan] king’s summon for audience for many times, he was detained in Kiangling. [The King gave orders] for Annan-hsin-sh’êng to be founded and Liu Kuo-chieh together with I-i-chi-ta to join the Army commanded by ‘Great King’ I-chi-li-tai (Ikirädai). That winter, the Army was encamped in Shêngkiang, waiting for the departure in the fall of the year that followed.” Nevertheless, it was while he was in Shêngkiang that Liu Kuo-chieh set to his challenge to our country by sending a letter to Emperor Nhân Tông with his complaints of the latter’s aid to militiamen of Huang Sheng-hsü in Kwanghsi. The letter was originally copied in An Nam Chí Lược 5, pp.64-66.

On the Quý Dậu of the 1st month of the year that followed, however, Kublai Khan died and Yüan Ch’êng-tsu succeeded him. Đào Tử Kỳ was allowed to return home. As a consequence, their plan of invading our country was officially cancelled; and our people’s struggle for peace may be considered to have ended in victory.

In the spring of Quý Tỵ, i.e., the 9th of the 3rd month (1293), Emperor Nhân Tông officially transferred the supreme power to his son, Crown Prince Huyên, and ascended the ‘throne’ of Emperor-Father.

Translation by Đạo Sinh


[1] Viet. nôm xe chữ kép.

[2] Lit. ‘dragon stamen’.

[3] Lit. The Heavenly King of Phù Đổng Village.

[4] Original title: Thủ Đại Tạng Thư Văn Chính Chưởng Trung Phẩm Phụng Ngự An Tiêm Lộ Chuyển Vận Sứ.

[5] Lit. “The Pity on the Enemy Captured”.

[6] Khắc Chung’s younger brother. [LMT]

[7] It was used for containing his remains after cremation.

[8] Mieh-chi-li-tai. [LMT]



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- Emperor Nhân Tông and the War of Defense in 1288
- Emperor Trần Nhân Tông and the War of Defense in 1285
- Buddhism Today, East and West
- Buddhist Contribution to Good Governance and Development in Vietnam


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