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The Trần Cao rebellion in 1516 is the best documented rebellion in Vietnammarker 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.


The Le Dynasty was established by Emperor Le Loi in 1428 after expelling the Ming Dynastymarker of Chinamarker, which had occupied Vietnam. In 1460, one of his successors. Le Thanh Ton rose to the throne, beginning what was regarded as a golden age in Vietnamese history. During his rule of 37 years, Le Thanh Ton 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 Le Thanh Ton expanded Vietnam’s army and expanded south towards Hue 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 Hung Hoa and western Son Taymarker provinces, and moved them directly against the capital Thang Longmarker, now modern Hanoimarker. On arrival they defeated the army of defeated Trinh Duy San, the head of aristocratic Trinh family while was part of the ruling dynasty. The royalists left Thanh 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, Tran Cao’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 Le 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 Tran Cao 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. Cao claimed direct descent from the founder of the former Tran dynasty and membership of the family of Le Thanh Ton'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 Dong Trieu, where "all bowed down to him like grass before the wind”. In early 1516, Cao recruited fighters at Quynh Lam Pagoda in Dong Trieu, 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 Tien Du, down to the plains of Gia Lam to Tu Liem in Son Tay province. This march took little more than ten days. With the insurgents only separated from the capital by the river, Trinh Duy San murdered the emperor Le Tuong Duc and fled with his puppet successor Le Chieu Tong, leaving the capital undefended.

This time, chaos ensued. First a rival general, Nguyen Hoang Du of the Nguyen, 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, Tuong Duc. Finally, Tran Cao's forces marched into the capital, destroying the Le dynastic temple and proclaiming a new reign. These events dealt a heavy blow to Le 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 [Nguyen Hoang Du'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 Trinh and Nguyen generals decided to combined against the rebels that threatened their privileges, it took months to push the rebels back to their Hai Duongmarker-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, Tran Cao 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 Dong Trieu, Giap Son, Yen Phong, Tien Du, and Dong Ngan caused by starvation after vengeful Le royalists razed the area. He is believed to have died in far north-eastern Kinh Bac, (later Lang Sonmarker province). At the end of the seventeenth century nearly two hundred years later, three villages in Bao Loc district still worshipped his cult.


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