The Lam Sơn uprising (Vietnamese: Khởi nghĩa Lam Sơn) was the uprising led by Lê Lợi in Vietnam of 1418-1427 against Ming rule.
This was a troubled time in Vietnam’s history as the Hồ dynasty in 1400 finally displaced the Trần dynasty and set about reforming the kingdom. Hồ rule was short lived as members of the Trần dynasty petitioned for intervention from the Yongle Emperor of the Chinese Ming Empire to the north. He responded by sending a powerful army south into Vietnam and vanquished the Hồ. Under the pretext of failing to find a living Trần heir, the Ming government chose to re-establish sovereignty over Vietnam, as was the case in the days of the Tang dynasty, some 500 years prior.
The Ming government began a harsh rule of both colonization and sinicisation. Valuable artefacts such as gems, jade, gold, pieces of art as well as craftsmen were transported to China. Vietnamese literature books like gazettes, maps, and registers were instructed to be burned, saved for one copy. Lê Lợi himself said that he chose the path of revolt against China’s brutal government when he personally witnessed the destruction of a Vietnamese village by Ming forces.
When Han Chinese ruled the Vietnamese in the Fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam due to the Ming dynasty’s conquest during the Ming-Hồ War they imposed the Han Chinese style of men wearing long hair on short haired Vietnamese men. Vietnamese were ordered to stop cutting and instead grow their hair long and switch to Han Chinese clothing in only a month by a Ming official. Ming administrators said their mission was to civilized the unorthodox Vietnamese barbarians. The Ming dynasty only wanted the Vietnamese to wear long hair and to stop teeth blackening so they could have white teeth and long hair like Chinese.
While they enjoyed some support from some collaborating Vietnamese, at least in the capital of Thăng Long, but their efforts to assert control in the surrounding countryside were met with stiff resistance. The Later Trần rebellions by Trần Ngỗi and Trần Quý Khoáng was raging from 1407 to 1413. However they all ended in failure.
Lê Lợi began his campaign against the Ming Empire on the day after Tết (New Year) February 1418. He was supported by several prominent families from his native Thanh Hóa, most famously were the Trịnh and the Nguyễn families. Initially, Lê Lợi campaigned on the basis of restoring the Trần to power. A relative of the Trần emperor was chosen as the figurehead of the revolt but within a few years, the Trần pretender was removed and the unquestioned leader of the revolt was Lê Lợi himself, under the name “Pacifying King” (Binh Dinh Vuong).
The revolt enjoyed patchy initial success. While Lê Lợi was able to operate in Thanh Hóa, he was, for 2-3 years, unable to muster the military forces required to defeat the Ming army in open battle. As a result, he waged a type of guerrilla war against the large and well-organised Ming army.
One famous story from this time is about the heroism of one of Lê Lợi’s commanders, Lê Lai. One time during the revolt, Lê Lợi’s forces had been surrounded by Ming forces on the top of a mountain. Lê Lai devised a plan that would allow Lê Lợi and the main bulk of the force to escape. He pretended to be Lê Lợi to divert the Ming army’s attention by dressing himself in Lê Lợi’s attire and lead a kamikaze-like charge down to attack the enemy. During the battle, Lê Lợi was able to escape.
Besides fighting Ming forces, Lê Lợi and his army also had to fight against ethnic minorities’ forces whom the Ming government bribed known collectively as Ai Lao (Laos) . Although there were many difficulties, Lê Lợi’s army was able to suppress Ai Lao multiple times. However, because his force was not strong enough at the time, he had to lurk in the forests or mountains of Thanh Hoa province. Often due to lack of food supplies, Lê Lợi had to order the killing of army horses and elephants for use as food. In one particularly dangerous situation in 1422, Lê Lợi made peace with the Ming army. But in 1423 when his forces were built up better, Lê Lợi broke the peace agreement when the Ming army captured and killed his envoy.
By 1427, the revolt had spread throughout Vietnam and the original Ming army of occupation had been ground down and destroyed. The new Ming ruler, the Xuande Emperor, wished to end the war with Vietnam, but his advisors urged one more effort to subdue the rebellious province. The result was a massive army (some 100,000 strong) being sent into Vietnam.
The final campaign did not start well for the Ming forces. Lê Lợi’s forces met the Ming army in battle, but quickly staged a mock retreat. The Ming general, Liu Sheng (Liễu Thăng in Vietnamese), urging his troops forward, was cut off from the main part of his army, captured and executed by the Vietnamese. Then, by sending false reports of dissent within the ranks of Lê Lợi’s own generals, the Ming army was lured into Hanoi where it was surrounded and destroyed in a series of battles. A Vietnamese historian, Trần Trọng Kim, told that the Ming army lost over 90,000 men (60,000 killed in battle and 30,000 captured). The decisive battle was the Battle of Tốt Động – Chúc Động in 1426, after which the Ming eventually withdrew by 1428. Rather than putting to death the captured Ming soldiers and administrators, he provided ships and supplies to send them back to China.
In 1428, Lê Lợi established the Lê dynasty and took the reign name Le Thai To, receiving recognition and formal protection from the Ming dynasty in a tributary relationship. Lê Lợi’s reign would be short-lived, as he died in 1433, but the Lê dynasty would last until the end of 18th century.
The Legend of Hoàn Kiếm Lake
According to the legend, in early 1428, Emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the Hoàn Kiếm lake when a Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) surfaced and asked for his magic sword, Heaven’s Will. Lợi concluded that Kim Qui had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King (Long Vương) had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against Ming China. Later, Emperor Lợi gave the sword back to the turtle after he finished fighting off the Chinese. Emperor Lợi renamed the lake “Hoàn Kiếm”, meaning Lake of the Returning Sword, to commemorate this event.