Reread and "give to see" the poem Lục Vân Tiên by Nguyễn Đình Chiểu. A short history of the rediscovery of an unpublished illuminated manuscript (1897) and its critical edition (2016),

Wednesday September 19, 2018: Reread and "give to see" the poem Lục Vân Tiên by Nguyễn Đình Chiểu. A short history of the rediscovery of an unpublished illuminated manuscript (1897) and its critical edition (2016), lecture by Pascal Bourdeaux, lecturer, École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Pascal Bourdeaux presented the rediscovery of an exceptional manuscript, its study and its publication.
In 2011, during the visit of Vietnamese professor Phan Huy Lê, the director of the Library of the Institute presented a set of Far Eastern works. Among these valuable books was an important volume whose handwritten title was read: History of Lục Vân Tiên illustrated by Lê Dui Trach, by the care of E. Gibert, Captain of Marine Artillery, Assistant Director of Artillery at Hue (Annam), offered at the Academy during the May 26 1899 session.
No one had looked at this manuscript since it was filed in 1899 and it was a surprise to all members present. The poem Lục Vân Tiên Nguyễn Đình Chiểu is indeed part of the classics of Vietnamese literature but the particularity of this document is that it is fully illuminated. This manuscript is the meeting of four characters: Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Abel of the Michels, Eugene Gibert and Lê Đức Trạch.

Cover: Versant Narration of Van Tien, Eighteenth day of the sixth month of the ninth year of Than Thai's reign. Chief Curator Lê ạc Trạch, scribe illustrator. © Institute library, 2014.

Cover of the edition of Lục Vân Tiên in the translation of Abel Des Michels. 1883.

Official portrait of Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, realized well after his disappearance.

Nguyễn Đình Chiểu is the Vietnamese author of this poem which will become a symbol of the culture of South Vietnam. Born in 1822 near Saigon, he received a classical education from a scholar from Hue. After passing the baccalaureate examination, he was preparing for that of licentiate when his mother died in 1848. Giving up his career, he decided to return to Gia Đinh. Blind on the way back and despite the treatments of a doctor who also taught him traditional pharmacopoeia, he settled in Bính Vi where he became a teacher and doctor. He died in 1888 after having written numerous works urging the people to rise up against French colonization. This partially autobiographical poem is strongly rooted in Confucian tradition. The plot concerns Lục Vân Tiên, a young man who goes to the capital to participate in the mandarin competitions. On the way, he saves a young woman, Kiều Nguyệt Nga, taken to task by bandits. In thanks, Nguyệt Nga offers him his hairpin that L quec Vân Tiên cannot accept. She then presents him with a poem to which he responds in the same way. Torn between a debt of love and filial piety which forces her to accept an arranged marriage with the king of the Barbarians of the North, she will attempt to commit suicide when her devotion to Tiên is threatened but she will be saved by Quan Âm (Guanyin), the Buddhist goddess of mercy. And the two protagonists will meet to knot their destiny after Lục Vân Tiên, finally promoted to general-in-chief, triumphs in the defense of the kingdom.
Scholar in his style, this long poem belongs to the oral literature. The work consists of about ten separate episodes to facilitate memorization and, through it, that of Confucian values. In addition, using a vocabulary and expressions of Southern speaking, the poem immediately became a popular success and remained rooted in South Vietnamese culture.
Translated from 1864 in French, it is the publication of Abel des Michels of 1883 that prompted Eugene Gibert to undertake the realization of an illuminated book.
Etienne-Abel des Michels was an orientalist, professor of Cochin-Chinese at the Sorbonne (1869), Annamite at the School of Oriental Languages ​​(1871-1892), Doctor of Medicine (1857) and law degree (1865). He translated numerous Vietnamese works and wrote treatises on the Annamese language.

Last page of the manuscript written by Eugène Gibert. © Institute library, 2014.

Print version of Lục Vân Tiên having served as a model for the artist. © Institute library, 2014.

14 page. Lục Vân Tiên puts the bandits to flight and kills Phong Lai. © Institute library, 2014.

