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Asian Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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THE SOUTHERN MANDARINS

The Birth of the Vietnamese Alphabet.
The Birth of the Vietnamese Alphabet.
Jesuit missionaries serving in Vietnam during the seventeenth century devised a Roman script alphabet for writing Vietnamese. The system, called "Quoc Ngu," replaced the Chinese characters that had traditionally been used. Father Alexander de Rhodes, a French Jesuit, played an important part in spreading its use. His catechism, printed in Rome in 1651, is among the earliest published works using Quoc Ngu. (Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

Vietnam has traditionally stood apart from the rest of Southeast Asia, separated by its close historical and cultural ties to China. Vietnamese often speak of their thousand years under Chinese rule, emphasizing that they fought and won independence in 939 A.D. Although fiercely independent, Vietnam continued to follow the Chinese model of society and government. Until it fell under French colonial rule in the nineteenth century, Vietnam was ruled by an emperor and administered by a Confucian bureaucracy chosen through an examination system, while Chinese remained the official language of the court and the educated elite. In the seventeenth century, Alexandré de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary, helped devise a romanized alphabet for written Vietnamese that is still in use.

Vietnam has a strong tradition of written dynastic history, and the Asian Division has a good selection of the major works. Although many of the early Vietnamese books are reprints in modern Vietnamese, the Asian Division does have a small collection of important Vietnamese books in traditional format. In 1918 the Director of l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient in Hanoi gave the Library several valuable works published in Chinese. Two of these books were printed for the Library from the original wooden blocks at the imperial palace in Hue. One of these, Khâm-Đ?nh Vi?t S? Thông Giám Cuong M?c is a nineteenth-century history of Vietnam. The other, Đ?i-Nam Nh?t-Th?ng-Chí, is an early Vietnamese gazetteer. Besides these two large works, the French gift included two copies of the best-known work in Vietnamese literature, Kim-Vân-Ki?u, a poem or rather a versified novel, written by Nguy?n Du in 1813. One copy is in Chinese characters used phonetically, a form of writing called "Ch? Nôm"; the other is in standard romanization, "Qu?c Ng?."

Early Western Map of Tonkin (1651).
Early Western Map of Tonkin
(1651). One of the earliest Western maps showing details of northern and central Vietnam appeared in Father Alexander de Rhodes's Histoire dv royavme de Tvnqvin, published in Rome in 1650. This map is from the French edition, published a year later in Lyon. Oriented with the north to the right, "Regnu Annam" shows the extent of seventeenth-century Vietnam, then divided between two rival dynasties, one in the north and the other in central Vietnam. Remnants of the Cham kingdom, eventually destroyed by the Vietnamese, still exist in the south. To the west, are the highlands occupied by "Rumoi" (upland minority groups, later called "montagnards" by the French). The limited Western knowledge of the interior is illustrated by the large region labeled "Solitudo." (Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

In 1920, the Library received another important Vietnamese history printed on the palace library blocks in Hue, the Đ?i Vi?t S? Kư Toàn Thu(Complete Annals of the Great Viet), in twenty-four books bound in fourteen volumes. Incorporating an early history of the Lư Dynasty (1009-1225) completed in 1272 by historian Lê van Huu, the annals were revised extensively by Ngô Si Liên in 1479 at the order of the emperor. The annals were again edited and expanded by Lê Hi in 1698. The Library's copy was printed from the original but somewhat worn blocks on good Vietnamese paper. Incorporated in this work immediately after the contents page is the treatise Vi?t Giám Thông Kh?o T?ng Lu?nby Lê Tung. It is a summary of Ngô Sii Liên's original draft of the annals. Rounding out the Library's collection of Vietnamese is an 1884 Shanghai reprint of the An-Nam Chí Lu?c, written in China toward the end of the thirteenth century by the expatriate Lê T?c. It is probably the oldest Vietnamese historical work that has been preserved. In addition, the Library holds a wide range of reprints of early works that have been translated from Vietnam's old writing system, which used Chinese characters, into modern Vietnamese.


HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections


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( November 15, 2010 )
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