Important Sources relating to the Tay Son

George Dutton


18th and 19th century Sources Originally in Chinese


Phu Bien Tap Luc [Frontier Chronicles]- detailed description of Nguyen territories written by Le Quy Don, one of the most well-known scholar-officials of the 18th century. He served the Trinh court, and was sent to oversee the newly-captured Nguyen territory after the Trinh invasion of 1775. This account deals with economic, political and cultural matters in the Nguyen region, with a heavy emphasis on economic issues.It offers detailed statistical material based on his investigations and captured Nguyen documentation. This covers everything from tax revenues, to landholdings, to the minting of coinage. An indispensable source for this period.


Dai Nam Thuc Luc [Veritable Records of Dai Nam]- one of the official court histories begun by Nguyen court historians in the mid-19th century; this gives detailed accounts of the military and political events of the Tay Son period. The focus is on the Nguyen camp, so the details on the Tay Son are limited outside of the frequent military encounters with the Nguyen. Its value lies in giving a chronological description of key events, and giving a sense of the scope of armies and battles. It is also quite interesting for its historiographical mission, to justify the Nguyen claims to power, and to make their ultimate triumph over the Tay Son seem an inevitability.


Dai Nam Liet Truyen [Biographies of Dai Nam]- the official court biographies of important figures in Nguyen history Its emphasis is on late 18th and 19th century figures, particularly political and military supporters of Nguyen Anh in his efforts to defeat the Tay Son. It contains chapters on Nguyen Hue, Nguyen Nhac and Quang Toan, the three Tay Son Emperors. These are particularly useful for recording events relating to the rise and rule of these figures, and including more detail than is to be found in the Dai Nam Thuc Luc.


Lich Trieu Tap Ky - [Collected Records of the Dynasties] a privately written history that was discovered in the 1960s; it covers much of the same material as the DNTL, but also includes some additional details. It consists of 6 volumes, of which the 5th is missing. For the Tay Son period it provides particularly detailed coverage of Sino-Vietnamese diplomatic correspondence from 1789-1790. Its author lived in the Le-Trinh north, and so the focus is on events in that region. It is a helpful supplement to other accounts that cover events in that region, for its perspective is slightly different than the standard court-ordered accounts.


Le Quy Dat Su - [An Unusual History of the Precious Le] another privately written history, apparently authored by Bui Duong Lich. It covers the period from the mid-1750s until the late 1780s. Its author eventually came to serve the Tay Son, but very reluctantly. He remained loyal to the Le, as this account's heavy emphasis on the Le ruler and his subsequent flight to China makes clear. It is an important description of events in the north in the late 18th century, offering an alternative to the Cuong Muc and the Hoang Le Nhat Thong Chi.It includes interesting commentary particularly on the decline of the Le-Trinh state in the second half of the 18th century, including descriptions of corruption in the civil service examinations. Also includes a small number of introspective poems by the author on his responses to the events swirling around him.


Hoang Le Nhat Thong Chi [Record of the Unification under the Imperial Le ]- an historical account written in the late 18th century, it appears to be based on insider knowledge of events, written by members of the Ngo family; one of whose most famous members, Ngo Thi Nham, was an ardent supporter of the Tay Son. This text is interesting because it purports to recreate conversations between many of the key historical figures of this period. While it is written in the form of a novel, much of its content can be verified with other sources, and as such it is a very important source for this period. For a detailed analysis of this text, click here. For the entire text in Vietnamese, click here.


Kham Dinh Viet Su Thong Giam Cuong Muc [The Imperially Ordered Mirror and Commentary on the History of the Viet]- another official court history, this one records Vietnamese history as seen by the Nguyen historians, with a focus on the rise and decline of the Le dynasty. Its focus on events in the north sets it apart from the Dai Nam Thuc Luc, which records events from the perspective of the Nguyen in the south. Thus, these two works must be read together to get a more complete picture of events in both regions. A 1950s Hanoi edition has recently been republished (Nha Xuat Ban Giao Duc, 1998, in two volumes)


Sách So Sang Chép Các Viec [Notebooks Recording Various Things] written in 1822 by a Vietnamese convert and priest, Philiphe Binh, who was born in 1759, and who left Vietnam for Portugal in 1795. He spent the rest of his life in Europe, dying in 1832 at the age of 73. Today his writings, constituting more than 10,000 pages are held in the Vatican Library. This text is a miscellany of various things the author considered worth recording, both about his life and travels, and about religious matters. It provides fascinating insights into the life of a particular Vietnamese man who lived an extremely eventful life. A photo reproduction of the original hand-written text was published in 1968 with a useful introduction by Thanh Lang. In addition, this, and most of the other writings by Binh have been microfilmed and are held at Cornell, among other places.


