|Emperor of Vietnam|
|Depiction of Minh Mạng from John Crawfurd's journal|
|Reign||1820 - 1841|
|Spouse||Hồ Thị Hoa|
|Mother||Tran Thi Dang|
|Born||14 February 1791
|Died||20 January 1841
Minh Mạng (Hán tự: 明命; 1791-1841; born Nguyễn Phúc Đảm 阮福膽, also known as Nguyễn Phúc Kiểu 阮福晈) was the second emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from 14 February 1820 until 20 January 1841. He was a younger son of Emperor Gia Long, whose eldest son, Crown Prince Canh, had died in 1801. He was well known for his opposition to French involvement in Vietnam and his rigid Confucian orthodoxy. As Gia Long aged, he took on a more isolationist foreign policy, and as a result favored Minh Mang especially for his outlook. Minh Mang was a classicist who was regarded as one of Vietnam's most scholarly monarchs. He was known as a poet and was regarded as an emperor who cared sincerely about his country and paid great attention to its rule, to the extent of micromanaging certain policies. He pursued a sceptical policy to Christian missionaries, often trying to inhibit their activities by administrative means, and later by explicitly banning proselytisation. His crackdowns led to negative European sentiment towards Vietnam and fomented discontent among Catholics at home and abroad which further antagonised Western attitudes towards Vietnam. As a result of his Confucian conservatism, Minh Mang allowed little innovation in Vietnamese society, and in time its military in particular became antiquated. He restricted trade and exchange with Western powers. At home he strengthened the central administration and had to contend with several rebellions, many of them Catholic-inspired. The most serious came in 1833 when southern Vietnam revolted, leading to a civil war lasting a year. This was further deepened by an invasion into the same area by Siamese forces who had attempted to retake Cambodia from Vietnam. After a long struggle, his forces managed to put down both enemies and regain control.
Born Phuc Dam, the son of Emperor Gia Long’s first concubine Tran Thi Dang, it was assumed that Gia Long’s grandson and son of Prince Nguyen Phuc Canh would become the next Emperor. Prince Canh had died in 1801 before Gia Long had unified Vietnam. However, in 1816 Gia Long appointed Phuc Dam as his successor. Gia Long chose him for his strong character and his deep aversion to westerners. Before his ascension, Minh Mang was reported by French missionaries in a report to the French government as having praised the Japanese for having expelled and eradicated Christianity from their country. He was reported as believing that it was not ideal to have two religions in one country. Upon ascending the throne, he took the name Minh Mang.
Gia Long's death coincided with the re-establishment of the Paris Missionary Society's operations in Vietnam, which had closed in 1792 during the chaos of the power struggle between Gia Long and the Tay Son brothers before Vietnam was unified. This was to herald tumultuous events in the foreign policy of Vietnam.
In the early years of Minh Mang's government, the most serious challenge came from one of his father's most trusted lieutenants and a national hero in Vietnam, Le Van Duyet. Duyet had led the Nguyễn forces to victory at Qui Nhơn in 1801 against the Tay Son Dynasty and was made regent in the south by Gia Long with full freedom to rule and deal with foreign powers. Duyet had opposed the enthronement of Minh Mạng, who was violently against the influences of foreigners and Christianity. Duyet felt that this was a betrayal of the same people who had helped Gia Long to the throne.
In February 1825, Minh Mang banned missionaries from entering Vietnam. French vessels entering Vietnamese harbours were ordered to be searched with extra care. All entires were to be watched "lest some masters of the European religion enter furtively, mix with the people and spread darkness in the kingdom." In an imperial edict, Christianity was described as the "perverse European" (practice) and accused of "corrupting the hearts of men." Between 1833 and 1838, seven missionaries were sentenced to death.
Minh Mang first attempted to stifle the spread of Christianity by attempting to isolate Catholic priests and missionaries from the populace. He asserted that he had no French interpreters after Chaigneau's departure and summoned the French clergy to Hue and appointed them as mandarins of high rank to woo them from their proselytising. This worked until the priest Regereau entered the country and began missionary work.
Following his edict forbidding further entry of missionaries into Vietnam, arrests of missionaries began. After strong lobbying by Le Van Duyet, the governor of Cochin China, and a close confidant of Gia Long and Pigneau de Behaine, Minh Mang agreed to release the priests on the condition that they congregate at Da Nang and return to France. None of the missionaries obeyed the order upon being released, and they all returned to their parishes and resumed preaching. Minh Mang showed restraint in the face of the violations and did not take violent action against the missionaries. He even allowed a Catholic priest, Jaccard, to recite prayers on his birthday.
Minh Mang continued and intensified his father's isolationist and conservative Confucian policies. His father had rebuffed a British delegation in 1804 proposing that Vietnam be opened to trade. The delegation's gifts were not accepted and turned away. It was not until 1821 that another attempt was made by John Crawfurd of the British East India Company, without success. He was only allowed to disembark in the northern ports of Tonkin, but was granted no agreements.
