On the Problem of the First Emperor of the Tran Dynasty (1226-1400) in Vietnam

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The hypothesis that the first official Emperor of the Tran dynasty (1226-1440) in Dai Viet was not Tran Canh, but his father Tran Thua and that the fact was carefully tabooed in Vietnamese traditional historiography, was suggested by Russian researchers D.V. Deopik and A.B. Polyakov in the 1970-ies. In its final variant their version of the events of the early 13th century was published in “Vietnamskie issledovanija” (Russian Journal of Vietnamese Studies) 2018, № 2. Meanwhile, the arguments, given in their article in favor of the hypothesis are still questionable; that is why this article has been written.

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The history of the question For the first time the question, whether the Emperor Tran Thai Tong (the taboo name was Tran Canh) was the first in the list of the Tran dynasty, was raised by A.B. Polyakov, a Russian historian, who in his Russian translation and investigation of "Viet su luoc" [Việt sử lược 2005], the earliest Vietnamese historical source, discovered a number of facts (see below), which questioned, to his mind, this generally accepted and apparently stable statement. In 1975 D.V. Deopik (his academic adviser) and A.B. Polyakov published the article, where the authors based their viewpoint and made the conclusion that the first official ruler of the House could have been not Tran Kanh, but his father Tran Thua (his temple name was Tran Thai To), however, feudal historiographers tried to hide this fact in order to attach more legitimacy to this dynasty coming to power [Deopik, Polyakov 1975]. Later A.B. Polyakov repeatedly returned to this problem in his works (including those in Vietnamese) [Kratkaya istoriya 1980: 253-255; Pôliakốp 1996], improving his argumentation and adding new facts in support of the hypothesis. For the first time the appreciation of his arguments was given by A.V. Nikitin and by the author of this text, who attended to the question while preparing a new publication of the article 1975 in the collection of the works by D.V. Deopik on Vietnam. In their commentary to the article, they questioned some conclusions made by the author [Deopik 2002: 355-358]. In the works of Vietnamese researchers, the appreciation of A.B. Polyakov’s conclusions on such an important and essential question, as the personality of the founder of the Tran dynasty and his role in the history of Vietnam was not given for a long time. One should have waited till 2010, when Bui Thiet, a well-known Vietnamese historian, delivered his report “The Tran Dynasty had its Own Thai To - Tran Thua”. [Bùi Thiết 2011], where he gave approximately the same arguments, which D.V. Deopik and A.B. Polyakov had given, though he had not referred to their works. That fact gave an occasion for A.B. Polyakov to prepare the final article on this question, where he once again considered the arguments in favor of his hypothesis, having rejected the out-ot-date and refuted ones and having given the new ones discovered recently [Polyakov 2018]. Meanwhile, even in the exposure of the hypothesis in 2018 it is very questionable, what became the cause to write the given article. General considerations on the possible falsification of the data of the first emperor of the Tran Dynasty Before the enumeration of the arguments questioning the argumentation in favor of the Tran Thua hypothesis as of the first official Emperor of the Tran dynasty (they were mostly exposed in our commentaries to the new edition of the article by D.V. Deopik and A.B. Polyakov in 2002 [Deopik 2002: 355-358]), I would like to discuss some essential problems, touching the sources of the question under investigation. In his discourse the author of the hypothesis leans for support on the thesis, that a more ancient source (this is, of course, VSL) is more reliable and closer to the truth. But this is not always and hardly ever so, when it is a question of the events described by their eye-witness in the historical text. In this case he is too dependent on the state of affairs. Usually, he cannot afford the objective appreciation of living rulers (and the original text of VSL, as A.B. Polyakov argues, was written during Tran Canh lifetime). The examples are at hand. Suffice to compare the works on October Revolution 1917, written in the 1920-1930-ies, and those published nowadays. The author of VSL had much more grounds to be silent about the unlawfulness of the Tran dynasty coming to power than the authors of the later sources, for whom that question was no more actual. Moreover, historians of the Le dynasty were merely interested to emphasize the unlawfulness of the Tran dynasty, who came to power through the violent revolt (what, as a matter of fact, they describe in their works) to justify the actions of Le Loi, the first monarch of their own dynasty, who had no scruples to finish with the last representative of the Tran dynasty (albeit of the questionable origin) and had already acceded to the throne and been accepted by the Chinese Ming dynasty. The conclusion of a high reliability of VSL in comparison to data of “Complete Annals of Dai Viet” (further: ТТ) [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310], seen in the article by A.B. Polyakov, does not look obvious, either. It is generally known, that the TT text, referring to the late period of the Later Ly dynasty, is based on the work "Dai Viet su ky" (further: DVSK) by Le Van Huu, written in 1272, i.e., somewhat later than VSL. Indeed, in