The Vietnamese Nostradamus
Today he’d be called a political strategist, but in the 16th century he was seen as a great seer. Huy Hao charts the course life of Nguyen Binh Khiem’s life
In Hanoi there’s a T-junction made up of two large rivers: the Red river and Duong river. On the banks of the Duong River, at the Northeastern gate of the city, there is Thanh Am, a communal house that worships Nguyen Binh Khiem (1491-1585), who is considered in Vietnamese historical circles to be the biggest seer in the history of the country.
According to Nguyen Phuc Giac Hai, a historian and researcher of the paranormal, Khiem was also the first scholar who mentioned the name Vietnam, the national name officially declared in 1804 by Gia Long, the first king of the Nguyen Dynasty (1804-1945).
In Trinh Tien Sinh Quoc Ngu (Literary Works of Master Khiem) one of the most valuable works of Khiem that remains intact today, he wrote ‘Viet Nam khoi to xay nen’, which means ‘Vietnam the founder’, in the opening sentence.
He also used the name Vietnam in four of his poems in a book of verse on the scenery of the nation’s mountains, rivers and the sea.
Nguyen Binh Khiem was born in Co Am Commune, Vinh Bao District of Haiphong City and even his birth has become the stuff of legend.
His mother was said to be very well-educated and acquainted with the science of Oriental fortune-telling. Her marriage with Nguyen Van Dinh, a high-ranking official of the Le Dynasty, was based on her a studious, but superstitious, selection process.
She even calculated the best time to give birth to Nguyen Binh Khiem and as he grew up she tried to cultivate a desire in his mind to become king.
When teaching him, she usually used words implying his would-be-kingly status but her husband often managed to make light of this, so the ambitious mother parted ways with the husband and left Khiem to be educated mainly by his father.
Later on, his mother met a wise man named Mac Dang Dung by chance. She strongly believed this man was destined to become king and she is said to have regretted not marrying him.
Sure enough, Mac Dang Dung overthrew the Le Dynasty and became the first king of the Mac Dynasty.
Now grown up, Khiem watched the fierce conflict between the Mac Court and the supporters of the Le Dynasty, and decided not to sit the exams to join Mac’s court of officials until the age of 45 when following the advice of friends he finally sat the exams.
He won the post of the first doctoral candidate in 1535 and was appointed to be the third most powerful official in the Ministry of Justice. Then 8 years later, he asked King Mac Dang Doanh to behead 18 corrupt high-ranking officials but the request was denied, so he sent in his resignation and returned to his homeland to take up a career in teaching.
A few years after that, the Mac Court called him back to take up a post as Minister of Interior. Nguyen Binh Khiem, however, spent most of his time working at home and studying sciences concerning prediction. Here he managed to sustain his influence.
Nguyen and Trinh Lords and many other powerful officials often visited him to consult about national affairs. His reputation for prediction even spread to China where many scholars considered him as the greatest master of ly hoc (the science of fortune telling and other mystical arts), one of the four must-learn sciences of officials under Confucianism-based feudal courts, besides languages, health and medicine, and mathematics.
Rulers from Nguyen, Mac, Trinh and Le clans all consulted him. When the Mac Court lost control over the country to the supporters of the Le Dynasty, he told their officials to leave for Cao Bang region. There the Mac Dynasty dominated the lands for another 80 years.
He also advised Nguyen Hoang, an official of the Le Dynasty, to accept a post in Thuan Hoa (Hue City today) to live away from the Thang Long capital city. Three centuries later, Nguyen Hoang’s offspring were to become what is known as the Nguyen Dynasty, the last feudal dynasty of Vietnam.
When working for the Mac clan, Nguyen Binh Khiem moved part of his large family to Thanh Am Village, now in Thuong Thanh Ward of Long Bien District of Hanoi City. His family helped expand the populated and cultivated land of the village, so when he passed away, the villagers honoured him as one of the village’s tutelary gods. (Timeout)