Why we wore what we did

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When Vietnam celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of its capital city in 2010, several historical movies made for the occasion stirred nationalistic debate. One of the main criticisms was that the costumes used made the movies look Chinese.

That's when Tran Quang Duc decided to research Vietnamese clothing, using his knowledge of the Chinese language to dig into Asian archives.

His book, "Ngàn Năm Áo Mũ" (A thousand years of caps and robes), picturing and discussing Vietnamese clothes worn by members of the royal court, the government, and common people during the feudal period between 1009 and 1945 is on bookstore shelves for the third time.

The first 1,000 copies of the 398-page hardcover edition, priced at VND250,000 (US$11.77), sold out in two weeks in May and another 1,000 were published in June.

The 28-year-old said he has no intention of proving the movies right or wrong or to become a consultant to future filmmaking projects; he just wanted to do something meaningful with 17 years of learning Chinese.

He had earlier planned to conduct research into the Vietnamese language, especially into how it has been influenced by its big neighbor, but he felt he would not contribute anything new.

As an activity to promote the book, photos and items it presents are being displayed in Hanoi.

Trich Bach, a Vietnamese American who has spent many years researching and recovering Vietnam's ancient court attires and who provided many photos for the book, brought to the showcase a winter coat nearly 400 years old that used to be worn by one of the Trinh lords, who reigned from 15451787 with figurehead kings.

A display of Vietnamese costumes through history, based on Tran Quang Duc's historical book "Ngàn Năm Áo Mũ" (A thousand years of caps and robes) is open at Manzi café, 14 Phan Huy Ich Street, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi. The café is open from 9 a.m. till midnight.

Duc will talk about his book on September 10 at the French culture center L'Espace at 24 Trang Tien Street, Hoan Kiem District.

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Duc said the coat imitated the styles of royal clothes in the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties, and that the cloth must have been imported from China as well.

"The coat has been preserved by later generations of the family, and now belongs to a US museum," he said.

Bach, whose mother came from a mandarin family of the Nguyen Dynasty the country's last ruling family (1802-1945), also brought two replicas of Nguyen attires that he and select tailors had made.

The exhibition also displays a "perfect copy" of a painting made in 1336, telling the story of Vietnamese king Tran Nhan Tong leaving his throne to become a Buddhist monk.

The 961×28 centimeters painting has been preserved most of the time in China and its restored version was sold last year for $1.8 million at an auction in China.

Not much is known about the painter, Tran Giam Minh, as well as the painting's owner Tran Quang Chi, who asked other artists to add their comments on the painting, but Duc said the painting carries Vietnamese spirit and that he believes the painter is Vietnamese.

"People with short haircuts in the painting clearly show that it is from the Tran time.

"And the elephant in the painting is gentle. The presence of the elephant is very special as Vietnam was one of few Asian countries using the animal then. Paintings done by artists in other countries that do not have elephants tend to picture them out of their imagination, like monsters."

The first two elephants in Japan were imported from Vietnam, he said.

He said these factors, plus information in old Chinese language documents, back his claim about the painter being Vietnamese.

Duc also said that the painting proved Vietnam already possessed academic painting back then.

He said many researchers before him were biased in their work, tending to assume the Vietnamese culture is more common and did not focus on the royal, academic part of it.

His book presents details of royal costumes of each ruling family, concluding that there were reforms through different reigns, in correspondence with those in countries sharing the same language systems such as Japan and Korea, but specifically China.

He pointed out two ideologies sharing influences on Vietnamese royal costumes imperialism and Sinocentrism, which explained the similarities between Vietnamese and Chinese feudal clothing.

However this was not because the Vietnamese were copying Chinese styles, but proudly proclaiming their equality.

"The book was written with respect for the facts, with no judgment of wrong or right, good or bad.

"I hope readers will get a calm, impartial look at Vietnamese costumes and Vietnamese royal culture, especially the Chinese factors in it."

Modern old-timer

Although the Chinese language was never included in the main school curricula in Vietnam (school with many children of Chinese origin have recently begun teaching the language), Duc started picking up Hanzi and Nom characters on his own when he was in seventh grade, according to a The Thao & Van Hoa report.

He learned from Chinese text books dating around a thousand years back to the Song Dynasty, the script also being used in Vietnam around that time.

He registered for Chinese studies at Vietnam National University in Hanoi and after finishing the second year in 2005, went to Peking University to study Chinese language and literature.

Duc said his interest for the past came naturally, but that does not make him outdated as some people would think.

"A hundred years from now, if one wants to study Vietnamese history or culture, they will still have to learn Hanzi and Nom scripts, and listen to old music."

Duc plays old string instruments, though he only entertains small groups of family or close friends.

He said his book became popular because it visualizes the past and many friends and interested researchers used modern ways like Facebook to spread the word.

"If I was writing about a thousand years of schooling, it would sell poorly as it lacks illustrations.

"Furthermore, the impacts of Chinese culture on Vietnam's royal culture has been and will still be a hot topic," he said, adding that readers must be interested in hearing opinions from a young man like him.

He said that many people could have bought the book out of curiosity.

"2,500 copies have been printed. Let's say 2,500 people buy them, but I wonder if as many as a thousand people would go through the end of the book."

Tracking the facts

Duc said that being new to researching and writing books, he had to convince readers with the thickness of his references.

He said his writing motto is to double-check everything and he only relied on information shared by several different sources.

"Finding data was not as hard as many people have imagined, as historical facts in Hanzi scripts of China, Korea and Japan are all published online.

"Vietnam has only published part of its material, so researching [in Vietnamese] is actually more difficult."

When looking for Vietnamese historical archives, researchers have to go to the Han Nom Research Institute or Vietnam Institute of History, he told The Thao & Van Hoa.

He visited museums, libraries in China and South Korea, while in Vietnam, he also went into temples, pagodas and people's houses.

One "hurtful" fact he found during those journeys was that museums in South Korea drew big crowds. Chinese museums drew smaller crowds but those in Vietnam had only him and a handful of foreign tourists.

In Vietnam, he traveled often between the northern provinces and the central town of Hue, entering pagodas rarely visited.

He joked that by frequenting places almost uninhabited, many times he felt he was being "autistic."

The book has been acclaimed as a well-researched work. 

Professor Liam Kelley of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who authored "Beyond The Bronze Pillars" (2005) about envoy poetry and the relationship between China and Vietnam, said Duc's book "marks an incredible scholarly accomplishment."

The professor said in a review that the book deals with a researched topic, but earlier works relied on modern Vietnamese translations of texts that were originally written in Hanzi, while Duc's book is based on "extensive use of sources written in Han by both Vietnamese and Chinese authors over many centuries."

"Therefore, while this topic may have been discussed before, this book is unprecedented in the scope of the sources it is based on, and in the expertise of the author's reading of those sources."

Royal attire researcher Trinh Bach says in the preface that the book is one of the most deeply researched and carefully historical and cultural documents in Vietnam, if not worldwide.

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