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• Lam Sơn Rebellion 1418–1427
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• Early Lê 1428–1788
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Mạc Dynasty 1527–1592
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Champa Dynasties 192–1471
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Prehistoric cultures of Vietnam

The Later Lê Dynasty (Vietnamese: Nhà Hậu Lê; Hán Việt: 後黎朝), sometimes referred to as the Lê Dynasty (the earlier Lê Dynasty ruled only for a brief period) was the longest-ruling dynasty of Vietnam, ruling the country from 1428 to 1788, with a brief interruption.

The dynasty officially began in 1428 with the coronation of Lê Lợi after he drove the Ming army from Vietnam. In 1527, the Mạc Dynasty usurped the throne; when the Lê Dynasty was restored in 1533, they still had to compete for power with the Mạc Dynasty during the period known as Southern and Northern Dynasties. The restored Lê emperors held no real power, and by the time the Mạc Dynasty was confined to only a small area in 1592 and finally eradicated in 1677, actual power was in the hands of the Nguyễn Lords in the South and the Trịnh Lords in the North, both ruling in the name of the Lê emperor while fighting each other. Their rule officially ended in 1788, when the peasant uprising of the Tây Sơn brothers defeated both the Trịnh and the Nguyễn, ironically in order to restore power to the Lê Dynasty.

The Lê Dynasty's rule saw Vietnam's territories grow from a small state in northern Vietnam at the time of Lê Lợi's coronation into almost its current size by the time the Tây Sơn brothers took over. It also saw massive changes to Vietnamese society: the previously Buddhist state became Confucian after 20 years of Ming rule. The Lê emperors instituted many changes modeled after the Chinese system, including the civil service and laws. Their long-lasting rule was attributed to the popularity of the early emperors. Lê Lợi's liberation of the country from 20 years of Chinese rule and Lê Thánh Tông's bringing the country into a golden age was well-remembered by the people. Even when restored Lê emperors' rule was marked by civil strife and constant peasant uprisings, few dared to openly challenge their power, at least in name, for fear of losing popular support. When the Mạc Dynasty tried to do so, they were not successful and were considered as usurpers and not recorded in official histories by later dynasties.


Le Thai To and Founding of the Le Dynasty

The founder of the Lê Dynasty was the hero-Emperor of Vietnam: Lê Lợi (ruled: 1428-1433).

Lê Lợi was the son of a village leader in Thanh Hoa province, the southern-most province of Vietnam at the time. When he was born, Vietnam was independent and under the rule of the Trần Dynasty. However, the Trần Emperors had been weak for some decades and the powerful neighbor to the north, China was now unified and under the rule of the energetic founder of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Hongwu. As was usual in Vietnamese history, a disputed succession was an excuse for the Chinese to re-assert control over Vietnam (See the Hồ Dynasty for further details). The Chinese, now under the Yongle Emperor conquered and ruled Vietnam starting in 1407. They immediately tried to change it into another province of the Ming Empire. Many, if not all Vietnamese customs and laws were declared invalid. Distinctive features of Vietnamese life which had naturally emerged during the nearly 500 years of independence from China were suppressed. All resistance to this effort was treated as rebellion and was dealt with according to normal Imperial Chinese methods (villages were burned, people were tortured and executed).

Lê Lợi started a revolt against the Ming rulers in 1418. The revolt lasted for 10 years during which there was much bloodshed and many defeats. However, the Chinese were gradually beaten and finally Lê Lợi was victorious. He proclaimed himself the new Emperor of Vietnam, gave himself the name Lê Thái Tổ (the Founding Emperor), and was recognized as such by the new Xuande Emperor of China. However, after only five years on the throne, Lê Lợi became ill and died.

Le Thai Tong

Le Thai Tong (Vietnamese: Lê Thái Tông; ruled: 1433-1442) was the official heir to Le Loi, but he was only 11 years old. As a result, a close friend of Le Loi, Le Sat, assumed the regency of the kingdom. Not long after he assumed the official title as Emperor of Vietnam in 1438, Le Thai Tong accused Le Sat of abuse of power and had him executed.

The new Emperor had a weakness for women. He had many wives, and he discarded one favorite after another. The great scandal was his affair with Nguyen Thi Lo (Vietnamese: Nguyễn Thị Lộ), the wife of his father's chief advisor Nguyen Trai. The affair started early in 1442 and continued when the Emperor traveled to the home of Nguyen Trai, who was venerated as a great Confucian scholar. Shortly after the Emperor left their home to continue his tour of the western province, he fell ill and died. At the time the powerful nobles in the court argued that the Emperor had been poisoned to death. Nguyen Trai and his wife were executed as were three entire generations of both their families (the normal punishment for treason).

Le Nhan Tong

A stoneware vase from the Le Dynasty, 15th century.

