Setting the Stage
Vietnam had been divided into north and south for 150 years, the Trinh dynasty in the north, the Nguyen dynasty in the South. Both governments were corrupt, and their people suffered, especially under the Nguyen.
It’s 1770 and the three Ho brothers, their sister and their parents live near the center of Vietnam in Tay Son. The local mandarin desires the sister, Jade River, as an extra wife, but the father, Physician Ho, turns the mandarin down. The father has already agreed to let his daughter marry a neighbor’s son named Luong Hoang. The Ho family is upset when the father is arrested on trumped up charges by the corrupt mandarin. In order to free the father from jail, they must either sell the beloved Jade River into marriage for cash, or hand her over to the mandarin as a slave.
Meanwhile, Benoit Grannier is growing up in France, where he studies sword and becomes a naval cadet. He reappears near the end of American War of Independence, as a lieutenant in the French Navy, which plays a decisive role at the sea battle off of Yorktown in 1781, vital to American independence. The French Fleet is surprisingly large, and they defeat the smaller British fleet under Admiral Graves in about three hours of pounding.
The French Catholic Bishop, Pierre Pigneau, has a mission in Hatien, Vietnam. He and his elderly assistant are arrested by the local Nguyen Mandarin for teaching the gospel. In prison, they meet an educated scholar who has lost favor, and learn about Vietnam. The scholar explains how it came about that two dynasties rule one country.
The three Ho brothers start a peasant uprising in the center, in Tay Son, and eventually defeat Nguyen Dinh in the south, but let young prince Nguyen Anh escape. The prince is helped and hidden by the Bishop Pierre Pigneau, who later raises a small French Navy in India to help Prince Anh make war against the Ho brothers. Prince Anh is also aided by troops from Siam.
Second Ho brother Lu hurts his back, so the eldest brother Nhac sends his youngest brother Hue instead to lead their armies against the Trinh to the north. Success brings serious complications to the victors.
Tây Sơn, a Village in Đại Việt
Dawn began with a dark purple sky and a red glimmer of light. As light spread behind the plain to the east, it illuminated a ridge of mountains to the west. Morning birdsong and insect noise made a vibrating racket. Five men, four side by side in a row behind the first, faced the blue-red firmament in the east, a cool northeast breeze in their faces. They executed an exercise called the Salutation to the Sun. Their hands moved up together very slowly, five souls in physical synchrony with one another, searching for harmony within themselves and with the awakening world around them. As coordinated as a school of fish underwater, and as silent as reflections of bamboo on a lake, they arched their backs backward, then bent down, touching their fingertips to the ground. After a slow lunge to stretch the groin, they executed a martial push-up into the cobra position, a body wave that inverted their backs like the bow of a boat. As they uncoiled to the forward arch, not a groan could be heard through their deep exhalations of breath.
The sounds of birds and insects were muffled by the rustle of the constant monsoon breeze through the tall pines and the thickets of tangled banyan with its many trunks. . . . Huệ jumped back and automatically executed fast circular blocks with each hand. The blocks were instinctive and powerful. A vicious strike requires a lightning counter. Huệ’s right hand caught Nhạc’s foot before it penetrated to the chest, and by the time Huệ’s block was finished, Nhạc had lost his balance and center. As he was flying through the air, his whole body tilted back until it was horizontal to the ground, as if he were now a table and Huệ was the leg. Huệ held his block as Nhạc’s larger body poised in the air and then crashed to the ground. Nhạc slapped the grass to cushion the blow.
Their father, Hồ Danh, laughed heartily, and so did the others. Huệ, proud as a peacock, offered his brother a hand and helped him stand up. Nhạc pulled himself up, his pride the only injured party, and he bowed correctly to his brother. Damn that little bastard, he thought. I’ll get him yet. Nhạc could hide his fury at his brother, but he shook his head and muttered, showing disgust with himself.
The Tết Thanh Minh Festival
A heavy peasant with an old cart covered with religious paraphernalia for sale, such as fruit, incense sticks, and paper animal and trinket offerings to burn, pushed past the spot where the two young people sat watching the market at Tây Sơn. Now Jade River gazed at Hoàng’s powerful features, his bushy hair and eyebrows, his jutting nose and chin, and prayed silently to the man in the moon, Chú Cuội, that he tie them together with his red string. She prayed to fate that they would wed and neither wander, and that Hoàng would be successful, but not, like so many men in their success, want a second or a third wife, or concubines.
“Words cannot express how I feel for you,” Hoàng said. “I have spent months waiting for another chance to talk with you.” He took a small scroll from his poem bag, carefully untied the red string, and unrolled the thin paper. Holding the paper poem gift, he read: “I am like Wei Sheng. I am ready to hug the pillar under the bridge as the river rises, waiting for you to meet me, until I drown with the high tide. I must know, Will your warmth and beauty Shine on my worthless self?”
Jade River was quiet. She averted her eyes to the ground. She said quietly, “That was beautiful. If it were only up to me, I would say yes. With all my heart. But you know that it is for my parents to decide such important matters; our customs demand that I should defer to them.”
“Your sentiments are noble,” said Hoàng carefully. “But if you care for me, at least, let’s pledge ourselves secretly to do all within our power to wake up the moon, so that the old man will tie the thread, with or without our parents.” Hoàng’s voice was strong and sincere, but subversive. She bowed to him deeply, unsure whether she dared commit to join in his proposed pact of revolt. He handed her the scroll, which he had painted months before in his own calligraphy, and a small gold bracelet. She accepted both, and she painstakingly read the Chinese characters of the poem. Hoàng had waited several months for this moment.
