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Lê Thánh Tông
Formal royal portrait of Lê Thánh Tông which displayed in the Imperial Ancestral Temple of Lê Dynasty (Lam Kinh, Thanh Hóa).
Emperor of Vietnam
Preceded by Lê Nhân Tông
Succeeded by Lê Hiến Tông
Personal details
Born 1442
Died 1497 (aged 54–55)

Lê Thánh Tông (1442–1497) was emperor of Vietnam from 1460 until his death. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest emperors of Vietnamese history and the Vietnamese "Hammurabi."[citation needed]

Early years

Lê Thánh Tông, born Lê Tư Thành, was the son of Emperor Lê Thái Tông and his mother was Ngo Thi Ngoc Dao. He was a half brother of Lê Nhân Tông and it is likely that his mother and Nguyễn Thị Anh (the mother of Lê Nhân Tông) were related (cousins or perhaps sisters). He was educated just like his half brother, the emperor, at the palace in Hanoi. When his elder half brother, Nghi Dân, staged a coup and killed the emperor in 1459, Prince Tư Thành was spared. Nine months later, when the second counter-coup was successfully carried out, the plotters asked Prince Tư Thành to become the new emperor and he accepted.

The leaders of the counter-coup which removed (and killed) Nghi Dân were two of the last surviving friends and aides of Lê Lợi: Nguyễn Xí and Đinh Liệt. These two old men had been out of power since the 1440s but they still commanded respect due to their association with the heroic Lê Lợi. The new king appointed these men to the highest positions in his new government, Nguyễn Xí as Emperor's Councilor and Đinh Liệt as commander of the army of Vietnam.

The rise of Confucian government

Thánh Tông was strongly influenced by his Confucian teachers and he resolved to make Vietnam more like the Song Dynasty with its Neo-Confucianist philosophy and the key idea that the government should be run by men of noble character as opposed to men from noble families. This meant that he needed to take power away from the ruling families (mostly from Thanh Hóa province) and give power to the scholars who did well on the official examinations. The first step on this path was to restart the examination process, which had continued only fitfully in the 1450s. The first great examination was held in 1463 and, as expected, the top scholars were men from the delta (around the capital), not the men from Thanh Hóa province.

Vietnamese name
Vietnamese Lê Thánh Tông

Thánh Tông encouraged the spread of Confucian values throughout Vietnam by having "Temples of Literature" built in all the provinces. Here, Confucius was venerated and the classic works on Confucianism could be found. He also halted the building of any new Buddhist or Taoist temples and ordered that monks were not to be allowed to purchase any new land.

Following the Chinese model, Lê Thánh Tông instituted six ministries for running the government: Finance, Rites, Justice, Personnel, Army, and Public Works. Nine grades of rank were set up for both the civil administration and the military. A Board of Censors was set up with royal authority to monitor governmental officials and the power to report directly to the emperor. However, governmental authority did not extend all the way to the village level. The villages were ruled by their own councils in Vietnam (Vietnam, Trials and Tribulations of a Nation D. R. SarDesai, ppg 35-37, 1988).

With the death of Nguyễn Xí in 1465, the noble families from Thanh Hóa province lost their leader and they were mostly relegated to secondary positions in the new Confucian government of Thánh Tông. However, they still retained control over Vietnam's armies, the old general, Đinh Liệt, was still in command of army.

In 1469, all of Vietnam was mapped and a full census was taken, listing all the villages in the kingdom. Around this time the country was divided into 13 dao (provinces), ruled by three top officials: Administrator, General, and Judge. Thánh Tông also ordered that a new census should be taken every six years. Other public works that were undertaken included building and repair of granaries, using the army to rebuild and repair irrigation systems after floods, and sending out doctors to areas afflicted by outbreaks of disease. Also in 1469, a title for Thánh Tông's reign was chosen, Great Virtue (Hong-duc). The king was just 25 years old and already the country was better off than ever before.

The new government proved to be just and effective and represents a successful adaptation of the Chinese Confucian system of government outside of China.

