The ancient paper (left) is not holding up as well as the ancient silk (right) as a support for the king’s decrees.

Vietnam Heritage, August-September 2011 — Dispersed among the people in this country are numerous investiture decrees that various emperors, kings, and overlords under dynasties once issued to sacred sites, sites of worship, renowned pagodas and people of merit or of outstanding contribution to the nation and people. However, royal investiture decrees on silk brocade are unfortunately mostly lost. One exception is to be found in the family of Nguyen Van, at Hau Loc Village, Loc Ha District, Ha Tinh Province, in Central Vietnam. The family still keeps in preservation a decree on a piece of silk 4.5 metres long.
Only with much difficulty could we persuade the present inheritor, Mr Nguyen Van Tan, the 13th-generation descendant of Nguyen Van Giai, an illustrious mandarin and original bearer of the royal investiture decree, to let us have a look at and take photographs of that treasure. Before bringing the wooden chest containing 43 investiture decrees down from the altar, Mr Tan was not negligent in his duty to call forth all elders from the extended family to assemble and respectfully ask their ancestors on the altar to give permission of view to descendants and outsiders. An 86-year-old elder standing by whispered into my ear: ‘Not everybody is permitted this privilege. My hair has turned all-white but I know about the decree only by hearsay and have never seen it. For many years I have nurtured a wish: to have a look at the decree just once and I would die in satisfaction.’ He adds that every year on the death anniversary of the ancestor the family makes offerings on the altar and takes the whole closed chest on the sedan chair for procession to the communal house of the village without committing the sacrilege of opening it.’
Mr Tan cautiously opened the small chest made of black ironwood painted in crimson lacquer and gilt with gold borders and tenderly unfolded the decrees one by one.
He said his family line had in its is keeping 43 decrees altogether, including this unique one on silk; all the rest were on paper, with designs.
All these royal decrees were bestowed upon grand minister Nguyen Van Giai for his distinguished service under the kings Le Muc Tong, Le The Tong and Le Kinh Tong, of the Le Dynasty.
The earliest decrees were issued in 1593. Many of them are in tatters due to damp weather and moths.

The unrolling of the silk citation, a rare event.

The one on silk is 4.5 metres long, 0.5 metre wide, in yellow, without any design, and contains 318 ideograms.
Doctor in Sino-Vietnamese Characters Nguyen Van Thinh said: ‘This is the usual form of decree bestowed by kings upon persons of merit (equivalent to present-day citations and awards). In these decrees the kings might freely express their true feelings toward the [person].’
The Venerable Thich Thanh Nguyen, the abbot of Linh Ung Pagoda in Xuan Phuong Village, Tu Liem District, Hanoi, after reading the original text in Chinese characters, said that the main contents of the decree were as follows: In accordance with the Mandate from Heaven the King bestows this special investiture on Nguyen Van Giai, Minister of the Interior cum Chief Counsellor in the Censorate, a main pillar of the country; the decree praised Nguyen Van Giai as a true scholar in a family with a long line of laureates, a pillar of the kings in the administration of the nation; he had great talents both in letters and martial arts, in governance offered many strategic plans to the kings and maintained good order at the borders and excellent relations with neighbouring countries; during his lifetime, he showed a straightforward character and upright behaviour and always did his best to promote virtue among the people in the service of the nation; his devotion to the people and the nation should be bequeathed to posterity for ten thousand generations and in four directions of the earth, as a model for veneration and study; the king also granted a certain amount of public land and ricefield to the minister’s descendants in recognition of the expenditure on their annual ceremonial offerings and around-the-year service.

The communal house that is the destination of the procession of the box of decrees

The Venerable Thich Thanh Nguyen said, ‘The edict was rich in literary value because it recorded many subjective feelings of the writer. As for its historical value, it clearly constituted a full portrait of an illustrious, high-ranking mandarin with many valuable contributions during a long period of history. As a cultural artifact, it is truly a rare and precious part of the country’s heritage, worthy of study and preservation.’

Text and pictures by Ha Tung Long