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Past exhibition

Special Exhibition
Encountering Vietnam in the National Palace Museum Collection
Vietnam is a nation with a population of nearly one hundred million citizens. This vibrant, thriving next door neighbor has walked a rocky road on its way to modernization. Being nestled between East Asia and South Asia, and located where the Southeast Asian landmass meets the sea, Vietnam has had vacillating fortunes delivered to its doorstep by the politics of the region. All the same, the country possesses its own very unique manner of being. Vietnam—a nation that feels both familiar as well as exoticcarries no small amount of pain in its history. And yet it maintains a mellow kindness wherein grace and determination stand on equal footing.

This special exhibition primarily draws upon ancient manuscripts, documents, and artifacts in the Museum’s collection, and is divided into three sections: “Portraits of Peoples in Vietnam through the Ages,” “Vietnam’s World-renowned Ceramic Arts,” and “The Ingenious Diplomacy of the Peninsular Dragon.” These units allow us to acquaint ourselves with the peoples, cultures, artistic accomplishments, and varying self-identities that comprised the land now known as “Vietnam” prior to the 19th century. On this landmass, millennia of territorial mobility and cultural diversity are intimately related to cooperation and competition between indigenous ethnic groups, as well as interactions with neighboring nations. The key to Vietnam’s unique aesthetic in the ceramic arts lies in its people’s technical mastery. However, the tastes that became dominant emerged from a long process of selection in a multicultural environment, before striding dazzlingly onto the world stage in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Vietnamese ceramics joined the fray of international trade. The Vietnamese people’s talent for striking when the iron is hot, their nimble intelligence, and their capacity for mediation allowed them to make the best out of difficult situations. This exhibition draws on historical documents from the 14th through 19th centuries to offer a glimpse of the secrets that have allowed the country to stand tall and strong for over a thousand years. 

Ⅰ. Portraits of Peoples in Vietnam through the Ages
Vietnam occupies a long, narrow slice of territory, with a nearly 3300-kilometer-long coastline. Numerous kingdoms have been established throughout the long history of this land. Tracing from north to south, the primary ethnic groups occupying the territory now known as Vietnam include the Viet, Cham, and Khmer. Vietnam’s primary ethnic group of modern times, the Viet people, are descendants of the various peoples once called “baiyue” or “hundred yue,” who previously occupied the lands now part of southern China and northern Vietnam. These people are known for tattooing, adapting to water, and casting beautiful bronze drums, the latter becoming one of Vietnam’s most important cultural symbols. Between the 2nd and 10th centuries, China’s various imperial dynasties spared no effort in trying to absorb these lands into their domains, and as a result left a legacy of cultural influence in the form of rites, laws, political systems, ceramic arts, etc. The Cham people have historically lived in central Vietnam, where they are intimately connected to the neighboring Khmer and Malay peoples. In earlier epochs they were deeply influenced by the Indian civilization and were faithful followers of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. From the gorgeous lingakosha passed down from the 10th century, we get a sense of the glory of the ancient kingdom of Champa. In later times, Cham civilization gradually Islamicized, leading to a change in its cultural expressions. A millennium of competition and interaction between the Viet and Cham peoples——in addition to other groups from abroad——is richly reflected in the interwoven local customs comprising modern Vietnam’s magnificent cultural inheritance.

II. Vietnam’s World-renowned Ceramic Arts
Prior to the 18th century, the process for firing porcelain was shrouded in a mix of secrecy and mystery. The people of northern Vietnam lived amid the world’s tiny handful of locales where the techniques of porcelain manufacture were mastered at an early date. Starting in the latter period of the Trần dynasty (1225-1400) in the 14th century, Vietnamese ceramics began to be exported to Indonesia, Japan, and Taiwan. During the Lê Sơ dynasty (1428-1527) and the Mạc dynasty (1527-1592), Vietnam’s northern neighbor, China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644) closed its doors to maritime trade. Vietnamese ceramics quickly filled the gap created by China’s exodus from the market, and its web of mercantile connections expanded to include Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, and North Africa. Out of all of these regions, it was the island nations of Southeast Asia that proved to be Vietnam’s most valuable trading partners. During this period, Vietnam’s primary places of ceramic production were the Chu Đậu kilns, located in present day Hải Dương province, and the Thăng Long kilns, located in present day Hanoi. The “semi-bodiless” white wares made by some of these kilns’ were jade-like in their smooth lustrousness. Their blue and white porcelains featured luscious glaze and elegant forms, which boasted straightness and symmetry when wrought large, and elaborate delicacy when small. The decorative patterns could be made with ornate precision or attractive freehand spontaneity. Atop the underglaze blue wares were painted designs of overglaze reds, greens, and golds, yielding gorgeously complex works of “Vietnamese doucai (clashing colors),” renowned as uniquely zestful visual feasts. 