The conquest of Champa

Map of Vietnam showing the conquest of the south (the Nam tiến) Light green area conquered by Lê Thánh Tông.

In 1465, Vietnam was attacked by pirates from the north. This was dealt with by sending additional forces to the north to fight the pirates. Thánh Tông also sent a military force to the west to subdue the Ai-lao mountain tribe that was causing troubles.

In 1470, the Vietnamese began preparing for a crucial war against the Champa kingdom to the south. The war actually started with an attack by the Cham king, Tra-Toan, who led a Champa army into the border area of Vietnam. Lê Thánh Tông responded with his typical energy and efficiency, a large army was mobilized from all over the country and a delegation was sent to the Ming court laying out the reasons for Vietnam's counterattack. On 6 November 1470, he ordered Barbarian-fighting General Đinh Liệt and Lê Niem to command the vanguard of 100,000 men and moved south. On 16 November 1470, he personally led the army of 150,000 troops to support.

On 18 December, the first troops entered Champa territory.

On 5 February, Champa king Tra-Toan ordered his brother Thi Nai to lead 6 generals and 5,000 troops and elephants to secretly approach Lê Thánh Tông's army. The Vietnamese forces discovered this plan so a 30,000 men strong army commanded by Le Hy Cat, Hoang Nhan Thiem, Le the, Trịnh Van Sai attacked the enemy's rear from the sea. At the same time, an army commanded by Nguyen Duc Trung ambushed the Champa army and forced it to withdraw and then, this army was completely wiped out by Le Hy Cat's troops. The Champa king was very frightened and surrendered but was rejected.

On 27 February, Lê Thánh Tông personally commanded troops to capture Thi Nai, the most important harbor of Champa.

On 29 February, the Vietnamese army surrounded the Champa capital city of Vijaya (near modern-day Qui Nhơn). After four days of siege, the city was captured, and the Cham king, Tra-Toan, was taken captive. He died on the return journey to Thang Long. Cham losses were immense, some 60,000 dead and 30,000 enslaved. The Champa regions of Amaravati and Vijaya were formally annexed to the Vietnamese kingdom as the newly organized province of Quang-nam.

Dai Viet Imperial army continued marching south until it reached Cả pass - some 50 miles north of the Champa city of Kauthara (modern-day Nha Trang). Here Lê Thánh Tông stopped and ordered a settle set up to mark the new border between his kingdom and the Champa lands[1]

The conquest of the Cham kingdoms started a rapid period of expansion by the Vietnamese southwards into this newly conquered land. The government used a system of land settlement called đồn điền (屯田).

Under this system, military colonies were established in which soldiers and landless peasants cleared a new area, began rice production on the new land, established a village, and served as a militia to defend it. After three years, the village was incorporated into the Vietnamese administrative system, a communal village meeting house (dinh) was built, and the workers were given an opportunity to share in the communal lands given by the state to each village. The remainder of the land belonged to the state. As each area was cleared and a village established, the soldiers of the don dien would move on to clear more land. U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies - Vietnam

Campaigns in Lan Xang

In 1479, in response to continued attacks from the west, Lê Thánh Tông waged war against the federation of Lān Xāng, (modern day Laos). A powerful Vietnamese army invaded the Lao lands, sacking the capital city of Luang Phrabāng. From this point on, Lan Xang paid tribute to Dai Viet Imperial court (Vietnam, Trials and Tribulations of a Nation D. R. SarDesai, pg 35, 1988). Dai Viet would intervene at least once more in Laos during the rule of Trịnh Căn in 1694. As well, the modern-day provinces of Lai Châu and Điện Biên were annexed by Vietnam from Lan Xang, and are currently part of Vietnam.

