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A Brief History of the Tay Son Movement (1771-1802)

by George Dutton (1998) (

This essay is designed as a cursory introduction to the Tay Son movement and

its main phases. The focus on this essay is on broad military and political

events during this period, with some description of economic and social

factors that precipitated the uprising. This essay does not attempt to

explore the very important, and to my mind, more interesting social and

ideological ramifications of the Tay Son movement. It is thus far from

complete, but I hope that it will serve as a useful starting point for

understanding why the Tay Son period was such a significant one in Vietnam's

long history. The sources for this essay can be found in the bibliographical

pages I have posted elsewhere on this site. I have not included footnotes in

this essay, to reduce clutter. However, I will gladly provide citations to

those who are interested. I also welcome feedback on this essay and hope to

improve it over time:

* Background to the Tay Son: The Trinh-Nguyen Schism

The story of the Tay Son must, in some ways, begin with the division of the

country into northern and southern ruling houses. While this is often

portrayed as a partition or division of Viet Nam, the reality is that prior

to the Nguyen- led expansion to the south there had been no real Vietnamese

political presence in that region. Thus, it is more precisely the case that

the Nguyen opened up new territory, at the expense of the Chams and the

Khmers, and used this new territory to challenge the authority of the Trinh

ruling family in the north. The reason that there is some confusion on this

point is the fact that the Nguyen continued to profess their allegiance to

the Le Emperor, who remained the nominal political leader of the country.

Since the Nguyen viewed themselves as officials of the Le dynasty, they did

not portray themselves as a leaders of a separate entity. Despite their

continuing allegiance, over time they gradually changed their titles and the

words used to describe their officialdom and trappings of state so that by

the latter part of the 18th century there was no doubt about their own sense

of their political strength. As early as 1702 there were clear indications

that the Nguyen were not content to view themselves as subordinates of the

Le. In that year, Le Quy Don reports, in his Phu Bien Tap Luc, that the

Nguyen lord sent a message and gifts to China (via Siamese middlemen)

requesting that the Nguyen be granted political recognition. The Chinese,

seeing an Emperor still on the throne in the north, refused to accept the

Nguyen appeal and gifts. In any event, the confrontation between the Trinh,

in the north, and the Nguyen in the south was a defining element of

Vietnamese history from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the


The division between the Trinh and Nguyen is further complicated, by the fact

that the two families were related by marriage since the mid-16th century. It

was in this period that both where fighting on behalf of the legitimate heir

of the Le dynasty which was struggling for survival against the upstart Mac

family. Nguyen Kim, the progenitor of the Nguyen family was a general who was

defending the Le against the Mac, and he needed the assistance of Trinh Kiem,

a gifted general, to support his campaign. To secure this assistance, Nguyen

Kim gave his daughter to Kiem in marriage. The power balance between the two

families shifted in xxx , when Kim was poisoned by a surrendering Mac

general, and Trinh Kiem took command of the Le troops. As a result, the Trinh

began to gain the political upper hand,

Eventually they sought to impose a more direct political control and to

extend their influence over the Le emperor. However, even without Nguyen Kim,

the Nguyen family was still quite powerful through the prestige of his two

sons, and could potentially jeopardize the Trinh aspirations. Consequently, a

Trinh general killed one of Nguyen Kim's two sons in the mid-1550s, and the

other son, Nguyen Hoang, fearing the same fate, arranged to be stationed in

the south in Thuan Hoa. The Trinh were content to keep the Nguyen at a

distance, where they could offer no challenge to Trinh political supremacy at

the Le court. By 1566, Nguyen Hoang had become governor of Thuan Hoa and

Quang Nam, with the provision that he remit annual tribute to the Le Emperor

in the name of the Trinh.[Side Note: while the Nguyen-Trinh split thus dates

from the 1550s, the Le-Mac conflict, which had broken out in 1527, continued

until 1592, and in fact beyond that with Mac remnants continuing to pose a

threat to the Trinh and their control over the Le dynasty.]

The Trinh rule became more oppressive and while Nguyen Hoang came back for 8

years (1593-1600) to help the Le and Trinh put down a Mac challenge, he left

again when he saw a series of revolts against the Trinh developing around the

north. He left his daughter in marriage to a Trinh, and stationed his 6th son

in Quang Nam, to divert the Trinh from realizing that he had no intention of

returning to the north. War broke out under Nguyen Hoang's son Nguyen Phuc

Nguyen, in 1627, when he refused a summons to return to the Le court. In all,

seven major campaigns were fought between the two sides from 1627 to 1672,

with both sides at one time invading the other. The battles were ultimately

inconclusive, and finally, after the seventh conflict, it was agreed that the

Linh-Gianh River would serve as a demarcation line between the two

territories, with both sides continuing to claim their allegiance to the Le.

This line was to hold until the Tay Son period, when the Trinh, taking

advantage of the plight of the Nguyen invaded over the Linh-Gianh River.

The main things to keep in mind are that by the beginning of the 18th

century, Viet Nam - or more accurately Dai Viet as it was formally known at

the time - was divided between two ruling families, the Trinh in the North,

who controlled a puppet Emperor, and the Nguyen in the South who also claimed

to be loyal supporters of the Imperial House. The line dividing their

respective territories was at the Linh-Gianh River, which flows through Quang

Binh province, north of Hue [check on this]. This sets the stage for the

events of the 18th century, and the Tay Son rebellion in particular.

* Economic and Political Turmoil in the Trinh North

The 18th century was a period of almost continual upheaval and turmoil in

both parts of Viet Nam, though perhaps more dramatically in the north. There

the situation deteriorated dramatically during the second decade of the

century, under the rule of Trinh Giang and his successors. His tyrannical

reign and tolerance of corruption among officials led to a large number of

rebellions in the north. In addition, the capital was in almost constant

upheaval as various political factions emerged supporting various claimants

to the titles of Chua and Emperor. There were numerous troop uprisings and

military factions came to hold increasing power over political events. These

political problems, however, were only the backdrop to more profound problems

affecting northern society.

The chief economic and social problems were related to land distribution,

taxation and natural disasters. In the area of land distribution, the

fundamental problem was that much Vietnamese farming was done on communal

lands, controlled by the village. In Trinh territory by this time, much of the

communal land had been seized by powerful officials and landholders who had

established private estates of their own - leaving many villages with

inadequate farm land. Efforts by the Trinh to protect communal land, and its

periodic redistribution, were unsuccessful because the power of local or

provincial-level officials was simply too strong.

The second huge problem was an increasing tax burden falling on the northern

Vietnamese population, designed to support the grandiose spending by the

Trinh on new palaces, ceremonies, pagodas, etc. The distribution of the tax

burden also became increasingly uneven as mandarins in the bureaucratic

hierarchy were exempted from the land tax.Furthermore, a whole new tax

structure was created to extract revenue from non-land sources - taxes on

goods and services, including many everyday items such as salt and charcoal.

As a consequence, many small artisans were forced out of business because the

people could no longer afford to purchase their goods.

Finally, in addition to these artificially constructed problems, the north

was beset by a series of natural disasters that further compounded the

difficulties facing the general populace. Famines struck large parts of the

north in the 1730s and 1740s, causing widespread death and disease. In fact,

court histories that describe these events talk of bodies lining many of the

major roads in the north, and people turning to cannibalism to survive.

Clearly the situation was catastrophic. All of these factors contributed to

make life under the Trinh rather miserable; they also contributed to

large-scale population movements with people leaving their local villages in

search of food, land or shelter. As a consequence, the Trinh lost a great

deal of control over their people. Political and economic control at this

time was dependent on sedentary populations based in villages where records

could be maintained, taxes could be collected and crops could be farmed. With

large numbers of people on the road, the stage was set for turmoil. The Trinh

repeatedly sought to lure people back to their villages and farms, but these

efforts were also largely ineffectual.

It was these wandering populations that served as the main source of

supporters for the rebellions that were to break out in the North beginning

in the 1730s, and were to remain a major problem for the Trinh up to the time

of their final destruction by the Tay Son in the 1780s. In fact, they became

almost a continuous feature of the landscape of Trinh territory throughout

the century. Many of these rebellions were, in fact, not led by the displaced

and starving peasantry, but rather by members of the Le royal family and high

mandarins and scholars who had lost faith in the Trinh administration. The

wandering peasants, though, became their followers and supporters.

