In a feudal Asian monarchy, the emperor is the Son of Heaven, who rules over the realm of mortals instead of Heaven. Since everything under Heaven belongs to His majesty, all things refined and exotic must be offered to the emperor.
During the Nguyen Dynasty, the royal court issued specific regulations on the exquisite items each locality must send as a tribute to the imperial city. The book Khâm định Đại Nam hội điển sự lệ compiled by the Nguyen dynasty’s cabinet clearly identified the varieties, quantities, and ways of paying tribute. Examples of items listed as tributes included coconuts from Vinh Long and Dinh Tuong, mangos from Phu Yen, Binh Dinh, and Quang Nam, watermelons, arrowroot powder, dried abalone, bean paste and berry liquor from Quang Binh, oranges from Hai Duong and Thanh Hoa, lychees from Hanoi, fermented ragworm sauce from Ninh Binh and Nam Dinh, sand pears from Cao Bang, snow pears from Tuyen Quang, etc.
The items chosen as tributes from Thua Thien (now Thua Thien-Hue) were fresh rice and fruits. Among the fruits offered by this province, the most outstanding were thanh trà (pomelos) from Thuy Bieu and mandarin oranges from Huong Can.
The ceremony of paying tribute to the royal court often coincided with important occasions of the Nguyen Dynasty, such as Giao and Xã Tắc ceremonies (to pay homage to Heaven and Earth, and to the gods of the land and grains, respectively), the Lunar New Year, the Double Fifth Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Van Tho Festival, Saint Tho Day, and the Hưởng rituals to commemorate the ancestors at the ancestral halls of the Nguyen royal family. As per the rules of the royal court, the mandarin leading a locality had to choose the best items from that locality, which were carefully packaged, sealed and delivered to the imperial city as tributes. Due to Thua Thien province’s connection with the imperial city, the ceremony of paying tribute was performed with many preferences given by the royal court. The main ritual was conducted in front of the Meridian Gate. On the day of the ceremony, with the permission of the royal court, the mandarin in charge of the province led a group of elders in splendid outfits who carried boxes of tributes marked with red signs that read Giải tỏ lòng thành (token of sincerity) toward the crimson altar, next to the incense table and two golden canopies. The ritual was simple yet solemn. After the elders bowed their respect from a distance five times, the tributes were handed over to the royal guards, and a sum of money equivalent to the value of the tributes was granted in return.
Based on this tribute-paying tradition, residents and authorities in Thuy Bieu now organize the annual Thanh Tra Festival. In 2018, the sixth Thanh Tra Festival was elevated to become a provincial-level event, featuring a ceremony to send thanh trà to the royal court. Thanh trà (Citrus Grandis L. Osbeck) is a variety of pomelo endemic to the ancient capital of Vietnam. Although this fruit is widely grown throughout the province, the kind found in Thuy Bieu, a village beside the Huong River, on the opposite side of Thien Mu Pagoda, has been the most prized for ages.
In preparation for the ceremony of sending thanh trà to the royal court, Thuy Bieu people pick the tastiest and roundest fruits, whose rinds have not yellowed. Following the ritual of paying homage to the guardian deity in the village communal house, the procession, which includes a musical ensemble, elders and young women carrying thanh trà, moves to the river bank, and from there travels down the Huong River to Kim Long Wharf. After that, the procession proceeds to the Meridian Gate. Here, the rituals of offering thanh trà as tributes are properly performed as in the past. Finally, the best thanh trà fruits are brought into the royal palace and placed on the altars of the Nguyen emperors.
The ceremony of sending thanh trà to the royal court is re-enacted during the Thanh Tra Festival, not only to honor this famous local fruit and create a special brand for this item, but also to resurrect a unique traditional cultural rite of Hue.