Lê Lợi (Vietnamese: [le lə̂ːjˀ]; c. 1384 – 1433), posthumously known by his temple name Lê Thái Tổ, was emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Later Lê dynasty. Lê Lợi is among the most famous figures of Vietnamese history and one of its greatest heroes.
Lê Lợi was the youngest of three sons. His father was an aristocratic nobleman in Lam Sơn (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 Le Hoi sometime in the 1330s. His exact date of birth is not certain, but 1384 is generally agreed upon by historians. Lam Son was on the frontier of Vietnam, and 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 petitioned for intervention from the Yongle Emperor of the Chinese Ming Empire 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 government chose to re-establish sovereignty over Vietnam, as was the case in the days of the Tang dynasty, some 500 years prior.
The Ming government enjoyed some support from the Vietnamese, at least in the capital of Thăng Long, but their efforts to assert control in the surrounding countryside were met with stiff resistance. The Vietnamese claim that the Ming military 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 China's brutal government when he personally witnessed the destruction of a Vietnamese village by Ming forces.
Lê Lợi began his campaign against the Ming Empire on the day after Tết (New Year) February 1418. He was supported by several prominent families from his native Thanh Hóa, most famously were the Trịnh and the Nguyễn families. Initially, Lê Lợi campaigned on the basis of restoring the Trần to power. A relative of the Trần 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).
|Vietnamese alphabet||Lê Thái Tổ|
|Lê dynasty monarchs|
The revolt enjoyed patchy initial success. While Lê Lợi was able to operate in Thanh Hóa, 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 guerrilla war against the large and well organized Ming army.
One famous story from this time is about the heroism of one of Lê Lợi's commanders, Lê Lai. One time during the revolt, Lê Lợi's forces had been surrounded by Ming forces on the top of a mountain. Lê 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 charge down to attack the enemy. During the battle, Lê Lợi was able to escape.
Besides fighting Ming forces, Lê Lợi and his army also had to fight against ethnic minorities' forces whom the Ming government bribed known collectively as Ai Lao (Laos) . Although there were many difficulties, Lê Lợi's army was able to suppress Ai Lao multiple times. However, because his force was not strong enough at the time, he had to lurk in the forests or mountains of Thanh Hoa province. Often due to lack of food supplies, Lê Lợi had to order the killing of army horses and elephants for use as food. In one particularly dangerous situation in 1422, Lê Lợi made peace with the Ming army. But in 1423 when his forces were built up better, Lê Lợi broke the peace agreement when the Ming army captured and killed his envoy.
By 1427, the revolt had spread throughout Vietnam and the original Ming army of occupation had been ground down and destroyed. The new Ming ruler, the Xuande Emperor, 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) being sent into Vietnam.
The final campaign did not start well for the Ming forces. Lê Lợi's forces met the Ming army in battle but quickly staged a mock retreat. The Ming 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 Ming army was lured into Hanoi where it was surrounded and destroyed in a series of battles. A Vietnamese historian, Trần Trọng Kim, told that the Ming army lost over 90,000 men (60,000 killed in battle and 30,000 captured).
By Nguyen Chich tactic, 1424 Lê Lợi decided to march his army to Nghe An plain. On the way, Lam Son army captured Da Cang fortress, beaten back Cam Banh forces, a commander who worked for the Ming. Lam Son forces attacked Tra Long garrison. Ming general Tran Tri led reinforcement from Nghe An to Tra Long to rescue Cam Banh but was beaten back by Lam Son forces. Besieged by Lê Lợi, with Tran Tri unable to rescue, Cam Banh eventually surrendered.
Lê Lợi sent Dinh Liet with a detachment to attack Nghe An, and the same time he took the main part of the army. Tran Tri was repeatedly defeated and had to retreat inside the Nghe An castle.
Ly An, Phuong Trinh from Dong Quan came to Nghe An to rescue Tran Tri, Tran Tri also moved out his forces from the castle to join force with them. However the Ming forces were defeated, Tran Tri had to retreat to Dong Quan, An and Chinh withdraw in Nghe An castle.
