Tay Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam

Ku Boon Dar

The Tay Son movement (1771-1802) was a cataclysmic event that greatly altered the 18th century Vietnamese political and social landscape. It emerged during a period in which Vietnam had been partitioned into two parts along the Gianh River, the Trinh family controlling the North, and the Nguyen family governing the South with an Emperor of Le family overlooking both regions in name only. George Dutton, assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, traces the steps of the three brothers: Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Hue and Nguyen Lu from the hamlet of Tay Son in Binh Dinh Province (west of modern day Qui Nhon) as they led a heterogeneous military force that ousted the Trinh and Nguyen families and eventually toppled the 348 year-old Le Dynasty (1428- 1776).

To do that, Dutton argues the nature of Tay Son movement and its transformation into a series of political regimes is best understood through analysis of the dynamic interactions between the various segments of Vietnamese society during this period (p.5). Indeed, Dutton's analysis challenges the prevailing Vietnamese scholarly traditions by questioning the assumption of a convergence of interests between the Tay Son movement and the peasantry, arguing what might have begun as a movement for the peasants was transformed into a regime that exploited them. He portrays them as political opportunists whose worldview remained constrained by their provincial origins and the exigencies of ongoing warfare and political struggles.

In fact, during the 19th century, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), which had vanquished the Tay Son regime with the assistance of French mercenaries, wrote its own account of the events of the last three decades of the 18th century. The Nguyen Dynasty depicted the movement as an uprising of bandits, rejecting any notion of the Tay Son as having constituted a popular uprising and denying the Tay Son regime's political legitimacy. This politicisation of historiography concerning the Tay Son movement that developed over the course of the 20th century made it difficult for Vietnamese historians to entertain alternative interpretations of those events. Therefore, tracing the manner in which the Tay Son leaders transformed an inchoate uprising into a new political regime, Dutton challenges common depictions of the Tay Son brothers as visionaries or revolutionaries. He challenges the existing scholarship with its simplified view of the Tay Son as a peasant movement by considering the multiplicity of social groups and other pressures that shaped and defined the nature and course of the movement.

To establish a context for this analytical approach, in the first chapter, Dutton provides his readers with an extensive historical background of Tay Son period to understand the hissing armie (p.18). He examines the major causes of the movement and then sketches an outline of the course of the movement itself. While in chapter two, Dutton examines the leadership of the three brothers and described how the movement's leadership saw itself. In additional, he explains how Tay Son movement objectives and political strategies changed over the course of the last three decades of the 18th century. What is interesting in this chapter is that Dutton also examines the political culture of the period to look at the ways in which claims to power were made by the Tay Son brothers. Nevertheless, Dutton argues the Tay Son leadership relied on various sources of legitimacy, ranging from references to the supernatural to elements of Confucian political philosophy, namely mandate of heaven (menh troi) (p.64), righteous uprising (khoi nghia) (p.74) and virtue (due) (p.77) to concrete connections with existing political institutions and ruling families. The Tay Son brothers in fact, who were of the Ho clan (to which Ho Quy Ly had belonged), adopted the name Nguyen to attempt a marital link to the Chinese imperial family. These various affiliations and justifications were extremely important to the Tay Son who emerged from an economic backwater to make ground political claims.

In the following chapter, Dutton examines the manner in which the peasantry was affected by the events and provides a detailed and concrete look at the nature of peasant existence in a time of enormous political upheaval. Rather than characterising of the Tay Son as a peasant movement, Dutton argues the Tay Son movement was led by men who were arguably not true peasants but opportunists. Therefore it appears the lives of peasants did not improve during the 30 years of the Tay Son administration. Instead, ordinary people suffered the vicissitudes of military service, forced labour, heavy taxation and the constant uncertainty produced by the incessant cycle of conflict. Consequently, the peasants began to look to the growing strength of Nguyen forces in the far south as a potential source of salvation from their miseries, just as they had earlier looked to the Tay Son (p.170).

Finally, Dutton looks at the dynamics between the Tay Son leadership and various segments of Vietnamese society, those living at the "social margins" whom Dutton classifies as bandits, pirates and ethnic and religious minorities. He reveals the critical role each of these groups had played in shaping the course and nature of the movement and how their role had frequently been misstated, overlooked or misrepresented in previous studies. For example, outlaws and Chinese pirates* were integral to the Tay Son military successes during this period, ‘the rebel leader connected himself to the Chinese pirates as their [his] protector, just as these same pirates were, through their control of the seas, protecting the Tay Son leader and his regime.'(p.227).

For those who are well versed in Vietnamese (quoc ngu), there are a great number of sources available. According to Li Tana, thousands of books and articles had been published on the Tay Son in Vietnam since the beginning of this [20th] century. (Li Tana, 1998:139). Nevertheless, Dutton has written the comprehensive Western-language study of the Tay Son movement, which permanently altered Vietnam's political trajectory. Dutton uses the Tay Son movement as a lens through which he examines the complex social dynamics precipitated by events of the period. The range of materials Dutton examined is impressive. He weaves together a broad range of sources from northern and southern Vietnam while integrating the invaluable resources for this period such as the manuscripts and printed materials of the Quoc Su Quan [Historical Academy] and Archives des Missions Etrangeres de Paris [MEP] publications to the writings of Vietnamese, French and English scholars.

While the overall approach of the volume is comprehensive, some areas have been left out. One such are is on the Tay Son's foreign policy. Perhaps due to page constraints, Dutton dealt with here are only a representative selection of all the works that have been done. The reader will also find that there is an emphasis on a social historical approach, which is inadvertently Dutton's area of specialisation. In fact, particularly after 1785, Nguyen Nhac had already been installed as an Emperor with a functioning court and capital near Qui Nhon. The Tay Son moreover were developing foreign trade contacts, minting coins and organising the populations under their control. Indeed, Tay Son now had been transformed into a "government" instead of a "movement". Therefore, by looking into its' nascent foreign relationship, namely Tay Son's policies in the far south or north of the country, it can be used to explain the restlessness as well as the methods that both quarter have used to define and to manage Tay Son movement as society and rebellion in 18th century. Additionally, the Tay Son movement is best understood not as an isolated event, but as part of a wider era in Southeast Asia history.

In conclusion, I believe Tay Son Uprising is a splendid work. George Dutton has contributed an important and well-researched work to Vietnamese studies. More importantly, Dutton delved into topics previously poorly understood in the scholarship of the period and in the process undermines many of the common narratives of the Vietnamese past. I hope that scholars studying other parts of Southeast Asia, as well as those interested in Chinese and Japanese interactions with Southeast Asia, will study this book as it gives an engaging and exceptional outlook. Dutton has written a commendable book indeed.


Li Tana, 1998. Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program.

*Please refer to Dian H. Murray, 1987. Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810, Stanford: Stanford University Press. She excellent study describes in which Tay Son's government integrated numerous Chinese pirates groups into the ranks of their military. (pp. 32-55)


Ku Boon Dar

University of Malaya