Gia Long

Gia Long
Gia Long
Emperor of Vietnam
Emperor Gia Long
Emperor of Nguyễn Dynasty
Reign 1802–1820
Predecessor Tây Sơn Dynasty
Successor Minh Mạng
Spouse Tống Thị Lan
Trần Thị Đang
Lê Thị Ngọc Bình
Full name
Nguyễn Phúc Chủng
Nguyễn Phúc Noãn
Nguyễn Phúc Ánh
Era name and dates
Gia Long: 1801–1820
Posthumous name
Thế Tổ Cao Hoàng đế
Temple name
Thế Tổ
House Nguyễn Dynasty
Father Nguyễn Phúc Luân
Mother Nguyễn Thị Hoàn
Born 8 February 1762
Died 3 February 1820(1820-02-03) (aged 57)
Burial Thien Tho Tomb

Emperor Gia Long (8 February 1762 – 3 February 1820), born Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (Hán tự: , often referred to simply as Nguyễn Ánh[1].), was an emperor of Vietnam. Unifying what is now modern Vietnam in 1802, he founded the Nguyễn Dynasty, the last of the Vietnamese dynasties.

A nephew of the last Nguyen Lord who ruled over southern Vietnam, Nguyen Anh was forced into hiding in 1777 as a fifteen year old when his family was slain in the Tay Son revolt. After several changes of fortune in which his loyalists regained and again lost Saigon, he befriended the French Catholic priest Pigneau de Behaine. Pigneau championed his cause to the French government—and managed to recruit volunteers when this fell through—to help Nguyen Anh regain the throne. From 1789, Nguyen Anh was once again in the ascendancy and began his northward march to defeat the Tay Son, eventually moving by 1802 to the border with China, which had previously been under the control of the Trinh Lords. When this was over, he had reunited Vietnam after centuries of internecine feudal warfare with a greater land mass than ever before, stretching from China down to the Gulf of Siam.

Gia Long's rule was noted for its Confucian orthodoxy. He repealed Tay Son reforms and reinstated the classical Confucian education and civil service system. He moved the capital from Hanoi south to Huế as the country's populace had also shifted south over the preceding centuries, and built up fortresses and a palace in his new capital. Using French expertise, he modernized Vietnam's defensive capabilities. In deference to the assistance of his French friends, he tolerated the activities of Roman Catholic missionaries, something that became increasingly restricted under his successors. Under his rule, Vietnam strengthened its military dominance in Indochina, expelling Siamese forces from Cambodia and turning it into a vassal state.


Early years

Pigneau de Behaine, the French priest who recruited armies for Nguyen Anh during the war against the Tay Son.

Born on 8 February 1762,[2] Nguyen Anh was the son of Nguyen Phuc Luan and Nguyen Thi Hoan. Luan was the designated heir of Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat of southern Vietnam. However, a high-ranking mandarin named Truong Phuc Loan changed Khoat's will of succession on his deathbed, and installed Luan's younger brother Nguyen Phuc Thuan on the throne in 1765. Luan was jailed and died in the same year.[3][4][5]

However, Thuan lost his position as lord of southern Vietnam and was killed during the Tay Son rebellion led by the brothers Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Hue and Nguyen Lu in 1777.[6] Nguyen Anh was the most senior member of the ruling family to have survived the Tay Son victory, which pushed the Nguyen from their heartland in central Vietnam, southwards towards Saigon and into the Mekong Delta region in the far south.[7][8][9] Nguyen Anh fled to Ha Tien on the southern coastal tip of Vietnam, where he met Pigneau de Behaine,[10][11][12] a French priest who became his adviser and played a major part in his rise to power.[12] Together, they escaped to the island of Pulo Panjang in the Gulf of Siam.[7][13] Pigneau hoped that by playing a substantial role in a Nguyen Anh victory, he would be in position to lever important concessions for the Catholic Church in Vietnam, helping its expansion in South East Asia.[14]

In late-1777, the main part of the Tay Son army left Saigon to go north and attack the Trinh Lords, who ruled the other half of Vietnam. Nguyen Anh stealthily returned to the mainland, rejoining his supporters and reclaimed the city.[15] He was crucially aided by the efforts of Do Thanh Nhon, who had organized an army for him,[16] which was supplemented by Cambodian mercenaries and Chinese pirates.[17] The following year, Nhon expelled further Tay Son troops from the surrounding province of Gia Dinh, and inflicted heavy losses on the Tay Son naval fleet. Taking advantage of the more favorable situation, Nguyen Anh sent a diplomatic mission to Siam to propose a treaty of friendship. However, this pact was derailed in 1779 when the Cambodians held an uprising against their pro-Siamese leader Ang Non. Nguyen Anh sent Nhon to help the uprising, which saw Ang Non defeated decisively and executed.[16]

Nhon returned to Saigon with high honor and concentrated his efforts on improving the Nguyen navy. In 1780, in an attempt to strengthen his political status, Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself Nguyễn vương (Nguyễn king or Nguyễn ruler in Vietnamese).[18][19] Then, in 1781, Nguyen Anh sent further forces to prop up the Cambodian regime against Siamese armies who wanted to reassert their control.[8][16] Shortly thereafter, Nguyen Anh had Nhon brutally murdered. The reason remains unclear, but it was postulated that he did so because Nhon's fame and military success was overshadowing him. The Tay Son brothers reportedly broke out in celebration upon hearing of Nhon's execution, as Nhon was the Nguyen officer that they feared the most. Nhon's supporters rebelled, weakening the Nguyen army, and within a few months, the Tay Son had recaptured Saigon mainly on the back of naval barrages.[16][17] Nguyen Anh was forced to flee to Ha Tien, and then onto the island of Phu Quoc. Meanwhile, some of his forces continued to resist in his absence.[20]

