Imperial seals date Vietnamese jade art

Đại Nam seal, 1847

Vietnam Heritage, October-November 2011 -- The September-October edition of Vietnam Heritage reported on the introduction to and prehistoric section of Vietnamese Ancient Jade, published in connection with an ongoing exhibition of the jade collection of the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Here we continue with objects from historic times, particularly seals, which Vietnamese Ancient Jade says are not only national treasures but help to demonstrate the existence of Vietnamese jade art using jade found in Vietnam, particularly works by ‘talented artisans of the imperial palace in Hue in the Nguyen dynasty’.
Before describing the seals, the museum mentions that jade items were used as grave goods in brick tombs in the 1st to 3rd centuries A.D.  and in the 10th century of the Christian era jade items included padlocks and decorative objects. Some ivory-white padlocks in the national collection are decorated with carved clouds, recurring patterns and diamond shapes, decoration similar to that on bronze objects of the Shang Dynasty in China (16th-11th century B.C.).
One object of personal decoration is grey-yellow, axe-shaped and carved with the Great Bear constellation, dragons and clouds. Some axe-shaped objects are carved with three lines of Chinese characters. Some white-grey bracelets have lozenge shapes and are carved with two dragons. Some grey-blue bracelets are decorated with animals and clouds. Some white-grey jewellery, including a necklace, is decorated with clouds and a recurring motif. There are white-grey rings round in section.
There are objects with ears carved in Chinese dragon shapes, their faces carved with spiral and rectangular motifs. An oval, white-grey ink slab is decorated with a dragon head, flower, leaf, sitting tiger, butterfly and plane trees. There are statues in ivory-grey or grey-blue, in dragon, tiger and cicada shapes, and statues of fish in light-grey, ivory-yellow and grey-white. The description in the publication suggests several colours may appear in the same object.
A most important group of objects, the museum says, includes 18 royal seals, two belonging to the restored dynasty of the 18th century, three to Emperor Minh Mang and three to Emperor Thieu Tri. Two seals belong to Emperor Tu Duc and at least one to Emperor Khai Dinh King. Six seals were connected to Đồ Thư Văn Bảo (translated as Maps, Books and Literature), according to the book Khâm Định Đại Nam Hội Điển Sử Lệ (translated as Greater Vietnam Corpus of Institution) of the Nguyen dynasty.
The seals are carved and polished and combine dark blue, light blue and white. A seal named 封疆万古 is dark blue, with a square handle. Faces are carved on it and it is decorated with ‘S’ characters. There is a dragon shape on the handle. The seal is dated to the 18th century. A seal named 万寿无疆 was found by a farmer and offered to Emperor Minh Mang, who used it in the Vạn Thọ (long life) ceremony.

Tự Đức Thần Khuê seal, 1848Thận Đức seal, 19th century

From 1835, almost all the seals are carved with their date. The description in Vietnamese Ancient Jade implies the dates are the dates the seals were made. The seal named 皇帝之玺 was made in 1835, 行在之玺 in 1837, 大南天子之玺 in 1839, 宸翰之玺 and 大南皇帝之玺 in 1844 and 大南受天永命传国玺 in 1844. In Emperor Tu Duc’s time there were two seals,  嗣德宸奎 and 嗣德宸翰, made in 1848 and 1883, and in Emperor Khai Dinh’s time two, 启定皇帝玉玺  and 启定皇帝之玺, made in 1916 and 1925.

Thận Đức seal, 19th centuryTự Đức Thần Khuê seal, 1848

There are a number of reports that farmers discovered jade and offered it to the Emperor. In 1837 white jade was offered to Minh Mang and from it seal 行在之玺 made. In the 20th year of Minh Mang’s  reign, 1839, when the official name of the country was change to Dai Nam, the emperor was offered precious jade to make seal 大南天子之玺. In 1844, Emperor Thieu Tri was offered two precious pieces of jade that went to make seals 宸翰之玺 and 大南皇帝之玺. In the 6th year of Emperor Thieu Tri’s reign, (1846), a big piece of jade from Jade Mountain, Hoa Dien District, Quang Nam region, was offered and the Emperor ordered mandarin Huu Tu to make a seal from it, 大南受天永命传国玺, a Dai Nam seal, one sent expressly by God for the Nguyen Emperors.
Vietnam Heritage will publish more on the national jade collection in future editions.

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