III. The Ingenious Diplomacy of the Peninsular Dragon
According to legend, the Viet people who put down roots in the eastern region of the Southeast Asian peninsula are descendants of the dragon king Lạc Long Quân, who is believed to be the great-great-grandson of the mythical Yan Emperor Shennong. The creation myths reveal the close links between Viet people and their neighbors on the northern land. For several thousand years, as this culture permeated the Vietnamese landscape, it faced down the risk of absorption by its neighbors countless times. Following a thousand years of subjugation, in 939 the Viet established their own Ngô dynasty, nestled between China to the north, and Champa to the south. The struggle for power in this region can be glimpsed in a draft of state letter handwritten by Ming dynasty Emperor Taizu during the late 14th century. 18th and 19th century documents previously held in the Qing dynasty court provide an abbreviated record of how the Vietnamese relied upon military tenacity and a strategy of flexibility and agility in the face of the cultural appeal and military dominance of their northern neighbors. With this approach, they were able to deal with centuries of diplomatic disputes great and small. Wits and resourcefulness allowed this determined southern nation to sail through the choppy peaks and troughs of history, rising into glory time and again on the Southeast Asian peninsula.
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date 2022-08-20~2022-11-20
  • Location 1F S101
From the Pavilion of Literacy Profundity’s handwritten “Complete Library in Four Sections” edition, created during Qianlong reign (1736-1795), Qing dynasty
A Brief History of the Viet
  • Anonymous, Trần dynasty (1225-1400), Vietnam
  • Certified National Treasure
This book’s original title was A Brief History of the Great Viet. Comprising three volumes, it was written by a Trần dynasty official historian. Written in Chinese, it records the history of Vietnam from the archaic period through to the Lý dynasty. It also includes as an appendix an annals of the Trần dynasty. As the oldest extant Vietnamese book of history, some of its records are more detailed than those found in later chronicles, making it an extremely valuable historical document. There are differing views as to when this book was written, but it is likely to have been a product of the reign of Emperor Thái Tông during the early Trần dynasty. This book was later lost in Vietnam, but portions that made it to China during the Ming dynasty were later supplemented and reconstituted into three volumes during the Qing dynasty, before being included in the Complete Library in Four Sections. Dai Viet (meaning “Great Viet”) was the name by which the Vietnamese referred to their land for nearly one thousand years, from the Lý dynasty through to the Tây Sơn dynasty. However, the name “Annam” can be seen on the pages of the final volume. This name, which roughly means “the Placid South,” was conferred to Vietnam by the Chinese and used over a vast period of time. The two names’ different implications reflect the subtle complexities of East Asian international relations. The middle volume records the relocation of the Lý dynasty capital to Đại-la thành and the renaming of the city to Thăng-long. This capital was the precursor to modern day Hanoi.
Lý dynasty (1010-1225), Vietnam
Lidded jar in yellowish-white glaze with lotus petal design
Starting in the 1st century during China’s Eastern Han dynasty, Chinese domination led to close intercultural exchanges and resulted in ceramics industry in northern Vietnam developing in lockstep with that of the Chinese; Vietnam’s ceramists were thus deeply versed in the production of both celadon and white wares. While Vietnamese wares were, in terms of their overall forms, more or less congruent with those made in China, their details usually boasted elements of local color. Following the establishment of an independent Vietnam in the 10th century, local ceramics began to show a more uniquely local flavor. For instance, this lidded jar with elegant shape was decorated using the pressing, carving, and incising techniques. The outer surface of the lid and the shoulders of the jar were both adorned with double layers of ornate, three-dimensional-seeming lotus petal pattern. It is generally thought that such designs reflect the intercultural exchanges with Champa and other Indianized states. 
