Reign of Ngo Quyen Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

With his decisive defeat of a Chinese army at Bach-dang River, Ngo ended one thousand years of Chinese rule over the Vietnamese, freed his nation, and became its king.

Summary of Event

The fall of China’s powerful Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty;Vietnamese and (T’ang; 618-907) provided the Vietnamese with a unique chance to regain their independence. Since 111 b.c.e., China had ruled over the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese lived in the fertile Red (Hong) River delta, the mountainous interior, and along the coast. In spite of occasional Vietnamese revolts, such as the famous one by the Trung sisters in 40-43 c.e. and the Nanzhao wars of the mid-ninth century, Chinese rule had not yet been eliminated. [kw]Reign of Ngo Quyen (939-944) [kw]Ngo Quyen, Reign of (939-944) Ngo Quyen Vietnam Southeast Asia;939-944: Reign of Ngo Quyen[1160] Government and politics;939-944: Reign of Ngo Quyen[1160] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;939-944: Reign of Ngo Quyen[1160] Ngo Quyen Duong Dien Nghe Kieu Cong Tien Liu Yan Liu Hongcao Dinh Bo Linh

The Chinese had organized the Vietnamese lands into a province that they called Annam Annam , or Pacified South. They ruled from their capital of Dai-la (La Thanh), near present-day Hanoi. In 906, with China in chaos, a Vietnamese man, Khuc Thua Du Khuc Thua Du , managed to get appointed as China’s military governor of Annam. He, his son, and his grandson, My My (protector general of Annam) , governed the Vietnamese for China. In 930, the new emperor of the Southern Han Dynasty Southern Han Dynasty (909-971), Liu Yan Liu Yan , decided to impose a more direct rule. He sent an army to occupy Dai-la. My was captured, apparently without a fight, and sent to Canton (Guangzhou) in southern China, submitting to the emperor. In his place ruled Li Chen Li Chen (protector general of Annam) (d. 932).

At this time, the Vietnamese rebellion against Chinese rule began in earnest. One of My’s generals, Duong Dien Nghe Duong Dien Nghe , refused to be co-opted by the Chinese. Although the Chinese made him a nobleman, he organized a Vietnamese army of three thousand soldiers. He refused a bribe by the desperate Li Chen Li Chen (protector general of Annam) to dissolve his forces. Instead, he captured Dai-la in battle in 931. He defeated the Chinese reinforcements, killing their general. Li Chen fled to Canton, where he was beheaded for his failure. Dien Nghe established his rule at Dai-la by his own power. Eventually, the emperor nominally recognized him as military governor. Yet Dien Nghe governed in his own right, and his family became very important.





Ngo Quyen was one of Duong Dien Nghe’s most loyal and capable generals. Ngo Quyen had been born in the heartland of Vietnamese civilization in about 898, the son of a provincial magistrate. Later, legends related that he was born bathed in luminescent light with three moles on his back, traditional signs of a great person. His given name, Quyen, means “strength of command and power” in Vietnamese. Ancient sources describe him as extremely handsome, with keen eyes and the walk of a tiger. He was considered intelligent, courageous, and sturdy in battle. After the conquest of Dai-la, Ngo Quyen married one of the daughters of Dien Nghe and was appointed governor of the ruler’s home province of Ai, to the south of the Red River.

In March, 937, Dien Nghe was assassinated by Kieu Cong Tien Kieu Cong Tien . The assassin hoped to gain sympathy by aligning his rule with Chinese power and interests, reflecting remnants of pro-Chinese attitudes among some ruling elites. Immediately, Ngo Quyen gathered an army and led it against the assassin. Cong Tien begged the Chinese for help, and this alliance gave Ngo Quyen’s quest a nationalistic character.

Emperor Liu Yan decided to send his own son, Liu Hongcao Liu Hongcao , to lead an army that should defeat the Vietnamese. Liu Hongcao was eager to load his army on warships and sail to Ha Long Bay, at the mouth of the Red River Delta. However, before any Chinese forces could assist Cong Tien, Ngo Quyen captured him and had him executed. He next prepared to battle the invaders.

