Traditional accounts of the history of Vietnam (or Dai Viet) date the foundation of the kingdom to 2874 BC. The Nguyen dynasty finds mention as early as the first century AD. They achieved national prominence during the fifteenth century, when a daughter of the house married the Le Prince, Tur Thanh-Ton. The family assisted several princes of the Le dynasty in securing the throne of Dai Viet. Lands, titles and offices conferred on them in reward for these services. By 1503, the head of the Nguyen family, Van-Lang or Dai-Lang, had been raised to the title of Duke. Fifty-five years later, Hoang, Van-Lang's grandson received the government of Thanh-Hoa and Quang-Nam provinces. He established his capital at Hue, extended his control over several adjoining territories and becoming in effect the first Viceroy of Dai Viet. His successors added greatly to these territories and gradually secured their independence, owning only nominal allegiance to the Emperor. By 1693 they were confident enough to assume the title of "Master of the State". Nguyen-Phuoc Khoat assumed the title of Celestial King in 1744. However, the family was forced to flee to Cochin-China when the Trinh forces attacked and captured the capital in 1775. The reigning King abdicated, but his successor was not strong enough to triumph against the Trinh. After several battles Nguyen-Phuoc Anh was forced to flee to Siam. He made contact with French missionaries and despatched his eldest son as Ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI, at the age of eight. The treaty concluded during this mission brought Anh French military assistance in regaining his throne. Together with Siamese naval and military forces he conquered Cochin-China, defeated the Tay Son and the Trinh, took Tonkin and proclaimed himself Emperor as Gia Long in 1802. He sent a tribute Embassy to the Emperor of China, where he had his titles confirmed together with a new name for the country, Vietnam.
In the ensuing years disagreements with the increasing involvement of French Roman Catholic missionaries resulted in increasing tensions with France. The latter intervened to protect its citizens, while Vietnam sought to preserve her independence. The Vietnamese were no match for a modern European power, each successive defeat resulted in the cession of one province after another. In 1862 the French annexed Saigon, Bien-Hoa, and Mytho, as well as the island of Poulo-Condor. By the early 1880's the Emperor controlled no more than a third of his realm, two thirds of it under the direct control of France. After yet another dispute, the Emperor accepted a treaty which formalised Cochin-China as a full colony, leaving Tonkin and Annam as protectorates. Tonkin however, was to be merely a nominal protectorate, the administration being directly controlled by French officials. After emasculating the Emperor of all power, they added insult to injury by further ordering that the translation of the Imperial title (Hoang-de) be downgraded from Emperor to "King". This last decision designed to demonstrate his new subservient position to both his own people and the world at large.
Subservient, the Vietnamese rulers did not remain. The French were compelled to depose and exile three out of the six succeeding rulers for various acts of resistance or non-cooperation.
The fall of France in 1940, proved a watershed for the French Empire in the Far East. Although Vichy forces tried to buy time by appeasing the Japanese, before long the latter were in full control of all their territories. Vietnam entered a new era as part of the Japanese "East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". In reality, one colonial master exchanged for another, though more exploitative and rapacious than its predecessor.
The impending defeat of Japan in early 1945 prompted several nationalist groups to fight for complete independence. Notable amongst them, the Viet Minh, led by the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh. Before the Allied forces were able to land, Ho established control over the north, centred on the Tonkin capital of Hanoi. Meanwhile, the French educated Emperor Bao Dai proclaimed the full independence and unity of Vietnam on 18th June 1945, including the repatriation of the provinces of Tonkin and Cochin-China. He also resumed the title of Emperor.
The Viet Minh were, by far, the best equipped military force in the country at the time, having seized or been given arms by the departing Japanese. Their increasing power prompted the Emperor, with no adequate military forces of his own, to invite Ho to assume full power in Hue. He abdicated voluntarily in order to avoid bloodshed amongst his people, particularly after they had suffered so much over the previous five years. Although appointed as a "Special Adviser" to the new government, disillusion with the new leadership induced him to withdraw into exile in Hong Kong.
The Allies, represented by the British and Indian forces liberated Cochin-China and the southern provinces. They released all the French officials imprisoned by the Japanese, hoping to transfer the civil administration of the country to the Free French. Unfortunately, the first actions of the freed prisoners included a general rampage of revenge directed against the local populace.Various attempts at reconciliation between the French and the Viet Minh failed. France sought to establish a semi-independent state in the south and invited the former Emperor for talks. After protracted negotiations, the French recognised the unity of Vietnam within the French Union.