the 15th century the text was re-casted by Ngo Si Lien, who added his commentaries there and, maybe, abbreviated or corrected something. But also, the VSL text in hands of Qing philologists, already in the redaction of the period of the Ho (seen from the taboo of the appropriate hieroglyphs [Fedorin 2012: 46, 68]), was also completely re-casted (see [Fedorin 2012: 45-48]). Did they correct under the Qing dynasty only the form of the text or its content, as well? One can only guess. One can only guess, what Ngo Si Lien corrected in the content, having included the text DVSK in his Annals. To my mind, both texts are of equal value. The comparison of VSL and TT showed, that the first two chapters of VSL and corresponding parts of TT (as well as the work by Le Tac "An Nam chi luoc" [Lê Tắc 2002]) were written on the base of the same primary source, common for all. These three texts are just variants of its abbreviation with obvious errors and deviations from the lost original, and they are rather easy to find. The authors of VSL used obviously a shabbier copy of the primary source than Le Van Huu, and they made much more technical errors due to misreading of the hieroglyphs. As far as the end of the third chapter of VSL is concerned, in particular, 1211-1225 description (the reign of Ly Hue Tong, i.e., the most important period for us) it is an absolutely original text. The same may be said about the narration by Le Van Huu, on the late period of the Later Ly dynasty: in rather volumetric texts of the two works on this period there are only 7 reports in common, but they differ much textually. The authors of the two annals (VSL and DVSK) obviously did not read each other [Fedorin 2012]. So, to rank these sources, to make one of them more reliable is, to my mind, nonsensical. Taking into account the aforesaid that the later authors had no necessity to emphasize the legitimacy of the coming of the Tran dynasty to power and the equal value of the data in TT and VSL from the historiographical viewpoint, we are going to show the standpoint, contrary to the suggested hypothesis, through the citations. «The Twelfth moon [1225]. The eleventh day. <...>. Chieu-hoang organized a big assembly in the Thien An palace, sat on the precious throne. All the officials, arriving to the dynasty audience in ceremonial dresses, prostrated themselves in the court. Chieu-hoang agreed humbly to bring Tran Canh and make him sit down on the imperial throne. The era of the rule was changed for the initial year [of the era] Kien Trung. The great amnesty. Was called Thien-hoang, soon changed [the name for] Van-hoang. <...>. Tran Thu Do was honored with [the title] of Supreme Father of the Fatherland to rule the affaires of the Celestial Empire. [Tran] Thu Do said: “Now robbers and enemies have risen everywhere, villains and rebels increase every day. Doan Thuong seized the East, Nguyen Non seized the North, Quang Oai and Dai Vien have not been wiped from the face of the Earth yet. The Ly House has fallen into decline, the state powers are damaged severely. The woman-ruler Chieu-hoang could not bear [such a weight] on her shoulders and laid it on [this] young man, who is not experienced yet in state affairs. There is much negligence in policies, the state throne has just become fixed. People hearts are not quiet yet, and this is very bad. Though I am [only] his father’s younger brother, illiterate yet, I will gallop to the east, I will race to the west to defend myself from robbers and enemies. It will be better, if we persuade the father of the perfectly wise to take political power in the state for a time as the High Emperor. In two or three years the Celestial Empire will unite, and then power [will pass] to the young man again”. The officials exclaimed: “We agree!”. They persuaded the father of perfectly wise Tran Thua to take the rule” [Полное собрание 2012: 259]. «The Twelfth moon [1225]. The twelfth day. <...> Accepted the abdication of Chieu-hoang and acceded to the Emperor’s throne. Changed the era for Kien Trung» [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 1b]. «Summer. The fifth moon [1226]. Honored [Tran] Nhat Kieu, the younger brother, with the title Kham Thien dai vuong <he was only two years old>» [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 2a]. «The sixth moon [1226]. Proclaimed the day of his coming into the world to be he imperial birthday Can Ninh» [Ibid]. «Winter. The tenth moon [1226]. Honored father, [Tran] Thua with the title of the High Emperor, lodged him in Phu Thien palace, in the quarter-phuong Hac Kieu on the left. When important state affairs happened, they were considered and accepted there. Honored mother, née Le, with the title of the High Empress Quoc Thanh <in some works - Mother of the Fatherland Bao Thanh>» [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 3b]. «Spring. The chief moon [1234]. The eighteenth day. The High Emperor passed away in Phu Thien Palace in the age of 51. Autumn. The eighth moon. The twenty-eighth day. [The High Emperor] was buried in Tho Lang sepulcher in the region Long Hung» [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 8а]. Practically, all these reports are contained in other later annals; their authors were oriented on TT and usually the VSL text was unfamiliar to them [Đại Việt sử ký tiền biên 1997; Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục 2007; Đặng gia phả hệ 2006 etc.]