THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

24 posts categorized "Vietnamese"

15 October 2018

A Vietnamese Lord’s letter to the East India Company

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During the Later Lê dynasty (1428-1788), Vietnam was effectively divided into two parts. For over two centuries – from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 18th centuries – the Trịnh Lords ruled the northern part (referred to in Vietnamese history as Đàng Ngoài) and the Nguyễn Lords had power over the southern part (Đàng Trong) of Vietnam, while the Lê emperors had no real political power at all.

The oldest manuscript in the Vietnamese collection at the British Library, from the founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane of 1753, was probably written by the Trịnh ruler of Tonkin in the late 17th century (Sloane 3460). It is a long scroll of yellow paper, beautifully illuminated in silver, written in the Vietnamese language in Han Nom (adapted Chinese) characters, and bearing a large square red ink seal. Unfortunately, the first part of the scroll is missing, and some of the characters in the remaining part are illegible, and it is therefore impossible to establish the precise date of this manuscript.

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Vietnamese letter, probably from Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682) of Tonkin to the East India Company, ca. 1673. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

At my request, Dr Li Tana, of the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, kindly examined images of the manuscript in April 2018. She has transcribed and translated its contents, and is of the opinion that it was probably written under the command of Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682) and was sent to the English East India Company (EIC) some time in 1673, following the arrival in Tonkin in 1672 of the first EIC ship. Foreign traders always sought assistance from local powers to facilitate their commercial missions, and in return the local lords also tried to benefit from these foreign visitors, especially their technical know-how on modern technology, as the content of the Trinh lord’s letter clearly demonstrates:

…[overseas merchants visiting us] have been many but only Holland has come … (three characters not legible). It has acted in both friendship and righteousness. [They] sometimes offer pearls and beautiful presents and sometimes send craftsmen who are specialised in cannon casting. This kindness is above all rulers.  Although your country has only just begun interactions with us, we treat all countries equally with compassion and good will. Recently your head trader brought one iron cannon and two bronze cannons. The bronze ones broke as soon as they were tested. [They] were definitely not of solid and excellent quality. [We therefore] have returned them to the ship captain but he has not yet taken them back. If you are arranging for ship[s] to come next year, [please] bring amber either in pieces or stringed together with real pearls for us. We will pay [you] accordingly right away. [This] will be of benefit to both sides. [Please] also send cannon casting craftsmen so that the craftsmen from Holland cannot monopolise this skill. This way our friendship will last forever. [We are sending] 560 catties of raw silk for the two iron cannons which we received last year. Please buy for us 50 hoc (= 50 kilogrammes) big sized amber, plus 5000 pieces of stringed amber. Written in the mid-winter.
(Translated by Dr Li Tana, edited by Dr Geoffrey Wade, April 2018)

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Detail of the text of the letter, with silver illumination on a yellow ground. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

By the early 17th century, commercial competition among European mercantile states had expanded to Asia, and Southeast Asia was targeted for its rich resources. Vietnam was located in a commercially strategic maritime location and many European traders started to visit the kingdom to seek commercial opportunities. The East India Company (EIC) sent its first delegation from its Japanese base of Hirado to Vietnam in as early as 1613 (Le Thanh Thuy 2014: 62) amid vigorous competition with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and other western European nations. Hirado had been an important port of call for ships between Japan and the Asian mainland since the Nara period, and both the EIC and the VOC had ‘factories’ (trading posts) there. 

In 1672, the East India Company sought to establish a factory in Tonkin, as a liaison base for the export and import of British traders’ goods to China, Japan and maritime Southeast Asia (Thuy 2014: 63). On 25th June 1672, the EIC ship The Zant was sent from Bantam, in Java, to Tonkin, with William Gyfford and five other EIC employees, to seek the establishment of commercial relations with Tonkin. However, it was not until 14th March 1673 that Gyfford had an opportunity to meet Trịnh Tac. After receiving the gifts and letter of the Bantam Council, the Trinh lord only allowed the EIC to set up their factory at Phô Hiến, but not at the capital of Tonkin as the EIC mission had hoped (Thuy 2014: 64).

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Seal on the Vietnamese letter to the East India Company, ca. 1673. Sloane 3460  noc

Even though we can’t be certain that this manuscript letter was sent by Trịnh Tac, it is still an important piece of historical evidence, as it reflects the fluidity and versatility of commercial and political affairs in the changing world of the mercantilism of the 17th century, and the arrival of colonialism in Asia.

