Friday, September 20, 2019

Huế’s Citadel

                                                                                      by Jim Goodman    

the left wing of Ngọ Môn Gate
        Throughout the 17th and most of the 18th centuries Vietnam was divided into two opposing administrations.  Both sides recognized the Lê Dynasty monarch as the nominal ruler of the country, but the Trịnh Lords controlled him as a figurehead in the north, while the Nguyễn Lords ruled over everything south of Đồng Hới in Quảng Binh province.  Four Trịnh invasions of the south and one Nguyễn campaign against the north failed to upset the status quo and in 1672 the two opponents settled on a truce that lasted just over a century. 
one of the ten entry gate to the CItadel
outer wall of the Citadel
       In the wake of the Tây Sơn Revolt in 1771 the Trịnh Lords captured and destroyed the Nguyễn capital at Phủ Xuân in 1774 and the royal family fled to the Mekong Delta.  But Tây Sơn forces caught up with them and massacred all of them except the teenaged Nguyễn Ánh, who escaped to organize resistance.  Subsequent Tây Sơn campaigns in the south defeated his forces but failed to capture him.  The Tây Sơn armies then marched north, overthrew the Trịnh regime and the Lê Dynasty and established their own rule.
Meridian Gate, entrance to the Imperial Enclosure
      But the Tây Sơn were never able to vanquish Nguyễn Ánh, who would become one of the most remarkable figures in Vietnamese history.  He allied with Chinese, Khmer and Chăm in the south and employed some very astute generals, including disaffected Tây Sơn commanders.  After 25 years, his forces finally ousted the Tây Sơn government in Hanoi and reunified the country under a new dynasty, with the borders it still has today.  Unsure of his support in the north, however, Nguyễn Ánh chose to move the nation’s capital back to the old Nguyễn Lords’ capital at Phủ Xuân, which lay on the southern side of the Perfume River and was in ruins.
the Flag Tower
       Inaugurating the new Nguyễn Dynasty and taking the name of Gia Long, he decided to build a new fortified city across the river, which became modern Huế.  In 1804 he commenced building a citadel, employing French engineers who, following the Vauban style that had been the model for the France of Louis XIV, created a walled compound ten km long enclosing an area of 520 hectares, with many gates and several bastions.  The original outer walls were earthen and stood seven meters in height and were later reinforced with brick and stone and were two meters thick 
Thái Hòa Palace
        A moat thirty meters wide and four meters deep flanked three sides and a canal ran across the northern side. Ten entry gates crossed the moat into the citadel area, within which was the Imperial Enclosure (Đại Nội), with its own moat and six-meter high walls around it running for 2.5 km.  The Forbidden Purple City, where the Emperor had his palace and pleasure gardens, took up most of this space. 
       Just inside the Citadel ramparts stood the Flag Tower, rising 37 meters high above a three-level brick terrace.  Behind it were the nine Holy Cannons, cast from bronze articles captured from the Tây Sơn forces, each of them five meters long and weighing ten tons.  Gia Long intended them to be symbolic protectors of the city and empire and they were never fired.  They represent the four directions and the five natural elements. 
painting of the Emperor's appearance
       The Flag Tower, Holy Cannons and the Citadel/s outer walls, ramparts and gates are still there, relatively intact.  So are the moats and canals, though some sections are not so deep anymore and visitors can sometimes spot local fishermen casting nets in the moats. The buildings and barracks that filled the areas inside the walls and outside the Imperial Enclosure are mostly gone, replaced by gardens and parks.  But a number of the old palaces, temples and such that played roles in the imperial government have survived the ravages of weather and war or have been restored.  
ruins of the Emperor's residential palace
       The biggest and most impressive building, facing the Flag Tower, is the Meridian Gate (Ngọ Môn), the southern entrance to the Imperial Enclosure.  It was built in 1833 in the reign of Minh Mạng, the second Nguyễn emperor, and replaced the smaller original gate.  Very wide, with two protruding wings, it consists of huge stone blocks on the ground level and two more wooden stories above it.  It has three main entrances in the center.  The central one was reserved for the emperor, while the other two were for his mandarins and soldiers.
