Dai Viet vs. Champa

   by Charles Kimball

Historians distinguish fifteen dynasties in Vietnamese history. Four were the short-lived independent governments that revolted against Chinese rule before 939. The next three also had very short careers, numbering in all eight kings over a seventy-year period. The first of these, the Ngo (939-968), was unable to subdue a dozen local military chiefs and never secured recognition from China. The Dinh dynasty (968-979) was even more ephemeral, but it defeated the warlords and pacified the Chinese with tribute. The early Le dynasty (979-1009) had a very successful king named Le Hoan. He defeated a Chinese invasion in 981 and in the following year he attacked Champa, killed its king, sacked the Cham capital (Indrapura), and came home with an enormous amount of booty. His successor, however, was dethroned by the first monarch of the Ly dynasty. The Ly dynasty replaced the warlords with a Chinese-style civil service bureaucracy at Hanoi, and thus was stable enough to last over two centuries (1009-1225).

The Ly monarchs called their country Dai Viet, but the Chinese name of Annam ("The Pacified South") was used everywhere else. The country prospered, and the government encouraged cultural progress by vigorously promoting literature, art, and Mahayana Buddhism. But Dai Viet's growth was always threatened by external wars. A second Chinese invasion was defeated after a four-year war (1057-61). And the long feud with Champa was renewed. The Chams moved their capital south to Vijaya to keep it out of Vietnamese hands. But in 1044 the Vietnamese sacked Vijaya and killed the Cham king again. Vijaya was sacked a second time in 1069. This time the Cham king, Rudravarman III, was chased into Cambodia, captured, and deported to Dai Viet. He had to surrender the three provinces taken in 780 to regain his freedom.

The Chams made two attempts to recover the lost provinces (1128 and 1132), but another war with the Khmers at the same time reduced Champa to impotence. Then Cambodia took on Champa's role in the Vietnamese-Cham scrap, and the three disputed provinces ended up under Khmer rule.

The Khmer victories finished off the Ly dynasty, which was already in decline. After many years of civil strife, it was replaced by the Tran dynasty (1225-1400). The Tran monarchs pursued the same policies that had worked for the Ly dynasty. But now Champa was independent again, and wanted a rematch over the disputed border provinces (they went to the Vietnamese by default when the Khmers withdrew from the area in the mid-12th century). This time, however, the feud barely got started when the Mongol Empire appeared on the scene. Vietnam and Champa quickly put aside their squabble to meet the Mongol threat. The Mongols attacked and took Hanoi three times (in 1257, 1284, and 1287), but the combination of Vietnamese army and Cham navy inflicted unacceptable losses each time. Eventually the Mongols gave up and evacuated the country. The Vietnamese general who defeated the Mongols, Tran Hung Dao, is still venerated as one of the great heroes of Vietnamese history.

Once Kublai Khan was gone, the king of Champa tried to make the new friendship permanent by asking for a Vietnamese princess in marriage. After negotiations that dragged on until 1306, the Vietnamese said they would allow the marriage if Champa gave up the provinces of Quang Tri and Hue. Surprisingly, the Cham king, Jaya Sinhavarman III, accepted. But he died less than a year after the wedding, and his successor started a new war to take back the two provinces. This time the northern kingdom won again; by 1312 the Cham king was a prisoner in Hanoi, and Champa paid tribute to Dai Viet.

In 1326, after several rebellions and an appeal to China, Champa regained her independence. The Chams tried to take back Hue in 1353 but failed. Then came Che Bong Nga (1360-90), Champa's most outstanding king. The series of well-planned raids he made against Dai Viet kept the Vietnamese in a state of terror during his reign. In 1371 he even pillaged Hanoi. All the disputed territory came under Champa's rule. As soon as he was dead, however, the Vietnamese conquered everything as far south as Da Nang, and in 1398 the capital was moved from Hanoi to Thanh Hoa so that the king could be closer to the action.

Then a crisis at home halted Vietnamese progress. A general named Ho Qui Ly usurped the throne. He was a capable and bold reformer, but the supporters of the Tran dynasty called in Chinese aid, and in 1407 a Chinese army removed the usurper. Instead of re-establishing Tran rule, China's new rulers, the Ming dynasty, made the country a Chinese province. It didn't work; the Chinese imposed their language and customs so severely that the Vietnamese revolted almost immediately. In 1418 the rebels found a capable leader named Le Loi, a wealthy landowner from Thanh Hoa. His guerrilla campaign was successful, and ten years later the Chinese abandoned Hanoi. Le Loi proclaimed himself king, changed his name to Le Thai To, and founded the second Le dynasty. After the war the Vietnamese sent gift-bearing emissaries to China to apologize for the "irresponsible behavior" of their guerillas who had ambushed the Chinese (they also sent embassies to apologize for Vietnamese victories in the 10th and 13th centuries). This was in accord with the teachings of Confucius, preserving harmony and saving the Chinese from too much loss of face. The Chinese always appreciated that; the Vietnamese, even when independent, did have Chinese culture.

In 1441 the feud with Champa started up one more time. Five years later the Vietnamese occupied Vijaya, but not for long, for the Chams soon recovered it. It was Le Thanh Tong (1460-97), Vietnam's greatest king, who ended the conflict once and for all by conquering all of Champa in 1471. The land was given to masses of landless soldiers and peasants. The Chams converted to the Shiite branch of Islam and withdrew to the area between Cam Ranh Bay and Saigon, but they were never given a chance to re-establish their kingdom. By 1697 Saigon itself had become a Vietnamese city. In 1720 the remaining Chams migrated into Cambodia and Siam to escape Vietnamese persecution. The last king of the Chams died in 1822, and there are only 150,000 Chams left today.(1) Some Vietnamese believe that the problems their country has suffered in the twentieth century are divine retribution for what their ancestors did to Champa.

Footnotes:
1
There were a quarter of a million Chams alive in the mid-twentieth century, but 100,000 died in the Khmer Rouge reign of terror (1975-79). Because most of the victims were men, today's Chams trace their family lineage through the mother, not the father.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball