It’s rare to find a royal seal or indeed any old official seal in a collection of Vietnamese historical artifacts for the simple reason that successful usurpers of power always destroyed the seals of their predecessors.
But not every collection is devoid of seals. Because they signify power, Nguyen Van Pham has spent 18 years searching for mandarins’ seals with considerable success.
The vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Antiques Association has more than 400 seals from the country’s last three ruling families – Later Le, Tay Son and Nguyen (1428 - 1945) - at his home in the city.
His seal collection started in 1994 during a visit to his hometown in the lower central province of Binh Dinh, also the home of peasant leader Nguyen Hue, who became King Quang Trung after defeating the Siam and Qing invaders and started the Tay Son, a period of decentralized rule from 1788 to 1802.
He bought two seals from a farmer who had found them in a pond and was selling them among scrap metal items.
“I was lucky to be able to buy those seals as others considered them ugly and few knew their historical and cultural value,” Pham said.
He brought them back to the city and a teacher who knows old Chinese language said they had belonged to Tay Son mandarins.
One of the two seals from Binh Dinh was made in the winter of 1791, the fourth year under King Quang Trung’s rule and one year before his death. The engraving says it belonged to an admiral in charge of the front lines of the navy.
The other was made on a “good” day of the twelfth lunar month of 1796 and granted to an admiral in charge of the middle lines of the navy, according to its engraving.
Pham also keeps one made in the second lunar month of the same year for a commander of a unit of guards at the king’s palace. Another seal was made in 1797, also for a guard leader.
All four were cast manually from bronze in the same size and shape: 11 centimeters square, 0.7 centimeters thick, 750 grams in weight, and a 5.5 centimeters tall handle.
Pham said his most precious Tay Son seal was one made in 1821 for the head of Phu Cat District of Binh Dinh.
It marked the establishment of the district and accompanied the royal proclamation to appoint a man named Tran Mo as the district head, said the collector, who also has the announcement in his keeping.
Tay Son seals were rectangular whereas the subsequent Nguyen family had both rectangular and square seals.
Most seals were cast from bronze, but the Nguyen dynasty had a number of ivory seals.
The collector said he treasured the Tay Son seals more than others as the period was a heroic age.
Also, it was short-lived and few vestiges remain as Gia Long, the first Nguyen king, had tried to destroy everything.
He said the seals now in his possession could have been thrown into rivers by Tay Son mandarins to protect themselves from any royal purge.
Witness to power
Pham said he had known little about seals originally.
But after some time and research, he found beauty in their representation of dynastic power and thus the country’s sovereignty.
They show the rankings of the administration as well as the military, also that several titles were unique in a certain period.
His oldest seal was made in 1471 under the Later Le Dynasty, the one that established Hong Duc Law, the first legal system of the country.
Another Le seal was made in 1628 for an administrative area that is now Nam Dinh Province outside Hanoi.
Some seals tell of the internal chaos of a period, such as the one granted by King Minh Mang of the Nguyen family to General Tran Van Nang in 1833 to quell a revolt against the king.
The seals also determined the level of authority of their holders.
“Lower ranks had smaller seals,” Pham said.
His collection includes many seals of different levels, the lowest being for a commune head, who was entitled to send people to jail.
Besides the seals, many of Pham’s nearly 5,000 artifacts are about the country’s ancient cultures such as Oc Eo in the Mekong Delta that dates back to between the 1st and 7th centuries, Sa Huynh between 1000 BC and the 2nd century in central Vietnam, and Dong Son, a Bronze Age period in northern Vietnam.
Pham can imagine swapping or selling most of the pieces in his collection, but never the seals, though he might consider giving some of them to a museum.
Now he’s planning to set up a better place than his home to display the seals for the benefit of his fellow collectors as well as historians and other scholars researching Vietnam’s past.
“The biggest matter of a country, of a dynasty, is the law. The seals are symbols of the law, and those that have survived are eyewitnesses to history,” Pham said.
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Thanh Nien News The story can be found in the December 14th issue of our print edition, Vietweek()