THANH MAI BELL - THE FIRST NATIONAL TREASURE OF THE HANOI MUSEUM
PROCESS OF APPLYING FOR BEING A NATIONAL TREASURE OF THE THANH MAI BELL
The HanoiMuseum is now home to more than 70,000 documents and artifacts, including many with high cultural, historical, and artistic value, such as
- Co Loa bronze drum and collection of Co Loa bronze plowshares (Dong Son culture, 2,500-2,000 years ago)
- Bronze musical instrument (Ly dynasty, 11th - 13th centuries)
- Altar, Bat Trang ceramic (18th - 19th centuries)
- Lamp stand, Dang Huyen Thong ceramic (1582)
- Crossbow (Dong Son culture, 2,500 - 2,000 years ago)
- Thanh Mai bell (798)
However, after two times of National Treasure recognition (in 2012 and 2013), the Hanoi Museum had been unable to elevate the Thanh Mai bell to National Treasure status.
After the Official Letter No.183/DSVH-DT/March 27, 2014 of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism on selecting artifacts to be recognized as national treasures (Time 3), the Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued the Letter No. 798/VHTT&DL-QLDS/March 21st, 2014 requesting the Hanoi Museum complete documentation for the Thanh Mai bell to be recognized as a national treasure.
The work of measuring, drawing, and photographing was carried out quickly in accordance with the requirements of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnam. However, the most difficult work was rubbing, translating inscriptions, and collecting relevant documents. The staff collaborated with experts of the Institute of Sino-Nom Studies for rubbing and translating inscriptions, and also researched relevant scientific articles. This work eventually confirmed the worthiness of the Thanh Mai bell as having "special value relating to a certain historical period" and warranting National Treasure status.
In early June 2014, the application for Thanh Mai bell as a national treasure was sent to the Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism for appraisal. After editing with comments from the Scientific Advisory Council of the Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the application was sent to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for further appraisal. Through each appraisal, the documents were edited to be concise and reflect the artistic value and uniqueness of the artifact.
On January 14th, 2015, the Prime Minister of Vietnam issued Decision No.53/QD-TTg, recognizing Vietnam National Treasures (Time 3) for 12 artifacts and groups of artifacts including the Thanh Mai bell. It was a great pleasure for all the staff of the Hanoi Museum.
THE NATIONAL TREASURE - THANH MAI BELL
The Thanh Mai Bell was discovered by chance in Bai Rong, Phu An hamlet, My Duong Village, Thanh Mai Commune, Thanh Oai District, Hanoi in 1986. After nearly 30 years at the Hanoi Museum, this masterpiece has been carefully preserved for display.
Thanh Mai Bell
Patterns on the top and handle
The bell is in cylindrical shape with the mouth straight with the body. The bell body is divided into four large parts, separated by three relief edges. Each part is divided into two cells. The upper cells are isosceles trapezoids, the lower ones are rectangles. Chinese characters are engraved inside each cell. The Bell has two round knobs for making sound - these are surrounded by lotus petals, and embossed on the bell body.
The bell handle is in the shape of two dragons, back to back, skillfully bent to form a bell handle. The dragons here are simple with big heads, without scales or mane. Their mouths are resting on top of the bell. These dragon images are reminiscent of the dragons carved on the oldest stone stele in Vietnam (Truong Xuan stele, Thanh Hoa, dated 618). The top of the bell is made in the shape of a spherical crown, embossed with many double lotus petals and nipples. There is a relief line around the top edge of the bell.
The inscriptions consist of 1530 Chinese characters in eight cells. They express names of donators, including officials. The inscriptions depict that the bell was made by the Sui Hui Association - a Buddhist organization of both Chinese and Vietnamese people. The bell was cast in the Year of the Tiger, the 14th year of Trinh Nguyen reign (798). The donators inscribed on the bell body are all Buddhist disciples, sharing the same virtues as those who made this bell. Although the inscriptions do not indicate a specific pagoda, through the verse (to be read when making the bell sound), it can be inferred that this is a bell for pagoda. The content of the verse is as follows:
回 心孕 福
共 造盟 鍾
天 遠 應 驗
今 身假 有
不 滅 無生
The verse on the body of the bell
General meaning of the verse: This bell was cast by many donators. Names of the donators are engraved on the bell. These people are all Buddhist disciples, sharing their same moral and virtuous mindset to make this bell. They wish: when the bell rings, heaven, earth, gods, and buddhas will witness all living beings and eliminate all their sufferings and torment. Buddha Dharma is known forever.
The inscriptions mention many place-names under the Tang Dynasty, including communes, districts, and provinces of both Vietnam and China which contributed to the study of administrative unit organization and cultural exchanges during first ten centuries AD.
In addition, the inscriptions also mention many mandarin titles at that time. A unit of measurement for the weight of the Viet people appeared for the first time “90 cân of Nam” (means Vietnam, 1 cân Nam = 0,4kg). This reinforces that the bell was cast in Vietnam, then handed down and used by generations in Vietnam.
The Chinese characters are clearly engraved and typical character type of the Tang-Song Dynasties that later generations called "adapted from Song". Among these inscriptions, sometimes Vietnamese words are used.
Through the layout of the inscriptions, it can be confirmed that the whole text was engraved at the same time with no later additions. Dating of the text and the bell is the same, completely consistent with the date noted on the bell: March 20th, the Year of the Tiger, the 14th year of the Trinh Nguyen reign (798).
The Thanh Mai bell was recognized as one of the 10 records of Vietnamese Buddhist culture in 2006 with the title: The oldest bronze bell in Vietnam by the the Ho Chi Minh city Buddhist Association and the Vietnam Record Book Center.
The Thanh Mai bell is a unique antique, considered to be the oldest bell (798) discovered in Vietnam so far.
The form of the Thanh Mai bell and the inscriptions on it are unique and unlike any other bell in the Vietnamese pagodas. This is a significant and important historical source for studying and understanding Buddhism in Vietnam during the 8th century. Decorative patterns on the bell represent the pinnacle of sculpture and bronze casting art at that time.
The bell has a very specific text, which is an authentic and meaningful historical source for studying and understanding Vietnamese society during the first ten centuries AD.
The Thanh Mai bell is currently on display in the Hanoi Museum. It has participated in many exhibitions at different places in the country and has been included in many scientific researches on Vietnamese culture and history both domestic and abroad.
The National treasure - Thanh Mai bell is a source of honor and pride, and is the responsibility of all staff of the Hanoi Museum. Hopefully in the coming years, more precious artifacts of the Hanoi Museum will continue to be recognized as national treasures.
Nguyễn Tiến Đà - Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Hòa