Sacred turtle sparks national treasure debate

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Cultural researchers are turning their back on an associate professor who insists the legendary turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake should be classified as a national treasure

Members of a rescue team stand around a giant freshwater turtle after successfully capturing it in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake in 2011. Ha Dinh Duc, an associate professor in Hanoi, suggested recently that local authorities have the Hoan Kiem Turtle recognized as a national treasure.  

For centuries, Vietnamese people have been paying their respects to the giant soft-shell turtle that lives in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, many of them believing it to be the manifestation of Kim Qui, otherwise known as the Golden Turtle God.

This deity is believed to have helped Vietnam repel its Chinese enemies.

These days, the legend most commonly associated with the turtle dates back to the 15th century when The Dragon King gave a sword to Le Loi that helped him defeat the powerful Chinese Ming invaders. Le Loi went on to become first Emperor of the Later Le Dynasty (1428-1788).

On the one year anniversary of the victory, Le Loi saw a giant turtle surface on Luc Thuy Lake as he rode in his boat near the Thang Long Citadel. According to the legend, the turtle snatched the sword from him and dove into the water. Believing that the Dragon King had sent the animal to reclaim the magical weapon, Emperor Le Loi renamed the lake Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Returned Sword) to commemorate the event.

In January, Ha Dinh Duc, 73, an associate professor of biology, recommended that Hanoi authorities lodge an application for national treasure status for the Hoan Kiem Turtle. The professor was referring to both the live turtle living in the lake today, which is one of four remaining members of the extremely rare Rafetus swinhoei turtle species worldwide, and its stuffed cousin on display inside the lake's inlet Ngoc Son Temple.

Duc believes the turtle has real "human value."

Under Vietnam's Cultural Heritage Law, in order for an object to be considered a national treasure, it must be original, have a unique appearance and relate to an important historical event or the career of a distinguished national hero.

However, many scientists and officials think the Hoan Kiem Turtle simply does not meet those criteria.

A member of the National Heritage Council requesting anonymity told Vietweek that the turtle alive in the lake and the stuffed one in the temple were not around during Emperor Le Loi's time, adding that the turtle should only be recognized as an endangered animal not a national treasure.  

Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, another member of the heritage council, said: "The turtle in the lake and the taxidermal turtle do not directly relate to Emperor Le Loi," adding that the story about the king's receiving and returning of the sword is a myth meant to encourage the Vietnamese people during times of war or natural disasters.

"Of course the legend makes use of historical facts, but it will never be history."

 
Two women observe the stuffed version of the legendary turtle on display inside Ngoc Son Temple, located in Hoan Kiem Temple on an inlet of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi.

Tran Lam Bien, a Vietnamese culture researcher, said the story of the sword did not originate during Le Loi's time and was made up by later generations. So it cannot be said that the Hoan Kiem Turtle has any connection to any important event or national hero.

"We have to forget this," said Bien, referring to the notion that the turtle be considered for recognition as a national treasure.

But Duc is not dissuaded.

"It [the Turtle] is an original entity. It relates to the legend of Emperor Le Loi's returning the sword he used to drive off the invaders and regain independence for Dai Viet [an old name of Vietnam during the 15th century].

"It is a legend, but it bears spiritual and cultural value. I must say it is totally unique," he said, adding that the Hoan Kiem Turtle "really deserves" the national treasure status.

According to Duc, heritage researchers should consider whether the turtle might qualify as a national treasure, and that they should remain open to the idea in the course of their research, instead of "rigidly" adhering to the criteria.

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But experts in the field still did not buy into it.

Professor Luu Tran Tieu, Chairman of the National Heritage Council, told news website VnExpress that he also disagreed with Duc.

 "We have established criteria for national treasures so [we] cannot change them at our will."

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