A 90-year-old royal living near Hue is thought to be the sole surviving exponent of sewing court cushions, and she cannot find anyone to pass on the craft to
Cong Ton Nu Tri Hue, 90, a descendant of King Minh Mang, will possibly take with her to the grave the art of making cushions for the royal court.
Though her royal family no longer rules over the country, Cong Ton Nu Tri Hue, a great granddaughter of King Minh Mang (1791-1841), still remembers how to make royal cushions.
The aged aristocrat, born in 1922, who lives near the former feudal capital of Hue, was once in charge of making cushions for King Bao Dai, his mother, and mandarins for use at the palace and court.
The cushions, consisting of several folds and used for the head, back, and arms, had to be made following some strict rules.
Those used by the king had five segments while those used by his mother and mandarins had only four. The royals used yellow while for mandarins it was in blue or some other color.
The king's cushions were embroidered with dragons and those of the queen mother, with phoenixes. Mandarins got plain ones.
Hue says she took to making cushions by chance after calling one day on Tu Cung, the queen mother. "She told me, "˜The cushions are old and damaged and need to be replaced; you should study carefully and sew [them] for me!'"
In those days the cushions were inherited from previous courts and no one knew how to make them.
But she was entrusted with the task since the queen mother counted on her sewing skills. After studying for some time, she made them and they were accepted.
Afterwards she became solely responsible for making cushions for the court and casual gowns for King Bao Dai, the last monarch of Vietnam, and his mother.
The cushions were filled with the best cotton and their covers were made of silk and brocade. She first had to complete a cushion before sewing a cover for it. The cushion and its cover stuck to each other and could not be detached.
To make the cushions, she bought fabrics and cotton at Dong Ba Market outside the Imperial Citadel because royal fabrics were no longer available at the court warehouse.
She hired well-known artisans to embroider the dragons and phoenixes on the fabric.
Hue says she sewed the cushions by hand and always tried to keep the stitches straight and even. They were required to meet aesthetic standards, have no grease, be soft, fit the users and make them feel comfortable, she explains.
It takes at least five days to make a cushion, she says. Making a cushion for the king required more care and more time.
King Bao Dai was pleased with the cushions she made for him and asked her to make more for use in his car.
After he abdicated in 1945, Tri Hue seldom went to the palace. In 1954 the Nguyen Dynasty royal family asked for permission for Hue to live at An Dinh Palace to serve the king's mother, continue sewing cushions and gowns, and help with worshipping at the ancestors' altar.
Simple life of a Buddhist
Since 1975, when Vietnam reunified, Hue has been living a simple life with her children in a small house in Huong Can Village in Thua Thien-Hue Province's Huong Tra District.
In 2002, during a trip to Hanoi, Hue and her son Bui Quang Thien visited General Vo Nguyen Giap. She gave him a cushion she had made, yellow and with five segments, but without a dragon.
At 90 Hue still takes care of her great-grandchildren and cleans the garden herself. In 1963 she turned vegetarian and has since made it a practice to spend three hours every evening at a pagoda near her home.
Asked about passing down the craft, she is worried that the art of making royal cushions will vanish since no one, not even her children, want to learn it from her.
However, she continues to make them for old times' sake.
Many of her creations are displayed at Thai Hoa Temple and An Dinh Palace in Hue.
Nguyen Dac Xuan, an expert on Hue studies, says Tri Hue is the only person alive who knows the techniques of sewing cushions for the court.
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