the Emperor's Reading Room
       Directly above the entries, on the top floor, is the Five Phoenix Watchtower.  Here the emperor used to make two annual public appearances—at the start of the Lunar New Year and to announce the results of the civil service examinations.  A lacquer painting on a wall here nowadays depicts the latter event, with rows of mandarins and scholars in the square in front and Huế residents behind them.  It was surely the biggest spectacle of the year for the city.
roof decorations of the Reading Room
       After going through the Meridian Gate and past two square ponds, the next significant building is the Palace of Supreme Harmony (Điện Thái Hòa), a wide, single story hall on an elevated platform with a double tiled roof supported by eighty lacquered ironwood pillars.  This was the emperor’s throne room, the venue for coronations, royal birthdays and the reception of foreign ambassadors.  The spacious interior featured elegant furniture, lacquered in red and gold, wall decorations and a raised throne under a gilded canopy facing south, where the emperor sat wearing golden silk robes and a crown with nine dragons.
       Wherever the emperor appeared everything was very formal and ceremonial.   Behind Điện Thái Hòa were the Left and Right Houses, facing each other across a courtyard, where civil and military mandarins spruced themselves up to prepare for an imperial audience.  For this they lined up in ranks according to their grade or position and made formal obeisance by kowtowing, touching their noses to the ground.
Hiẻn Nhơn Gate, Đại Nội
lamppost next to the Royal Theater
       When finished with his official business, the emperor departed through the back exit on the northern side to the last walled compound---the Forbidden Purple City, forbidden, that is, to all except him and his family, the concubines and their eunuch servants.  On the northeast side stood the Emperor’s Reading Room, an elegant two-story pavilion where he examined Court documents and correspondence and read books. 
Pleasure Pavilion in the Forbidden Purple City
       It was built early in Minh Mạng’s reign and is flanked by a pond on one side and bonsai gardens on the other three sides.  Statues of scholars stand on the corners of the lower roof along with dragons, while oval cameos of a trio of scholars are mounted on the walls.  All these figures are covered in porcelain potsherds, added when a later monarch, Khải Định in the colonial period, renovated the building. The former Royal Theater stands southeast of it, with a carved lamppost in front, dragons winding around it all the way up and other dragons pointing in the four directions at the top.
       Near the center of the Forbidden Purple City is a small raised Pleasure Pavilion, in a style similar to the Reading Room, where the emperor went to listen to music concerts.  Behind this stood the emperor’s private palace, though this was mostly destroyed by war.  Only the base remains, its steps flanked by a pair of cannons, probably intended like the Nine Holy Cannons as symbolic protectors.
       Other important buildings in the Imperial Enclosure are west of the Forbidden Purple City.  The Queen Mothers Residence stands in the northwest corner, a two-story fancy villa with an audience hall, separate apartments, an open-air balcony above the entrance and a small temple in a lotus pond beside it. 
Thé Miều Square
       In the southwest corner is the long and low Thế Tổ Miều, the Nguyễn Dynastic Temple, where altars stand for most of the emperors, along a polished floor with a red wooden ceiling.  The set excludes the fifth and sixth sovereigns Dục Đức, who only reigned three days, and Hiệp Hòa, who lasted just six months, and Bảo Đại, the last emperor.  And the altars for those who were ousted for being anti-French—Hàm Nghi, Thành Thái and Duy Tân—could not be installed until the end of French colonial control.
       Across from the large square outside the temple stands the last major structure—Hiến Lâm Cáo, the Pavilion of Splendor.  Also built in Minh Mạng’s reign, the building is noted for the Nine Dynastic Urns that stand in front of it, made of bronze, about two meters in height, each dedicated to one of the Nguyễn emperors.  The largest, cast in 1835-6 to Gai Long, is in the center and weighs 2600 kg.  The others average 1950 kg and stand in a row.  All of them feature low relief decorations of a variety of images, including birds and animals, the sun, moon and clouds, vignettes of nature, early 19th century sailing ships, cannons, cutlasses and even a horse-drawn carriage.
interior of the Nguyến Dynastic Temple
