THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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19 posts categorized "Vietnamese"

05 September 2017

Vietnamese traditional markets

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One striking feature of South East Asia is its traditional markets. They can be easily set up in any available space in communities, with vendors laying out their goods on makeshift stalls or on street pavements. Despite global and international retail chains mushrooming in many parts of the region, traditional markets are still going strong and in many areas are making a comeback.

In Vietnam, traditional markets have played a vital part in daily life, especially in the past when people still lived under a self-sufficient and rural economy. Markets provided a place where they could trade their daily necessities, while socialising and exchanging local news. Their importance is best expressed by the Vietnamese proverb “A market has its regulations; a village has its customs.” Vietnamese traditional markets come in different forms and sizes, from a tiny and basic hamlet market, to a more substantial village market which takes place where roads meet, or a town market, which also has proper shop houses (buildings which combine a shop with simple living accommodation for the trader). Markets can be held on any day but are usually busiest on the 2nd, 6th, 12th, 16th, 22nd, and 26th of the lunar month (Hưu Ngọc 2012: 178) .

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Bà Chiểu vegetable market, Sài Gòn, from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.22. British Library, OIJ.915.97

The origins of the Vietnamese traditional market can be traced back from written records to the end of the 13th century. In 1293 Trân Phu, a Chinese envoy of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) who travelled through Vietnam during the Trầ n Dynasty (1226-1400), made a note in his records (An Nam tức sự) that “Vietnamese markets took place every two days. Hundreds of goods were laid out. A building of three rooms width with four bamboo benches was erected at every five (Chinese) miles as a place for a market.” (Trịnh Khắc Mạnh 2015: 6).

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Food vendor, from Oger 1909, p.75. British Library, Or. TC 4

According to Trịnh Khắc Mạnh, traditional Vietnamese markets before the modern period can be divided into two types, namely those managed by the local administration and those managed by a local temple. Profits from market management would thus go back either to local communities or to the temple (Trịnh Khắc Mạnh 2015: 7).

In the past, markets were not only a place for businesses but they served as a community’s centre where locals were able to socialise. In addition to being able to sell or buy goods, both traders and customers also had a chance to meet up and exchange or gather news about their neighbours and communities. A market was a place where other daily activities took place, as this folk song about a girl looking for a man of her dreams demonstrates: “I’m like a length of rose silk / Waiting in the market for the right buyer” (Hưu Ngọc 2012: 178).

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Poultry vendor from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.23. British Library, OIJ.915.97

Markets in small villages or communities required no permanent fixtures. They could be easily set up with makeshift stalls, benches or even just a piece of cloth laid out on the bare ground. Markets in towns were generally bigger and would also have permanent shop houses. In the 18th and 19th centuries in prominent towns such as Sài Gòn, Hà Nội or Huế there were markets that specialised in one particular trade, such as clothes, paper, tin and copper household utensils, and leather. Street names in the old quarter of Hà Nội clearly reflect the specific commercial history of parts of the city as each name gives you a clue as to what you could expect to buy from the area. For example, Phố Hàng Đào was a place where you could buy silk or fabric, Phố Hàng Bạc specialised in silver products whereas Hàng Chiếu would have plenty of sleeping mats for you to choose from. Some of these traditions still carry on to the present day.

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Paper shop, from Oger 1909, p.131. British Library, Or. TC 4

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A pharmacy, in Oger 1909, p.90. British Library, Or. TC 4

Records of western travellers to the region in the 19th century also give good accounts of what traditional markets were like. George Finlayson, a surgeon and naturalist attached to the Crawfurd Mission to Siam and Vietnam in 1821-1822, gave an account of the principal market in Huế, which he visited on 3rd October 1822, as follows:
“It consists of a spacious street about a mile in length, with shops on either side of the whole of its length. Many of the shops are mere paltry huts, made of palm leaves; the rest are more substantial houses, constructed chiefly of wood, and have tile or thatched roofs. Here also, the poverty of the shops was particularly striking. A very large proportion contained nothing but shreds of gilt and coloured paper used in religious ceremonies and at funerals. Chinese porcelain, of a coarse description; fans, lacquered boxes, Chinese fans, silks, and crapes, the two latter in small quantity; medicines without number, coarse clothes made up, large hats made of palm-leaf, and a sort of jacket of the same material; rice, pulse, and fruit; sago … were the common articles exposed for sale. There were but few, and those very coarse articles of manufactured iron, as nails, hatches, and chisels, which bore a high price …” (George Finlayson 1826: 371-2).

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Ceramics and pottery shop, from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.57. British Library, OIJ.915.97

The British Library is fortunate to hold some items which depict Vietnamese markets at the beginning of the 20th century. The three-volume set of Introduction générale a l’étude de la technique du peuple annamite by Henri Oger, published in Paris in 1909 (Or. TC 4) has detailed and informative drawings of daily activities of the Vietnamese in and around Hà Nội in the first decade of the 20th century. In addition to this finely illustrated item, the Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ (OIJ.915.97) depicts daily life activities of the Vietnamese in the Gia Định-Sài Gòn area in the 1920’s-1930’s. The item in our collection is a 2015 re-publication of the Monographie Dessinée de L’Indochine: Cochinchine, first published in Paris in 1930. It is a collection of beautiful drawings from the Gia Định School of Drawings (Trường vẽ Gia Định or Ecole de Dessin, founded in 1913, the predecessor of the present University of Fine Arts, Hồ Chí Minh City). Both items are wonderful historical records of the lives of Vietnamese commoners at the turn of the 20th century.

