Preserving the past, one banana at a time

TN News

Email Print

As the fanfare from Hanoi's recent millennial anniversary winds down, a skeleton crew of skilled librarians continues to celebrate the town's history in its own quiet way.

For the past forty years, the staff of the Han-Nom Research Institute in Hanoi has worked to preserve the country's thousand-year-old culture by tending to a precious collection of ancient documents.

Thousands of books, engraved tablets, and handwritten copies sit in neat rows on the building's shelves emitting a subtle musk that cannot be found in the sterile environs of a modern library.

Founded in 1970, the repository is made up of donations from all over the world - from the École Française d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO) (French School of the Far East) to the US-based Harvard Yenching Institute.

The collection has become something of a global treasure. According to Dr Trinh Khac Manh, Director of the Han-Nom Research Institute, the library is the key to opening a door into the country's rich history.

The Institute maintains 20,000 books, 48,000 epitaphs and 20,000 ancient wood carvings, stones, bronze bells, and steles.

The oldest document in the collection was created in Thanh Hoa Province on May 7, 618AD.

Indeed, some of the documents cannot be handled, even by staff, without the express approval of Dr. Trinh.

The man who made history

Since its inception, the Institute has amassed the country's most impressive collection of scholarly texts; it all began thanks to the efforts of one man.

Tran Van Giap began laying the groundwork for the Han-Nom Research Institute before the end of Vietnam's last imperial court.

Tran Van Giap (1902-1973) was born into a Confucian family. He began work as a warehouse keeper and scrivener for the EFEO in Hanoi before the end of the Nguyen Dynasty. In 1927, Giap was sent to France to study at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes à la Sorbonne and the School of Oriental Languages.

After completing his studies, the scholar returned to Vietnam. In 1958, Giap helped negotiate the transfer of the EFEO and Louis Finot Museum (now the Museum of History) from France.

Following the negotiations, France shifted the headquarters of the EFEO to Paris and Vietnam maintained the Hanoi facility.

He then set to work re-cataloguing the collection of Western Literature, Chinese Literature, Vietnamese Han Literature (texts written in pictorial Characters) and an archive of pictures and engraved tablets.

Giap continued to manage the EFEO, through peace and wartime, until his passing in 1973.

Today, most of the documents housed at the Han-Nom Research Institute bear the mark of the scholar.

Hard work

In tropical countries like Vietnam ants, rodents, cockroaches, and termites abound. In such an environment, preserving a fragile archive of ancient paper and wood documents is no easy task - especially, during war time and the lean years that followed reunification, according to Dr. Nguyen Huu Mui of the Institute's Department of Preservation.

Every day, a staff of just six people undertakes the arduous and fastidious work of preserving the nation's written history.

Each document is copied thrice and distributed to different repositories in order to serve readership. The originals are submitted to museum archives.

Of late, the Institute staff has had to prepare special boxes for books to keep out moisture.

Starting in 1998, the team began digitizing the library, in a race to preserve the information forever.

One of the most interesting and difficult aspects of their job is the copying of engraved tablets.

The staff begins by wiping the epitaphs with a brush or cloth. They then apply a paper-thin layer of crushed aromatic banana to the surface. As soon as the banana dries, Dó paper (a traditional paper made from the bark of the Rhamnoneuron balansae) or Xuyen chi paper (an official medium of the Chinese government) are applied to the tablets to form a print.

When exposed to the open air, the dried banana yields an impression of the engraving.

More Arts & Culture News