Lê dynasty

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For the earlier Lê dynasty who ruled from 980 to 1009, see Early Lê dynasty.

The Later Lê dynasty (Vietnamese: Nhà Hậu Lê; Hán Việt: 後黎朝) sometimes referred to as the Lê dynasty (the earlier Lê dynasty ruled only for a brief period (980–1009)) was the longest-ruling dynasty of Vietnam, ruling the country from 1428 to 1788, with a brief six year interruption of the Mạc dynasty usurpers (1527-1533). Vietnamese historians usually distinguish the 100-year Later Lê dynasty early period (1428 to 1527) from 256-years of figurehead emperors of the Later Lê dynasty warlord period (1533 to 1789) following the dynasty's restoration by powerful warlords.[1]

The dynasty officially began in 1428 with the coronation of Lê Lợi after he drove the Ming army from Vietnam. In 1527, the Mạc dynasty usurped the throne; when the Lê dynasty was restored in 1533, they still had to compete for power with the Mạc dynasty during the period known as Southern and Northern Dynasties. The restored Lê emperors held no real power, and by the time the Mạc dynasty was confined to only a small area in 1592 and finally eradicated in 1677, actual power was in the hands of the Nguyễn lords in the South and the Trịnh lords in the North, both ruling in the name of the Lê emperor while fighting each other. Their rule officially ended in 1788, when the peasant uprising of the Tây Sơn brothers defeated both the Trịnh and the Nguyễn, ironically in order to restore power to the Lê dynasty.

The Lê dynasty's rule saw Vietnam's territories grow from a small state in northern Vietnam at the time of Lê Lợi's coronation into almost its current size by the time the Tây Sơn brothers took over. It also saw massive changes to Vietnamese society: the previously Buddhist state became Confucian after 20 years of Ming rule. The Lê emperors instituted many changes modeled after the Chinese system, including the civil service and laws. Their long-lasting rule was attributed to the popularity of the early emperors. Lê Lợi's liberation of the country from 20 years of Ming rule and Lê Thánh Tông's bringing the country into a golden age was well-remembered by the people. Even when restored Lê emperors' rule was marked by civil strife and constant peasant uprisings, few dared to openly challenge their power, at least in name, for fear of losing popular support. When the Mạc dynasty tried to do so, they were not successful and were considered as usurpers and not recorded in official histories by later dynasties.

Lê Thái Tổ and Founding of the Lê dynasty[edit]

Main article: Lê Lợi

The founder of the Lê dynasty was the hero-Emperor of Vietnam: Lê Lợi (ruled 1428-1433).

Lê Lợi was the son of a village leader in Thanh Hóa Province, the southern-most province of Vietnam at the time. When he was born, Vietnam was independent and under the rule of the Trần dynasty. However, the Trần Emperors had been weak for some decades and the powerful neighbor to the north, China was now unified and under the rule of the energetic founder of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Hongwu. As was usual in Vietnamese history, a disputed succession was an excuse for the Chinese to re-assert control over Vietnam (See the Hồ dynasty for further details). The Chinese, now under the Yongle Emperor conquered and ruled Vietnam starting in 1407. They immediately tried to change it into another province of the Ming Empire. Many, if not all Vietnamese customs and laws were declared invalid. Distinctive features of Vietnamese life which had naturally emerged during the nearly 500 years of independence from China were suppressed. All resistance to this effort was treated as rebellion and was dealt with according to normal Imperial Chinese methods (villages were burned, people were tortured and executed).

Lê Lợi started a revolt against the Ming rulers in 1418. The revolt lasted for 10 years during which there was much bloodshed and many defeats. However, the Chinese were gradually beaten and finally Lê Lợi was victorious. He proclaimed himself the new Emperor of Vietnam, gave himself the name Lê Thái Tổ (the Founding Emperor), and was recognized as such by the new Xuande Emperor of China. However, after only five years on the throne, Lê Lợi became ill and died.

Lê Thái Tông[edit]

Main article: Lê Thái Tông

Lê Thái Tông (ruled 1433-1442) was the official heir to Lê Lợi, but he was only 11 years old. As a result, a close friend of Lê Lợi, Lê Sát, assumed the regency of the kingdom. Not long after he assumed the official title as Emperor of Vietnam in 1438, Lê Thái Tông accused Lê Sát of abuse of power and had him executed.