At the time, Vietnam was under no threat of colonisation, since most of Europe was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless, Napoleon had seen Vietnam as a strategically important objective in the colonial power struggle in Asia, as he felt that it would make an ideal base from which to contest the British East India Company's control of the Indian subcontinent. With the restoration of the monarchy and the final departure of Napoleon in 1815, the military scene in Europe quietened and French interest in Vietnam was revived.
Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau, one of the volunteers of Pigneau de Behaine who had helped Gia Long in his quest for power, had become a mandarin and continued to serve Minh Mang's court. After Minh Mang's ascension, Chaigneau and his colleagues were treated more distantly, and he eventually left in November 1824. In 1825, he was appointed as French consul to Vietnam after returning to his homeland to visit his family after more than a quarter of a century in Asia. Upon his return, Minh Mang received him coldly. The policy of isolationism soon saw Vietnam fall further behind and become more vulnerable as political stability returned to continental Europe, allowing her colonial powers a free hand to once again direct their attention towards further conquests.
With his Confucian orthodoxy, Minh Mang shunned all western influence and ideas as hostile and avoided all contact. In 1820, Captain John White of the United States Navy was the first American to make contact with Vietnam, arriving in Saigon. Minh Mang was willing to sign a contract, but only to purchase artillery, firearms, uniforms and books. White was of the opinion that the deal was not sufficiently advantageous and nothing was implemented. Another American approach in 1822, led by Roberts formerly of the British East India Company, also proved fruitless. Vietnam under Minh Mang was the first East Asian country with whom the United States sought foreign relations. President Andrew Jackson tried twice through Edmund Robert in 1832 and 1836 to contract Minh Mang, with no response.
In 1822, the French frigate La Cleopatre visited Tourane (present day Da Nang). Her captain was to pay his respects to Minh Mang, but was greeted with a symbolic dispatch of troops as though an invasion had been expected. In 1824 Henri Baron de Bougainville was sent by Louis XVIII to Vietnam with the stated mission "of peace and protection of commerce. On arrival in Tourane in 1825, it was not allowed ashore at Tourane. The royal message was turned away on the pretext that there was nobody able to translate it. It was assumed that the snub was related to an attempt by Bougainville to smuggle ashore a Catholic missionary. Further fruitless attempts to start a commercial deal were led by de Kergariou in 1827 and Admiral Laplace in 1831.
Chaigneau's nephew Eugene Chaigneau was sent to Vietnam in 1826 as the intended consul but was forced to leave the country without taking up his position. Another effort by Chaigneau in 1829 also failed. In 1831 another French envoy was turned away.
In 1821, a trade agreement from Louis XVIII was turned away, with Minh Mang alluding that no special deal would be offered to any country. In 1837 and 1838, La bonite and L'Artemise were ordered to land in Tourane to attempt to gauge the situation in Vietnam with respect to missionary work. Both were met with thinly disguised hostility and communication was prevented.
In 1824 he rejected the offer of an alliance from Burma against Siam, a common enemy of both countries. Later, in 1833 and 1834, a war with Siam was fought over control of Cambodia which for the preceding century had been reduced to impotence and fell under control of its two neighbours. After Vietnam under Gia Long gained control over Cambodia in the early 1800s, a Vietnamese-approved monarch was installed. Minh Mang was forced to put down a Siamese attempt to regain control of the vassal as well as an invasion of southern Vietnam which coincided with rebellion by Le Van Khoi. The Siamese planned the invasion to coincide with the rebellion, putting enormous strain on the Nguyen armies. Eventually, Minh Mang's forces were able to quell the invasion as well as the revolt in Saigon.
Minh Mang reacted to western aggression by blaming Christianity and showing hostility, giving the European powers to assert that intervention was needed to protect the religion. Catholics in Vietnam wanted French military intervention so that their religion would become favoured. As a result of this eventual intervention and colonisation after Minh Mang's death, the missionaries became politically privileged at the expense of the emperors and mandarins. This resulted in missed opportunities to avert future colonisation through having friendly relations, since strong opposition was occurring in France against an invasion, wary of the costs of such a venture. After China was attacked by Britain in the Opium War, Minh Mang attempted to build an alliance with European powers by sending a delegation of two lower rank mandarins and two interpreters in 1840. They were received in Paris by Prime Minister Marshal Soult and the Commerce Minister, but they were shunned by King Louis-Philippe. This came after the Society of Foreign Missions and the Vatican had urged a rebuke for an "enemy of the religion". The French turned down what they had pursued from Vietnam. The delegation went on to London, with no success, despite there being no tension between the two countries, since English Protestant clergy had not been in Vietnam.
On the domestic front, Minh Mang continued his father's national policies of reorganising the administrative structure of the government. These included the construction of highways, a postal service, public storehouses for food, monetary and agrarian reforms. He continued to redistribute land periodically and forbade all other sales of land to prevent wealthy citizens from reacquiring excessive amounts of land with their money. In 1840 it was decreed that rich landowners had to return a third of their holdings to the community. According to the French historian Jean Chesneaux, Minh Mang's activity in building dykes surpassed that during the seven-decade rule of French colonialism. However, with the orthodoxy against Western thought, the agrarian sector did not reform technologically despite the opportunity to absorb new techniques, and production did not become more efficient than they had been in the past. Calls for basic industrialisation and diversification of the economy into fields such as mining and forestry were ignored.
