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Le Loi
Emperor of Vietnam
Le Loi statue in front of the Communiciple Hall of Thanh Hoa Province where Le Loi was born
Reign 1428 - 1433
Predecessor None, Emperor Xuande as Emperor of the Ming Dynasty
Successor Le Thai Tong
Issue
Le Tu Te
Le Thai Tong
Full name
Le Loi
Temple name
Thai To
House Le Dynasty
Father Le Khoang
Mother Trinh Thi Ngoc Thuong
Born 1384/85
Died 1433
Burial Vinh Tomb, Lam Son

Lê Lợi (Hán tự: ; 1384 or 1385? – 1433), posthumously known with the temple name Lê Thái Tổ (), was Emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Later Lê Dynasty. Lê Lợi is among the most famous figures from the medieval period of Vietnamese history and one of its greatest heroes.

Contents

Background, A Time of Trouble

Lê Lợi was the youngest of three sons. His father was an aristocratic nobleman in Lam Son (northern-Vietnam). The town was in a newly colonized area of Vietnam which would eventually be called Thanh Hóa Province. Lam Son had been established by Lê Lợi’s great-grandfather sometime in the 1330s. His exact date of birth is not certain, but 1384 is generally agreed on by historians. Lam Son was on the frontier of Vietnam, as a result it was further and hence more free from government control.

This was a troubled time in Vietnam's history as the Hồ Dynasty in 1400 finally displaced the Trần Dynasty and set about reforming the kingdom. Hồ rule was short lived as members of the Trần Dynasty pettitioned for intervention from the mighty Ming Emperor Yongle (永樂 Vĩnh Lạc) to the north. He responded by sending a powerful army south into Vietnam and vanquished the Hồ. Upon failing to find a Trần heir, the Ming choose to re-establish sovereignty over Vietnam, as was the case in the days of the Tang empire, some 500 years previously.

The Ming enjoyed some support from the Vietnamese, at least in the capital of Hanoi but their efforts to assert control in the surrounding countryside were met with stiff resistance. The Vietnamese claim that the Ming stole valuable artifacts from Vietnam such as gems, jade, golden pieces of art as well as books. Lê Lợi himself said that he chose the path of revolt against the Chinese when he personally witnessed the destruction of a Vietnamese village by Ming forces.

The Revolt (1418-1427)

Lê Lợi began his campaign against the Ming on the day after Tết (New Year) February 1418. He was supported by several prominent families from his native Thanh Hóa province, most famously were the Trinh and the Nguyen families. Initially, Lê Lợi campaigned on the basis of restoring the Trần to power. A relative of the Trần Dynasty emperor was chosen as the figurehead of the revolt but within a few years, the Trần pretender was removed and the unquestioned leader of the revolt was Lê Lợi himself, under the name "Pacifying King" (Binh Dinh Vuong).

The revolt enjoyed patchy initial success. While Lê Lợi was able to operate in Thanh Hoa Province, he was, for 2–3 years, unable to muster the military forces required to defeat the Ming army in open battle. As a result he waged a type of guerilla war against the large and well organized Chinese army.

In 1421, one famous story from this time is about the heroism of one of Lê Lợi’s commanders, Le Lai. One time during the early years of the revolt, the Chinese had Lê Lợi’s army surrounded on a mountaintop. In an effort to break the siege, Le Lai devised a plan that would allow Lê Lợi and the main bulk of the force to escape. He pretended to be Lê Lợi to divert the Ming army’s attention by dressing himself in Lê Lợi’s attire and lead a kamikaze-like cavalry charge down to attack the Ming. Le Lai fought bravely but was captured and executed. During the battle, Lê Lợi and the rest of the main contingency were able to escape. (Le Lai Story).

By 1427, the revolt had spread throughout Vietnam and the original Ming army of occupation had been ground down and destroyed. The new Ming Emperor, Xuande, wished to end the war with Vietnam, but his advisors urged one more effort to subdue the rebellious province. The result was a massive army (some 100,000 strong[1]) being sent into Vietnam. While the Chinese thought this troop number sufficient, Lê Lợi’s army by this point was much bigger at about 350,000 men.