Relations with China

Lê Thánh Tông was aggressive in his relations with foreign countries including China and Malacca and cracked down on foreign trade and contacts, enforcing an isolationist policy. A large amount of trade between Guangdong and Vietnam happened during his reign. Early accounts recorded that the Vietnamese captured Chinese whose ships had blown off course and detained them. Young Chinese men were selected by the Vietnamese for castration to become eunuch slaves to the Vietnamese. It has been speculated by modern historians that the Chinese who were captured and castrated by the Vietnamese were involved in trade between China and Vietnam instead of actually being blown off course by the wind and they were punished as part of a crackdown on illegal foreign trade by Vietnam.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9] Records show that the Vietnamese performed castration in a painful procedure by removing the entire genitalia with both penis and testicles being cut off with a sharp knife or metal blade. The procedure was agonizing since the entire penis was cut off.[10][11][12][13][14][15][16] The young man's thighs and abdomen would be tied and others would pin him down on a table. The genitals would be sterilized with pepper water and then cut off. A tube would be then inserted into the urethra to allow urination during healing. Any facial hair such as the beard would fall off and the eunuch's voice would become like a girl's.[17] The eunuchs served as slaves to the Vietnamese palace women in the harem like the consorts, concubines, maids, Queen, and Princesses, doing most of the work.[18][19][20][21][22][23] The only man allowed in the Palace was the Emperor, the only others allowed were his women and the eunuchs since they were not able to have sexual relations with the women. The eunuchs were assigned to do work for the palace women like massaging and applying make up to the women and preparing them for sex with the Emperor.[24][25][26][27]

Several Malay envoys from the Malacca sultanate were attacked and captured in 1469 by Annam (Vietnam) as they were returning to Malacca from China. The Vietnamese enslaved and castrated the young from among the captured.[28][29][30][31][32]

A 1472 entry in the Ming Shilu reported that when some Chinese from Nanhai county escaped back to China after their ship had been blown off course into Vietnam, where they had been forced to serve as soldiers in Vietnam's military. The escapees also reported that they found out up to 100 Chinese men remained captives in Vietnam after they were caught and castrated by the Vietnamese after their ships were blown off course into Vietnam. The Chinese Ministry of Revenue responded by ordering Chinese civilians and soldiers to stop going abroad to foreign countries.[33][34][35][36] China's relations with Vietnam during this period were marked by the punishment of prisoners by castration.[37][38]

A 1499 entry in the Ming Shilu recorded that thirteen Chinese men from Wenchang including a young man named Wu Rui were captured by the Vietnamese after their ship was blown off course while traveling from Hainan to Guangdong's Qin subprefecture (Qinzhou), after which they ended up near the coast of Vietnam, during the Chenghua Emperor's rule (1447 - 1487) . Twelve of them were enslaved to work as agricultural laborers, while the youngest, Wu Rui (吳瑞) was selected for castration since he was the only young man and he became a eunuch attendant at the Vietnamese imperial palace in Thang Long. After years of service, he was promoted at the death of the Vietnamese ruler in 1497 to a military position in northern Vietnam. A soldier told him of an escape route back to China and Wu Rui escaped to Longzhou. The local chief planned to sell him back to the Vietnamese, but Wu was rescued by the Pingxiang magistrate and then was sent to Beijing to work as a eunuch in the palace.[39][40][41][42][43]

The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư records that in 1467 in An Bang province of Dai Viet (now Quảng Ninh Province) a Chinese ship blew off course onto the shore. The Chinese were detained and not allowed to return to China as ordered by Le Thanh Tong.[44][45][46][47][48] This incident may be the same one where Wu Rui was captured.[49]

Cultural advances

Lê Thánh Tông created and widely distributed a new legal code - also called Hong-duc. The new laws were

"based on Chinese law but included distinctly Vietnamese features, such as recognition of the higher position of women in Vietnamese society than in Chinese society. Under the new code, parental consent was not required for marriage, and daughters were granted equal inheritance rights with sons. U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies - Vietnam

A group of 28 poets was formally recognized by the court (the Tao Dan) and a new official history of Vietnam was written called "The Full History of Đại Việt" (Đại Việt Sử ký Toàn thư). The historian Ngo Si Lien compiled this in 1479[50] and it was published under supervision of the emperor.