Further reading:
George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue, the Capital of Cochin China in the years 1821-2. London: John Murray, 1826.
Henri Oger, Introduction générale a l’étude de la technique du peuple annamite. Paris: Geuthner Librarie-Éditeur, [1909].
Hưu Ngọc, Wandering through Vietnamese Culture. Hanoi: Thế Giới, 2012.
Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ. TP. Hồ Chí Minh : Nhà xuất bản văn hóa văn nghệ, 2015.
Trịnh Khắc Mạnh. Chợ truyền thống Việt Nam qua tư liệu văn bia. Hà Nội: Khoa học xã hội, 2015.

Sud Chonchirdsin
Curator for Vietnamese

24 July 2017

Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts

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The Southeast Asia exhibition case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at St Pancras is currently showing a selection of images of animals in manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The delightful depictions of animals can be appreciated as exquisite works of art, but certain animals were also important as religious, political and cultural symbols in Southeast Asian societies, none more so than elephants.

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Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts, on display in 2017.

In pride of place on the top shelf is a 19th-century Burmese folding book or parabaik (MSS Burmese 204) containing 22 coloured illustrations of elephants, showing the elephant king Chaddanta, who was the Bodhisatta or previous incarnation of Gautama Buddha, and his queen Mahathubadda. In Burma white elephants are regarded as sacred and a source of blessings, as they play a major role in Buddhist tales. In the story of the ‘Life of the Buddha’, Queen Maya dreamed that a celestial white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk entered her side, to be reborn as Gautama Buddha, while in the last Birth Story of the Buddha, Vessantara Jataka, the white elephant appears as a rain maker. Every Burmese king longed to possess a white elephant, a symbol of power and sovereignty.

Next to the Burmese book is a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma dated 1805 (MSS Jav 68), which is shown open at a scene (identified by Lydia Kieven) where Sekartaji and her servant (emban) approach the forest filled with animals including an elephant, tiger, banteng, wild boar and two deer. This tale is one of many versions of the adventures of Prince Panji in his search for his beloved Princess Candrakirana. Stories of Prince Panji date back to the 13th century, and mark the beginnings of a truly Javanese literature no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Panji tales are found not only in Java but were also translated into Malay, Balinese, Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese.

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Drawings of forest animals in a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, f. 42r.

On the lower shelf is a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924, adorned on the back with a gilded turtle (Or 14632). The turtle (rùa) has a special place in Vietnamese culture and history. It symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence and is also closely related to the independence of Vietnam. Legend has it that Lê Lời, who led the Vietnamese fight against Chinese invaders in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the dragon king. After the defeat of the Chinese, the sacred sword was returned to the king by a turtle which lived in a jade water lake. At the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) in Hà Nội, 82 stone turtles carry on their backs steles inscribed with the names of scholars, signifying the importance of education in society.

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Turtle, on the back of a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924. British Library, Or. 14632.

The final item in the case is a 19th-century Thai Phrommachat or horoscope manual in folding book format (Or. 13650). The twelve-year Chinese zodiac cycle was widely used in Thailand, and the manual contains coloured drawings depicting the zodiac in two series, together with detailed explanations for fortune telling and divination. 2017 is the year of the Rooster, and on display are drawings related to this year, with each rooster shown representing one particular quarter of the year. There is also a number diagram for people born in the year of the rooster, and the male avatar and plant for this year. These are accompanied by drawings used for predicting the future and to explain dreams and omens.

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Thai horoscope manual, open at the page for the year of the Rooster (the present year, 2017). British Library, Or. 13650, f.5v

Or. 13650 has been fully digitised, and shown below are some other pages from this beautiful manuscript, which can be accessed through the hyperlinks beneath the images.

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 11v

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 13r

Annabel Teh Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma & Sud Chonchirdsin, Southeast Asia section

Other blog posts about animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts:

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia, by Sud Chonchirdsin

Elephants in all shapes and sizes

The year of the Rooster, from a Thai perspective, by Jana Igunma

O graceful fawn, o gentle doe: deer in Thai manuscript art, by Jana Igunma

What's my Thai horoscope? by Jana Igunma

17 May 2017

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia

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Elephants have played an important part in many Asian civilisations since ancient times, for once they could be brought under control, their gigantic physical appearance and wild temperament were regarded as great assets. In China, war elephants appeared from at least as early as the Shang Dynasty (1723-1123 BC) (Kistler 2006: 8). They were respected both for their awe-inspiring size and for their difficult behaviour, which in turn helped to secure the position at the top of those kings who succeeded in controlling the beasts (Trautmann 2015: 68-69). In India, from as early as 1000 BC in the later Vedic period, elephants were domesticated and became a very valuable resource for kings and rulers in the northern states, especially for use in battle, and information on domesticating elephants was recorded in Gajasastra or elephant knowledge manuals. In Hinduism the pachyderms are regarded as sacred animals since the god Indra chose a celestial elephant named Airavana as his animal mount, or vahana (Trautmann 2015: 100).

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Airavana, the god Indra’s elephant, depicted in a Thai manuscript. British Library, Or.  13652, f. 4v Noc

The Indian epic Ramayana also portrays elephants as an important part of kingship. It mentions the relationship between kings and elephants, and the duty of the royals to attend to the needs of the elephants (Trautmann 2015: 50-51). Ayodhaya, the royal city of Rama, was full of horses and elephants, and according to early Buddhist texts, King Bimbisara of Magadha (558-491 BC) possessed a well-trained elephant corps (Kistler 2006: 21) .

