Jiajing Threatens Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Civil war in Vietnam allowed China to threaten its neighbor with attack and control and to gain a sliver of contested northern Vietnamese border territory. Also, China weakened the Vietnamese state by recognizing two potentates as rulers over a split nation.

Summary of Event

In 1539, an imperial Chinese army assembled just within its border with northeastern Vietnam, near the Nam Quan pass, which separates the two nations. The official mission of the Chinese army was to execute an imperial edict by Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);Vietnam and emperor Jiajing. Emperor Jiajing’s edict called for the capture of Mac Dang Dung, the father of Vietnamese emperor Le Trang Tong. That a Chinese army was poised to invade Vietnam was understandable from a military point of view only because Vietnam had descended into civil war. Vietnam;Chinese threat to Jiajing Mac Dang Dung Mac Dang Doanh Le Trang Tong Nguyen Kim Mac Dang Dung Le Trang Tong Le Uy Muc Le Chieu Tong Mac Dang Doanh Nguyen Kim Xia Yan Jiajing

The preceding century had seen a great rise in Vietnam’s fortune under the newly founded Le Dynasty Le Dynasty . The Le family had gained its power by expelling the Chinese, who had invaded and ruled Vietnam from 1407 to 1428, but also previously, for a much longer period of time. Direct Chinese rule in the early 1400’s had threatened to end the independence Vietnam had gained in 938, after enduring almost one thousand years of Chinese occupation. In 1471, Vietnam had crushed the rival kingdom of Cham Champa;Vietnamese conquest of to the south, captured the Cham capital of Vijaya, and annexed vast stretches of Cham land. A series of ineffective Le emperors, however, would bring a Chinese army within reach of again attacking and annexing Vietnam, this time in 1539.

The Le Dynasty’s decline, which allowed for Chinese intervention, had begun in 1505 with the incompetent emperor Le Uy Muc. Vietnamese sources describe him as a kind of Caligula, the controversial and unpredictable first century Roman emperor. He had his mother murdered and became a serial killer, strangling court ladies after spending nights with them. The Vietnamese people soon hated him, calling him the devil king. Fearing for his safety, he hired young bodyguards. One of these bodyguards was Mac Dang Dung, whose arrest nearly led China’s emperor Jiajing to send an army into Vietnam in 1539. Originally, Mac was a poor fisher boy whose excellent martial arts skills led him to his imperial job.

The emperor’s continuing cruelty alienated him from his people, so his cousin deposed him and had him killed. The new emperor proved ineffective, however, and was called the pig king. In turn, he, too, was killed, by one of his generals, one whom the emperor had ordered to be whipped in the middle of a monk’s rebellion in 1516. This threw the Le Dynasty into complete disarray.

Rival factions occupied and burned down the capital, Thãng Long (now Hanoi), and the next emperor lived a few days only. Military leaders chose a new emperor, who took the name of Le Chieu Tong. This emperor asked Mac Dang Dung for help, and made him commander in chief.

Mac soon defeated all of the emperor’s enemies but turned against him. First, Mac had Le Chieu Tong assassinated around 1525 or 1526 and then enthroned a new emperor. In 1527, he took the throne for himself, and he had the former emperor and his mother killed. To shore up his legitimacy, Mac asked to be recognized as emperor of Vietnam by the Chinese emperor Jiajing. Formally, the Vietnamese emperor was considered a vassal of the Chinese. In 1528, Jiajing considered the request routine and granted it.

Mac Dang Dung reigned for two years only, formally abdicating in favor of his son Mac Dang Doanh. In practice, he continued to rule from his home village of Co Trai, pretending to be a fisherman.

Mac Dang Dung never became popular, either as emperor or as elder statesman. In 1533, the Le family found a new champion in General Nguyen Kim. In exile in neighboring Laos, Nguyen proclaimed Prince Duy Ninh to be Vietnamese emperor, with the name of Le Trang Tong. He was the youngest son of the late emperor Le Chieu Tong. The Le Dynasty had been revived, but the fight for the throne brought the Chinese to Vietnam’s borders.

