The Tay Son Movement

Author: George Dutton
Filed under history -> timeline | Wed, 02 Dec 2009 | viewed (3810x)


A Brief History of the Tay Son Movement (1771-1802)

This essay is designed as a cursory introduction to the Tay Son movement and

its main phases. The focus on this essay is on broad military and political
events during this period, with some description of economic and social
factors that precipitated the uprising. This essay does not attempt to
explore the very important, and to my mind, more interesting social and
ideological ramifications of the Tay Son movement. It is thus far from
complete, but I hope that it will serve as a useful starting point for
understanding why the Tay Son period was such a significant one in Vietnam's
long history. The sources for this essay can be found in the bibliographical
pages I have posted elsewhere on this site. I have not included footnotes in

this essay, to reduce clutter. However, I will gladly provide citations to
those who are interested. I also welcome feedback on this essay and hope to
improve it over time:

* Background to the Tay Son: The Trinh-Nguyen Schism

The story of the Tay Son must, in some ways, begin with the division of the
country into northern and southern ruling houses. While this is often
portrayed as a partition or division of Viet Nam, the reality is that prior

to the Nguyen- led expansion to the south there had been no real Vietnamese
political presence in that region. Thus, it is more precisely the case that
the Nguyen opened up new territory, at the expense of the Chams and the
Khmers, and used this new territory to challenge the authority of the Trinh
ruling family in the north. The reason that there is some confusion on this
point is the fact that the Nguyen continued to profess their allegiance to
the Le Emperor, who remained the nominal political leader of the country.
Since the Nguyen viewed themselves as officials of the Le dynasty, they did
not portray themselves as a leaders of a separate entity. Despite their

continuing allegiance, over time they gradually changed their titles and the
words used to describe their officialdom and trappings of state so that by
the latter part of the 18th century there was no doubt about their own sense
of their political strength. As early as 1702 there were clear indications
that the Nguyen were not content to view themselves as subordinates of the
Le. In that year, Le Quy Don reports, in his Phu Bien Tap Luc, that the
Nguyen lord sent a message and gifts to China (via Siamese middlemen)
requesting that the Nguyen be granted political recognition. The Chinese,
seeing an Emperor still on the throne in the north, refused to accept the

Nguyen appeal and gifts. In any event, the confrontation between the Trinh,
in the north, and the Nguyen in the south was a defining element of
Vietnamese history from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the

The division between the Trinh and Nguyen is further complicated, by the fact
that the two families were related by marriage since the mid-16th century. It
was in this period that both where fighting on behalf of the legitimate heir
of the Le dynasty which was struggling for survival against the upstart Mac

family. Nguyen Kim, the progenitor of the Nguyen family was a general who was
defending the Le against the Mac, and he needed the assistance of Trinh Kiem,
a gifted general, to support his campaign. To secure this assistance, Nguyen
Kim gave his daughter to Kiem in marriage. The power balance between the two
families shifted in xxx , when Kim was poisoned by a surrendering Mac
general, and Trinh Kiem took command of the Le troops. As a result, the Trinh
began to gain the political upper hand,

Eventually they sought to impose a more direct political control and to

extend their influence over the Le emperor. However, even without Nguyen Kim,
the Nguyen family was still quite powerful through the prestige of his two
sons, and could potentially jeopardize the Trinh aspirations. Consequently, a
Trinh general killed one of Nguyen Kim's two sons in the mid-1550s, and the
other son, Nguyen Hoang, fearing the same fate, arranged to be stationed in
the south in Thuan Hoa. The Trinh were content to keep the Nguyen at a
distance, where they could offer no challenge to Trinh political supremacy at
the Le court. By 1566, Nguyen Hoang had become governor of Thuan Hoa and
Quang Nam, with the provision that he remit annual tribute to the Le Emperor

in the name of the Trinh.[Side Note: while the Nguyen-Trinh split thus dates
from the 1550s, the Le-Mac conflict, which had broken out in 1527, continued
until 1592, and in fact beyond that with Mac remnants continuing to pose a
threat to the Trinh and their control over the Le dynasty.]

The Trinh rule became more oppressive and while Nguyen Hoang came back for 8
years (1593-1600) to help the Le and Trinh put down a Mac challenge, he left
again when he saw a series of revolts against the Trinh developing around the
north. He left his daughter in marriage to a Trinh, and stationed his 6th son

in Quang Nam, to divert the Trinh from realizing that he had no intention of
returning to the north. War broke out under Nguyen Hoang's son Nguyen Phuc
Nguyen, in 1627, when he refused a summons to return to the Le court. In all,
seven major campaigns were fought between the two sides from 1627 to 1672,
with both sides at one time invading the other. The battles were ultimately
inconclusive, and finally, after the seventh conflict, it was agreed that the
Linh-Gianh River would serve as a demarcation line between the two
territories, with both sides continuing to claim their allegiance to the Le.
This line was to hold until the Tay Son period, when the Trinh, taking

advantage of the plight of the Nguyen invaded over the Linh-Gianh River.
The main things to keep in mind are that by the beginning of the 18th
century, Viet Nam - or more accurately Dai Viet as it was formally known at
the time - was divided between two ruling families, the Trinh in the North,
who controlled a puppet Emperor, and the Nguyen in the South who also claimed
to be loyal supporters of the Imperial House. The line dividing their
respective territories was at the Linh-Gianh River, which flows through Quang
Binh province, north of Hue [check on this]. This sets the stage for the
events of the 18th century, and the Tay Son rebellion in particular.

* Economic and Political Turmoil in the Trinh North

The 18th century was a period of almost continual upheaval and turmoil in
both parts of Viet Nam, though perhaps more dramatically in the north. There
the situation deteriorated dramatically during the second decade of the
century, under the rule of Trinh Giang and his successors. His tyrannical
reign and tolerance of corruption among officials led to a large number of
rebellions in the north. In addition, the capital was in almost constant

upheaval as various political factions emerged supporting various claimants
to the titles of Chua and Emperor. There were numerous troop uprisings and
military factions came to hold increasing power over political events. These
political problems, however, were only the backdrop to more profound problems
affecting northern society.

The chief economic and social problems were related to land distribution,
taxation and natural disasters. In the area of land distribution, the
fundamental problem was that much Vietnamese farming was done on communal

lands, controlled by the village. In Trinh territory by this time, much of the
communal land had been seized by powerful officials and landholders who had
established private estates of their own - leaving many villages with
inadequate farm land. Efforts by the Trinh to protect communal land, and its
periodic redistribution, were unsuccessful because the power of local or
provincial-level officials was simply too strong.