In October 1782, the tide shifted again, when forces led by Nguyen Phuc Man, Nguyen Anh's younger brother, and Chau Van Tiep drove the Tay Son out of Saigon.[20][21] Nguyen Anh returned to Saigon, as did Pigneau.[20] The hold was tenuous, and a counterattack by the Tay Son in early 1783 saw a heavy defeat to the Nguyen, with Nguyen Man killed in battle.[8][20] Nguyen Anh again fled to Phu Quoc, but this time his hiding place was discovered.[20] He managed to escape the pursuing Tay Son fleet to Koh-rong island in the Bay of Kompongsom. Again, his hideout was discovered and encircled by the rebel fleet. However, a typhoon hit the area, and he managed to break the naval siege and escape to another island amid the confusion.[17][20] In early-1784, Nguyen Anh went to seek Siamese aid, which was forthcoming, but the extra 20,000 men failed to weaken the Tay Son's hold on power.[17] This forced Nguyen Anh to become a refugee in Siam in 1785.[20][22] To make matters worse, the Tay Son regularly raided the rice growing areas of the south during the harvesting season, depriving the Nguyen of their food supply.[10] Nguyen Anh eventually came to the conclusion that using Siamese military aid would generate a backlash amongst the populace, due to prevailing Vietnamese hostility towards Siam.[11]

Pigneau and French assistance

Portrait of Prince Canh, the eldest son of Gia Long, in France, 1787.

Deflated by his situation, Nguyen Anh asked Pigneau to appeal for French aid, and allowed Pigneau to take his son Nguyen Phuc Canh with him as a sign of good faith.[14][20][23] This came about after Nguyen Anh had considered enlisting English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish assistance.[24] Pigneau advised against Nguyen Anh's original plan to seek Dutch aid from Batavia, fearing that the support of the Protestant Dutch would hinder the advancement of Catholicism.[14] Pigneau left Vietnam in December,[20] arriving in Pondicherry, India in February 1785 with Nguyen Anh's royal seal. Nguyen Anh had authorized him to make concessions to France in return for military assistance.[25] The French administration in Pondicherry, led by acting governor Coutenceau des Algrains, was conservative in outlook and resolutely opposed intervention in southern Vietnam.[25][26] To compound the already complex situation, Pigneau was denounced by Spanish Franciscans in the Vatican, and he sought to transfer his political mandate to Portuguese forces. The Portuguese had earlier offered Nguyen Anh 56 ships to use against the Tay Son.[27]

In July 1786, after more than 12 months of fruitless lobbying in Pondicherry, Governor de Cossigny allowed Pigneau to travel back to France to directly ask the royal court for assistance.[23][26][28] Arriving at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles in February 1787, Pigneau had difficulty in gathering support for a French expedition in support of Nguyen Anh.[26] This was due to the parlous financial state of the country prior to the French Revolution. Pigneau was helped by Pierre Poivre, who had previously been involved in seeking French commercial interests in Vietnam.[26][29] Pigneau told the court that if France invested in Nguyen Anh and acquired a few fortified positions on the Vietnamese coast in return, then they would have the capability to "dominate the seas of China and of the archipelago", and with it, control of Asian commerce.[29] In November 1787, a treaty of alliance was concluded between France and Cochinchina—the European term for southern Vietnam—in Nguyen Anh's name. Pigneau signed the treaty as the "Royal Commissioner of France for Cochinchina".[23][29] France promised four frigates, 1,650 fully equipped French soldiers and 250 Indian sepoys in return for the cession of Pulo Condore and Tourane (Da Nang),[23][26] as well as tree trade to the exclusion of all other countries.[8][23][28] However, the freedom to spread Christianity was not included.[23][29] However, Pigneau found that Governor Thomas Conway of Pondicherry was unwilling to fulfill the agreement;[28][30] Conway had been instructed by Paris to determine when to organize the aid, if at all.[23][30] Pigneau was thus forced to use funds raised in France to enlist French volunteers and mercenaries.[22][26][30][31] He also managed to procure several shipments of arms and munitions from Mauritius and Pondicherry.[10]

Meanwhile, Nguyen Anh had stayed in Siam with a contingent of troops until August 1787. His soldiers served in Siam’s war against Bodawpaya of Burma.[8][32] Having consolidated their hold on southern Vietnam, the Tay Son decided to move north to unify the country. However, the withdrawal of troops from the Gia Dinh garrison weakened them their hold on the south.[27][32] This was compounded by reports that Nguyen Nhac was being attacked near Qui Nhon by his own brother Nguyen Hue,[33] and that more Tay Son troops were being evacuated from Gia Dinh by their commander Dang Van Tran in order to aid Nguyen Nhac. Sensing Tay Son vulnerability in the south, Nguyen Anh assembled his forces at home and abroad in preparation for an immediate offensive.[11] Nguyen Anh secretly left Siam and headed for southern Vietnam, but he failed in his first attempt to recapture Gia Dinh. He eventually succeeded in taking My Tho, made it the main staging point for his operations, and rebuilt his army. After a hard-fought battle, his soldiers captured Saigon on 7 September 1788.[32] Eventually, Pigneau assembled four vessels to sail to Vietnam from Pondicherry, arriving in Saigon on 24 July 1789.[34] The combined forces helped to consolidate Nguyen Anh’s hold on southern Vietnam.[8][32][35] The exact magnitude of foreign aid and the importance of their contribution to Gia Long's success is a point of dispute. Earlier scholars asserted that up to 400 Frenchmen enlisted,[9][22][26][31] but more recent work has claimed that less than 100 soldiers were present, along with approximately a dozen officers.[36][37]

