Nguyen dynasty woodblocks include 34,555 plates of woodblock made under the reign of the Nguyen dynasty in which engraved various contents from official literature, history, classical and historical books. Therefore, apart from their historical values, the woodblock also has artistic and technical merit as they marked the development of wood-block carving and printing work in Vietnam. Their importance and high value led feudal dynasties and state regimes in history of Vietnam to pay considerable attention to preserving these records.
Under the Nguyen dynasty, to popularize social norms, laws that required people to abide by, and to hand down the kings’ career and position and historical facts, the royal court ordered to engrave historical books and literature works to deliver nationwide. The process helped create a special type of document, called woodblocks. They are unique and original documents.
The blocks are made up of a plate of wood with letters carved in Chinese or ancient Vietnamese. The letters are carved in reverse so when the image is printed, it will appear the right way round. Currently, the collection of 34, 555 woodblocks is now being preserved in the State Records and Archives Department at National Archives Centre 4. 935 copies contain various contents, and are divided into nine topics: history, geography, military, laws, poems, religion-ideology-philosophy, linguistics-document, politics-society, culture-education.
The Nguyen dynasty woodblocks were made during the operation of the national history department of the Nguyen dynasty (established in 1820 under the reign of King Minh Mang) in Hue. They are the very rare and precious documents, in terms of its contents, particularity in manipulating methods and strict regulations of the feudal court on publication and carving. These documents were considered a national precious object, only authorized people working at the national history department were allowed to work with them.
To manipulate these documents, people had to undergo a strict procedure which cost lots of time and efforts: at first the King issued an order that allowed the book compilation. After that, the compiling board submitted a document to the King to ask for the study of the official documents and then submitted the draft book to the King for recommendations. The draft book was returned to the compiling board for adjustment and supplement following the King’s suggestions. The manuscripts were clearly copied. The compiling board then submitted to the King for approval. After the approval, the book was transferred to the engraving agency under the control of the mandarins following the King’s order. After the engraving, the mandarins asked the King for permission to print the book from the woodblock. Each set of books could not be printed without the King’s orders.
To manipulate the woodblock documents, the national history department had to recruit many skillful engravers. Each of Chinese and Vietnamese character was engraved in the woodblock very sophisticated. Each of woodblock is not only a precious document but also a unique piece of art.
According to some documents, wood used to make the Nguyen dynasty woodblocks is very special, from Thi (Diospyros decandra Lour) and Nha Dong trees that is both soft and smooth with an ivory white color, and is suitable for engraving without chaps. As a result, hundreds years have gone, but the woodblocks are still in good physical conditions. Besides, people also used the wood of Le (Pirus communist Linn) and Tao (Jujube) for the engraving. This type of woodblocks that engraved historical and political works of a court like the Nguyen dynasty woodblocks are rare in the world. These are valuable documents, serving Vietnam’s contemporary historical and cultural researches.
On July 30, 2009, Nguyen dynasty woodblocks became Vietnam’s first documents to be recognized as the “World Documentary Heritage” at a plenary session of the International Advisory Committee of UNESCO Memory of the World Programme from July 29 to 31, 2009 in Bridgetown (Barbados). They were officially listed in UNESCO “Memory of the World Programme. Nguyen dynasty woodblocks are a very specially precious document in Vietnam and the world