He further centralised the administration, introduced the definition of three levels of performance in the triennial examinations for recruiting mandarins. In 1839, Minh Mang introduced a program of salaries and pensions for princes and mandarins to replace the traditional assignment of fief estates.
Minh Mang was regarded as being in touch with the concerns of the populace. Frequent local rebellions reminded him of their plight. Descendants of the old Le Dynasty fomented dissent in the north, appealing not only to the peasantry but to the Catholic minority. They attempted to enlist foreign help by promising to open up to missionaries. Local leaders in the south were upset with their loss of relative political autonomy which they had enjoyed under Gia Long's appointment of Le Van Duyet.
With Duyet's death in 1832, a strong defender of Christianity passed. Catholics had traditionally been inclined to side with rebel movements against the monarchy more than most Vietnamese and this erupted after Duyet's death. Minh Mang ordered Duyet to be posthumously indicted and one hundred lashes were applied to his grave. This caused indignation against southerners who respected Duyet. In July 1833, the Le Van Khoi revolt broke out under the leadership of his adopted son Le Van Khoi. Historical opinion is divided with scholars contesting whether the grave desecration or the loss of southern autonomy after Duyet's death was the main catalyst. Khoi's rebels soon brought Cochinchina under their control and proposed to replace Minh Mang with a son of Prince Canh. Khoi convinced Marchand to come and stay within the citadel, hoping that his presence would win over Catholic support. Khoi also enlisted Siamese support, which was forthcoming and helped to put Minh Mang on the back foot. Eventually, the Siamese were defeated and the south was recaptured by royalist forces, who besieged Saigon. Khoi died during the siege in December 1834 and Saigon fell nine months later in September 1835 and the rebel commanders put to death. In all the estimates of the captured rebels was put between 500 and 2000, who were executed. The missionaries were rounded up and ordered out of the country. The first French missionary to be executed was Gagelin in October 1833, the second was Marchand, who was put to death along with the other leaders of the Saigon citadel which surrendered in September 1835. From then until 1838 five more missionaries were put to death. The missionaries began to advocated for protection from their home countries and the use of force against Asians.
Minh Mang was known for his firmness of character, which guided his instincts in his policy making. This accentuated his unwillingness to break with orthodoxy in dealing with Vietnam's problems. His biographer, Marcel Gaultier, asserted that Minh Mang had expressed his opinions about national policy before Gia Long's death, proposing a policy of greater isolationism and shunning westerners, and that Gia Long tacitly approved of this. Minh Mang was regarded as more nuanced and gentle than his father, with less forced labour and an increased perceptiveness towards the sentiment of the peasantry. He was regarded as generous to his civil service but tough and strict in his expectations of their performance.
Although those who met Emperor Minh Mạng always agreed he was personally a very wise and gentle man, his harsh policies had a dangerous impact on his country. His strict belief in Confucian society meant that no innovation of any kind was allowed during his reign, and when rebellions broke out, his first reaction was to blame the Christian missionaries and their Vietnamese converts. This gave France the excuse to become involved in Vietnam and, in 1858 after his death, French troops briefly occupied Tourane, demanding that the persecutions stop. This was the start of France's campaign in the following years to occupy and colonize Vietnam for almost 100 years.
Although Minh Mang disagreed with European culture and thinking, he studied it closely and was known for his scholarly nature. Upon hearing of the vaccination against smallpox, he organised for a French surgeon to live in a palatial residence and vaccinate the royal family against the disease. He was learned in Eastern philosophy and was regarded as an intellectually oriented monarch. His biographer Caultier described him as possessing a "feminine instinct in the service for a male character", and he was known for his writings as poet. He was known for his attention to detail and micromanagement of state affairs, to a level that "astonished his contemporaries". As a result he was held in high regard for his devotion to running the country.
In the end, Minh Mạng died and left the throne to his son, Emperor Thiệu Trị, who was more rigidly Confucianist and anti-foreign as his father had been. During Thiệu Trị's reign, diplomatic standoffs over the treatment of Catholic priests often led to instances of gunboat diplomacy being used on Vietnam, and led to increasing raids and the eventual colonisation of Vietnam by France. Nevertheless, during his reign Minh Mạng had established a more efficient government, stopped a Siamese invasion and built many national monuments in the imperial city of Huế. His legacy is one of success for himself, but his policies also brought Vietnam much trouble after he was gone, as the effects of orthodoxy set in. This manifested itself in Vietnam's military becoming antiquated and overwhelmed by foreign armies.
Minh Mang had many wives and children, he decided to name his descendants (Nguyễn Phước or Nguyễn Phúc: all members of the Nguyễn Dynasty) by choosing the Middle name following the words of the Imperial succession poem to avoid confusion which reads as follows (This is the poem for the boys, there is another poem for the girls.):
Girls receive also a different name on each generation, for example: Cong Ton Nu, Cong Huyen Ton Nu, Công Tang Ton Nu.
Emperor Gia Long
|Nguyễn Dynasty||Succeeded by
Emperor Thiệu Trị