Sixth dynasty of Champa (10th century), Vietnam
Linga is a symbolic representation of Shiva, one of the three primary deities of Hinduism. Modeled after the shape of a phallus, they are often placed within round or rectangular grooves with spouts through which water can flow, called yoni, representing the vulva. During rituals of offering, linga is doused with pure water or milk, which then flows out through the spout built into the accompanying yoni. These objects originated from fertility worship, which use abstract symbolism to represent the universe’s most primal functioning. Compared with India, where this belief originated, there are more written records and depictions on steles as well as artifacts related to linga rituals in archaeological sites of Champa. Inscriptions on Champa stelae tell us that ancient kings commonly used lingakosha made from precious metals to cover stone linga as a deeply pious offering to the divine. The item seen here has two primary components: the silver sheath, and Shiva’s head made from electrum. Both were made through hammering, showing exceptionally exquisite artisanship. Few items such as this one remain in existence, making it especially precious.  
Lê Sơ dynasty (1428-1527), Vietnam
Blue and white vase with phoenix and peony motifs
Vietnam’s Lê Sơ dynasty (1428-1527) and Mạc dynasty (1527-1592) both coincided with the banning of maritime trade during China’s Ming dynasty. As such, Vietnamese ceramics developed at a breakneck pace to meet the needs of the global market, leading to a flourishing period and trade that stretched as far as West Asia and North Africa. A world-renowned celestial globe vase with an inscription of “the 8th year of the Thái Hòa reign (1450)”, held in the collection of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, is testament to the artisanal heights reached by Vietnamese blue and white porcelains. The large vase on display here features a solemn, dignified form, a smooth and elegantly refined glaze, and meticulously painted patterns of soaring phoenixes and coiling peonies. Just as with the piece held at the Topkapi Palace, it is an outstandingly rare classical work.
Lê Sơ dynasty (1428-1527), Vietnam
White glazed bowl with impressed chrysanthemum pattern
  • Certified National Treasure
This white glazed bowl of outstanding quality features a body so thin as to allow the passage of light. The interior wall of the bowl was impressed with an exceptionally fine pattern of chrysanthemums. Not only have items like this one been found in shipwrecks, similar wares bearing the character “guan (official)” have also been excavated from the ruins of the Thăng Long Imperial Citadel in Hanoi. What makes the item on display here especially precious is that, in addition to being one of the few pieces of Vietnamese porcelain held in the Qing dynasty court, the poem inscribed at imperial behest upon its base also tells us that Emperor Qianlong——who was an eagle-eyed connoisseur——mistakenly believed this type of work to have been fired in China during the Yongle reign in the Ming dynasty. Struck with a spark of originality, Qianlong had this bowl paired with an ancient jade disk as a cup stand, so that the items could be used together for drinking tea.
Lê Sơ dynasty (1428-1527), Vietnam
Blue and white platter with polychrome enamels decorated with frolicking lion design
The underside of this platter bears traces left by marine life, revealing that it was almost certainly salvaged from a shipwreck. Seawater wore away this item’s once-glossy enamel glaze and its brilliant colors. Nevertheless, the fluid, graceful painting of its blue and white underglaze pattern and the remaining red and green from its overglaze colors allow us to envision the stunning visual effect it would have once had. Recent archaeological discoveries tell us that kilns in and around the vicinity of the Thăng Long Imperial Citadel in present day Hanoi produced not only highly refined imperial porcelain wares, but also works of dazzling complexity just like the one seen here. Just as with the Chu Đậu kilns in present day Hải Dương province, this locale was one of the most important sites for ceramics made for export in 15th and 16th century Vietnam, when production was at its peak.
Emperor Taizu (r. 1368-1398), Ming dynasty
Orders to the King of Champa
  • From the Album of Calligraphy by Ming Dynasty Emperor Taizu
This letter is one of several dozen extant pieces of calligraphy written by Emperor Taizu of the Ming dynasty, who is also known by the name of his reign period, Hongwu. He used vermillion ink to convey his dissatisfaction with the then-king of Champa. Taizu’s complaints centered around the elephants and dancers provided to him as tribute, which he felt were not up to snuff, as well as the problem of Champa taking advantage of its geographical location and seizing other states’ tribute to the Ming whilst they were en route. According to historians, this letter was most likely written in the 21st year of the Hongwu reign period (1388), when Taizu dispatched an official named Dong Shao to Champa to communicate the grievances contained in this draft. The letter’s contents were written with furious indignancy directed at the king of Champa, Po Binasuor (or “Raja-di-raja”), emphasizing that Champa was surrounded by hostile Annam in the north, Zhenla and Java in the south, and that “none of your behavior will bring good fortune to your descendants” by irritating the Ming. Such lines subtly reveal the tensions between the various ancient states, as well as the prominent role the enormous northern neighbor, the Ming Empire, played in the struggle.
