Vietnam When the Tanks Were Elephants
Contemporaneous with the American and French Revolutions, the far bloodier Tay Son revolt in Annam, present-day Vietnam, passed virtually unnoticed by the West. The novel revisits a time when generals were as expendable then as privates are today, and the classic war steed was the elephant. It faithfully follows what we can glean from the historical record, and unveils the action through the first person narration of eight of the principal participants.
By 1765, Annam's Later Le Dynasty had reigned but seldom ruled for almost three and a half centuries. Political and military power lay in the hands of two shogunates-the Trinh clan in the North, the Nguyen in the South. The clans imposed their separate wills on the divided country, while periodically struggling to annihilate each other. They left the powerless Le kings undisturbed amid the tranquility of their poetry and the disruptiveness of their concubines.
Meanwhile, the populace suffered from years of crushing taxation, forced military conscription, and drought leading to starvation. Into this social turmoil in 1771 stepped three brothers, all trained in the martial arts. They chose for their guerrilla movement the sobriquet Tay Son (Western Mountains), named after the district encompassing their native village.
By 1773, the first provincial capital fell into Tay Son hands. Through shifting alliances, ruses, and internecine warfare, the Tay Son gradually extended their sway over the entire country. Nguyen Hue, the ablest Tay Son brother, proclaimed himself King in 1788 under the reign name of Quang Trung (Shining Loyalty). Nguyen Hue routed a 200,000-man Chinese invasion force the following year, marking the zenith of Tay Son military prowess.
On Nguyen Hue's premature death in 1792, Nguyen Quang Toan, his ten-year-old son, succeeded him. Power was in the hands of a corrupt regent whose excesses hastened the Tay Son eclipse. After over two decades of struggle, Nguyen Anh, the heir to the Nguyen shogunate, triumphed over the Tay Son in 1802, uniting the country under his rule, renaming it Vietnam, and executing Nguyen Quang Toan by having him sundered apart by elephants. The novel opens on this grisly scene, then flashes back.