Consolidation of southern Vietnam

The French officers enlisted by Pigneau helped to train Nguyen Anh's armed forces and introduced Western technological expertise to the war effort. The navy was trained by Jean Marie Dayot,[32] who supervised the construction of bronze-plated naval vessels.[36] Olivier de Puymanel was responsible for training the army and the construction of fortifications.[31][32][38] He taught the troops various methods of manufacturing and using European-style artillery and introduced European infantry formations and tactics.[36] Pigneau and other missionaries acted as business agents for Nguyen Anh, purchasing munitions and other military supplies.[28] Pigneau also served as an advisor and de facto foreign minister until his death in 1799.[38][39] Upon Pigneau's death,[31] Gia Long's funeral oration described the Frenchman as "the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina".[40] Pigneau was buried in the presence of the crown prince, all mandarins of the court, the royal bodyguard of 12,000 men and 40,000 mourners.[40][41]


Layout of the original citadel.

Following the recapture of Saigon, Nguyen Anh consolidated his power base and prepared the destruction of the Tay Son. His enemies had regularly raided the south and confiscated the annual rice harvests, so Nguyen Anh was keen to strengthen his defense. One of Nguyen Anh's first actions was to ask the French officers to design and supervise the construction of a modern European-style citadel in Saigon. The citadel was designed by Theodore Lebrun and de Puymanel, with 30,000 people mobilized for its construction in 1790.[42] The townfolk and their mandarins were punitively taxed for the work, the laborers were worked so hard that they revolted. When finished, the stone citadel had a perimeter measuring 4,176 meters in a Vauban model.[42] The fortress was bordered on three sides by pre-existing waterways, bolstering its natural defensive capability.[43] Following the construction of the citadel, the Tay Son never again attempted to sail down the Saigon River and try to recapture the city—its presence having endowed Nguyen Anh with a substantial psychological advantage over his opponents.[44] Nguyen Anh took a keen personal interest in fortifications, ordering his French advisors to travel home and bring back books with the latest scientific and technical studies on the subject.[45]

Agrarian reform and economic growth

With the southern region secured, Nguyen Anh turned his attention to agrarian reforms.[46] Due to Tay Son naval raids on the rice crop via inland waterways, the area suffered chronic rice shortages.[47] Although the land was extremely fertile, the region was agriculturally underexploited, having been occupied by Vietnamese settlers only relatively recently. Furthermore, agricultural activities had also been significantly curtailed during the extended warfare with the Tay Son. Nguyen Anh's agricultural reforms were based around extending to the south a traditional form of agrarian expansion, the đồn điền, which roughly translates as "military settlement" or "military holding", the emphasis being on the military origin of this form of colonization. These were first used during the 15th century reign of Le Thanh Tong in the southward expansion of Vietnam. The central government supplied military units with agricultural tools and grain for nourishment and planting. The soldiers were then assigned land to defend, clear and cultivate, and had to pay some of their harvest as tax. In the past, a military presence was required because the land was being seized from the conquered indigenous population. Under Nguyen Anh's rule, pacification was not usually needed but the basic model remained intact. Settlers were granted fallow land, given agricultural equipment, work animals and grain. After several years, they were required to pay grain tax. The program greatly reduced the amount of idle, uncultivated land. Large surpluses of grain, taxable by the state, resulted.[46]

By 1800, the increased agricultural productivity had allowed Nguyen Anh to support a sizeable army of more than 30,000 soldiers and a navy of more than 1,200 vessels. The surplus from the state granary was sold to European and Asian traders to facilitate the importation of raw materials for military purposes, in particular iron, bronze, and sulfur. The government also purchased castor sugar from local farmers and traded it for weapons from European manufacturers.[14] The food surplus allowed Nguyen Anh to engage in welfare initiatives that improved morale and loyalty among his subjects, thereby increasing his support base. The surplus grain was deposited in granaries built along the northward route out of Saigon, following the advance of the Nguyen army into Tay Son territory. This allowed his troops to be fed from southern supplies, rather than eating from the areas that he was attempting to conquer or win over. Newly acquired regions were given tax exemptions, and surrendered Tay Son mandarins were appointed to equivalent positions with the same salaries in the Nguyen administration.[14]

Naval buildup

The French Navy officer Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau served Emperor Gia Long.