Eugène Gibert, to whom we owe the initiative of this unique work, was a Polytechnician attached to the Marine Artillery. He made a first stay in Tonkin (1890-1892), then a second (1895-1897) when he was appointed to the sub-director of Hue Artillery. Brilliant engineer, Eugene Gibert was also sensitive to local culture and interested in imperial history. It was therefore during his second stay that he had the idea of ​​having this unique work done, illuminated by Lê Đức Trạch. He asked the artist to reproduce the natural environment and the mental universe of his time, imposing only a time limit. Another unknown artist has made some less elaborate planks at the end of the book, probably to induce Lê Đức Trạch to render a complete and accomplished work in time.
De Lê ạc Trạch, we know very little: he calls himself "scribe illustrator" and then "chief curator". Research should be done to formally identify the character.

17: Tiên responds with a smile to Nguyệt Nga. In the background we see the village where Nguyệt Nga's father is prefect. © Institute library, 2014.

25 page: meeting of Lục Vân Tiên with Hởn Mính black and gigantic student going to the capital. At the bottom we see the citadel of Hue. © Institute library, 2014.

56 page: Above, Bà Cố Hí, the great Buddha, the sorcerer dressed in his costume and the little servant. © Institute library, 2014.

Aware of the value of the book he brought back to France, Eugene Gibert quickly decided to offer it to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres who was best placed to keep it. The manuscript was recorded on 26 May 1899 but remained forgotten for more than a century.
The gift of Eugene Gibert is composed not only of the illuminated manuscript but also a printed version of the poem in Sino-Vietnamese characters, probably from 1886, which served as a model for Lê Đức Trạch.
The manuscript, dated 18 June 1897, is a voluminous work realized on paper Canson & Mongolfier chosen for its qualities of absorption and conservation of color. In front of each illuminated board was inserted and glued a sheet of white paper of local manufacture where E. Gibert wrote his notes and explanations. Finally, a sheet of peel paper was interposed to protect the illuminated leaf. Like the printed text, the manuscript reads according to the usual meaning of Asia as sin (as opposed to Western), from top to bottom and from right to left. The 69 sewn notebooks have been linked together and everything is protected by a hard cover.
Thanks to the annotations of E. Gibert, we can know when and how it was realized and when it was given.
Following the discovery in 2011, it was decided to reproduce this precious manuscript in facsimile form, which raised both technical and financial problems. The 139 plates were photographed directly at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres by a professional working for the Museums of France and under the supervision of Marcus Durand (who previously edited the book “Vietnamese Popular Imagery”). The work of the plates was carried out identically to the original illustrations (size and colorimetry). In this first volume, next to each illustration, the precise sequence of the corresponding poem has been printed in three languages ​​(French, Vietnamese and English). On the other hand, all the notes of E. Gibert were put in a second volume as well as all the versions of the poem and the explanations to better understand the work and its illustrations. Volume two also explains the history of the work: the poem, the author, the manuscript and its production as well as a set of questions which still arise today and which deserve in-depth research. Another job has been to transcribe all the Sino-Vietnamese characters that appear inside the illustrations. At the end of the volume, a transcription of the illuminated manuscript in Romanized Vietnamese has been added.
All the text of the second volume has been written in French, Vietnamese and English.

77 page: Minh proposes to Tiên to enter the pagoda figured on the left. The woodcutter wants to leave to cut wood. © Institute library, 2014.

115 Page: That attack Minh who, helpless against spells and evocations, lets go. Singular combat between Tiên and Cốt Độc. © Institute library, 2014.

125 Page: The Thải is put back to the rank of the people, Nguyệt Nga (left) receives a high rank, reading the patent granted by the king (below). © Institute library, 2014.

It remains to do the work of analysis of the pictorial expression of the two artists to better understand how was carried out this work and also the techniques used at the time. This would make it possible to understand the existence of Vietnamese art before the colonial period. For example, a question arises as to whether the pigments used were local, traditional, or whether they are imported pigments. It should be noted that the images were first drawn in pencil and then illuminated.
Another question is whether the author was directly inspired by contemporary landscapes and environments or if he let his imagination run wild. Some details, such as the representation of the citadel of Hue, would tip for the first hypothesis. One characteristic of the illustrations is the entanglement of the real world and the spirit world in the same board. This shows that evil or beneficial spirits come from Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian worlds. Overall, we can see that the representations are fairly faithful to the customs of the imperial era.
To conclude, Pascal Bourdeaux presents another document, unknown until then, which was auctioned in the United States and would come from the private commission of a French administrator. This small booklet dates from 1897 and shows scenes from the daily life of the time. His study and comparison with the Lục Vân Tiên would perhaps allow to understand how the artistic transition was made, at the end of the 19rd century, in Vietnam.


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