Antique Vietnamese arms | Peter Dekker's Mandarin Mansion: Antique Arms & Armor

Antique Vietnamese arms

By Peter Dekker - May 24, 2016

An Introduction

Vietnam was conveniently situated along one of the main routes of the Southeast Asian maritime trade that flourished from the 16th century onward. Its harbours were frequented by traders from China, Japan, Siam, and from Europe the Dutch, French and English. The cultural exchange that took place is reflected in their traditional arms, bearing influences from various of these cultures.

Their metalwork was exquisite, including detailed chasing and chiseling and inlays with various types of metal. Among collectors of Asian arms, Vietnam is well-known for the finest mother of pearl inlays on the scabbards of ceremonial swords and sabers. Yet, the antique arms of Vietnam remain relatively under-studied and under-appreciated in the ethnographic arms and armor community, although interest is steadily increasing in recent years.

This article is meant as an introduction to the subject. It will expand over time as I will have more to show and tell.
Enjoy, and tell me what you think!

peter@mandarinmansion.com






Exquisite mother-of-pearl inlays on a precious wooden scabbard of a ceremonial saber. In the background various antique Vietnamese blades, some exhibiting the typical floral engravings for the culture.


A brief history of Vietnam

Vietnam has a long history, the first official state on record was founded as early as 2879 BC. In 111 BC, starting with the Chinese Qin dynasty, Vietnam came under Chinese rule for the most of the next 1100 years. They regained independence at the start of the Ngô dynasty (939–967), which lead to a long period of independence that lasted almost a thousand years under various dynasties. It was interrupted only briefly by short-lived foreign occupations such as that of the Ming in the early 15th century.

During the 17th century the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and British East India Company (EIC) became active in Vietnam, especially in and around the northern Vietnamese Kingdom of Tonkin. They came to trade primarily in silks, ceramics, ivory, precious woods, and spices and introduced Western arms, Dutch glassware and Japanese products into the area. Due to civil unrest in Japan, many Japanese fled their countries. At the same time a Chinese "sea ban" prohibited maritime trade and basically labeled all traders "pirates" so many Japanese settled in Southeast Asia instead, including Vietnam. They often worked as sailors, manual laborers, merchants, or mercenaries and some master-less samurai, or ronin got employed by the Dutch VOC and British EIC.

The final Vietnamese dynasty was the Nguyễn dynasty (1802–1945). Early Nguyễn emperor Minh Mang (ruled 1820 – 1841) claimed a Chinese legacy and sinicized his subjects, introducing Chinese clothing and an orthodox Confucianist model of state. He was well known for his opposition to missionaries, and his resistance to French involvement in the country. Eventually the French did manage to colonize the country until 1945, after which it became a republic.



The edged weapons of Vietnam

Here follows a basic typology of Vietnamese edged weapons, which will be updated in the future to include more specimens, as well as different types of weapons of different eras.


1. A guőm truòng.
2. A trường đao/cite>.
3. An officer's ceremonial guőm.
4. A utilitarian fighting guőm.



Sabers

Among the most common of Vietnamese edged weapons is the saber or guőm. The non-ceremonial version comes in various shapes and sizes and their blades often show considerable Chinese or Japanese influence: They feature narrow blades of gently curvature that do not widen like dha that are the common saber in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnamese sabers often come with ridged cross-sections, also like Japanese and some Chinese swords and unlike dha. Others are wedged shaped in cross-section, or with a system of fullers, both reminiscent of Chinese liuyedao. A purely Vietnamese element is that they often have floral engravings, even on the more utilitarian pieces. At the base of the blade is often a metal sleeve that sits in the middle between a Japanese habaki or Chinese tunkou.

Scabbards are often pointy, reminiscent of those of Ming China. Guards are round or rectangular, often based on Japanese examples and usually incorporate an oval washer, like the Japanese seppa. Many Vietnamese guards include even with the two holes often found on Japanese guards that are meant to accommodate the handles of the kogai and kogatana, a hairpin and a knife typically carried in the scabbard of the Japanese sword. The holes are reproduced as a stylistic element of Vietnamese saber guards, even when the implements they are for are not commonly present on Vietnamese sabers.


A guard, probably of Vietnamese origin, on a rare dha from the border region of north Vietnam, Yunnan and Laos.
Sold through Mandarin Mansion.




A utilitarian guőm of the Nguyen dynasty, of classical shape and with simple iron mounts.
This example is for sale here.


The engravings so typical for Vietnamese swords. Not all have them, but they are very common. This particular one also has a date, 1887, engraved in the blade.
For sale here.



