The Old Regime of Vietnam:
Monarchy at the State Level, Republic in the Village

Vo Thu Tinh

Translated by Thomas D. Le

To French Original - A l'original français

In old Vietnam two sorts of authorities existed. At the top, the authority of the king, who nominated his ministers and all the civil and military mandarins to help him govern the country, and below, the authority of the rural population, who elected their own village chiefs to manage local affairs and represent the villages to the district and provincial mandarins. These two jurisdictions complement each other, and oftentimes the king's law must take a back seat to local customs, as codified in the phrase, "The king's law yields to the village customs." These two authorities, two legitimacies thus call for two sets of relationships: those between the sovereign and his ministers and mandarins, and those between the sovereign and the rural population. To each category of subjects correspond its own obligations.

Relations Between the Sovereign and his Ministers and Mandarins

In former times, the monarch applied the Confucian code of "three duties, five virtues" in governing the people. These three duties define obligations between sovereign and subject, father and son, and husband and wife. The five virtues to be practiced are humanity, loyalty, rites, wisdom and trust. Later I do not know what fanatic scholar had laid down this strange injunction, "When the king orders his subject to die, if the latter disobeys, he is branded disloyal."

In his work, Nho Giao (Confucianism) Tran Trong Kim addressed the same problem when he drew a fine distinction between quan, the ruler, and vuong, the reigning monarch. Given that quan quyen (the power of the ruler) is the authority, the power to maintain law and order in the country, our first Confucian scholars used the phrase trung quan, loyal to the ruler, in lieu of trung vuong, loyal to the king, or trung de, loyal to the emperor. Furthermore the Master specified that Trung than tong dao, bat tong quan, i.e., the loyal subject obeys virtue, not the ruler. (1)

Thus, to characterize the relations between king and subjects, as early as the fourteenth century, instead of the phrase trung quan (loyal to the monarch), our great scholars used uu quan, ai dan, that is, concern for the king's (moral and political) behavior, love of the people. The phrase uu quan, ai dan was shortened to uu ai or ai uu.

In the earliest extant literary work written in the demotic language (chu~ nôm), the Quoc Am Thi Tap, Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) was the first to use these expressions:

      Bui mot tâc lòng uu ai cu~,
      Dem nga`y cuon cuon nuoc trieu Dong.
(QA, 50)

(The old concern for the king and love of the people deep in my heart / boil constantly like the waves of the Eastern Sea.)

      Tóc nen bac, bo~i lo`ng uu ai,
      Tât duoc tieu, nhò thuoc ðáng cay.
(QA, 112)

(The hair whitens due to concern for the king and love of the people / as illness must be cured with bitter medicine.)

      Gia son, duong cách muon dam,
      Uu ai, lòng phièn nua dêm.
(QA, 115)

(Native mountain, ten thousand miles separate us / concern for the king and love of the people keep me awake at night.)

On his Bach Van Am thi tap, Nguyen Binh Khiem (1491-1585) himself wrote:

      Ai uu vac vac trang in nuoc,
      Danh loi lang lang gió thoi hoa.
(BV, 1)

(Concern for king and love of people shine brightly as the moon's reflection in water / fame and riches are immaterial as a breeze passing over the flowers.)

      Uu ái, chang quên niêm truoc,
      Thi phi, biêng nói su nay.
(BV, 76)

(Concern for king and love of people, I have not forgotten these old worries / Innuendos and insinuations, I scarcely deign to discuss current events.)

As cited by Tran Trong Kim, Trung than tong dao, bat tong quan, the loyal subject, who obeys virtues, not the ruler, has the duty to dissuade the monarch, if necessary to the point of disobedience, from taking action inimical to good governance and morals. In so doing, he shows true concerns for his monarch's acts, uu quan. Has not Mencius affirmed, "He who dissuaded his monarch from wrongdoing, what fault did he commit? On the contrary, he who prevented his monarch from committing malfeasance truly loves his prince." ? (2) Our history abounds with anecdotes of loyal subjects' dissuasion of the king, and even disobedience.

For the "sovereign-subject" relations to be perfect, there ought to a two-way consideration, behavior of subject to sovereign, and behavior of sovereign to subject. If the subject has duties toward his king, the latter also has duties toward his subject. If the monarch does not fulfills his duties of insuring a good life for his subjects, the latter cannot be prevented from discrediting him.

      Làm trên mà cha?ng chính ngôi,
      Khiên cho ke? duoi chúng tôi hô~n hào.

(Superiors, by not behaving consistently with your positions / you invite scorn from us your subordinates.)

Confucius himself said, "The king must act in accordance with his mission while the subject must act in accordance with his duties. The king follows the rituals of courtesy vis-à-vis his subjects, and the latter serve him with loyalty." (3) Mencius too proclaimed, "The order of precedence in a country should be, first, the people, second the kingdom, and third the king." (4). In Mencius time (372-289 B.C.), the vassal kings vied with one another for the services of talented men to make their kingdoms richer and more powerful than the rest. As a consequence, the bách gia chu tu? (the One Hundred Schools) held free discussions among themselves, and sometimes even with the vassal kings. But in the final analysis this doctrine of "people's rights" during this "golden age" was observed by none of the kings. In later times, in the disastrous aftermath of book-burning under Emperor Tan Thuy Hoang, and the unification of Confucianist schools under the Han and Tong dynasties, Chinese thought was confined in the narrow framework of Confucianism. From this "golden age" (fourth century B,C,) to the proclamation by Ton Dat Tien of the Tam Dân Chu? Nghi~a, the "Three Doctrines," consisting of dân sinh (life of the people), dân quyên (civil rights), and dân chu? (democracy or sovereignty of the people) in 1912, there were no known instances of the Chinese people electing their village chiefs.