The second huge problem was an increasing tax burden falling on the northern
Vietnamese population, designed to support the grandiose spending by the

Trinh on new palaces, ceremonies, pagodas, etc. The distribution of the tax
burden also became increasingly uneven as mandarins in the bureaucratic
hierarchy were exempted from the land tax.Furthermore, a whole new tax
structure was created to extract revenue from non-land sources - taxes on
goods and services, including many everyday items such as salt and charcoal.
As a consequence, many small artisans were forced out of business because the
people could no longer afford to purchase their goods.

Finally, in addition to these artificially constructed problems, the north

was beset by a series of natural disasters that further compounded the
difficulties facing the general populace. Famines struck large parts of the
north in the 1730s and 1740s, causing widespread death and disease. In fact,
court histories that describe these events talk of bodies lining many of the
major roads in the north, and people turning to cannibalism to survive.
Clearly the situation was catastrophic. All of these factors contributed to
make life under the Trinh rather miserable; they also contributed to
large-scale population movements with people leaving their local villages in
search of food, land or shelter. As a consequence, the Trinh lost a great

deal of control over their people. Political and economic control at this
time was dependent on sedentary populations based in villages where records
could be maintained, taxes could be collected and crops could be farmed. With
large numbers of people on the road, the stage was set for turmoil. The Trinh
repeatedly sought to lure people back to their villages and farms, but these
efforts were also largely ineffectual.

It was these wandering populations that served as the main source of
supporters for the rebellions that were to break out in the North beginning

in the 1730s, and were to remain a major problem for the Trinh up to the time
of their final destruction by the Tay Son in the 1780s. In fact, they became
almost a continuous feature of the landscape of Trinh territory throughout
the century. Many of these rebellions were, in fact, not led by the displaced
and starving peasantry, but rather by members of the Le royal family and high
mandarins and scholars who had lost faith in the Trinh administration. The
wandering peasants, though, became their followers and supporters.

* Political and Economic Turmoil in the Nguyen South

The situation in the south during the early and mid-18th century was somewhat
better than that of the north, though many of the same problems were also
plaguing the Nguyen territories. The tyranny of the new (since when?) regent
of the Nguyen lords, Truong Phuc Loan, is routinely cited as the main reason
for peasant unrest and displeasure with the government. Loan, who had served
as an advisor to the 8th Nguyen ruler - Nguyen Phuc Khoat - had on the
ruler's death, altered the imperial will, placing a young and manipulable
prince (the 16th son of the ruler), on the throne instead of the designated

heir. According to the Nguyen records, Loan then raised and extended taxes
greatly increasing his own personal wealth and influence. His actions had
raised the potential for a crisis of legitimacy, since there were people in
the government who were aware of Loan's intrigues in displacing the
legitimate heir.

Just as important, many of the same problems that were troubling the Trinh
populations were afflicting those living in Nguyen territory. There were
questions about corruption within the government, the usurpation of public

(village/communal) lands by government mandarins, as well as issues of
starvation and poor harvests due to heavy taxation, and corruption compounded
by weather conditions. The south had an additional economic problem
contributing to the rice shortages and consequent starvation - the Nguyen use
of zinc currency. Traditionally, the coins in circulation were of copper and
this was a widely respected medium of exchange. However, in the 18th century,
the Nguyen's overseas sources of copper had been cut off, and since they did
not mine any of their own copper, they were forced to seek alternative
metals. They chose to produce zinc coins. The Nguyen rulers then decreed that

the zinc coins be accepted at parity with the copper ones. The population
largely rejected this, however, preferring the more durable copper coins; in
fact, the people made it clear that they would rather hoard rice than sell it
for the zinc coins, and consequently prices for rice rose as the available
supply shrunk, leading to the beginnings of famine. A retired Nguyen official
submitted a memorial to the rulers pointing out this problem, and urging them
to try to produce more copper coins and to establish warehouses of rice to
help to stabilize rice prices, but his warnings were ignored, and ultimately,
the records state, he joined the Tay Son instead.

Despite the currency and other economic problem, the South was actually a very
wealthy region at this time. The underlying problem during this period was
thus, not a lack of wealth, but of its unequal distribution and the efforts of
corrupt officials to extract wealth. Thus, some of the rebellions that
developed in the south during this period occurred in particularly prosperous
areas, which were naturally the most attractive places for corrupt officials
seeking private gain. In fact, the Nguyen chronicles for the year 1769 record
that the government collected taxes in rice of nearly 9.6 million thang (dry

quarts) from a population of approximately 292,000 people. The Tay Son,
however, concentrated on the unequal distribution issue, potraying themselves
as champions of the oppressed. Consequently, when the uprising broke out, one
of their first objectives was to see to a redistribution of this wealth, and
they moved through the country with the slogan: "take from the wealthy, and
give to the poor."

* The Early Tay Son Period (1771- 1775)

The Tay Son uprising itself began in 1771 in the south-central Vietnamese
village by that same name. In that village lived three brothers, Nguyen Nhac,
Nguyen Hue and Nguyen Lu [A note of clarification on the surname Nguyen. The
brothers' surname, Nguyen, is a potential source of confusion, because it is
identical to that of the ruling southern lords. In fact, this surname is very
common in Viet Nam, so it is not surprising that two families, even
juxtaposed in this manner would both carry it. In the case of the Tay Son
brothers, however, it was in fact borrowed from their mother's side of the
family, in an effort to both legitimate and protect themselves in the course

of the movement. (the logic being that the name gave them prestige and
legitimacy in the minds of the peasants.)]. Although these three could be
considered peasants, they were certainly well-off peasants, and had received
a fair amount of education in the form of private tutoring. The eldest of the
three, Nguyen Nhac, was a trader in betel nut who often traded with highland
peoples in the regions west of the village of Tay Son. He was also a
part-time tax collector for the Nguyen government. It was apparently his tax
collecting job that got him into trouble with the Nguyen authorities. While
the historical record is not clear on this point, the records suggest he

either gambled with and lost the tax monies he had collected for the state,
or embezzled the funds in some other form. It has also been speculated that
he was simply unable to collect taxes from areas without resources to meet
the state demands. Rather than waiting to be charged with a crime, Nhac fled
to the hills accompanied by his two younger brothers. Given the large
following that Nhac quickly gathered around him, it is clear that his was not
a simple case of fraud, and that there were a variety of much larger issues
at stake.