20th Century Sources


La Son Phu Tu [The Master of La Son] - a biography of Nguyen Thiep (aka The Master of La Son - hence the title), an important scholar and poet, perhaps best known for his service to Nguyen Hue, the eventual conqueror of Trinh territory. This is a remarkably detailed account of Thiep's life, and remains the only detailed biography of which I am aware, despite the fact that it was published in 1952. Its invaluable appendix includes the Chinese texts of most of Thiep's major writings, including his correspondence with Nguyen Hue. This work is based on its author, Hoang Xuan Han's, extraordinary discovery of the correspondence between these two men.

Van Hoc Tay Son: [Tay Son Literature] the introduction is a useful interpretation of literary styles in the Tay Son era; includes some Tay son edicts; and poems or short selections from: Nguyen Thiep, Ninh Ton, Ngo Thì Nham, Phan Huy Ích, Doàn Nguyen Tuan, Nguyen Huu Chinh, and Ho Xuan Huong.


Gop Phan Tim Hieu Phong Trao Nong Dan Tay Son Nguyen Hue [Contributions to an Understanding of the Tay Son Nguyen Hue Peasant Movement] (1983) - a series of articles examining many aspects of the Tay Son movement. Some of the contributions are useful studies of aspects of the Tay Son period. Others are merely rehashings of previous interpretations or examinations of extremely minor issues relating to the Tay Son.


Standard Histories of the Tay Son


Hoa Bang, Quang Trung: Anh Hung Dan Toc [Quang Trung: National Hero]: Ha Noi: 1998. - First published in 1943, this is the first major historical study of the leader of the Tay Son movement. It is a detailed examination of his life based on primary sources. It is one of the most important studies of the Tay Son by a major 20th century Vietnamese historian and translator. Its focus, as the title suggests, is on the period during which Nguyen Hue reigned as the Quang Trung Emperor, a relatively short period of less than 4 years from Nov. 1788 until his death in Sept. of 1792.


Ta Chi Dai Truong, Lich Su Noi Chien O Viet Nam Tu 1771 den 1802 [History of the Civil War in Vietnam from 1771 to 1802], Saigon: Van Su Hoc, 1973. - a very good, detailed account of the Tay Son in which the author has drawn extensively from both Vietnamese and French source. His use of French sources is typical of southern scholarship in strong contrast to the virtual absence of European sources in northern scholarship at this same time; this work has come under criticism by Hanoi scholars for what they see as a distinct pro-Nguyen bias, and a failure sufficiently to glorify the peasantry.


Nguyen Phuong, Viet Nam Thoi Banh Truong: Tay Son, [Vietnam in a Time of Expansion: Tay Son] Saigon: Khai Tri, 1968. - another account of the Tay Son by one of the more prominent southern historians of the 1960s. It also includes extensive use of French missionary letters, and is a thoughtful look at the importance and meaning of the Tay Son era and the movement's leadership.


Van Tan, Cach Mang Tay Son [The Tay Son Revolution] [Hanoi, 1957] Written by a leading Hanoi scholar, this work is a useful introduction to the Tay Son. Despite its title it is not marred by the glorification of the Tay Son leadership and their cause that marks many later works by communist historians.


Quach Giao and Quach Tan, Nha Tay Son [The House of Tay Son ] (Qui Nhon: 1988) - an anecdotal history of the Tay Son brothers and their uprising written by a father and son team who gathered documents in their home region (the Tay Son heartland) for many years. This work contains many details not found elsewhere, but unfortunately it is extremely poorly documented. Nonetheless useful for bringing together various popular stories about the movement normally scattered in many other sources.