With its rebel army growing, the Le family sent a delegation to Beijing in March of 1537. There, they found themselves in the middle of a court intrigue. Powerful officials around Emperor Jiajing’s grand secretary, Xia Yan, looked for a war. When a son was born to Jiajing in November, 1536, Xia Yan counseled against sending a diplomatic mission to Vietnam to announce the news, as was customary. He believed that the Vietnamese had failed, for twenty years, to pay their nominal tribute to China. In addition, Xia Yan argued that the Mac Dynasty Mac Dynasty was illegitimate. In his view, this gave China the right to military invention. Advised of the high cost of such a military campaign, Emperor Jiajing refused to authorize it in 1536.

The arrival of the Le delegation led to Chinese reconsideration. The Le emissary pleaded his cause, which became welcome news for the Chinese war faction. In May, 1537, Emperor Jiajing agreed to a punitive campaign to arrest Mac Dang Dung and restore Le rule. One family of Vietnam had invited the Chinese to remove their adversary, at severe risk to Vietnamese autonomy. Local Chinese commanders on the ground in Guangdong province (Canton) objected to the high cost of the mission. Suddenly, Jiajing called off the campaign in June, 1537. By September of 1537, Jiajing developed a revised strategy and then approved the campaign once again.

The leaders of the invasion were appointed in April of 1538. Alarmed, Mac Dang Dung reiterated his and his son’s allegiance to Jiajing and sent expensive gifts to Beijing. In China, the official in charge of the border area stated that the Vietnamese were to fight fiercely and that the cost of the invasion would surpass two million ounces of silver. Worried, the Chinese ministry of war called for a full session of the imperial court to decide on the issue.

In 1539, the Chinese army loomed just across the border of Vietnam, apparently ready to strike. In early 1540, Mac Dang Dung traveled to the Nam Quan pass, arriving with forty high officials. (Scholars of Vietnamese history debate whether or not his delegation appeared with bare upper torsos and in chains to signal their submission.) Meeting with high-ranking Chinese officers at the pass, Mac Dang Dung fell to his knees and symbolically kowtowed to the emperor, pressing his face on the stony ground of the road. To this humiliating gesture, Mac Dang Dung added more lavish gifts for the emperor. Most important, he also ceded six northeastern Vietnamese border districts around to the Chinese.

In Beijing, Emperor Jiajing had already canceled the attack on Vietnam because it was too costly. Learning of Mac Dang Dung’s submission, his gifts, and the transfer of Vietnamese land, Jiajing agreed to recognize Mac Dang Dung but gave him the title of second-class governor. The new land was made part of the territory around the Chinese city of Quinzhou.


Because of the decline of Vietnam’s Le Dynasty, China was able to capitalize politically at the expense of Vietnam in 1540. Even though the war faction at Jiajing’s court did not attack, China had gained tribute, land, and political influence at very little cost.

The Ming Dynasty would never again muster an army against Vietnam and would soon decline as a dynasty itself, but the hostile factions of the civil war in Vietnam would continue to look to China for help. Each side would seek Chinese support for its claims. Since China was under pressure from the Mongols, however, its influence in Vietnam remained symbolic.

After Mac Dang Dung’s public submission, Emperor Jiajing felt justified in his cautious, contradictory approach to the campaign. In 1540, he announced to his court that he would seclude himself to find immortality. Grand secretary Xia Yan was forced to retire in 1542, the year in which empress Xiao Lie saved a drunken Jiajing from being killed by his concubines, who were then executed.

In Vietnam, Mac Dang Dung and his son died in 1540. In 1543, General Nguyen and Le Trang Tong conquered the western capital of Thang Hoa. This victory led to a request for imperial recognition by China. In 1545, China recognized two rulers for the divided nation. This partition of Vietnam was caused not by China, but by feuding Vietnamese families.

The Mac Dynasty would come to an end in 1592, but this did not bring reunification. Instead, until the late 1700’, Vietnam would continue to be split and ruled by two powerful families, both claiming to rule the country in the name of a Le emperor.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Discusses the threatened attack in detail, from a Vietnamese point of view. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, Fred. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Comprehensively covers the threatened attack from a Chinese point of view. Illustrations, maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Keith. “An Evaluation of the Chinese Period in Vietnamese History.” Journal of Asiatic Studies 23 (January, 1980): 139-164. Argues that China’s influence over Vietnamese culture did not arise from military occupation and threats of invasion.

1450’s-1471: Champa Civil Wars

Mar. 18-22, 1471: Battle of Vijaya

Categories: History