In May 1425, Lê Lợi commanded Dinh Le to attack Dien Chau. Ming army lost and retreated to Dong Do (Thanh Hoa). Then Lê Lợi also sent Le Sat, Le Nhan Chu. Le Trien supported Dinh Le for attack Tay Do, Ming army must retreat inside the castle.
Lê Lợi on one hand surrounded Nghe An and Tay Do, and on the other hand sent Tran Nguyen Han, Doan No, Le Da Bo to attack Tan Binh, Thuan Hoa. Ming general Nham Thang was defeated. Then Lê Lợi sent Le Ngan, Le Van An to support Tran Nguyen Han. Ming army had to retreat.
As a result of these victories, from the end of 1425, Lê Lợi was in control all land from Thanh Hoa to the south, and besieged all the Ming's forces in the region.
On 1426 August, Lê Lợi divided his grand army into 3 parts. Pham Van Xao, Do Bi, Trinh Kha, and the expert swordsman Le Trien went North west, while the feared Luu Nhan Chu, and wise Bui Bi headed North East. The cavalry commander Dinh Le, and trusted lieutenant Nguyen Xi moved on Dong Quan. From the wilderness, Le Trien approached Dong Quan, when he ambushed Tran Tri and defeated Tri.
Meanwhile, a Ming army was incoming from Van Nam (the Chinese province). Trien divided forces and sent Pham Van Xao, and Trinh Kha on a route to intercept, and combined Doanh Le, and Nguyen Xi, into a siege army to attack Dong Quan. Pham Van Xao defeated the Van Nam reinforcements. Van Nam forces fled and entrenched at the Xuong Giang rampart. Tran Tri's supply lines were threatened, and he sought Ly An reinforcements at Nghe An. Ly An, and Phuong Chinh commanded Thai Thuc to the keep Nghe An rampart, and sent forces to rescue Dong Quan. Lê Lợi commanded Le Van An's elite troops to surrounded the rampart, while he himself moved the main forces to the north.
The Ming King sent Vuong Thong, and Ma Anh to the rescue. They combined all available Dong Quan forces and became 100.000 strong, then began a drive to Phuong Chinh. Le Trien and the infamous thief Do Bi defeated Ma Ky at Tu Liem, and attacked Chinh forces headlong. Chinh and Ky fled and combined with the Vuong Thong forces at Co So. Le Trien attacked Vuong Thong, but Thong was already prepared. Thien lost, retreated back to Cao Bo and sought help from Nguyen Xi. Dinh Le, Nguyen Xi took their forces to Tot Dong Chut Dong to prepare an ambush. They know Vuong Thong would divide forces into two parts and raid Le Trien, so they enticed Vuong Thong to place an ambush force. Vuong Thong's army lost heavily, with Tran Hiep, Ly Luong and 50,000 soldiers killed, and 10,000 captured. Thong fled and entrenched at Dong Quan. Lê Lợi got the victorious news and then sent Tran Nguyen Han, and Bui Bi to divide forces, and drive two ways towards Dong Quan.
Vuong Thong was lost. Lê Lợi wanted Ming forces to withdraw fast. Meanwhile, court scholars found the reason the Ming government wanted to help the Tran enemies defeat Ho, and sent to Lê Lợi a proclamation made which Tran descendants to become Emperor.
Vuong Thong agreed to the mutual agreement in outward appearance, but knew Lê Lợi held a plan up his sleeve. After Lê Lợi showed his hand, Vuong Thong made his move and broke the agreement.
After a break in mutual agreement, Lê Lợi sent some generals to attack and occupy key forts such as: Dieu Dieu, Tam Giang, Xuong Giang. They were occupied soon after.
At the beginning of 1427, he moved his troop to Nhi river, and attacked Dong Quan. Lê Lợi created strict troop rule to assure the people that his troops would not be a threat to them.
Ming general Thai Thuc surrendered and handed over Nghe An. Lê Lợi demand foreign minister Nguyễn Trãi write a letter, insisting others generals to surrender.