Bibliographies of the Tay Son


Thu Muc Ve Tay Son Nguyen Hue, [Bibliography about Tay Son-Nguyen Hue] [Nghia Binh: Thu Vien Khoa Hoc Tong Hop Nghia Binh Xuat Ban, 1988.] - an indispensible guide to all sorts of materials on the Tay Son. This work cites more than 1300 different sources, ranging from texts in Han or Nom, to secondary works in journals, newspapers articles, etc. It includes materials in English and French as well. It is reasonably well arranged and has an index by author. Just as useful for reseachers travelling to Viet Nam, it indicates where each item (including published ones) were found, so one can determine whether a particular library has certain secondary sources.


Nguyen Khac Thuan, ed. Thu Muc Ve Phong Trao Tay Son [Bibliography about the Tay Son Movement], [Ho Chi Minh City: Ban Tuyen Huan Tinh Uy Tien Giang Xuat Ban, 1985.] - another guide to Tay Son materials, but much less comprehensive than the one above. This one also suffers from very poor organization.


Quach Thanh Tam and Philippe Langlet, References Bibliographiques Histoire Ancienne du Viet Nam (Paris: Sudestasie, 1998) - a very good and up to date bibliography of Vietnamese and European language sources on all aspects of Vietnamese history. Pages 96-104 deal with the Tay Son period as well as the Nguyen conquest of the country.


George Dutton, Bibliography from my Dissertation ( - Contains more than 270 sources in full citation. Includes materials in Chinese, Vietnamese, French, and English.


Vietnamese-language Histories of Vietnam

(these include chapters on the Tay Son)


Tran Trong Kim, Viet Nam Su Luoc [Outline History of Viet Nam] (in 2 volumes), [Los Alamitos: Nha Xuat Ban Xuan Thu, 1990.] - a useful survey of Vietnamese history, focusing chiefly on political and military events. First published in the 1920s, it marked one of the first acknowledgements of the Tay Son as a legitimate dynasty. It is striking, however, that the author virtually ignores the peasant dimension of this period.


Uy Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi Viet Nam, Lich Su Viet Nam, Tap II, [History of Viet Nam, vol. 2] [Ha Noi: Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi, 1976.] - this was the standard, official account of Vietnamese history, compiled by a team of scholars. It is useful for understanding the ways in which the party was interpreting the nation's history in the aftermath of the American war.


Journal Articles on the Tay Son

Note: Nghien Cuu Lich Su (Historical Research) is the most important Vietnamese scholarly journal on Vietnamese history. It is an invaluable source of information on the Tay Son and every other aspect of Vietnamese history. It provides research on new materials as they are uncovered and detailed studies of historical figures, events, and trends. The contents of this journal have fortunately been indexed with annotations in English in Nguyen Ba Khoach, Allen J. Riedy and Truong Buu Lam, An Annotated Index of the Journals Van Su Dia (1954-1959) and Nghien Cuu Lich Su (1960-1981), Southeast Asian Paper No. 24, Southeast Asian Studies, Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii-Manoa, 1984. [Note that this index ends in 1981, however, so it is not current].

Other useful Vietnamese-language journals that include essays on the Tay Son are: Tap Chi Van Hoc - Journal of Literature, Tap Chi Triet Hoc - Journal of Philosophy, Hue: Xua va Nay - Hue: Past and Present, and such annual publications as Nhung Phat Hien Moi Ve Khao Co Hoc - New Discoveries in Archeology.


A Bibliography of Western-language Sources on the Tay Son


English Sources (See below for French Sources)


Buttinger, Joseph, The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1958). - pp. 198-269 provide a survey of the country under the heading "Missionaries, Merchants and Conquerers." The emphasis is on the missionary experience in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Tay Son are viewed very much from the French missionary perspective. In fact, most of the information on the Tay Son constitutes something of an afterthought and is found in the notes on pp. 264-268.


Chesneaux, Jean, The Vietnamese Nation: Contribution to a History (Sydney: Current Books, 1966). - contains part of a chapter relating to the Tay Son, and while limited in its information is generally useful for its overview of pertinent economic issues.