Nguyen Anh used his new base to improve his inferior navy, which was much smaller than the Tay Son fleet and hitherto unable to prevent their rice raids.[47] Nguyen Anh had first attempted to acquire modern naval vessels in 1781, when on the advice of Pigneau, he had chartered Portuguese vessels of European design, complete with crew and artillery. This initial experience proved to be disastrous. For reasons that remain unclear, two of the vessels fled in the midst of battle against the Tay Son, while angry Vietnamese soldiers killed the third crew.[47] In 1789, Pigneau returned to Vietnam from Pondicherry with two vessels, which stayed in the Nguyen service long-term. Over time, Vietnamese sailors replaced the original French and Indian crew under the command of French officers. These vessels became the foundation for an expanded military and merchant Nguyen naval force, with Nguyen Anh chartering and purchasing more European vessels to reinforce Vietnamese-built ships. However, traditional Vietnamese-style galleys and small sailing ships remained the majority of the fleet. By 1794, two European vessels were operating together with 200 Vietnamese boats against the Tay Son near Qui Nhon. In 1799, a British trader by the name of Berry reported that the Nguyen fleet had departed Saigon along the Saigon River with 100 galleys, 40 junks, 200 smaller boats and 800 carriers, accompanied by three European sloops.[47] In 1801, one naval division was reported to have included nine European vessels armed with 60 guns, five vessels with 50 guns, 40 with 16 guns, 100 junks, 119 galleys and 365 smaller boats.[47]

Most of the European-style vessels were built in the shipyard that Nguyen Anh had commissioned in Saigon. He took a deep personal interest in the naval program, directly supervising the work and spending several hours a day dockside. One witness noted "One principal tendency of his ambition is to naval science, as a proof of this he has been heard to say he would build ships of the line on the European plan."[48] By 1792, fifteen frigates were under construction, with a design that mixed Chinese and European specifications, equipped with 14 guns. The Vietnamese learned European naval architecture by dismantling an old European vessel into its components, so that Vietnamese shipbuilders could understand the separate facets of European shipbuilding, before reassembling it. They then applied their newfound knowledge to create replicas of the boats. Nguyen Anh studied naval carpentry techniques and was said to be adept at it, and learned navigational theory from the French books that Pigneau translated, particularly Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert's Encyclopédie. The Saigon shipyard was widely praised by European travelers.[48]

Despite his extensive reliance on French officers on matters of military technology, Nguyen Anh limited his inner military circle to Vietnamese. The Frenchmen decried his refusal to take their tactical advice. Chaigneau reported that the Europeans continually urged Nguyen Anh to take the initiative and launch bold attacks against Tay Son installations. Nguyen Anh refused, preferring to proceed slowly, consolidating his gains in one area and strengthening his economic and military base, before attacking another. Over time, Nguyen Anh gradually reduced the military role of his French allies on the battlefield.[36] In the naval battle at Thi Nai in 1792, Dayot led the Nguyen naval attack, but by 1801, a seaborne offensive in the same area was led by the Nguyen Van Truong, Vo Duy Nguy and Le Van Duyet, with Chaigneau, Vannier, and de Forsans in supporting positions. The infantry attack on Qui Nhon in 1793 was conducted, according to Nguyen historiography, in cooperation with "Western soldiers".[36] The same source recorded that by 1801, Nguyen operations in the same area were directed by Vietnamese generals, whereas Chaigneau and Vannier were responsible for organizing supply lines.[36]

Unification of Vietnam

Vietnamese "Tirailleur" soldiers of the Nguyen Dynasty.

In 1792, the youngest and the most notable of the Tay Son brothers, Quang Trung, who had gained recognition as Emperor of Vietnam by driving the Le Dynasty and China out of northern Vietnam, died suddenly. Nguyen Anh took advantage of the situation and attacked northwards.[39] By now, the majority of the original French soldiers, whose number peaked at less than 80 by some estimates, had departed.[36][37] The majority of the fighting occurred in and around the coastal towns of Nha Trang in central Vietnam and Qui Nhon further to the south in Binh Dinh Province, the birthplace and stronghold of the Tay Son.[10][11] Nguyen Anh began by deploying his expanded and modernised naval fleet in raids against coastal Tay Son territory. His fleet left Saigon and sailed northward on an annual basis during June and July, carried by southwesterly winds. The naval offensives were reinforced by infantry campaigns. His fleet would then return south when the monsoon ended, on the back of northeasterly winds.[44] The large European wind-powered vessels gave the Nguyen navy a commanding artillery advantage, as they has a superior range to the Tay Son cannons on the coast. Combined with traditional galleys and a crew that was highly regarded for its discipline, skill and bravery,[49] the European-style vessels in the Nguyen fleet inflicted hundreds of losses against the Tay Son in 1792 and 1793.[49]

In 1794, after a successful campaign in the Nha Trang region, Nguyen Anh ordered de Puymanel to build a citadel at Duyen Khanh, near the city, instead of retreating south with the seasonal northeasterly breeze. A Nguyen garrison was established there under the command of Nguyen Anh's eldest son and heir, Nguyen Phuc Canh, assisted by Pigneau and de Puymanel. The Tay Son laid siege to Duyen Khanh in May 1794, but Nguyen forces were able to keep them out. Shortly after the siege ended, reinforcements arrived from Saigon and offensive operations against the Tay Son duly resumed. The campaign was the first time that the Nguyen were able to operate in Tay Son heartland during an unfavorable season. The defensive success of the citadel was a powerful psychological victory for the Nguyen, demonstrating their ability to penetrate Tay Son territory at all times of year. The Nguyen then proceeded to slowly erode the Tay Son heartland.[44]