The final campaign did not start well for the Chinese. Lê Lợi’s forces met the Ming army in battle but quickly staged a mock retreat. The Chinese general, Liu Sheng (Liễu Thăng in Vietnamese), urging his troops forward, was cut off from the main part of his army, captured and executed by the Vietnamese. Then, by sending false reports of dissent within the ranks of Lê Lợi’s own generals, the Chinese army was lured into Hanoi where it was surrounded and destroyed in a series of battles. A Vietnamese historian, Tran Trong Kim, told that the Chinese army lost over 90,000 men (60,000 killed in battle and 30,000 captured).[2]

Emperor Lê Thái Tổ

In 1427, after 10 years of war, Vietnam regained its independence and China officially acknowledged Vietnam as an independent state. Lê Lợi took the throne and was declared Emperor of Dai Viet (大越) (though King is a more accurate term for the ruler of Vietnam). He formally established the Lê Dynasty as the Ming Xuande Emperor officially recognized Lê Lợi as the new ruler of Vietnam. In return, Lê Lợi sent diplomatic messages to the Ming Court, promising Vietnam’s loyalty as a vassal state of China and cooperation. The Ming accepted this arrangement, much as they accepted the vassal status of Korea under the Joseon Dynasty. The Chinese largely left Vietnam alone for the next 500 years, intervening only about once every hundred years.

Lê Lợi embarked on a significant reorganization of Vietnamese government, clearly based on the Confucian system of government which was developed by the Tang Dynasty and Sung Dynasty. He also elevated his long time comrades and generals such as Nguyen Trai, Tran Nguyen Han, Le Sat, Pham Van Sao, and Trinh Kha to high official rank.

The Vinh Lang stele from Lê Lợi's mausoleum, presently in a Hanoi museum

The Le government rebuilt the infrastructure of Vietnam: roads, bridges, canals. Land distribution were rewarded to soldiers that contributed in the war against the Ming. New money currency was minted and new laws and reforms were passed. The system of selecting government administrators by examination was restored and exams were held at regular intervals throughout Lê Lợi’s reign.

From 1430 to 1432, Lê Lợi and his army fought a set of campaigns in the hills to the west of the coastal area. Then, in 1433, he became sick and his health declined. On his death bed he appointed Le Sat as the regent for his second son, who would rule after him as Le Thai Tong.

Internal palace politics quickly decimated the ranks of Lê Lợi’s trusted councilors, Tran Nguyen Han and Pham Van Sao were executed in 1432 and Le Sat, who ruled as regent for five years, was executed in 1438. Nguyen Trai was killed in 1442 (it was claimed he was linked to the death of Le Thai Tong). Only Trinh Kha survived to an old age and even he was executed in 1451.

Lê Lợi - Myth and Legend

The Lake of the Returned Sword in Hanoi is where Lê Lợi returned the sword to the Golden Turtle, according to the legend.

Many legends and stories were told about Lê Lợi. The most famous story concerns his magical sword. Much like King Arthur and his sword Excalibur, Lê Lợi was said to have a magic sword of wondrous power. One story tells that he obtained the sword, inscribed with the words 'The Will of Heaven' (Thuan Thien) from a Golden Turtle (Kim Qui 金龜) a demi-god to the local people. The stories claim Lê Lợi grew very tall when he used the sword and it gave him the strength of many men. Other stories say that the sword blade and the sword hilt came together from different places, the blade fished out of a lake, the hilt found by Lê Lợi himself.

The stories largely agree on what happened to the sword: One day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam as independent, Lê Lợi was out boating on a lake in Hanoi. Suddenly a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from Lê Lợi’s belt, and dived back into the depths. Efforts were made to find both the sword and the turtle but without success. Lê Lợi then acknowledged the sword had gone back to the Golden Turtle and caused the lake to be renamed 'The Lake of the Returned Sword' (Hoan Kiem Lake) located in present-day Hanoi.

Countless poems and songs were written about Lê Lợi, both during his life time and in later years. Lê Lợi is looked upon as the perfect embodiment of the just, wise, and capable leader. All future Vietnamese kings were measured against the standard of Lê Lợi and most were found wanting.

Every town in Vietnam has one of the major streets named after Lê Lợi, but in Hanoi the name is Le Thai To Street.

Sources

  1. ^ Tran Trong Kim (2005) (in Vietnamese). Việt Nam sử lược. Ho Chi Minh City: Ho Chi Minh City General Publishing House. pp. 212–213.  
  2. ^ Tran Trong Kim (2005) (in Vietnamese). Việt Nam sử lược. Ho Chi Minh City: Ho Chi Minh City General Publishing House. pp. 214–215.  

Very little in English has been written about Lê Lợi. The most detailed source is the doctoral thesis of John K. Whitmore, "The Development of the Le Government in Fifteenth Century Vietnam" (Cornell University, 1968). The thesis is mostly concerned with the structure and make-up of the Le government from 1427 to 1471.

See also

External links

Preceded by
Ho Dynasty
Emperor of Vietnam
1428-1433
Succeeded by
Le Thai Tong

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