“Your calligraphy is clean and strong,” she said admiringly, and met his gaze. “Here, Hoàng, these are for you.” And she gave him a handkerchief that she had embroidered with blue cranes and yellow clouds, and her fan, painted with sunflowers, a symbol of constancy. He took her hands in his, looked her in the eyes, and said carefully, “With these magic gifts, let us engage our troth in stone and bronze.” She smiled, but with a tear in her eye. She squeezed Hoàng’s hand, nodded, almost kissed him, and said, “Now I am bound to you for life.” He squeezed her hands in return. Jade River then shyly cast her eyes away. She added, “Gods and Genie protect us. Let us hurry now and join the others at the boxing stage.” “Yes,” said Hoàng, “let’s join them before they start looking for us.”
As they walked through the bustling market, Jade River fought off a terrible sense of dread. I’ve acted rashly, she thought. Haven’t I disobeyed my parents and dishonored my Ancestors? A woman is not permitted to make her own alliances. But I have been fond of Hoàng for so long, and I do love and admire him, I know it. If Father insists on another man for my husband, what choice has honor left me then but to obey him, or become a nun? Oh Buddha, protect me from the loneliness and tedium of that!
Thăng Long (Hà Nội)
The Hissing Army of the Center moved north in a series of rapid forced marches, while Nhạc’s imposing junk fleet pushed up the coast. Nhạc felt no joy, only dread for what he was about to attempt. He was pleased about only one thing: His mother, Autumn Moon, insisted on coming. Much worse though, as everyone knew, his little brother had never been defeated in battle.
“You and your brother shall not raise your swords against each other,” Autumn Moon commanded. “You can always fight our enemies, but your brothers are not your enemies until they fail completely in their filial obligations and attack you.” “But Mother, he disobeyed me, and I’m the emperor. I am his king and commander.” Autumn Moon paused. She had hoped that she would never have this very conversation.
The petite lady, white-haired and wrinkled like the skin of a dried prune, spoke slowly, with the confidence of a woman who loves all her children. “And who is your kingmaker? It wasn’t me, or Lữ or Hoàng. It was your youngest brother Huệ who won the hardest battles, and devised the plans when we needed brains over brawn. Who gave you the plan to avenge the murder of your own father? If you allow Huệ to rule the north as a king in his own right, your dynasty will be more secure than if you insist on a test of forces. You will most likely lose the war, or it could go on for generations. I need all my sons to live in peace. I love you all. I do not want to be forced to take sides. Harmony is required if your children, who are my grandchildren, are to remain secure and have a future. Do you hear me? If you oppose your brother with force in such an evil struggle, one of you will certainly lose, and the winner will be militarily weakened and in less favor with the Gods and the Spirits and the people. If you attack your brother because of his success, your Ancestors will send you, like a leper, covered with blisters and lesions, away from this earthly paradise, I swear it.”
“And you?” Nhạc said turning to his old friend Hoàng. Hoàng did not know what to say. Ever since the news of Huệ’s victory had arrived, he had dreaded this moment. “I am torn between my two oldest friends,” Hoàng said. “I love you, Nhạc, but I also love your brother Huệ. You have both been like brothers to me. Why can’t you love each other? Suicide might be easier than joining with one of you against the other.” Nhạc clenched his teeth. This was hard to hear from his old friend.
By the time that the Army of the Center reached the plains before Thăng Long (Hà Nội), Nhạc had cooled down considerably and had decided to allow a settlement. He was afraid of his mother’s curse; he was more afraid of his brother, should he go to war. His generals reported that his troops had lost their zeal. They adored and feared Nguyễn Huệ. They had fought like demons against the entrenched regimes, but fighting their own kind, and in some cases, even their own relatives, held no interest.
Desertion had grown to be a problem for the first time since Nhạc had first taken to the hills around Tây Sơn. Võ Văn Nhậm suggested that war was now inevitable. Nhạc turned to his mother for guidance on his crumbling position. They decided to send Hoàng ahead in a diplomatic mission to sound out brother Huệ for some sort of face-saving concessions.
“My lord Buddha,” Autumn Moon confided privately to Lương Hoàng, “what if Huệ decides now that he’ll settle for nothing less than to be emperor of all? What if he wants the north, the center, and the south? Nhạc is not thinking or using his head. It is within his clever brother’s power to get what he desires. Huệ is so much like his father, but so much more ruthless as well. Nevertheless, he will not attack or harm his mother. I know my sons.”
“I pray to the Gods that you are right,” replied Hoàng. Possibly Nhạc had had similar thoughts, for when Autumn Moon suggested that she travel with Hoàng, in case he met strong and stubborn resistance, Nhạc agreed. “In case he has any doubt as to which side I am on,” she said gravely, “I want an armed escort of one hundred men of your personal regiment. I want him to see and feel the threat of his mother’s wrath. I want to remind him of his father’s agony, and of the anger of all our Ancestors.”
Hoàng and Autumn Moon entered Thăng Long in search of Huệ. Meanwhile, Hồ Nhạc, jealous of his brother’s victories and the loyalty he commanded with their troops, and fearful of his military genius, arrived with his own army before the walls of Thăng Long. Autumn Moon prayed to the Gods that Huệ could not refuse his mother.