Heavy fighting occurred at the fortress of Qui Nhon, until it was captured in 1799 by Nguyen Canh's forces.[31][32] However, the city was quickly lost and was not regained until 1801.[38][39] The superior firepower of the improved navy played the decisive role in the ultimate recapture of the city, supporting a large overland attack.[49] After the capture of their stronghold at Qui Nhon, the Tay Son, led by Quang Trung's son Quang Toan, came quickly. In June, the central city of Hue—the former capital of the Nguyen—fell and Nguyen Anh crowned himself emperor, under the reign name Gia Long, which was derived from Gia Định (Saigon) and Thăng Long (Hanoi) to symbolize the unification of north and south Vietnam.[31][39][50] He then quickly overran the north, with Hanoi captured on 22 July 1802.[51] After a quarter-century of continuous fighting, Gia Long had unified what is now modern Vietnam,[39] and elevated his family to a position never previously occupied by Vietnamese royalty.[39] Vietnam had never before occupied a larger landmass. Gia Long became the first Vietnamese ruler to reign over territory stretching from China in the north, all the way to the Gulf of Siam and the Ca Mau peninsula in the south.[14] Gia Long's then petitioned the Qing Dynasty of China for official recognition, which was promptly granted.[39][52] The French failure to honour the treaty signed by Pigneau meant Vietnam was not bound to cede the territory and trading rights that they had promised.[53]


Gia Long's rule was noted for its strict Confucian orthodoxy.[54] Upon toppling the Tay Son, he repealed their reforms and reimposed a classical Confucian education and civil service system. He moved the capital from Hanoi in the north to Hue in central Vietnam to reflect the southward migration of the population over the preceding centuries. The emperor built new fortresses and a palace in his new capital. Using French expertise, Gia Long modernised Vietnam's defensive capabilities. In deference to the assistance of his French friends, he tolerated the activities of Catholic missionaries, something that was increasingly restricted by his successors. Under Gia Long’s rule, Vietnam strengthened its military dominance in Indochina, expelling Siam from Cambodia and turning it into a vassal. Despite this, he was relatively isolationist in outlook towards European powers.

Administrative structure

Le Van Duyet, the longest-serving and the last military protector of the four provinces of Cochinchina.

During the war era, Nguyen Anh had maintained an embryonic bureaucracy in an attempt to prove his leadership ability to the people. Due to the incessant warfare, military officers were generally the most prominent members of his inner circle.[55] This dependency on military backing continued to manifest itself throughout his reign.[55] Vietnam was divided into three administrative regions. The old patrimony of the Nguyen formed the central part of the empire (vùng Kinh Kỳ), with nine provinces, five of which were directly ruled by Gia Long and his mandarins from Hue.[39][55] The central administration at Hue was divided into six ministries: Public affairs, finance, rites, war, justice and public works. Each was under a minister, assisted by two deputies and two or three councillors.[39] Each of these ministries had around 70 employees assigned to various units.[55] The heads of these ministries formed the Supreme Council. A treasurer general and a Chief of the Judicial Service assisted a governor general, who was in charge of a number of provinces.[56] The provinces were classified into trấn and dinh. These were in turn divided into phủ, huyện and châu.[56] All important matters were examined by the Supreme Council in the presence of Gia Long. The officials tabled their reports for discussion and decision-making. The bureaucrats involved in the Supreme Council were selected from the high-ranking mandarins of the six ministries and the academies.[55]

Gia Long handled the northern and southern regions of Vietnam cautiously, not wanting them to be jarred by rapid centralization after centuries of national division.[55][57]Tonkin, with the administrative seat of its imperial military protector (quan tổng trấn) at Hanoi had thirteen provinces (tổng trấn Bắc Thành), and in the Red River Delta, the old officials of the Le administration continued in office. In the south, Saigon was the capital of the four provinces of Cochinchina (tổng trấn Nam Hà), as well as the seat of the military protector.[39][58] The citadels in the respective cities directly administered their military defense zones. This system allowed Gia Long to reward his leading supporters with highly powerful positions, giving them almost total autonomy in ordinary administrative and legal matters. This system persisted until 1831–32, when his son Minh Mang centralized the national government.[58]

In his attempts to re-establish a stable administration after centuries of civil war, Gia Long was not regarded as being innovative, preferring the traditional administration framework.[56][59] When Gia Long unified the country, it was described as Charles Maybon as being chaotic: "The wheels of administration were warped or no longer existed; the cadres of officials were empty, the hierarchy destroyed; taxes were not being collected, lists of communal property had disappeared, proprietary titles were lost, fields abandoned; roads bridges and public granaries had not been maintained; work in the mines had ceased. The administration of justice had been interrupted, every province was a prey to pirates, and violation of law went unpunished, while even the law itself had become uncertain.”[56]

Foreign military relations

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Cambodia's empire had been in decline as Vietnamese people migrated south into the Mekong Delta, which was hitherto Khmer territory.[60] Furthermore, Cambodia had been periodically invaded by both Vietnam and Siam. Cambodia lurched uneasily between both poles of domination as dictated by the internal strife of her two larger neighbors.[61] In 1796, Ang Eng, a pro-Siamese king had died, leaving Ang Chan, who was born in 1791.[62] When Gia Long unified Vietnam, Eng was given investiture by Siam in order to hold out Vietnamese influence,[62] but in 1803, a Cambodian mission paid tribute to Vietnam in attempt to placate Gia Long, something that became an annual routine.[62] In 1807, Ang Chan requested formal investiture as a vassal of Gia Long.[63] Gia Long responded by sending an ambassador bearing the book of investiture, together with a seal of gilded silver. In 1812, Ang Chan refused a request from his brother Ang Snguon to share power, leading to a rebellion. Siam sent troops to support the rebel prince, hoping to enthrone him and wrest influence from Gia Long over Cambodia.[63] In 1813, Gia Long responded by sending a large military contingent that forced the Siamese and Ang Snguon out of Cambodia. As a result, a Vietnamese garrison was permanently installed in the citadel at Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Thereafter, Siam made no attempts to regain control of Cambodia during Gia Long's rule.[63][64]