Falchions

The Vietnamese falchion or trường đao reminds strongly of the Chinese dadao and are all too often mistaken for Chinese examples, even by reputable dealers and notable museums. They come in various shapes and sizes. Trường đao are often of pretty decent workmanship for such weapons, and compare well to the bulk of mass produced Chinese dadao in terms of aesthetics, while it are often the Chinese dadao that have a better surface finish on the blades.


A typical Vietnamese trường đao. Note the exaggerated shape that goes from narrower than Chinese to wider than the Chinese dadao, a typical feature of the Vietnamese trường đao. The end of this example is concave, creating two functional peaks that could be utilized in the fight.
The matched set is for sale here.

Chinese examples typically have flat clipped tips, limiting their use only to the cut. But beware, slight concave Chinese examples are encountered, as are flat Vietnamese examples. At first glance, it is usually the more dramatic execution of whatever shape they have that tells the Vietnamese ones apart from the Chinese ones.

The main differences between Vietnamese trường đao and Chinese dadao:

Vietnamese trường đao Chinese dadao
Handle Thin round cord or rattan, dull colors. Often thick, wider cord either round or flat in cross-section. Dull colors to bright red.
Guard Often small. A round or octagonal plate. A larger disc guard, cup guard, guard with two quillons, or S-shaped guard.
Blade profile An exaggerated shape, going from narrower at the base to wider at the tip than Chinese dadao. Clipped tip can be concave or flat. More moderate widening. No fullers or two fullers. Clipped tip is almost always flat, rarely concave.
Blade decor Usually no fullers. Floral engravings are common. No fullers, single fuller or double fullers. Sometimes stamped or chiseled at forte with unit info, a dragon, and / or auspicious symbols or sayings.
Steel Usually pretty well-made, inserted hard edge, sometimes a number of rectangles can be seen in the steel. Steel surface however is often more lumpy than on even mass produced dadao, with rough tool marks remaining, indicating they may have been made by smiths who normally make farming tools. Workmanship ranging from very good to moderate to downright bad. Inserted hard edge.



Two typical Chinese examples. Compare to the trường đao shown above. (Click pics for their full descriptions.)



Straightswords

The straightsword or the Vietnamese is the kiếm, modelled after the Chinese straightsword, jian resembling the style popular in China under the Ming. Like their Chinese counterparts, they come as single or double weapons in one scabbard. Their blades are usually much narrower than those on Chinese jian, and seem to be primarily focused on the thrust. Actual fighting examples are rare, as most of them were parade regalia carried by officers. Fittings of such ceremonial swords are often silver, chased and chiseled, with precious hardwood scabbards, often with mother of pearl inlay. Handles can be wood, ivory, elephant tooth, marine ivory, or all-metal such as silver or copper, inlaid with metals of contrasting colors. While the overall style often reminds of Chinese Ming swords, the decor is often a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese elements and sometimes purely Vietnamese.

Sorry, Mandarin Mansion didn't have the pleasure to handle and photograph one of these yet!
I'm sure we can post a picture soon.



Parade swords and sabers

Among the most sought after of antique Vietnamese arms are the ornate kiem (straightswords) and guőm (narrow-bladed sabers) that were carried by officers of the Nguyễn dynasty (1802 - 1945). Most of them have thin, unhardened blades and were strictly for the parade. Sometimes, captured French blades are encountered. They were often carried in hand with the tip pointing up, so of the decor is usually also aligned to be seen in that way. Their appeal is not so much in the quality of the swords, but the workmanship of the hilts and scabbards. The general shape of these often follows pre-Qing Chinese design with pointy scabbard end pieces, while the decor is often with typical Qing Chinese motifs and symbology. It is interesting that along with all their purely Asian elements the hilts of the ceremonial guőm usually feature a European inspired lion head pommel and knuckle-bow.


A typical ceremonial guőm with hardwood scabbard with chased and chiseled silver mounts and fine mother-of-pearl inlays.
It is for sale here..


Guard with pierced silver sheet overlay depicting dragons in clouds.


The most elaborate and skillfully done inlays I've seen on these to date.


A rare all-metal ceremonial guőm with French captured blade.
Sold through Mandarin Mansion.


Chased and chiseled silver mounts on a copper scabbard body, the body in turn inlaid with various contrasting metals including silver.


The handle inlaid with copper and niello. The latter is more common on Thai weapons than it is on Vietnamese.


The pointy, curled up chape reminiscent of Ming Chinese designs. The cutout flames in turn remind of those on the helmets of late Qing ceremonial armors.



Two handed sabers

Among some of the more rare edged weapons from Vietnam today are the large two handed sabers, or guőm truòng. The Vietnamese classify them as pole-arms and they feel much like it, with relatively straight, narrow blades of gentle curvature and with long handles of round cross-section. The classical guőm truòng has a bulbous feature right behind the guard.