As I mentioned earlier, there were a variety of factors that had made life
for many southern Vietnamese peasants quite miserable. Thus, it is not
surprising, in some sense, that Nhac was able to rally peasants to his side
by calling for an end to the tyranny of Truong Phuc Loan and the restoration
of the legitimate Nguyen heir. While most people probably had little idea of
the political abilities of this heir, it was difficult to imagine a ruler
worse than Loan, and the lure of a "legitimate" ruler was often appealing.
The bigger question about the early Tay Son success in gaining so many
supporters is what factors made the Tay Son brothers so appealing as leaders

in this crusade. The answer seems to be that the Tay Son brothers were very
successful in portraying themselves as divinely ordained to carry out this

The Tay Son brothers were acutely aware that their ability to attract peasant
followers would be directly related to their ability to demonstrate that
"heaven" or supernatural forces were on their side. Thus they tried to
demonstrate that their rebellion was sanctioned by supernatural forces or had
been foretold by various signs or prophecies. For example, according to their

tutor, Giao Hien, Nguyen Nhac was the fulfillment of an old prophecy which
ran: "in the west there is a righteous rebellion, and in the north merit is
received" Hien observed to Nhac,: &laqno;You are a person from Tay Son (that
is, the Western mountains), thus you must strive to rise (in power).»

A number of oral traditions about the brothers reflect some of the ways in
which they tried to gain followers in this manner. One, describing the
unifying power of the Tay-son, tells of Nguyen Nhac's finding the blade of a
precious sword in the coastal plains and then finding its matching handle in

the highland area. A similar account describes his finding a sword in the
plains, and a golden seal in the highlands. In addition, Nguyen Hue was said
to possess super-human strength which allowed him to wield a silver lance
which could not be lifted by ordinary men, and to uproot small trees with his
bare hands.

Numerous stories about the Tay-son brothers have been preserved in their
native area and give an indication of the supernatural aura which grew up
around the rebel leaders and which convinced many rural people to join their

movement. One account tells of a pair of giant snakes blocking a road along
which Nguyen Hue was leading his troops. His troops were terrified, but
Nguyen Hue dismounted from his horse, and prayed to the snake spirit saying:
"If my brothers and I are able to undertake this great task then I request
the Snake spirit to clear off of the road to allow my soldiers to pass. If it
is my fate that this cannot come to pass, then please just bite me to death
but allow my troops to live and to return to their children and wives."
Thereupon the snakes cleared the path and escorted the troops to their
destination. They further aided the Tay-son by bringing to Nguyen Hue in

their mouths "a dragon knife, its handle black like ebony, its blade sharp
like water." The dragon knife is symbolic of a king and the knife carried to
the brothers is reminiscent of the sword brought to Le Loi by the tortoise in
the Lake of the Restored Sword for him to use in defeating the Ming in the
15th century.

That the Tay-son brothers were aware of the value of supernatural sanction is
revealed in another tale which describes NguyenNhac's taking advantage of
superstitions surrounding a local mountain peak. He surreptitiously smuggled

some drums and gongs up the hill and on the night of a local festival
arranged for them to be secretly sounded and accompanied by flashing lights.
To the amazement of his guests, he gathered a group of adventurous locals and
climbed the hill to encounter a wizened old man who summoned Nguyen Nhac by
name to hear an edict which read "the Jade Emperor orders Nguyen Nhac to
serve as the country's Emperor." After reading it, he handed the "divine"
edict to Nguyen Nhac and vanished into the night. The old man was in fact
Nguyen Nhac's teacher who advised him in arranging this stunt.

The local people were not always swayed by such trickery. Another story
records that while many tribal groups in the Tay-son area were willing to
support the brothers, a certain group from Xa-Dang was reluctant to go along.
The Xa Dang people were not convinced that the Tay Son had the will of heaven
on their side. Nguyen Nhac tried to convince them by making a show of
carrying water from a local stream in a pair of loosely woven straw baskets.
He hoped to show his divine calling through the apparent miracle of water not
leaking out of the baskets, which he had cleverly coated with a transparent
oil. The village leader was not impressed, stating that this was the result

of a magical spell (ie. of terrestrial origin) rather than any indication of
heaven's preference.

The Xa Dang people suggested that if Nguyen Nhac was really chosen by heaven,
then he could perform a feat of their own devising. It happened that the
mountain region contained a tribe of wild horses which were impossible to
approach because they fled at the mere sight of a human shadow. The Xa Dang
told Nguyen Nhac that if he were able to call the horses to come to him then
they would consider this a divine manifestation. Nguyen Nhac accepted the

challenge and promptly went out to purchase a young and attractive female
horse which he trained to come whenever he called to it. Once it had been
well- trained, be released it to run with the wild horses. At first
suspicious of the newcomer, the wild horses were soon won over by the
attractive female. Nguyen Nhac then called to his horse and she came running
with the wild herd close behind. On seeing Nguyen Nhac they hesitated, but
when they saw the grass he held and the trust that their new companion had in
him, they slowly approached. Nhac then performed this demonstration for the
people of Xa Dang, calling the wild forest horses to him. This indication of

his "control" over nature convinced them that he did have the support of
heaven and many of them agreed to support his movement.

The portents of the Tay Son are not restricted to their own accounts. The
Nguyen chronicles, albeit after the fact, also record numerous indications of
the coming rebellion. In 1769, a court official observes a comet moving
across the sky, and interprets it as meaning that there will be a rebellion
in the central region in 6 years (1775). Later that year, the record notes
that "there appeared frequent strange signs: the earth moved, the mountains

crumbled, the stars fell, the water turned red, the people suffered famine
and bandits were everywhere. Throughout the land were seen these many
spontaneous occurrences." Clearly, these records suggest, there were problems
surrounding the southern government controlled by Truong Phuoc Loan and that
the future held great upheavals.