The new Emperor had a weakness for women. He had many wives, and he discarded one favorite after another. The great scandal was his affair with Nguyễn Thị Lộ, the wife of his father's chief advisor Nguyễn Trãi. The affair started early in 1442 and continued when the Emperor traveled to the home of Nguyễn Trãi, who was venerated as a great Confucian scholar. Shortly after the Emperor left their home to continue his tour of the western province, he fell ill and died. At the time the powerful nobles in the court argued that the Emperor had been poisoned to death. Nguyễn Trãi and his wife were executed as were three entire generations of both their families (the normal punishment for treason).

Lê Nhân Tông[edit]

Main article: Lê Nhân Tông

With the sudden death of the Emperor at a young age, his heir was an infant son named Bang Co. He was the second son of his father but the elder son had been officially passed over due to his mother's low social status. Bang Co was renamed Lê Nhân Tông (Vietnamese: Lê Nhân Tông; ruled: 1442-1459) but the real ruler was Trịnh Khả and the child's mother, the young Empress Nguyễn Thị Anh. The next 17 years were good years for Vietnam - there were no great troubles either internally or externally. Two things of note occurred, first, the Vietnamese sent an army south to attack the Champa kingdom in 1446. Second, the Dowager Empress ordered the execution of Trịnh Khả, for reasons lost to history, in the year 1451.

Two years later (1453) at the age of twelve, Lê Nhân Tông was formally given the title of Emperor. This was unusual as according to old customary, youths could not ascend the throne till the age of 16. It may have been done to remove the Empress Nguyễn Thi Anh from power, but if that was the reason, it failed and the young emperor's mother still controlled the government up until the coup of 1459.

In 1459, Lê Nhân Tông's older brother, Nghi Dân, plotted with a group of followers to kill the Emperor. On October 28, the plotters with some 100 "shiftless men" infiltrated the palace and murdered the Emperor (he was just 18). The next day, facing certain execution, his mother, Nguyễn Thị Anh, committed suicide. Nghi Dân's rule was brief, he was never officially recognized as an Sovereign by later Vietnamese historians. Revolts against his rule started almost immediately and the second revolt, occurring on June 24, 1460, succeeded. This revolt, led by the last of Lê Lợi's former advisors (Nguyễn Xí and Dinh Liêt) captured and killed Nghi Dân along with his followers. The revolters then selected the youngest son of Lê Thái Tông, to be the new Emperor. His posthumous name is Lê Thánh Tông and he was just 17 years old at the time.

Lê Thánh Tông[edit]

Main article: Lê Thánh Tông


Map of Vietnam showing the conquest of the south (the Nam Tiến) Dark green conquered by Lê Thánh Tông.

Lê Thánh Tông (ruled 1460-1497) was the most prominent of all the Lê rulers and one of the greatest Emperors in Vietnamese history. His rule was one of the high points in the history of Vietnam and was referred to as the time of a "Flood of Virtue" (Hồng Đức) and the Vietnamese Hammurabi. He instituted a wide range of government reforms, legal reforms, and land reforms. He restarted the examination system for selecting men for important government positions. He reduced the power of the noble families and reduced the degree of corruption in the government. He built temples to Confucius throughout the provinces of Vietnam. In nearly all respects, his reforms mirrored those of the Song dynasty.

He led a large and effective army against the Champa which succeeded in conquering the Cham capital and ended the power of the Champa forever. He created a new province out of former Champa land and allowed settlers to go to the new land.

Decline of the Lê dynasty[edit]

With the death of Lê Thánh Tông, the Lê dynasty fell into a swift decline (1497–1527).

Lê Hiến Tông (ruled 1497–1504)
Prince Lê Tăng, the eldest of Lê Thánh Tông's 14 sons, succeeded his father as Lê Hiến Tông. He was 38 years old at the time of his father's death. He was an affable, meek and mild-mannered person. Due to his short period of rule and the fact that he didn't pass many significant reforms, his reign is considered to be an extension of Lê Thánh Tông's rule.

