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21/11/2018 - 08:51

Silk Books in the Nguyen Dynasty’s Era

It is often vaguely said that the silk books of the Nguyen Dynasty are 100 years old; actually, they are over 170 years. The Nguyen Dynasty emphasized the importance of granting titles to kings’ wives, princes and princesses. They were given gold books, silver books, bronze books, silk books or long tien (or long dang) paper books in accordance with their titles, (long tien or long dang is a special kind of paper.)

Silk books were firstly used by the Nguyen Dynasty in 1846, under the reign of King Thieu Tri: “Cung tan tam giai (Third-ranked imperial Maids) and below are awarded silk books” (Kham Dinh Dai Nam Hoi Dien Su le, Vol. 6). In 1886, King Dong Khanh stipulated more clearly about silk books: “From now on, all the king’s Maids with the titles of Cuu Giai (Ninth-ranked) and above will be awarded books made of yellow silk.”

The silk book for Her Highness Vo

The silk book for Her Highness Hoc Phi

Nguyen Van Thi Huong was King Tu Duc’s second wife. Entering the Forbidden Purple City, she was especially favored by the King and entitled as Luong Tan, then as Khiem Phi. Later, she was ordered to adopt two-year-old Ung Dang, a cadet of Kien Quoc Cong. After that, she was promoted to Hoc phi, the highest title at that time. When King Tu Duc passed away, as requested, Hoc Phi. Nguyen Van Thi Huong and Thien Phi. Nguyen Thi Cam came to live in Khiem Lang (Tu Duc’s Royal Tomb) to take care of worshipping.

Her Highness Nguyen Van Thi Huong was granted the silk book in 1874 by King Tu Duc. According to the researchers Phan Thuy Van and Nguyen Phuong Lan, the book is rectangular in shape (19.7cm long, 30.5cm wide,) consisting of two cover sheets and three double sheets inside (6 pages). The sheets are bound together by means of threads of the same color as the silk.

The book is made of yellow brocade, woven in the motif of “Tu Quy” (Four Seasons) (Apricot, Orchid, Daisy, and Green bamboo) and some objects in “Bat Buu” (“Eight Precious Objects”) and Song Ngu (“Double Fish”). The front and back covers are decorated with embroidered winding dragons among five-colored clouds in the center. The cover sheets are lined with embroidered patterns in the shape of honeycomb with brown threads. In the center of each hole is an eight-petal flower with light blue threads. The text inside is embroidered with red threads which are now fading into pink. The book is being kept by her descendants at Thuy Xuan Ward.

The patterns on the silk book for Her Highness Nguyen Thi Cam

The four silk books left

As recorded in the historical documents, the books for the Nguyen Kings’ wives are of various materials. At present, Hue Museum of Royal Fine Arts keeps no gold books nor silver books. Luckily there are 4 silk books left. (Many gold books of the Nguyen Dynasty are being kept at Vietnam National Museum of History)

In terms of size, the silk books being kept at the museum are of two types: two large books (19.7cm x 30.5cm) and two smaller ones (13cm x 21.5cm). They are all made of yellow brocade. The large books are embroidered in the motifs of “Four Seasons”, “Eight Precious Objects” and “Double Fish”. The small books are decorated with embroidered characters of happiness and longevity, embroidered apricot blossom, bats and certain objects in the “Eight Precious Objects.” They are decorated in the same way as the book for Her Highness Hoc Phi. The main difference is that the characters inside the large books are embroidered with red threads, while the smaller ones are written in black ink. 

Reading the content of the silk books, we can see they all begin with praising women’s virtues, followed by the king's teachings about how to connect honor with duty and living in accordance with the royal rules.

The silk books, which have been existed for 150-170 years, show everyday activities in the past and how much women’s virtues were appreciated. And to show that respect, the talented embroiderers created the masterpieces. Strangely enough, although made of silk, the books have lasted longest until the end of the Nguyen Dynasty and even to the present.

Story and photos: Ho Hoang Thao

 

 

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