So, now back to the story. Having decided to avoid prosecution by the Nguyen
authorities, the Tay Son brothers had withdrawn to the An Khe region in the
highlands to the west of Tay Son. The remained in this area for the next three

years working to consolidate their base and attract followers to their armed
uprising. An Khe had several strategic advantages for the Tay Son. It was in a
relatively remote area, almost inaccessible to the Nguyen troops for it was
approachable only along a treacherous route which was easily defensible.
Furthermore, because of his trading routes in this area, Nguyen Nhac already
had numerous contacts and was familiar with the region and its people. The
strength of their position allowed the Tay Son to win some early victories
which enhanced their prestige and attracted further followers. In addition, An
Khe was a resource-rich area that supplied the Tay Son with wood, iron,

sulphur, horses and elephants as well as people. In fact, the Tay Son movement
is unusual in its heavy reliance on support from highland peoples who were
usually not involved in Vietnamese wars, which generally involved only the
lowland Vietnamese.

These early years also served to earn the rebels a widely spread reputation as
honorable fighters who went out of their way to avoid alienating the peasant
majority of the population. A Spanish missionary, Father Diego de Jumilla
noted, in a letter written in 1774, that the rebel troops:

"did no harm to either persons or property. On the contrary, they appeared to
desire equality for all Cochin-Chinese; they entered the houses of the rich
and, if they were offered some present, they did no damage. But if they met
resistance, they seized the most luxurious articles, which they distributed
among the poor, keeping for themselves only rice and victuals...they were
called virtuous thieves, and they were said to be charitable towards the poor

The Tay Son did not only gain support from peasants, however, for they were

also able to appeal to other classes of society which see a need to replace
the corrupt regent. By 1773, the ranks of their supporters included a Cham
princess, and 2 wealthy merchants from Qui Nhon, Nguyen Thung and Huyen Khe,
who provided both cash and supplies to the troops. A short while later, two
wealthy Chinese businessmen, Ly Tai and Tap Dinh, also joined the Tay Son.
Others who joined the movement included Buddhist monks, progressive scholars
and low-ranking officials and small merchants who had all come to regard the
Tay Son as a possible solution to the ills of their society and economy.

After three years in An Khe, the Tay Son began to increase the scope of their
military activity and also revealed some of their strategic brilliance and
general characteristics that were to distinguish their armies. They made
their debut in the lowland coastal region in dramatic fashion in 1774. In
that year, Nhac faked his own capture and had himself delivered to the
coastal walled city of Qui Nhon in a cage. That night, he freed himself from
the cage, and opened the gates of the city to the Tay Son troops. They
immediately entered and overran the city, killing most of the garrison
troops. As a result, the Tay Son controlled a key coastal city that was to

continue to serve as one of their most important bases, and remained in their
hands throughout the period of the rebellion.

After the capture of Qui Nhon, the Tay Son armies moved quickly. The Nguyen
troops had been at peace for a long period of time, and were no longer used
to the rigors of battle - many simply ran away when confronted by the Tay
Son, and the Nguyen court routinely had to force soldiers back to the
battlefields. Also, as the Tay Son forces marched across the South, they
demonstrated some of their distinctive features. They fought under a huge red

banner carried at the front of their ranks. They made a loud hissing sound as
they travelled to strike fear into the hearts of the Nguyen troops, and they
came to be referred to as a "hissing army." [The Nguyen armies would employ a
variant of this tactic later in their fight against the Tay Son - they
attached a corps of female singers to each military unit and they would sing
as the troops marched around the countryside and into battle - both to
encourge their own troops, and to distract the enemy forces.] The Tay Son
also became known for their use of strategic ruses to intimidate and confuse
their enemies. The cage episode is just one example of their creative

military tactics. In another major battle, they used some of their highland
troops and disguised them as Chinese, cutting their hair to leave only a
pigtail, and making them drink heavily before the battle to make them more
fearless. In addition, these troops actually carried pieces of gold or silver
foil on the field of battle so they could check to see if enemies lying on
the ground were still alive, and could kill them if they were still
breathing. The Nguyen records state that "no one among the king's forces
could resist them." In addition, the course of the Tay Son military campaigns
was full of the use of strategic withdrawals that would lure enemy troops

into Tay Son ambushes both in land and often river battles.

* The Trinh Invasion and the Tay Son Response

Thus by 1774 the Tay Son forces had the Nguyen clearly on the defensive when
suddenly they encountered a new problem. The Trinh government in the north had
been following developments South and saw that the Nguyen government was
fighting for its very survival. Naturally the Trinh saw this as a golden
opportunity. They quickly assembled an army of 30,000 troops and moved

southward. They soon crossed the Gianh River, the traditional Trinh-Nguyen
border, and then breached the strategic Dong-hoi Wall, which the Nguyen had
constructed precisely against such a Trinh invasion, without a fight. As the
Trinh had calculated, there was no resistance because the Nguyen were too busy
with the Tay Son, and in any case, the inhabitants of Thuan Hoa were suffering
from famine and thus were far too weak to resist the Trinh invaders. The Trinh
invaders quickly approached the Nguyen capital at Phu Xuan (present day Hue)
where the court was in total disarray and readily acceded to the Trinh demand
that Truong Phuc Loan, the regent, be handed over to them. This did not stop

the Trinh advanced and they seized Phu Xuan in 1775.

This presented the Tay Son with a difficult choice. Just as the Trinh were
pressing at Tay Son positions in the northern part of the region, they were
being pushed from the South by the Nguyen armies which had retaken Binh-Thuan
and then Phu Yen in a counteroffensive that was moving northward. The Tay Son
decided to reach a strategic accomodation with the Trinh, sending them gifts
of gold and silk and offering to join them in their assault on the advancing
Nguyen forces. The Trinh readily agreed to this offer and bestowed official

military titles and positions on the Tay Son leaders and troops and sent them
off to fight the Nguyen. The Trinh agreed to this arrangement for a number of
reasons, all guided by pragmatism. Their forces were quite distant from their
home bases, and thus their supply lines were quite tenuous. Furthermore, they
were completely unfamiliar with the terrain to the South of Phu Xuan.
Finally, they felt that they had little to lose by settling into a fortified
Phu Xuan and watching the Tay Son fight the Nguyen on their behalf.

* The Battles for the South (1775-1785)

The next 10 years were marked by a seemingly endless series of battles
between the Tay Son and the Nguyen forces to capture and recapture the
province of Gia Dinh and its strategic capital of Saigon. The Tay Son forces
successfully captured the city for the first time in 1776 as the youngest,
and least capable brother, Nguyen Lu, led a major naval attack up the Saigon
river. Shortly thereafter, the Nguyen forces returned, recaptured the city
and force Lu to retreat to Qui Nhon. This set the stage for the next nine
years. In 1777, Nhac sent Lu and Hue to recapture Saigon. Nguyen Hue went

south at the head of a land and sea army that in 6 months destroyed the
majority of the Nguyen armed forces and killed nearly every member of the
Nguyen royal family. Having completed his task, Hue returned to Qui Nhon,
leaving a body of troops behind to retain control of the city.