The idea of the royal use of elephants, war elephants and elephant training techniques gradually spread from India to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, as early as AD 40, the two Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, led a victorious but short-lived rebellion against the Chinese Han ruler before they were suppressed in AD 42. The two Trưng sisters, who were killed in the war, have been depicted in Vietnamese history as warriors riding on elephants to fight against the Chinese Han.  Since then they have become national heroines and a symbol of resistance against foreign rule and domination.

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The Trưng Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) depicted on the front cover of Làng Văn, no. 19, March, 1986. British Library, 16641.e.13

Elephants played an essential role in traditional warfare in Southeast Asia. Not only were they the main war machines but they could also instigate war, especially if they were “white elephants”. In many traditional kingdoms in Southeast Asia, “white elephants” received royal treatment and carried the king. In reality “white elephants” are simply albino elephants, but they are extremely rare. Some white elephants which simply had pale colorations or certain spots and other characteristics were deemed to be “auspicious” and beautiful, and were believed to be especially blessed by the gods. This belief may also be related to the Hindu myth which describes Airavana, Indra’s mount, as a white elephant. Rulers sometimes competed for ownership of such white elephants, and these ownership contests could be used as pretexts for declaring war (Kistler 2006: 178-9).

Just as the Vietnamese honour the Trưng sisters, so the Thais regard highly Queen Suriyothai and her daughter, Princess Boromdilok, for their bravery and sacrifice. According to Thai chronicles, Queen Suriyothai gave up her life to protect her husband King Maha Chakkraphat, who was engaged in an elephant fight with the Burmese Viceroy of Prome during the rise of the Tongoo dynasty of Burma in 1548. She dressed as a male soldier on a war elephant and decided to block the Viceroy of Prome from charging her husband, but was killed by a single blow from the Viceroy’s spear, together with her daughter. Between 1563 and 1564 the Burmese kingdom of the Toungoo Dynasty and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya were engaged in another war, this time over white elephants. King Bayinnaung of the Toungoo demanded that King Maha Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya send two of his white elephants to Burma as tribute, but Maha Chakkraphat refused, and hence war broke out. Ayutthaya could not withstand the power of the Burmese army, and eventually a peace deal was agreed in which one of the Siamese king’s princes was taken hostage to Burma, and Ayutthaya also had to give four white elephants to the Burmese king. In addition, Siam had to send thirty elephants and a substantial amount of silver to Burma annually. Ayutthaya was also reduced in status to a vassal state to the Burmese kingdom.

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Elephant catching in Burma. British Library, Or. 16761, f.10r Noc

According to Thai historical sources, Siamese pride was only restored by King Naresuan, the grandson of King Maha Chakkraphat, when he won an elephant duel between himself and Mingyi Swa, Bayinnaung’s grandson, in 1593. In foreign source material the actual elephant duel was not mentioned but there was definitely an elephant battle between Naresuan and the Burmese troops. Similar conflicts over white elephants took place in other traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms. For example, around the 1470s, Emperor Lê Thánh Tông of the Đại Việt kingdom waged a war against the Lan Xang kingdom (literarily translated as 'kingdom of a million elephants', located in modern Laos) after his request for a gift of a hair of the white elephant of King Chakkaphat of Lan Xang was rejected.

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King Naresuan on his elephant battles with the Burmese.  King Naresuan the Great (Bangkok : Animate, 1994). British Library, YP.2007.a.2584,  p.[170]

Elephants have no place in modern world warfare; nevertheless Southeast Asians still have a strong sense of their power and role in society. In Thailand an annual elephant round up is organised in Surin province in north-eastern Thailand. This festival was an important royal event during the Ayutthaya period, when wild elephants were hunted, tamed and trained to be used as working or war animals. In Thanh Hóa province in northern Vietnam, an elephant battle festival or Trò Chiềng has been revived recently. This festival commemorates and honours General Trịnh Quốc Bảo, who adopted war tactics in his fight against the enemy in the 11th century.  He had elephants made out of bamboo, glued fireworks to them, and then burnt them in the battle against the enemy’s elephant troops. This spectacular and original strategy may well have contributed to his victory.

Further reading:
John M. Kistler. War elephants. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006.
Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and kings: an environmental history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
‘Tro Chieng: the Most Anticipated Festival in Thanh Hoa’, Vietnam Pictorial, No. 699, March, 2017, pp. 30-33 (British Library shelf mark : SU216 (2) )

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

03 March 2017

Vietnam and Dragons

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In Vietnamese culture, as in many other East and South East Asian societies, the dragon plays a very prominent role. It is arguably the most sacred of the four mythical creatures - the dragon, the phoenix, the unicorn and the turtle - and its pre-eminence is closely related to the birth of the nation. Legend has it that Lạc Long Quân, king of the dragons who lived in the water, married Âu Cơ, a fairy from the bird kingdom. She gave birth to 100 sons and her first-born son became King Hùng Vương of Lạc Việt, the first dynasty of Vietnam. The word 'Long' in the name of the legendary Lạc Long Quân (Dragon Lord of the Lac) is a Hán-Việt word which also means 'dragon', or rồng in modern Vietnamese. Hence there is a proverb saying that the Vietnamese are con rồng cháu tiên or “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy”.

