Cao Ba Quat and the Thang Vo Revolution

- Võ thu Tịnh -
Translated by Thomas D. Le

Cao Ba Quat was born in Phu Thi Village, Bac Ninh Province in the north of Vietnam. His father Cao Ba Chieu, teacher-scholar, issued from a long line of literary and scholarly figures, going back to Cao Ba Hien, who was Minister of War under the Le dynasty and assumed an additional post of Grand Marshall at the court of the Trinh Lords.

There is uncertainty surrounding Cao Ba Quat's birthdate, because as a convicted traitor, he was executed along with three generations of his family, and no documents relating to his life or works were preserved by his fearful contemporaries. However, existing genealogical evidence and what had been passed on about his relationship with his contemporaries allow the conjecture of a highly speculative birth year of between 1800 and 1803.

It was known that he was born in the early Nguyen Dynasty, and grew up under the reigns of Kings Minh Menh (1820-1840), Thieu Tri (1841-1847), Tu Duc (1848-1883), during a period when the monarchy had achieved great stability, learning in the classics had been well established, and the only way to fame and career for the educated was through the mandarinate. However, the Court was known for its discriminatory practices against the scholars of northern extraction.
For example, in the north, which was endowed with a large population, and distinguished by a long scholarly tradtion and numerous men of letters, the number of schools offering the Thi Huong competitive examinations (equivalent to a Bachelor's degree) was two. In contrast the more sparsely populated and impoverished central region enjoyed four schools, and the developing south had two schools. Test scorings showed another aspect of discrimination. Under the reigns of Kings Minh Menh, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc, twenty-seven nationwide Thi Hoi examinations (for doctoral candidates) were held in Hue. Out of the hundreds of scholars who received passing grades, only four came from the north. Some northern doctoral candidates had their superior performances downgraded for no apparent reasons. Such an egregious example occurred in the year 1838 under King Minh Menh, when a northern candidate by the name of Pham Van Nghi, who had the highest scores, was downgraded to allow candidate Nguyen Cuu Truong to pass with honors because the latter was a native of Thanh Hoa Province, where the Nguyen Dynasty had its roots.

This systemic issue was the root cause of a great deal of discontent among the northern scholars, and had become so severe that during an examination session held in 1862 under King Tu Duc one northern candidate named Hoang Huu Tai took the audacious step of excoriating the problem is his paper. But King Tu Duc, who graded his paper, instead of being flustered gave him a high mark that made him 'pho bang' (second rank). The King went further by making another northern candidate of that session a 'hoang giap' (passing with perfect scores), and writing the following remark in his paper, "To show that I do not discriminate between regions." However, this isolated action by King Tu Duc failed to mollify the northern scholars, chief among whom was Cao Ba Quat.

Endowed with a superior intelligence, Cao Ba Quat was able to read the Tam Tu Kinh (The Three Canons) at the age of five. By the age of fourteen, he could write in all literary forms with skill, and enjoyed a widespread reputation for his scholarship. During the twelfth year of King Minh Menh's reign (1831), Cao Ba Quat entered the Thi Huong examinations in Hanoi, and was ranked second among the successful candidates. Yet when his test papers were reviewed at the Court, he was placed last for violating examination rules, which set forth the stylistic and formal parameters and guidelines for candidates to follow in their papers. The following year, ever the maverick he sat for the Thi Hoi examinations at Hue, and flunked although he put on an admirable performance. And his successive examinations ended up in repeated failings. During the first year of King Tu Duc's reign in 1841, upon recommendation by the Bac Ninh Province's governor, he was appointed to a minor post at the Ministry of Rites.

Once he served as semi-final examiner during a Thi Huong session at Hue. He tried to save a candidate from failing for having violated the rule of names (1) by correcting his paper with lamp soot. This action later uncovered cost him his post, and sent him demoted in exile to Da Nang. Two years later, he was attached to a mission led by Dao Tri Phu to Singapore to allow him an opportunity to redeem himself. On his return, he was rehabilitated, and promoted to Agency Director at the Court, where he served until 1854.

He was wont to boast that 'There are four storehouses of words in the world. I have two, my brother Ba Dat and my friend Nguyen Van Sieu keep one, and the remaining one is distributed to everyone else.' He was renowned for his scholarship. His Sino-Vietnamese works were highly praised by King Tu Duc, who said, 'The literary achievements of Sieu and Quat have no peers even among the Anterior Hans.' His contemporaries referred to the pair as 'god Sieu and saint Quat'. Admired by the intelligentsia and powers that be at the capital, he was not above infuriating them with his superciliousness and irreverence. For instance, he once wrote disparaging verses 'in honor of' Thi Xa Mac Van of the Tung Thien Vuong Poetry Group:

     What a disrespectful nose
     That couldn't tell a Thi Xa poem from a Nghe An boat!