The following year, 1778, there were further developments in the north where
Nguyen Nhac remained settled at Qui Nhon. Confident that he was in complete
control of the South, Nhac proclaimed himself king at Cha Ban, the ancient
Cham capital. He felt fairly certain that he could take this step without

interference from the Trinh, because their forces in the south were ravaged
by disease and they had been forced to retreat back over the Hai Van pass and
into Phu Xuan, from where they could do little to interfere with Tay Son

Meanwhile, back in the south, one member of the Nguyen royal family, Nguyen
Anh, had survived the Tay Son's massacre and escaped from Gia Dinh, spending a
long time in the swamps of Ca Mau (at the southern tip of Viet Nam), before
finding refuge on Pulau Panjang in the gulf of Siam. On news of the Tay Son

departure from Gia Dinh, he regrouped his remaining forces and advanced via
Long Xuyen and Sa Dec to reenter Gia Dinh in triumph. A small Tay Son
reinforcement force was destroyed by the Nguyen and they advanced north into
Binh Thuan.

Having recovered Gia Dinh, the remaining Nguyen prince sought to extend
recognition of his questionable authority. He sent an embassy to Siam hoping
to reach agreement on a treaty of friendship, which would help to bolster his
legitimacy in preparation for a campaign to retake the country from the Tay

Son. In terms of domestic affairs, he organized three provinces in the lands
that he controlled: Tran Bien, Phien Tran and Lang Ho. He also named
political officials, levied taxes, trained armies and a navy and encouraged a
program of land redistribution to promote agriculture in region that had now
been ravaged by several years of fighting. Finally, in 1780, he formally
proclaimed himself as the new Nguyen ruler.

In May 1782, the Tay Son were ready to retake the southern city. Nhac and
Hue, at the head of 100 warships, forced their way up the Saigon River and

raised an assault on the citadel. When they finally fought their way into the
city, their forces burned and pillaged the shops of the Chinese merchants and
massacred 10,000 Chinese. The exact reason for this massacre is unclear.
According to the Nguyen records , one of Nguyen Nhac's closest aides had been
killed by Nguyen troops who happened to be ethnic Chinese. In revenge, Nhac
ordered the killing of ethnic Chinese in the city including women and
children. Others have argued that this act was taken to destroy the ethnic
Chinese commercial monopoly. After this savage victory, the Tay Son leaders
once more return north, leaving the city in the hands of their trusted

troops. And, hearing that Hue and Nhac have left, Nguyen Anh once again
retook Saigon. By now the pattern should be very clear and perhaps raises the
question why this pattern did in fact develop.

There are probably two major reasons. The first is that the rhythm of the
campaigns was dictated in part by the changing monsoon winds. Since the
armies coming from Qui Nhon were often carried on boats, they had to wait for
the winds to carry them southward. Then, if they wanted to return north, they
had to depart while the winds were favorable for sailing in that direction.

And why did the Tay Son brothers repeately abandon the area of Gia Dinh,
leaving their underlings in charge? Keith Taylor has speculated that the Tay
Son never got beyond a somewhat provincial outlook that meant that regardless
of how far they would move their troops to achieve some military objective,
they were always most comfortable in their original base and heartland around
Qui Nhon. This was true in the campaigns of the 1770s and early 1780s, and
again in the mid-1780s, when the Tay Son troops headed into Trinh territory.

Then, in March 1783, Hue and Lu returned once again, and once more destroyed

the Nguyen Army, forcing Nguyen Anh to flee to Phu Quoc island, where his men
are reduced to eating grasses and bananas. This battle again revealed the
tactical genius of the Tay Son leader, Nguyen Hue. He took advantage of the
flood tide and its high winds to launch his attack on Saigon. The flaming
arrows of the Nguyen forces, shot into the wind blew back onto their own
forces, while the arrows of the Tay Son easily and quickly flew to hit their
targets. In addition, Nguyen Hue gained a further psychological advantage by
using war elephants in a region that had rarely seen such beasts. He had
developed a means of transporting the elephants in the swampy riverine areas

of the southern delta, overcome a difficulting that had previously prevented
the use of elephants in that region. The Nguyen were quickly demoralized and
destroyed. A Tay Son fleet chased Nguyen Anh, but was lost in a great storm,
and Nguyen Anh was able to escape and flees to Siam where he was given
shelter by the Siamese king.

Two years later, in 1785, Nguyen Anh, made another effort to retake Saigon.
Backed by 20,000 Siamese soldiers and 300 ships the Nguyen forces moved by
foot across Cambodia and by sea through the gulf of Siam in an attack on the

southern Vietnamese provinces. The Tay Son were once again ready for the
Nguyen attack. The subsequent military encounter was to rank as one of the
great triumphs of Vietnamese military history. The Tay Son leader, Nguyen
Hue, picked his battle carefully along a stretch of the Mekong River near My
Tho. He secretly arrayed his infantry along the northern shore of the river
and on some islands in the middle facing the troops on the northern banks;
then he placed his naval forces in hiding in two side streams on either side
of the infantry positions. Next, he sent a small Tay Son flotilla to lure the
Siamese naval forces into his ambush. The Siamese, confident of victory

against what appeared to be a small Tay Son force, chased the ships along the
Mekong and right into the trap that Nguyen Hue had laid. All of the Siamese
ships were destroyed, and only 1,000 of the original troops survived to flee
back to Siam via Cambodia. The loss was devastating for the Nguyen forces who
fled back to Siam for refuge. The Nguyen cause had been further undermined by
the Siamese land forces who had made themselves extremely unpopular with the
local populations through their looting and pillaging as they travelled
through the countryside. This had alienated many peasants who in turn offered
their support to the Tay Son. Nguyen Anh realized the problem with the

Siamese troops, and told his generals: "If we want to retake this country,
then we must have the support of the people. If we gain Gia Dinh, but lose
the hearts of the people, then I will not have the heart to succeed. It would
be better to turn back the Siamese troops in order to prevent their making
their people miserable."

