Nguyễn Huệ

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Nguyễn Huệ
Emperor of Đại Việt
Statue of Emperor Quang Trung.
Reign 1788 - 1792
Predecessor Thái Đức
Successor Cảnh Thịnh
Born 1753
Died 1792
Spouse Phạm Thị Liên
Bùi Thị Nhạn
Lê Thị Ngọc Hân
Lê Thị
Trần Thị Quỵ
Nguyễn Thị Bích
Full name
Hồ Thơm
Nguyễn Huệ
Nguyễn Quang Bình
House Tayson

Nguyễn Huệ (Hán tự: 阮惠), also known as Emperor Quang Trung (光中) (born in Bình Định in 1753, died in Phú Xuân on 16 September 1792), was the second emperor of the Tây Sơn dynasty, reigning from 1788 until 1792.[1] He was also one of the most successful military commanders in Vietnam's history,[2] though he was known to have attained these achievements by ruthless, massive killing of especially the entire Nguyen lords families. Nguyễn Huệ and his brothers, together known as the Tây Sơn brothers,[3] were the leaders of the famous Tây Sơn rebellion. As rebels, they conquered Vietnam, overthrowing the imperial Later Lê dynasty and the two rival feudal houses of the Nguyễn in the south and the Trịnh in the north.

After several years of constant military campaigning and rule, Nguyễn Huệ died at the age of 40, possibly due to a stroke. Legend has it that he died actually because he was punished by spirits of dead Nguyen lords whose tombs he seriously insulted.[4] Prior to his death, he had made plans to continue his march southwards in order to destroy the army of Nguyễn Ánh, a surviving heir of the Nguyễn lords. Nguyễn Huệ's death led to the downfall of the Tây Sơn dynasty. His successors were unable to follow the plans he had made for ruling Annam. However, his conquests marked the beginning of approximately a century in which Annam was both unified and independent until the Western conquest of Vietnam in 1884.

Early life[edit]

According to multiple sources, Nguyễn Huệ's ancestors were peasants who lived in Nghệ An.[5][6][7] They left Nghệ An and moved to southern Vietnam after an attack by the Nguyễn lords against the Trịnh lords in Nghệ An. His ancestors' surname was Hồ (), but Huệ's great grandfather Hồ Phi Long, who was a servant of the Dinh family of Bằng Chân hamlet, Tuy Viễn district (or An Nhơn), Quy Nhơn province, married a woman from the Dinh family and had a son named Hồ Phi Tiễn, Huệ's grandfather. Hồ Phi Tiễn did not continue farming as his father, but instead traded in betel. Through his work he met and married Nguyễn Thị Đồng, the only daughter of a rich betel tradesman residing in Tây Sơn village. One of their children was Huệ's father Hồ Phi Phúc (also known as Nguyễn Phi Phúc). Some sources say that in taking on the surname Nguyễn, the family followed the surname of Huệ's mother; other sources say that it followed the surname of Nguyễn lords of southern Vietnam.

Nguyễn Huệ was born in 1753 in Tây Sơn village, Nghia Binh province (now Bình Định). He was the third of three brothers in a family with eight children. His father, Nguyễn Phi Phúc, made the three brothers dedicate themselves to their studies early in life. Their martial arts master was Trương Văn Hiến, a learned guest (môn khách) and friend of Trương Văn Hạnh, who in turn was the teacher of Nguyễn Phúc Luân, the father of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (or Nguyễn Ánh). After Trương Văn Hạnh killed by Trương Phúc Loan, Nguyễn Lord's uncle and a powerful chancellor, Trương Văn Hiến fled to Bình Định. He was first man to discover the talents of the Tây Sơn brothers and to advise them to do great deeds. He is accounted for the prophecy "Tây khởi nghĩa, Bắc thu công" (Revolt in the West, success in the North).

Seeking to overthrow the corrupted Trương Phúc Loan and to help the prince Nguyễn Phúc Dương, the eldest of the Tây Sơn Brothers, Nguyễn Nhạc, gathered an army and revolted in 1771. He was aided by his brothers Nguyễn Huệ and Nguyễn Lữ. In the early days of the rebellion, Huệ was the most helpful of Nhạc's generals both in finance and in training the army; with the encouragement of Trương Văn Hiến and his own talent, Huệ rapidly increased his own popularity and that of the Tây Sơn Rebellion.