* Political and Economic Turmoil in the Nguyen South

The situation in the south during the early and mid-18th century was somewhat

better than that of the north, though many of the same problems were also

plaguing the Nguyen territories. The tyranny of the new (since when?) regent

of the Nguyen lords, Truong Phuc Loan, is routinely cited as the main reason

for peasant unrest and displeasure with the government. Loan, who had served

as an advisor to the 8th Nguyen ruler - Nguyen Phuc Khoat - had on the

ruler's death, altered the imperial will, placing a young and manipulable

prince (the 16th son of the ruler), on the throne instead of the designated

heir. According to the Nguyen records, Loan then raised and extended taxes

greatly increasing his own personal wealth and influence. His actions had

raised the potential for a crisis of legitimacy, since there were people in

the government who were aware of Loan's intrigues in displacing the

legitimate heir.

Just as important, many of the same problems that were troubling the Trinh

populations were afflicting those living in Nguyen territory. There were

questions about corruption within the government, the usurpation of public

(village/communal) lands by government mandarins, as well as issues of

starvation and poor harvests due to heavy taxation, and corruption compounded

by weather conditions. The south had an additional economic problem

contributing to the rice shortages and consequent starvation - the Nguyen use

of zinc currency. Traditionally, the coins in circulation were of copper and

this was a widely respected medium of exchange. However, in the 18th century,

the Nguyen's overseas sources of copper had been cut off, and since they did

not mine any of their own copper, they were forced to seek alternative

metals. They chose to produce zinc coins. The Nguyen rulers then decreed that

the zinc coins be accepted at parity with the copper ones. The population

largely rejected this, however, preferring the more durable copper coins; in

fact, the people made it clear that they would rather hoard rice than sell it

for the zinc coins, and consequently prices for rice rose as the available

supply shrunk, leading to the beginnings of famine. A retired Nguyen official

submitted a memorial to the rulers pointing out this problem, and urging them

to try to produce more copper coins and to establish warehouses of rice to

help to stabilize rice prices, but his warnings were ignored, and ultimately,

the records state, he joined the Tay Son instead.

Despite the currency and other economic problem, the South was actually a very

wealthy region at this time. The underlying problem during this period was

thus, not a lack of wealth, but of its unequal distribution and the efforts of

corrupt officials to extract wealth. Thus, some of the rebellions that

developed in the south during this period occurred in particularly prosperous

areas, which were naturally the most attractive places for corrupt officials

seeking private gain. In fact, the Nguyen chronicles for the year 1769 record

that the government collected taxes in rice of nearly 9.6 million thang (dry

quarts) from a population of approximately 292,000 people. The Tay Son,

however, concentrated on the unequal distribution issue, potraying themselves

as champions of the oppressed. Consequently, when the uprising broke out, one

of their first objectives was to see to a redistribution of this wealth, and

they moved through the country with the slogan: "take from the wealthy, and

give to the poor."

* The Early Tay Son Period (1771- 1775)

The Tay Son uprising itself began in 1771 in the south-central Vietnamese

village by that same name. In that village lived three brothers, Nguyen Nhac,

Nguyen Hue and Nguyen Lu [A note of clarification on the surname Nguyen. The

brothers' surname, Nguyen, is a potential source of confusion, because it is

identical to that of the ruling southern lords. In fact, this surname is very

common in Viet Nam, so it is not surprising that two families, even

juxtaposed in this manner would both carry it. In the case of the Tay Son

brothers, however, it was in fact borrowed from their mother's side of the

family, in an effort to both legitimate and protect themselves in the course

of the movement. (the logic being that the name gave them prestige and

legitimacy in the minds of the peasants.)]. Although these three could be

considered peasants, they were certainly well-off peasants, and had received

a fair amount of education in the form of private tutoring. The eldest of the

three, Nguyen Nhac, was a trader in betel nut who often traded with highland

peoples in the regions west of the village of Tay Son. He was also a

part-time tax collector for the Nguyen government. It was apparently his tax

collecting job that got him into trouble with the Nguyen authorities. While

the historical record is not clear on this point, the records suggest he

either gambled with and lost the tax monies he had collected for the state,

or embezzled the funds in some other form. It has also been speculated that

he was simply unable to collect taxes from areas without resources to meet

the state demands. Rather than waiting to be charged with a crime, Nhac fled

to the hills accompanied by his two younger brothers. Given the large

following that Nhac quickly gathered around him, it is clear that his was not

a simple case of fraud, and that there were a variety of much larger issues

at stake.

As I mentioned earlier, there were a variety of factors that had made life

for many southern Vietnamese peasants quite miserable. Thus, it is not

surprising, in some sense, that Nhac was able to rally peasants to his side

by calling for an end to the tyranny of Truong Phuc Loan and the restoration

of the legitimate Nguyen heir. While most people probably had little idea of

the political abilities of this heir, it was difficult to imagine a ruler

worse than Loan, and the lure of a "legitimate" ruler was often appealing.

The bigger question about the early Tay Son success in gaining so many

supporters is what factors made the Tay Son brothers so appealing as leaders

in this crusade. The answer seems to be that the Tay Son brothers were very

successful in portraying themselves as divinely ordained to carry out this


The Tay Son brothers were acutely aware that their ability to attract peasant

followers would be directly related to their ability to demonstrate that

"heaven" or supernatural forces were on their side. Thus they tried to

demonstrate that their rebellion was sanctioned by supernatural forces or had

been foretold by various signs or prophecies. For example, according to their

tutor, Giao Hien, Nguyen Nhac was the fulfillment of an old prophecy which

ran: "in the west there is a righteous rebellion, and in the north merit is

received" Hien observed to Nhac,: &laqno;You are a person from Tay Son (that

is, the Western mountains), thus you must strive to rise (in power).»

A number of oral traditions about the brothers reflect some of the ways in

which they tried to gain followers in this manner. One, describing the

unifying power of the Tay-son, tells of Nguyen Nhac's finding the blade of a

precious sword in the coastal plains and then finding its matching handle in

the highland area. A similar account describes his finding a sword in the

plains, and a golden seal in the highlands. In addition, Nguyen Hue was said

to possess super-human strength which allowed him to wield a silver lance

which could not be lifted by ordinary men, and to uproot small trees with his

bare hands.

Numerous stories about the Tay-son brothers have been preserved in their

native area and give an indication of the supernatural aura which grew up

around the rebel leaders and which convinced many rural people to join their

movement. One account tells of a pair of giant snakes blocking a road along

which Nguyen Hue was leading his troops. His troops were terrified, but

Nguyen Hue dismounted from his horse, and prayed to the snake spirit saying:

"If my brothers and I are able to undertake this great task then I request

the Snake spirit to clear off of the road to allow my soldiers to pass. If it

is my fate that this cannot come to pass, then please just bite me to death

but allow my troops to live and to return to their children and wives."

Thereupon the snakes cleared the path and escorted the troops to their

destination. They further aided the Tay-son by bringing to Nguyen Hue in

their mouths "a dragon knife, its handle black like ebony, its blade sharp

like water." The dragon knife is symbolic of a king and the knife carried to

the brothers is reminiscent of the sword brought to Le Loi by the tortoise in

the Lake of the Restored Sword for him to use in defeating the Ming in the

15th century.

That the Tay-son brothers were aware of the value of supernatural sanction is

revealed in another tale which describes NguyenNhac's taking advantage of

superstitions surrounding a local mountain peak. He surreptitiously smuggled

some drums and gongs up the hill and on the night of a local festival

arranged for them to be secretly sounded and accompanied by flashing lights.

To the amazement of his guests, he gathered a group of adventurous locals and

climbed the hill to encounter a wizened old man who summoned Nguyen Nhac by

name to hear an edict which read "the Jade Emperor orders Nguyen Nhac to

serve as the country's Emperor." After reading it, he handed the "divine"

edict to Nguyen Nhac and vanished into the night. The old man was in fact

Nguyen Nhac's teacher who advised him in arranging this stunt.

The local people were not always swayed by such trickery. Another story

records that while many tribal groups in the Tay-son area were willing to

support the brothers, a certain group from Xa-Dang was reluctant to go along.

The Xa Dang people were not convinced that the Tay Son had the will of heaven

on their side. Nguyen Nhac tried to convince them by making a show of

carrying water from a local stream in a pair of loosely woven straw baskets.

He hoped to show his divine calling through the apparent miracle of water not

leaking out of the baskets, which he had cleverly coated with a transparent

oil. The village leader was not impressed, stating that this was the result

of a magical spell (ie. of terrestrial origin) rather than any indication of

heaven's preference.

