Vietnamese Civil Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Three brothers who started the Tay Son Rebellion in the south of Vietnam ended a centuries-long system of divided feudal rule of the country, overthrew the Le Dynasty, and defeated a Chinese invasion before their forces were destroyed by a survivor of the southern lords who unified Vietnam as Emperor Gia Long.

Summary of Event

By 1771, when the Tay Son Rebellion Tay Son Rebellion (1771) broke out, Vietnam was divided between two ruling aristocracies, and the emperor was a mere figurehead. After fifty years of civil warfare in the seventeenth century, the Trinh lords in the north and the Nguyen lords ruling the south had observed an uneasy peace since 1673. In early 1771, however, three brothers from the central Vietnamese village of Tay Son took to the hills as outlaws and quickly gathered support from peasants, merchants, and social outcasts for what became known as the Tay Son Rebellion. On their father’s side, the rebel brothers were descendants of Chinese immigrants. Their mother was Vietnamese, possibly with Cham blood. They took the last name of Nguyen, although they were not related to the ruling family. [kw]Vietnamese Civil Wars (1771-1802) [kw]Wars, Vietnamese Civil (1771-1802) [kw]Civil Wars, Vietnamese (1771-1802) Vietnamese Civil Wars (1771-1802) [g]Southeast Asia;1771-1802: Vietnamese Civil Wars[2000] [g]Vietnam;1771-1802: Vietnamese Civil Wars[2000] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1771-1802: Vietnamese Civil Wars[2000] [c]Government and politics;1771-1802: Vietnamese Civil Wars[2000] Nguyen Hue Nguyen Phuc Anh Nguyen Nhac Pigneau de Béhaine, Pierre-Joseph-Georges Nguyen Lu Le Man De

The Tay Son Rebellion gathered strength, especially since Nguyen rule had become unpopular for its increasing taxation. In 1773, Nguyen Nhac captured the coastal town of Qui Nhon with a trick, pretending to surrender. In the north, meanwhile, the Trinh launched an attack on the Nguyen under the pretext of fighting the Tay Son in 1774.

Early in 1775, the Trinh army conquered the Nguyen capital of Phu Xuan (modern Hue), and the Nguyen court fled to Gia Dinh (next to modern Saigon). The Tay Son found themselves caught between two feudal armies. Nguyen Nhac chose an alliance with the Trinh, while Nguyen Lu raided Gia Dinh. By March, 1776, Nguyen Nhac proclaimed himself king of Tay Son in the ruins of the old Champa capital of Vijaya, near Qui Nhon.

In 1777, the Tay Son brothers Hue and Lu attacked and conquered Gia Dinh. They killed most of the ruling family, but the dead ruler’s nephew, Nguyen Phuc Anh, escaped. Close to Cambodia, Anh was rescued by Pierre-Joseph-Georges Pigneau de Béhaine, the bishop of Adran, who ran a seminary there. Pigneau developed a lifelong friendship with Anh. Thus, when the Tay Son brothers left Gia Dinh late in 1777, Nguyen Phuc Anh retook it. At Qui Nhon, meanwhile, Nguyen Nhac declared himself Emperor Thai Duc of central Vietnam.

Nguyen Phuc Anh proclaimed himself king of the south in 1780 and befriended Rama I of Siam in 1781. In the next two years, he lost and regained Gia Dinh before a strong counterattack with seaborne elephant regiments and incendiary rockets sent him fleeing to Siam in 1783. While Pigneau went to France seeking help for his friend Anh, Rama I gave Anh an army of about twenty thousand Thai soldiers and two to three hundred warships, which he landed in the Mekong Delta late in 1784. After initial victories, Anh lost control over his Thai army. On January 19, 1785, Nguyen Hue ambushed and decisively defeated it: Only two to three thousand soldiers escaped alive. Anh himself fled to Bangkok.

In 1786, famine struck the Trinh lands. Nguyen Nhac ordered Hue to take Phu Xuan, and the city fell in June. Defeated and captured, Trinh Khai committed suicide days before Nguyen Hue entered Thang Long (modern Hanoi) on July 21, 1786. Hue was made a duke and married the Le Le Dynasty emperor’s twenty-first daughter, Ngoc Han, on July 26. A few days later, the old emperor died and was succeeded by his grandson Le Man De.

In August, Nguyen Nhac arrived and ordered his brother to leave Thang Long for his new capital Phu Xuan. In early 1787, a Tay Son general accepted the abdication of a last Trinh lord, who went into a monastery. Also in 1787, the Tay Son brothers divided their territory. Nguyen Nhac ruled as central emperor, Hue held the lands north of Da Nang, and Lu ruled the south. Nguyen Phuc Anh was unwilling to let their rule go unchallenged, however. In August, 1787, he landed in southern Vietnam. In Paris on November 28, 1787, Pigneau cosigned the Treaty of Versailles Versailles, Treaty of (1787) between France and Cochin China. In return for aid, France was promised Vietnamese land and commercial privileges.