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Gilded dragon on the reverse of an Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh, 1924. British Library, Or.14665 Noc

From the very birth of the country, the dragon has thus been closely associated with Vietnamese kings or rulers, but it is believed that in even earlier times the dragon was used as a symbol at clan level to represent talent, noble and beauty. There are proverbs which refer to the dragon in this context, such as chữ viết đẹp như rồng bay phượng múa, 'handwriting is as beautiful as a flying dragon and a dancing phoenix'. However the increasing use of the word 'dragon' and objects with dragon patterns by feudal lords led to this creature becoming a symbol of the authority of the imperial clan. In China, it is believed that an emperor of the Han dynasty (B.C.206-A.D.220) was the first ruler to use the dragon to represent his authority.

Vietnamese tales and legends also reinforce a close association between this creature and the country’s rulers. For example, when Lý Công Uẩn took power from the Early Lê dynasty in A.D. 1009, he is said to have seen a golden dragon descending from the sky over Đại La citadel. He therefore renamed Đại La as Thăng Long ('Rising Dragon'). Lý Công Uẩn  became Emperor Lý Thái Tổ, the founder of the Lý dynasty (A.D. 1009-1225) and Thăng Long, which later became Hà Nội, was chosen as the capital. It is believed that both the new emperor and the capital city were blessed by this mythical creature right from the very beginning. Lý Thái Tổ was not the only emperor who claimed to see a golden dragon during his reign, for Emperor Lý Nhân Tông (A.D. 1066-1127) and Emperor Lê Thanh Tông (A.D. 1442-1497) were also said to have seen golden dragons several times during their reigns (Zeng Zen 2000: 46).

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The Imperial dragon depicted on the yellow silk front and back covers of a manuscript of KimVăn Kiều, 19th c. British Library, Or.14844 Noc

The dragon is regarded as immortal and even though its appearance can seem frightening, it does not represent evil. On the contrary, in Vietnam the dragon was always regarded as a symbol of power and nobility, and thus became the chief attribute of the person highest in nobility and greatest in power: the emperor or king (Buttinger 1983: 20). The Vietnamese imperial throne is called bệ rồng or 'dragon throne', while the throne hall in the palace where the emperor granted public audiences or worked, such as that in the former imperial capital city of Huế, was also decorated with dragons. Imperial attire and accessories were also related to the dragon; for example, the imperial gown was called a long bào and his hat was called a long quân. The dragon with five claws was reserved for imperial use, while one with four claws was for the use of royal dignitaries and high ranking court officials. For commoners, their dragons could only have three claws.

From a geographical aspect, the shape of Vietnam, which resembles a letter S, also enhances the dragon myth. The Vietnamese consider the shape of their homeland to be similar to a winding dragon: the northern part is its tail, central Vietnam is its body with the Trường Sơn mountain range (the Annamite Range) as its back and spine, and the dragon’s head lies in the southern part, with its open mouth spraying water into the South China Sea. It should be noted that when the Mekong River reaches the south of Vietnam and branches into nine tributaries in the Mekong River Delta, it is called Sông Cửu Long or the 'Nine Dragon River'.

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Gilt dragon on the Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh,  25 July, 1917. British Library, Or.14631 Noc

Dragons also appear in many other aspects of Vietnamese life and culture. On auspicious occasions such as the Vietnamese New Year, a dragon dance will be organised. The Nguyễn court (A.D. 1802-1945) also declared the Dragon Boat Day, originating from Chinese traditions, as one of the 'three great holidays' in Vietnam along with the lunar New Year (Tết Nguyên Đán) and the emperor’s birthday. The boat race festival was celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month by peasants in South China and Vietnam, to ward off poisonous spirits (Woodside 1988: 36-37). Many Vietnamese proverbs and children's plays relate to dragons, and many place names in Vietnam also contain the word “Long”, or 'Dragon'.

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Dragon Boat Race, Thiếu nhi vẽ.  Hà Nội: Văn hóa, 1977, [21]. British Library, SEA.1986.a.4004

In Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Sài Gòn), there is an historic building called Nhà Rồng, or the Dragon House, located at the old port of Saigon. The house was built by the French in 1862-1863 in a French colonial style, but on the roof top there were two symmetrical ceramic dragons facing each other and looking at the moon, hence the name Nhà Rồng. It was from here that the young Hồ Chí Minh embarked on a ship to sail to France in June 1911, on his search to find methods to fight French colonialism and seek independence for his motherland. Symbolically, dragons seem to appear in some critical junctures in Vietnamese history.

Further reading:
A.B. Woodside. Vietnam and the Chinese model. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University press, 1988.
Joseph Buttinger. A Dragon Defiant. Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles, 1983.
Phùng Hồng. ‘Rồng trong đời sống Việt Nam’  in  Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp. 63-66. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)
Zeng Zen. ‘Năm thìn bàn chuyện rồng’ in Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp.45-48. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)

Sud Chonchirdsin, curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

05 September 2016

The formation of the British Library’s Vietnamese collection. Part 2: South Vietnam

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This blog is the second in a two-part series chronicling the efforts by the British Library to build up its Vietnamese collection, particularly throughout the difficult period of the Vietnam War years, based on departmental archives. Part 1 dealt with North Vietnam; in Part 2 we look at South Vietnam.

Unlike the situation with North Vietnam, throughout the war years the British government maintained a diplomatic relationship with the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon, and there was a Republic of Vietnam embassy located in London. The earliest evidence of an attempt by the then Library of the British Museum to establish book exchanges with South Vietnam is found in a letter from G.H. Spinney (the Keeper of the State Paper Room) to the Vietnamese Embassy in London, dated 7 May 1959. In it, he mentioned his lack of success in contacting the State Library of Vietnam in December 1958 regarding establishing a book exchange programme, and also reiterated the necessity of collecting material from South Vietnam.

