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The name of Tây Son (??) is used in many ways referring back to the period of peasant rebellions and decentralized dynasties established between the eras of the Later Lê and Nguy?n dynasties in history of Vietnam. Sometimes the name Tây Son is used to refer to the leaders of this revolt (the Tây Son brothers), sometimes it is used as the name of the war (the Tây Son Uprising) or it could also refer to the brothers’ form of innovative governmental rule (the Tây Son Dynasty).
During the 18th century the country of Vietnam was under the symbolic rule of the officially revered but politically ignored Lê King. Real power was actually in the hands of two warring feudal families, the Tr?nh Lords of the North who controlled the Emperor and ruled from the court in Hanoi and the Nguy?n Lords in the South, who ruled from their capital at Hu?. Both sides fought each other for control of the nation, while they both claimed to be loyal to the king.
Like China at this time, life for the peasant farmers was poor. Most of the land was owned by fewer and fewer people as the years passed. The mandarin bureaucracy was oppressive and often corrupt; at one point royal-sanctioned degrees were up for sale for whomever was wealthy enough to purchase them. The ruling lords by contrast lived lavish lifestyles in huge palaces.
The war between the Tr?nh and the Nguy?n had ended in 1673 and life for the northern peasants under the Tr?nh Lords was fairly peaceful. However, the Nguy?n Lords engaged in a nearly constant series of wars with the weak Khmer Empire and, later, the fairly strong state of Siam. While the Nguy?n usually won their wars, and the new lands they conquered offered new opportunities for the landless poor, the frequent wars took their toll on the popularity of the Nguy?n rulers.
In 1769, the new king of Siam, P’ya Taksin, launched a war to try to regain control over Cambodia. The war generally went against the Nguy?n army and they were forced to retreat from some of the newly conquered lands. This example of governmental failure coupled with heavy taxes and corruption at the local level caused three brothers from Tây Son to begin a revolt against the Nguy?n Lord, Nguy?n Phuc Thuan.
The three Tây Son brothers styled themselves as the champions of the people. Over the next year the revolt gained traction and they won some battles against the Nguy?n army sent to crush their rebellion. The Tây Son had a great deal of popular support, not only from the poor farmers but from some of the minority tribes. Also, the leader of the three brothers, Nguy?n Hu?, was a very skilled military leader.
Nguy?n Hu? said that his goal was to end the people’s oppression, reunite the country and restore power to the Lê Dynasty emperor in Hanoi. The Tây Son also promised to remove corrupt officials and redistibute land.
In 1773 the Tây Son army captured the city of Qui Nhon, where the merchants, who had suffered under restrictive laws put in place by the Nguy?n, gave the Tây Son army financial support.
The Nguy?n, at last recognizing the seriousness of the revolt, made peace with the Siamese, giving up some lands they had conquered in the previous decades. But now a heavy blow came down. The Tr?nh Lord, Tr?nh Sam, choose to end the 100 year peace and he sent his army south to attack Phu Xuan (modern day Hu?), the Nguy?n capital. The Tr?nh army captured the city, forcing the Nguy?n clan to flee to Gia Ð?nh (now called Saigon).
The Tr?nh army continued to head south and the Tây Son army continued its conquest of other southern cities. The Nguy?n were not very popular at this time and the forces against them were too powerful. In 1776 the Tây Son army captured the last Nguy?n stronghold of Saigon. The entire Nguy?n family was killed at the end of the siege, except for one nephew, Nguy?n Ánh, who managed to escape to Siam.
While they said they wanted to restore power to the legitimate authorities, in 1778, one of the brothers, Nguy?n Nh?c proclaimed himself Emperor. A conflict with the Tr?nh was thus unavoidable.
The Tây Son spent the next decade consolidating their control over the former Nguy?n lands of south Vietnam. Nguy?n Ánh proved to be a stubborn enemy. He convinced the King of Siam, P’ya Taksin, to invade Vietnam in support of his claim to rule. The Siamese army attacked in 1780 but in several years of warfare, it was unable to defeat the Tây Son army. In 1782, the Siamese king was killed in a revolt and less than a year later, Nguy?n Ánh’s forces were driven out of Vietnam. However, he would be back.
Nguy?n Hu? decided to destroy the power of the Tr?nh. He marched north at the head of a large army in 1786 and after a short campaign, defeated the Tr?nh army. The Tr?nh were also unpopular and the Tây Son army seemed invincible. The Tr?nh clan fled north into China. Hu? married Lê Ng?c Hân, the daughter of the nominal Lê Emperor, Lê Hi?n Tông.