Antique Vietnamese Imperial Silver Gilt Hand Warmer,
Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam – circa 1880


This exquisite hand warmer is of elongated octagonal shape and stands on a decorative pedestal base. A double carrying handle is attached to the sides. The pierced and ornamented cover has a decorative lotus finial with attached chain. 

There is an inscription, in Chinese characters, to the side of one of the handles.  Loosely translated, it reads “Qing dynasty Vietnam, year of side Empire 1882 and the weight is 21 Liang”. 

The outstanding craftsmanship and the sheer quality of this piece, together with the depictions of five-toed flying dragons (phi long) within the panels, suggests that the hand warmer was made either for a member of the Imperial Court or, possibly intended as an ambassadorial gift or diplomatic tribute from the Vietnamese Emperor to the Chinese Emperor.  A silver maker’s mark, in Chinese characters, can be found to the underside of the base. 

In 1882, Emperor Tu Duc, the fourth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty was on the throne. He ruled Vietnam from 1847 to 1883. Vietnam and China had co-existed peaceably for many years, with their relationship described as similar to that of a big brother and a little brother. Vietnam was polite and respectful, sending suitable tribute to the Chinese Emperor on his birthday and seeking his permission before a new emperor was installed on the Vietnamese throne.

1882 is a significant date in Vietnamese history and a year of political turmoil within the region. France’s colonial expansion had encroached on Vietnam in stages: having gained control of the provinces of Cochin and Annam, they also wanted Tonkin as a gateway for trade into China, bypassing the Treaty Ports.  On 25th April 1882, a detachment of French troops, under a rogue commander, stormed Hanoi and captured the citadel.  Although the troops later withdrew, this surprising action alarmed the Vietnamese and the Chinese.  As the Vietnamese army was very weak, they appealed to China for support against the French.

In the summer of 1882, the Qing Court sent troops of the Chinese Yunnan and Guangxi armies across the border into Tonkin, causing alarm and panic amongst the French who feared war with China. As a result, by the end of 1882, the French Minister to China had negotiated a deal with Chinese statesman, Li Hongzhang, agreeing to divide Tonkin into areas of French and Chinese spheres of influence, with neither of the parties to these negotiations consulting the Vietnamese about the arrangement.  Although Li Hongzhang had initially sought French acceptance of Chinese suzerainty over Vietnam, the result of the Sino-French War of 1883–85 was French suzerainty instead.  

The intricate lid has been ornamented using repousse and chased techniques and then painstakingly, by hand, the superfluous metal around the motifs would have been removed. The sides of the lid are ornamented with a bold block meander pattern, orientating in differing ways.  It is surmounted by a decorative lotus bud finial arising from amid tiers of lotus petals, to which a chain is attached, facilitating the lid’s removal. The lotus is a Buddhist symbol and is the national symbol of modern day Vietnam.  It connotes purity of the body, speech and mind and is also seen as symbolic of detachment, as water droplets easily slide off the flowers petals. 

The lid features the four sacred creatures of the Vietnamese and Chinese. These are the turtle, the phoenix, the dragon and the Ky-Lin or (Nghe), all regarded as auspicious beings and said to be the four entities to possess spirit.  

The four sacred animals were recurring and prominent design motifs of Nguyen dynasty art (1848-1883) and featuring the four together was distinctive of Vietnamese art. Each of these animals had a different symbolic meaning. The Dragon was a sacred symbol associated with ancestry and the Vietnam nation's origins through the legend of "The Children of the Dragon and the Fairy". It was also a symbol of divinity and royal power. The Kylin or nghe, embodied benevolence; its presence thought to herald the birth of a divine man or a revered ruler. The Phoenix represented a peaceful and prosperous era and was also a symbol of virtue and beauty. The Tortoise was a symbol of stability and eternity. When presented together, the Four Sacred Animals have a more holistic meaning and signify a wish for peace, affluence and a stable society with favorable weather, bumper crops, prosperity and longevity.

The body of the warmer has eight decorative repousse and chased panels separated by borders of plain contrasting gilt silver.  The two widest panels are to the longest sides, at front and back, with the two of intermediate size placed to right and left. The four narrowest panels are placed at the intersections between the widest and intermediate panels. Four different designs are featured, with each repeating twice on opposing sides.  They all show a flying dragon (phi long) or dragons amongst the clouds, set against a finely punched background.  At the bottom of each panel a stylised lotus flower arises from the water. 

The pedestal base is of convex curvature or bombe shaped, turned under to form feet at the corners and cut away along the sides in a decorative manner.  It has been ornamented using repousse and chased techniques, all set against a finely punched background.  There are lotus petals at each corner foot and scrolling foliate and floral patterns to the four sides.

The production of hand warmers reached its peak during the Ming and Qinq dynasties (1368-1912 AD) and their design is believed to have evolved from that of incense burners. They were especially useful for scholars and painters, whose activities were sedentary as they had the greatest difficulty in keeping warm during the bitter winter months. Eventually their use became widespread and they were made in a variety of different materials. 

The hand warmers were designed to be portable and they could be carried around with relative safety whilst travelling or visiting others and placed under robes when seated, with the long fold down handles minimising the risk of burns.  Silver is the best conductor of heat, followed by copper, but as silver was much more expensive than copper, it was unaffordable for most people. Consequently, the use of silver and silver-gilt hand warmers was mainly confined to the Court.

Nguyen dynasty coinage depicted phi long and the columns in the Mausoleum of Tu Duc, erected 1864-1867, were also ornamented with depictions of flying dragons amongst the clouds, in similar style. The Throne Hall at the Citadel of Hue contains many intricate and decorative panels featuring flying dragons and the other sacred animals.  There are striking similarities between the bombe shape of the base of the throne and of the dais it rests upon, and the pedestal stand of the hand warmer.

Housed within the collection of the National Museum of History in Hanoi, Vietnam, is a near identical hand warmer with panels featuring the phoenix in place of the dragon.  It is possible that these are from a set of four, with each warmer’s ornamentation representing a different one of the four sacred animals.

Dimensions:-  Height 15 cms, Width 13.2 cms

Weight:-  790 grammes 


The tomb of Tu Duc, the Imperial Tombs of Hue, Vietnam

The Throne Hall, Truong Sanh Palace, Imperial Citadel, Hue, Vietnam

‘Collection of Vietnamese Sacred and Mythical Animals’, Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi, Special Exhibition 2015

Vietnamese Coin with depiction of Phi Long, issued by Emperor Minh Mang, the second Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, 1833