Tales of 300-year-old national relic

By Lam Phuong   May 29, 2020 | 05:44 am PT
A custodian of a place of worship in northern Bac Ninh Province reveals how the centuries-old artifact became a national treasure.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich, 75, recalls the time when he prayed to the tutelary "cua vong" at the communal house in Diem village in Hoa Long Commune, which is in reality a decorative gold-painted door frame, and then jumped behind it to hide from French soldiers.

When he was a child and playing with other kids around the temple, village elders would narrate stories about how the seven-meter-high "cua vong" had saved the lives of many Vietnamese soldiers during the French colonial and Vietnam War periods.

Cua vong in Diem Village, Bac Ninh Provinces Hoa Long Commune, is recognized as nation treasure in January 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Dao.

"Cua vong" in Diem village in Bac Ninh Province's Hoa Long Commune was recognized as a national treasure in January 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Dao.

The temple faces a lake. In the past children used to herd chickens and ducks nearby and come here to seek shelter in the afternoon while seniors would sit in the front porch sipping tea. During spring and autumn, the villagers would sit around the communal house to listen to and sing folk songs and celebrate post-harvest festivals.

"The "cua vong" stands in the middle of the main hall," Bich says. "It has thousands of flower and animal carvings running from the floor to the roof of the temple. People just find it beautiful, but no one knows much about its history."

According to the village's historical records, the Diem communal house was built at the end of the 17th century during the rule of the Later Le Dynasty, the longest ruling dynasty in the country’s history (14th to 17th centuries).

The communal house, which has typical northern architecture, is also used to worship past rulers. Diem is one of 49 ancient villages in the region.

"Cua vong" was carved in wood during the Le Trung Hung period, considered the most brilliant for wood sculpture in Vietnam, but there is no record of the craftsmen who created this massive work.

It is about four meters wide, and has images of the moon, the sun, the four holy beasts (the dragon in the east, qilin in the west, turtle in the north, and phoenix in the south), other animals, and daily activities. The top portion represents the upper world, and has the sun surrounded by four dragons with minor goddesses in the background.

The portion below that is divided into three layers that are decorated with more goddesses, including one surrounded by lotuses, and a phoenix holding a lantern in its mouth.

The center portion has the most intricate and complex carvings, including nine layers intertwined with each other and covered by stylized leaves and 54 dragons, all of them different from each other.

There are images of old people playing chess, men in loincloth and elephants and birds. There are lots of women sitting and smiling with hands touching braided hair resting on their chests.

According to cultural researcher Tran Lam Bien, many of the images in it cannot be found anywhere else, including a human-like demon, a monkey's head under a horse's belly and a hand squeezing the head of the horse.

"We do not know for certain what these images signify or if it has any spiritual significance."

A close up of one of the cua vongs pillar.

A close-up view of one of the "cua vong" pillars. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Dao.

The communal house’s roof is held up by smooth wooden pillars and there are no walls.

According to village elders, the wooden floor of the communal house was dug up by Vietnamese soldiers to build a secret tunnel during the years of resistance against the French.

In early 1950 French troops stormed the village. The communal house was where they would summon people. Anyone whose name was called but was not present was deemed to be in the Vietnamese army. They would later be arrested and taken to the communal house to be tortured into confessing the location of their comrades.

Bich, who was six years old at the time, cannot forget the scene of people tied up and kneeling in the yard, silent with faces covered in blood.

When people carried out the "vuon khong nha trong", a military tactic in which people vacated their houses and abandoned their fields, Diem villagers asked people in the neighboring village to remove the roof of their communal house.

In turn, they took down the roof in another village. By doing this, they ensured they did not violate their oath to their village tutelary deities.

When they returned to the village after many days, the people of Diem village were surprised to see the communal house badly damaged but with the main hall and "cua vong" still intact.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich, custodian of Diem Village. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Phuong.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich, custodian of Diem village’s tutelary god. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Phuong.

Residents of Hoa Long Commune pooled money to rebuild the communal house and collected gun shells from around the commune to replace the old bell.

The communal house has once again become a meeting place for the villagers.

In 1964 the Diem communal house became one of the first artifacts in the country to be recognized as a national architectural and artistic relic.

The historic flood of August 1971 broke 400 km of the Red River dike, engulfing 200,000 hectares of rice crops and forcing Hoa Long residents to move to Kim Linh mountain to avoid the raging waters. The flood also swept away idols of Diem village's tutelary deities.

Despite nearly a month of soaking in the floodwaters, the door shone bright again after the mud covering it was washed away.

Though over 300 years old now, the wooden work shows no signs of age or being harmed by termites.

Earlier this year "cua vong" was recognized as a national treasure and local officials plan to carry out a restoration of the communal house.

Bich and other village elders have petitioned the government "to keep the old structure, only fix what is broken and definitely not add new designs."

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