The letter, Sloane 3460, has been fully digitised, and is currently on display in the Southeast Asia case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library, alongside other Southeast Asian manuscripts from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane.

With thanks to Li Tana and Geoffrey Wade.

Further reading:

Le Thanh Thuy. “Trade Relations between the United Kingdom and Vietnam in the 17th -19th Centuries,” in Vietnam Social Sciences, No. 3 (161), 2014, pp. 59-73.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese  ccownwork

12 September 2018

A new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts from the Sloane collection

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In 1753 the British Museum was founded through the bequest of the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), including over four thousand manuscripts, which are now held in the British Library. Sloane's manuscripts originate from all over the world, and among them are 12 from Southeast Asia. Eight of these can now be seen in a new display in the exhibition case next to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St. Pancras.

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Bust of Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack (1693-1770), on display in the British Library

At first glance the eight exhibited manuscripts appear to be a rather random selection linked by nothing other than their Southeast Asian origin and their ownership by Sloane. But viewed through another lens, these eight manuscripts evoke vividly the two main preoccupations of the age in which they were collected: the global mercantile thrust which led to the founding of the English and Dutch East India Companies at the beginning of the 17th century, as reflected in trading permits and financial accounts, and religious zeal, manifest in an interest in the canonical and liturgical works of the major world religions which had taken root in Southeast Asia: Buddhism and Hinduism which had travelled from India, Islam from its birthplace in Arabia, and most recently Christianity by way of Europe.

Despite their small number and in some cases fragmentary state, the manuscripts on display also encompass an astonishing array of scripts: Balinese, Javanese, Lampung, Burmese, Khmer, Arabic in its original form as well as extended versions for writing Persian and Javanese, the Vietnamese Han Nom characters derived from Chinese, and Roman script. The languages found in these eight manuscripts range from indigenous languages of Southeast Asia, namely Malay, Javanese, Old Javanese, Burmese and Vietnamese, to the foreign languages which served the spread of both faith and trade in the region: Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Pali and Dutch. Four different calendrical systems are utilised – Burmese, Gregorian, the Javanese Saka era, and the Chinese zodiac calendar – and writing supports range from palm leaf and bamboo to Javanese beaten tree-bark paper (dluwang) as well as European and Chinese paper.

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Sloane manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room  noc

On the top shelf of the exhibition case are grouped manuscripts relating to faiths of Southeast Asia. The Hinduized court culture of early Java is represented by a fragment of the Arjunawijaya, a court poem (kakawin) composed by Mpu Tantular in the 14th century in the kingdom of Majapahit (Sloane 3480). The lines on this small fragment of palm leaf, representing part of the right-hand half of a single leaf, describe a confrontation between Śiva’s attendant Nandīśvara and the ten-faced demon Rāvaṇa. The manuscript is in Old Javanese – an early form of the Javanese language characterised by an exceptionally high proportion of Sanskrit words – written in Balinese script, and is undated.  Since its entry into the British Museum this Old Javanese fragment had remained unidentified until it was digitised and highlighted in a recent blog; within 24 hours the text had been read and identified by a group of scholars located in different parts of the globe, and their report can be read here.

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Fragment of the Arjunawijaya in Old Javanese in Balinese script, on palm leaf. British Library, Sloane 3480  noc

Also written on palm leaf is a manuscript of the Pātimokkha, the Buddhist code of monastic discipline, dating to around 1700 or earlier (Sloane 4099(4)). The single folio on display contains three main lines of text from the Pātimokkha in Pali, the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism, written in Cambodian (Khmer) script, accompanied by interlinear explanations.

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Section of one leaf of the Pātimokkha in Pali in Khmer script. British Library, Sloane 4099(4)

Islam is represented by an important Arabic text of the Shafi‘ī school of law, Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, ‘Questions for instruction’, by the 16th-century Yemeni scholar ‘Abd Allāh bin ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Bā Faḍl (Sloane 2645). This manuscript, copied by a scribe named ‘Abd al-Qadīm, has an interlinear translation in Javanese in Arabic (pegon) script, and is dated  1545 in the Javanese era, equivalent to 1623/4 AD. This complete copy. in excellent condition. is one of the earliest dated manuscripts written on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree.

