After a long period of subjugation by the Chinese feudal empire, a period marked by numerous insurrections, the Vietnamese people finally won back their independence in the 10th century. Following the recovery of that independence, the country gradually turned towards creating a centralized monarchical state. This centralization was made necessary by twin factors: the construction of great hydraulic works, particularly dykes and canals for the development of agriculture, and the safeguarding of national independence against attempts at reconquest by the Chinese imperial Court.
However, before a well organized monarchical state could be set up, the country went through a period of instability during which tendencies towards feudal domination still persisted. It was only with the establishment of the Ly dynasty in 1009 that the monarchy was able to gain a secure hold on power.
In 1010, after his accession to the throne, Ly Cong Uan, whose royal name was Ly Thai To, ordered the transfer of the capital to Thang Long, the site of present-day Hanoi. Thang Long was to remain the capital until the 19th century. Ly Thai To decreed a general amnesty for prisoners and the destruction of all instruments of torture. In 1054, his successor, Ly Thanh Ton, renamed the country Dai Viet
The king owned all the land by right. The state, however, directly utilized only a small portion of this land, some of which was distributed to members of the royal family and high-ranking dignitaries as fiefdoms and personal domains. Taxes were levied on land owned by villages and individuals. There was thus an agrarian regime with several sectors:
- Land used by the state;
- Fiefdoms and domains;
- Communal land; and
- Private land.
There were two categories of land distributed to nobles and high-ranking dignitaries. There were fiefdoms whose beneficiaries had both the land and people at their disposal; the peasants had obligations only to their local lord, and were not required to pay taxes or provide labour to the state. In the great domains, the peasants paid rent and taxes to the owner and at the same time had obligations to the state, and remained directly subject to the monarchy. Marshal Ly Thuong Kiet, for instance, received in appanage 4,000 peasant households, but his domain comprised another 10,000 households. Appanages and domains remained the property of the king. When a lord died, his heirs could inherit his land but could also be dispossessed by the king.
Kings Ly attached great importance to agriculture. At the beginning of each year, continuing a tradition inaugurated by Le Hoan, the king himself made a symbolic gesture by ploughing a plot of land, following a ceremony in honour of the god of agriculture. In 1038, when King Ly Thai Ton was advised by a mandarin not to demean himself through such an action, he said: "If I myself do not do some ploughing as an offering to the god, how can I set an example for the entire people?".
Those who stole or killed buffaloes were severely punished under the law.
The dykes were given particular attention and mandarins were held responsible for their maintenance. The construction of numerous dykes and other hydraulic works is recorded in the annals, for instance the Co Xa dyke in 1108, and the digging of the Dau Nai canal in 1029, the Lam Canal in 1050, and the Lanh Kinh Canal in 1089.
From the beginning of their reign, the Ly endeavoured to consolidate the state apparatus. The country was divided into 24 provinces entrusted to close relations of the royal family. The centralized monarchy governed with the assistance of this aristocracy. Princes of the blood had their personal appanages and their own armed forces. The court hierarchy was a strict one with a twin body of civil and military mandarins. These mandarins received no salaries and lived on the money from rent and taxes paid by the population under their administration. But a mandarin bureaucracy gradually came into being, paid by the monarchy through taxes on landholdings, handicrafts, forest products, and market sales. Little by little, the administration lost its family-based character.
Bonzes played an important role as advisers to the king. The founder of the Ly dynasty was put on the throne with the help of a prominent bonze superior, Van Hanh. The bonze Vien Thong received honours reserved for the heir to the throne.
The Ly also introduced written laws. In 1042, King Ly Thai Tong ordered his mandarins to "amend the laws and regulation so as to adapt them to the present circumstances, to classify them, to compile them into a penal code that can be easily understood by all". It is reported in the annals that the code, when completed and made known to the population, was welcomed by all. The rehabilitation of delinquents and criminals was instituted; very severe punishment was decreed for the "ten capital crimes", particularly that of rebellion. Under the Ly, it was forbidden to sell 18-year-olds as slaves; there were laws for the protection of draught animals and on the mortgaging of land. Penalties were prescribed against piracy and extortion by mandarins. This legislation was perfected by the Tran. It should be noted that the law paid special attention to the prevention of rebellion. While the delta had a homogeneous Viet (or kinh) population, the mountainous regions were inhabited by numerous ethnic groups, and the relationship between the central government and these mountain populations constituted a particularly difficult issue for the monarchy. The historical relationship between the Viet majority and minority groups was one of both integration and antagonism. On the one hand, the delta and highlands were integrated economically and needed each other; they were also closely bound by the need for mutual defence against foreign aggressors. The different groups were therefore moving towards progressively uniting as a single nation. On the other hand, the Viet feudalists, particularly the monarchy and mandarins, sought to exploit and oppress the minorities, leading to frequent revolts and the ensuing reprisals.