. It is quite obvious, that this chronological narrative deals with the quite normal process of the intronization of the monarch, albeit the infant. The access to the throne, ceded to him by the wife- empress, the invitation of his father to help him in the rule, the younger brother’s proclamation as a vuong (i.e. the potential successor for an unforeseen case), the ritual proclamation of his own birthday as the national holiday, the proclamation of his father and mother to be the High Emperor and the High Empress, without the admission of his father to the real power (he lived out of the Palace, did not participate in the dynasty sessions and they asked for his advice only in exclusive cases). These are links of the same, very trivial chain. To suggest that the official Emperor was Tran Thua, but not Tran Canh, means that we deal with the unimaginable mass falsification of the text, absolutely unthinkable for the Vietnamese historiographical tradition. All these reports (but the last), so accurately dated, could not be artificial additions to the annals. Also, I think that Tran Thua’s role in the rule of the country, assigned to him by the author of the hypothesis, is exaggerated. The textual analysis of TT shows that the main role in the process of power transition from the Ly dynasty to the Tran dynasty was played by his younger cousin Tran Thu Do. It was he, who began the adventure with the dismissal of Ly Hue Tong and the transition of the throne to Tran Canh through his marriage to Empress Ly Chieu Hoang (Tran Thua was absent from the capital that time), who was the initiator of the invitation of Tran Thua and his appointment to the post of the High Emperor in the frameworks of legitime power of the Tran House, who then successfully reconciled numerous rebellions both of separatists of Nguyen Non and Doan Thuong (in conditions of |medieval Vietnam real sovereign is the army leader), who provoked the last Emperor of the Ly dynasty to suicide, who was guilty in the followed massacre of the relations of that house. Pages of the annals bristle with the reports of his campaigns and decisions, while Tran Thua is mentioned only once in 1234 (the year of his death), and that was in connection with his illegitimate son [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 7a-7b]. Later in the frameworks of the Tran dynasty Tran Thu Do’s rival was Tran Lieu, the elder brother of Tran Canh, who tried to rule the state affairs, after his father’s death in 1234 having taken the place of his relation at the Court and having sent him as a military governor to Than Hoa province [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 8a-8b]. However, finally he had bad end, and Tran Thu Do soon seized the total power in the country and kept it till his death. So, Tran Thua, by all accounts, after 1235 became neither the official Emperor, nor the ruler of the country. The arguments in favor of the fact, that the first official emperor of the Tran Dynasty was Tran Thua In his last work on the theme A.B. Polyakov gave the following essential arguments to convince the reader that the first Emperor in the Tran dynasty was Tran Thua [Polyakov 2018]. Let us try to analyze each of them. 1. After death Tran Thua receives his temple name Thai-to (Chinese: Taizu). Such was a temple name of the founders of the contemporary Vietnamese (the Later Ly, the Ho, the Later Le, the Mac) and Chinese (the Sun, the Yuan, the Ming) dynasties, what shows that he was the first Emperor of the Tran dynasty. In history of Dai Viet this was the first and the only event, when the emperor-founder of a new dynasty rose to the throne in the lifetime of his father. That is why Tran Thua was honored with the temple name of the founder of imperial family after his death. The temple name itself did not mean a real position of a man on the imperial throne, but only his direct relationship with one of the active Emperors and his right to be prayed for in the temple of Emperors’ ancestors (Thai mieu). One of such examples is Ly Cung-hoang, the father of Emperor Ly Than Tong (1128-1137). During the reign of the Later Ly dynasty temple names were given also to direct Emperor’s ancestors through the male line, who died long ago (the fathers of the Emperors Le Tuong Duc, 1510-1516, and Le Chieu Tong, 1516-1525). But this is not the end. Tran Thua was not proclaimed Emperor Tran Thai To immediately after his death: «Autumn. The eighth moon. The twenty-eighth day (September 22, 1234). [The High Emperor] was buried in в [sepulcher] Tho Lang <...> The temple name is [Tran] Huy Tong» [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 8a]. A new temple name he got but 14 years later: «[Year] Mau Than, the seventeenth year [of the era Thien Ung Chinh Binh] < Song dynasty, the eighth year [of the era] Chun You> (1248). Spring. The chief moon. The temple name [Tran] Hui Tong was changed for [Tran] Thai To...» [Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư SA.PD 2310, BK-V: 15b]. To my mind, these direct evidences of the annals obviously disprove the hypothesis under consideration. 