Two Vietnamese guőm truòng. The top one is from the northern border region with Yunnan and Laos. The bottom is a classic Vietnamese example, with the bulbous feature at the base of the guard. This feature is also seen, in lesser extent, on various Southeast Asian dha


Handle of the classic guőm truòng with its bulbous feature against the guard.



Glossary

The following list was compiled by my respected colleague in the field and trusted restorer, Philip Tom. Click here for his restoration page on our site. Philip based the glossary on various sources and dictionaries he has consulted over the years.



HILT WEAPONS

Đao
Knife, a general term for single-edged weapons with wide blades, regardless of length. Similar to the Chinese dāo (刀).

Đao găm
A small dagger-like knife.

Doan đao
A short, cutlass-like weapon with single-edged curved blade.

Guőm
A saber with a narrow, curved blade. The hilt may be guarded by a knucklebow, or a simple disc.

Guőm truòng
Large saber with a long handle, usually requiring two hands to wield.

Kiếm
A sword, having a straight, double-edged blade. Similar to the Chinese jiàn (劍).

Song kiếm
A pair of swords with half-hilts, nesting side-by- side in single scabbard. (Song, meaning “double”, can also be applied to paired đao and guὅm.)

Trường đao
A falchion (big broad-bladed sword-like knife), usually with long handle.

Quất
A backsword having a straight single-edged blade.



STAFF WEAPONS

Đinh ba
Trident or war-fork.

Giáo
Spear (held in the hand when fighting, never thrown).

Lao
Javelin (designed for throwing).

Mác
Angular-bladed broad knife blade on a shaft, of Khmer origin, and related to a peculiar hatchet-like tool used by various peoples in Indochina and Siam.

Phang
(Literally, “scythe ”) A glaive, consisting of a falchion-like blade on a staff

Thuong
Spear with shaft made of flexible wood.

Xiên
Halberd.

Yem nguyệt đao
A fauchard, resembling a phang except for having a hooked prong or beak on the back of the blade; analogous to the Chinese yanyuedao and Korean unwoldo (“reclining moon knife”).



ARCHERY

Cung
Bow (alternate term: cái giàng).

Nỏ
Crossbow.

Ống tên
Quiver.



FIREARMS AND ARTILLERY

Súng dại bác
Cannon.

Súng doan mã
Pistol.

Sung hoả mai
Matchlock musket.

Súng khai phúc
Breechloading firearm.

Súng khoa son
A heavy musket-like gun whose barrel is supported on a rest or swivel.

Súng mã truõng
Hand-cannon, the earliest type of hand firearm in use.

Súng máy dá
Flintlock musket.

Bào tấu
Cartridge-pouch.

Bầu ngòi
Powder flask.

Chày nạp
Ramrod.

Ðạn
Ammunition for small arms.

Liều thuốc
Powder-measure.



SHIELDS

Khiên
A circular shield woven of cane or rattan, much like the Chinese tengpai.

Mộc
A wooden or metal shield, usually of oblong shape.



MILITARY SYMBOLS AND SIGNALLING

Cờ đuôi nheo
Triangular flag.

Cờ lệnh
Commander’s ensign.

Cờ vuông
Square flag.

Còi
Signal-horn.

Chiêng
Gong.

Loa
Trumpet-shaped wooden megaphone used to relay orders in the field.

Trống
Drum.




Conclusion

Vietnamese arms are an area that present an interesting mix of styles and native elements, displaying a rich cultural diversity. The better examples exhibit fine metalwork and meticulous skills in inlays of either metal in metal or mother of pearl in wood. High levels of craftsmanship are also displayed in the carving of hilts, often from exquisite materials. With the richness, diversity, and quality of manufacture the arms of Vietnam deserve more attention. This page will be periodically updated with more information and examples of antique Vietnamese arms that pass through our hands.




Antique Vietnamese arms currently for sale


A signed Vietnamese fighting saber
Vietnamese fighting saber

€475,-


Vietnamese dadao
Vietnamese truòng đao

€ 600,- for the pair




Further reading

Nguyen-Long, Kerry: Silvercraft in Vietnam: Four generations. Arts of Asia, vol. 32, nr. 3, page 123. (On a family that used to make ceremonial sabers.)
Pierre Huard; Maurice Durand: Viet Nam Civilization and Culture (English version of "Connaissance Du Vietnam". Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, 1998.
Engelmann, Francis: L'Indochine à la Belle Epoque: Un rêve d'aventure 1870-1914. Paris, ASA éditions, 2001.








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