Lê Túc Tông (ruled 1504–1505)
Succeeding to Lê Hiến Tông was his third son who took the reign name as Lê Túc Tông. However, he fell gravely ill and died just six months after assuming the throne. Given his older brother's subsequent history of ruthless abuse of power, there is suspicion that Lê Túc Tông was in fact murdered.

Lê Uy Mục (ruled 1505–1509)
His older brother succeeded Lê Túc Tông as Lê Uy Mục. The first thing the new Emperor did was to take revenge against those who had barred him from the throne by having them killed. Among his victims were the former Emperor's mother - which was considered a shocking display of evil behavior. Lê Uy Mục was described as a cruel, sadistic, and depraved person, who wasted the court's money and finances to indulge his whims. Well aware of the fact he was detested by his subjects, Lê Uy Mục protected himself by hiring a group of elite bodyguards to surround him at all times. Among them was Mạc Đăng Dung who became very close to the Emperor and eventually rose to the rank of General. Despite his precautions, in 1509 a cousin who Lê Uy Mục had put in prison, escaped and plotted with court insiders to assassinate the Emperor. The assassination succeeded and the killer proclaimed himself Emperor under the name Lê Tương Dực.

Lê Tương Dực (ruled 1510–1516)
Lê Tương Dực proved to be just as bad a ruler as Lê Uy Mục. He reigned from 1510 to 1516, all the while spending down the royal treasury, and doing nothing to improve the country. He was heedless to the reaction that his taxes caused throughout the country. His rule ended in 1516 when a group of officials and generals stormed the palace and killed him.

Civil war[edit]

At barely 14 years old, nephew of Lê Tương Dực, prince Lê Y, was enthroned as the new emperor Lê Chiêu Tông (ruled 1516-1522). As usual when a young Emperor came to the throne, factions within the court vied with one another for control of the government. One powerful and growing faction was led by Mạc Đăng Dung. His growing power was resented by the leaders of two noble families in Vietnam: the Nguyễn, under Nguyễn Hoàng Dụ and the Trịnh, under Trịnh Duy Đại and Trịnh Duy Sản. After several years of increasing tension, the Nguyễn and the Trịnh left the capital Hanoi (then called Đông Đô) and fled south, with the Emperor "under their protection".

This was the start of a civil war with Mạc Đăng Dung and his supporters on one side and the Trịnh and the Nguyễn on the other side. Thanh Hóa Province, the ancestral home to the Trịnh and the Nguyễn, was the battle ground between the two sides. After several years of warfare, Emperor Lê Chiêu Tông was assassinated 1522 by Mạc Đăng Dung's supporters. Not long after, the leaders of the Nguyễn and the Trịnh were executed. Mạc Đăng Dung was now the most powerful man in Vietnam.

In the region of Hưng Hoá, Tuyên Quang the brothers Vũ Văn Mật, Vũ Văn Uyên or Vu (Bau lords) (Vietnamese:Chúa Bầu) got out of the control of the Trịnh and called themselves Bau lords. They showed strong support for the Lê dynasty and refused to accept Trịnh family at the early stage of Trịnh–Nguyễn War. Later, they cooperated with the Trịnh. Bau lords lasted for nearly 200 years from 1527 to 1699.

Mạc Đăng Dung usurps the throne[edit]

Main articles: Mạc dynasty and Mạc Đăng Dung
Map of Vietnam showing the Mạc in control of the north and central part of Vietnam while the Nguyễn-Trịnh alliance controls the south.

The degenerated Lê dynasty, which endured under six rulers between 1497 and 1527, in the end was no longer able to maintain control over the northern part of the country, much less the new territories to the south. The weakening of the monarchy created a vacuum that the various noble families of the aristocracy were eager to fill. Soon after Lê Chiêu Tông fled south with the Trịnh and the Nguyễn in 1522, Mạc Đăng Dung proclaimed the Emperor's younger brother, Le Xuan, as the new Emperor under the name Lê Cung Hoàng. In reality, the new Emperor had no power. Three years after Mạc's forces killed his older brother, Lê Chiêu Tông, Mạc Đăng Dung ended the fiction that Lê Cung Hoàng actually ruled by killing him (in 1527). Mạc Đăng Dung, being a scholar-official who had effectively controlled the Le for a decade, then proclaimed himself the new Emperor of Vietnam in 1527, ending (so he thought) the Lê dynasty (see Mạc dynasty for more details).