2. In VSL the report of the rise of the first Emperor of the Tran dynasty to the throne immediately follows the report of the invitation of Tran Thua to arrive to the capital and to accept the real power. But the concrete name of the person who rose to the throne is not mentioned. In modern Vietnamese translations besides the term “the most deserving” (in the text of VSL so is called the person, who rose to the throne) translators bring in the name of Tran Сanh. Indeed, this report of VSL does not say that it was Tran Сanh, who rose the throne, but it does not mention Tran Thua, either. In all probability, the authors of the text merely avoid mentioning the taboo name of the monarch, but did not try hiding what was apparent then. 3. There is no data in VSL that the marriage of Tran Сanh and the last woman representative of the Later Ly dynasty (Ly Chieu-hoang) took place before “the most deserving” rose to the throne. Such information contains only in the sources more recent that VSL and it can be considered as a falsification in order to justify the usurpation of power by Tran Thua, who even had no minimal formal rights for it, in contradistinction to his son Tran Canh. We had already spoken of the assessment of relative significance and authenticity of VSL and TT. On the whole, the VSL information on the problem of the transition of power to the Tran dynasty is much less detailed than the information in TT. As far as the precise date of the marriage of Tran Сanh and Ly Chieu-hoang is concerned, in this source there is no information on it at all. They were possibly omitted on one of the stages of the existence of the chronicle. 4. When a new Emperor had risen the throne, the woman with the title Thuan Trinh hoang hau (or, as A.B. Polyakov called her, “Mother-Empress”, “Widow-Empress”) was proclaimed the High Empess, while in another report they say that Tran Сanh’s mother (it was she, who was to get the title of the High Empress after his rising to the throne) had the titles of Quoc Thanh hoang thai hau and Bao Thanh quoc mau. Here is the citation from VSL: «[“The most deserving”] honored the wife of vuong (the emperor) Thuan Trinh vuong hau with the title of the High Empress» [Việt sử lược 2005: 201, 463]. Either Tran Canh’s mother / Tran Thua’s wife or Tran Thua’s mother are out of question here, while in 1225 they both were not wives of the active emperors and that is why they could not have the title of the Empress hoang hau or according to Chinese narrators, vuong hau). Apparently, the author of the text means the wife of abdicated Ly Hue Tong. She was the mother of the Empress Ly Chieu- hoang, née Tran, who was constantly in the center of fight for the Imperial throne, on the side of the Tran House and deserved her award. As for Tran Canh mother, she received the title of the High Empress, too, but later (in 1226. See above) and with the name part Quoc Thanh (Quoc Thanh hoang thai hau). 5. The Chinese ambassador Chen Fu, who visited Dai Viet in the late 13th century, wrote that after the fall of the Later Ly House Tran Thua seized power in the country, having appropriated the title of the High Emperor (thai thuong hoang). Chen Fu words do not contradict TT data and are not the evidence in favor of the offered hypothesis. Indeed, in 1226 Tran Thua was proclaimed not merely the Emperor (what could be considered the confirmation of the hypothesis), but the High Emperor. However, in the late 13th century it was not easy for a Chinese to understand whether he “had seized power” personally. 6. In some epigraphy works of the Tran epoch Tran Thai To opens the list of this dynasty Emperors. They say that the first Emperor was Thai To, the second - Thai Tong, the fifth - Anh Tong, the sixth - Minh Tong etc. The analysis of the family chronicle of the Later Le dynasty [Lê hoàng ngọc phổ] shows that all the members of the dynasty having received the right for direct praying in Thai mieu (temple titles ending with “to” or “tong”) were included in the general list according the chronology of their death dates. One can suppose that in the reign of the Tran dynasty the situation was the same. These lists were considered standard as for who was the first Emperor and who was the second one. Tran Thua (d. 1234) opened the list. That is why he was considered to have been the first Emperor of the Tran dynasty in epigraphy sources. Conclusion I think that the above-adduced discourses and documentary evidence do not permit to affirm that the first official Emperor of the Tran dynasty was Tran Thua, who later received the temple title Tran Thai To. The traditional version is more probable. According to this version, the primary role in the organization of the transition of power from the Ly dynasty to the Tran dynasty was played by Tran Thu Do, one of the younger relations of the Tran family. It was he, who developed the plan, according to which Ly Hue Tong, the last Emperor of the Ly dynasty, was forced to abdicate in favor of his younger daughter (a close relation of the Trans from her mother’s side, by the way), who later was brought together and married to Tran Canh, the juvenile representative of the same family. Later she passed her imperial authority to him. Further, he was the full master of the country almost up to his death. The role of Tran Thua, Tran Canh’s father, was minimal and quite ritual in this process, though in time he fully enjoyed the fruit of this adventure, having received the honors of the founder of a new dynasty. Some features of the VSL text, the earliest source on the history of Vietnam, are to some extent connected with its incompleteness. They cannot be interpreted as the wish to draw a veil over the real situation of the time. More likely, it is a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to follow all the norms and rules of Confucian ethics as for the rejection to use in the text taboo names of emperors, which led to ambiguity of some sentences and caused their different interpretation by researchers.

About the authors

A. L Fedorin

Institute of Far East Studies Russian Academy of Sciences

Email: ffeedd@list.ru
D.Sc. (History), Researcher, Center for Vietnam and ASEAN Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Moscow International Academy


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