* The Tay Son turn their attention to the North (1786-1789)

Meanwhile, the Tay Son were intent on expanding their influence in the north.

Having decisively defeated the Nguyen forces in the south and chased them
back to Siam, the Tay Son felt more secure in an effort to push their control
northward. Two factors were instrumental in the northern campaigns. The first
was the recent defection of Nguyen Huu Chinh, formerly an officer under the
Trinh general, Hoang Ngu Phuc. Chinh was a man of great ambition relected in
his nickname, "the Savage Eagle." He actively sought to stir up the Tay Son
interest in going to the north, which he saw as a grand field in which to
pursue his personal ambitions. The second was that the Trinh grip on power
had been substantially weakened. Since 1773, series of famines and floods had

forced many people to leave their villages in search of food. Secondly, the
Trinh ruler, Trinh Sam, had grown increasingly depraved and disconnected from
the realities of rule, and devoted his time and resources to festivals and
palace construction. Furthermore, a rupture in the court had developed when
Sam had made the young son of a favorite concubine, rather than his eldest
son, his designated heir. Two factions emerged in the court supporting the
two sides, further weakening the Trinh polity. Clearly, the time was ripe for
attacking the north.

Nguyen Nhac sent an expedition against Phu Xuan led by Nguyen Hue and Huu
Chinh. Hue sent a naval force up the Gianh River to seize the fortifications
and to prevent the arrival of additional reinforcements from the north.
Moreover, as he crossed the Hai Van Pass with his infantry, his naval force
benefitted from the rising tide which carried his boats to the walls of the
citadel, allowing an attack simultaneously by land and sea. The city
surrendered after a brief resistance, and all of the other areas quickly
joined in submitting to the Tay Son. In a matter of days, all of Thuan Hoa,
up to the Gianh River, had fallen into the hands of the Tay Son (by now it

was June of 1786) Hue's orders from his brother had been to stop at the
traditional frontier (that is, the Gianh River), but then, in a conversation
recorded in the Hoang Le Nhat Thong Chi, Chinh convinced Hue to take
advantage of circumstances to press the attack and seize the north. [see
Khoi, p. 320] Hue and Chinh attacked northward, seizing granaries of rice
along the rivers as they lead their flotilla of 400 ships. Chinh passed
through Nghe An and Thanh Hoa without meeting any resistance.

Meanwhile in the capital, the court was not greatly concerned about the news

of the loss of Thuan Hoa, which after all, was only recently conquered
territory; but, the fall of Nghe An and Thanh Hoa was more ominous. The Trinh
blocked the river entrance to Son Nam, but Hue used a ruse to open it; he
sent five ships to attack at night, and when the Trinh had used up their
artillery ammunition, the Tay Son ships moved in and easily opened the route
to Hanoi. Trinh Sam fled to Son Tay, but was captured and committed suicide,
ending the long line of Trinh lords. This left the road to the capital wide
upon, and the Tay Son marched into Thang Long on July 21, 1786.

Once in the capital, Hue imposed strict discipline on his troops in the
capital and also imposed summary justice in an effort to bring order to the
streets. More importantly, he offered his submission to the Le King, Le
Hien-tong, promising not to intervene in court affairs. He did, however,
insist on a solemn audience with the Emperor on Sept. 7, 1786.

-he arrived at the palace with numerous officers, and, after 5 ritual
prostrations, presented to the king an army register and an inscription
testifying that the Le dynasty had been restored to real power.

-The Emperor, in return, gave him the title of general and the title Duke of
Uy, and given him his daughter, Ngoc Han, in marriage.

Several days later, the Emperor died, leaving the throne to his weak son, Le
Chieu Thong.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Nhac, jealous of Hue, came to the north himself, to have
his own audience with the new Emperor, reiterating Tay Son support and
promising good relations with the Le. Then, in the 8th lunar month, the Tay

Son return to the south with their armies. Le Chieu Thong, was however a very
poor leader, and easily manipulated by more powerful politicians. This
prompted the remnants of the Trinh family to stage a small comeback, and they
were able to reimpose their family's traditional influence over the court.
The Emperor secretly communicated news of this situation to Nguyen Huu Chinh,
the Tay Son general, and Chinh, seeing a great opportunity, arrived in the
north at the head of a 10,000 man army, easily destroyed the Trinh troops,
and established himself as the new master of the North. Hue, angered at
Chinh's unauthorized actions ordered him to return, but Chinh refused.

At this juncture, a dispute between the brothers leads them to formally
divide their territory between them. Nguyen Lu is assigned to rule over the
southern provinces, headquartered in Saigon. Nhac takes the central region
for himself, and stations himself in the traditional Tay Son stronghold of
Qui Nhon. Nguyen Hue, is assigned to rule the northern territory and his
capital is at Phu Xuan. In the meantime, Nguyen Huu Chinh counsels Le Chieu
Thong to demand the return of Nghe An from Nguyen Hue. Instead, Hue responded
by ordering his aide, Vo Van Nham, to take a body of troops to Thang Long to

seize the traitor, Chinh. Nham moved north, easily taking the capital, now
abandoned by the Le, and captured and killed Chinh. But then, Nham was
seduced by the same ambitions that stirred Nguyen Huu Chinh, and seeing no
obstacles in his path, took power for himself. According to the Nguyen
chronicles, Ngo Van So, the Tay Son general in the north despised Nham, and
secretly sent a message to Hue stating that Nham was planning to betray him.
Hue trusted Ngo Van So, and so he attacked Thang Long, capturing Nham. Nham
protested that he had been unjustly accused by Ngo Van So, but Hue would not
listen. Hue said: "It may be that in reality you are not guilty, but you

frighten me, and therefore you ARE guilty." Then he killed him, and placed
Ngo Van So in charge in his place.

While all of this was going on, the defeated Le Emperor had fled north to
China, where he appealed to the Chinese Qing Emperor for assistance in
reclaiming his throne. He argued to the Chinese, that since Vietnam was
technically a Chinese tributary state (it sent periodic tribute, ostensibly in
acknowledgement of Chinese superiority), that the Chinese were obligated to
defend Vietnam against aggressors. The Chinese clearly understood that the

situation was more complex than that, for the aggression, if that was what it
was, was internal, and not a foreign threat. Moreover, the Chinese approach to
these sorts of situations tended to be more pragmatic than dogmatic. They had
rejected similar appeals by earlier Vietnamese monarchs challenged by internal
threats, even reaching accomodations with the "usurpers." These Chinese
response would be one of self-interest. And the Chinese court concluded, based
on the arguments of their provincial governor Ton Si Nghi, to support a Le-led
invasion of Vietnam.