Lê Thánh Tông, the person

As a young prince he was given the best Confucian education, his teacher was Tran Phong who later wrote about how serious a student Thanh Tong had been. He cared deeply about implementing Confucian principals in his government and seeing that the land was in harmony through the following of rituals.

Thanh Tong toured the entire country in the year 1467, addressing local problems that he found, firing government officials, and re-distributing land that had been illegally taken. This made him very popular with the people.

He also wrote poetry, some of which has survived. He wrote the following at the start of his campaign against the Champa:

One hundred thousand officers and men,
Start out on a distant journey.
Falling on the sails, the rain

Softens the sounds of the army.

Lê Thánh Tông tried to be and essentially succeeded in becoming the ideal Confucian ruler: deeply concerned with good government and personal morality.


Most cities in Vietnam, regardless of the political orientation of their government, have named major streets after him.[51]



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  9. 李慶新. "貿易、移殖與文化交流:15-17 世紀廣東人與越南". 廣東省社會科學院歷史研究所 南開大學中國社會歷史研究中心. p. 12. Retrieved 5 January 2013. 
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  32. "首页 > 06史藏-1725部 > 03别史-100部 > 49-明实录宪宗实录-- > 203-大明宪宗纯皇帝实录卷之二百十九" (in Chinese). 明實錄 (Ming Shilu). Retrieved 26 July 2013. "Simplified Chinese:○满剌加国使臣端亚妈剌的那查等奏成化五年本国使臣微者然那入贡还至当洋被风漂至安南国微者然那与其傔从俱为其国所杀其余黥为官奴而幼者皆为所害又言安南据占城城池欲并吞满剌加之地本国以皆为王臣未敢兴兵与战适安南使臣亦来朝端亚妈剌的那查乞与廷辨兵部尚书陈钺以为此已往事不必深校宜戒其将来 上乃因安南使臣还谕其王黎灏曰尔国与满剌加俱奉正朔宜修睦结好藩屏王室岂可自恃富强以干国典以贪天祸满剌加使臣所奏朝廷虽未轻信尔亦宜省躬思咎畏天守法自保其国复谕满剌加使臣曰自古圣王之驭四夷不追咎于既往安南果复侵陵尔国宜训练士马以御之 Traditional Chinese:○滿剌加國使臣端亞媽剌的那查等奏成化五年本國使臣微者然那入貢還至當洋被風漂至安南國微者然那與其傔從俱為其國所殺其餘黥為官奴而幼者皆為所害又言安南據占城城池欲併吞滿剌加之地本國以皆為王臣未敢興兵與戰適安南使臣亦來朝端亞媽剌的那查乞與廷辨兵部尚書陳鉞以為此已往事不必深校宜戒其將來 上乃因安南使臣還諭其王黎灝曰爾國與滿剌加俱奉正朔宜修睦結好藩屏王室豈可自恃富強以幹國典以貪天禍滿剌加使臣所奏朝廷雖未輕信爾亦宜省躬思咎畏天守法自保其國複諭滿剌加使臣曰自古聖王之馭四夷不追咎于既往安南果複侵陵爾國宜訓練士馬以禦之" 
  33. Wade 2005, p. 2078/79
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  35. "首页 > 06史藏-1725部 > 03别史-100部 > 49-明实录宪宗实录-- > 106-明宪宗纯皇帝实录卷之一百六" (in Chinese). 明實錄 (Ming Shilu). Retrieved 5 January 2013. "Simplified Chinese:○癸亥广东守珠池奉御陈彝奏南海县民为风飘至安南国被其国王编以为军其后逸归言中国人飘泊被留及所为阉禁者百余人奏下户部请移文巡抚镇守等官禁约军民人等毋得指以□贩私通番国且令守珠军人设法堤备从之 Traditional Chinese:○癸亥廣東守珠池奉禦陳彝奏南海縣民為風飄至安南國被其國王編以為軍其後逸歸言中國人飄泊被留及所為閹禁者百余人奏下戶部請移文巡撫鎮守等官禁約軍民人等毋得指以□販私通番國且令守珠軍人設法堤備從之" 