Through the London Embassy of the Republic of Vietnam and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saigon, an agreement in principle was reached on 12 January 1960. Despite the absence of a formal exchange contract, from 1959 onwards the British Museum Library started to exchange both official publications and books with various South Vietnamese government ministries and departments.  Negotiations between two parties regarding the details of exchanges went on for some years, dealing with details such as whether or not the supply of back numbers of periodicals of any date could be arranged and included (source: letter from Miss E.C. Blayney, The Foreign Office to Mr. J.R. MacKay, H.M. Stationery Office, 17 July 1962).

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Letter from the Republic Of Vietnam’s Embassy in London to the Library of the British Museum (precursor of the British Library), 1960.

Finally, on 30 November 1962, the UK government and the government of the Republic of Vietnam agreed upon an Exchange of Notes concerning the exchange of official publications between the two governments. This agreement formed the basis for material collected from South Vietnam during the war years. The Directorate of National Archives and Libraries in Saigon was entrusted with the task of sending official publications from the Republic of Vietnam to the British Library.

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Exchange of Notes between the UK government and the government of the Republic of Vietnam, 1962.

The correspondence between the British Library and the Vietnamese Embassy in London demonstrates that there was a regular exchange between the two institutions, and Saigon occasionally also sent a few monographs to the Library. However, it is quite surprising  that the number of official serials and monographs from Saigon in our collection during the war period is much smaller than that received from Hanoi, considering the fact that the UK only had diplomatic relations with the Saigon regime, and that the Republic of Vietnam was a ‘free country’. The answer to this puzzle probably lies in Nguyễn Thế Anh’s observation that in the socialist North, where culture and literature were placed under the direction of the state, publications were often issued in large editions and played an important role in society. On the other hand, in the South, where free enterprise reigned, publishing benefited from the latest technical innovations but was often disorderly, with a proliferation of limited and poorly distributed editions (Herbert & Milner 1988: 82).

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Publication from Saigon, 1960. British Library, 16622.a.12.

It should also be noted that all printed material for export in the North came under the state-run enterprise, XUNHASABA. Even though the export of printed material was subject to strict rules and controls, the state distributor worked more efficiently than the private suppliers in the South during the war years. As a result, the British Library sometimes received duplicates from the North which were then donated to the Embassy of Vietnam in London for their own use, illustrating how rare such material was, and how the gathering of such essential information was valued by these two war-torn states was during the Vietnam War.

All these attempts by those who were involved in acquiring material from both sides of Vietnam have paid off. Today, the Vietnamese collection in the British Library is probably the largest in the UK. Even though the collection of manuscripts in Vietnamese is small by comparison with many other language traditions in the British Library, it represents well the literary tradition of Vietnam. We are also continuing to add to the collection of modern printed books, and to date we have about 10,000 items in our collection, which cover a wide range of important fields in social sciences and humanities, such as linguistics, law, literature and anthropology.

References:

H.J. Goodacre and A.P. Pritchard. Guide to the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1977.
Patricia Herbert & Anthony Milner, eds. South-East Asia Languages and Literatures: A Select Guide. Arran, Scotland: Kiscadale Publications, [1988?]
P.R. Harris. A History of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973. London: The British Library, 1998.

Sud Chonchirdin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

23 August 2016

The formation of the British Library’s Vietnamese collection. Part 1: North Vietnam

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In the digital era, accessing information of any kind from a library is just one click away on your computer keyboard, and almost makes you forget how difficult this activity could be in the past.  Half a century ago, this luxury was unimaginable, thanks not only to the state of technology at that time but also to the scarcity of source materials. The problem became even more acute when you were dealing with materials from a country which had gone through difficult circumstances, such as Vietnam in the 1960s.  In this two-part blog, I will discuss the great lengths to which the British Library went in order to acquire publications from this war-torn and politically-divided country, based on archives held in the department.

The drive to acquire materials from Vietnam was mainly due to G.H. Spinney, who from 1948 was Keeper of the State Paper Room (which subsequently became the Department of Official Publications in the British Library). During the early 1960s Spinney campaigned vigorously to increase the collection of official publications in the State Paper Room, largely by utilising the mechanism of international exchange (Harris 1998: 598, 654).  

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Publication from North Vietnam, 1961. British Library, 16684.a.1

The Vietnamese collection was originally held in the British Museum’s Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts. Unlike the large numbers of publications in Burmese and Malay from former British colonies in Southeast Asia, up to the 1950s the Vietnamese collection was very small. The Cold War and scarcity of information from remote communist-bloc countries compounded the difficulties in acquiring materials in both vernacular languages and English, and on 13 December 1960, H.A. Arnold from the State Paper Room wrote to Kubon & Sagner, a book supplier in Munich, Germany to see whether it would be able to supply materials from Mongolia, U.S.S.R., North Korea and North Vietnam for the Library.  

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1963 catalogue from XUNHASABA, the state-owned book supplier in North Vietnam, received via Kubon & Sagner, a supplier in Germany.