(In the old days, boats from Nghe An carried fish to market, and were notorious for their distinctive smell.)
In 1854, Cao Ba Quat was sent as Education Commissioner to Quoc Oai District, adjacent to Son Tay Province. Here he conspired with the rebel leader Nguyen Kim Thanh in a plot to restore Le Huy Cu (a Le Dynasty descendant) to the throne, and to overthrow King Tu Duc and the Nguyen Dynasty. The revolt broke out in the 10th month of that year, under a flag that proclaimed:

     If Binh Duong, Bo Ban did not have King Nghieu and King Thuan
     Then at Muc Da, Minh Dieu there were King Vo and King Thang.

The implication is that at the capital there is a tyrant in Tu Duc, while among the population there is an enlightened leader in Le Duy Cu, who will rise like Kings Vo and Thang to rid the country of tyranny. With that slogan on the standard, Cao Ba Quat proclaimed a 'cach menh' or 'revolution' in the same sense as the ancient Chinese historian Tu Ma Thien expounded, "The revolutions led by King Vo Vuong and King Thanh Thang were in accord with the will of Heaven, and in accord with the will of the people."

As far back as the time of the Ha Dynasty (2205-1766 B.C.), the virtuous King Dai Vo, who was acknowledged by vassal lords as their sovereign, established his capital in Binh Duong. There his throne passed through seventeen kings until King Kiet, who turned out to be a despotic, licentious, and brutal monarch. He doted on his concubine Muoi Hy, for whom he built sumptuous palaces, and indulged her lavish lifestyle, in the process impoverishing the people with crushing taxation. He meted out inhuman punishments, and caused dire misery among the people, thereby stoking the fire of their anger. Before the assembled vassal kings, Thang raised the flag of revolution with the proclamation, "The Ha Dynasty has committed crimes. Heaven entrusted me with the mission of striking it down. In fear of Heaven's wrath, I must obey." King Thang defeated King Kiet at Minh Dieu and drove him out to the land of Nam Sao. Upon his success he was honored by the people with the title of Thanh. Thus King Thanh Thang founded the Thang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.) at Bo Ban, and the crown passed through twenty-seven reigns to King Tru. Tru was an astute and cunning ruler. But he was so enamored of his courtesan Dac Ky that he ruined the treasury in lavish living and indulgence. He governed with an iron hand, taxed the people heavily, punished brutally, and exterminated his loyal followers. The Earl of Tay Ba named Phat led 800 vassal rulers and their troops into a decisive battle that defeated King Tru at Muc Da. King Tru withdrew into his palace, where he immolated himself. Tay Ba Phat acceded to the throne, took the title of King Vo Vuong, and founded the Chu Dynasty.

The Cao Ba Quat uprising (known by his contemporaries as the Locust Rebellion because it coincided with an outbreak of locust attack on crops) was quickly stamped out. By contemporaneous accounts of the elderlies, Cao Ba Quat was captured and later executed at Phu Thi District. But according to the Dai Nam Liet Truyen (A Story of Dai Nam, volume 4b, folio 14, Section 'Traitors'), Cao Ba Quat died in battle. The King ordered his head displayed throughout the north before grinding it and scattering the pieces in the river.

The issues raised in this paper are:

1.   What does the term 'cach menh' as used by Chinese historians for thousands of years mean?

The Chinese term 'cach' means to abolish, to annul, to remove, as in 'cach chuc' (to remove from office); and 'menh' is an order, a command, a mandate, as in 'menh troi' (heavenly mandate), a mandate from heaven, an order to carry out. In Confucianist view, the king is the son of Heaven, charged by Heaven with the mandate to "instruct the people, to do good for the people, to eradicate evils, not to be a burden on the people, to look after the welfare of the people without boasting about the good deeds." If the ruler failed in his mandate, became a tyrannical despot, and caused misery, hunger, and poverty, he incurred the hatred and enmity of the people. Confucianist teachings assert that if the people wills it, then Heaven goes along, and repeals its mandate. This is the meaning of 'cach menh', an annulment of the heavenly mandate. At that time, if there rises among the populace a person with sufficient talent and virtue who commands the loyalty of the people, he acts in accord with Heaven's will and with the people's will against the failed ruler. He has led a revolution. Thus, according to Chinese historical precedents and usage, a revolution is a replacement of an evil ruler with a virtuous ruler.
2.   Today it is common to translate the term 'cach menh' into the term 'revolution'.

But are these terms synonymous? In the western sense of the word, revolution signifies a turning around, a change in the political, social, and economic structure, not just a change of kings or rulers. The change implied in a revolution must be drastic, fundamental and radical. If the change affects only the ruling parties, and not the policies or the structure, it can only be called a coup d'etat or a reform.
3.   Given this, to what extent may the term 'cach menh' be applied in Cao Ba Quat's case?

   (a)   By the western definition of the word 'revolution', Cao Ba Quat's uprising does not qualify as a revolution, because of his ostensible purpose of replacing what he considers to be an evil ruler with someone he considers to be a more virtuous one. His action does not entail a drastic change in the political, social, and economic structure of the country.

