Decoding a soaring dragon

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Describing his last decade's work at the Palace Museum in Beijing, Wu Wei says it was often like "archaeology on the roof".

The researcher, who has worked in the archaeology department of the museum, also known as the Forbidden City, cherishes his time walking along the eaves of the former royal structure.

The Forbidden City functioned as China's imperial palace from 1420 to 1911, during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, marking the apex of ancient Chinese palatial constructions. This UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Beijing is also the world's largest surviving architectural complex with wooden structures.

From the perspective of archaeology, Wu also has "regrets". Due to limited excavations within the compound of the Palace Museum, it seemed that an imperial city from even earlier than the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was probably buried beneath.

"But the Forbidden City is too perfect," he says, adding that it would be too difficult and damaging to the existing structure to dig.

Sometimes, however, the picture can seem clearer when viewed from afar.

Prototypes of the Forbidden City in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, and Fengyang county in Anhui province were constructed in the early Ming Dynasty before Beijing finally became its national capital, the focus of his studies.

Wu is concentrating on a new turf to get more inspiration. Another "Forbidden City", about 2,400 kilometers to the south of Beijing and beyond the national border, offers an intriguing horizon for his journey exploring the evolution of imperial palaces.

By invitation of the Imperial Citadel Studies of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Wu has conducted comparative studies since 2023 on the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi. This provided him with a rare chance to join Vietnamese colleagues and have a panoramic view of archaeological materials stretching back almost one millennium.

The citadel was the central seat of Vietnamese imperial power from the 11th century to the 18th century. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 on the 1,000th anniversary of its construction.

Time as well as the dynastic rise and fall over history has greatly changed the appearance of this complex, especially after the 19th century when the capital was moved southward to Hue during the Nguyen Dynasty. Many royal constructions above the ground were gradually replaced by Western-style office buildings during the rule of the French.

Standing on the site, Wu still says he feels "familiar yet fresh", imagining the grandeur of that former Vietnamese royal palace. In his eyes, a system of architectural remains, foundations of palaces, and rich archaeological findings have told a lot about its past, including frequent communications with China.

Surely, even for a common visitor, it is difficult to stand in front of Doan Mon, the southern gate of the imperial citadel, without noticing the two Chinese characters revealing its name above its central doorway. The gate also has five doorways, just like the Forbidden City in Beijing.

This existing gate, one of the few intact structures within the citadel that is from the imperial period, dates back to the early Le So Dynasty (1428-1527), roughly around the same time when Beijing's Forbidden City arose.

"There are close links between the unearthed relics of the Thang Long ruins and those from three early Ming Chinese palatial cities," Wu says. "We sometimes need a new perspective and a global context to better understand the lineage and characteristics of Chinese palatial constructions.

"For example, as we see the exquisite constructional components of the Forbidden City in Beijing, we often wonder how they evolved into the current peak of techniques," he adds. "Thanks to the earlier relics spanning a much larger time spectrum, we may have crucial references on prototypes of the craftsmanship."

Comparable elements

Wu is the first Chinese archaeologist to have been stationed for a long-term study of unearthed materials from the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Though he came to Hanoi relatively late, he arrived just in time. The past 20-some years witnessed a boom period of archaeological findings on the site.

The archaeological site at 18 Hoang Dieu Street in the west of the imperial citadel yielded rich findings of constructional components throughout the history of Thang Long.

From 2011 to 2023, continuous excavations on the central sector of Thang Long further provided key clues to identify the layout of palaces and other spaces around Kinh Thien Palace, the highest-level building within the royal compound.

"Due to a lack of firsthand materials, there was a gap in our knowledge of the early-stage Vietnamese wooden structure," he says. "But many of the ancient architecture in Vietnam use craftsmanship and decorative patterns of Chinese traditions. Thanks to this precious chance to approach the newest findings, I can draft a general picture of how these elements developed."

The dragon, the most recognizable royal totem in traditional Chinese culture, for example, also represents sacredness, power, and supreme authority in Vietnam. Thang Long means "a soaring dragon". Many motifs of the phoenix also appeared on the site to represent nobility.

"You will notice the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese dragon motifs," Wu explains. "Other cultural elements, like Champa (in present-day central Vietnam that was largely influenced by Hinduism), can also be seen to influence these Vietnamese patterns. That's the meaning of cultural exchange and mutual learning."

Influenced by Buddhist legend, the Bodhi tree leaf becomes a symbol of enlightenment, and it is often decorated with a dragon and phoenix in a harmonious and aesthetic combination in Thang Long.

"This motif also reminds us of the widely seen Buddhist totem of flames in China, which bears a similar shape," Wu says. "We may have different explanations for the same theme, but it at least demonstrates a close cultural link."

Mandarin duck-shaped roof decorations, made of pottery, also frequently appear in Thang Long. For example, in present-day Guangzhou, Guangdong province, the earliest Chinese architectural relics of such patterns also appeared in some architectural ruins of the 10th century, shortly before these bird patterns began to adorn the Thang Long palaces.

Speaking of construction methods, the dougong, the Chinese interlocking wooden brackets, also has a similar counterpart, dau cung in ancient Vietnam.