From the Wuying Palace’s handwritten edition, created during Qianlong reign (1736-1795), Qing dynasty
Record of the Military Campaign in Annam Published at Imperial Command
  • Compiled on the commission of Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong
Record of the Military Campaign in Annam Published at Imperial Command is a book in the genre of “stratagems.” Stratagems were prepared by Qing dynasty court historians tasked with compiling documents pertaining to important wars into standalone volumes. This book records a battle between the Qing Empire and Vietnam, which began with a Vietnamese civil war in which the Tây Sơn army rose in revolt and then vanquished the Later Lê dynasty, which had hitherto been officially recognized as the rulers of Vietnam by Qing. After the establishment of the Tây Sơn dynasty, the descendants of the king of the Later Lê dynasty requested military assistance from Qing. Following a number of early battlefield successes, the forces dispatched by Qing to Vietnam were routed by the Tây Sơn army, which was under the command of Nguyễn Huệ (also known as Nguyễn Văn Huệ; later renamed Nguyễn Quang Bình), a brilliant tactician. Following this battle, interactions between the two countries became highly precarious. The Qing court demanded that Nguyễn Huệ personally appear at Zhennan Pass at the Vietnam-China border to admit his guilt. However, as the page on exhibit here records, Nguyễn Huệ instead sent his nephew Nguyễn Quang Hiển, whose brilliant diplomacy defused a tinderbox that may have exploded into yet more warfare.
10th day of the 5th lunar month in the 4th year of Jiaqing reign (1799), Qing dynasty
Golden letter expressing Annam’s grievance over the passing of Emperor Qianlong
The king of Tây Sơn, Nguyễn Quang Toản, was recognized as legitimate by the Qing dynasty bureaucracy. He fought wars of resistance against Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, who would later found the Nguyễn dynasty. This put the Tây Sơn king under tremendous pressure to secure enough funding and rations to sustain the war effort. Research shows that he thus openly maintained a stable relationship with China, while at the same time secretly supporting seafaring pirates who plundered China’s southeastern coast. In the 4th year of Jiaqing reign (1799), Qing’s former emperor Qianlong passed away. Upon receiving this news, Nguyễn Quang Toản prepared a golden letter, a tributary document, and a variety of gifts, doing his utmost to offer sincere condolences. The golden letter was bound into a booklet using golden thread and enclosed in a blue brocaded case with gold and silver patterns. The letter’s cover as well as its interior pages were painted with silver and decorated with coin and swastika motifs. The interior of the booklet also features designs of five-clawed dragons among clouds. The painted linework is fluidly beautiful, and the letter’s text was written in ink with staid calligraphy. The overall artistic effect is gorgeous to behold.
Copy of the memorandum presented by Lu Kun, et al. on the 6th day of the 8th lunar month in the 14th year of Daoguang reign (1834), Qing dynasty
Memorandum on Vietnamese officials escorting Guangdong warship and officers on their return home after encountering a windstorm
Qing dynasty historical documents give us insights into a very particular form of interaction between Vietnam and China: rescue and assistance after maritime disasters. Official and civil oceangoing vessels from China’s Fujian and Guangdong provinces often encountered ferocious winds that blew them into Vietnamese waters, and the reverse was true for Vietnamese sailors. As a result, formalized modes of mutual assistance were developed by both parties. From China’s vantage point, Vietnam’s comprehensive care for victims of maritime disasters reinforced the nature of the two countries’ relationship. Conversely, to the Vietnamese, escorting officers and soldiers back to China was an excellent transactional opportunity as well. This memorandum to the emperor is an example of this trend. It records the resolution of a situation during the 14th year of Daoguang reign, in which officers from Guangdong were blown to Thanh Hóa in Vietnam. 

Worthy of note is that in the 10th lunar month of the following year, Cai Tinglan of Taiwan’s Penghu archipelago also encountered perils at sea while returning home from Kinmen island. He eventually drifted to Quảng Ngãi in Vietnam, but he politely refused the offer for a Vietnamese official vessel’s escort home. Instead, he embarked on a 4-month overland journey back to Fujian province from Vietnam. He recorded his experiences en route in a travelogue called Assorted Writings from a Land South of the Sea (Hai nan za zhu), leaving behind a Qing-era Taiwanese person’s observations of Vietnamese people and customs of the day. Cai’s book remains a literary treasure glittering in the history of Taiwanese and Vietnamese relations.