Napoleon's aims to conquer Vietnam as a base to challenge British supremacy in India never materialized,[65] having been occupied by vast military ambitions on mainland Europe.[63] However, France remained the only European power with permanent spokesmen in Vietnam during his reign.[65]

Trade relations

Pigneau's aborted deal with France allowed Gia Long to keep his country closed to western trade.[54][66] Gia Long was generally dismissive of European commercial overtures.[67] This was part of a policy of trying to maintain friendly relations with every European power by granting favors to none.[41][68] In 1804, a British delegation attempted to negotiate trading privileges with Vietnam. It was the only offer of its kind until 1822, such was the extent of European disinterest in Asia during the Napoleonic Wars. Gia Long had purchased arms from British firms in Madras and Calcutta on credit,[69] prompting the British East India Company to send John Roberts to Hue. However, Roberts's gifts were turned away and the negotiations for a commercial deal never started. The United Kingdom then made a request for the exclusive right to trade with Vietnam and the cession of the island of Cham near Faifo,[69] which was rejected, as were further approaches from the Netherlands. Both of these failed attempts were attributed to the influence of the French mandarins.[70] In 1817, the French Prime Minister Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis dispatched the Cybele, a frigate with 52 guns to Tourane (now Da Nang) to "show French sympathy and to assure Gia Long of the benevolence of the King of France".[65] The captain of the vessel was turned away, ostensibly on grounds of protocol for not carrying a royal letter from the French king.[65][71]

Gia Long kept four French officers in his service after his coronation: Philippe Vannier, Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau, de Forsans and the doctor Despiau. All became high ranking mandarins and were treated well.[63] They were given 50 bodyguards each, ornate residences and were exempt for having to prostrate before the emperor.[41][72][73] Recommendations from French officials in Pondicherry to Napoleon Bonaparte suggesting the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Vietnam were fruitless due to the preoccupation with war in Europe.[41][63] However, French merchants from Bordeaux were later able to begin trading with Vietnam after the further efforts of the Duc de Richelieu.[74]

Domestic policies and capital works

Jean-Marie Dayot (left) took a leading role in the training of Gia Long's navy.

Gia Long abolished all large landholding by princes, nobles and high officials. He dismantled the 800-year old practice of paying officials and rewarding or endowing nobles with a portion of the taxes from a village or a group thereof.[75] Existing highways were repaired and new ones constructed, with the north-south road from Saigon to Lang Son put under restoration.[76] He organised a postal service to operate along the highways and public storehouses were built to alleviate starvation in drought-affected years. Gia Long enacted monetary reform and implemented a more socialized agrarian policy.[76] However, the population growth far outstripped that of land clearing and cultivation.[77] There was little emphasis on innovation in agricultural technology, so the improvements in productivity were mainly derived from increasing the amount of cultivated farmland.[78]

Although the civil war was over, Gia Long decided to add to the two citadels that had been built under the supervision of French officers. Gia Long was convinced of their effectiveness and during his 18-year reign, a further 11 citadels were built throughout the country.[44] The majority were built in the Vauban style, with pentagonal or hexagonal geometry, while a minority, including the one in Hue, were built in a four-sided traditional Chinese design. The fortresses were built at Vinh, Thanh Hoa, Bac Ninh, Ha Tinh, Thai Nguyen and Hai Duong in the north, Hue, Quang Ngai, Khanh Hoa and Binh Dinh in the centre, and Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta. Construction was at its most intense in the early phase of Gia Long's reign—only one of the 11 were built in the last six years of his rule.[79] De Puymanel and Lebrun left Vietnam before the end of the war, so the forts were designed by Vietnamese engineers who oversaw the construction. The position of Citadel Supervision Officer was created under the Ministry of War and made responsible for the work, underlining the importance that Gia Long placed on fortifications.[80] Gia Long's fortifications program was marred by accusations that the people labored all day and part of the night in all weather conditions,[81] and that as a direct consequence, land went fallow. Complaints of mandarin corruption and oppressive taxation were often levelled at his government.[71] Following his coronation, Gia Long drastically reduced his naval fleet and by the 1810s, only two of the European-style vessels were still in service. The downsizing of the navy was mainly attributed to budgetary constraints caused by heavy spending on fortifications and transport infrastructure such as roads, dykes and canals. However, in 1819, a new phase of shipbuilding was launched, with Gia Long personally supervising the dockyards.[49]

Social policy

In order to train and recruit government officials, Gia Long revived the Confucian court examinations that had been abolished by the Tay Son. In 1803, he founded the National Academy (Quốc Tử Giám) at Hue. Its objective was to educate the sons of mandarins and meritorious students in the Confucian classical literature.[58] In 1804, Gia Long promulgated edicts establishing similar schools in the provinces, and guidelines to regulate their staff and curriculum. He appointed Directors of Education (quan đốc học) to oversee the provincial education system and the selection process for the entrance examinations into the National Academy, beginning in 1802. The directors were assisted by Subordinate and Assistant Directors (phó đốc học or trợ-giáo). Gia Long explained to his court in 1814 that the goal was to create a cadre of classically educated, politically loyal administrators:[58]

The schools are where men of talent can be found. Wanting to follow the example of the former kings, I have established schools in order that learned and talented men will arise and the state may thus employ them.[58]

In 1807, Gia Long opened the first civil service examinations held under the Nguyen Dynasty, staged at regional level.[58] From then on, the training and selection process for the imperial bureaucracy was largely centered on examinations.[58] The curriculum for the examinations consisted of the "five classics and the four books",[58] which focused on Chinese history leading up to the Song Dynasty, while regarding other knowledge as irrelevant.[82]

