Trần Cảo Rebellion

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Tran Cao rebellion
Date 1516-1521
Location Northern Vietnam
Result Decisive Lê Dynasty victory
Trần Cảo rebels Lê Dynasty
Commanders and leaders
Trần Cảo
Tran Cung
Trịnh Duy Sản
Mạc Đăng Dung

The Trần Cao rebellion in 1516 is the best documented rebellion in Vietnam in the 16th century against the Lê Dynasty led by Trần Cảo (陳暠) and is regarded as the most important. It was the second rebellion led against the Le, following an uprising led by Tran Tuan in 1511.[1][2]


The Lê Dynasty was established by Emperor Lê Lợi in 1428 after expelling the Ming Dynasty of China, which had occupied Vietnam. In 1460, one of his successors. Lê Thánh Tông rose to the throne, beginning what was regarded as a golden age in Vietnamese history. During his rule of 37 years, Lê Thánh Tông instituted wide ranging political and structural organisation of the country, implementing a Confucian model of government, introducing a mandarin system of government, expanding education, science and art. He also expanded Vietnam's territory substantially. At the time, Vietnam was confined to the area around the Red River Delta, but Lê Thánh Tông expanded Vietnam's army and expanded south towards Huế in what is now central Vietnam by conquering Champa territory. He also pushed westwards into the hills against the Tai. However, after his death, Vietnam fell into disarray as a succession of weak Emperors came and went, and palace intrigue crippled the country. This caused public discontent and set the scene for popular uprising.

The first significant rebellion, that of Tran Tuan in 1511, is largely lost to history. However, it is known that he was a charismatic figure who quickly gathered thousands of followers in eastern Hưng Hóa and western Sơn Tây provinces, and moved them directly against the capital Thăng Long, now modern Hanoi. On arrival they defeated the army of defeated Trịnh Duy Sản, the head of aristocratic Trịnh family while was part of the ruling dynasty. The royalists left Thăng Long defenceless and its people in panic. Shortly after, Tuan was killed by unlucky chance and his rebels were massacred. He was reported to have been dressed in red at the time, suggesting that he may have been a Taoist sorcerer. One of his followers rebelled again in the same region the following year but was isolated and defeated.


Like the Tran Tuan revolt of 1511, Trần Cảo's rebellion was also regarded as a simple peasant rebellion. Contrary views hold that both were revolts of the peripheral powers against the central administration led by charismatic figures bent on striking directly at the political and symbolic heart of Lê Dynasty. These two uprisings shared pattern that were apart from virtually all later Vietnamese peasant rebellions, which were much more locally oriented. Although they were clearly opposed to central control, later rebellions generally focused their discontent on local representatives by attacking district and provincial posts. They usually roamed the countryside intimidating landlords, pillaging opposing villages, allowing government forces in the capital enough time to organize an effective response.

The Trần Cảo rebellion exhibited none of these characteristics. Cao based his bid for the throne on a combination of genealogical and spiritual platform that balanced maternal and paternal lineage and doctrinal Buddhist and folk elements. Cảo claimed direct descent from the founder of the former Trần Dynasty and membership of the family of Lê Thánh Tông's mother. Spiritually, he proclaimed himself as an incarnation of Indra and as the fulfillment of a popular prophecy. This combination quickly gave rise to a large following in his home district of Thuy Duong and the adjacent Đông Triều, where "all bowed down to him like grass before the wind". In early 1516, Cảo recruited fighters at Quynh Lam Pagoda in Đông Triều, a religious site reputed to have miraculous powers. After shaving their heads, he marched them unopposed, ten thousand strong, through the Kinh Bac districts of Que Duong and Tiên Du, down to the plains of Gia Lâm to Từ Liêm in Sơn Tây Province. This march took little more than ten days. With the insurgents only separated from the capital by the river, Trịnh Duy Sản murdered the emperor Lê Tương Dực and fled with his puppet successor Lê Chiêu Tông, leaving the capital undefended.

This time, chaos ensued. First a rival general, Nguyễn Hoàng Dụ of the Nguyễn, turned his army loose to raze and loot. Then the inhabitants of the capital seized their chance to loot the palaces and administrative buildings of the hated former king, Tương Dực. Finally, Trần Cảo's forces marched into the capital, destroying the Lê dynastic temple and proclaiming a new reign. These events dealt a heavy blow to Lê prestige and legitimacy, as well as its capacity to rule. The court annals noted that "After Tran Cao entered the Capital and the tan mieu (the dynastic temple) was sacked, after [Nguyễn Hoàng Dụ's army] rebelled and the Capital was deserted", they wrote, "seeing this was enough to know that the Le could no longer prosper".

Even when the Trịnh and Nguyen generals decided to combined against the rebels that threatened their privileges, it took months to push the rebels back to their Hải Dương–Kinh Bac border stronghold. There they fought at least one major battle, at Sung Nghiem, before retreating to a Kinh Bac area which they controlled the royal forces finally overcame them in 1521. Before that, Trần Cảo had already transferred power to his son and become a monk. He then disappeared into the countryside, notwithstanding a reward of three hundred taels of gold and two thousand ares of land for his capture. The failure to apprehend him was despite the efforts of the populace who might have sought it, blaming him for the high death toll in Đông Triều, Giap Son, Yen Phong, Tiên Du, and Dong Ngan caused by starvation after vengeful Lê royalists razed the area. He is believed to have died in far north-eastern Kinh Bac, (later Lạng Sơn Province). At the end of the seventeenth century nearly two hundred years later, three villages in Bảo Lộc district still worshipped his cult.


  1. Keith Weller Taylor, John K. Whitmore Essays Into Vietnamese Pasts1995 Page 128 "However, in the Hong-thuan (1509-1516) and Quang-thieu (1516-1522) periods, the state fell into many troubles. . . . Men like Trần Cảo and Trinh Tuy tore up the countryside. This Lê king, Cung-hoang-de, promised to set matters right."
  2. Thien Do Vietnamese Supernaturalism: Views from the Southern Region 2012 Page 54 "In 1516. Trần Cảo led an uprising in support of his claim to be a descendant of a Trần king and also a reincarnation of the god Indra. His army managed to capture the capital briefly and forced the Lê king to flee south.145 Trần Cảo's first base ..."
  • Cooke, Nola (September 1994). "Nineteenth-century Vietnamese Confucianization in historical perspective: evidence from the palace examinations (1463–1883)". Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 25 (2): 270–313. doi:10.1017/S0022463400013515.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

  • (Vietnamese) (Chinese) Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (Complete history record of Great Viet), part regards to the Trần Cao rebellion.