As early as JuIy 1407, the Ming emperor had incorporated Dai Viet into the Chinese empire under the title of Giao Chi Province, set up a central administration, and divided the country into phu and chau, trying to reach down to village level by 1419
The high-ranking officials were all Chinese; only subaltern posts were given to “natives”. A general census revealed that there were 3,129,500 inhabitants and 2,087,500 man (barbarians) from mountain-dwelling tribes, i.e. a total of more than 5.2 million. But many doubtless evaded the census. “Order” was maintained throughout the country by large military garrisons, joined by a tight network of relays. All opposition was harshly suppressed.
There was a very heavy system of taxation, which included land tax on rice fields and mulberry fields, and a poll-tax. The occupiers held a monopoly over the salt trade. All able-bodied people, aged 16 to 60, were subject to military service and multiple corvee: road-building, mining, pearl-oyster fishing, hunting, etc. In 1419, family records were made obligatory for control over the population.
Thousands of skilled craftsmen and intellectuals were taken to China, among them Nguyen An, who was to become the architect of the Imperial City in Beijing. The Ming also confiscated personal property, animals (elephants, buffaloes and horses) and other valuables.
The people were forced to adopt the Chinese style of dress and Chinese ways and customs. Ming troops sought to destroy all traces of the nation’s culture, they burned oconfiscated books that were specifically Vietnamese. This was a true cultural disaster; almost all literary works from before the 15th century were destroyed.
Lam Son Insurrection and the war of independence
Le Loi, a land-owner from Lam Son in Thanh Hoa Province was born in 1385. Before launching the insurrection against the Ming, he gathered about 1000 followers around him. On February 7, 1418 in Lam Son, he proclaimed himself king under the name Binh Dinh Vuong, and began gathering under his banner anyone who oppose Ming domination. Nguyen Trai, a famous scholar, became his closest adviser on strategy and politics. Working together, the two men brought the insurrection to victory after long years of struggle.
At first Le Loi launched guerrilla operations in mountainous area of Thanh Hoa. Although he inflicted losses to the Ming, he often found himself in a critical, even desperate situation. However, his forces held out thanks to the courage of the men, the resolve of the leaders, and the dedication of the officers. Other popular uprisings in various provinces helped loosen Ming pressure on Le Loi. In 1420, his troops were able to camp on the banks of the Ma River and threaten the capital of Thanh Hoa Province. A Ming counter-attack, however, drove them back to the mountains in 1423. But the Ming troops were also worn out, and their command agreed to a truce proposed by Le Loi, who resolutely resisted all attempts to buy him off with promises of riches and honours. In 1424, the Ming again attacked, but the insurgents had time to strengthen their position.
On the advice of Nguyen Chich, Le Loi took his troops to Nghe An and turned it into a resistance base. The insurgents were enthusiastically welcomed by the local people. Fortified enemy positions fell one after another, and soon the whole province was in Le Loi’s hands. Next came Thanh Hoa, then provinces south of Nghe An. By the end of 1425, the whole southern part of the country had been liberated, with the exception of the Nghe An and Tay Do (Thanh Hoa) citadels. A vast rear base had thus been created for the war of national liberation. In 1426, Le Loi was in a position to launch a counter-offensive.
The Ming sent 50,000 reinforcements from China under the command of Vuong Thong. Even before they arrived, Le Loi had started his offensive to seize back the Red River Delta. In September 1426, he dispatched three armies northward; one was to interceept Ming reinforcements coming from Yunnan, the second comming through Lang Son, and the last was to march on the capital. Everywhere the people rallied to his banner with enthusiasm, while panic-stricken Ming troops withdrew into their citadels and tried to hold out until the reinforcements arrived.
In November, Vuong Thong’s troops joined the Ming troops who had shut themselves up behind the walls of the capital, bringing their strength to 100,000. They thought they were now in a position to counter-attack, but instead they suffered a crushing defeat at Tot Dong (west of the capital) and again had to withdraw into the citadel. The Vietnamese troops had gained control of the area. Le Loi left Thanh Hoa and concentrated his forces round the capital. Vuong Thong proposed a truce. In a letter to the Ming general, Nguyen Trai said that the Vietnamese command would agree to a truce if Vuong Thong were to withdraw his troops from the country, thus “sparing our people the ravages of war and the Chinese troops the sufferings of battle”.
But for Vuong Thong the truce was just a strategy to gain time and obtain more reinforcements. While maintaining the siege and eliminating isolated outposts, the Vietnamese Command, on Nguyen Trai’s recommendation, conducted a campaign of political persuasion directed at the Ming troops, driving home to them the inevitability of defeat, the strength of the Vietnamese national movement and the vulnerability of the Ming Empire. This seriously demoralized them.
In October 1427, Ming reinforcements came in two columns: one was 100,000 strong and led by Lieu Thang through the Lang Son pass; the other, 50,000 strong, was led by Moc Thanh via the Red River valley. The Vietnamese command decided to destroy the more important army. Lieu Thang’s troops, overconfident about their strength, were ambushed and routed at the Chi Lang Defile. The commander was killed and several generals captured together with 30,000 men. The other Ming column was filled with panic on hearing of this disaster and fled in disorder pursued by Le Loi’s troops.
After the destruction of these reinforcement, Vuong Thong who was besieged in the capital, was forced to sue for peace. His request was granted by Le Loi, who gave the Ming troops the necessary food supplies and means of transport to get home. It was December 29, 1427.
The war of independence led by Le Loi and Nguyen Trai had lasted ten years. Starting with few resources, the movement had expanded, gradually establishing powerful bases and forces, and eventually destroying huge enemy armies. The command had combined guerrilla warfare with mobile warfare and attacks on fortified position, political struggle with military action, and had shown kindness toward the enemy and avoided pointless massacres. Le Loi, from the land-owning class rather than the landed aristocracy, and Nguyen Trai, a Confucian scholar with an encyclopaedic knowledge, had succeeded in bringing about national unity and inspiring patriotism. As well, they had shown resolve and wisdom at critical and decisive moments. The war was both national and popular in nature and conducted with appropriate strategy and tactics. Never again would the Ming try to reconquer Dai Viet. The following period of peace between China and Dai Viet was to last for over three centuries.