Life in Vietnam

Sunday, 11/03/2018 10:17

Scholars study nghê, ancient sacred animal

Cover of the newly published book, in which, Tran Hau Yen The has pointed out that ancient people carved in the nghe their joys, sorrows and their souls.
Viet Nam News

A team of researchers, including Tran Hau Yen The, Nguyen Duc Hoa and Ho Huu Long, have published a book on the nghe, a sacred animal that guards temples and communal houses.

Titled Phac Hoa Nghe – Ga Linh Vat Ben Ria (Sketching Nghe – a Sacred Guardian Animal), the book starts with images of the nghe at temples dedicated to the Dinh (968-980) and Le (1428-1527) kings in the central province of Thanh Hoa. It then explores the appearance of the animal at holy sites in other regions. The nghe, a mythical creature with a lion’s head, a long tail and a dog-like body, has appeared at temples, pagodas and mausoleums serving ordinary people as well as royal figures.

Le Huong spoke with Tran Hau Yen The, chief editor of the book.

Inner Sanctum: The book is the result of a 10-year research on the nghe, undertaken by you and your colleagues. Please tell us about the research. Why did you choose this sacred animal? How did you conduct the research?

Work on the book started more than 10 years ago. In 2005, I returned home after a course in Beijing, China. Researcher Le Van Thao, head of the Enter Viet Nam Group, and painter Nguyen Duc Hoa invited me to coordinate with them to write a book on sculptural art in the Dinh and Le kings’ temples in Thanh Hoa.

I was responsible for studying artworks made of baked clay and stone at these sites. The nghe moved me the most among the works. Two of the seven chapters I wrote were titled Nghe – All Shades and Nghe – From Eyes to Smile, Solemn and Cheerful. These are the two features of the nghe that struck me the first time I researched the animal.

To be honest, though the former citadel Hoa Lu is located fewer than 100km from the capital Ha Noi, I set my feet there for the first time in 2005. The temples of the Dinh and Le kings are among the largest in the country. I was lucky to be chosen to understand the animal’s story. These are stories of happiness, joy and even sorrow, which have been summarised in stone for hundreds of years. This is a fresh feature I found during my research. In general, in the book, I have pointed out that ancient people carved in the nghe their joys, sorrows and their souls.

Inner Sanctum: What challenges did you face during your research?

First, the primary difficulty in conducting research on ancient fine arts is finance. However, I realised that money is important but not decisive. The decisive factor is the research concept. So, the book on fine arts decoration in the temples of the Dinh and Le kings was sponsored by the Xuan Truong Company, while the book on the nghe at the two temples was sponsored by the Ha Noi Ceramics Museum.

Inner Sanctum: Could you explain more about the nghe, its history and its role in ancient society in Viet Nam?

The nghe is a sacred animal with a rather complicated origin. According to some historical records, the nghe is a mythical creature, originating from Buddhism.

The nghe was brought to Viet Nam possibly in the 1st century AD by businessmen and Buddhist monks from India and central Asia. The nghe was popular during the Ly reign (1009-1225). Over time, the nghe has been carved in diverse forms and materials, displaying various facial expressions and characteristics. It has appeared in various positions at the spiritual sites of the Vietnamese people.

Sau is a kind of nghe carved during the Ly reign. It was typically placed along the sides of stone outdoor staircases. Images of the nghe were also carved on lotuses such as at Phat Tich Pagoda (northern province of Bac Ninh), Ba Tam Pagoda (Gia Lam District, Ha Noi) and Sung Nghiem Dien Thanh Pagoda (Thanh Hoa).

Inner Sanctum: What do you think of the role of the nghe in modern society in Viet Nam and the culture ministry’s efforts to remove alien creatures from sacred and public places?

Although it appeared very early in the Vietnamese people’s lives, the nghe has almost disappeared today.

The nghe has sometimes appeared in art research books but under different names. The alien mythical creatures imitating the kylins from the Ming and Qing dynasties in China have also wiped out the nghe from sacred sites, offices, entertainment areas and the Vietnamese people’s cultural activities.

The culture ministry has banned on symbols, products and mythical animals that do not match Vietnamese customs and culture.

I think the concerned agencies should implement the ban and, at the same time, work out solutions and policies to educate the people. In particular, there should be policies to encourage design creations to re-introduce the nghe into daily life. Actually, the idea was formed during the Nguyen dynasty (1882-1945), when artisans carved the nghe playing lutes, holding inkpots or as containers for bonsai. The nghe was even treated like human beings. So why is there no cartoon inspired by the nghe?

Inner Sanctum: Could you tell me a bit about yourself?

I am interested in cultural heritage icons that have been forgotten and negatively affected by the modernisation trend. For example, the decorative iron patterns on the windows of houses in Ha Noi, built in the early 20th century, were discussed in my book titled Song Xua Pho Cu (Ancient Windows in Old Streets) in 2013.

Inner Sanctum: What’s your plan for this year?

This year, I will pay more attention to the applied capabilities of nghe images. I am thinking of a funny short comic book for children based on the nghe. Maybe the title will be Cuoi Nhu Nghe (Smile Broadly Like the Nghe).

Inner Sanctum: In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge faced by painters and fine arts researchers?

I think the most difficult part of conducting research on fine arts is choosing the perspective and approach. It is better to view Viet Nam objectively, from the perspective of other countries in the region and around the world.

There should be more comparative research, which requires uniform support from research to publication. Sponsors should come from diverse sources, rather than depending solely on state agencies, even though the Government should subsidise the important cultural needs of the country.

I expect that my book on the nghe will receive financial support from the Government to get it re-printed soon. In her introduction for my book, Culture Deputy Minister Dang Thi Bich Lien commented, “This is a valuable book and is useful for culture managers, researchers and ordinary people to develop Vietnamese traditional cultural heritage in the current period of global integration." VNS

Tran Hau Yen The poses for a photo by an ancient stone nghe. Photos courtesy of Tran Hau Yen The

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