       Gia Long had constructed the Citadel with high, thick defensive walls, but in the end they were almost superfluous.  There was never any uprising or attack by foreign armies on Huế, not even when the French conquered the country.  The French had to battle the Vietnamese at the Hanoi Citadel, but afterwards took over Huệ without a fight.  A violent typhoon in 1904 knocked down the Flag Tower, which was reconstructed in 1915, but otherwise the Citadel remained intact until 1947, when the Việt Minh occupied it briefly until the French were able to expel them, though the Flag Tower suffered severe damage in the battle, as did the imperial palace in the Forbidden Purple City.
       Both were reconstructed afterwards, but in the Tệt Offensive in January 1968 the Việt Cong attacked and occupied parts of the Citadel, raised their own banner on the Flag Tower and held on for three weeks before the Americans finally managed to oust them.  During this period the Việt Cong dueled with ARVN forces within the Citadel grounds and these battles, plus massive American bombardment, destroyed all but four major buildings, though not the ramparts or gates.
       Restoration and repair this time had to wait until long after the end of the war.  Even buildings that had survived war damage, like Điện Thái Hòa, became subject to decay.  Termites and humidity had nearly destroyed its ironwood pillars.  Restoration workers, beginning in 1991, had to manually remove them (they weighed two tons each), plug the little insect holes, and cover them with twelve coats of fresh lacquer, each coat taking one month to fully dry.
gates inside the Imperial Enclosure
the Dynastic Urns
       By that time, though, Vietnam was no longer isolated and its historical relics had attracted the world’s attention.  In 1993 UNESCO recognized the Huệ Citadel as a World Heritage Site and while the city couldn’t rebuild everything that used to be there, it did restore or renovate many of its classic structures.  The Left and Right Houses were completely rebuilt, as were the apartments of the Queen Mothers Residence.  The gates that used to line the pathways to several of the buildings were also rebuilt, painted an imperial yellow and decorated with plaques of dragons, birds and flowers.
the royal coach on one of the Dynastic Urns
      Some restored buildings were outfitted with exhibition rooms as well.  The audience hall of the Queen Mothers Residence holds a collection of royal garments.  The Emperor’s Reading Room has a display of historical photographs.  East of the Imperial Enclosure stands the Fine Arts Museum, first built in 1845, containing some remnants of royal furniture, including a sedan chair, plus royal costumes, ceramics and musical instruments.
       The Royal Theater was also restored and now stages a few daily performances of the kind of entertainment popular in Imperial times.  These include classical operas (tuồng) in elaborate costumes, lion dances, fan dances and lantern dances, all backed by a classical Vietnamese orchestra dressed in yellow silk clothing.
       The city also stages its Huế Festival every two years, inviting participants from several countries.  Besides decorating the streets with sculptures and the riverfront with paintings, a mixture of traditional and modern shows takes place at various urban sites and nearby villages.  The biggest spectacles occur in the evenings in front of Ngọ Môn Gate in the Citadel, beginning with processions of a gigantic yellow phoenix borne by about twenty women wearing white aó dais and a huge golden dragon borne by about twenty men, also in white aó dais.  Various dances in traditional and ancient Vietnamese costumes, as well as some by foreign troupes, follow the opening act.

Nguyễn queen, Huế Festival
lantern dance at the Huế Festival
      On another night the shows reenact the entertainment enjoyed by the Nguyễn emperor and his Court, particularly the lion dances and lantern dance.  The show includes a visit by performers playing the Nguyến royal family and high mandarins.  The latter wear blue or green silk robes, while the royal entourage dresses in imperial yellow or red silk.  This skit is the crowd’s favorite.  The Nguyến heyday did not last very long, compared to that enjoyed by earlier dynasties, but it was indelibly associated with the city of Huế, whose modern citizens still remember it with pride.
Đại Nội southwest wall
                                                                                ´* * *   
             The itinerary of Delta Tours Vietnam includes a visit to Huế’s Citadel.

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