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  42. "首页 > 06史藏-1725部 > 03别史-100部 > 47-明实录孝宗实录-- > 146-明孝宗敬皇帝实录卷之一百五十三" (in Chinese). 明實錄 (Ming Shilu). Retrieved 5 January 2013. "Simplified Chinese:○金星昼见于辰位○辛卯吴瑞者广东文昌县人成化中与同乡刘求等十三人于钦州贸易遭风飘至安南海边罗者得之送本国求等俱发屯田以瑞独少宫之弘治十年国王黎灏卒瑞往东津点军得谅山卫军杨三知归路缘山行九日达龙州主头目韦琛家谋告守备官送还琛不欲久之安南国知之恐泄其国事遣探儿持百金为赎琛少之议未决而凭祥州知州李广宁闻之卒兵夺送于分守官都御史邓廷瓒遣送至京礼部请罪琛为边人之戒奖广宁为土官之劝从之瑞送司礼监给役 Traditional Chinese:○金星晝見於辰位○辛卯吳瑞者廣東文昌縣人成化中與同鄉劉求等十三人於欽州貿易遭風飄至安南海邊羅者得之送本國求等俱發屯田以瑞獨少宮之弘治十年國王黎灝卒瑞往東津點軍得諒山衛軍楊三知歸路緣山行九日達龍州主頭目韋琛家謀告守備官送還琛不欲久之安南國知之恐洩其國事遣探兒持百金為贖琛少之議未決而憑祥州知州李廣寧聞之卒兵奪送於分守官都御史鄧廷瓚遣送至京禮部請罪琛為邊人之戒獎廣寧為土官之勸從之瑞送司禮監給役" 
  43. 《明孝宗实录》卷一五三,弘治十二年八月辛卯
  44. Cooke (2011), p. 108 The Tongking Gulf Through History, p. 108, at Google Books
  45. PGS.TSKH Nguyễn Hải Kế(Associate Professor Dr. Nguyen Hai Ke) (THỨ NĂM, 28 THÁNG 3 2013 17:36(THURSDAY, MARCH 28TH, 2013 17:36)). "CÓ MỘT VÂN ĐỒN Ở GIỮA YÊN BANG, YÊN QUẢNG KHÔNG TĨNH LẶNG". 广州日报大洋网( Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  46. PGS.TSKH Nguyễn Hải Kế(Associate Professor Dr. Nguyen Hai Ke) (22.04.2013 18:56). "CÓ MỘT VÂN ĐỒN Ở GIỮA YÊN BANG, YÊN QUẢNG KHÔNG TĨNH LẶNG". 广州日报大洋网( Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  47. Lê Văn Hưu, Phan Phu Tiên, Ngô Sĩ Liên... soạn thảo (1272 - 1697)., ed (1993). "Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư". Nhà xuất bản Khoa Học Xã Hội (Hà Nội) ấn hành (1993).. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  48. Lê Văn Hưu, Phan Phu Tiên, Ngô Sĩ Liên... soạn thảo (1272 - 1697)., ed (1993). "Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư". Nhà xuất bản Khoa Học Xã Hội (Hà Nội) ấn hành (1993).. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  49. Cooke (2011), p. 109 The Tongking Gulf Through History, p. 109, at Google Books
  50. Keith Weller Taylor: The Birth of Vietnam. Revision of thesis (Ph.D.). Appendix O, page 355. University of California Press (1991). ISBN 0-520-07417-3
  51. Vietnam Country Map. Periplus Travel Maps. 2002–03. ISBN 0-7946-0070-0. 

Preceded by
Lê Nhân Tông
Emperor of Đại Việt
(ruled from 1460 to 1497)

Succeeded by
Lê Hiến Tông

See also

  • List of Vietnamese monarchs
  • Lê Dynasty

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