Quang Trung thông bảo, A coin issued during the reign of Emperor Quang Trung

Due to its popularity, the Tây Sơn army grew strong and attracted many talented generals, (such as Nguyễn Thung, Bùi Thị Xuân, Võ Văn Dũng, Võ Đình Tú, Trần Quang Diệu, Trương Mỹ Ngọc, and Võ Xuân Hoài). The rebels became famous for their policy: "fair, no corruption, only looting the rich, and help the poor" (công bằng, không tham nhũng, và chỉ cướp của của người giàu, giúp người nghèo).[8]

The unification of Việt Nam[edit]

Early time[edit]

After 200 years of holding power in southern Vietnam, the government of the Nguyễn Lords had become progressively weaker, due to its poor leadership and internal conflicts. Following the death of Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, the powerful official Trương Phúc Loan began to arrogate to himself control over the Nguyễn government.[9][10] For the purpose of resisting against the excessive power of Trương Phúc Loan and coming to the assistance of Prince Nguyễn Phúc Dương, the Tây Sơn Brothers gathered an army and revolted against the government of the Nguyễn Lords. The rebel army of the Tây Sơn quickly occupied the central part of Nguyễn's territory covering from Quy Nhơn to Bình Thuận, thereby weakening the authority of the Nguyễn government.[9][10]

In 1774, the government of the Nguyễn lords sent a large army led by general Tống Phúc Hiệp against the Tây Sơn rebels. From Gia Định, the troops marched to northern central Vietnam, and after several battles they recaptured Bình Thuận, Diên Khánh, and Bình Khang. The rebel army of the Tây Sơn now only held the land from Phú Yên to Quảng Ngãi.

Also in 1774, the ruler of northern Vietnam, Trịnh Sâm, sent a massive army of 30,000 soldiers led by general Hoàng Ngũ Phúc southwards with the same purpose as that of the Tây Sơn rebel army, namely to help the Nguyễn Lords fight Trương Phúc Loan. The northern troops were unobstructed in their march to Phú Xuân, the governmental capital of the Nguyễn Lords. The government of the Nguyễn Lords feared the beginning of an unmanageable war on two fronts.[9][10] Officials of the government arrested Trương Phúc Loan and gave him up to the troops of the Trịnh Lords. The Trịnh lords, however, continued attacking Phú Xuân under the pretext of helping the Nguyễn Lords suppress the Tây Sơn rebellion. The Nguyễn Lord Nguyễn Phúc Thuần and his officials initially attempted to resist the attack, but ended up fleeing to Quảng Nam.[10]

Seizing the opportunity, Nguyễn Nhạc led an army (with naval support from Chinese pirates) against Quảng Nam. Once again, the Nguyễn Lord Nguyễn Phúc Thuần fled, this time by sea to Gia Dinh, accompanied by Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, and leaving behind his nephew Nguyễn Phúc Dương.[9] Early in 1775, the army of the Trịnh Lords marched on Quảng Nam at the same time as the Tây Sơn troops reached Quảng Nam. Tây Sơn troops searched for and then captured Nguyễn Phúc Dương. The army of the Trịnh Lords crossed the pass at Hai Van gorge, engaged the Tây Sơn troops, and defeated them.[10]

At the same time, the general of the Nguyễn lords Tống Phúc Hiệp led his troops against Phú Yên, forcing the Tây Sơn army to withdraw.

Fearing a war on two fronts, Nguyễn Nhạc sent Hoàng Ngũ Phúc a proposal that if the Trịnh lords recognized the Tây Sơn Rebel Army, the Tây Sơn would help the Trịnh lords fight against the Nguyễn Lords. The proposal was accepted, and Nguyễn Nhạc was made an official of the Trịnh lords. Nhac also made peace with the Nguyễn lords, causing Tống Phúc Hiệp to take off the pressure, and deluded Prince Nguyễn Phúc Dương.[10] His diplomacy provisionally made Tây Sơn's enemies inactive and bought him valuable time to shore up his army.[10]

Tây Sơn's counter-attack[edit]

Realising that the provisional truce would not last long, Nguyen Nhạc retrained the rebel army, recruited new soldiers, fortified Đồ Bàn castle, and built new bases, preparing for an attack.[9]

Tống Phúc Hiệp, who had been deceived by Nguyện Nhạc peaceful overtures, did not pay much attention to Nhạc's activities. He did not prepare for either defending or attacking. Nhạc made use of Hiệp's inactivity, and sent troops led by his brother Nguyễn Huệ against him. The Tây Sơn troops swiftly defeated the unprepared troops of the Nguyễn Lords and inflicted heavy losses upon them. Tống Phúc Hiệp and his troops fled to Van Phong.[9] It was the first great victory achieved by Huệ. Nhạc sent news of the victory to Hoàng Ngũ Phúc. On Phuc's request, the Trinh rewarded Nhạc with a new office.

