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25 posts categorized "Vietnamese"

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).

OR_13652_f004v Erawan
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.

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.

Or_16761_f010r Catching elephants
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.

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”.

Fig 1
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).

Or_14844_ffront cover-red  Or_14844_fback cover-red
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'.

Fig 4
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'.

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).

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.

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).

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.


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).  

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.  

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.

“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.]

Postcard to the Library of the British Museum from the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, Hanoi, October 1968.
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.


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.

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.

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.

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'.

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.  

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.

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.

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.

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

14 March 2016

More than a Book: a new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts

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Visitors to the British Library building at St Pancras will recently have noticed a new display in the Southeast Asian exhibition case by the entrance to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor. ‘More than a Book’ presents examples of writing from Southeast Asia in a range of unusual formats and materials, with texts incised on bamboo and gold, painted on paper with a brush, written on gilded wood, printed on silk, and even woven into cotton binding tapes to be wound around a book of palm leaves.

Exhibition Case 2016 (6)
More than a Book: a new display of writing from Southeast Asia, at the British Library Noc

In pride of place is the Burmese 'Butterfly Book’ (Or. 16052), as we have named what is actually a printed petition presented to a colonial official.  No government officer could ever have received a more beautiful document than this formal address, created in around 1907 on the occasion of the first visit to Mergui of the British Governor of Burma. Mergui (Myeik) is a coastal town on the Tenasserim Coast (the present-day Taninthayi Division), the southernmost district of Lower Burma (Myanmar). Technically this is not a hand-written manuscript, for the Burmese words have been typeset and printed onto ‘wings’ of silk, and bound within a large oyster shell.  In the petition, local residents offer sincere thanks to the Government for the construction of roads, and express their belief that the expansion of transport networks will bring more benefit to the region. Included in their long ‘shopping list’ is a request for a marine ferry to ply between adjacent coastal towns, a telegraph office, and aid in building a new hospital.

Burmese 'Butterfly Book', printed petition of 1907 from the residents of Mergui presented to the visiting British Governor of Burma. British Library, Or. 16052 Noc

Also from Burma are two sazigyo, or woven binding tapes for winding around sacred texts.  Among the ways in which Burmese Buddhists believe that merit can be gained is by commissioning and donating a sazigyo to a Buddhist monastery. There are many types of sazigyo: some are purely decorative but others are woven with texts recording the names of the donors, their titles and distinctions, and their deeds of merit. The donors usually call on devas and humans to applaud their meritorious deeds.

The larger red sazigyo is from a manuscript of Pacitʿ Pāli, a canonical text of Theravāda Buddhist monastic rules (Or. 4846). The text on the sazigyo is in verse, and begins with the word Zeyatu which means ‘success’. The donors call upon the universe to hear the news of their donation of the scripture of the Buddha’s glorious teaching, and express their hope that by the merit of this donation they may swiftly and directly reach the cessation of afflictions (Nirvana).  The inscription on the smaller yellow sazigyo (Or.15949/2) suggests that both the manuscript and the binding tape were donated to the Sayadaw (Abbot) of Bangyi monastery.

Exhibition Case 2016 (11)
Two sazigyo, manuscript binding tapes woven with Burmese texts. British Library, Or. 4846 and Or. 15946/2 Noc

From northern Thailand come two wooden title indicators, written in Thai in Dhamma script, decorated with red lacquer and gold leaf. The titles of the palm leaf manuscripts to which the title indicators were attached with a cord are incised on the gold background, together with the names of donors and honoured persons. The small title indicator was made for a manuscript containing the Vessantara Jataka copied in 1925 (Or.14528), while the larger one belonged to a text from the Abhidhamma dated 1930 (Or.14529). These title indicators were used to help retrieve manuscripts when they were stored in large chests or cabinets at Buddhist temple libraries.

On the lower shelf is an imperial Vietnamese scroll (Or. 14817/A). In 1793 a British embassy to China led by Lord Macartney ran into a storm while off the coast of central Vietnam, and issued a plea for help. In response, the Tây Sơn ruler of Vietnam, Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (1792-1802), sent a welcoming party to the British delegation, with food supplies and this beautiful scroll.  The scroll is written in Han Nom characters on orange paper decorated with a large dragon, and bears the royal seal stamped in red ink.

Vietnamese imperial scroll, 1793. British Library, Or. 14817/A

At the back of the case is an example of Batak writing on bamboo (MSS Batak 1), from north-east Sumatra. In 1823, at the request of his British visitor John Anderson, the King of Bunto Pane wrote on this piece of bamboo the Batak numbers one to ten, and a reminder to Anderson to send him two dogs once he had returned to Penang. In the bamboo container are found a knife – which may have been used to inscribe the Batak letters – and four poison-tipped blow-pipe darts.

Lastly, but catching all eyes at the top of the display, is a letter written on a sheet of pure gold, from Bali (Egerton 765). This letter in Balinese was sent in 1768 from the princes of Badung and Mengwi to the Dutch Resident of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  Inscribed in Balinese language and script with a sharp stylus on a piece of gold in the  shape of a palm leaf – the usual writing material in Bali – the princes affirm their friendship with the Dutch East India Company.

