Hue, the last capital of Viet Nam’s traditional dynasty
Viet Nam, a country belonging to the East Asian Confucian culture, started its traditional era with the Ngo (939-944) Dynasty in the 10th Century. The Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) was Viet Nam’s last dynasty, which united the North and South regions through Confucianism into what is present Viet Nam. Until 1945, when the Nguyen Dynasty collapsed, Hue, the capital of Viet Nam, was a typical feudal city, representative of the dynasty’s power and status. The emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty developed their royal court culture while passing down tangible and intangible heritages of the former dynasties at the same time, and this led Hue’s culture to flourish. Based on its vibrant court culture, Hue is now firm in its stance as Viet Nam’s culturally vibrant city, possessing Viet Nam’s first World Heritage Site (Complex of Hue Monuments), Intangible Cultural Heritage (Nha Nhac), and Memory of the World (Woodblocks of Nguyen Dynasty, Mộc bản triều Nguyễn) inscribed on UNESCO’s lists.
Citadel of Hue
Hué is listed on UNESCO’s list of International Cultural Heritage as ”Complex of Hué Monuments”, and is a typical example of early 19th Century feudal capital cities.
The Complex of Hué Monuments is comprised of the Citadel of Hué, Thien Mu Pagoda, Temple of Letters and Temple of Military, Royal Arena and Voi Re Temple, Duc Duc Tomb, Nam Giao Esplanade, Tu Duc Tomb, Dong Khanh Tomb, Hon Chen Temple, Thieu Tri Tomb, Khai Ding Tomb, Minh Mang Tomb, Gia Long Tomb, Tran Hai Fortress, etc. The location and placement of the heritage elements in the Complex of Hué Monuments exemplify the importance of Confucianism values in Viet Nam: The Nguyen Dynasty adopted Confucian values as the national ideology, and built the city based on traditional feng shui topography ideas. Citadel of Hué is one of the most representative example of this practice.
Viet Nam’s Forbidden Purple City
Viet Nam’s Forbidden Purple City, which used to be the Nguyen imperial family’s living quarters, is one of the most representative buildings in the Complex of Hue Monuments. The Forbidden Purple City, situated behind Thai Hoa Imperial Palace, was built in the 3rd year of Gia Long’s era, in 1804, and its name was changed to Forbidden Purple City in the 3rd year of Minh Mang’s era, in 1822.
Ngọ Môn, which was named after the sun rising over the golden roof at noon, is the main gate into the imperial city. Ngọ Môn has 3 stories, with the first floor made of masonry, and the second and third floors made up of wood. The roof boasts gold tiles in the centre and green tiles on the sides and is decorated with phoenixes, symbolizing the son of heaven. Ngọ Môn has five gates in total, and one could only use certain gates, depending on social position. The centre gate, decorated with golden tiles, was meant for the emperor. Gates next to the centre were used by civil and military officials, and gates farthest from the centre were used by the people. Ngọ Môn boasts not only artistic value but also historical value in that it reflects the values and world order of a Confucian country.
Điện Thái Hòa
Situated across the Trung Dao Bridge from Ngọ Môn is the Thái Hòa Imperial Palace, the main hall of the imperial city. Thái Hòa Imperial Palace was constructed in 1803 during Emperor Gia Long’s reign, following the style of the Forbidden City of China, and Emperor Minh Mang had it moved to its current location in 1833. At Thái Hòa Imperial Palace, the emperor and the officials discussed matters of the country, and also held national events such as coronation ceremonies, receptions of envoys and celebrations, etc. Thái Hòa Imperial Palace is renowned for its elaborate throne and ornate decoration. The royal throne is decorated in gold, the emperor’s color, and is placed at the centre of the palace, symbolizing the emperor’s power. In addition, 80 columns and beams, lacquered in red and black and decorated with vibrant golden dragon patterns, gives us a glimpse of the scale of the palace and the emperor’s power.
Ta Vu, Huu Vu
South of Thái Hòa Imperial Palace sits Ta Vu and Huu Vu, offices of the civil and military officers. Ta Vu and Huu Vu were placed following the Confucian order, which states that the emperor must face South. The two office rooms were for civil and military officials awaiting the emperor’s orders.
The To Mieu
The To Mieu, which was built in 1822 under Emperor Minh Mang’s reign, is the imperial family shrine holding Emperor Nguyen’s ancestral tablets. Tablets of ten emperors (out of a total of 13 emperors in the Nguyen Dynasty, except for the fifth and sixth emperors, who had been dethroned, and Bao Dai, the last emperor of the dynasty) are held at The To Mieu.