With the sudden death of the Emperor at a young age, his heir was an infant son named Bang Co. He was the second son of his father but the elder son had been officially passed over due to his mother's low social status. Bang Co was renamed Le Nhan Tong (Vietnamese: Lê Nhân Tông; ruled: 1442-1459) but the real ruler was Trinh Kha and the child's mother, the young Empress Nguyen Thi Anh. The next 17 years were good years for Vietnam - there were no great troubles either internally or externally. Two things of note occurred, first, the Vietnamese sent an army south to attack the Champa kingdom in 1446. Second, the Dowager Empress ordered the execution of Trinh Kha, for reasons lost to history, in the year 1451.

Two years later (1453) at the age of twelve, Le Nhan Tong was formally given the title of Emperor. This was unusual as in the past, boys could not be given the powers of government till the age of 16. It may have been done to remove the Empress Nguyễn Thi Anh from power, but if that was the reason, it failed and the boy's mother still controlled the government up until the coup of 1459.

In 1459, Le Nhan Tong's older brother, Nghi Dan, plotted with a group of friends to kill the Emperor. On October 28, the plotters with some 100 "shiftless men" entered into the palace and killed the Emperor (he was just 18). The next day, facing certain execution, his mother, Nguyen Thi Anh, committed suicide. Nghi Dan's rule was brief, he was never officially recognized as an Emperor by the later Vietnamese historians. Revolts against his rule started almost immediately and the second revolt, occurring on June 24, 1460, succeeded. This revolt, led by the last of Le Loi's old advisors (Nguyen Xi and Dinh Liet) captured and killed Nghi Dan along with his friends. The old men then selected the last son of Le Thai Tong, to be the new Emperor. His name was Le Thanh Tong (Vietnamese: Lê Thánh Tông) and he was just 17 years old at the time.

Le Thanh Tong

Map of Vietnam showing the conquest of the south (the Nam Tiến) Light green conquered by Le Thanh Tong.

Le Thanh Tong (Vietnamese: Lê Thánh Tông; ruled: 1460-1497) was the most prominent of all the Le rulers and one of the greatest Emperors in Vietnamese history. His rule was one of the high points in the history of Vietnam and was referred to as the time of a "Flood of Virtue" (Hồng Đức) and the Vietnamese Hammurabi. He instituted a wide range of government reforms, legal reforms, and land reforms. He restarted the examination system for selecting men for important government positions. He reduced the power of the noble families and reduced the degree of corruption in the government. He built temples to Confucius throughout the provinces of Vietnam. In nearly all respects, his reforms mirrored those of the Song Dynasty.

He led a large and effective army against the Champa which succeeded in conquering the Cham capital and ended the power of the Champa forever. He created a new province out of former Champa land and allowed settlers to go to the new land.

Decline of the Lê Dynasty

With the death of Lê Thánh Tông, the Lê Dynasty fell into a swift decline (1497-1527).

Lê Hiến Tông (ruled 1497 - 1504)
Prince Lê Tăng, the eldest of Le Thanh Tong’s 14 sons, succeeded his father as Le Hien Tong (Vietnamese: Lê Hiến Tông). He was 38 years old at the time of his father's death. He was an affable, meek and mild-mannered person. Due to his short period of rule and the fact that he didn't pass many significant reforms, his reign is considered to be an extension of Le Thanh Tong's rule.

Lê Túc Tông (ruled 1504 - 1505)
Succeeding to Le Hien Tong was his third son who took the reign name as Le Tuc Tong (Vietnamese: Lê Túc Tông). However, he fell gravely ill and died just six months after assuming the throne. Given his older brother's subsequent history of ruthless abuse of power, there is suspicion that Le Tuc Tong was in fact murdered.

Lê Uy Mục (ruled 1505 - 1509)
His older brother succeeded Le Tuc Tong as Le Uy Muc (Vietnamese: Lê Uy Mục). The first thing the new Emperor did was to take revenge against those who had barred him from the throne by having them killed. Among his victims were the former Emperor's mother - which was considered a shocking display of evil behavior. Le Uy Muc was described as a cruel, sadistic, and depraved person, who wasted the court’s money and finances to indulge his whims. Well aware of the fact he was detested by his subjects, Le Uy Muc protected himself by hiring a group of elite bodyguards to surround him at all times. Among them was Mac Dang Dung who became very close to the Emperor and eventually rose to the rank of General. Despite his precautions, in 1509 a cousin who Le Uy Muc had put in prison, escaped and plotted with court insiders to assassinate the Emperor. The assassination succeeded and the killer proclaimed himself Emperor under the name Le Tuong Duc.