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Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, in Arabic with Javanese translation and notes, 1623. British Library, Sloane 2645, ff. 6v-7r  noc

The most recent world religion to arrive in Southeast Asia was Christianity, brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and on display is a Christian Psalter written in Malay in Roman script (Sloane 3115). The owner of this book was Cornelius van der Sluijs, a clergyman who served in the Moluccas and died in Batavia in 1715. This collection of hymns, psalms and Christian services in Malay was probably compiled in Ambon around 1678, following Van der Sluijs’s ordination as a full minister of the Dutch Calvinist church.

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The first page of the Psalms of David in Malay, showing the distinctive octagonal British Museum stamp designed for use on Sloane's library. British Library, Sloane 3115, f. 2r  noc

On the bottom shelf are documents relating to trade. The largest and most impressive visually is a royal letter from the ruler of Tonkin in the form of an illuminated scroll written in the Vietnamese language in Chinese (Han Nom) characters, probably despatched in 1673 (Sloane 3460). In 1672 the first English East India Company ship arrived in Tonkin in north Vietnam, and in March 1673 the captain, William Gyfford, was permitted to meet the ruler Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682). While the Company sought the establishment of commercial relations with Tonkin, the Vietnamese were interested in accessing new technology, and in his letter, Trịnh Tac requests iron or bronze cast cannons.

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The complete illuminated Vietnamese letter with red ink seal of Lord Trịnh Tac, 1673, with a detail showing the fine silver illumination; only a small section of the scroll has been unrolled for display. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

The Chinese mercantile presence in Southeast Asia is reflected in a small piece of bamboo, with two lines of Javanese incised on one side with further annotations in Javanese and Lampung script, and on the other side a note written in black ink in Chinese (Sloane 1403E). The Chinese text appears to be a record of an account, and is dated in the Chinese zodiacal cycle with a date most likely equivalent to 1708.

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Front and reverse of a financial account, with text in Javanese, Lampung and Chinese, [1708]. British Library, Sloane 1403E  noc

Of particular interest are two trading permits issued by King Chandrawizaya (r. 1710-1731) of the kingdom of Mrauk U in Arakan in Burma (Myanmar). The permit written in Burmese, dated 1728, is the longest and the earliest dated palm leaf manuscript from Burma (Myanmar) in the British Library (Sloane 4098). Also found in the Sloane collection is a Persian edict (farmān) from the ruler of Arakan, dated 14 Sha‘bān 1090 (Sloane 3259). In his catalogue of Persian manuscripts in the British Museum, Charles Rieu assumed that the year inscribed was in the Hijra era, and thus dated the letter to 1679. Fortunately, just as we were preparing this exhibition, Arash Khazeni was preparing an edition of the Persian farmān, and noticed that the year was given as sanat 1090 Magi, referring to the Burmese era. The date was thus equivalent to 1728, revealing that the Persian document was in fact a counterpart to the Burmese permit! Both documents are addressed to the Armenian merchant Khwajeh Georgin (George) in Chennaipattana (Madras) across the Bay of Bengal, giving him permission to trade. Both bear the king’s round seal, inscribed in Pali, ‘Supreme Lord, Master of the Golden Palace’, which is blind-stamped on the palm leaf permit, stamped in black ink on the Persian letter, and in red wax on its cloth envelope and paper wrapper.

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The pointed end of the Burmese permit of the king of Arakan, with his round seal. Sloane 4098  noc

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The seal and date at the start of the trading permit in Persian from the king of Arakan, 1728. British Library, Sloane 3259  noc

Further reading:

Javanese manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Sir Hans Sloane's Old Javanese manuscript, Sloane 3480

Malay manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Arash Khazeni, ‘Merchants to the Golden City: the Persian Farmān of King Chandrawizaya Rājā and the elephant and ivory trade in the Indian Ocean, a view from 1728’, Iranian Studies, 2018, vol. 51.

From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his collections, ed. Alison Walker, Arthur MacGregor and Michael Hunter (London: The British Library, 2012)

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

 

10 August 2018

Testimonial presented to Sir Henry Lawrence

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One of the most unusual objects held in the British Library’s Visual Arts collection is an oversized silver candelabra that was presented to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-57) as a ‘Testimonial’ from the ‘Friends of the Panjab’ in 1856. Lawrence was appointed as the British Resident in Lahore in 1846 and was the President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab. The Testimonial is currently on loan and featured at the exhibition Empire of the Sikhs at the Brunei Gallery, London which runs from 12 July – 23 September 2018.