On September 1, 1788, Anh captured Gia Dinh, and Lu fled north, where he died. As the French government did not fulfill its obligations, the Treaty of Versailles was canceled, and Pigneau organized a private army to help Anh. In the North, Emperor Le Man De fled to China for protection. Under the influence of General Sun Shiyi, the Qianlong Emperor assembled an army of 200,000 Chinese troops. In November, 1788, General Sun’s army invaded Vietnam, and the Tay Son forces melted away. On December 17, General Sun entered Thang Long. He put Le Man De back on the throne and treated him as puppet. Taking murderous revenge on court ladies and officials who had collaborated with the Tay Son, Le Man De alienated the Vietnamese. Enjoying an affair with Le Man De’s mother, General Sun did not pursue the Tay Son.

Nguyen Hue turned the conflict into a war of national liberation. At a hilltop altar by his capital of Phu Xuan, he proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung on December 22, 1788. Four days later, he gave a nationalist speech to 100,000 of his soldiers. Quang Trung decided on a preemptive strike during the Tet holidays. He led his army north, and on January 25, 1789, overran the first Le outpost. On January 28, the first Chinese fort surrendered. A day later, Quang Trung assaulted the capital. Commanding from atop an elephant, he utterly defeated the Chinese. General Sun fled at night to China, joined by the Le emperor.

On January 30, 1789, Quang Trung entered Thang Long. He negotiated a peace with the Qianlong Emperor, who recognized his rule in return for tribute. Quang Trung returned to Phu Xuan. Yet Nguyen Phuc Anh continued his fight. On September 16, 1792, Quang Trung died. His ten-year-old son became Emperor Canh Thinh. In 1793, Nguyen Phuc Anh captured Qui Nhon. Canh Thinh’s uncle retook it but refused to give it back to Nguyen Nhac, who died of rage.

Internal dissent weakened the Tay Son. In July, 1799, Nguyen Phuc Anh’s forces captured Qui Nhon again, where Pigneau died on October 9. In 1800, the Tay Son sent an army and a navy to retake Qui Nhon by siege. In February, 1801, Nguyen Anh’s fleet destroyed the enemy navy. On June 15, he captured Phu Xuan. Even though Qui Nhon fell to the Tay Son in September, 1801, they failed to retake Phu Xuan. Their counterattack was shattered in March, 1802, and they fled north.

On June 1, 1802, Nguyen Anh celebrated his victory at Phu Xuan. He opened the era as Emperor Gia Long, combining the names of the southern and northern capitals. Entering Thang Long on July 20, 1802, he cruelly executed captured Tay Son leaders, including Canh Thinh. Thus, the civil war of the eighteenth century ended at the beginning of the nineteenth century with a unified Vietnam. In 1803, China officially recognized Gia Long as emperor.


After hundreds of years of stable—if contested—feudal divisions, Vietnam was shaken by the Tay Son Rebellion. Historians still debate the causes of this rebellion. Contemporary sources state that Nguyen Nhac was a tax collector who embezzled public funds for his gambling habit and became a rebel to avoid prosecution. Marxist Vietnamese historians see the Tay Son Rebellion as a peasant uprising and discount the latter version of events as feudalist propaganda. A third view holds that the revolt began as a local, anti-Vietnamese uprising. They state that Nguyen Nhac used ancient Cham legends, such as his early claim to have a sacred sword, and worshiped fire like the Chams. His second wife, an elephant tamer, was from the Bahnar tribe, strengthening his local ties.

Regardless of the causes, the Tay Son almost managed to conquer all of Vietnam. Nguyen Hue was a brilliant military leader who twice defeated foreign invasions, in 1784 and 1789, safeguarding Vietnam’s independence. However, he could never destroy Nguyen Phuc Anh. Seeking support of the French, the Siamese, and any Vietnamese who resented the Tay Son in a struggle lasting twenty-seven years, Nguyen Phuc Anh ultimately triumphed. As Gia Long, he consolidated a unified Vietnam that would soon exert its power over Cambodia. Until the French colonial push in the later nineteenth century, Vietnam enjoyed unity, strength, and peace. The Nguyen Dynasty founded by Gia Long would be Vietnam’s last, lasting to the final abdication of emperor Bao Dai in 1954.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Discusses the event in great detail, especially in Chapter 6, “The Nguyen Hue Epic.” Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Daniel George. A History of Southeast Asia. 4th ed. London: Macmillan Press, 1981. Still a standard work on the period. Chapter 24 thoroughly covers the war. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d ed. New York: Viking Press, 1997. Still the most widely available source in English. Chapter 3 covers the event, highlighting French involvement. Photos, chronology, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Li, Tana. Nguyen Cochinchina. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. Detailed study of southern Vietnam of the period. Strongly advocates that the Tay Son Rebellion was a local rather than social uprising. The last chapter analyzes the forces behind its outbreak. Maps, notes, annexes.

Javanese Wars of Succession

Dagohoy Rebellion in the Philippines

Alaungpaya Unites Burma

Siamese-Vietnamese War

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Nguyen Hue; Qianlong; Taksin. Vietnamese Civil Wars (1771-1802)

Categories: History