For sourcing materials from North Vietnam, the British Museum enlisted the help of Hanoi’s main ally, China, to find ways to contact relevant institutions. The National Library of China in Beijing eventually provided Spinney with contact details for North Vietnam and in May 1959, he wrote a long letter to the Director of the National Library in Hanoi to ascertain whether the latter would be interested in establishing book exchanges with the British Library. Parts of Spinney’s letter are worth quoting here:
“… During a general review of our accessions from Asiatic countries, we were disturbed to find that we have so far received no official publications from the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam … and we need therefore urgently to acquire documentation from official sources in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to provide a basis for research …. You will readily appreciate that in acquiring such documentary material we have to think in terms of the requirements of posterity as well as of current research …” (G.H. Spinney to the Director of the National Central Library, Hanoi, 4 May, 1959)
There is little evidence that Spinney’s request was well received by Hanoi, and further approaches were made in 1962 and 1963, as shown by copies of letters held in the archives from H.A. Arnold to the Cultural Attaché of the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam in Moscow (dated 2 August 1961, 27 August 1962 and 15 July 1963).

Despite these setbacks the Library persevered in its attempts to build up the national collection in Vietnamese. In the 1960s, this task was split between two departments: the State Paper Room was in charge of acquiring official publications from Hanoi, while the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts collected printed books on social sciences and humanities. They used book dealers in (West) Germany and Hong Kong, and occasionally bought directly from Xunhasaba, the North Vietnam state-owned book dealer. Requests were sometimes rejected by Hanoi, especially for official publications, with the reason being given that “the item is not for export”, a message which indicates the level of secrecy and control of information in this country. However, sporadic donations of materials were also received from North Vietnam’s diplomatic mission in New Delhi.

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“No Export” notification on an item ordered from North Vietnam.

Towards the end of 1961, the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries in Hanoi started to send some publications to the British Museum. Subsequently, the task was transferred to the National Library of Vietnam and the Library of Social Sciences in Hanoi (source: letter from H.A. Arnold to Hoang Xuan Bui, Director for the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 15 July 1963), and this arrangement continues to the present day with the British Library. In January 1968, the newly established Central Library for Science and Technology in Hanoi offered a publications exchange programme with the Library but the actual despatches only started in 1971 (source: letter from H.A. Arnold to Miss J.M. Fraser,  Publications Division, H.M.S.O., 16 April 1971).

Deliveries of books during the war years were never easy, and sometimes despatches from London to Hanoi or vice versa did not arrive at their destination. Correspondence between Ngyuễn Minh Tăn, the Vice Director of the Central Library of Science and Technology in Hanoi, and H.A. Arnold, the Keeper of the State Paper Room, illustrates vividly the problems experienced by the libraries in London and Hanoi. On 10 March 1973 Ngyuễn Minh Tăn wrote to Arnold:
“… We are happy to advise you that despite of the savage bombing of Hanoi by the US, our Library as well as the Library for Social Science and the National Library are very safe. We were evacuated for some time but we are now back in Hanoi, and working normally … We are currently experiencing some difficulties and cannot acquire some of your requested periodicals …”
To which Arnold replied on 24 May 1973:
“… It was good to hear from your Library again - Mr Tran Mai’s last letter to me …. was dated October 10th, 1971 – and I was very pleased to learn that not only was your own Library safe from the bombing, but also the Library for Social Science and the Bibliotheque Nationale as well … I can well appreciate that you are having many difficulties at the present time and that you are not in a position to send me some of the journals I have requested in the past. I am sure, however, that as conditions improve, … you will send me whatever you can find…”
[“The savage bombing” referred to in the above correspondence was the Operation Linebacker or the Christmas Bombing (18-29 December 1972) in which the US launched serious bombings over Hanoi to force the latter to negotiate a peace deal and eventually the Paris Agreement was signed on 27 January 1973.]

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Postcard to the Library of the British Museum from the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, Hanoi, October 1968.
 
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Picture on the front of the postcard of 1968 shown above.

Despite all the difficulties during the Vietnam War, Vietnamese material from North Vietnam continued to arrive in London through various channels. When in 1973 the British Library was formed from the Library of the British Museum, the Vietnamese collection in the re-named Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books consisted of 3 manuscripts and about 800 printed books and some titles of periodicals (Goodacre and Pritchard 1977: 61).

No evidence of formal contracts for book exchanges with any institutions in North Vietnam have been found in our archives but we can deduce from various correspondence that the Library had exchange programmes with at least three libraries in Hanoi in order to acquire official Vietnamese publications on the economy, science and social sciences. It is interesting to note that the number of printed material, both official publications and monographs, which the British Library received from North Vietnam from 1973 underwent a noticeable increase. This might be related to the signing of the Paris agreement in January 1973 which eased tensions and hence allowed almost normal daily activities to resume. At the same time, the British Library still continued to acquire printed books from Vietnam on humanities, art and culture via book dealers in Germany and Hong Kong.

In the second part of this blog post, I will look at publications from South Vietnam.

References:

P.R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library 1753-1973. London: The British Library, 1998,
H.J. Goodacre and A.P. Pritchard, Guide to the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1977.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese  ccownwork

07 June 2016

Imperial Vietnamese scrolls in the British Library

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The number of Vietnamese manuscripts in the British Library is relatively small in comparison with other Southeast Asian manuscript collections, but nonetheless represent well the writing methods and formats of the region. Since Vietnamese literary and historical styles were heavily influenced by Chinese traditions, they shared some similar characteristics. First and foremost, Vietnamese literati studied and wrote in Chinese (chữ Hán in Vietnamese), even though the Vietnamese later invented a simplified script based on Chinese script (chữ Nôm in Vietnamese). Thus Vietnamese manuscripts in our collection are all written in chữ Hán or a mixture of chữ Hán and chữ Nôm. Secondly, the Vietnamese also wrote on scrolls as well as in bound books, in the same fashion as East Asian literary cultures.

In this post I will present five outstanding Vietnamese scrolls in the British Library, dating from two different periods - the late 18th century and the early 20th century - and explore their historical and cultural background. All are imperial documents, illuminated with bold dragon patterns, symbolising the emperor and imperial power.

Two scrolls of Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (r. 1792-1802)

DSCN0407Vietnamese imperial scroll, 1793. British Library, Or. 14817/B Noc

These two scrolls are important historical documents of the Tây Sơn rulers (1772-1802) who ruled Vietnam briefly in the late 18th century. The first scroll (Or.14817/A) is written in Hán-Nôm characters on orange paper decorated with a large dragon, and bears the royal seal stamped in red ink. This scroll is in good condition with all of the text still intact, and can currently be viewed in the small exhibition of Southeast Asian manuscripts, 'More than a Book', on display in the British Library at St Pancras in London. A second scroll (Or.14817/B), however, is slightly damaged as can be seen in the image shown above, and though the day of the month (20) can still be read, the part of the text naming the month and year is missing. However, Trần Nghĩa - a Vietnamese scholar and an expert in Hán-Nôm - who inspected these two scrolls in 1995, is of the opinion that considering the content and style of writing, these two scrolls were issued at a similar date and for the same occasion.

The content of the first scroll reveals that it was issued by Emperor Cảnh Thịnh on 1st May 1793 to Lord McCartney, the head of the British diplomatic and commercial mission to China in 1792. In 1793 the McCartney Mission, headed by Lord McCartney, was on its way to China to establish commercial relations between Britain and China, when it was struck by storm off the coast of Central Vietnam. Lord McCartney sent a delegation to the Emperor seeking help and provisions. In return, the Emperor provided rice and other food and sent this scroll to welcome the mission.

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Reverse of Vietnamese imperial scroll, 1793. British Library, Or. 14817/B Noc

Three imperial edicts of Emperor Khải Định (r. 1916-1925)

Emperor Khải Định (1885-1925, r. 1916-1925), who considered Vietnam to be a backward country in need of western technology, was criticised by the nationalists for his pro-French attitude and extravagant lifestyle. We hold three imperial edicts issued during his reign and all three are elaborately decorated.

On the occasion of his enthronement, Emperor Khải Định issued an edict dated March 18, 1917 to raise the status of the spirit of Đông Hái of Hậu Bổng village in Hải Dương province (Or. 14631). Đông Hải was upgraded to a mid-rank god (Trung đẳng thần), reflecting the Vietnamese tradition of deification of spirits or gods. These spirits could be nature deities, community or kinship tutelary deities, national heroes, or ancestral gods of a specific family, and are classified into different ranks of status. The edict was written on yellow paper, and measures 123 x 51 cm. The front side has a dragon pattern with silver scales and bears an imperial seal. On the reverse, unlike other scrolls in our collection, there are two patterns of flower pots and symbols of longevity instead of the usual four mythical creatures.

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Front of imperial edict of Emperor Khải Định, 25 July 1917. British Library, Or. 14631 Noc

On the occasion of his 40th birthday, Emperor Khải Định issued an edict on July 25, 1924 to honour the spirit of Phạm Công of Văn Lâm village, Hải Dương province (Or. 14632). The edict was written on yellow paper and is finely decorated with different patterns. The main design in the middle of the paper is a gilded dragon and an imperial emblem, and the edict bears an imperial red seal. On the reverse are the four mythical and sacred annimals, namely the dragon, phoenix, turtle and unicorn, all beautifully painted with gilded outlines.  There are two symbols of longevity in the middle of the scroll, which measures 135 x 52 cm.

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Front of Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Định, 25 July 1924, British Library, Or. 14632 Noc

On the same day, Emperor Khải Định issued a further edict (Or. 14665); this one was to raise the status of the spirit of the god Nam Hải of of Hậu Bổng village in Hải Dương province (the same deity named in Khải Định’s edict of 1917) to the highest rank. He became God of the South Sea. The edict is written on gilded yellow paper in the same fashion as the other edict issued on the same date (July 25, 1924), with a bold golden dragon design. The reverse was decorated with the four gilded mythical and sacred animals and also two symbols of longevity. The designs on this scroll have been discussed in another blog post on 'Mythical creatures in Vietnamese culture'.

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Front of Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Định, 1924, British Library, Or.14665 Noc

Dragon designs differed from one dynasty to another. Nguyễn Ngọc Tho from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, points out that in comparison with the Japanese dragon, the Vietnamese dragon is characterised by three main features: (1) non-standardisation, (2) diversity, and (3) constant change and development.  For example, the Ly dynasty’s dragon (11-13th century) was a long snake-like figure with non-scale and zig-zag curly body.  During the Trần dynasty (1226-1400) the dragon’s body became bigger and fatter, the claws became sharper and the head and the neck were irregularly changed, while the dragon tail remained unchanged. From the Le dynasty (1428-1527 and 1599-1788) onward, the dragon was greatly influenced by the Chinese exemplar, and therefore local features tended to recede. After 1945, with the end of the last feudal dynasty, the noble significance of the dragon became weak and gradually disappeared  (Nguyễn 2015: 11-13).

Further reading:
Nguyễn Ngọc Thọ. The Symbol of the Dragons and Ways to Shape Cultural Identities in Vietnam and Japan. Harvard–Yenching Institute Working Paper Series, 2015.
Pierre Huard et Maurice Durand, Connaissance du Viet-Nam. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1954.
Trần Nghĩa, “Sách Hán-Nôm tại thư viện vương quốc Anh” (Books in Sino-Vietnamese at the British Library), Tạp chí Hán-Nôm, 3(24),1995, pp. 3-14.
Womack, Brantly. China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

With thanks to Ke Wang for his help in deciphering Chinese characters.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

21 April 2016

Mythical creatures in Vietnamese culture

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Like other East and South East Asian peoples, the Vietnamese believe in mythical and sacred animals, the most significant being the dragon, the phoenix, the turtle or tortoise, and the unicorn. These four sacred animals, which all represent auspicious blessings such as longevity and happiness, can be found on various objects in Vietnam ranging from imperial edicts and paintings, decorative figures in palaces and temples, to clothes and utensils. The four sacred animals illustrated below are depicted on two early 20th-century imperial Vietnamese illuminated scrolls held in the British Library.

Dragon (rồng)
The Vietnamese believe they are descendants of a dragon, and the birth of the first kingdom of the nation was closely related to this animal; therefore this mythical creature is probably the most important figure among the four sacred creatures (Quê Me 1988: 8). Legend has it that Lạc Long Quân, king of the dragons who lived in the water, married Âu Cơ, a fairy from the bird kingdom. She gave birth to 100 sons and the first-born son became King Hùng Vương of Lạc Việt, the first dynasty of  Vietnam. Hence there is a proverb saying the Vietnamese are “con rồng cháu tiên” or “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy”.

To the Vietnamese, the dragon symbolises power, nobility and immortality. Since it represents power, it is a special symbol of the Vietnamese emperors. The dragon with five claws was reserved for imperial use, while one with four claws was for the use of royal dignitaries and high ranking court officials. For commoners, their dragons could only have three claws.

The Vietnamese dragon combines features of the crocodile, snake, cat, rat and bird. There are many Vietnamese legends or tales which are related to dragons; for example, the world-famous natural heritage site, Hạ Long Bay in northern Vietnam, is believed to be a creation of a dragon. Thăng Long, the former name of Hà Nội, also means “rising from a dragon”. Legend has it that in 1010, a golden dragon appeared alongside Emperor Lý Thái Tổ’s boat while he was visitting Đại La, and hence the place’s name was changed to Thăng Long.  

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Dragon, on Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1917. British Library, Or. 14631 Noc

Phoenix (Phượng Hoàng)
Whereas the dragon represents the emperor, a phoenix is used to represent the empress. Vietnamese folklore describes the phoenix as having the neck of a snake, the breast of a swallow, the back of a tortoise, and the tail of a fish. The phoenix’s song includes all the five notes of the pentatonic musical scale and its feathers include the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, green, and yellow. This elegant mythical bird symbolises grace, nobility, virtue and pride. According to myth, the phoenix burnt its nest and days later rose again from the ashes, and it therefore symbolises rebirth, regeneration and survival. It normally hides itself in time of trouble and appears only in calm and prosperous times, hence it also symbolises peace. During the Vietnam War, the CIA launched  Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, with the aim of eradicating the Việt Công.

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Phoenix, illuminatd on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924.British Library, Or. 14665 Noc

Turtle (rùa)
The turtle has a special place in Vietnamese culture and history. It symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence and is also closely related to the independence of Vietnam in the 15th century. Legend has it that Lê Lời, who led the Vietnamese to fight against the Chinese invaders in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the dragon king. After he defeated the Chinese, he returned the sacred sword to the king via the latter’s disciple, a turtle which lived in a jade water lake. The Vietnamese, especially the Hanoians, believe that this lake is the Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Returned or Restored Sword Lake) in the middle of the city. Until recently, there was a highly revered resident, an old soft-shell turtle, named locally as Cụ Rùa (Grandfather Turtle) living in the lake. Cụ Rùa, who was actually female, was one of only four turtles of this breed known to survive in the world and it was believed that she was over a hundred years old. Sadly, on 19th January 2016, her lifeless body was found floating in the lake. The cause of her death is unknown and some Vietnamese have interpreted it as an inauspicious omen.

At the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) in Hà Nội, there are 82 figures of stone turtles with steles of doctoral graduates on the turtles’ backs. This was a mark of honour for those who achieved the highest degree of education in traditional Vietnamese society during the Lê dynasty. It also signified the importance of education in the society.

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Turtle, illuminated on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924. British Library, Or. 14665 Noc

Unicorn (Kỳ lân)
The unicorn symbolises peace, mercy and good fortune. Some also believe that it represents intelligence and goodness, and that the creature only appears on very special occasions. The unicorn is a composite creature combining elements of the horse, buffalo and dragon. The Vietnamese believe that it is a very strong and faithful creature, and therefore suitable for guarding temples and places of worship.

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Unicorn, illuminated on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924.British Library, Or. 14665 Noc

Further reading:
Ai Hoa.” Năm thìn kể chuyện Rông” in Quê Me. Số 88-89, 1988, pp.7-8. (BL shelf mark: 16641.e.6)
Hà Y. “Rồng : vật tổ của dân Việt”. In  Quê Me. Số 88-89, 1988, pp.9-10. (BL shelf mark: 16641.e.6)
Sacred animals in Vietnamese culture and architecture, July 12, 2013.
Cu Rua: Vietnam mourns revered Hanoi turtle, BBC News, 20 January 2016

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork