Life Life

07/03/2021 - 10:50

Conservation beginning with street names

Hue is like a museum. Each street, footstep and person conveys a piece of history. A comment like this often regarded as cliché, as such if people want to live, they have to eat and drink every day. However “dense” the historical embodiments are, they can still be subjected to vulnerability in today’s busy life.

Retaining old features. Photo: Doan Quang

Once I went to France and visited the home of a Vietnamese overseas professor. He was “fully Westernized”, but when meeting his wife I felt different. Mrs. Nhu brought the drinks out, dressed smartly in a dignified outfit just to greet the guest, and addressed the younger guest as her equal.

"Do you know Ton Nhan Phu Street in Hue? How I wish to stroll along there,” was all she said before quitting the room. After I had finished working with the professor, I left with a strong impression of the Hue character: discreet and modest, no matter how strong the sentiment.

A few years later I had the opportunity to go to Hue. I inquired many but they all failed to know which street was Ton Nhan Phu. Fortunately for me, I encountered Ho Vinh, a person with heart, who kept documents on the ancient capital of Hue.

He led me to the East corner of the ancient citadel, and we walked for a long while before he said "here it is". It was Dinh Cong Trang Street, a rather long street, shaded with trees and a few ancestral houses interspersed with new architecture. Stalls selling nails, sweet soup and Huda beer could be found on the sidewalk, but no one knew the old street name.

In my attempt to report the news to France, I found out that Mrs. Nhu had passed away. There was no exclamation of happiness like I had imagined. However, the sadness she left behind prompted me to learn about this ‘character’; whether is it called "Ton Nhon Phu" or "Tong Nhan Phu"?

It turned out that both names were acceptable, depending on the situation, the period, and/or abstaining from calling some royal member’s name. It did not refer to a human being, but an office directly under the court. If set in present time, the contact name today would easily have the extension ".gov". Although it was only the size of a department or institution, this office played an important role in ranking the members of the Royal family and defining the line of succession to the throne. It was a "Super Ministry of Home Affairs".

I am not certain whether it is true or not: Minh Mang was the king of the Nguyen dynasty who founded Ton Nhan Phu, decreeing that only his own lineage could use the surname and middle name (?) "Nguyen Phuoc", and all of rest were "in the royal family". Minh Mang was the second son of Gia Long and was not the head of Prince Canh’s line. He had institutionalized such succession, an extremely curious "unitary" mentality.

There are many stories about Ton Nhon Phu, and it is also difficult to distinguish facts from myths. Initially, the office only composed genealogy, inscribing the date of birth and death in the royal family. Later, the tasks "developed" to the point of detailing the period of menstruation of the concubines, especially those after having the honor of being laid with the king, and especially determining the rank of princes and who could or could not be crowned in the future. It was truly unique and complicated, as the king was only one person but had too many wives and children.

Back to the street name, at one time, people tended to avoid "feudal" names. Princess Huyen Tran Streets in Hanoi and Hue incidentally were both changed to Bui Thi Xuan.

Hue is associated with the Nguyen Dynasty, and thus many street names of lords and kings had to be changed. Dinh Cong Trang was the leader of the Ba Dinh uprising against the French, and deserved to be named. But according to historical perception, this dynasty is being re-examined with regard to many aspects. Mac Thai Tong, Mac Thai To, Nguyen Phuc Tan, Trinh Tung Streets... appeared in many urban areas of the country.

Feudalism was a period of our nation, whether positive or negative, the fact remains, reminding us of history. Had I not had the chance to meet Mrs. Nhu and learn about Ton Nhan Phu Street, would I have gained enthralling knowledge and emotions about such a time? It would have been a pity.

Hue is not Hue without features of the past. A heritage city is different from city heritage. The people - the living museums - will disappear, leaving only the architecture and street names ...

By Tran Chien