Tran Trong Duong: Don’t impose stereotypes on traditional architecture

Tuesday, 2020-12-22 16:35:02
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Historical researcher Tran Trong Duong
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NDO - Historical researcher Tran Trong Duong has challenged popular stereotypes on traditional Vietnamese architecture in a project with his associates, using 3D technology to reconstruct the original One Pillar Pagoda when it was first built under the Ly Dynasty.

In addition to offering a new image of the Ly Dynasty’s classical architecture, the project touches a much greater issue that it is necessary to revisit certain notions on traditional architecture and arts which have become entrenched in the mind of most Vietnamese people.

In this conversation, Dr Tran Trong Duong, from the Institute of Sino-Nom Studies, discusses the issue in detail.

Two tales, one view

Q: There has been much debate from the moment the 3D construction of the Dien Huu Temple was unveiled. How do you feel about some arguing that the reconstruction is too alien and different from traditional Vietnamese architecture?

A: Such an attitude was already anticipated and we were not surprised at public reactions, including those in the research circles. One of the reasons that many think it is alien is because of the supporting structure, which we reconstructed using “dau cung” (dougong in Chinese), rather than the “ke chuyen” and “ke bay” beam systems employed in most extant temples and shrines. Those enduring from the restored Later Le period have sharply curved roof eaves with roof tiles resembling shoe toes or fish scales. Such images have become deeply ingrained in the minds of most people.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many researchers had already affirmed that the roof system of the Ly Dynasty was dau cung, which is broadly similar to Chinese, Japanese and Korean architecture. But there was a time when we tried to highlight the difference of Vietnamese culture, so the value of such research was played down. However, in the past 20 years remarkable achievements in archaeology have asserted that the dau cung roof system was used during both the Ly and Tran Dynasties. Examples of such a style have survived until the present day, albeit just a few.

Many also question why Vietnamese architecture is so large and impressive. In terms of size, in addition to historical data, archaeological findings, especially in the Thang Long imperial citadel, show that structures under the Ly dynasty boasted large spaces between columns, much larger than in structures of the later periods.
We should not assert that Vietnamese tradition must be this or that. That which many think of as traditional Vietnamese is actually architecture of the restored Later Le and Nguyen Dynasty. Tradition does not mean it is unchanging. Each period has its own characteristics, but such characteristics were all built on the foundation of Vietnamese culture and by Vietnamese people.

A 3D reconstruction of the One-Pillar Pagoga within Dien Huu Temple

Q: Do you think that the issues arising from the reconstruction of Dien Huu Temple will compel us to rethink many issues related to traditional architecture and arts?

A: In fact, it is not a complete rethink. Because such issues like dau cung are already affirmed by many studies. It is also popular, but only in the academic circles. What needs a rethink is public perception. We need to communicate effectively so that the public can have a correct view.

The story is not only about the roof system but also the one-pillar structure. When reconstructing Dien Huu Temple, one related building that must be mentioned is the stone pillar at Dam Temple in Bac Ninh Province. There was a long period when researchers automatically considered it as a Hindu linga. As for me, I had already found inaccuracy in such a judgement when I was a college student. Later, when I did more research, I concluded that it was part of a lost structure.

I remember a meeting with researcher Ta Chi Dai Truong, who originally affirmed that it was a linga. I took him to Dam Temple to see the stone pillar in 2011. After looking at the pillar with six locking holes in person, Mr Truong wrote a well-received article on the Past & Present Magazine on his reconsideration of the stone pillar and refuted his previous view.

The perception of the stone pillar as a linga is also entrenched as that of the roof system, with much stereotype knowledge printed in textbooks and university coursebooks. From these two stories, I think that we need to have an open mind in research. When proposing a hypothesis, we can give evidence to support it, but we should not insist that there is only one truth. Only when we discuss a matter with open minds can we approach closer to the scientific truth.

We are not alone

Q: Do you and your associates feel pressured that you are reversing the common thought?

A: We are not afraid of scientific debate because we inherit research based on historical, archaeological evidence and artefacts extant from the Ly Dynasty. We also have the backing of many researchers. But at some forums on history and traditional culture, what we are concerned is the lack of a debate culture. Many do not stick to academic issues but only make personal attacks and throw insults.

Q: Why do you choose the One-Pillar Pagoda from among the many important Vietnamese architectural works?

A: The answer is quite simple. The architecture of the One-Pillar Pagoda is representative of Vietnam. It is unique and is not seen elsewhere in the world. It is the pride of Vietnamese culture. I want to add that One-Pillar is the name that we are used to but under the Ly Dynasty, the name of the temple was Dien Huu, which included a one-pillar structure called the Lotus Flower Tower, representing Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Buddhism. The tower was at the centre of Dien Huu Temple, located within a mandala diagram, a universe in Buddhist cosmology. Not mentioning the great magnitude of Dien Huu Temple under the Ly Dynasty, even the One-Pillar Pagoda reconstructed after 1954 is a unique building, an image representing Vietnam.

Ly architecture was very special. Ly buildings, especially imperial ones were very large in size and elaborately designed, which I think is understandable given Vietnam’s prosperity at the time despite a relatively small population. We want to reconstruct the structure so that everyone can have an idea of Vietnamese architecture and fine arts at the time.

The general view of Dien Huu Temple with the One-Pillar Pagoda at its centre

Q: Did you face much difficulty in reconstructing Ly architecture from the separate fragments?

A: It is unavoidable for a structure standing on a single pillar. If it is a four-sided structure, it will be easier to reconstruct than a six-sided structure. The idea of a six-sided reconstruction comes from six locking holes of the Dam Temple stone pillar. Calculating the supporting system so that the structure would stand firm was very difficult. In our group, some work in the architecture field and we had a lot of trouble when trying to reconstruct the temple. The reconstruction not only involves drawing to historical and archaeological evidence and what we imagine but also includes other details about the bearing capacity so that it can be implemented in reality. There are certain advantages in that the Sung Thien Dien Linh stele contains quite a clear description of the One-Pillar Pagoda.

Q: Will there be next versions of Dien Huu Temple?

A: Definitely. Through the workshops, we have received many useful opinions. We reconstructed Dien Huu Temple at the time of its early days. Such structures were painted crimson and golden-enamelled, so they might look majestic and foreign to most people. Next time we will adjust the age of the temple. In addition to reconstructing Dien Huu Temple, we also have a long-term plan for other Ly architectural works.

Thank you very much.