Lê Tương Dực (ruled 1510 - 1516)
Le Tuong Duc (Vietnamese: Lê Tương Dực) proved to be just as bad a ruler as Le Uy Muc. He reigned from 1510 to 1516, all the while spending down the royal treasury, and doing nothing to improve the country. He was heedless to the reaction that his taxes caused throughout the country. His rule ended in 1516 when a group of officials and generals stormed the palace and killed him.

Civil war

At barely 14 years old, nephew of Le Tuong Duc, prince Lê Y, was enthroned as the new emperor Le Chieu Tong (Vietnamese: Lê Chiêu Tông) (ruled: 1516 - 1524). As usual when a young Emperor came to the throne, factions within the court vied with one another for control of the government. One powerful and growing faction was led by Mac Dang Dung. His growing power was resented by the leaders of two noble families in Vietnam: the Nguyễn, under Nguyen Hoang Du (Vietnamese: Nguyễn Hoàng Dụ) and the Trịnh, under Trịnh Duy Đại and Trịnh Duy Sản. After several years of increasing tension, the Nguyễn and the Trịnh left the capital Hanoi (then called Dong Do) and fled south, with the Emperor "under their protection".

This was the start of a civil war with Mac Dang Dung and his supporters on one side and the Trinh and the Nguyen on the other side. Thanh Hoa province, the ancestral home to the Trinh and the Nguyen, was the battle ground between the two sides. After several years of warfare, Emperor Le Chieu Tong was assassinated 1522 by Mac Dang Dung's supporters. Not long after, the leaders of the Nguyen and the Trinh were executed. Mac Dang Dung was now the most powerful man in Vietnam.

Mac Dang Dung usurps the throne

Map of Vietnam showing the Mac in control of the north and central part of Vietnam while the Nguyen-Trinh alliance controls the south.

Soon after Le Chieu Tong fled south with the Trinh and the Nguyen in 1522, Mac Dang Dung (Vietnamese: Mạc Đăng Dung) proclaimed the Emperor's younger brother, Le Xuan, as the new Emperor under the name Le Cung Hoang (Vietnamese: Lê Cung Hoàng). In reality, the new Emperor had no power. Three years after Mac's forces killed his older brother, Le Chieu Tong, Mac Dang Dung ended the fiction that Le Cung Hoang actually ruled by killing him (in 1527). Mac Dang Dung then proclaimed himself the new Emperor of Vietnam, ending (so he thought) the Le Dynasty (see Mac Dynasty for more details).

With the usurpation of the throne, the civil war broke out anew. Again the Nguyen and the Trinh gathered an army and fought against Mac Dang Dung, this time under the leadership of Nguyen Kim and Trinh Khiem. The Trinh and the Nguyen were nominally fighting on behalf of the Le Emperor but in reality, for their own power.

250 years of figurehead Emperors

In 1533, the Nguyen-Trinh alliance captured the Đông Đô (Eastern Capital) of Vietnam and crowned Lê Trang Tông as the next Le Emperor. In official Vietnamese history, this date marks the end of the Mac Dynasty though the reality was quite different. Mac Dang Dung ruled in Hanoi till his death in 1541 and his descendants ruled in Hanoi until 1592. The country was divided into two portions though gradually the Trinh-Nguyen alliance took over more and more of the country from the Mac (for more complete histories of this time: see the Trinh Lords article and the Nguyen Lords article).

In 1592, with the conquest of Hanoi, the Emperor of Vietnam, Lê Thế Tông, was installed in the ancient capital. The Le Emperors sat as figurehead rulers in Hanoi until the Tay Son Revolt finally swept the Trinh and the Le out of power.

The following is the official list of Le Emperors from 1533 until 1789:

Map of Vietnam showing (roughly) the areas controlled by the Trinh, Nguyen, Mac, and Champa about the year 1640

Lê Trang Tông (1533-1548) - A son of Prince Ý named Ninh. Crowned Emperor at the "Winter palace" in 1533. Officially recognized as the King by a Chinese delegation in 1536.

Lê Trung Tông (1548-1556) - During his reign, the war with the Mac continued.

Lê Anh Tông (1556-1573) - In 1572, the Royal army under Trịnh Tùng captured Hanoi. But a year later, the Trinh army was thrown out of Hanoi. The Emperor took advantage of the chaos to flee to Nghe An Province to escape the control of Trinh Tung. However, Trịnh Tùng simply appointed a new Emperor and had Le Anh Tong assassinated.

Lê Thế Tông (1573-1599) - When Hanoi was captured for the second (and final) time in 1592, the Court moved back to the old capital. The Emperor gave Trinh Tung the title Peaceful King (Binh An Vương) in recognition of his great victory over the Mac.

Lê Kính Tông (1600-1619) - At the start of his reign, Nguyen Hoang, one of the Nguyen Lords refused to accept imperial edicts from Le Kinh Tong. After 19 years as a figurehead, Le Kinh Tong was involved in a conspiracy to kill Trinh Tung and take power. He was executed and a new Emperor appointed.

Lê Thần Tông (1619-1643) - At the start of his rule, Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, leader of the Nguyen Lords, refused to acknowledge the new Emperor. After seven years of increasing tension, the great war between the Trinh and the Nguyen started (see Trinh-Nguyen War). Le Thần Tong saw the death of Trinh Tùng and the rule by Trịnh Tráng. In 1643 he abdicated the throne in favor of his son.

Lê Chân Tông (1643-1649) - Died after only six years, just after the Royal (Trinh) army suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Nguyen. His father took the throne again.

Lê Thần Tông (again: 1649-1662) - Regained the throne after the early death of his son. This was a time of many defeats for the Royal army (i.e. the Trinh) in their long war against the Nguyen. But by the old Emperor's death, Trinh Tac had restored the situation and defeated the Nguyen offensive (see Trinh-Nguyen War for details).

Lê Huyền Tông (1663-1671) - During his time, the Mac were driven from their last bit of territory in the far north of Vietnam. In the south, there was no activity in the Trinh-Nguyen war.

Lê Gia Tông (1672-1675) - During his time, the last great offensive took place against the Nguyen walls by Trinh Tac. The offensive failed after seven months of fighting and a peace treaty between the Trinh and the Nguyen was agreed. This began the long 100 year peace between the north and south of Vietnam.

Lê Hy Tông (1676-1704) - This was a peaceful reign though in 1677 the last remnats of the Mac attacked Vietnam out of China. They were defeated. This Emperor was forced to abdicate his throne in favor of his son by the new Trinh Lord, Trinh Cuong.

Lê Dụ Tông (1705-1728) - A peaceful time though some Christian missionaries were persecuted. The Emperor and Trinh Cuong died within months of each other in 1728.

Hôn Đức Công (1729-1732) - The new Emperor was put in prison by the new Trinh Lord Trinh Giang and was then murdered after four years.

Lê Thuần Tông (1732-1735) - Nothing of import during his short rule.

Lê Ý Tông (1735-1740) - Trinh Giang foolishly convinced the Chinese government to give him the title Supreme King of Annam (An Nam Thượng Vương). This was widely seen as a usurpation of the Le Emperor's position and rebellion started throughout north Vietnam. Trinh Giang gave up his power in 1738, the king abdicated just a year later.

Lê Hiển Tông (1740-1786) - This was a time of many revolts but the new Trinh Lord, Trinh Sam managed to suppress them all. The Tay Son revolt started in the south in 1772 and the Royal army used the opportunity to end the 100 year truce and conquered Huế.

Tây Sơn Revolt

The Tay Son were not content to simply conquer the southern provinces of Vietnam.

After a decade of fairly successful fighting in the south against the Nguyen Lords, Nguyen Hue (the leading general of the Tay Son and no relation to the Nguyen ruling family) and his army marched north in 1785. The Royal army under Trinh Sam refused to fight the unbeatable Nguyen Hue. Trinh Sam committed suicide and the king submitted to the wishes of the victorious Hue by giving his daughter in marriage to him. Hue returned south and a few months later, the old king died.

Le Chieu Thong (1786-1788). The last official Le Emperor (Vietnamese: Lê Chiêu Thống). At the start of his reign the Trinh tried to reassert control over the government. This provoked another march north from Nguyen Hue and so the Emperor and the Trinh fled from Hanoi. The Emperor's wife and the Trinh went to the Manchu court to ask for aid against the Tay Son. The Manchu agreed that the Tay Son were usurpers and in 1788 a large Manchu army marched into Vietnam and reoccupied Hanoi, installing the Le Chieu Thong back in power.

But Nguyen Hue was not willing to give up. He gathered a large army of his own and defeated the Chinese in battle in 1789. Le Chieu Thong fled north into China, never to return.

Source: Vietnamese Kingdoms (downloaded March 2006)

Le Chieu Thong went to the Chinese capital where:

he was appointed a Chinese mandarin of the fourth rank and was enrolled under the Tartar banners. His family also remained in China, and from that date the inhabitants of Tonkin, who had not lost their hatred for the Nguyen invaders, expected to find in every rebel who raised the flag of rebellion in their country a descendant of the old royal race. The last of these insurrections was that of the Brigadier General Li Hung Tsai in 1878. (Annam and its Minor Currency, chapter 16).

See also

Preceded by
Fourth Chinese domination (History of Vietnam)
Dynasty of Vietnam
Succeeded by
Mạc Dynasty
Preceded by
Mạc Dynasty
Dynasty of Vietnam
Succeeded by
Tây Sơn Dynasty


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