Hodgkin, Thomas, Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path, (London: MacMillan, 1981). - a useful survey of Vietnamese history from a Marxist perspective. In fact, this book largely draws on standard 1960s and 1970s histories written by Hanoi-based Vietnamese historians. Problematic in terms of its interpretation, but one of the few English-language surveys of Vietnamese history.


Lamb, Alistair, The Mandarin Road to Old Hue: Narratives of Anglo-Vietnamese Diplomacy from the 17th Century to the eve of French Conquest, (London: Archon Books, 1970). An extremely valuable collection of accounts from various English missions to Vietnam, each of which has an introduction. It is also usefully annotated. There were two English missions during the Tay Son period, that of John Chapman in 1778, and that of Lord MacCartney in 1793. The first mission, described in pages 57-137, came as the Tay Son were approaching one of the early peaks of their authority in southern Vietnam. It includes rare details of the court at Qui Nhon which Chapman visited for a brief period, and includes his descriptions of the Tay Son leadership. An invaluable source for this period to flesh out the chief Tay Son figures.


Li Tana Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Ithaca: Cornell SEAP, 1998) - pp. 139-154 offer a chapter on the Tay Son, trying to explain their emergence within the context of the Nguyen South. The rest of the book is a useful survey of the politics, society and economics of the Nguyen-controlled region of "Dang Trong." The emphasis is on the southern reaches of "Viet Nam" and how the people in this region imagined a different way of being "Vietnamese."


Murray, Diane, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987) An exploration of the fascinating world of piracy along the South China Coast; these pirates were used by the Tay Son to interdict shipping between China and northern Vietnam, with the particular hope of preventing the Nguyen in the south from infiltrating the north or recruiting assistance from China. The pirates also provided the Tay Son with substantial naval power in their battles with the Nguyen as well as providing financial resources in the form of booty they shared with the Tay Son. While some of the descriptions of the Tay Son movement in this account are a bit jumbled, this probably reflects the confused understanding of this period contained in the Chinese sources. In any case, the descriptions of Tay Son-pirate interactions are an indispensible source for better understanding this period.


Nguyen Khac Vien, Vietnam: A Long History, (Ha Noi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987) - pp. 91-115 "The Tay Son Epoch" provides a conventional Vietnamese historian's description of the corruptions of the feudal regimes of the 18th century and the rise of the peasantry. It emphasizes the Tay Son role in "reunifying" the country and highlights some of their great battle victories. The chapter closes by conceding that the Tay Son were unable to transcend the constraints of their time, ultimately themselves becoming a feudal monarchy.


Nguyen Khac Vien and Huu Ngoc, Vietnamese Literature: Historical Background and Texts, (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, no date).


Nguyen Van Thai and Nguyen Van Mung, A Short History of Viet Nam, (Saigon: The Times Publishing Company, 1958). A brief survey history of Viet Nam, with a heavy focus on political and military events; it stops in the late 19th century, and thus avoids having to comment on the twists and turns of 20th century events.


Truong Buu Lam, "Intervention versus Tribute in Sino-Vietnamese Relations, 1788-1790," in The Chinese World Order edited by John K. Fairbank, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 165-179. - one of the few detailed descriptions of the Tay Son period available in English, and based on primary sources. It's focus is rather narrow, as the title suggests. It looks closely at the relationship between Vietnam and China during the period of the Chinese invasion on behalf of the Le. It then describes, using Chinese records, the Chinese decision to offer political recognition to the Tay Son government, and the subsequent Tay Son tribute missions to the northern capital.


Woodside, Alexander, "Central Vietnam's Trading World in the Eighteenth Century as seen in Le Qui Don's 'Frontier Chronicles'," Unpublished paper for the SEASSI Symposium on Vietnamese History, Cornell University, 1991. - this is an invaluable introduction to Le Qui Don's "Frontier Chronicle," which contains descriptions of all aspects of life in Nguyen territories, shortly after the Trinh invasion. This essay explains the genre in which Le Qui Don is writing, his aim and audience, and it assesses his observations and conclusions.