Mạc Đăng Dung's seizure of the throne prompted other families of the aristocracy, notably the Nguyễn and Trinh, to rush to the support of the Le. With the usurpation of the throne, the civil war broke out anew. Again the Nguyễn and the Trịnh gathered an army and fought against Mạc Đăng Dung, this time under the leadership of Nguyễn Kim and Trịnh Kiểm. The Trịnh and the Nguyễn were nominally fighting on behalf of the Lê emperor but in reality, for their own power.

250 years of figurehead Emperors[edit]

Further information: Trịnh lords and Nguyễn lords

In 1533, the Nguyễn-Trịnh alliance captured the Đông Đô (Eastern Capital) of Vietnam and crowned Lê Trang Tông as the next Lê emperor. In official Vietnamese history, this date marks the end of the Mạc dynasty though the reality was quite different. Mạc Đăng Dung ruled in Hanoi till his death in 1541 and his descendants ruled in Hanoi until 1592. The country was divided into two portions though gradually the Trịnh-Nguyen alliance took over more and more of the country from the Mạc (for more complete histories of this time: see the Trịnh lords article and the Nguyễn lords article).

In 1592, with the conquest of Hanoi, the Emperor of Vietnam, Lê Thế Tông, was installed in the ancient capital. The Lê emperors sat as figurehead rulers in Hanoi until the Tây Sơn Revolt finally swept the Trịnh and the Le out of power.

Map of Vietnam showing (roughly) the areas controlled by the Trịnh, Nguyen, Mac, and Champa about the year 1650

The following is the official list of Lê emperors from 1533 until 1789:

Lê Trang Tông (1533–48) - A son of Prince Ý named Ninh. Crowned Emperor at the "Winter palace" in 1533. Officially recognized as the King by a Ming delegation in 1536.

An attack on the Mac forces led by the Le general Nguyễn Kim resulted in the partition of Vietnam in 1545, with the Nguyễn family seizing control of the southern part of the country as far north as what is now Thanh Hóa Province. The Nguyễn, who took the hereditary title chúa (English: lord), continued to profess loyalty to the Lê dynasty.

Lê Trung Tông (1548–56) - During his reign, the war with the Mạc continued.

Lê Anh Tông (1556–73) - In 1572, the Royal army under Trịnh Tùng captured Hanoi. But a year later, the Trịnh army was thrown out of Hanoi. The Emperor took advantage of the chaos to flee to Nghệ An Province to escape the control of Trịnh Tùng. However, Trịnh Tùng simply appointed a new Emperor and had Lê Anh Tông assassinated.

Lê Thế Tông (1573–99) - By the late sixteenth century the Trinh family had ousted the Mac family and had begun to rule the northern half of the country also in the name of the Lê dynasty. When Hanoi was captured for the second (and final) time in 1592, the Court moved back to the old capital. The Emperor gave Trịnh Tùng the title Pacifying Prince (Binh An Vương) in recognition of his great victory over the Mạc. The Trinh, who, like the Nguyễn, took the title chúa, spent most of the seventeenth century attempting to depose the Nguyễn.

Lê Kính Tông (1600–19) - At the start of his reign, Nguyễn Hoàng, one of the Nguyễn Lords refused to accept imperial edicts from Le Kinh Tong. After 19 years as a figurehead, Le Kinh Tong was involved in a conspiracy to kill Trịnh Tùng and take power. He was executed and a new Emperor appointed.

Lê Thần Tông (1619–43) - At the start of his rule, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, leader of the Nguyễn Lords, refused to acknowledge the new Emperor. After seven years of increasing tension, the great war between the Trịnh and the Nguyễn started (see Trịnh–Nguyễn War). Le Thần Tong saw the death of Trịnh Tùng and the rule by Trịnh Tráng. In 1643 he abdicated the throne in favor of his son.

In order to repulse invading Trinh forces, the Nguyễn in 1631 completed the building of two great walls, six meters high and eighteen kilometers long, on their northern frontier. The Trinh, with 100,000 troops, 500 elephants, and 500 large junks, were numerically far superior to their southern foe. The Nguyễn, however, were better equipped, having by this time acquired Portuguese weapons and gunpowder, and, as the defending force, had the support of the local people.