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The Lawrence Testimonial, by Hunt and Roskell after the design and model of Alfred Brown, 1853-56. British Library, Foster 1075 Noc

Henry Lawrence started his career as an army officer of the East India Company. He was trained at the Company’s Addiscombe College in south London and travelled to India when he was 16 to join the Bengal Artillery. Lawrence was in fact born in Ceylon and would spend the majority of his life in the subcontinent. From the onset of his career, he was keen to develop his linguistic skills and would become fluent in Persian, Hindi and Urdu. His language skills would prove to become useful and he was appointed as an assistant revenue surveyor for the revenue survey of India in the north-western provinces based in Moradabad from 1833. From the 1840s, Lawrence’s career shifted to a more political nature. In 1840, Lawrence was formally appointed as Assistant to the Governor-General's Agent for the Affairs of the Panjab and the North-West Frontier. In 1843, Lawrence became the Resident at the court of Nepal. Following the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-46, Lord Hardinge appointed Lawrence as Agent at Lahore and subsequently the British Resident. Following the annexation of the Panjab in 1849, he served as President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab.

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Portrait of Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence painted by Delhi artist Ghulam Husain Khan, c. 1847.
British Library, Add Or 2409 Noc

According to the Illustrated London News (Feb 16, 1856), ‘this magnificent testimonial was projected in the year 1853 for presentation to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence K.C.B. … upon the occasion of his voluntary relinquishing of the above appointment [President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab] for the no less honourable and important post of Governor-General’s Agent in Rajpootana.’ The Testimonial was in the Lawrence family’s collection until 1949, when it was deposited as part of the wider Lawrence archive to the India Office Records and Private Papers collection by Sir John Lawrence; shortly after the acquisition, the Testimonial was sent on long term loan to the National Army Museum and only returned to the Library in 2015. Tarnjeet Singh Padam, Leading Library Assistant at the British Library, volunteer for the UK Panjab Heritage Association, and a contributing curator for Empire of the Sikhs, located the Illustrated London News article which now provides the documentation regarding the circumstances of production and the symbolic significance of the multiple vignettes presented in this elaborate testimonial.

According to the Illustrated London News: ‘The figure on the summit represents India; beneath, in bassi rellievi, are five reclining Deities, representing the rivers of India. The branches, ornamented in the Indian style, carry twelve lights. The palm, plaintain, and the fig-tree encircle the shaft. On the base is a grand composition of figures, divided into three groups. The first is typical of the state of anarchy which existed in the Punjab previously to the introduction of British rule. One of Runjeet Singh’s body guard is attacked by a hill man-a dismounted irregular horseman lies dead on the ground, and above him is a wounded Akalie. The second group represents the conflict between the British and the Sikh forces which resulted in the conquest of the country by the former. The figures introduced are a Sikh irregular horseman mounted, opposed to by a British foot solider, and a Sikh artilleryman contending with a dismounted trooper. The third group represents the pacification of the Punjaub. Sir Henry Lawrence is represented in the act of receiving from an Afghan villager and a Sikh Chief their arms; in exchange for which he is about to present them with different implements of husbandry, held by Industry and Peace, which are represented by two female figures.’

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Detail showing Henry Lawrence receiving an Afghan villager Noc

‘The entablatures on the three sides of the Testimonial contain respective representations; - firstly, of the sacred Tank at Amritsar (the Pool of Immortality), with the Sikh temple in the centre; secondly, of Sir Henry Lawrence, with the Maharajah of the Punjaub and Chieftains seated in Durbar at Lahore, arranging for the payment of the troops, who were in a state of mutiny; and, thirdly, the establishment of the Lawrence Asylum in the Himalaya, for the children of European soldiers – allegorically represented by Benevolence under the guidance of Wisdom-removing the children from the plains to the salubrious regions of the Himalaya. At the angles are the Brahmin Bull, the Cashmere Goat and the Camel.’

In 2000, the descendants of Henry Lawrence donated to the British Library the Lawrence Album, which contained 66 drawings, prints and cut-outs, along with 35 photographs connected with the life of Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-1857) and Honoria Lawrence, née Marshall (1810-54), presented to their daughter Honoria Letitia (1850-1923) in 1859 by her aunt and godmother Charlotte Frances Lawrence (1814-1885). The album includes further information regarding the design of the testimonial, including a set of illustrations showing the original design by Alfred Brown which was manufactured by the silversmith Hunt and Roskell.