A new government took office at Saigon in 1949, with Emperor Bao Dai as Quoc Truong or Head of State. The Communists in the north ignored these efforts, refused to be reconciled, and continued the armed struggle. Two parallel governments emerged with the country effectively partitioned into two states, a Communist controlled north and a French backed south. After a heavy military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French forces that had been fighting against the communist Viet Minh, withdrew from the country altogether. The Americans, then at the height of their world crusade against communism, replaced the French as the principal military guarantor. Headed by a government unfriendly to royalty, the US wanted Vietnam to project a new "democratic" face to the world, in image if not reality. Their protégé, the American educated Diem, was encouraged to remove the Emperor. A corrupt plebiscite, designed to return the desired result was duly arranged. The Americans advised him that 60% of the votes cast were sufficient for their purposes, but Diem demanded 98%. The result yielded 98.7% with the number of votes cast in Saigon exceeding the number of registered voters by 33%. The Emperor was duely deposed on 26th October 1955 and he went into exile in France, dying there in 1997. His country endured another twenty-years of dictatorships, war and devastation before the Americans also finally withdrew. The republican government in the south collapsed immediately, leaving the country to be re-united under the Viet Minh for the first time in ninety years. The sence of euphoria that followed proved short-lived. Border disputes with China and the invasion of Cambodia reeked further agonies upon an already unhappy people. It is only within the last decade that Vietnam has enjoyed peace, the first such period in half a century of continuous war.
RULES OF SUCCESSION:
The reigning Emperor could nominate one of his sons as Heir Apparent before his death, or in his testament. If he left no sons, he could adopt a blood relative from amongst the male line descendants of Emperor Gia Long. In the absence of either of the above, a successor may be chosen by the Imperial Privy Council acting with the concurrence of the Imperial family. Again, the heir must be a male line descendant of Emperor Gia Long.
It should be noted that a "Vietnamese Imperial Family Overseas Central Council" (founded 1993) never existed in Vietnamese history and never played any part in the selection of a successor, regent, or the composition of a council of regency, nor did it play any part in the affairs of the empire.
SELECT GLOSSARY: Ba: a title of hereditary nobility, equivalent to Count. Bao Dai: "protector of grandeur".
Binh-Bo: Minister for War. Bo: Minister. Co-mat vien: Privy Council Cong: Prince.
Cong-Bo: Minister for Public Works. Cong Chua: Princess, daughter of an Emperor or King. Dai Cung Mon: Great Golden Gate, the entrance to the Purple Forbidden City. Dai Noi: 'great enclosure', i.e. the Imperial City. Dien: Imperial palace. Hau: a title of hereditary nobility, equivalent to Marquis. Hien-man-cac: Pavilion of Splendour. Hinh-Bo: Minister for Justice. Ho-Bo: Minister for Finance. Hoang-De: Emperor. Hoang-De Nuoc Annam: "King of Annam". Hoang-Hau: Empress. Hoang-Thai-Hau: Empress Dowager. Hoang-Thanh: Yellow City. Kinh-luoc: Imperial High Commissioner. Lai-Bo: Minister for Public Functions. Le-Bo: Minister for Rites and Customs. Nam: a title of hereditary nobility, equivalent to Baron.
Nam Phuong: "perfume of the south".
Ngoai-huu: Minister-Mandarin of the Exterior Law (de droite).
Ngoai-ta: Minister-Mandarin of the Exterior Gate (de gauche). Ngu-lam: Imperial Guards. Noi-huu: Minister-Mandarin of the Interior Law (de droite). Noi-cac: Cabinet. Noi-ta: Minister-Mandarin of the Interior Gate (de gauche). Phu: Royal residence. Phu Chinh Phu: Council of Regency. Quoc Chua: Master of the State. Quoc-Cong: Grand Duke. Quan-Cong: Duke, usually of a province. Thai-Binh-Lau: the Imperial Library. Thai-Hoa-Dien: Hall of Supreme Harmony, the throne room of the Emperors. Thai-Thuong-Hoang: Grand King, the title of the sovereign during the Tran era. Thai-thuong Hoang-Hau: Grand Empress Dowager. Than-Quan: 'gardes du corps'. Thien-Hoang: Celestial Emperor. Thien-tu': "son of heaven", one of the titles of the Emperor. Thien Vuong: Celestial King. Tong-doc: provincial Governor. Truong-sanh: Palace of Longevity. Tu: a title of hereditary nobility, equivalent to Viscount.
Tu Cam Thanh: Purple City, the forbidden enclosure of the Imperial City of Hue, within which the Emperor and his family lived. Tu-tru-dai-than: 'the four pillars', i.e. the four senior Minister-Mandarins. Vinh phong: noble, one without a title of honour. Vuong: King.