   (b)   However, another school of thought maintained that Cao Ba Quat was, both in thought and in action, a true revolutionary in the ancient Confucian.sense of the word 'cach menh'. Evidence of this existed in an impromptu couplet he spoke that embodied his spirit:

    I as a gentleman will seize the opportunity to act,
    That king and subjects be as they were during the Nghieu Thuan era.

Elsewhere, in a poem entitled Meeting a hungry man on the road, Cao Ba Quat expressed compassion for a person who had fallen on hard times:

    Sir, this is my situation.
    Out of poverty I became a medicine man.
    On day two I pawned my briefcase.
    On day three I went without food.

He was outraged by man's brutality:

    Man tied man under the torrid sun.
A great change in his thoughts and actions occurred after his return from the Doan Phu Tu mission to Singapore (then a British colony). Contact with western civilization had opened his eyes to the distress, backwardness, and weakness of our society, and kindled in him a greater discontent with the situation than ever before. He put his frustrations in Sino-Vietnamese verse as follows:

    We just chewed on letters and words,
    And being earthworms knew nothing about caterpillars.
    Since that trip by boat to Singapore
    It was clear the world was truly immense.
    What a wakeup call from our confined corner.
    All that literature and classics were mere games.
    Without travels abroad
    All that devotion to letters was just a waste of manly ambition.

Cao Ba Quat also inveighed against society's sycophantic fawning for wordly gains, and contempt for human dignity, especially of the weak and vulnerable.

I am sick of those greedy for fame and wealth, who with their dragonfly headdress [a sign of status] patiently cool their heels in front of the court of the powerful. How many are those who aspire to vain glory, covering themselves in fine clothing to kneel till the courtyard wore out for a chance to flatter the high officials, all the while despising the common man?

One must ask whether utterance of words of indignant anger and frustration was enough to make Cao Ba Quat a revolutionary.

Throughout history revolutionaries as well as writers have often been discontented with society for failing to live up to their ideals of perfection. They demanded more for their generations and for their lives, and suffered when their demands were not met to their satisfaction. Discontent has been the prime reason for revolution. It impels writers to write and revolutionaries to spring to action.

Another remarkable fact was the gulf that sometimes separates a writer's thoughts and his actions. Readers tend to familiarize themselves with an author's work, yet rarely pay attention to the author's behavior in life. People in the East, however, generally expect a revolutionary to live and practice their own ideals. An example of this schism may be cited in the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of Emile in which he expounded his philosophy of education based on love, who actually abandoned his own children to orphanages. Again, take the cartoonist Herge, creator of the lovely boy Tintin. According to an article by P. Assouline in the Express issue No. 2330 of February 29, 1996, Herge hated children. He had once chased them and verbally abused them when they came to greet him, and even sued a school to get it to move on grounds that the children were a nuisance to him.

It is regrettable that Cao Ba Quat behaved similarly. Even though he deplored how people destroyed one another's dignity, he himself was far from being guiltless. He had utterly humiliated, deservedly or not, the poets in the Tung Thien Vuong Group in the most merciless and caustic way possible.

And that is not to mention the fact that in Vietnamese society, revolutionary leaders are expected to conduct themselves with humility and courtesy. Yet Cao Ba Quat was arrogant, boastful, and megalomaniac. One might wonder what kind of a leader he would make if he had succeeded in his "Thang Vo revolution," and whether the Vietnamese people would countenance such a leader.

The controversy surrounding the issue of whether Cao Ba Quat was a true revolutionary was due to the different interpretations of the concept of revolution, the Eastern notion of the rule of man versus the Western notion of the rule of law, the nature of revolution as opposed to the behavior and virtue of the revolutionary leader. The question remains whether Cao Ba Quat's own sense of superiority and his delusion of grandeur were worthy of a leader. We should not judge his literary achievements or his historical status solely on the basis of the success or failure of his endeavor at My Luong.

In the final analysis, no one can deny his indomitable spirit before the gross injustices of his time, or the literary merits of his works. As one critic put it, "Heroic thoughts clothed in heroic words; even his style and diction all testified to the presence of a lofty and uplifting spirit." (2)

Cao Ba Quat deserved our respect for stepping out of his ivory tower and getting engaged in the cause in which he believed, much in the same way as the English poet Lord Byron, who enlisted for the cause of Greek independence in 1823.

(1)    Breach of the rule of names is one of the infractions against examination regulations. These names are personal names that belong to members of the royal family. A list of these names is posted at the gate to the examination center for the benefit of candidates, who are to avoid using them in their papers. A severe violation results from using the names of kings. A light violation occurs when the candidate uses the names of the king's wife, mother and ancestors. It is forbidden to read, write, or use in any way the names in the "severe" list. In other words, these words are off-limit. Candidates must find synonyms or equivalents. Words in the "benign" list may be used if and only if a stroke is omitted out of deference for the person whose name is being written. Candidates whose exam paper contained names from the first list, or names from the second without the omission of a stroke would receive a failing grade, and sometimes punishment.
(2)    From Ngo Tat To, Thi Van Binh Chu.