When Lam Son's garrison force at Dong Quan appeared weak, Ming cavalry attacked suddenly. Le Trien died at Tu Liem. Dinh Le. Nguyen Xi was captured at Thanh Tri. After that Dinh Le was killed, Nguyen Xi fled.
At the end of 1427, the Ming Emperor sent reinforcements to rescue Vuong Thong. Lieu Thang took 100,000 soldiers from Guangxi; Moc Thanh with 50,000 ones from Yun Nan. They were generals who participated in the battle with Ho and Tran dynasty. According to some historians, 150,000 soldiers were magnified in number; in fact, the number was 120,000 and the main forces were belonged to Lieu Thang.
Heard this information, Lê Lợi and the generals wanted to attack and occupy Dong Quan immediately. However they listened to Nguyễn Trãi's advice, attacking rampart was a bad solution because the Ming forces in the rampart were so crowded and food was full. So Lê Lợi and generals decided to attack reinforcements first to discourage Ming forces at Dong Quan. At first, Lê Lợi commanded to move the residents at Lạng Giang, Bắc Giang, Quy Hoa, Tuyên Quang to segregate Ming troops. He knew Lieu Thang kept the main forces, so he sent Le Sat, Le Nhan Chu, Le Van Linh, Dinh Liet to wait at Chi Lang, and the same time commanded Le Van An, Le Ly to take alternative forces to support. With Moc Thanh ‘s forces, he knew Thanh was an experienced general and will be waiting for Lieu Thang's results before taking actions, so Lê Lợi commanded Pham Van Xao and Trinh Kha entrenched all time.
The border general, Tran Luu, faked losing and ran away from Nam Quan gate to Luu gate and then moved to Chi Lang. On 18 September at lunar calendar, Thang followed to Chi Lang after. Thinking Tran Luu have lost continuous, Thang was too optimistic and just took 100 cavalries for come after. On 20 September, Thang was killed by Tran Luu and Le Sat ‘s forces and they shed all the remaining troop. All Lê Lợi's generals got the opportunities and attacked Minh troops, killed 10,000 soldiers, cut Luong Minh, Ly Khanh committed suicide. Some remain Ming generals such as Hoang Thuc, Thoi Tu tried to retreat at Xuong Giang but they came there and knew the rampart was occupied. They forced to gather troops in empty field. Lê Lợi sent Tran Nguyen Hang to block Ming's food transporting way, sent Pham Van, Nguyen Xi supported Le Sat and get close to attack, killed 50,000 Ming soldiers at Xuong Giang. Hoang Thuc with 30.000 Ming soldiers were arrested, Thoi Tu did not surrender and was killed.
Moc Thanh heard Lieu Thang was killed so he retreated and ran away. Pham Van Xao, Trinh Kha followed, killed 10,000 soldiers, arrested 1,000 ones and horses.
In 1427, after 10 years of war, Vietnam regained its independence and the Ming Empire officially acknowledged Vietnam as an independent state. Lê Lợi took the throne and was declared Emperor of Đại Việt (大越).
According to a Ming report, Le Bi (黎秘), the chief eunuch of Lê Lợi and 10,000 Vietnamese were killed after Ming forces crushed and defeated their invasion in 1427 of a Chinese town.
Lê Lợi's proclamation of independence reflected the Sino-Vietnamese tensions as well as Vietnamese pride and patriotism:
Our Great Viet is a country where prosperity
abounds. Where civilization reigns supreme.
Its mountains, its rivers, its frontiers are its own;
Its customs are distinct, in North and South.
Trieu, Dinh, Ly and Tran
Created our Nation,
Whilst Han T'ang, Sung and Yuan
Ruled over Theirs.
Over the Centuries,
We have been sometimes strong, and sometimes weak,
But never yet have we been lacking in heroes.
Of that let our history be the proof."