The Xa Dang people suggested that if Nguyen Nhac was really chosen by heaven,

then he could perform a feat of their own devising. It happened that the

mountain region contained a tribe of wild horses which were impossible to

approach because they fled at the mere sight of a human shadow. The Xa Dang

told Nguyen Nhac that if he were able to call the horses to come to him then

they would consider this a divine manifestation. Nguyen Nhac accepted the

challenge and promptly went out to purchase a young and attractive female

horse which he trained to come whenever he called to it. Once it had been

well- trained, be released it to run with the wild horses. At first

suspicious of the newcomer, the wild horses were soon won over by the

attractive female. Nguyen Nhac then called to his horse and she came running

with the wild herd close behind. On seeing Nguyen Nhac they hesitated, but

when they saw the grass he held and the trust that their new companion had in

him, they slowly approached. Nhac then performed this demonstration for the

people of Xa Dang, calling the wild forest horses to him. This indication of

his "control" over nature convinced them that he did have the support of

heaven and many of them agreed to support his movement.

The portents of the Tay Son are not restricted to their own accounts. The

Nguyen chronicles, albeit after the fact, also record numerous indications of

the coming rebellion. In 1769, a court official observes a comet moving

across the sky, and interprets it as meaning that there will be a rebellion

in the central region in 6 years (1775). Later that year, the record notes

that "there appeared frequent strange signs: the earth moved, the mountains

crumbled, the stars fell, the water turned red, the people suffered famine

and bandits were everywhere. Throughout the land were seen these many

spontaneous occurrences." Clearly, these records suggest, there were problems

surrounding the southern government controlled by Truong Phuoc Loan and that

the future held great upheavals.

So, now back to the story. Having decided to avoid prosecution by the Nguyen

authorities, the Tay Son brothers had withdrawn to the An Khe region in the

highlands to the west of Tay Son. The remained in this area for the next three

years working to consolidate their base and attract followers to their armed

uprising. An Khe had several strategic advantages for the Tay Son. It was in a

relatively remote area, almost inaccessible to the Nguyen troops for it was

approachable only along a treacherous route which was easily defensible.

Furthermore, because of his trading routes in this area, Nguyen Nhac already

had numerous contacts and was familiar with the region and its people. The

strength of their position allowed the Tay Son to win some early victories

which enhanced their prestige and attracted further followers. In addition, An

Khe was a resource-rich area that supplied the Tay Son with wood, iron,

sulphur, horses and elephants as well as people. In fact, the Tay Son movement

is unusual in its heavy reliance on support from highland peoples who were

usually not involved in Vietnamese wars, which generally involved only the

lowland Vietnamese.

These early years also served to earn the rebels a widely spread reputation as

honorable fighters who went out of their way to avoid alienating the peasant

majority of the population. A Spanish missionary, Father Diego de Jumilla

noted, in a letter written in 1774, that the rebel troops:

"did no harm to either persons or property. On the contrary, they appeared to

desire equality for all Cochin-Chinese; they entered the houses of the rich

and, if they were offered some present, they did no damage. But if they met

resistance, they seized the most luxurious articles, which they distributed

among the poor, keeping for themselves only rice and victuals...they were

called virtuous thieves, and they were said to be charitable towards the poor


The Tay Son did not only gain support from peasants, however, for they were

also able to appeal to other classes of society which see a need to replace

the corrupt regent. By 1773, the ranks of their supporters included a Cham

princess, and 2 wealthy merchants from Qui Nhon, Nguyen Thung and Huyen Khe,

who provided both cash and supplies to the troops. A short while later, two

wealthy Chinese businessmen, Ly Tai and Tap Dinh, also joined the Tay Son.

Others who joined the movement included Buddhist monks, progressive scholars

and low-ranking officials and small merchants who had all come to regard the

Tay Son as a possible solution to the ills of their society and economy.

After three years in An Khe, the Tay Son began to increase the scope of their

military activity and also revealed some of their strategic brilliance and

general characteristics that were to distinguish their armies. They made

their debut in the lowland coastal region in dramatic fashion in 1774. In

that year, Nhac faked his own capture and had himself delivered to the

coastal walled city of Qui Nhon in a cage. That night, he freed himself from

the cage, and opened the gates of the city to the Tay Son troops. They

immediately entered and overran the city, killing most of the garrison

troops. As a result, the Tay Son controlled a key coastal city that was to

continue to serve as one of their most important bases, and remained in their

hands throughout the period of the rebellion.

After the capture of Qui Nhon, the Tay Son armies moved quickly. The Nguyen

troops had been at peace for a long period of time, and were no longer used

to the rigors of battle - many simply ran away when confronted by the Tay

Son, and the Nguyen court routinely had to force soldiers back to the

battlefields. Also, as the Tay Son forces marched across the South, they

demonstrated some of their distinctive features. They fought under a huge red

banner carried at the front of their ranks. They made a loud hissing sound as

they travelled to strike fear into the hearts of the Nguyen troops, and they

came to be referred to as a "hissing army." [The Nguyen armies would employ a

variant of this tactic later in their fight against the Tay Son - they

attached a corps of female singers to each military unit and they would sing

as the troops marched around the countryside and into battle - both to

encourge their own troops, and to distract the enemy forces.] The Tay Son

also became known for their use of strategic ruses to intimidate and confuse

their enemies. The cage episode is just one example of their creative

military tactics. In another major battle, they used some of their highland

troops and disguised them as Chinese, cutting their hair to leave only a

pigtail, and making them drink heavily before the battle to make them more

fearless. In addition, these troops actually carried pieces of gold or silver

foil on the field of battle so they could check to see if enemies lying on

the ground were still alive, and could kill them if they were still

breathing. The Nguyen records state that "no one among the king's forces

could resist them." In addition, the course of the Tay Son military campaigns

was full of the use of strategic withdrawals that would lure enemy troops

into Tay Son ambushes both in land and often river battles.

* The Trinh Invasion and the Tay Son Response

Thus by 1774 the Tay Son forces had the Nguyen clearly on the defensive when

suddenly they encountered a new problem. The Trinh government in the north had

been following developments South and saw that the Nguyen government was

fighting for its very survival. Naturally the Trinh saw this as a golden

opportunity. They quickly assembled an army of 30,000 troops and moved

southward. They soon crossed the Gianh River, the traditional Trinh-Nguyen

border, and then breached the strategic Dong-hoi Wall, which the Nguyen had

constructed precisely against such a Trinh invasion, without a fight. As the

Trinh had calculated, there was no resistance because the Nguyen were too busy

with the Tay Son, and in any case, the inhabitants of Thuan Hoa were suffering

from famine and thus were far too weak to resist the Trinh invaders. The Trinh

invaders quickly approached the Nguyen capital at Phu Xuan (present day Hue)

where the court was in total disarray and readily acceded to the Trinh demand

that Truong Phuc Loan, the regent, be handed over to them. This did not stop

the Trinh advanced and they seized Phu Xuan in 1775.

This presented the Tay Son with a difficult choice. Just as the Trinh were

pressing at Tay Son positions in the northern part of the region, they were

being pushed from the South by the Nguyen armies which had retaken Binh-Thuan

and then Phu Yen in a counteroffensive that was moving northward. The Tay Son

decided to reach a strategic accomodation with the Trinh, sending them gifts

of gold and silk and offering to join them in their assault on the advancing

Nguyen forces. The Trinh readily agreed to this offer and bestowed official

military titles and positions on the Tay Son leaders and troops and sent them

off to fight the Nguyen. The Trinh agreed to this arrangement for a number of

reasons, all guided by pragmatism. Their forces were quite distant from their

home bases, and thus their supply lines were quite tenuous. Furthermore, they

were completely unfamiliar with the terrain to the South of Phu Xuan.

Finally, they felt that they had little to lose by settling into a fortified

Phu Xuan and watching the Tay Son fight the Nguyen on their behalf.

* The Battles for the South (1775-1785)

The next 10 years were marked by a seemingly endless series of battles

between the Tay Son and the Nguyen forces to capture and recapture the

province of Gia Dinh and its strategic capital of Saigon. The Tay Son forces

successfully captured the city for the first time in 1776 as the youngest,

and least capable brother, Nguyen Lu, led a major naval attack up the Saigon

river. Shortly thereafter, the Nguyen forces returned, recaptured the city

and force Lu to retreat to Qui Nhon. This set the stage for the next nine

years. In 1777, Nhac sent Lu and Hue to recapture Saigon. Nguyen Hue went

south at the head of a land and sea army that in 6 months destroyed the

majority of the Nguyen armed forces and killed nearly every member of the

Nguyen royal family. Having completed his task, Hue returned to Qui Nhon,

leaving a body of troops behind to retain control of the city.

