Story: Professor Trinh Sinh
Photos: Le Huy Hoang Hai

HaiDiscover the symbolism behind the nine Dynastic Urns in Hue’s former Royal Citadel

Visitors to the Hue Former Citadel always notice the massive nine Dynastic Urns that stand outside the Inner Palaces. While many Nguyen Dynasty relics were damaged and later restored, the nine Dynastic Urns survived unscathed.

After leading his mandarins to perform sacrifice rituals and admire these newly-cast treasures, Emperor Minh Mang penned the lines:
Imposing and radiant like the stone table of Taishan Mountain
Endless generations of posterity will preserve them all”

The Bach Dang River is carved on the Nghi Urn

Historical records state that in Lunar January of the Rooster Year 1837, 179 years ago, the nine Dynastic Urns were placed in the courtyard of the Ancestral Temple. At that time the newly cast bronze urns must have been shiny and dazzling. Over time, the urns turned a rusty green, yet their carvings remain exquisite. The nine Dynastic Urns were among the first batch of items registered as National Treasures, along with the Ngoc Lu Bronze Drum.

The value of the nine Dynastic Urns goes beyond their grand and solid appearance. Each urn weighs over two tons and measures approximately 2.3m high. They are a source of national pride. Emperor Minh Mang noted that these urns were several times heavier, taller and thicker than ancient Chinese urns.

The Lo River is carved on the Anh Urn

Each urn symbolized an emperor, hence they hold corresponding royal titles of the Nguyen emperors. The carvings are unique. Each urn features 17 landscape carvings and one inscriptional painting. Researchers suggest that the urns’ 153 carvings serve as a visual encyclopedia of the Nguyen Dynasty, portraying the sun, the moon, plants and the landscape. The Nine Dynastic Urns depicted the best of heaven and earth.

Many rivers were depicted. Each urn features two waterways for a total of 18, including canals. The carvings were undertaken by master bronze craftsmen in Duong Xuan Ward in the Hue Former Capital. Several western scholars suggested that these craftsmen cast separate decorative swathes and welded them onto the nine Dynastic Urns. However, recent scientific research suggests this wasn’t the case. Skilled metal workers from throughout the country gathered in Hue, bringing traditional casting techniques perfected since the Dong Son era. They carved the negative designs into terracotta molds to create the embossed bas-reliefs on the urns.

The Thach Han River is depicted on the Thuan Urn

Vietnam’s major rivers are all featured on the nine Dynastic Urns and include the Red River, Ma River and Lam River. These three rivers were the cradles of Vietnamese civilization. The Ma River also flows through Thanh Hoa, which was the original homeland of the Nguyen clan. The Red River was portrayed with submerged islands. The fountainhead of the Red River (from Lao Cai to Viet Tri) is called the Thao River, which was also carved on the Huyen Urn. An inscription gives its name Thao Giang, the official name during the Nguyen Dynasty for this bend of the Red River. Ancient craftsmen also carved mountains flanking these rivers.

Another river that witnessed numerous victories over enemies is the Bach Dang River, associated with the illustrious deeds of Emperor Ngo Quyen and Tran Hung Dao. Wooden stakes can be seen beneath the waves, in wait for the invaders’ fleets.

Hue’s Perfume River graces the Nhan Urn

Hue’s tranquil Perfume River is also depicted. The Perfume River flows through the former citadel and past the tombs of various Nguyen Emperors. The Saigon River, which flows through Ho Chi Minh City, was carved on the Cao Urn. At the time it was named “Nguu Chu Giang” or the Ben Nghe River. It was later renamed the Tan Binh River or Saigon River.

The two major rivers of the Mekong, namely the Tien River and the Hau River, appear on Huyen Urn. They were carved to share the same fountainhead, which represented the fertile Mekong Delta.

As well as depicting the major rivers to symbolize Vietnam’s North, Centre and South, Emperor Minh Mang chose to depict irrigation canals, which were an outstanding accomplishment of the Nguyen Dynasty. These include Vinh Te Canal in An Giang and Kien Giang; Vinh Dien Canal in Quang Nam; Loi Nong and Pho Loi Canals in Thua Thien – Hue; Vinh Dinh Canal in Quang Tri; and Cuu An Canal in Hung Yen.

The Nhan Urn

Of the nine canals, the most famous one is Vinh Te Canal. Emperor Gia Long became aware of the poverty in the neighboring region of Chan Lap, which threatened national border security. Historical accounts reveal that this visionary emperor decided that a waterway connecting Chau Doc and Ha Tien would facilitate agriculture and commerce in the area. As the population grew and cultivated lands expanded, a big town would form. It took five years for conscripts to dredge up millions of cubic meters of dirt, using rudimentary tools and their bare hands. The canal was finished in 1824 under the reign of Minh Mang. It measured 91km long, supplied water to countless acres of paddy fields, helped to secure the nation’s borders and facilitate commerce. Historical accounts also credit this achievement to the border governor Marquis Thoai Ngoc. The Nguyen emperors honored him by naming the canal after his wife: Vinh Te. This canal was also carved on the most beautiful urn: Cao Urn in memory of Emperor Gia Long.

The 18 waterways on the nine Dynastic Urns present an overview of the landscape of Vietnam and demonstrate the land-settlement efforts of the Nguyen Dynasty. It’s no coincidence that when the nine Dynastic Urns were cast, the country reached its current territorial peak. The emperor behind their casting, Emperor Minh Mang, is lauded as a brilliant ruler with a great legacy.