French Language Sources


French Sources

Coedès,George, Les Peuples de la Péninsule Indochinoise: Histoire - Civilisations, (Dunod: Paris, 1962) - really only a few paragraphs on pp. 196-199, this offers little detail, constituting more of a precis of events, including quick mentions of important literary works and writers of the 18th and early 19th centuries.


Gosselin, Charles, L'empire d'Annam, (Paris, 1904).


Kofflers, J. Description Historique de la Cochinchine (R. I., 1911) - contains a translation of the original Latin text by a German missionary who visited the Nguyen Court in the 1740s and provided one of the few outsider descriptions of the inner workings of the Nguyen capital from this period.


La Bissachere, Etat Actuel du Tunkin et de la Cochinchine (Westmead, England: Gregg International Publishers, 1971) - reprint of an 1812 survey of conditions and events in Viet Nam written by a French missionary who spent many years in the region in the late 18th century. This account, useful for its details not only on political events, but also on customs, natural products and linguistic issues, became the basis for many of the 19th century European writings on Viet Nam. While many missionaries wrote letters from Viet Nam in the Tay Son years, letters which were later compiled and published, this is the only missionary account that attempts to provide a larger overview of the region and events of this period. [Note: this account was apparently NOT written by Bissachere, but was written by another Frenchman who drew on Bissachere's own writings. As Bissachere's own account is considerably shorter, it is unclear what other sources its author drew on]


Le Thanh Khoi, Histoire du Viet Nam, des origines à 1858, (Paris: Sudestasie, 1987). - pp. 303-341 cover the 18th century. This offers quite a good overview of the Tay Son period, including descriptions of the numerous pre-Tay Son peasant rebellions in the north. It provides good analysis and some maps of the various battles and concludes with a summary of the reasons contributing to the victory of Nguyen Anh. Khoi, more so than many other authors, gives emphasis to the crisis of the peasantry that sparked the turmoil of the 18th century.


Manguin, Pierre, Les Nguyen, Macau et le Portugal: Aspects politiques et commerciaux d'une relation privilégiée en Mer de Chine, 1773-1802 (Paris: EFEO, 1984). A fascinating examination of trade and political relations between the Portuguese at Macao and the Nguyen during the period in which the Nguyen were battling the Tay Son. Equally valuable for its extensive appendices that include a variety of crucial primary documents relating to Nguyen-Portuguese correspondence as well as to extremely rare Tay Son-Portuguese correspondence. Most of these documents have not been used before, much less published.


Maybon, Charles, Histoire Moderne Du Pays D'Annam, 1592-1820, (Paris: Typographie Plon-Nourrit, 1919). Chapter V, "La Révolte des Tây-Sohn - Nguyen Anh" pp. 183-223, offers a conventional and detailed overview focusing heavily on the south and the involvement of the French missionaries.


Perez "La Révolte et la Guerre des Tayson d'après les Franciscains Espagnols de Cochinchine," [Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Indochinoises, Tome XV, 3-4, 1940, Saigon, pp. 65-106.] This is also an extremely useful source by foreigners, in this case Spanish missionaries. It describes life in southern Vietnam in the 1770s and 1780s through excerpts from the accounts of these missionaries. In particular, it shows life at the village level and the attitudes of the Spanish missionaries toward the Tay Son. They are alternately attacked and protected by the Tay Son soldiers, and some of them are ultimately captured and nearly put to death in Saigon, before the intervention of a sympathetic high official. This article reveals the divisions within the Tay Son movement and some of the impact that they had on the countryside. This article, and other missionary sources are quite valuable for providing details of life outside of the court and military councils. On the other hand, they must be used cautiously, for their perspective is that of religious figures and they tend to view all aspects of life around them in these terms. [M. Villa, trans]


Yang Baoyun, Contribution à l'histoire de la principauté des Nguyen au Vietnam méridional (1600-1775), (Genève: Editions Olizane, 1992). - a detailed study of pre-Tay Son Nguyen territory. It includes chapters dealing with social, religious and political as well as economic issues. It also contains a helpful glossary with maps of 18th century Vietnamese territory and political divisions, and a glossary and list of Nguyen rulers.