Relations Between the Sovereign and the Rural Population

Under the old regime in Vietnam, the king appointed all the ministers and mandarins starting from the district level in the countryside. He allowed the villagers to elect a village chief in charge of local administration and the village's representation at the district echelon and higher. The villagers could also elect the assistants to the village chief, and elders with great experience to the Council of Notables to supervise the village chiefs.

According to the Ðai Viet Toan Thu, King Le Huyen Tong (1663-1671) promulgated in 1669 eighteen instructions for good governance and for the eradication of bad customs in the rural areas. The ninth one, which deals with the selection of young men issued from honorable families to be candidates for village chiefs in order to teach good manners to the villagers, is expanded below in the Le trieu chieu lenh thien chinh.

The chief of the village has the mission to protect social mores. We must issue instructions to district chiefs throughout the country for transmission to villagers with the purpose of identifying well-born young men, young scholars, descendants of mandarins, young men exempt from communal duties in deference of their family's standing, students, and men with education, integrity, fair-mindedness, and good work ethics, and electing village chiefs from this pool. They represent their village or commune to examine the people's petitions, and to settle litigations among villagers. Twice a year, in the spring and autumn, as directed by the government, they hold village-wide classes on good manners and on the spirit of mutual concession in everyday life.(...) Every three years the district chief may hold a contest among village chiefs and their assistants for the most virtuous and ethical ones with an outstanding record of educating the villagers in good mores, and reconciling litigants. He then makes recommendations to the King through the intermediary of a mandarin called Thua Ty. On the King's order a fact-finding investigation ensues. The dossier then passes on to the Minister of Internal Affairs, which then promotes the winning village chiefs to district chiefs, and the assistant village chiefs to village chiefs. This exercise serves as an incentive for the whole country.

If the district chief needs something done, he must address it to the assistant village chief, not to the village chief himself in order to allow the latter to preserve his dignity. If the higher authority disregards this instruction, the village chief may bring suit, and request punitive court action for the violation.

On the other hand, if the village chief gives in to greed and acts dishonestly, the villagers may complain to the district chief. If proven guilty, and if the infraction is not serious, the convicted official is punished according to the law. For more serious crimes, he will be sent to the frontier as a soldier. A new election is called to fill the vacancy. During all phases of operations, if the district chief issues wrongful decisions, he is liable for demotion and dismissal. (5)

In the old days, the rural population could also assemble to vote for a huong uôc or lê làng, a communal compact, which regulates local affairs concerning the everyday life of the villagers. These huong uôc must be ratified by higher authorities to insure no provisions contravene the King's law. This communal convention is more strictly observed by villagers than even the King's edicts. Does not a proverb say, "Phep vua thua le lang, the King's law yields to the village's customs." ?

The huong uôc of Mo Trach Village, (Thuong Hong, Hai Duong), for example, stipulates that "villagers must settle their differences before the village chief first, and not refer them to the district chief or the prefect, under penalty of one buffalo and six jars of wine." Or, "The quan van, civil mandarins, who bring to the village a retinue of children or younger brothers from outside must admonish them preemptively. The latter are forbidden, under the pretext of hunting, to carry arms, and to roam throughout the village, thus allowing potential criminals to penetrate the village confines. The violator is assessed a penalty consisting of a pig worth a "ligature," one jar of wine, betel leaves and areca nuts." (6)

[Translator's Note: The French word "ligature" (or Vietnamese "quan") refers to a string of 60 "sapèques," or zinc coins with a square hole in the middle. The value of these ancient monetary units varied over time.]

Are we dealing here with the key theme of Vietnamese studies, which are dominated by a functional dichotomy in government or a search for double legitimacy?

To quote one observer,

"One sees here the reassertion of a "pre-Chinese" identity, sharing power with "imported" cultural forms from Chinese kingship, confucianism and Chinese classics. Thus, just as the royalties of Hanoi and of Hue need an "indigenous" legitimacy through the "le lang" (village customs) and the "election of village chiefs" to function effectively, they also need to establish a cultural balance with the "peripheral" influx, which would gradually refashion and diversify local communities to create current new ones, by utilizing, with strict controls and limitations, the new elements brought in by such and such foreign influence." (7)

But controls and limitations in what sense?

A European observer remarked that, "From Vietnam's inception, the main theme of its historical issues seems to reside in the spirit of resistance that paradoxically unites astonishing capacities to assimilate and an unyielding national will in the face of defeats, dismemberments, and conquests." (8)

Paris, Autumn 2001


(1)    Nho Giao (Confucianism), Tran Trong Kim, Tome 2, Ed. Tan Viet, Saigon, 1987, pages 412-413

(2)   Manh Tu, Luong Hue Vuong, , ha. t. 4

(3)   Luân Ngu~, Bat Dat, t. 19

(4)   Manh Tu, Tân Tâm Ha, t. 14

(5)   Lê Triêu Chiêu Lênh Thiên Chính, tome I (1619-1705), translated from Chinese into Vietnamese by Nguyên Si~ Giác, Presentation by Vu~ Van Mâu, Edit. Binh Minh, Saigon, 1961, pages 140-141

(6)   Le village traditionel, Etudes vietnamiennes, No. 61, Hanoi, 1980, Les anciennnes conventions du xa~ de Mo Trach, p. 251-296

(7)   D'après J. Népote Le cycle de Si Thanonsay, Péninsule, Presentation, Nos 6-7, Paris, 1983, p.10-12

(8)   Paul Mus, Vietnam, Sociologie d'une guerre

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