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Dreams of Vietnam

Held 13 June - mid August 2002

The British Library is renowned for its important holdings of books and periodicals from North Vietnam published during the Vietnam War. These were obtained through exchange agreements at a time when few other Western libraries were able to acquire such material. This period is the focus of the British Museum's current exhibition, Vietnam: Behind the Lines. Images from the War 1965-75. Less well-known is the Library's collection of older Vietnamese books and manuscripts. These include literary and historical works written in beautiful Sino-Vietnamese script, a combination of Vietnamese and Chinese characters. Exhibited here for the first time are some of the highlights of the collection.

A dream scene from Truyen Kieu, 'The Tale of Kieu'
A dream scene from Truyen Kieu, 'The Tale of Kieu'.
Vietnamese manuscript in Sino-Vietnamese script, late 19th century.
Copyright ©The British Library
Enlarged image (61k)

Dreams of Vietnam: List of Exhibits

The Tale of Kieu

Truyen Kieu or Kim van Kieu, 'The Tale of Kieu', by Nguyen Du (1765-1820) is generally considered to be the greatest of all Vietnamese literary works. It was probably written between 1805 and 1820 and recounts the story of the beautiful Kieu who renounced her love for Kim Trong, a young scholar, to sell herself to another man in order to win her father's freedom from a libel suit. Over a period of 15 years she suffered greatly as a courtesan, servant and wife of a warrior-poet, and subsequently became a nun before finally being re-united with her first love. This copy, completed around 1894, is written in Sino-Vietnamese characters and each page is illustrated with incidents from the story.

The Tale of Kieu

The manuscript was bought in 1929 by the renowned French Sinologist Paul Pelliot (1898-1945) and bears annotations in his own hand.
Or. 14844
Copyright ©The British Library
Enlarged image (29k)

Imperial welcome in Vietnam for Lord Macartney, 1793

Two imperial decrees issued in anticipation of the arrival of Lord Macartney in Vietnam while leading the first British Embassy to China (1792-4). The line of characters on the left of one of them gives the date as the first year of the reign of the Vietnamese Emperor Canh Thin, 1793, and is based on Chinese official forms.

Imperial Decree
Copyright ©The British Library

Addressed to the representative of the 'land of the red-haired', the document offers to provide grain and exotic presents (a pair of elephant tusks and a lot of pepper) to encourage the British Embassy to leave. After the consumption of much cherry brandy, these gifts were indeed presented to Macartney who returned the favour with a plain gold watch, several guns and three pieces of 'fine camblet', a kind of cloth. An entry in Macartney's journal for 10 June 1793 refers to just such letters and presents 'sent from the King of Cochin China' (Vietnam) received a few days earlier.
Or 14817 A & B
Enlarged image (67k)

Vietnamese Plays

This 19th-century manuscript is one of a ten-volume set containing some 46 Vietnamese plays and three novels, the originals written over several centuries. Annotations have been added in red ink. As with the other items on display, this work is beautifully written in the demotic, or popular, nom script which consists of Chinese characters adapted for use with Vietnamese vocabulary. While classical Chinese functioned as the official language of Vietnam until the end of the 19th century, from the 13th century onwards nom script was used for popular literary works in Vietnamese. The use of nom was especially significant in that it gave poets an opportunity to detach themselves from Chinese literary conventions and to develop purely Vietnamese poetical metres.
Or. 8218

'Sketches of Annam'

The original of this work, An-nam Chi Luoc by Le Trac, in 20 chapters, was probably written in about 1333 and is one of the earliest known historical accounts of Vietnam (formerly known as Annam). The work was composed in Chinese, at that time the language of scholarship in Vietnam. The manuscript shown here, meticulously written in Chinese characters, probably dates from the 18th century.

Sketches of Annam
Copyright ©The British Library
Enlarged image (37k)

'The Northwards Embassy by Land and Water from Hanoi to Beijing'

The manuscript shown here is a complete visual record of the route from Bac Thanh (present-day Hanoi) through China to Beijing taken by envoys of the Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc (r.1847-1883) on their tribute-bearing mission in 1880. This work was probably created as an archival record of the journey. Roads, mountains, waterways, bridges, buildings, cities and towns are all clearly depicted, as are the points of departure and arrival on the first and last pages.

Copyright ©The British Library

The title, written in Chinese characters (Beishi shuilu ditu), also includes the date (gengchen) of the journey, according to the Chinese 60 year cyclical system. Under the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1911) international 'diplomacy' was only practised in the form of the 'tribute system'. Foreign states were accepted into the Chinese cultural and political sphere on condition that periodic delegations were dispatched to the capital bearing gifts or tribute in recognition of Chinese 'superiority'.
Or. 14907
Enlarged image (40k)

Vietnamese - Portugese - Latin Dictionary

From the early 17th century onwards, Catholic missionaries in Vietnam began to transcribe Vietnamese phonetically using the Latin alphabet with the addition of certain diacritical signs. A significant milestone in the development of the new system for writing Vietnamese was the publication of this trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary by the French Jesuit scholar Alexandre de Rhodes in 1651. The use of this modified form of the Latin script remained limited to Catholic circles until the end of the 19th century, when, under the name quoc ngu, 'national language', it became a tool and symbol of modernity for Vietnamese reformists and revolutionaries. This is the script used in Vietnam today, where it has entirely superseded the Sino-Vietnamese nom characters used in the other works in this small exhibition.
Alexandro de Rhodes, Dictionarium Annnamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum. Rome, 1651.

This exhibition accompanies a lecture on 'Vietnamese Printed Books: Literature and Language' by Nguyen Ngoc Tri, former curator for Vietnamese at the British Library, which was given at the British Museum Vietnamese Art Study Day, 22 June 2002.

Exhibition notes edited by A Gallop and G Hutt.

Further reading

Nguyen The Anh, 'Vietnam', in South-East Asia Languages and Literatures: a Select Guide, eds. Patricia Herbert and Anthony Milner. Whiting Bay: Kiscadale, 1989.

Maurice M. Durand and Nguyen Tran Huan, An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985