Hung To Mieu
Hung To Mieu, built in 1804 by Gia Long, the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, is a shrine holding his parents’ tablets. This shrine was later used to pray for the prosperity of the dynasty and its ancestors.
Hien Lam Cac
Hien Lam Cac, which was built in 1822 to honor officials who made great contributions to the country, is a three-storey structure, symbolizing heaven, earth and man.
Cung Dien Tho
Cung Dien Tho is a palace for the mother of the emperor. Gia Long, first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, named the palace ***, meaning “long life”, which was later changed to Cung Dien Tho by the twelfth emperor Khai Dinh, wishing for his mother’s eternal life.
Cung Truong Sanh
Cung Truong Sanh is an imperial garden, made by the second emperor Minh Mang, for his mother’s health.
Thai Binh Lau
Thai Binh Lau is a royal study, which was built in 1847 by Thieu Tri, the third emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Khai Dinh, the 12th emperor, undertook restoration of Thai Binh Lau in 1921 and used it as a resort. Thai Binh Lau, regarded as the most beautiful place in the imperial city, is the only structure that was not destroyed during the French reoccupation in 1947 and thus is highly valued due to its originality.
Nha Nhac, Viet Nam’s court music
Nha Nhac is Viet Nam’s court music, performed from the 15th to mid-20th Centuries. In East Asian Confucian culture, court music, as a symbol of the dynastic power and legitimacy, was elaborately developed, in connection with traditional rituals. Nha Nhac is an intangible cultural heritage, which demonstrates that Viet Nam developed its court culture from the local history and culture, with influences from neighboring Confucian dynasties of East Asia.
Nha Nhac, which was created in the Le Dynasty, saw its prime during the Nguyen Dynasty, when it was institutionalized and systemized. The emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, who adopted Confucianism as its national ideology, developed and advanced court music to empower their own authority and legitimacy. Nha Nhac was both traditional music for court rituals as well as a means to pay respects to the gods by gaining knowledge about nature and the universe. Nha Nhac, Viet Nam’s court music, is representative of traditional court music, and was inscribed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the first among Viet Nam’s national intangible heritage elements.
Currently, Hue Monuments Conservation Center (HMCC) has been established in Hue to preserve, restore and transmit the court music, and various activities are in progress, including the “Building a database of the repertoire of Hue Imperial Elegant Music” project. In addition, Duyệt Thị Đường Theater, an affiliated organization of HMCC, holds performances for the public.
Duyệt Thị Đường Theater
The oldest royal theater in Hue
Duyệt Thị Đường, built in 1826, was originally a theatre for performing court music for the royals and high-level officials. The theatre, which suffered significant damage through the years, underwent extensive reconstruction and was reopened in 2003, then was remodeled in 2004 to become a renowned space for Vietnamese court music. This theatre contributed to promoting royal arts through its collection of 40 works of royal court music and dance resources. Hue Monuments Conservation Center (HMCC) undertakes various activities to preserve and restore the traditional court culture by restoring and performing the music, plays and dances of the Nguyen Dynasty.
Hue Opera (Tuong Hue / Toung)
The Nguyen Dynasty was an era of vibrant court culture, filled with performance arts. In particular, it was a period in which theater arts were developed extensively, and large-scale performances led to playwrights enjoying newfound fame.
Thoung (Hat Boi) is a complex stage art based on high-level symbolism and formality. It was derived from China in the 13th Century, and was performed in central Viet Nam, then started flourishing in the 19th Century, during the Nguyen Dynasty, and was spread to southern provinces. Under the protection of Emperor Tu Duc, who was well-versed in art and literature, the opera Thoung Hue flourished, seeing the rise of hundreds of critically acclaimed works. Fueled by fame, theatres and many art organizations were established, but with the fall of the dynasty in 1945, organizations were closed, weakening the transmission of Thoung Hue. HMCC is actively pursuing to protect and raise the visibility of this intangible cultural heritage by restoring the Hue opera and organizing performances to the public.
Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities
At Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities, one can get a glimpse of Hue in the past and the present, through its displays of royal antiquities, narrating the royal culture and history. Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities is not only a repository for royal antiquities but also a cultural heritage element itself. The main display hall of the museum was originally built as part of the Long An Palace, but became an annex of Khải Định Museum (Musée Khải Định) in 1923 to house royal antiquities collections, following orders from Emperor Khải Định. The museum itself demonstrates the beauty of Hue feudal empire, and is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as “Complex of Hue”. Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities, which has a long history, undertakes various activities, such as exhibitions, trainings, workshops, symposiums, publications, etc., to raise awareness and preserve the cultural heritage of Hue demonstrates the beauty of Hue feudal empire, and is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as ‘Complex of Hue’. Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities, which has a long history undertakes various activities, such as exhibitions, trainings, workshops, symposiums, publications, etc., to raise awareness and preserve the cultural heritage of Hue.
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Hue’s royal attire and embroidery
Among collections of brilliant antiquities displayed at Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities are garments worn by the Nguyen royal family. The garments, which are categorized as attire worn for formal occasions, everyday life and for mourning, were developed according to the Qing Dynasty’s system of attire, which was established by Emperor Qianlong. As royal attire developed more elaborately, embroidery crafts also became more advanced. During the Nguyen Dynasty, there was so much demand from the royals and aristocrats for embroidery masters that they used to gather to form a village of their own. Hue’s unique style of attire, influenced by both Vietnamese and European embroidery, became popular in Hue, the capital of Viet Nam at the time. Viet Nam’s traditional Hue embroidery crafts, which developed from royal attire and style, has been passed down as Hue Embroidery.
XQ Museum of Embroidery
XQ Musem of Embroidery demonstrates the traditions of Hue embroidery crafts; not only the traditional crafts of Viet Nam but also modernized works of embroidery. XQ Museum of Embroidery is a place where one can learn about the history of Viet Nam’s embroidery and appreciate its value.
Betel Chewing Custom
During the Nguyen Dynasty, the technique for making silver tools related to the Betel Chewing tradition, and these silver tools are now on exhibition in the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities.
The history of Betel Chewing, together with the “Legend of Betel and Areca”, is transmitted by the Vietnamese people as a symbol of fraternity and love. The Legend of Betel and Areca tells the story of a wife that is faithful to her husband, and of two brothers and sisters, demonstrating the love, fraternity, family and happiness in the Vietnamese society.
Betel Chewing is an integral part of Viet Nam’s culture and people’s life, spanning from daily activities to important occasions such as weddings and funerals. It is used by Vietnamese people to break the ice and get closer to each other. The tradition and legend of Betel chewing, practiced within Vietnamese people’s everyday life, is often used in Viet Nam’s literature, folk songs, performances and festivals. The tradition of Betel nuts have been passed down not only from the people but also from the royal family of Viet Nam. One can find Vietnamese royal family’s unique tradition at the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities, where collections of silver tools for Betel nuts are exhibited.
Hue Traditional Craft Festival
As one can see from Hue embroidery case studies, Viet Nam’s crafts tradition and the demand from Nguyen royal family led to craft villages being formed, and crafts culture prospered in the greater Hue area. Continuing with this tradition, the city of Hue organizes the Hue Traditional Craft Festival, and various crafts villages participate in it annually. Hue Traditional Craft Festival has various programmes, such as exhibitions, activities, markets and culinary activities, that allow people to experience and enjoy Viet Nam’s various living heritage elements.
Imperial tombs complex
There are seven sets of royal tombs from the Nguyen Dynasty. The tombs are situated in the Southwest area of Hue, and are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, along with ruins of the Hue city. Hue’s royal tombs are mainly divided into three sections: Tomb, tombstone and ritual area. While this spatial organization came from the tomb systems of Ming and Qing Dynasties, the scale of the overall royal tombs area, stoneworks, ritual space, tomb stone, castle and artificial mountain is smaller than those of China, and each royal tomb reflects each emperor’s personality. The scale and building period for each royal tomb differed according to the power or reigning period of the Nguyen emperors, and some emperors even selected and decorated the site themselves during their reign and used it for various purposes. For example, Emperor Gia Long built his tomb in 1814 while he was still alive, and Emperor Tu Duc even built an annex within the site and used it as living quarters.
Minh Mang tomb
Emperor Minh Mang was the second emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty who ruled the country for about 20 years, from 1802 to 1840, and was praised as a great emperor who contributed to expanding the country's territory. Emperor Minh Mang's tomb site is the largest among the royal tombs; it’s so large that one has to pass through three gates to get to the tomb. Next to the royal tomb lies a hill with an artificial lake and pine trees, and within the site there is a tombstone inscribed with the emperor’s achievements and various stone statues of civil and military officials and animals. Emperor Minh Mang revered Confucianism and rejected French culture; reflecting this, his tomb was designed according to Confucian concept of feng shui and shows hints of Chinese construction style.