Glazed tiles, decorations such as clouds, and many other similarities existed in the ancient architecture of the two countries.

"It stunned me that white porcelain was used as tiles in Thang Long as early as the 11th century," Wu says.

In contemporaneous China, only Xixia, a regional power ruled by the Tangut people across the northwest of the country, was known to adopt similar techniques, according to findings in their rulers' mausoleums.

"Where did such techniques originate? More clues await to unveil their possible connection," Wu adds.

Wu and his Vietnamese colleagues often brainstorm in their workshop. With the three-dimensional modeling technology, which Wu often uses back in Beijing, bringing higher accuracy to his colleagues, he also learns the scrupulous attitudes in categorizing materials by his Vietnamese colleagues.

" (Wu) Wei gave us a lot of ideas on the world's architecture," Lam Anh, an archaeologist who has worked with Wu for eight months, says. "Then, when I dealt with the excavated materials, he inspired me to think more.

"You see a piece, you have to see more than a single relic, but a bigger picture in comparative studies," Anh adds. "My imagination thus becomes broader."

Echoing humanities

In 2022, the Palace Museum announced the launch of a long-term academic exchange project, known as the Taihe Visiting Scholar Fellowship Program, which is named after Taihe Dian (the Hall of Supreme Harmony), the highest-level architecture in the Forbidden City.

The program sponsors researchers of the museum to conduct their comparative studies abroad and overseas scholars to have their related projects in the Forbidden City. Wu is among the first scholars benefiting from the program and thus beginning his groundbreaking research in Hanoi.

According to Wang Xudong, director of the Palace Museum, the project aims to enhance cross-border cultural dialogue and mutual understanding by breeding talent with a global vision.

He then said: "Openness is a must in this fast-changing world, and the spread of culture cannot be unidirectional. It has to be reciprocal."

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, where contacts between the two neighboring countries stretched across a millennium, looks like an ideal place to review the meaning of reciprocal communications.

"Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, it demonstrates shared traditional ethics and values of China and Vietnam through its architecture highlighting the importance of rituals," Peng Shituan, cultural counselor of the Chinese embassy in Vietnam, tells China Daily.

"It further represents a shared ideal to pursue benevolence in governance, a core value in Confucianism, which upholds people-oriented ideology," Peng, also a poet and expert on cultural history, adds.

"Once sitting on the throne, the ruler in ancient times took responsibility for the nation, ancestors, and people. That is the bond connecting the cultures of the two countries."

Due to history and different geographic conditions, variations of decorative patterns exist between the architecture of the former imperial cities of Beijing and Hanoi, but many basic elements are similar, he adds.

For example, other than dragons and phoenixes, qilin (ky lan in Vietnamese), representing benevolence and auspiciousness, and the tortoise, representing longevity, also influence people's lives in both countries.

"Mutual learning among different cultures is like looking in a mirror, and we can thus better see our own," Peng says. "Joint archaeological research at Imperial Citadel of Thang Long will help us more vividly understand the history, and lay a foundation for the friendship of the two countries in the future."

Near the imperial citadel, Van Mieu, or the Temple of Literature, is where people worship Confucius.

After work, Wu often wanders among such temples and many other key historical monuments that resonate with his familiar places back in China.

Later this year, an exhibition on the influence of Confucianism across the world is to be staged in the Palace Museum. Also as an exhibition curator, Wu thus plans to loan some Confucian relics from Thang Long to better explain their spiritual legacies.

He stayed in Hanoi for Spring Festival in February. In his spare time, he also attends classes to learn Vietnamese. "Nowhere else gives me such strong feelings of emotional attachment," says Wu, who had worked for joint research in several other countries. "The traditional festive celebrations remind me of my hometown when I was a kid. When protecting historical sites, such intangible heritages also need to be cherished amid fast urbanization."

More to expect

There have been many seeking closer ties between Thang Long and its counterparts in China. Last September, the Thang Long Heritage Conservation Center reached an agreement of cooperation with the Beijing Municipal Administration Center of Parks, which oversees World Heritage Sites like the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.

A monthlong photo exhibition on the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Van Mieu and other key heritage sites across the Vietnamese capital kicked off in May at the Summer Palace. Another photo exhibition on Beijing sites will be staged in Thang Long later this year.

According to Nguyen Hong Chi, deputy director of the Thang Long Heritage Conservation Center, a key project is to restore the historical appearance of the central sector of the imperial citadel, including Kinh Thien Palace.

"Archaeology will strengthen people's understanding of the historical, cultural and scientific values of this heritage site," she said at a forum in Beijing, following the opening of the photo exhibition. "That will also give people a more complete visiting experience."

Chinese archaeologists like Wu thus expect to contribute their ideas and references to this historic program.

"We'd like to gain more experiences from Beijing to improve related infrastructure protecting those heritage sites," says Nguyen Quang Ngoc, vice-chairman of the Vietnam Association of Historical Sciences.

"Thang Long is more than those architectural foundations," he adds. "Scholars from the Palace Museum, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven may provide us support to resume the historical landscape and thus revitalize the grandeur of the imperial citadel and better tell its stories to the world."

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