Lê Lợi formally established the Lê dynasty as the Xuande Emperor of the Ming Empire officially recognized Lê Lợi as the new ruler of Vietnam. In return, Lê Lợi sent diplomatic messages to the Ming imperial court, promising Vietnam's loyalty as a vassal state of China and cooperation. The Ming imperial court 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 the Vietnamese government, clearly based on the Confucian system of government which was developed by the Chinese Tang and Song dynasties. He also elevated his longtime comrades and generals such as Nguyễn Trãi, Tran Nguyen Han, Lê Sát, Pham Van Sao, and Trịnh Khả to high official rank.
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 Empire. 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 deathbed he appointed Lê Sát as the regent for his second son, who would rule after him as Lê Thái Tông.
Internal palace politics quickly decimated the ranks of Lê Lợi's trusted counselors, Trần Nguyên Hãn committed suicide when he was being taken to the capital for investigating his suspected betrayal, Phạm Văn Xảo was executed in 1432 and Lê Sát, who ruled as regent for five years, was executed in 1438. Nguyễn Trãi was killed in 1442 (it was claimed he was involved in or responsible for the death of Lê Thái Tông). Only Trịnh Khả survived to an old age and even he was executed in 1451.
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' (Thuận Thiên) from the Dragon King (Vietnamese: Long Vương), a demi-god to the local people, who decided to lend his sword to Lê Lợi. But there was a catch: the sword did not come straight to him in one piece.
It was split into two parts: a blade and a sword hilt. First, in Thanh Hóa province, there was a fisherman named Lê Thận, who was not related to Lê Lợi in any way. One night, his fishing net caught something heavy. Thinking of how much money he would get for this big fish, he became very excited. However, his excitement soon turned into disappointment when he saw that his catch was a long, thin piece of metal which had somehow become entangled to the net. He threw it back into the water, and recast the net at a different location. When he pulled the net in, the metal piece had found its way back into the net. He picked it up and threw it far away with all its strength. The third time the fishing net came up, the same thing happened, the metal piece was once again caught in the net. Bewildered, he brought his lamp closer and carefully examined the strange object. Only then did he notice that it was the missing blade of a sword. He took the blade home and not knowing what to do with it, put it in the corner of his house. Some years later, Lê Thận joined the rebel army of Lê Lợi, where he quickly rose in ranks. Once, the general visited Lê Thận's home. Lê Thận's house lacked lighting, so everything was dark. But as though it was sensing the presence of Lê Lợi, the blade at the corner of the house suddenly emitted a bright glow. Lê Lợi held up the blade and saw two words manifesting before his very eye: Thuận Thiên (Will of Heaven). With Lê Thận's endorsement, Lê Lợi took the blade with him.
One day, while on the run from the enemy, Lê Lợi saw a strange light emanating from the branches of a banyan tree. He climbed up and there he found a hilt of a sword, encrusted with precious gems. Remembering the blade he found earlier, he took it out and placed it into the hilt. The fit was perfect. Believing that the Heaven had entrusted him with the great cause of freeing the land, Lê Lợi took up arms and rallied people under his banner. For the next few years, the magic sword brought him victory after another. His men no longer had to hide in the forest, but aggressively penetrated many enemy camps, captured them and seized their granaries. The sword helped them push back the enemy, until Vietnam was once again free from Chinese rule. Lê Lợi ascended the throne in 1428, ending his 10-year campaign, and reclaimed independence for the country.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. The golden turtle advanced toward the boat and the king, then with a human voice, it asked him to return the magic sword to his master, Long Vương (Dragon King), who lived under the water. Suddenly it became clear to Lê Lợi that the sword was only lent to him to carry out his duty, but now it must be returned to its rightful owner, lest it corrupt him. Lê Lợi drew the sword out of its scabbard and lobbed it towards the turtle. With great speed, the turtle opened its mouth and snatched the sword from the air with its teeth. It descended back into the water, with the shiny sword in its mouth . Lê Lợi then acknowledged the sword had gone back to the Long Vương (Dragon King)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 lifetime 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 Lê Thái Tổ Street.
K.W.Taylor. A History of the Vietnamese. Cambridge University Press 2013
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.
Media related to Lê Thái Tổ at Wikimedia Commons
|Emperor of Vietnam
Lê Thái Tông