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Illustration from the Lawrence Album, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc


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Illustration from the Lawrence Album with the vignette of the Golden Temple at Amritsar on the base, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc

Further reading:
Susan Stronge (ed.), The Arts of the Sikh Kingdom, London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999.
Davindar Toor, In Pursuit of Empire: Treasures from the Toor Collection of Sikh Art, London: Kashi House, 2018.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts  ccownwork

 

25 May 2018

Classes and costumes in traditional Vietnamese society

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In traditional Vietnamese society people were divided into four classes, similar to those found in Chinese and other East Asian Confucian societies. The tứ dân, or four social hierarchical classes, were scholars (sĩ), farmers (nông), craftsmen (công) and merchants (thương).

At the top of the social hierarchy were the scholars or intellectuals, who led relatively comfortable lives in respected occupations such as doctors, mandarins and teachers. Commoners who were not born into this class but wanted to climb the social ladder to enter it were able to do so by studying very hard and sitting civil service examinations, supported financially by their own families. If they were successful, they brought great honour upon themselves and their families, and even their villages, and they might be welcomed back to their villages with parties paid for by their neighbours (Woodside: 1981, p.170). The royal court would award them special costumes which distinguished them from common folk, and they could even be appointed as local mandarins.

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Costume of the first grade military mandarin, adorned with the ‘four mythical creatures’ pattern (Trần Đinh Sơn 2013: 127). British Library OIJ 391.009597.

Vietnamese mandarins, both civil and military, were divided into nine grades and each grade was further subdivided into senior and junior levels. High ranking mandarins were distinguished by their official robes in purple or red, colours reserved for their class, while lower ranking officials wore blue robes. Commoners could only wear black, brown or white dyed costumes, as Harry A. Franck, an American travel writer, observed in Tonkin in 1923: “the Tonkinese were dressed in a cinnamon or tobacco-juice colour that suddenly became as universal as black had been further south … the country women, then their men, and finally all the hand-labouring class, took to wearing long cotton cloaks of this reddish brown hue” (Franck 1926: 191).

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A mandarin accompanied by his servants; only the mandarin wears shoes. Oger [1909]: f. 4. British Library, Or. TC 4

Below the class of scholars was the largest social grouping in Vietnamese society: farmers, primarily rice farmers, who could be further sub-divided into three different groups according to land ownership: trung nông, bần nông and cố nông. Trung nông were farmers who owned land and farming tools. This was the most well-off group economically and socially, as they could produce enough rice or other agricultural products to support themselves, and therefore did not have to labour for the state in lieu of taxation. Bần nông were farmers who owned a small amount of land, albeit not large enough to yield sufficient rice to support their families. They therefore had to work on land belonging to landlords, and also had to rent their farming tools. Cố nông or tenants were farmers who owned no land or farming tools at all and had to till the land for landlords to earn their living. They were the poorest people in the society and were frequently subject to exploitation.

The third class was craftsmen, whose numbers were relatively small compared to farmers. Some were actually farmers who had developed skills in crafts such as carpentry, weaving or blacksmithing. At the village level their scale of production was very small and did not have significant economic impact, but in larger towns they formed their own guilds to protect their interests and to support each other. Those who were highly skilled could be recruited to work for the court, but the court did not support them to develop their production into an industrial scale.

At the bottom of the social hieracy were merchants. From a modern perspective it may come as a surprise to find that in a traditional self-sufficient economy merchants actually played a very insignificant role, since farmers were able to produce most of their daily necessities and could barter goods with each other, rather than relying on tradesmen. Traditional Confucian society also disapproved of the mercantile practice of “buying cheap, selling dear”.

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A peasant farmer in his raincoat made of grass. Oger [1909]: f. 302. British Library, Or. TC 4

Towards the end of the 19th century, Vietnamese hierachical society was still very much intact. Even though French colonial rule brought about some social and economic changes, these were not powerful enough to uproot entirely the traditional system of four social classes. Newly emerging social groups, such as the French-educated literati or colonial employees, still fitted into the scholar class (sĩ) despite the different ideological basis. The number of poor farmers and landless peasants increased, and their plight may even have been exacerbated through colonial land ownership and tax policies.

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A bride in a western-style costume. Oger [1909]: f. 315. British Library, Or. TC 4

Traditionally, Vietnamese women wore both skirts and trousers. In the 17th century Emperor Lê Hyuền Tông issued a decree forbidding women to wear trousers, but this decision was reversed during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang (r.1820-1841) who instead forbade the wearing of skirts (Ngô Đức Thịnh 2009: 2). In the 1820s, George Finlayson wrote of the Vietnamese: “…though living not only in a mild, but warm climate, the partiality for dress is universal. There is no one, however mean, but is clothed at least from head to the knee, and if their dress is not always of the smartest, it is owing more to their poverty than to their want of taste … the principal and most expensive article in their dress is the turban ... A loose jacket, somewhat resembling a large shirt, but with wide sleeves, reaching nearly to the knee, and buttoning on the right side, constitutes the principal covering of the body. Two of these, the under one of the white silk, are generally worn, and they increase the number according to their circumstances and the state of the weather. Women wear a dress but little different from this, though lighter, and both wear a pair of wide pantaloons, of various colours. The dress of the poorer class is made of coarse cotton, but this not very common, coarse silks being more in vogue. Those of China or Tonquin are worn by the more opulent classes. Shoes are also worn only by the wealthy, and of Chinese manufacture, clogs, in fact, rather than shoes” (Finlayson 1988: 378-9).

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A Vietnamese gentleman wearing a western-style cap rather than a traditional turban. Oger [1909]: f. 32. British Library, Or. TC 4

Almost a century after Finlayson’s account, almost no major changes in the costumes of Vietnamese commoners could be observed. Henri Oger’s pictorial records of daily life in and around Hanoi at the turn of the nineteenth century illustrate the slow rate of change in social class in this French colony. One might argue that some changes in fashion can be noticed reflecting western influence, but these mainly affect the elite and wealthy classes. As for the poor, Oger’s drawings suggest that they barely benefitted from the social and economic changes brought about by the new ruler.

Harry A. Franck reports on the clothing of the period: “Among the coolie class these overcoats of both sexes were of thin cotton. The well-to-do men in towns and in autobuses wore jet-black ones, thin as gauze … with flowered designs of the same hue woven in them, … and fastened together down the side with little gold buttons … A black cloth carelessly wound about the head distinguished most coolies, but all men above that class wore the most unique item of the Annamese costume, a black band-turban permanently arranged in many little folds … At least along this main route of the French railway and autobus highway both men and women of the well-to-do class wore gold and other valuable ornaments openly. Long necklaces of grains of gold of the size of peas are the favourite adornment”(Franck 1926: 106).

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Westerners mingling with locals during the colonial era. Oger [1909]: f. 263. British Library, Or. TC 4

Further reading:

George Finlayson. The mission to Siam, and Hué, the capital of Cochin China, in the years 1821-2. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Harry A. Franck. East of Siam: Ramblings in the five divisions of French Indo-China. London: T. Fisher Unwin, ltd., 1926.
Ngô Đức Thịnh. Traditional costumes of Viet Nam. Thế giới, 2009.
Henri Oger. Introduction générale a l’étude de la technique du peuple annamite. Paris: Geuthner Librarie-Éditeur, [1909].
Trần Đinh Sơn. Đại lễ phục Việt Nam thaời Nguyễn 1802-1945. Hà Nội : Nhà xuất bản hồng Đức, 2013.
A.B. Woodside. Vietnam and the Chinese model. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

29 November 2017

Fifty shades of Kiều

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Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance, a book of divination, and a moral fable, while scholars explore its literary, linguistic, philosophical, political and social aspects. The eponymous heroine is the most acclaimed lady in Vietnamese literature, and her captivating but tragic story has inspired many artistic depictions. The most outstanding version in the British Library collection is undoubtedly a manuscript which was completed around 1894 (Or 14844), written in Hán-Nôm with illustrations of scenes from the story on each page, and a fine yellow silk binding with dragon patterns. Shown in this post are a selection of images of Kiều from this beautiful manuscript, alongside more recent portrayals from printed books.

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Kiều demonstrates her talent for playing the Ho guitar. British Library, Or 14844, f. 3r  noc

Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

Nguyễn Du was inspired by a Chinese Qing dynasty novel ‘The Tale of Chin, Yu , Ch’ia’ while he was leading a diplomatic mission to Beijing in 1813. He re-wrote the story by using ‘lục-bát’ or ‘six-eight’ verse form. The ’lục-bát’ was a commonly used and popular style in folk poetry and it was conducive to reciting. Its original title in Vietnamese is Ðoạn Trường Tân Thanh (A New Cry From a Broken Heart). However, it is better known as Truyện Kiều or Kim Văn Kiều.