Gia Long promulgated a new legal code to replace the system that had existed since the Hong Duc era of Le Thanh Tong in the 15th century.[82] Work started in 1811 under a group of scholars led by Nguyen Van Thanh, and in 1815, the Bộ luật Gia Long (Gia Long Code) was issued.[82] Although Gia Long claimed that his new system was a mixture of the Le code and Qing Dynasty system of China, most scholars regard it as being a near complete copy of the Qing code.[82] The code was later translated into French by Paul-Louis-Félix Philastre.[72][83] It focused on strengthening the power and authority of the emperor, his mandarins, and the traditional family unit. In cases of serious crimes, particularly those against the state, collective punishment was meted out to the family of the convict, including the death penalty.[84]

The entrance to Gia Long's palace and citadel complex in Hue.

Now that Vietnam was unified, the center of gravity of the country was further to the south following centuries of southerly migration and conquest,[60] so Gia Long moved the seat of government from Hanoi to Hue.[56] Gia Long rebuilt the old citadel of Phú Xuân into a fortress stronghold.[85] The structure was a square shape of 2.5 km per side.[72] A 9 m rampart was cased with masonry and protected by protruding bastions, each defended by 36 guns.[72] The exterior and interior were flanked and reinforced by a series of moats. The citadel’s defenders included an 800-strong elephant troop.[72] The new palace structure, protocol and court dress were all taken directly from Qing Dynasty styles, and his palace and fortress was intended to be a smaller copy of the Chinese Forbidden City in the 1800s.[41][86]

Gia Long tolerated the Catholic faith of his French allies and permitted unimpeded missionary activities out of respect to his benefactors.[87] The missionary activity was dominated by the Spanish in Tonkin and French in the central and southern regions.[72] At the time of his death, there were six European bishops in Vietnam.[72] The population of Christians was estimated at 300,000 in Tonkin and 60,000 in Cochinchina.[88] However, he expressed dismay at the Catholic condemnation of the traditional ancestral worship, a basic tenet of Vietnamese culture.[89] Gia Long was also known for his disdain for Buddhism, the religion practiced by the majority of the population. Despite its popularity among ladies of the court, Gia Long often restricted the activities of Buddhists.[90]

In August 1802, Gia Long retaliated against the captured Tay Son leadership who had executed his family in the 1770s. The surviving members of the family and its leading generals and their families were executed.[91] The remains of Quang Trung and his queen were exhumed and desecrated, and his son, the last Tay Son monarch Quang Toan was bound to four elephants and torn apart.[31][40] Gia Long repealed the changes enacted by Quang Trung and reverted to the prior Confucian orthodoxy. This included restoring the civil service to the forefront of decision making, ahead of the army, and reversed Quang Trung's education reforms, which put science before the study of Confucian literature.[92]

Family and succession

Minh Mang, Gia Long's son and successor.

Gia Long had three wives. In 1780, during the war against the Tay Son, he married Tong Thi Lan, the daughter of a Nguyen general. She bore him two sons, the first being Crown Prince Nguyen Canh, and later Nguyen Phuc Chieu, who died shortly after birth. Following Gia Long's ascension to the throne, she became Empress Thua Thien.[93] Sometime during the war with the Tay Son, he married his second wife Tran Thi Dang, a daughter of one of his ministers. She bore him three sons, Nguyen Phuc Dam, Nguyen Phuc Dai and Nguyen Phuc Chan, and was posthumously given the title of Empress Thuan Thien.[94] After his conquest of Vietnam, Gia Long, took his third wife, Le Ngoc Binh. A daughter of Le Hien Tong, the second-last emperor of the Le Dynasty, she was betrothed by Emperor Quang Trung to his son Quang Toan. After Gia Long defeated the Tay Son and executed Quang Toan, he took her as his wife. Binh bore him two princes, Nguyen Phuc Quan and Nguyen Phuc Cu, and princesses An Nghia Ngoc Ngon and My Khue Ngoc Khue.[95] Gia Long had almost 100 concubines who were daughters of his mandarins; Gia Long did not favour polygamy but he did so to secure the loyalty of his inner circle.[93]

As Crown Prince Nguyen Canh had died of smallpox during the war against the Tay Son, it was assumed that Canh's son would succeed Gia Long as emperor, but in 1816 Nguyen Phuc Dam, the son of his second wife, was appointed instead, and ruled as Minh Mang.[96] Gia Long chose him for his strong character and his deep aversion to westerners, whereas Canh's lineage had converted to Catholicism and were reluctant to maintain their Confucian traditions such as ancestor worship. Before his ascension, Nguyen Phuc Dam was reported to have praised the Japanese for having expelled and eradicated Christianity from their country.[97] Gia Long told his son to treat the Europeans respectfully, especially the French, but not to grant them any position of preponderance.[96] Gia Long died on 3 February 1820 and was buried at the Thien Tho Tomb and posthumously named Thế Tổ Cao Hoàng đế.[2][98][99]