The following year, 1778, there were further developments in the north where

Nguyen Nhac remained settled at Qui Nhon. Confident that he was in complete

control of the South, Nhac proclaimed himself king at Cha Ban, the ancient

Cham capital. He felt fairly certain that he could take this step without

interference from the Trinh, because their forces in the south were ravaged

by disease and they had been forced to retreat back over the Hai Van pass and

into Phu Xuan, from where they could do little to interfere with Tay Son


Meanwhile, back in the south, one member of the Nguyen royal family, Nguyen

Anh, had survived the Tay Son's massacre and escaped from Gia Dinh, spending a

long time in the swamps of Ca Mau (at the southern tip of Viet Nam), before

finding refuge on Pulau Panjang in the gulf of Siam. On news of the Tay Son

departure from Gia Dinh, he regrouped his remaining forces and advanced via

Long Xuyen and Sa Dec to reenter Gia Dinh in triumph. A small Tay Son

reinforcement force was destroyed by the Nguyen and they advanced north into

Binh Thuan.

Having recovered Gia Dinh, the remaining Nguyen prince sought to extend

recognition of his questionable authority. He sent an embassy to Siam hoping

to reach agreement on a treaty of friendship, which would help to bolster his

legitimacy in preparation for a campaign to retake the country from the Tay

Son. In terms of domestic affairs, he organized three provinces in the lands

that he controlled: Tran Bien, Phien Tran and Lang Ho. He also named

political officials, levied taxes, trained armies and a navy and encouraged a

program of land redistribution to promote agriculture in region that had now

been ravaged by several years of fighting. Finally, in 1780, he formally

proclaimed himself as the new Nguyen ruler.

In May 1782, the Tay Son were ready to retake the southern city. Nhac and

Hue, at the head of 100 warships, forced their way up the Saigon River and

raised an assault on the citadel. When they finally fought their way into the

city, their forces burned and pillaged the shops of the Chinese merchants and

massacred 10,000 Chinese. The exact reason for this massacre is unclear.

According to the Nguyen records , one of Nguyen Nhac's closest aides had been

killed by Nguyen troops who happened to be ethnic Chinese. In revenge, Nhac

ordered the killing of ethnic Chinese in the city including women and

children. Others have argued that this act was taken to destroy the ethnic

Chinese commercial monopoly. After this savage victory, the Tay Son leaders

once more return north, leaving the city in the hands of their trusted

troops. And, hearing that Hue and Nhac have left, Nguyen Anh once again

retook Saigon. By now the pattern should be very clear and perhaps raises the

question why this pattern did in fact develop.

There are probably two major reasons. The first is that the rhythm of the

campaigns was dictated in part by the changing monsoon winds. Since the

armies coming from Qui Nhon were often carried on boats, they had to wait for

the winds to carry them southward. Then, if they wanted to return north, they

had to depart while the winds were favorable for sailing in that direction.

And why did the Tay Son brothers repeately abandon the area of Gia Dinh,

leaving their underlings in charge? Keith Taylor has speculated that the Tay

Son never got beyond a somewhat provincial outlook that meant that regardless

of how far they would move their troops to achieve some military objective,

they were always most comfortable in their original base and heartland around

Qui Nhon. This was true in the campaigns of the 1770s and early 1780s, and

again in the mid-1780s, when the Tay Son troops headed into Trinh territory.

Then, in March 1783, Hue and Lu returned once again, and once more destroyed

the Nguyen Army, forcing Nguyen Anh to flee to Phu Quoc island, where his men

are reduced to eating grasses and bananas. This battle again revealed the

tactical genius of the Tay Son leader, Nguyen Hue. He took advantage of the

flood tide and its high winds to launch his attack on Saigon. The flaming

arrows of the Nguyen forces, shot into the wind blew back onto their own

forces, while the arrows of the Tay Son easily and quickly flew to hit their

targets. In addition, Nguyen Hue gained a further psychological advantage by

using war elephants in a region that had rarely seen such beasts. He had

developed a means of transporting the elephants in the swampy riverine areas

of the southern delta, overcome a difficulting that had previously prevented

the use of elephants in that region. The Nguyen were quickly demoralized and

destroyed. A Tay Son fleet chased Nguyen Anh, but was lost in a great storm,

and Nguyen Anh was able to escape and flees to Siam where he was given

shelter by the Siamese king.

Two years later, in 1785, Nguyen Anh, made another effort to retake Saigon.

Backed by 20,000 Siamese soldiers and 300 ships the Nguyen forces moved by

foot across Cambodia and by sea through the gulf of Siam in an attack on the

southern Vietnamese provinces. The Tay Son were once again ready for the

Nguyen attack. The subsequent military encounter was to rank as one of the

great triumphs of Vietnamese military history. The Tay Son leader, Nguyen

Hue, picked his battle carefully along a stretch of the Mekong River near My

Tho. He secretly arrayed his infantry along the northern shore of the river

and on some islands in the middle facing the troops on the northern banks;

then he placed his naval forces in hiding in two side streams on either side

of the infantry positions. Next, he sent a small Tay Son flotilla to lure the

Siamese naval forces into his ambush. The Siamese, confident of victory

against what appeared to be a small Tay Son force, chased the ships along the

Mekong and right into the trap that Nguyen Hue had laid. All of the Siamese

ships were destroyed, and only 1,000 of the original troops survived to flee

back to Siam via Cambodia. The loss was devastating for the Nguyen forces who

fled back to Siam for refuge. The Nguyen cause had been further undermined by

the Siamese land forces who had made themselves extremely unpopular with the

local populations through their looting and pillaging as they travelled

through the countryside. This had alienated many peasants who in turn offered

their support to the Tay Son. Nguyen Anh realized the problem with the

Siamese troops, and told his generals: "If we want to retake this country,

then we must have the support of the people. If we gain Gia Dinh, but lose

the hearts of the people, then I will not have the heart to succeed. It would

be better to turn back the Siamese troops in order to prevent their making

their people miserable."

* The Tay Son turn their attention to the North (1786-1789)

Meanwhile, the Tay Son were intent on expanding their influence in the north.

Having decisively defeated the Nguyen forces in the south and chased them

back to Siam, the Tay Son felt more secure in an effort to push their control

northward. Two factors were instrumental in the northern campaigns. The first

was the recent defection of Nguyen Huu Chinh, formerly an officer under the

Trinh general, Hoang Ngu Phuc. Chinh was a man of great ambition relected in

his nickname, "the Savage Eagle." He actively sought to stir up the Tay Son

interest in going to the north, which he saw as a grand field in which to

pursue his personal ambitions. The second was that the Trinh grip on power

had been substantially weakened. Since 1773, series of famines and floods had

forced many people to leave their villages in search of food. Secondly, the

Trinh ruler, Trinh Sam, had grown increasingly depraved and disconnected from

the realities of rule, and devoted his time and resources to festivals and

palace construction. Furthermore, a rupture in the court had developed when

Sam had made the young son of a favorite concubine, rather than his eldest

son, his designated heir. Two factions emerged in the court supporting the

two sides, further weakening the Trinh polity. Clearly, the time was ripe for

attacking the north.

Nguyen Nhac sent an expedition against Phu Xuan led by Nguyen Hue and Huu

Chinh. Hue sent a naval force up the Gianh River to seize the fortifications

and to prevent the arrival of additional reinforcements from the north.

Moreover, as he crossed the Hai Van Pass with his infantry, his naval force

benefitted from the rising tide which carried his boats to the walls of the

citadel, allowing an attack simultaneously by land and sea. The city

surrendered after a brief resistance, and all of the other areas quickly

joined in submitting to the Tay Son. In a matter of days, all of Thuan Hoa,

up to the Gianh River, had fallen into the hands of the Tay Son (by now it

was June of 1786) Hue's orders from his brother had been to stop at the

traditional frontier (that is, the Gianh River), but then, in a conversation

recorded in the Hoang Le Nhat Thong Chi, Chinh convinced Hue to take

advantage of circumstances to press the attack and seize the north. [see

Khoi, p. 320] Hue and Chinh attacked northward, seizing granaries of rice

along the rivers as they lead their flotilla of 400 ships. Chinh passed

through Nghe An and Thanh Hoa without meeting any resistance.

Meanwhile in the capital, the court was not greatly concerned about the news

of the loss of Thuan Hoa, which after all, was only recently conquered

territory; but, the fall of Nghe An and Thanh Hoa was more ominous. The Trinh

blocked the river entrance to Son Nam, but Hue used a ruse to open it; he

sent five ships to attack at night, and when the Trinh had used up their

artillery ammunition, the Tay Son ships moved in and easily opened the route

to Hanoi. Trinh Sam fled to Son Tay, but was captured and committed suicide,

ending the long line of Trinh lords. This left the road to the capital wide

upon, and the Tay Son marched into Thang Long on July 21, 1786.

Once in the capital, Hue imposed strict discipline on his troops in the

capital and also imposed summary justice in an effort to bring order to the

streets. More importantly, he offered his submission to the Le King, Le

Hien-tong, promising not to intervene in court affairs. He did, however,

insist on a solemn audience with the Emperor on Sept. 7, 1786.

-he arrived at the palace with numerous officers, and, after 5 ritual

prostrations, presented to the king an army register and an inscription

testifying that the Le dynasty had been restored to real power.

-The Emperor, in return, gave him the title of general and the title Duke of

Uy, and given him his daughter, Ngoc Han, in marriage.

Several days later, the Emperor died, leaving the throne to his weak son, Le

Chieu Thong.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Nhac, jealous of Hue, came to the north himself, to have

his own audience with the new Emperor, reiterating Tay Son support and

promising good relations with the Le. Then, in the 8th lunar month, the Tay

Son return to the south with their armies. Le Chieu Thong, was however a very

poor leader, and easily manipulated by more powerful politicians. This

prompted the remnants of the Trinh family to stage a small comeback, and they

were able to reimpose their family's traditional influence over the court.

The Emperor secretly communicated news of this situation to Nguyen Huu Chinh,

the Tay Son general, and Chinh, seeing a great opportunity, arrived in the

north at the head of a 10,000 man army, easily destroyed the Trinh troops,

and established himself as the new master of the North. Hue, angered at

Chinh's unauthorized actions ordered him to return, but Chinh refused.

At this juncture, a dispute between the brothers leads them to formally

divide their territory between them. Nguyen Lu is assigned to rule over the

southern provinces, headquartered in Saigon. Nhac takes the central region

for himself, and stations himself in the traditional Tay Son stronghold of

Qui Nhon. Nguyen Hue, is assigned to rule the northern territory and his

capital is at Phu Xuan. In the meantime, Nguyen Huu Chinh counsels Le Chieu

Thong to demand the return of Nghe An from Nguyen Hue. Instead, Hue responded

by ordering his aide, Vo Van Nham, to take a body of troops to Thang Long to

seize the traitor, Chinh. Nham moved north, easily taking the capital, now

abandoned by the Le, and captured and killed Chinh. But then, Nham was

seduced by the same ambitions that stirred Nguyen Huu Chinh, and seeing no

obstacles in his path, took power for himself. According to the Nguyen

chronicles, Ngo Van So, the Tay Son general in the north despised Nham, and

secretly sent a message to Hue stating that Nham was planning to betray him.

Hue trusted Ngo Van So, and so he attacked Thang Long, capturing Nham. Nham

protested that he had been unjustly accused by Ngo Van So, but Hue would not

listen. Hue said: "It may be that in reality you are not guilty, but you

frighten me, and therefore you ARE guilty." Then he killed him, and placed

Ngo Van So in charge in his place.

While all of this was going on, the defeated Le Emperor had fled north to

China, where he appealed to the Chinese Qing Emperor for assistance in

reclaiming his throne. He argued to the Chinese, that since Vietnam was

technically a Chinese tributary state (it sent periodic tribute, ostensibly in

acknowledgement of Chinese superiority), that the Chinese were obligated to

defend Vietnam against aggressors. The Chinese clearly understood that the

situation was more complex than that, for the aggression, if that was what it

was, was internal, and not a foreign threat. Moreover, the Chinese approach to

these sorts of situations tended to be more pragmatic than dogmatic. They had

rejected similar appeals by earlier Vietnamese monarchs challenged by internal

threats, even reaching accomodations with the "usurpers." These Chinese

response would be one of self-interest. And the Chinese court concluded, based

on the arguments of their provincial governor Ton Si Nghi, to support a Le-led

invasion of Vietnam.

As a result, in late October, 1788, the Chinese army crossed into Vietnam and

seeing that they were outnumbered, the Tay Son forces, under Ngo Van So,

retreated southward to Thanh Hoa, where they sent messages to Nguyen Hue,

back in Phu Xuan for help. The Chinese then quickly reoccupied Thang Long

without resistance and placed the Le ruler back on the throne. In the

meantime, however, Quang Trung-Nguyen Hue (named himself Emperor in late

1787), had received the message of the invasion and proceded northward. On

hearing that Nguyen Hue himself led the Tay Son forces, the Le Emperor fled

from Thang Long. Nguyen Hue sent an envoy with a petition to Ton Si Nghi (Sun

Shi Yi), requesting that he withdraw his troops. The Chinese general tore up

the petition and killed the envoy. His arrogance would not long go

unpunished. In fact, his biggest mistake had probably been to stop his troops

in Thang Long in the first place. They had stopped to enthrone the Le Emperor

and to celebrate the Chinese (lunar) New Year. As a result, the Chinese

troops were busy celebrating the lunar New Year, with no thought to their

impending danger. The Tay Son forces then timed their attack on Thang Long on

midnight of the 5th day of the Tet (lunar New Year) celebration, catching the

Chinese totally by surprise and the Chinese forces were easily destroyed as

they fled in complete disarray. Recognizing the Tay Son strength, the Chinese

were quick to be conciliatory and formally extend diplomatic recognition to

the Tay Son rulers, provided that Nguyen Hue would himself travel to Beijing

to be invested by the Chinese Emperor.

Recognizing that leaving the country while the Nguyen still threatened in the

north, never mind putting himself at the mercy of the Chinese, would be

extremely risky, Quang Trung once again used a ruse. He found a nephew who

bore a striking resemblence to himself, and sent him in his place. The

Chinese were not aware of the fact that they were hosting an imposter, and

treated him with all of the dignity reserved for visiting rulers. By ending

the rule of the Le and gaining Chinese recognition of their legitimacy, the

Tay Son set about trying to impose their own ideas on Vietnam's economy and

society. Before continuing with the story of the conflict between the Tay Son

and the Nguyen in the south, it would make sense to look briefly at the

accomplishments of the Tay Son government:

* The Tay Son Government (1789-1802)

Military affairs

1) heavy emphasis on military preparedness: every person had to carry an ID

card which made it easy to determine their military service obligation; those

without ID cards were automatically enrolled in the army.

2) 1 out of 3 men between 18 and 55 was enrolled in the army and received

rigorous training

3) Quang Trung allegedly had grand plans to retake the two southern Chinese

provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong and also plans to invade Siam in

retaliation for its assistance to Nguyen Anh.

4) government administration was organized along military lines; military

mandarins were ranked above civil mandarins in the government hierarchy for

the first time in Vietnam's long history.

5) focus on strengthening the armed forces with new weapons and warships


1) after all the warfare, a key problem was reconstructing a devastated

agricultural base: many people had abandoned their fields and villages and

production was very low.

a) required people to return to their home villages.

b) redistributed communal land to those returning to their villages

c) imposed heavy taxes on village lands that were not brought back into

cultivation after one year.

d) after about three years, production levels appear to have risen to pre-war


2) sought to stimulate both internal and foreign trade; a key consideration of

the commercial interests that had supported the Tay Son from their earliest


3) actively encouraged trade with China across their mutual border,

establishing several markets in the frontier areas of Cao Bang and Lang Son;

as he wrote to the Chinese Emperor, he hoped that "frontiers would be opened

and markets made free, so that goods could circulate in the interests of the

people's consumption."


1) use of Nom, a use of Chinese-derived characters to write Vietnamese words,

introduced for government documents and there is a plan to translate the

Chinese classics into Nom; Quang Trung appoints Nguyen Thiep, a well-respected

Confucian scholar, to head an academy whose goal is extensive translation

projects in Nom as well as developing a new curriculum for further developing

the Vietnamese language.

2) founded more schools at all levels and held examinations to fill government


3) high degree of toleration for Catholic missionaries, despite some early

Tay Son run-ins with churchs and Christian groups in the south, where they

had been busy redistributing wealth.

