Description A rather unusual Vi
Wood, pigment, lacquer, iron, mother-of-pearl
Probably late 19th century
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The gươm truòng (鎌長) is a large Vietnamese saber with a long handle that requires two hands to wield. They are similar to the Chinese long saber, chángdāo (長刀) or Japanese nodachi (野太刀). In the Nguyễn dynasty, large ceremonial examples were worn during official assemblies. From old photos, it is easy to assume these are real sabers, but extant examples suggest that many were made entirely of wood.1
A large ceremonial gươm truòng, carved entirely out of wood to resemble an actual sheathed sword. The handle and scabbard sections are lacquered a cinnabar red. Metal mounts are simulated in relief, were coated with two layers of lacquer. The first layer is a grey metallic layer that tarnishes black, coated with a semi-transparent layer of golden lacquer. The result creates something that must have looked like gilt mounts when new.
The decorative features exhibit the classic Vietnamese mix of southeast Asian and Chinese design tropes. The "hilt" comprises of a ball pommel of a type seen primarily on Chinese maces. The ribbed sleeves on the handle are a typical Vietnamese design feature, found on long sabers and polearms. They are decorated in relief with geometric diaper patterns interlocking swastikas, lozenges, and a honeycomb structure often seen on the base of early religious statues that represent a stylization of the lotus seed pod.
The ferrule swells considerably towards the guard, a typical Vietnamese design feature. There is a stylized dragon face on either side, with mother of pearl eyes. The guard itself is of a lobed shape that hints towards the centuries of trade relations the Vietnamese had with Japan, being Japan's main trading partner before the Dutch and Portuguese arrived in Asia. The face of the guard is decorated in relief with scrolling vine work.
The "scabbard" incorporates a dragon mouth collar piece often seen on Chinese sabers and polearms. It further has a centerpiece and an end piece, not the two suspension bands typically seen on Qing sabers. As such it mimics Ming dynasty scabbards instead. The decor on the centerpiece follows that of the bands on the hilt. The endpiece is again a swallowing dragon mouth.
The scabbard section is joined with the hilt via a mortise and tenon connection so the piece can be taken apart.
A number of these have been preserved in the Trung Sister’s Temple outside of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Ceremonial gươm truòng in the Trung Sister’s Temple, Hanoi. Probably wood, like our example here.
Photo politely borrowed from Seven Mountains Kung Fu, Philadelphia.
Nguyen imperial guardsmen with gươm truòng. Probably from an old postcard.
Photo from votran-daiviet.org. Photo credit: Nguyễn Khắc Ngữ.
While often seen on old Vietnamese photographs, and with some examples preserved in Vietnamese temples, these are exceedingly rare to find on the free market. This is the only such example I have encountered so far.
Even though they are only made of wood, they provide valuable insight into high-end weapons design of the Vietnamese, exhibiting features that were also found on actual weapons of northern Vietnam.
1. For two examples illustrated on early photos, see: Francis Engelmann; "L'Indochine a la Belle Epoque: Un Reve D'Aventure 1870-1914." ASA, Paris, 2001. Page 98.
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