Because the troops of the Trịnh Lords lacked familiarity with the southern country, Hoàng Ngũ Phúc withdrew the troops to the north. En route, he died of natural causes. Phúc's death marked the end of the Trịnh Lords' interventions in the south.[9] While the army of the Trịnh Lords withdrew to Thuận Hóa, Tây Sơn moved quickly in sending its troops to take over the abandoned territory and to suppress elements loyal to the Nguyễn Lords.

The consequent conquests[edit]

Having gained a lot of new rich land without facing much opposition, the Tây Sơn army grew stronger. Nhạc had a desire to expand Tây Sơn's authority. He sent a large army led by his youngest brother Nguyễn Lữ to launch a sudden attack against Gia Định (now called Ho Chi Minh City) by sea. Lữ's raid was successful: he occupied Sài Côn (hay Sài Gòn) and forced the Nguyễn Lord and his followers to flee to Biên Hòa. His success was short-lived, however, when an army loyal to the Nguyễn Lords and led by a man named Đỗ Thành Nhân rose against him in Đông Sơn. The loyalist army attacked and forced Tây Sơn's troops to withdraw from Sài Côn. Before withdrawing, Lữ seized the local foodstores and took them back to Quy Nhơn.[10]

Nguyễn Nhạc, due to his power, repaired to Đồ Bàn city and in 1776 proclaimed himself King of Tây Sơn (Vietnamese: Tây Sơn Vương), choosing Đồ Bàn as his capital.[10] He gave Huệ the title Phụ Chính (Vice National Administrator)and later on Bắc Bình Vương (King of Northern Conquering). In 1777, Nguyễn Huệ led an army and successfully reoccupy Sài Côn, destroy Nguyễn lords' army. Most members of Nguyễn royal family died in this campaign, except Nguyễn Ánh, who find a refuge in Kingdom of Siam.

Defeat of Siam (Thailand)[edit]

In 1784, urged by Nguyễn Ánh, the King of Siam send an army including two legions of infantry and navy marched into Southern Việt Nam, reaching somewhere which now is Rạch Giá. After some Tây Sơn generals were defeated by the Siamese, Nguyễn Huệ himself led his armies against the invaders. At the battle of Rạch Gầm - Xoài Mút, the Siamese were defeated and were forced to retreat back to their homeland. One of the secret weapons of the Tây Sơn force was the Hỏa Hổ Thần Công (Flaming Tiger Cannon), which could release a stream of fire at a very long range. Many Siamese wooden fleets were burnt by that siege weapon, reducing the Siamese navy's capability to carry out attacks against its enemies,

Campaign against Trịnh Lords[edit]

In 1786, Nguyễn Huệ led his army to the north of Việt Nam with the cause of assisting the Lê dynasty and defeating Lord Trịnh. The first battle between the two forces was the battle of Phú Xuân (modern Huế), which the Tây Sơn army won, allowing the Tây Sơn to occupy Phú Xuân. After the occupation of Phú Xuân, Nguyễn Huệ easily captured Thăng Long (modern Hà Nội) and other cities. Although he had not been proclaimed as an Emperor at all, Nguyễn Huệ was respected by citizens of Thăng Long as the way an Emperor would be treated.

Main events from 1786 to 1788

After the defeat of Lord Trịnh in Thăng Long, the leader of the Tây Sơn, Nguyễn Nhạc ordered Nguyễn Huệ to bring his troops back to Phú Xuân. In 1787, Nguyễn Huệ led his army back to Phú Xuân (by then, Phú Xuân was the capital of Tây Sơn). During 1787 to 1788, many serious events took place. The first event was that Emperor Lê Hiến Tông of the Lê dynasty died. The succeeding emperor Lê Chiêu Thống had a plan to fight against Tây Sơn. He reestablished the office of Lord Trịnh and prepared his force for a battle against Tây Sơn. The second serious event was that Lê Chiêu Thống called for help from Qing China in order to destroy the Tây Sơn. The treaty between the Lê dynasty and the Qing led to the appearance of 290,000 Qing soldiers in Thăng Long in 1788. Those events became the most dangerous challenges to Tây Sơn.

Defeat of the Qing army[edit]

Late 18th-century painting depicting the Qianlong Emperor receiving Nguyễn Quang Hiển, the peace envoy from Nguyen Hue in Beijing.

The Qianlong Emperor of the Chinese Qing dynasty sent a massive army south with Lê Chiêu Thống (the last official Lê emperor) in 1788 to restore him to the throne, though under Qing protection.

On December 22, 1788, Nguyễn Huệ erected an altar on a hill south of Phu Xuan and proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung, in effect abolishing the Lê dynasty.[11] He then raised an army and later gathered his forces in the countryside around Thăng Long (today called Ha Noi) which had been taken by the Qing army. He allegedly declared in front of his soldiers:

Fight to keep our hair long,
Fight to keep our teeth black,
Fight so that our enemies won't have a single wheel to come home
Fight so that our enemies won't have a single armor to come home
Fight so that history knows this heroic Southern country has its owners.

In a brilliantly successful battle, Nguyễn Huệ made a surprise and fast attack against the Qing forces during Tết, the Vietnamese lunar new year holiday. This was traditionally a time of peace for all sides and the Qing troops were unprepared for battle. In a fierce 4-day battle they were soundly and stunningly defeated and Lê Chiêu Thống was forced to flee for his life back to China. Around 30,000 Qing troops were killed. Yet, Nguyễn Huệ showed considerable mercy to the defeated Qing forces, allowing them to return home with honor and encouraging a peaceful relationship in keeping with previous arrangements, with the Qianlong Emperor. As for himself, Nguyễn Huệ had become the national savior of Vietnam and one of the most popular figure in the country.


Once in power, Emperor Quang Trung first began instituting massive and unprecedented national reforms in Vietnam. He set up a new system of administration and replaced the traditional Chinese script with the Vietnamese Chữ Nôm as the official written language of the country. His religious toleration won him the support of the growing Christian community and his campaign of the common people against the traditional elites won him the admiration of the peasant majority. He introduced the identity card system to govern the large population.


Most cities in Vietnam, regardless of the political orientation of the government, have named major streets after him.[12]

Nguyễn Huệ
Born: 1753 Died: 1792
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Thái Đức
Ruler of Vietnam
Succeeded by
Cảnh Thịnh


  1. ^ Patricia M. Pelley Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past - 2002- Page 191 "The people of the North, who warmly welcomed Nguyễn Huệ, formed peasant armies to help him wage war against the Trịnh. Thus, the movement that had begun in Qui Nhơn came to engulf all of Vietnam."
  2. ^ Théophile Le Grand de la Liraye Notes historiques sur la nation annamite
  3. ^ The three brothers, listed from eldest to youngest, were Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Huệ, Nguyễn Lữ.
  4. ^ In Vietnamese: Quang Trung Nguyễn Huệ (1753-1792) Vietsciences Accessed 14-11-2007
  5. ^ In Vietnamese: Trung chi II họ Hồ Quỳnh ĐôiTiểu chi Cụ Án, Trung chi 5
  6. ^ In Vietnamese Việt Nam sử lược, Trần Trọng Kim, page 70,
  7. ^ In Vietnamese: Khâm Định Việt Sử thông Giám Khương Mục, Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn, page 294
  8. ^ Les Espagnols dans l’Empire d’Annam, Spanish Catholic Priest Diego de Jumilla.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Vietnamese: Lịch Sử Việt Nam: Từ Thượng Cổ Đến Thời Hiện Đại: Nhà Tây Sơn (1771 - 1802) Vietnam Ministry of culture and information. Accessed 16-11-2007
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Vietnamese:Việt Nam Sử Lược PHẦN IV: Tự Chủ Thời-Đại Thời Kỳ Nam Bắc Phân Tranh (1528-1802) Trần Trọng Kim. Accessed 16-11-2007
  11. ^ Tucker, Spencer C. The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History [4 volumes]. ABC-CLIO, May 20, 2011; p. 454
  12. ^ Vietnam Country Map. Periplus Travel Maps. 2002–03. ISBN 0-7946-0070-0.  Check date values in: |year= (help)