In the 11th century, when the Ly dynasty was founded, the frontiers of Dai Viet in the north and northwest had not yet been clearly delimited. Particularly important was the frontier with China in the north and northeast; these regions were inhabited by Tay and Nung people whose allegiance was of prime importance for the Dai Viet kingdom. It was vital to incorporate them into the nation.The Ly king often sought alliances with local chiefs by giving them princesses in marriage or by marrying their daughters.
At the Chinese court, there still existed a faction which advocated the reconquest of Dai
Viet. In 1069, in an attempt to find the remedy to a serious economic and social crisis, the Sung emperor gave full powers to a bold reformer named Wang Nganche. When the reforms proved a disappointment, Wang Nganche, to save the Sung's prestige and seize Dai Viet's wealth, decided to send a great expedition against the Ly. In 1074, the provinces of southern China received the order to strengthen their armies, arm combat junks, and stop trading with Dai Viet.
At the Ly court, given that the reigning king was only ten years old, all power was concentrated in the hands of General Ly Thuong Kiet, who decided to take the offensive in order to forestall the Sung.
Two army corps totalling 100,000 men were sent to China in 1075, one overland under the command of Tong Dan, a Nung chief, the other by sea, under the command of Ly Thuong Kiet himself. The latter cleverly exploited the discontent of the Chinese population with Wang Nganche's reforms, and appeared as the liberator of the peoples of southern China. Placards were put up denouncing the reformer and proclaiming that Ly Thuong Kiet's only desire was to ensure the welfare of the people. The Ly troops were enthusiastically welcomed by the population and easily occupied many localities. The general attacked the Yung chow stronghold which fell after a siege lasting 43 days on March 1, 1076. The citadel was razed to the ground; other strongholds suffered the same fate.
The Sung prepared for a counter-offensive by forming a coalition with the Champa and the Khmer kingdom. In April 1076, having attained his objective to destroy the Chinese staging posts, Ly Thuong Kiet withdrew his troops from Chinese territory. Early in 1077, the Sung troops, having forced their way through the frontier passes, were facing the Ly army across the Nhu Nguyet River (now the Cau). Fierce fighting ensued and the Sung army was unable to cross the river. It was in the-course of this battle that Ly Thuong Kiet composed a poem and had it recited during the night, making his men believe that the river god was speaking:
Over the southern mountains and rivers, the Emperor of the South shall reign
This was written down in the Book of Heaven.
How dare those barbarians invade our soil?
They will surely meet with defeat.
Its morale higher than ever, the Ly army repelled the attackers, who were also being decimated by disease. Ly Thuong Kiet then made a peace proposal, which included the ceding of five frontier districts (now Cao Bang and Lang Son provinces). The Sung accepted. This was in 1077. Two years later through negotiations, the Ly recovered the ceded territory.
Ly Thuong Kiet was the architect of the victory. An outstanding strategist, he was also a great politician who knew how to win the hearts of the people and inspire his troops with enthusiasm. The stability of the regime established by the Ly was confirmed by this brilliant victory over the Chinese imperial armies. The Tran further strengthened the country's armed voices, enabling them to repel a Mongol invasion two centuries later.
Buddhism was at its peak under the Ly, whose accession to the throne had been favored by the Buddhist clergy. In return, the latter received the highest privileges. The kings themselves were interested in the study of doctrine and often took bonzes as advisers. The pagodas owned large domains worked by serfs, and bonzes were exempt from taxes and military service. Kings and princes had large numbers of pagodas built and bells cast, and promoted the dissemination of sacred books. In 1018 King Thai To sent a mission to China to gather texts of the Tam Tang: in 1068, King Thai Tong oversaw the creation of the Thao Duong sect, and several kings became patriarchies of Buddhist sects. Princes and nobles followed their example. Beautiful pagodas were built under the Ly, some of them preserved up to the present day, such as Quan Thanh in Hanoi built in 1102, Dien Huu (1041), Bao Thien (1050), and Keo Pagoda in Thai Binh Province. Queen Y Lan, accused of ordering the assassination of one of her rivals, spent the rest of her life building 100 pagodas to redeem herself. Vietnamese Buddhist Sects and schools were founded.
In a society whose members had to unite in the face of great natural calamities and the permanent danger of foreign invasion, and who came under the absolute power of a monarch governing through a complex mandarin bureaucrecy, a doctrine was needed to direct the mind of each individual towards his social obligations, obedience and loyalty to the monarch, and unconditional respect for the social hierarchy. Since the Han, Chinese imperial dynasties made Confucianism the state doctrine; the Vietnamese monarchy gradually adopted it.
In 1070, Ly Thanh Tong had the "Temple of Literature" built. This was a school dedicated to Confucius and his disciples and was where the sons of high-ranking dignitaries received moral education and training in administration. In 1075, the first mandarin competitions took place, through which Confucian scholars could accede to public office; the competitions were only open to the sons of aristocratic families. In 1080, competitions were held to recruit members of an "Academy", whose task was to preserve the archives and write royal edicts. In 1089, the mandarin hierarchy began to be strictly organized. The appearance of Confucianism on the scene was the consequence of a dual phenomenon: on one hand was the necessity of creating a mandarin bureaucracy and on the other, there was the increasing accession of educated commoners to public office. At first, these men were given only subaltern positions, higher offices being reserved for members of the royal family and of the aristocracy.
The Ly period also saw the appearance of the first historical works. Under the Ly Dynasty, Do Thien compiled a history of the country which, now lost, was mentioned in Viet Dien U Linh and Linh Nam Chich Quai.
Cheo popular theatre, which first appeared in the 10th century, continued its development. A prisoner captured during the Mongol Invasion, Ly Nguyen Cat, made a notable contribution to tuong Classical theatre.
It was architecture and ceramics that reached a level of excellence during the Ly period. With the spread of Buddhism, many pagodas were built. Some of the most famous have been preserved. Unfortunately, however, the ravages of war and climate have destroyed the majority of the works of art from this period. What remains can only give us an idea of what was achieved at that time. Some works from the Ly period have been erroneously classified by French historians as being from an earlier period, that of Dai La (9th century).
On the stele of Linh Xung, erected in 1126, an inscription records that "wherever there was beautiful scenery a pagodas was built ". One of the essential characteristics of these pagodas was harmony with the surrounding landscapes, the building nestling amidst trees, and the gardens and ponds, an integral part of the construction; most often, the background was a hill or winding stream, and the slow ringing of bells in the calm morning or evening seemed part of nature itself.
Some pagodas had to be of significant size, since they would accommodate thousands of pilgrims coming to take part in great celebrations. Dien Huu Pagoda, commonly known as the One-Pillar Pagoda and built in 1049, is a graceful pavilion built on a stone pillar standing in the middle of a pond, the whole complex resembling a lotus flower in bloom.
The lotus flower motif often appears on monuments. The flower symbolizes beauty and purity, for "though springing from mud it is free from the stench of mud". Stone pillars, some of significant size, often rest on "lotus flowers"; the remains of a pillar in Giam Pagoda, built in 1086, has a base measuring 4.5 metres in diameter and is over 3.5 metres in circumference. At the foot of some of these pillars are carved stones representing waves, and the columns seem to emerge from a stormy sea. A couple of dragons climb the pillar, forming graceful but complex spirals.
The pagodas have curved roofs and often comprise a tower with as many as 12 storeys. These pagodas are noted for their architecture, statues and sculptures.
At Phat Tich Pagoda, the bases of pillars have stone sculptures representing the bodhi tree (of Buddhist enlightenment) in the center with two worshippers presenting offerings and behind them. four musicians dancing and playing various instruments. The ground is littered with flowers. The atmosphere is joyful and the gestures graceful, far from Buddhist meditation on the unreality of this world.
Relic found in the northwestern suburbs of Hanoi, where the palace of the Ly was located, show it great variety of sculpture, statues and decorative motifs on ceramics. A frequent motif is that of the crocodile, with head raised, protruding eyes looking to the right and to the left, and quivering nostrils; the body is lithe and the beast standing on its hind legs seems ready to spring. Stylized lions on ceramics have also been found.
Excavations in 1965 on the site of the Chuong Son Pagoda built in 1105 unearthed images of birds with human bodies among other motifs -chrysanthemums, phoenixes and dragons - all frequently found on the works of the period. There is a great variety of products: articles for both daily use and decoration, and pottery and porcelain ware with fine enamel. Among the most beautiful enamels are the opalescent-green and brown-grey ones with a low shine and in various shades. The decoration is varied - flowers, dragons, lotuses, birds, and where the surface permits, frescoes and landscapes with human figures. The drawings and bas-reliefs always have a natural look with graceful lines and a cheerful environment: the movements of birds, elephants and dancers, harmonize with flowers in bloom or contrast with the antics of warriors. Particularly remarkable are the richly decorated porcelain items. Ceramics were sent as far as China to be sold or presented to the imperial court. Under the Ly dynasty this art reached its peak.