Conclusion: While Nguyen Hue and the Tay Son had implemented some limited

reforms, particularly in the areas of education and commerce, they ultimately

did not live up to the hopes of the peasant masses who had been the backbone

of the movement. There was no massive land redistribution program and the

burdens of taxation and land rents were only somewhat ameliorated.

Furthermore, the problem of corrupt officials was one that also plagued the

Tay Son administration and proved to be a source of friction that allowed the

Nguyen to recruit peasant support in their effort to reconquer Viet Nam.

Still, the Tay Son had the potential for a more fundamental transformation of

Vietnamese society - a potential that was cut short by the unexpected death

of Nguyen Hue in 1792, at the age of 40.

* Nguyen Anh mounts a Comeback (1787-1802)

After another two years in exile in Siam, Nguyen Anh, taking advantage of

divisions within the Tay Son camp, decided to make an effort to recapture the

southern province of Gia Dinh. This time, In 1787, his forces landed at Long

Xuyen in the southern delta region and gradually advanced toward Saigon. They

were nearly defeated by a Tay Son army led by Pham Van Tham, but another

southern general joined sides with the Nguyen, allowing them to gain the

victory. By August 1788 they were once again in control of Gia Dinh. At this

point, Nguyen Anh made a more serious effort to consolidate his base in that

region, and his efforts paid off. Gia Dinh was to remain in Nguyen hands

continuously until the final defeat of the Tay Son.

Participating with Nguyen Anh's army at this time was a small group of French

mercenaries and several western ships. During his time in Siam, Anh had

decided to seek assistance from western powers. He came into contact with the

Bishop of Adran, Pigneau de Beahaine, and deputed him, along with Nguyen

Anh's young son, Prince Canh, to travel to France to seek assistance from the

French government. The two left Siam in 1784, and finally in 1787 had reached

France where they were received by Louis XVI. The two sides reached an

agreement, signed at Versailles, in November 1787. The terms:

France provides:

1) 4 warships

2) 1,200 infantrymen

3) 200 artillery men

4) 250 African soldiers

5) ammunition

Viet Nam provides:

1) cede Hoi An and Pulau Condore

2) French trade monopoly in Southern Viet Nam

3) food, troops and supplies or transport when France needed them for wars in


This agreement, however, was never carried out. The India-based French

official assigned by the King to enact the treaty was given discretion to

drop it if it seemed impractical, and that is exactly what he did. In any

case, events in France less than 2 years later (ie. the Revolution) would

have rendered the agreement moot anyway. As a result, de Behaine, was very

frustrated and decided to take matters into his own hands. He recruited a

group of French mercenaries, raised money to hire two ships and supplies and

provided these to the Nguyen leader. Much has been made of French support to

the Vietnamese effort to recapture their country and defeat the Tay Son. But

the reality is that by the time this rather small contingent arrived in

Vietnamese territory in 1789, Nguyen Anh had already retaken Gia Dinh and had

spent nearly 2 years consolidating his grip on the territory. Furthermore, it

would take the Nguyen more than a decade to finally defeat the Tay Son,

hardly a testament to the advantages of having a handful of French troops.

Also, it should be remembered, that the Vietnamese already had western

firearms through much earlier contact with Western traders and actual weapons

production in southern Vietnam, so the French supplies were hardly a critical

factor either. Finally, the Tay Son brother defending the region of Gia Dinh,

Nguyen Lu, was the least able of the three brothers, and he had quickly fled

back to Qui Nhon at the onset of the Nguyen offensive, leaving the defense of

the territory in the hands of his generals.

Having consolidated his grasp on the extreme south, Nguyen Anh embarked on a

series of campaigns toward the Tay Son positions in the north. By 1790,

Nguyen Anh had pushed his control northward , taking the cities of Phan Ri

and Binh Thuan. Then, in 1792, he inaugurated what became known as the

"Monsoon War," in which he would coordinate his attacks with the coming of

the monsoon season. He would launch a coordinated land and sea attack to the

north, striking at several Tay Son positions, before pulling back, without

occupying any of the territory.

The main objective of the Nguyen attacks was the city of Qui Nhon, which was

the capital of the Tay Son territories in the center and was under the

control of Nguyen Nhac. In 1793, the Nguyen attacks eventually forced Nguyen

Nhac to appeal for assistance to Nguyen Hue's young son, Quang Toan, who was

in control of the northern territories. Toan's superior troops and generals

came to Nhac's assistance and were able to lift the Nguyen siege, pushing

Nguyen Anh all the way back to Gia Dinh; the appeal for assistance had cost

Nhac control of Qui Nhon, however, and he was forced to turn control of the

city over to the northern general, Pham Cong Hung. Nhac died that same year,

allegedly of sheer anger at the loss of control over his domain.

The Nguyen, undeterred by their repeated failures to take Qui Nhon, launched

further assaults on that city in 1797 and 1799, and this last attack was

finally successful in dislodging the Tay Son forces. Nguyen Anh, himself,

however, withdrew from the city, leaving it in the hands of his generals - Vo

Tanh and Ngo Tung Chau; and in February of 1800, two Tay Son generals, Trang

Quang Dieu and Vo Van Dung again attacked the city and it appeared that the

Nguyen forces would have to surrender the city to the Tay Son once again.

Rather than doing this, the Nguyen general, Vo Tanh, suggested to Nguyen Anh,

that he attack Phu Xuan while the Tay Son forces were largely concentrated

for the assault on Qui Nhon. The Nguyen took the Tay Son capital at Phu Xuan,

and a Tay Son effort to drive back the Nguyen was itself forced to retreat.

However, the Tay Son general, Trang Quang Dieu, now turned all of his

attention back to taking Qui Nhon which they did. The battles continued to

see-saw with the outcome of the war still far from clear. A Tay Son offensive

in early 1802 was rebuffed and its leading generals were forced to withdraw.

Finally, in June 1802, Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself the new Emperor, Gia

Long, and embarked on a final campaign to capture and eliminate the remaining

Tay Son leaders. These were captured and badly treated before being executed

in gruesome form. The Tay Son era had come to an end, and the Nguyen, Viet

Nam's last dynasty came to power, and was to remain, at least nominally in

charge of Viet Nam until the transfer of authority from Bao Dai to the Viet

Minh in August of 1945.

Chronology of the Tay Son Period


Nguyen Nhac flees to the hills with his brother on charges of misappropriating

the tax revenues he was to collect


The Tay Son seize the coastal town Qui Nhon, when Nhac, pretending to be

captured in cage, frees himself at night to open the gates to the Tay Son

forces. The Tay Son troops enter the city, massacre the Nguyen soldiers, and

gain control of the city.

The Tay Son capture the cities of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai


Nov. - the Trinh troops led by Hoang Ngu Phuc reach Thanh Hoa

Lunar 10th month (Nov. 4- Dec. 2) - Trinh armies cross the Gianh River, the

traditional border between the Trinh and Nguyen territories.


Trinh forces take Quang Nam after defeating the Tay Son troops;

Summer - Nhac requests an alliance with Trinh who agree and give Nhac titles

and regalia.

Winter, Hoang Ngu Phuc's army withdraws from Quang Nam (marking the farthest

southward advance of the Trinh), to Phu Xuan



· Feb/March, disease-ridden Trinh retreat from Phu Xuan to Thuan Hoa

· HNP dies in bed at age 64; is replaced by Bui The Dat

· 8th month; Bui The Dat and Le Qui Don are recalled and Pham Ngo Cau is named

the new governor of Thuan Hoa


·early in the year, Tay Son attack north toward Phu Xuan forces Due Tong to

flee to Cochinchina; names Nguyen Phuc Duong as crown prince to stay and fight

in Phu Xuan

·Nguyen Lu takes Saigon through a naval attack on Gia Dinh;

·The Nguyen retake it and Lu is forced to return to Qui Nhon

·Nhac decides to build a walled capital at the site of the ancient Cham

capital at Do Ban (south of Da Nang?)

·Nguyen partisans, led by Do Thanh Nhan, create the Dong Son army

·5th month (June-July 1776) DTN retakes Saigon.

·late in the year, crown prince Vuong (being held by Nhac) flees by sea to



early in the year Trinh acquiesce to his demands, and appoint Nhac governor of

Quang Nam

·(3rd month; April-May) Nhac sends Lu and Hue to retake Saigon and they do,

apparently killing prince Duong

·Vuong and his nephew Dong commit suicide; Nguyen Anh now formally takes over

at headof Nguyen forces

·Lu and Hue return to Quang Nam, leaving their officers in charge in Saigon


·[Jan-Feb] Nguyen general Do Thanh Nhan recaptures Saigon

·Nhac proclaims himself Emperor, inaugurating the Thai Duc reign era

·Nhac sends another army to attack southward, but the Nguyen enjoy a series of

victories that threaten even Quang Nam


·Spring, the Tay Son recapture Can Gio, and the Nguyen troops are forced out

of Saigon again;

·the Nguyen retreat to Tam Phu, assemble a 5,000 man army and counter-attack;

the Dong Son army attacks at night and achieve surprise and a victory;

·the Dong Son go on to retake Saigon, they then find Nguyen Anh (who was on

the sidelines during all of this) and bring him back to the city.


·Nguyen Anh, nephew of the king,proclaims himself king.

·Anh, fearing Do Than Nhan's ability and military power, has him killed, and

then woos the Dong Son army to his cause;


·[May] Nhac and Hue attack Can Gio; they then drive Nguyen Anh out of Saigon,

where they burn and pillage the businesses of ethnic Chinese and kill more

than 10,000 Chinese [three theories: Le Thanh Khoi - break their commercial

monopoly; Phan Huy Le, revenge on ethnic Chinese for the treason of Ly Tai

who had gone over to the Nguyen side; Dai Nam Thuc Luc - revenge for Chinese

troops who killed one of Nhac's favorite generals]

Nguyen Anh is driven out of Gia Dinh and seeks refuge on the island of Phu

Quoc; Nhac and Hue return to Qui Nhon

·Nguyen forces, led by Chu Van Tiep recapture Saigon, Nguyen Anh returns


·Lu and Hue attack again, driving Nguyen Anh back to Phu Quoc; a pursuing Tay

Son fleet is destroyed in a storm, but Nguyen Anh manages to flee to Siam;


·Tay Son fleet destroys a joint Nguyen-Siamese force at the huge battle of

Rach Gam-Xoai Mut; this sets back Nguyen efforts to retake southern VN by

several years, and the Tay Son turn their attention to the north.


·Tay Son forces begin their attack on the Trinh to the north;

·divisions appear to emerge between the Tay Son brothers, as Nhac resents

Hue's ability and following; a short conflict between them is resolved, but

not before it apparently gives new hope to the Nguyen.


·Nguyen Hue declares himself Emperor Quang Trung in Phu Xuan, and heads north



·Chinese invasion force of 200,000 troops marches unopposed into Hanoi, as the

Tay Son have engaged in a strategic retreat; during the lunar New Year

celebration, the Tay Son forces fall on the Chinese, totally destroying them

and taking the capital on the 6th day of the lunar New Year.


·Quang Trung plans to open the Sung Chinh Library of Nom texts; he is suddenly

taken ill, and dies in September.


The "monsoon wars" begin, in which Nguyen Anh uses the prevailing monsoon

winds to launch repeated, and repeatedly unsuccessful, attacks on the Tay Son

stronghold at Qui Nhon.


There is a shakeup in the Tay Son government, as an effort is made to oust

the regent, Bui Dac Tuyen. The coup is successful in ousting Tuyen, who was

seen as a danger to the stability of the regime. The coup however did little

to stem the slow decline of the Tay Son polity, and this period was the

melting away of some key Tay Son supporters, including Nguyen Thiep.


The Nguyen are finally successful in seizing Qui Nhon, and forcing the Tay Son

troops to retreat north toward Phu Xuan; the Tay Son soon counter-attack, and

the Nguyen are beseiged in the citadel.


The Nguyen decide to surrender Qui Nhon, and to concentrate their efforts on

the by now relatively lightly guarded Tay Son capital at Phu Xuan. This falls

to the Nguyen dividing the Tay Son armies.


Nguyen Anh initiates his final campaign against the Tay Son; the Tay Son are

forced to flee northward, in an attempt to hold out in Hanoi


Nguyen Anh finally captures Thang Long in June; he then orders the public

flogging of some key Tay Son supporters, including Ngo Thi Nham. Nham is

beaten at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, and dies shortly thereafter of

his wounds.

Biographical sketches of some of the most important figures in the Tay Son


[I hope to also post a listing that includes other historical figures of this

period, including members of the Nguyen anti-Tay Son forces, key Europeans and

other important 18th century figures.]

The Tay Son Brothers:

Three brothers from the small village of Tay Son (Western Mountains), which is

inland from the important coastal city of Qui Nhon:

Nguyen Nhac: the eldest, born in 1743; he was a minor tax collector and part-

time betel nut trader, who had extensive contacts in the highland regions

because of his itinerant occupations. This was to be significant when he went

into rebellion, as the highland region and its population were the key to the

early consolidation and success of the movement.

Nguyen Hue: the middle brother, born in 1753; he was only 18 when the

rebellion broke out, but he quickly established himself as a military genius.

He was a master tactician and his armies were virtually invincible. He

established himself as the main military and political leader of the

movement, and while he and his brothers were to subsequently hold parallel

positions as rulers of three separate regions of the country, he was clearly

the paramount leader. On his death in July of 1792 (?) the fate of the Tay

Son was probably sealed.

Nguyen Lu: the youngest, born in 1754; there is some discussion that he was

at one time a Buddhist monk; Nguyen Lu is one of the most enigmatic figures

in the movement and his abilities and contributions are far from clear. He

was usually dispatched in tandem with Nguyen Hue on missions to attack the

Nguyen forces to the south. Unlike his brothers, he did not even merit a

biography in the Dai Nam Liet Truyen, the official Nguyen court biographies.

His death is described in some detail in the missionary letters (title here).

Their Followers:

The Tay Son brothers would not have been able to achieve their successes

without the assistance of many talented military and civilian supporters.

These men and a few women were among the most talented of their generation,

and many had passed the highest level of the civil service examinations.These

figures joined the movement at different times, but the majority began to

lend their support after the first Tay Son invasion of the north in 1786.

Ngo Thi Nham (1746-1803) - the son of Ngo Thì Si, a respected and honest

northern official. Nham was involved in political turmoil and factional strife

in the north and had to flee the capitol several times; he eagerly joined the

Tay Son in 1788 becoming perhaps Nguyen Hue's closest advisor; he was captured

in 1802, publicly flogged and died shortly thereafter. He was the author of

many of the Tay Son's most important edicts, and these have been collected in

the work, ????

Phan Huy Ich (1751-1822) - joined Tay Son in 1788; he served on a number of

Tay Son embassies to China; like Ngo Thi Nham, he was loyal to the end and

was captured by Nguyen Anh in 1802. Ich was then pardoned and returned home

where he taught until his death; he is the author of important collections of


Nguyen Huu Chinh (?-1787) - a key military general, he reached a high

position in the Trinh military, serving loyally under Hoang Ngu Phuc until

Phuc's death. When Phuc died, Chinh became the victim of factional political

skirmishes, and fled to the Tay Son held territories and joined their forces

in 1782. He became Nguyen Hue's close advisor and a key Tay Son military

leader. According to some accounts, it was Chinh who convinced Hue to invade

the north in 1786. Chinh led the naval forces in that campaign which easily

defeated the Trinh. After that Chinh was left in the north to oversee the

government and provide assistance to the Le Emperor, but when the Trinh tried

to reassert their authority and the Le Emperor summoned Chinh for assistance,

Chinh used the opportunity to seize power for himself. He was then killed by

the Tay Son, when Nguyen Hue led forces back north in 1787.

Nguyen Thiep (1723-1804) - a respected scholar from Nghe An, he had served as

an educational officer and administrator in the Le government, but went into

retirement as the decline of the Le became more and more apparent in the mid-

18th century. His reputation attracted Nguyen Hue who consulted Thiep for

advice prior to routing the Chinese in late1788- early 1789. Thiep had

initially been reluctant to associate himself with Hue, but eventually

overcame his misgivings. He later agreed to head the Vien Sung Chinh

(Institute for Political Studies), where he oversaw a major project to

translate and publish the Confucian classics into Chu Nom - the Vietnamese

vernacular script. This project was unfortunately never completed, in large

part because on Nguyen Hue's death in 1792, Thiep returned to his life of

seclusion. He wrote numerous poems, and his extensive correspondence with

Nguyen Hue has been preserved in the Lap Phong Van Cao.

Bui Duong Lich (1757-1828) - another Le official who joined the Tay Son after

1787, albeit reluctantly. His attitudes towards the Tay Son, and his continued

loyalty to the Le, even in their declining years, are revealed in his Le Quy

Dat Su. He is also well known as the author of the Nghe An Ky.

