One of the Four Sacred Animals, the turtle holds a special place in Vietnamese culture. Nhat Minh reports on the legends and symbolism tied to this mystical beast:
"Hanoi is home to legends bout powerful turtle, such as the golden turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake."
The sacred turtle is a unique symbol in Vietnamese culture, being closely linked to Vietnam's rich river system and its culture of wet rice cultivation. The turtle is one of the Four Sacred Animals, the others being the dragon, the phoenix, and the unicorn.
The turtle may predate the others in Vietnam, going back to the days when the Viet people began their course of nation building and defense.
A legend recounts how, after the country was reunified, King An Duong Vuong Thuc Phan selected a clear and even area in Phong Khe (in what is now the Dong Anh district of Ha Noi) on which to build the Loa Thanh (Round Citadel). This was to be the capital of the Au Lac kingdom.
Construction did not go smoothly. The citadel collapsed several times. One night, the king dreamed of a golden turtle god named Kim Quy who told him how to build the citadel correctly. The citadel was rebuilt accordingly without further trouble. After the citadel was complete, the turtle god presented the king with a claw with which to make a trigger for a magic crossbow.
This magic cross bow could launch hundreds of arrows at a time, thereby helping the kingdom to repel many invasions from the North. Unfortunately, the conning northern king of Trieu Da (Zhao Tuo) had his son, Trong Thuy, marry the Viet princess My Chau in order to steal the magic crossbow. When the nation was defeated King An Duong Vuong com matted suicide.
This story dates back to the third century BC, before the arrival of Confucianism in Viet Nam. At that time, Vietnamese people retained a pure Southeast Asian wet rice minder. The sacred turtle was a symbol of divinity on the one hand and close to their daily lives on the other.
Another legend involving a turtle dates back to the 15th century. This story also relates to the history of Ha Noi and to the fight for peace and national independence. After defeating the Ming invaders and establishing the Later Le dynasty, Emperor Le Thai To took a boat ride on Luc Thuy Lake (now Hoan Kiem Lake).
The water's suddenly disturbed and a giant turtle appeared and swam towards the king's boat. As it approached the king, the turtle said: "Now that the country's affairs java been settled, please return the sacred sword to me!" The Emperor drew out the Thuan Thien (By Heaven's Order) Sword and threw it to the turtle.
This sword was believed to have been found during the battle when Le Thai To first called for an uprising against the invaders. The turtle took the sword and disappeared beneath the water. The lake was renamed "Hoan Kiem", which translates as "Returned Sword".
The symbol of the turtle is clearly attached to the history of nation building and defense in Viet Nam. It is also a familiar image in Vietnamese culture and is a symbol of peace, disarmament and the ending of wars, which are age old desires amongst the Viet People.
From a philosophical perspective, the sacred turtle is a symbol of the universe with its curved shell representing the sky, its flat belly the earth and the patterns on its shell representing messages sent from heaven to earth.
As such, in ancient China, When King Da Yu conducted irrigation works on the Luo River; he found a sacred turtle carrying a message from the king of heaven on its back. The interpretation of the message helped him to accomplish his mission and to establish rules by which to govern society.
In China, the sacred turtle was given a special position: it carried stone slabs praising the king's deeds, decorated columns at tombs and was buried with other fengshui objects to ensure that the land's ki, or energy, remained auspicious.
In Viet Nam, sacred turtles carrying stone steles appeared in the 12th century AD at Ling Ung Pagoda in Thanh Hoa province.
By the 15th century AD, or at the beginning of the Later Le dynasty, these figures were much more popular. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi still features a collection of turtles carrying stone steles. Eighty two steles honoring 1,304 doctors of literature during the Later Le dynasty (1428-1789) rest upon 82 giant stone turtles. Made in a uniform style, these turtles feature large backs and pointed heads. They look quite similar to the giant soft shell turtles found in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake.
The he Temple of Literature in Hue has only two stone turtles bearing 32 steals that list the names of 293 doctors of literature during the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945). The turtles at Hue's Temple of Confucius are smaller in size but have thicker bodies. Their heads are held aloft, giving them a realistic appearance.
In fact, differences in the sculptures of the Dang Ngoai (northern region) and Dang Trong (southern region) predate the 19th century. In Hue's Thien Mu Pagoda there is a stone slab placed on a turtle believed to have been installed by Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu in 1714 after the renovation of the pagoda.
Both the stele and the turtle are of great artistic value. Made of marble, the big turtle has a heavy body yet looks lively, unlike the turtles from the northern region. This style is also found on the Quoc Mau Chi Bao seal (Precious Seal of the Motherland) made between 1779-1806. Resting on top of the silver seal to form the handle is a gold turtle with a heavy body and raised head; it’s back carved with 36 characters in ancient script.
In graphic art, the turtle, although of the Four Sacred Animals, is often depicted alone rather than in the group. In pagoda, temple and communal house architecture, the turtle is sometimes created as a leaf or a fruit.
It is often shown carrying a Pakua or a sacred book on its back and spraying water from its mouth, In royal palaces and buildings, the turtle is one of the favourite decorative motifs and is made of different materials like stone, bronze, gold, silver, ceramics, terracotta, lacquer, etc. Emperor Minh Mang even had the turtle carved on the third of the Nine Urns in the Royal Palace.
The turtle is often paired with the crane, this pair popular in both folk and royal art. The crane normally stands on the turtle's back, signifying the movable and immovable aspects of life or the yin and yang relationship.
As such, the turtle and crane symbol is stability and natural harmony, longevity, nobility and salvation. Given the mission of "carrying the stele in temples and the crane in pagodas", the turtle spreads a message of knowledge and spirituality.
From time immemorial, Hanoi, the heart of Viet Nam, has been home to great stories about legendary turtles, in particular the turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake and the famous Turtle Tower (Thap Rua) by its side, which is described in this folk verse:
“The Turtle Tower's silbouette lies over the water of the lake,
Joined by The Hue Bridge and Ngoc Son Sbrine”
The city of Hanoi is associated with the ascending dragon and the sacred turtle, making it a symbol of peace, stability and sustainability.
Travel tip shared by Lanh Nguyen