  1. ^ In this Vietnamese name, the family name is Nguyễn, but is often simplified to Nguyen in English-language text. According to Vietnamese custom, this person should properly be referred to by the given name Ánh or Anh (in English-language text).
  2. ^ a b Trần Đức Anh Sơn (2004). Huế Triều Nguyễn một cái nhìn. Thuận Hóa Publishing House. p. 75. 
  3. ^ Phan Khoang (2001) (in Vietnamese). Việt sử xứ Đàng Trong. Hanoi: Văn Học Publishing House. pp. 187–188. 
  4. ^ Kim, p. 335.
  5. ^ Phan Thuận An (2005) (in Vietnamese). Quần thể di tích Huế. Tre Publishing House. p. 112. 
  6. ^ Hall, p. 426.
  7. ^ a b Hall, p. 423.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Cady, p. 282.
  9. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 266.
  10. ^ a b c d Mantienne, p. 520.
  11. ^ a b c d McLeod, p. 7.
  12. ^ a b Karnow, p. 75.
  13. ^ Buttinger, p. 234.
  14. ^ a b c d e f McLeod, p. 9.
  15. ^ Buttinger, p. 233.
  16. ^ a b c d Hall, p. 427.
  17. ^ a b c d Buttinger, p. 235.
  18. ^ Dutton, p. 45.
  19. ^ Kim, p. 342.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hall, p. 428.
  21. ^ Kim, p. 323.
  22. ^ a b c Cady, p. 283.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g Karnow, p. 76.
  24. ^ Buttinger, pp. 236, 266.
  25. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 236.
  26. ^ a b c d e f g Hall, p. 429.
  27. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 237.
  28. ^ a b c d McLeod, p. 10.
  29. ^ a b c d Buttinger, p. 238.
  30. ^ a b c Buttinger, p. 239.
  31. ^ a b c d e f g Karnow, p. 77.
  32. ^ a b c d e f g Hall, p. 430.
  33. ^ Dutton, p. 47.
  34. ^ Hall, p. 429–430.
  35. ^ Buttinger, pp. 239–240.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g McLeod, p. 11.
  37. ^ a b Mantienne, p. 521.
  38. ^ a b c Cady, p. 284.
  39. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hall, p. 431.
  40. ^ a b c Buttinger, p. 267.
  41. ^ a b c d e Karnow, p. 78.
  42. ^ a b Mantienne, p. 522.
  43. ^ Mantienne, p. 524.
  44. ^ a b c d Mantienne, p. 525.
  45. ^ Mantienne, p. 527.
  46. ^ a b McLeod, p. 8.
  47. ^ a b c d e Mantienne, p. 530.
  48. ^ a b Mantienne, p. 531.
  49. ^ a b c d Mantienne, p. 532.
  50. ^ Tarling, p. 245.
  51. ^ Buttinger, p. 241.
  52. ^ Buttinger, p. 270.
  53. ^ McLeod, pp. 11–12.
  54. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 240.
  55. ^ a b c d e f McLeod, p. 15.
  56. ^ a b c d e Hall, p. 432.
  57. ^ McLeod, p. 3.
  58. ^ a b c d e f g h McLeod, p. 16.
  59. ^ Buttinger, p. 278.
  60. ^ a b Cady, p. 266.
  61. ^ Hall, pp. 432–433.
  62. ^ a b c Hall, p. 433.
  63. ^ a b c d e f Hall, p. 434.
  64. ^ Buttinger, p. 305.
  65. ^ a b c d Buttinger, p. 272.
  66. ^ Buttinger, pp. 270–271.
  67. ^ Buttinger, p. 271.
  68. ^ Buttinger, pp. 271–273.
  69. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 307.
  70. ^ Buttinger, p. 308.
  71. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 309.
  72. ^ a b c d e f g Cady, p. 408.
  73. ^ buttinger, p. 268.
  74. ^ Hall, p. 435.
  75. ^ Buttinger, p. 279.
  76. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 312.
  77. ^ Buttinger, p. 280.
  78. ^ Buttinger, pp. 281–282.
  79. ^ Mantienne, p. 526.
  80. ^ Mantienne, p. 528.
  81. ^ Buttinger, pp. 281, 316.
  82. ^ a b c d McLeod, p. 17.
  83. ^ Buttinger, p. 314.
  84. ^ McLeod, p. 18.
  85. ^ Ring, Salkin and La Boda, p. 364.
  86. ^ Woodside, pp. 126–130.
  87. ^ Buttinger, pp. 241, 311.
  88. ^ Cady, p. 409.
  89. ^ Buttinger, pp. 310, 262.
  90. ^ Buttinger, p. 310.
  91. ^ Buttinger, pp. 235, 266.
  92. ^ Buttinger, p. 265.
  93. ^ a b Tôn Thất Bình (1997) (in Vietnamese). Kể chuyện chín Chúa mười ba Vua triều Nguyễn. Da Nang: Đà Nẵng Publishing House. pp. 45–47. 
  94. ^ Thi Long (1998) (in Vietnamese). Nhà Nguyễn chín Chúa mười ba Vua. Da Nang: Đà Nẵng Publishing House. p. 85. 
  95. ^ Đặng Việt Thủy; Đặng Thành Trung (2008) (in Vietnamese). 18 vị Công chúa Việt Nam. Hanoi: Quan Doi Nhan Dan Publishing House. pp. 102–105. 
  96. ^ a b Buttinger, p. 268.
  97. ^ Buttinger, p. 269.
  98. ^ Duiker, p. 60
  99. ^ Kim, p. 416.


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Gia Long
Died: 1820
Preceded by
Nguyen Phuc Thuan
Nguyen Phuc Duong
Nguyen vuong
New title
Foundation of Nguyen Dynasty
Preceded by
Quang Toan of Tây Sơn Dynasty
Emperor of Vietnam
Succeeded by
Emperor Minh Mạng

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