Lê Chân Tông (1643–49) - Died after only six years, just after the Royal (Trịnh) army suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Nguyễn. His father took the throne again.

Lê Thần Tông (again: 1649–62) - Regained the throne after the early death of his son. This was a time of many defeats for the Royal army (i.e. the Trịnh) in their long war against the Nguyễn. But by the old Emperor's death, Trịnh Tạc had restored the situation and defeated the Nguyễn offensive (see Trịnh–Nguyễn War for details).

Lê Huyền Tông (1663–71) - During his time, the Mạc were driven from their last bit of territory in the far north of Vietnam. In the south, there was no activity in the Trịnh-Nguyen war.

Lê Gia Tông (1672–75) - During his time, the last great offensive took place against the Nguyễn walls by Trịnh Tạc. The offensive failed after seven months of fighting and a peace treaty between the Trịnh and the Nguyễn was agreed. This began the long 100-year peace between the north and south of Vietnam. During that time, the Nguyễn continued its southward expansion into lands held, or formerly held, by the Cham and the Khmer. The Trinh, meanwhile, consolidated its authority in the north, instituting administrative reforms and supporting scholarship. The nobility and scholar-officials of both north and south, however, continued to block the development of manufacturing and trade, preferring to retain a feudal, peasant society, which they could control.

Lê Hy Tông (1676–1704) - This was a peaceful reign though in 1677 the last remnants of the Mạc attacked Vietnam out of China. They were defeated. This Emperor was forced to abdicate his throne in favor of his son by the new Trịnh Lord, Trịnh Cương.

Lê Dụ Tông (1705–28) - A peaceful time though some Christian missionaries were persecuted. The Emperor and Trịnh Cương died within months of each other in 1728.

Hôn Đức Công (1729–32) - The new Emperor was put in prison by the new Trịnh lord Trịnh Giang and was then murdered after four years.

Lê Thuần Tông (1732–35) - Nothing of import during his short rule.

Lê Ý Tông (1735–40) - Trịnh Giang foolishly convinced the Chinese government to give him the title Supreme King of Annam (An Nam Thượng Vương). This was widely seen as a usurpation of the Lê emperor's position and rebellion started throughout north Vietnam. Trịnh Giang gave up his power in 1738, the king abdicated just a year later.

Lê Hiển Tông (1740–86) - This was a time of many revolts but the new Trịnh Lord, Trịnh Sâm managed to suppress them all. The Tây Sơn revolt started in the south in 1772 and the Imperial force under Trịnh lord seized the opportunity to end the 100-year truce and conquered Huế. However, decimated by diseases, Trịnh army was forced to retreat to the North, leaving a power vacuum for the rising Tây Sơn.

European contact[edit]

The seventeenth century was also a period in which European missionaries and merchants became a serious factor in Vietnamese court life and politics. Although both had arrived by the early sixteenth century, neither foreign merchants nor missionaries had much impact on Vietnam before the seventeenth century. The Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French had all established trading posts in Phổ Hiền by 1680. Fighting among the Europeans and opposition by the Vietnamese made the enterprises unprofitable, however, and all of the foreign trading posts were closed by 1700.

European missionaries had occasionally visited Vietnam for short periods of time, with little impact, beginning in the early sixteenth century. The best known of the early missionaries was Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit who was sent to Hanoi in 1627, where he quickly learned the language and began preaching in Vietnamese. Initially, Rhodes was well received by the Trinh court, and he reportedly baptized more than 6,000 converts; however, his success probably led to his expulsion in 1630. He is credited with perfecting a romanized system of writing the Vietnamese language (quốc ngữ), which was probably developed as the joint effort of several missionaries, including Rhodes. He wrote the first catechism in Vietnamese and published a Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary; these works were the first books printed in quốc ngữ. quốc ngữ was used initially only by missionaries; classical Chinese or chữ nôm continued to be used by the court and the bureaucracy. The French later supported the use of quốc ngữ, which, because of its simplicity, led to a high degree of literacy and a flourishing of Vietnamese literature. After being expelled from Vietnam, Rhodes spent the next thirty years seeking support for his missionary work from the Vatican and the French Roman Catholic hierarchy as well as making several more trips to Vietnam.