The name of the story Kim Văn Kiều derives from the names of three important characters: Kim Trọng, Kiều’s fiancé and her first love; Thúy Văn, Kiều’s younger sister; and Thúy Kiều herself; the main protagonist being, of course, Thúy Kiều. Arguably the most recognised and stereotypical image of Kiều is of her playing a musical instrument, usually depicted either as a Ho guitar or a p’i p’a lute. In his English translation of the story, Lê Xuân Thủy describes her talents and beauty: "The bow of her eyes looked like two graceful autumn waves ... flowers envied her brightness, and willow shivered for not being so clear. With one sidelong glance, then another, she could subvert empires and put cities in revolution ... Being a thorough master of the Cung Thương five-tone scale, she excelled chiefly in playing Ho guitar ... (1960?: 22-23).

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Kim Văn Kiều, by Le Xuân Thủy (1960?). British Library, 16690.a.40, front cover

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Tryuện Kiều, by Nguyễn Thạch Giang (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, back cover

Kiều was born to a family of scholars and was a vision of idealised Confucian womanhood: beautiful, chaste, obedient and loyal to her family (Nathalie 2003: 14). A virtuous and graceful young woman, however her fate was doomed, and she had to sacrifice her love and life to save her father and her family. After a noble upbringing, she gradually fell into disgrace, being forced to work as a prostitute, not once but twice, and had four husbands. At one point she even stole valuables from her master to survive. After fifteen years of suffering, she was finally reunited with her first love, Kim Trọng. However, after all she had gone through she could not see herself as his wife, and therefore remained in a platonic relationship with him, and asked her younger sister, Thúy Văn, to marry him instead.

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Kiều meets Kim Trọng for the first time. British Library, Or 14844, f. 6r  noc

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The first meeting of Kiều and Kim Trọng in Truyện Kiều (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, pp. [20-21]

It is hard to imagine how this pure and talented young lady faced and coped with her subsequent downfall. In the following images, the manuscript artist depicts the lowest point in Kiều’s life, when she was sold by her first husband to a brothel. Tứ Bà, the madame and owner of the brothel cajoled Kiều into prostitution: ‘Listen to this my daughter, and keep this in mind: there are seven interior attitudes and eight intimate techniques to amuse people …until you can turn them upside down like stones…you must know how to charm them, sometimes by the tips of your lips, sometimes by the corner of your eyes, sometimes by reciting alluring poems, and occasionally by the flowers of your smile’ (Le Xuân Thủy, 1960?: 176-77).

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Tứ Bà taught Kiều how to use her charms to attract men. British Library, Or 14844, f. 29v  noc

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Kiều in Tú Bà’s brothel. British Library, Or 14844, f. 25r   noc

As Nathalie (2003: 13) points out, Kiều and this literary genre ‘stand out as a character of universal and enduring appeal, a vulnerable individual with whom those most acutely affected by change and misfortune can readily identify. For generations of Vietnamese who have experienced years of turmoil, changing regimes, colonisation, post-colonisation, war and exile, Kiều’s troubles strike a deep emotional chord.’

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Kiều is kidnapped on the order of Hoạn Thư, the first wife of Kiều’s second husband. British Library, Or 14844, f. 38v   noc

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The same scene depicted in Truyện Kiều (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, p. [119]

Reflecting its popularity, Kim Văn Kiều has been widely published in various forms, and in the British Library alone, there are over thirty books on this Vietnamese classic. Literary criticisms, different interpretations and translations of Kiều, both in Vietnamese and foreign languages, continue to be published; for instance, in 2004, Vladislav Zhukov translated the story into English with his own interpretations. His version complements well other widely recognised English translations, especially those by Lê Xuân Thủy in the early 1960s and by Huynh Sanh Thong in 1973.

Further reading

Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen. Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel. DeKalb: Illinois: Northern Illinois University, 2003.
Kim Văn Kiều: English translation, footnotes and commentaries, by Lê Xuân Thủy. Fort Smith, Arizona: Sống Mới, [1960?]
Ta Quang Khôi. Nhân vật truyện Kiều, in Hồn Việt. Vol. 36, No. 323 & 324, January-February 2011, pp. 138-143.
Nguyễn Du. Truện Kiều : thơ và tranh. Nguyễn Thạch Giang, dịch. Hà Nội : Văn học, 2010.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

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