As a result, in late October, 1788, the Chinese army crossed into Vietnam and
seeing that they were outnumbered, the Tay Son forces, under Ngo Van So,
retreated southward to Thanh Hoa, where they sent messages to Nguyen Hue,
back in Phu Xuan for help. The Chinese then quickly reoccupied Thang Long
without resistance and placed the Le ruler back on the throne. In the
meantime, however, Quang Trung-Nguyen Hue (named himself Emperor in late
1787), had received the message of the invasion and proceded northward. On
hearing that Nguyen Hue himself led the Tay Son forces, the Le Emperor fled
from Thang Long. Nguyen Hue sent an envoy with a petition to Ton Si Nghi (Sun

Shi Yi), requesting that he withdraw his troops. The Chinese general tore up
the petition and killed the envoy. His arrogance would not long go
unpunished. In fact, his biggest mistake had probably been to stop his troops
in Thang Long in the first place. They had stopped to enthrone the Le Emperor
and to celebrate the Chinese (lunar) New Year. As a result, the Chinese
troops were busy celebrating the lunar New Year, with no thought to their
impending danger. The Tay Son forces then timed their attack on Thang Long on
midnight of the 5th day of the Tet (lunar New Year) celebration, catching the
Chinese totally by surprise and the Chinese forces were easily destroyed as

they fled in complete disarray. Recognizing the Tay Son strength, the Chinese
were quick to be conciliatory and formally extend diplomatic recognition to
the Tay Son rulers, provided that Nguyen Hue would himself travel to Beijing
to be invested by the Chinese Emperor.

Recognizing that leaving the country while the Nguyen still threatened in the
north, never mind putting himself at the mercy of the Chinese, would be
extremely risky, Quang Trung once again used a ruse. He found a nephew who
bore a striking resemblence to himself, and sent him in his place. The

Chinese were not aware of the fact that they were hosting an imposter, and
treated him with all of the dignity reserved for visiting rulers. By ending
the rule of the Le and gaining Chinese recognition of their legitimacy, the
Tay Son set about trying to impose their own ideas on Vietnam's economy and
society. Before continuing with the story of the conflict between the Tay Son
and the Nguyen in the south, it would make sense to look briefly at the
accomplishments of the Tay Son government:

* The Tay Son Government (1789-1802)

Military affairs

1) heavy emphasis on military preparedness: every person had to carry an ID
card which made it easy to determine their military service obligation; those
without ID cards were automatically enrolled in the army.

2) 1 out of 3 men between 18 and 55 was enrolled in the army and received
rigorous training

3) Quang Trung allegedly had grand plans to retake the two southern Chinese

provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong and also plans to invade Siam in
retaliation for its assistance to Nguyen Anh.

4) government administration was organized along military lines; military
mandarins were ranked above civil mandarins in the government hierarchy for
the first time in Vietnam's long history.

5) focus on strengthening the armed forces with new weapons and warships


1) after all the warfare, a key problem was reconstructing a devastated
agricultural base: many people had abandoned their fields and villages and
production was very low.

a) required people to return to their home villages.

b) redistributed communal land to those returning to their villages

c) imposed heavy taxes on village lands that were not brought back into
cultivation after one year.

d) after about three years, production levels appear to have risen to pre-war

2) sought to stimulate both internal and foreign trade; a key consideration of
the commercial interests that had supported the Tay Son from their earliest

3) actively encouraged trade with China across their mutual border,
establishing several markets in the frontier areas of Cao Bang and Lang Son;

as he wrote to the Chinese Emperor, he hoped that "frontiers would be opened
and markets made free, so that goods could circulate in the interests of the
people's consumption."


1) use of Nom, a use of Chinese-derived characters to write Vietnamese words,
introduced for government documents and there is a plan to translate the
Chinese classics into Nom; Quang Trung appoints Nguyen Thiep, a well-respected
Confucian scholar, to head an academy whose goal is extensive translation

projects in Nom as well as developing a new curriculum for further developing
the Vietnamese language.

2) founded more schools at all levels and held examinations to fill government

3) high degree of toleration for Catholic missionaries, despite some early
Tay Son run-ins with churchs and Christian groups in the south, where they
had been busy redistributing wealth.

Conclusion: While Nguyen Hue and the Tay Son had implemented some limited
reforms, particularly in the areas of education and commerce, they ultimately
did not live up to the hopes of the peasant masses who had been the backbone
of the movement. There was no massive land redistribution program and the
burdens of taxation and land rents were only somewhat ameliorated.
Furthermore, the problem of corrupt officials was one that also plagued the
Tay Son administration and proved to be a source of friction that allowed the
Nguyen to recruit peasant support in their effort to reconquer Viet Nam.
Still, the Tay Son had the potential for a more fundamental transformation of

Vietnamese society - a potential that was cut short by the unexpected death
of Nguyen Hue in 1792, at the age of 40.

* Nguyen Anh mounts a Comeback (1787-1802)

After another two years in exile in Siam, Nguyen Anh, taking advantage of
divisions within the Tay Son camp, decided to make an effort to recapture the
southern province of Gia Dinh. This time, In 1787, his forces landed at Long
Xuyen in the southern delta region and gradually advanced toward Saigon. They

were nearly defeated by a Tay Son army led by Pham Van Tham, but another
southern general joined sides with the Nguyen, allowing them to gain the
victory. By August 1788 they were once again in control of Gia Dinh. At this
point, Nguyen Anh made a more serious effort to consolidate his base in that
region, and his efforts paid off. Gia Dinh was to remain in Nguyen hands
continuously until the final defeat of the Tay Son.

Participating with Nguyen Anh's army at this time was a small group of French
mercenaries and several western ships. During his time in Siam, Anh had

decided to seek assistance from western powers. He came into contact with the
Bishop of Adran, Pigneau de Beahaine, and deputed him, along with Nguyen
Anh's young son, Prince Canh, to travel to France to seek assistance from the
French government. The two left Siam in 1784, and finally in 1787 had reached
France where they were received by Louis XVI. The two sides reached an
agreement, signed at Versailles, in November 1787. The terms:

France provides:

1) 4 warships

2) 1,200 infantrymen

3) 200 artillery men

4) 250 African soldiers

5) ammunition

Viet Nam provides:

1) cede Hoi An and Pulau Condore

2) French trade monopoly in Southern Viet Nam

3) food, troops and supplies or transport when France needed them for wars in

This agreement, however, was never carried out. The India-based French
official assigned by the King to enact the treaty was given discretion to
drop it if it seemed impractical, and that is exactly what he did. In any

case, events in France less than 2 years later (ie. the Revolution) would
have rendered the agreement moot anyway. As a result, de Behaine, was very
frustrated and decided to take matters into his own hands. He recruited a
group of French mercenaries, raised money to hire two ships and supplies and
provided these to the Nguyen leader. Much has been made of French support to
the Vietnamese effort to recapture their country and defeat the Tay Son. But
the reality is that by the time this rather small contingent arrived in
Vietnamese territory in 1789, Nguyen Anh had already retaken Gia Dinh and had
spent nearly 2 years consolidating his grip on the territory. Furthermore, it

would take the Nguyen more than a decade to finally defeat the Tay Son,
hardly a testament to the advantages of having a handful of French troops.
Also, it should be remembered, that the Vietnamese already had western
firearms through much earlier contact with Western traders and actual weapons
production in southern Vietnam, so the French supplies were hardly a critical
factor either. Finally, the Tay Son brother defending the region of Gia Dinh,
Nguyen Lu, was the least able of the three brothers, and he had quickly fled
back to Qui Nhon at the onset of the Nguyen offensive, leaving the defense of
the territory in the hands of his generals.

Having consolidated his grasp on the extreme south, Nguyen Anh embarked on a
series of campaigns toward the Tay Son positions in the north. By 1790,
Nguyen Anh had pushed his control northward , taking the cities of Phan Ri
and Binh Thuan. Then, in 1792, he inaugurated what became known as the
"Monsoon War," in which he would coordinate his attacks with the coming of
the monsoon season. He would launch a coordinated land and sea attack to the
north, striking at several Tay Son positions, before pulling back, without
occupying any of the territory.

The main objective of the Nguyen attacks was the city of Qui Nhon, which was
the capital of the Tay Son territories in the center and was under the
control of Nguyen Nhac. In 1793, the Nguyen attacks eventually forced Nguyen
Nhac to appeal for assistance to Nguyen Hue's young son, Quang Toan, who was
in control of the northern territories. Toan's superior troops and generals
came to Nhac's assistance and were able to lift the Nguyen siege, pushing
Nguyen Anh all the way back to Gia Dinh; the appeal for assistance had cost
Nhac control of Qui Nhon, however, and he was forced to turn control of the

city over to the northern general, Pham Cong Hung. Nhac died that same year,
allegedly of sheer anger at the loss of control over his domain.

The Nguyen, undeterred by their repeated failures to take Qui Nhon, launched
further assaults on that city in 1797 and 1799, and this last attack was
finally successful in dislodging the Tay Son forces. Nguyen Anh, himself,
however, withdrew from the city, leaving it in the hands of his generals - Vo
Tanh and Ngo Tung Chau; and in February of 1800, two Tay Son generals, Trang
Quang Dieu and Vo Van Dung again attacked the city and it appeared that the

Nguyen forces would have to surrender the city to the Tay Son once again.
Rather than doing this, the Nguyen general, Vo Tanh, suggested to Nguyen Anh,
that he attack Phu Xuan while the Tay Son forces were largely concentrated
for the assault on Qui Nhon. The Nguyen took the Tay Son capital at Phu Xuan,
and a Tay Son effort to drive back the Nguyen was itself forced to retreat.
However, the Tay Son general, Trang Quang Dieu, now turned all of his
attention back to taking Qui Nhon which they did. The battles continued to
see-saw with the outcome of the war still far from clear. A Tay Son offensive
in early 1802 was rebuffed and its leading generals were forced to withdraw.

Finally, in June 1802, Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself the new Emperor, Gia
Long, and embarked on a final campaign to capture and eliminate the remaining
Tay Son leaders. These were captured and badly treated before being executed
in gruesome form. The Tay Son era had come to an end, and the Nguyen, Viet
Nam's last dynasty came to power, and was to remain, at least nominally in
charge of Viet Nam until the transfer of authority from Bao Dai to the Viet
Minh in August of 1945.

Chronology of the Tay Son Period


Nguyen Nhac flees to the hills with his brother on charges of misappropriating
the tax revenues he was to collect


The Tay Son seize the coastal town Qui Nhon, when Nhac, pretending to be
captured in cage, frees himself at night to open the gates to the Tay Son

forces. The Tay Son troops enter the city, massacre the Nguyen soldiers, and
gain control of the city.

The Tay Son capture the cities of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai


Nov. - the Trinh troops led by Hoang Ngu Phuc reach Thanh Hoa

Lunar 10th month (Nov. 4- Dec. 2) - Trinh armies cross the Gianh River, the
traditional border between the Trinh and Nguyen territories.


Trinh forces take Quang Nam after defeating the Tay Son troops;

Summer - Nhac requests an alliance with Trinh who agree and give Nhac titles
and regalia.

Winter, Hoang Ngu Phuc's army withdraws from Quang Nam (marking the farthest
southward advance of the Trinh), to Phu Xuan



· Feb/March, disease-ridden Trinh retreat from Phu Xuan to Thuan Hoa

· HNP dies in bed at age 64; is replaced by Bui The Dat

· 8th month; Bui The Dat and Le Qui Don are recalled and Pham Ngo Cau is named

the new governor of Thuan Hoa


·early in the year, Tay Son attack north toward Phu Xuan forces Due Tong to
flee to Cochinchina; names Nguyen Phuc Duong as crown prince to stay and fight
in Phu Xuan

·Nguyen Lu takes Saigon through a naval attack on Gia Dinh;

·The Nguyen retake it and Lu is forced to return to Qui Nhon

·Nhac decides to build a walled capital at the site of the ancient Cham
capital at Do Ban (south of Da Nang?)

·Nguyen partisans, led by Do Thanh Nhan, create the Dong Son army

·5th month (June-July 1776) DTN retakes Saigon.

·late in the year, crown prince Vuong (being held by Nhac) flees by sea to


early in the year Trinh acquiesce to his demands, and appoint Nhac governor of
Quang Nam

·(3rd month; April-May) Nhac sends Lu and Hue to retake Saigon and they do,

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