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Herbalist's work unveils ‘ancient secrets'

Update: January, 27/2015 - 11:36

Figurine: Herbalist Nguyen Khac Bao shows an ancient statue of his collection. — VNS Photos Thai Ha

by Hoang Trung Hieu

A herbalist sits in the middle of his medical room, surrounded by piles of medical books and boxes containing herbs.

Nguyen Khac Bao, 68, is well-known in Bac Ninh City, in the northern province of Bac Ninh, as the fifth generation of his family who practices Oriental medicine.

But his house in Tran Hung Dao Street is like a miniature museum of ancient books and ancient terracotta statues.

Bao's collection of antique statues originated from his family profession.

He was working as a maths teacher, when he resigned in 1989 to take care of his sick father and learn the family vocation to take over his father's medical work.

As his repute of being good at Han (Chinese) and Nom (ancient Vietnamese scripts) has spread in the region, people who find antiques with the Han script often bring these items -- including coins, dishes and jars -- to him, asking him to explain the characters written on them. His collection of fertility statues also originate from that.

In 1996, some people who came to his clinic for medical examination saw that Bao had some antique crockery from the time of the Tran and Le dynasties (13th-14th centuries). They offered to sell to Bao some ancient statues that they had.

Partly because of his passion for the traditional values of the forefathers, and partly because he wanted to help those poor farmers to get some money for their medical expenses, Bao agreed to buy these statues, although he was not quite sure about their value at that time.

As these sellers spread the word, any time the farmers in Thuy Nguyen District of Hai Phong Province, as well as Chi Linh and Kinh Mon districts of Hai Duong Province, found ancient objects while ploughing their fields, they brought the items to sell to Bao.

Bao now has more than 2,000 such statues. Some of them were left by his father.

Holding a statue that depicts a couple making love, he said, "I bought this statue along with a dozen others. Thus the money for food for my family was nearly exhausted [at that time his family lived only on the earnings from his medical practice], but I told my wife to give me the last paper money left to buy it."

Moods: The terracotta statues express different emotions.

Sometimes, the sellers brought statues to Bao when he was out of money. Bao would then tell his wife to borrow money to buy the items immediately.

"I bought them partly because I sympathised with the farmers who travelled from far to meet me, and partly because I feared that if they could not sell, they might throw the statues away, which would be a waste," Bao said.

Therefore, those days, his family had to live very frugally with minimal meals because of his fondness for collecting antiques. Gradually, the money he paid to purchase the ancient statues totalled about VND500 million (about US$23,000).

His collection of more than 2,000 statues can be divided into two main categories: statues of humans and of animals.

The terracotta human statues are usually about 20cm to 30cm tall, and most of them are nude.

The most visible characteristic of these statues is that they involve the folk beliefs of the ancient Vietnamese people, such as the fertility cult that attaches a lot of importance to male and female genitals.

The largest statues are just 30cm to 40cm tall, with different emotions such as joy, anger, love and hate being expressed on their faces. All of them look rough and rustic, and apparently depict a wild nature such as large bulging eyes and protruding chins.

The genitals and sexual positions of most statues are stylised and exaggerated.

The male and female genitals are even clearly shaped, surprising the viewers with the raw and rustic style of the artefacts.

Besides the human statues, the collection also features several animals, mainly reptiles. Some are very difficult to identify because they look like pythons, but have legs. Many statues of animals such as toads, frogs, dogs and monkeys, as well as turtles and snakes look pretty life-like.

Collector's items

Although he is not an archaeologist, Bao ventured to buy these statues.

He also collects ancient coins (many of them date back thousands of years) and has an understanding of Han - Nom scripts and history. So he and some other antique experts speculated that these ancient statues date from the time of the Chinese Qin - Han dynasties (about 2,000 years ago).

To demonstrate that, he showed me the Chinese Qin coins that were discovered with the ancient statues.

"All archaeologists know that this coin appeared from the Qin dynasty in China. After unifying his country, Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified its systems of scripts, measurement and money," he said.

During this period, according to archaeologists, there was a custom of burying items, especially statues, along with the dead.

Bao said the statues that he collected were probably created by the ancient Vietnamese people, as the rich families buried them in the tombs of their relatives.

Bao said that Associate Professor Trinh Cao Tuong, an archaeologist from the Institute of Archaeology, had already come to evaluate the statues' age. However, he could not decide the exact age of these statues.

Many people, including artists and antique experts, also came to Bao's home to see the statues. They include economics professor Ha Ton Vinh (who has an unique collection of antique lime pots in Viet Nam), Ann Proctor who is an Australian archaeology professor, and John S Boardman, former deputy chief of mission, Ha Noi. All of them admired the collection.

Trinh Dang Trung, an expert from the Archaeology Institute, said that the making of terracotta statues had existed for long in the traditional craft of Viet Nam.

"The folk terracotta statues tend to describe, simulate and recreate reality. They symbolise innocence and instinct. Most of the terracotta works displayed in the Viet Nam Museum of Fine Arts belong to the modern times, but the statues that look innocent and rough at Bao's home are perhaps the kind that experts rarely encounter," he said.

Assoc Prof Tuong believes that these artifacts date back thousands of years.

"They have great cultural and historical significance, that should be studied and preserved," he said.

Sculptor and painter Anh Vu said that he wanted to bow to these statues to show his respect to the ancient artists.

"The way ancient people made these statues was spontaneous and funny, and nothing is vulgar," Vu added. — VNS

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