Tu Duc Tomb
Emperor Tu Duc tomb is renowned for its garden with beautiful scenery. Throughout the Nguyen Dynasty, Emperor Tu Duc reigned for the longest period, from 1848 to 1883. The emperor himself designed his tomb in an elaborate style, and utilized about 3 thousand workers for three years, from 1864 to 1867. After its completion, the emperor utilized the tomb, which is practically the equivalent of his palace, as a vacation home.
Khai Dinh Tomb
Emperor Khai Dinh was the 12th emperor in the Nguyen Dynasty, and his tomb was built for 11 years, from 1920 to 1931. The tomb boasts a harmonious combination of European architectural style and materials, influenced by the French colonial period, and Indian style, influenced by Buddhism. On the tomb, one can find Gothic-style buildings and spires made from black stones and concrete. Inside the tomb, Emperor Khai Dinh’s bones are placed 18 metres under a bronze statue that is the same size as the emperor himself. On the ceiling of the royal tomb, nine dragons are placed, symbolizing eternity, which in Vietnamese language sounds similar to the number nine.
Hon Chen Temple
Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty formed a special bond between the royals and folk religion by sending royal letters to the folk gods. Above is one of the royal letters, sent to Duc Bao, the indigenous god enshrined in Huong Tra Hai Cat Temple, during the first year of Emperor Đồng Khánh’s reign. The letter was written on paper decorated with dragon patterns, which only emperors could use, and the royal order seal is stamped at the bottom of the letter. The letter is to inform Duc Bao that the status of major gods, including the goddess Thien Y A Na, have been demoted and Duc Bao has been promoted to a higher status, and therefore should cooperate with other gods to protect the country.
During the Nguyen Dynasty, in addition to a combination of three religions, comprising of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, there existed another type of indigenous religion, which was for worshipping mother goddesses. Hon Chen Temple was originally for worshipping the god Po Nagar of the Cham tribe, and later became Hue’s most representative temple and worshipped over 100 gods.
Beliefs in the Mother Goddesses and Len Dong
Many communities in Viet Nam worship mother goddesses or the mother saint who control the sky, water and forest, to gratify spiritual desires, achieve daily wishes and pray for health and success. There are various mother goddesses, such as Lieu Hanh (the daughter of God who came down to earth and lived as a human figure then became a female monk), “the mother of the world”, as well as other gods who are regarded as legendary heroines.
This tradition is found in daily worships, rituals for being possessed by spirits, and festivals such as Phu Giay, which is held at shrines for mother goddesses. Practicing the tradition of worshipping mother goddesses, which is a combination of traditional costume, music and dance, contributes to maintaining the history and identity of the communities.
The main component of worshipping mother goddesses is the psychic. The psychic is the practitioner of Len Dong, Viet Nam’s most representative shamanistic rite, and Len Dong means “being possessed by a spirit”. Len Dong, Viet Nam’s shamanistic heritage, is a rite in which the psychic, as a shaman, demonstrates humans’ understanding of nature and respect for natural phenomenons through theatrical elements such as music, dance, plays, poetries and drawings, while being possessed.
Among the rich cultural heritages of Viet Nam, the mother goddesses ideology, transmitted with Len Dong rites, is valued as an outstanding cultural phenomenon in the modern society. From cultural expressions encompassing rites, social practices, festivals, performance arts, traditional crafts and local knowledge, combined with the practice of worshipping the mother goddesses, social relationships are generated and act to bond members of the community together. Its value as an intangible and tangible heritage, as well as its value in community transmission, was appreciated, and Practices related to the Viet beliefs in the Mother Goddesses of Three Realms was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.
Starting in 2000, the city of Hue has held the Hue Festival for people to experience Hue’s elegant and rich cultural heritages passed from the past to the present, and to reexplore its social and historical values. Hue Festival is a traditional cultural festival focusing on the culture of the Nguyen Dynasty, Viet Nam’s last dynasty, and is held every other year at the end of April, around the Complex of Hue Monuments. The festival is organized with programmes on culture, art and tourism, including court ritual reenactment, traditional performances, display and sale of traditional crafts and folk games. Hue Festival is also an occasion for the city of Hue, a city possessing Viet Nam’s first heritage elements inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, Intangible Cultural Heritage and Memory of the World, to display its pride and willingness to protect its heritage.