Peasant revolts[edit]

The stalemate between the Trinh and the Nguyễn families that began at the end of the seventeenth century did not, however, mark the beginning of a period of peace and prosperity. Instead the decades of continual warfare between the two families had left the peasantry in a weakened state, the victim of taxes levied to support the courts and their military adventures. Having to meet their tax obligations had forced many peasants off the land and facilitated the acquisition of large tracts by a few wealthy landowners, nobles, and scholar—officials. Because scholar—officials were exempted from having to pay a land tax, the more land they acquired, the greater was the burden that fell on those peasants who had been able to retain their land. In addition, the peasantry faced new taxes on staple items such as charcoal, salt, silk, and cinnamon, and on commercial activities such as fishing and mining. The disparate condition of the economy led to neglect of the extensive network of irrigation systems as well.

As they fell into disrepair, disastrous flooding and famine resulted, unleashing great numbers of starving and landless people to wander aimlessly about the countryside. The widespread suffering in both north and south led to numerous peasant revolts between 1730 and 1770. Although the uprisings took place throughout the country, they were essentially local phenomena, breaking out spontaneously from similar local causes. The occasional coordination between and among local movements did not result in any national organization or leadership. Moreover, most of the uprisings were conservative, in that the leaders supported the restoration of the Lê dynasty. They did, however, put forward demands for land reform, more equitable taxes, and rice for all. Landless peasants accounted for most of the initial support for the various rebellions, but they were often joined later by craftsmen, fishermen, miners, and traders, who had been taxed out of their occupations. Some of these movements enjoyed limited success for a short time, but it was not until 1771 that any of the peasant revolts had a lasting national impact.

Tây Sơn Revolt[edit]

Main article: Tây Sơn dynasty

The Tây Sơn were not content to simply conquer the southern provinces of Vietnam.

After a decade of fairly successful fighting in the south against the Nguyễn Lords, Nguyễn Huệ (the leading general of the Tây Sơn and no relation to the Nguyễn ruling family) and his army marched north in 1785. The Royal army under Trịnh Tông vanquished by Nguyễn Huệ. Trịnh Tông committed suicide and the Lê Emperor submitted to the wishes of the victorious Huệ by giving his daughter in marriage to him. Huệ returned south and a few months later, the old emperor died.

Lê Chiêu Thống (1786–1788). The last Lê emperor. At the start of his reign the Trịnh tried to reassert control over the government. This provoked another march north from Nguyễn Huệ and so the Emperor and the Trịnh fled from Hanoi. The Emperor's mother and the Trịnh went to the Qing court to ask for aid against the Tây Sơn. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Empire under the pretense of restoring Lê dynasty dispatched a large force to invade Northern Vietnam.

At the beginning of the war, Nguyễn Huệ's troops retreated to the South, refused to engage the Qing army. He raised a large army of his own and defeated the invader in the Lunar New year Eve of 1789. Lê Chiêu Thống fled north into China, never to return.

Lê Chiêu Thống went to Beijing where:

he was appointed a Chinese mandarin of the fourth rank and was enrolled under the Tartar banners. His family also remained in China, and from that date many former Lê followers, who had not lost their hatred for the Tây Sơn, expected to find in every rebel who raised the flag of rebellion in their country a descendant of the old royal bloodline. The last of these insurrections was that of the Brigadier General Li Hung Tsai in 1878. (Annam and its Minor Currency, chapter 16).

Art during the Lê dynasty[edit]

The art forms of that time prospered and produced items of great artistic value, despite the upheavals and wars. Woodcarving was especially highly developed and produced items that were used for daily use or worship. Many of these items can be seen in the National Museum in Hanoi.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Keat Gin Ooi Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East ... Volume 1 2004 - Page 780 "1533-1789). The Lê dynasty was one of the long-term dynasties of premodern Vietnam. It is usually divided into two terms — 1428 to 1527 and 1533 to 1789 — and is also called the Hau Le (latter Le) dynasty to distinguish it from the Ly [Le] dynasty of the tenth century."
Preceded by
Fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam
Dynasty of Vietnam
1428–1527
Succeeded by
Mạc dynasty
Preceded by
Mạc dynasty
Dynasty of Vietnam
1533–1788
Succeeded by
Tây Sơn dynasty