Ngo Van So (? - 1794) - a key Tay Son official, So probably joined the Tay Son

sometime in 1786, and took part in the 1787 campaign to oust Nguyen Huu Chinh.

In 1788 he was placed in charge of all political and military affairs in the

north, a place he held until his death in 1794. He was instrumental along with

Ngo Thi Nham, in arranging the Tay Son's strategic retreat in the face of the

Chinese invasion of late 1788. He later helped break the Nguyen seige of Qui

Nhon in 1793. In 1794, he became embroiled in Tran Van Ky's plot to oust Bui

Dac Tuyen, who was acting as regent for the young Emperor. So was apparently

viewed as part of Bui Dac Tuyen's faction, and so was arrested and executed by


Tran Van Ky (? - 1802) - an important Tay Son official, and close confidant

of Nguyen Hue. He is an interesting figure because he passed the Nguyen exams

at Phu Xuan in 1774 (first on the list), and then in 1775, after the Trinh

invasion, he went to Thang Long to take the National Examinations. He was

back in Phu Xuan (?), when Nguyen Hue, hearing his reputation, summoned him,

and Ky quickly agreed to join the Tay Son. He was a useful assistant to Hue

in the 1786 campaign to the north, since he was familiar with the capital

from his sojourn there in the 1770s. Ky served Hue by introducing Hue to some

of the most prominent Northern intellectuals who would become instrumental in

Tay Son rule. These included Ngo Thi Nham, and Phan Huy Ich. He later also

played an important role as intermediary between Nguyen Hue and the scholar

Nguyen Thiep. In 1802 he was invited by Gia Long to join the new Nguyen

government, but proudly declined. He was ordered executed, but avoided this

fate by committing suicide on a last trip to visit his ancestral altars.

Manifesto of Quang Trung, King of Upper Cochinchina and Tonkin, to all of the

mandarins, soldiers and people of the provinces of Quang Ngai and Qui Nhon:

"You all, great and small, for more than 15 years have not ceased to subsist

by the kindness of our family. It is true that during all of this time, while

we won victories in the north and in the south, we recognized that we had

developed an attachment to these two provinces. This is where we have found

courageous men and mandarins capable of forming our court. Everywhere we have

carried our arms our enemies have been defeated and they have been dispersed

everywhere that we have achieved our conquests. The Siamese and the cruel

Chinese have been forced to bear the yoke... As for the remaining impurities

in the court, after more than 30 years have you ever seen them do anything

for the good? In the one hundred battles that we have brought to them, their

soldiers have been dispersed and their generals put to death. The province of

Gia Dinh is full of their bones. You have been witness to that which I have

told you, and if you have not seen it with your own eyes then at least you

have heard it with your ears.

What case can be made for this miserable Chung [Nguyen Anh], who has fled

into the evil Kingdoms of Europe, or of the timid people of Gia Dinh, who

dare to make themselves into a movement and raise an army, why do you fear

them so? Why are your hearts seized with fear? If their army of the ground

and of the sea were to present itself in front of all our ports, and they

were seized in a time during which you were unable to wait for more, the

Grand Emperor will make you aware of the reasons by letters, and you will see

that the mandarins, the soldiers, and all of you, in these two provinces, do

not have the courage for battle, and it is for this reason, rather than their

taltents that they have taken all of the places at present in their

possession. Your land army has fled from his coast, and that of the sea has

fled from his.

Now, by the order of our brother, the Emperor, we are preparing our own

formidable army by land and sea, and we will reduce the enemy of our name with

the same ease that one might crumple a piece of rotten or dry wood. If all of

you do not make a single case with the enemy, do not fear anything, but only

open your eyes and ears to see and to understand that which we do. You know

that the provinces of Binh Khang and of Nha Trang, which are nothing by

fragments of the body of Gia Dinh, that the province of Phu-Yen, which has

always been at the center of the war, and finally the province of Binh-Thuan,

up to Cambodia, will all by a single blow return to being under our power, and

at last the whole world will know that we are truly brothers, and that we have

never forgotten that we are of the same blood.

We exhort all of you, great and small, who are sustained by the family of the

Emperor, to remain loyally attached to him, and mark that our army will purify

the province of Gia Dinh, and will assert our authority. The names of your two

provinces will be made immortal in our annals. Do not be so credulous as to

give your faith to what the Europeans say. What sorts of skills does this

species of men have? They all have the eyes of green serpents, and we cannot

regard them but as floating cadavers, which have been thrown here by the seas

of the north.... [who] have come here speaking of vessels of copper and of

balloons [ie. hot air balloons, of which one was demonstrateed in Cochinchina

by a Frenchman around this time]. All of the villages that find themselves

along the roads of these two provinces are to take care to build bridges in

order to facilitate the movement of our troops. As soon as you receive this

order, you should make haste to conform to it. Receive this manifesto with


The 10th day of the 7th (lunar) month of the 5th year of Quang Trung [July


Note: This is my preliminary translation of a French version of this edict

found in the Nouvelles Lettres Edifiantes, Vol. VII, pp. 225-228. [The

paragraphs are arbitrary divisions to render the text more readable]

Quang Trung's Speech to his troops before the campaign to resist the Chinese

invasion (December 1788)

The Ch'ing have invaded our country, they are occupying Thang long (ancient

name of Hanoi), the capital. Are you not aware of the situation?

In the universe, each constellation is assigned a specific place and, on

earth, each country has its own government. The Chinese do not belong to our

racial stock, therefore their intentions must be completely different from

ours. From the Han dynasty to the present day, how many times have they not

raided our country, massacred our population, emptied our treasuries? No one

in our country could bear this humiliation, and everyone wished to drive the

enemy beyond our borders. Under the Han, there were the Trung queens. Under

the Sung there were Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh. Under the Yuan, there

was Tran Hung Dao. Under the Ming there was Le Thai To, the founder of the

present dynasty. These heroes could not sit silently and watch the enemy

indulge in violence and cruelty toward the people. They had to comply with

the aspirations of the people and raise the banner of justice. A single

battle was often sufficient to overcome the Chinese and push them back into

their own country. Throughout all of these periods, the South [Vietnam] and

the North [China] were clearly separated. There were no incidents along the

frontier areas while successive dynasties enjoyed long lives. Since the Dinh

dynasty [968-980] we no longer suffer as we did before when we were subject

to Chinese domination.Is this an advantage or an inconvenience. a success or

a failure? I let you be the judges of the situation, but the examples of

previous dynasties provide an obvious pattern of conduct.

Today the Ch'ing have returned once again. They are determined to annex our

country and to divide it into provinces and districts. How can they not be

aware of what has happened to the Sung, the Ming and the Yuan? For this reason

I am assuming the leadership of the army to expel them. All of you are in

complete possession of your intelligence and your capacities. Therefore you

should help me achieve this great undertaking. Should you maintain your old

vice of having two hearts, I shall immediately exterminate all of you without


Let this be a warning to all of you.

Notes: This translation is by Prof. Truong Buu Lam, who graciously permitted

me to reproduce it here. [The original text is in Chinese, but a Vietnamese

version can be found in the Hoang Le Nhat Thong chi. See for example the 1958

Saigon edition, pp. 254-255.]

Some Resources for Studying the Tay Son

As I mentioned above, there is very little detailed information on the Tay

Son available in western languages: I have, however, compiled a short

western- language bibliography, which provides a bit more information, and

might be a reasonable starting point for finding more detailed material. The

thing to keep in mind is that most of these works include perhaps only a

chapter, or sometimes a few pages on the Tay Son. Some of these books are not

directly about the Tay Son, but deal with issues of 18th century Vietnamese

history that help to explain the context of the uprising. [nb: some of these

books may not be readily available in your local or even university library.

They are not particularly obscure, however, and should be accessible through

inter-library loans if necessary].

For those who read Vietnamese, there are a great number of sources available.

While the original texts are in Classical Chinese, most of the important works

have been translated into modern Vietnamese. The one caveat is that the

vocabulary for these texts in "modern Vietnamese" is probably quite different

from that of contemporary spoken Vietnamese. Thus even if you speak or read

everyday Vietnamese, these texts will probably require that you have a good

dictionary at your side, and preferably one that includes so-called Sino-

Vietnamese words, as well as other words or expressions that are today

considered archaic.[Recommended Dictionaries and Glossaries] I have been

working with these texts for almost five years and I still routinely come

across words or phrases in quoc ngu that I cannot adequately translate or

explain. Please click here for a preliminary Vietnamese and Classical Chinese


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