In the fall of 938, Ngo Quyen employed a brilliant plan. He correctly guessed that Liu Hongcao was eager to invade by the fastest, most northern river of the delta, the Bach-dang Bach-dang River, Battle of the (938)[Bach dang River, Battle of the (938)] . He placed sharpened wooden stakes, reinforced with tips of iron, just below the waterline at high tide in the river. When the Chinese fleet appeared at the mouth of the Bach-dang, the Vietnamese pretended to attack it from light, shallow boats with minimal draft, at high tide. Hongcao immediately pursued the attackers up the river. As the tide receded, the heavy Chinese troop ships were suddenly impaled on the stakes and lost all capability to move or maneuver. Then, Ngo Quyen’s troops attacked again from their light boats and utterly defeated the immobilized Chinese. Liu Hongcao drowned, together with more than half of his assault troops. Emperor Liu Yan wept at his losses, and his Southern Han Dynasty abandoned its plans to conquer the Vietnamese.

Ngo Quyen’s decisive victory meant full independence for his people. In 939, Ngo Quyen crowned himself king of the Vietnamese and radically broke with the past. He moved his capital out of the town associated with the Chinese governors. He established a new palace farther north at Co-loa, the city of the ancient, pre-Chinese Vietnamese kings.

Yet to some extent, Ngo Quyen could not yet escape the Chinese influence. He organized his court system along Chinese patterns and relied on a feudalistic, rather than nationalistic, order of society. He generally left in peace those nobles who had collaborated with the Chinese, and his newly liberated people looked up to their charismatic leader.

Ngo Quyen died suddenly in 944, aged only forty-six. If he had further plans to reform and remodel the Vietnamese state and its society, he died too soon to implement them. After a thousand years, Vietnam had gained independence, yet the domestic situation would reveal itself as far from stable.


Ngo Quyen’s decision to eliminate the assassin who had tried to usurp power and return to Chinese hegemony led to the decisive Battle of Bach-dang River. The total defeat of the Chinese fleet and army reestablished Vietnamese independence. From this time on, with a very brief interlude of twenty years in the fifteenth century, Vietnam would remain independent until the advent of the French in the late nineteenth century.

Ironically, in 1287, the Vietnamese would defeat an invading Mongol army on the Bach-dang River with virtually the same strategy employed by Ngo Quyen. Some of the stakes from both of the battles have survived and are on display at the Museum of History in Hanoi.

Political stability, however, did not accompany freedom. Instead, Ngo Quyen’s succession led to a period of civil war and chaos in Vietnam. His brother-in-law attempted to reign instead of his eldest son, who fled into a cave; his second son eventually overthrew his uncle. An attempt by the two brothers to rule together failed. When the younger brother was killed in action against rebellious villagers in 963, the Ngo Dynasty began its demise.

After two years of civil war during the “period of twelve warlords,” Dinh Bo Linh Dinh Bo Linh successfully seized power. He founded a new kingdom, which he named Dai Co Viet (“great empire of the Vietnamese”), and solidified Vietnamese independence. Yet he, too, fell victim to an assassin, in 979. Anarchy broke out until the establishment of the Early Le Dynasty Early Le Dynasty in 980.

Vietnamese historians have been divided in their estimation of who should be given credit of being their first truly independent ruler. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Ngo Quyen’s fame was most celebrated. Later on, his reign was judged too brief, and the anarchy that ended his dynasty was regarded as too deep, so that Dinh Bo Linh has been given more historic credit. Maybe the fact that the latter claimed the title of “emperor” helped his posthumous credentials, even though he fell victim to an assassin.

Without Ngo Quyen’s determination, ingenuity, and success in battle, the Southern Han could have reestablished authority over the Vietnamese. Instead, the people were freed from foreign domination. In the fifteenth century, they would become conquerors themselves, pushing far south to the Mekong Delta.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand. Viet Nam: Civilization and Culture. Translated by Vu Thiěn Kim. 2d ed. Hanoi: Ecole Française d’Extrěme-Orient, 1994. This general overview provides a survey of history and is richly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockard, Craig A. “The Unexplained Miracle: Reflections on Vietnamese National Identity and Survival.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 29 (January-April, 1994): 10-35. Provides framework for Ngo’s regard as national hero, as it contemplates the strategies and triumphs of the Vietnamese in the face of foreign attempts to eradicate their culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shih-Peng, Lü. Vietnam During the Period of Chinese Rule. Monograph Series 3. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1964. Useful overview of the one thousand years of Chinese rule over the Vietnamese; uses Wade-Giles transcription for both Chinese and Vietnamese names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Keith Weller. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. The authoritative study of the period of and leading up to Ngo Quyen’s reign. Makes accessible groundbreaking studies of Vietnamese and Chinese historical sources in English. Maps, appendices.

Categories: History Content