Tu Duc (1829-1883), according to Pham Cao Duong (Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, page 706) was independent Vietnam's last emperor, 1847-1883. Some would perhaps regard him as the emperor who lost Vietnam to French domination. Tu Duc served as the fourth of the thirteen Nguyen Dynasty emperors and is certainly one of the most interesting.

Tu Duc's rule began as the French expressed their interests in Indochina in increasingly aggressive forms. In 1847, for example, the French navy attacked Da Nang. Our printed course materials, to be read later, relate fully the story of the beginning of French colonialism.

It was Emperor Tu Duc who faced those challenges, and he and his political aides signed several treaties with the French. Gradually Vietnam lost entire provinces, and in 1884, the year following Tu Duc's death, Vietnam became a French protectorate.

Were this loss of sovereignty under French colonialism the entire record of Emperor Tu Duc, he would not be remembered by Vietnamese today as kindly as he is. He showed interest in modernizing Vietnam, and he took a personal interest in Vietnam's education and culture. Among his own writings, he produced poetry, philosophical texts, and history. In addition, he often invited Vietnamese scholars to interact with him at the site of his mausoleum complex.


Xung Khiem Pavilion

That was a massive building project which he undertook long before his death. Built on the Perfume River between 1864 and 1867, the complex contains gardens, pavilions, and a temple used earlier as a palace. He visited there for recreation (fishing especially), for meditation, and to write, as well as to meet with other writers and intellectuals.

Tu Duc lived longer than the other Nguyen emperors. During his lifetime he had 104 wives and many more concubines, but he fathered no children. He was often ill, and he was likely sterile due to smallpox early in his life.

In keeping with Chinese and Vietnamese traditions, there is a Stele House on the Tu Duc Mausoleum site. Within this pavilion, open on all four sides, is a 20-ton stele containing Tu Duc's 4,000-character eulogy. Written in Chinese characters, it is actually an autobiography of the emperor.

Ernest Bolt
University of Richmond


Go to Professor Bolt's Photos and Comments on a Visit of Hue, 1997

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