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

24 February 2016

The Vietnam War: Children at War

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Ho Chi Minh: “The Working Youth Union members and our young people are in general good; they are ready to come forward, fearless of difficulties and eager for progress. The Party must foster their revolutionary virtues and train them to be our successors ...” 
Việt Nam, commemorative issue on the death of Ho Chi Minh, October 1969, p.11. British Library, SU216

The Vietnam War affected all walks of life in Vietnam and children were not spared from the cruelty of this war. The physical suffering from heavy battles and bombardment of highly toxic chemical weapons are still felt even today. During the war years life for children was very hard, in both the North and the South of Vietnam. Houses and schools were bombed and destroyed. Many children became homeless and their schools had to be moved around or lessons had to take place after dark to avoid being targeted by heavy bombings. For example, one school in a liberated area in the South had to move site three times in four months due to the American air raids. Wherever they stopped, teachers and pupils built bamboo and palm leaf cottages in the midst of forests as their school (Việt Nam, no.132, 9, 1968, p. 10).

'Going to school at night' (Đi học đêm) by Phi Tiến Sơn, 12 years old. Việt Nam, no.154, 1971 p. [14]. British Library, SU 216(2)

'Reinforcing the wall to protect our classrooms' by Phương Quốc Thanh, 14 years old. Việt Nam, no.141, 6,1969 p. 18. British Library, SU 216(2)

In the face of these hardships, the fighting spirit of the children was heavily fortified by the Vietnamese Communist Party and the National Liberation Front, and these institutions made children very aware of foreign enemies and their duty to serve their country. The attempts of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the National Liberation Front to inspire young minds to fight the enemy are illustrated by the glorification of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, a young electrician and a Viet Minh member in the South. Trỗi was sentenced to death and executed by a firing sqad in Saigon in front of the press on 15 October 1964 for the attempted assassination of Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence, who was visiting South Vietnam in May 1963. When the shots were fired at Trỗi, he shouted “Down with the U.S. Imperialists, Long Live Vietnam, Long Live Hồ  Chí Minh”.

Execution of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi. Việt Nam, no.149, 1970 p. 31. British Library, SU216(2)

Hanoi treated Trỗi as a martyr and renamed many schools, prize awards and other revolutionary activities after him. In the liberated zones in South Vietnam, revolutionary schools named after him were set up to teach children about “learning for victory over the Yanks”.

According to one Hanoi publication: “…A system of revolutionary education has taken shape and is fast growing. With this the innocent and unstained minds of the children can absorb the cream of the sound and rich national culture very early, and the children will work their way to become good sons and daughters, excellent pupils and young activists. In the “small deeds, great significance” movement, apart from learning, they enthusiastically join their efforts with those of their parents and brothers in fighting the enemy and defending their villages and hamlets …” (Việt Nam, no.141 6, 1969, p.[29]).

'Tiny guerrilla' (Du kích tý hon) by Lưư Công Nhân. Việt Nam,  no.106,  7, 1966, p. 106. British Library, SU216

Nguyễn Công Phi, 'Tiny guerrilla in the Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Youth Group in Quảng Nam province'. Việt Nam, no.141, 6, 1969 p. 29. British Library, SU216

Against this background, children as young as 13 and 14 were involved in the armed struggle, learning guerrilla warfare tactics and killing both American and South Vietnamese soldiers. Some were trained to be informants. Many of them were decorated with awards and “glorious titles” such as “Iron Fort Children” or “Valiant Destroyer of the Yanks” (Việt Nam, No.141, 6,1969, p.[29]). Others were involved in other war-related activities, such as making hats for soldiers, constructing strategic roads to reach the South, barricading or fortifying their schools and even just giving moral support to members of their families before they left home to fight in the front line. In the North the Party organised activities to keep young minds aware of the on-going war and its horrible repercussions on their life. For example, painting competitions for young people on war themes were organised by some newspapers and cinemas. In the South a campaign to enlist support from the youth was launched by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. They were encouraged to engage in “five volunteer movements”, i.e., volunteer to destroy as much of the enemy’s manpower as possible, to join the army, to wage political struggle, to serve the frontline and to boost agricultural production (Việt Nam, no.150, 1970 p.[14]).

'We weave straw hats to fight the US' (Chúng em tết mũ rom chống Mỹ) by Bùi  Quang Trường, 13 years old. Việt Nam, no. 141, pp.18-19. British Library, SU216(2)

'See our brother off to join the army' (Tiễn anh đi bộ đội) by Đoàn Thị Hương, 13 years old. Việt Nam, 6,1968, p[17]. British Library, SU216(2)

In the South, a new group of children was brought into the world as a result of wartime relationships between American soldiers and local women. These thousands of mixed race children, or Amerasians, faced many hardships in life both during and especially after the war, as they were regarded as outcasts by the Vietnamese. They were referred to as “bụi đời” or the “dust of life”. When, in 1987, the US government eventually set up a programme to allow these Amerasians to settle in the USA, some of them were able to leave Vietnam and to be reunited with their paternal families in the USA.

Curator’s note: As the British Library collection of Vietnamese serials comes mainly from North Vietnam, the nature of content for this blog post therefore only reflects information from the North, especially as found in the periodical Việt Nam published in Hanoi.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese