Bibliotheca Herpetologica: The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake

It was five years ago that I first read about the rarest freshwater turtle in the world – the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) – known from Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. In late 2007, the Hoàn Kiếm turtle was one of only three Swinhoe’s softshell turtles in existence, the remaining two were known from China: an older male on display at the Suzhou Zoo and a recently re-discovered female, “China Girl,” part of the Changsha Zoo’s, collection. Of the eight Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists in the wild or captivity in the preceding years, the remaining five had died since the 1990s: two in the West Garden Buddhist temple in Suzhou; one in the Suzhou Zoo; one in the Shanghai Zoo; and one in the Beijing Zoo.

That there might be only three of its species left in the world was remarkable. But what made the Hoàn Kiếm turtle especially unique was that this very turtle was purported to be over 600 years old. According to legend, in ages past this legendary turtle was once the messenger of the Dragon King, who bade the turtle deliver a sword to a farmer to help the Vietnamese people vanquish their Chinese invaders. Armed with this mystical sword, the farmer Lê Lợi gathered an army and overthrew their oppressors. Not long after Lê Lợi became king, he was boating on Lục Thuy Lake (today’s Hoàn Kiếm Lake) when the turtle returned to retrieve the blade.

And so it was that when a giant soft-shelled turtle began appearing in Hoàn Kiếm Lake after a centuries-long hiatus, onlookers – and the world – took notice. I did too.

The following year, experts from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Asian Turtle Program and Education for Nature-Vietnam announced in April 2008 that they had successfully photographed and confirmed a second wild individual – the fourth of its kind alive today in the wild or captivity – west of Hanoi in Đồng Mỏ Lake. Later that year, the prodigal turtle disappeared after floods washed out Đồng Mỏ’s dam, only to reappear weeks later in the possession of a local fisherman, who announced his intent to sell the turtle to a local Hanoi restaurateur. The fisherman eventually turned the turtle over to authorities, who returned it safely to the lake.

That same year, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle stakeholders came together to initiate a captive breeding program between Changsha Zoo’s China Girl and the Suzhou Zoo’s male. To their credit, the program has continued to this day but, despite repeated pairings and the more than 100 eggs laid each season, none have successfully hatched to date.

In 2011, the Hoàn Kiếm turtle again made headlines when it began to develop lesions and other signs of injury. After much debate, on April 3rd, 2011 the turtle was captured and isolated on an island at the heart of Hoàn Kiếm Lake for medical treatment. It has since been released after its recovery, and efforts are underway to clean up the lake.

Five years ago, I took it upon myself to learn more about this unique species and the colorful Arthurian legend-like story it embodied, a project that has culminated this year in the publication of “Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei): The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake,” an article in the journal Bibliotheca Herpetologica (Volume 10, No. 1) that marks the first comprehensive review of the rare Swinhoe’s softshell turtle’s history and natural history and the legend of the Sword Lake Turtle together in the English language for western audiences.

For those interested in the legend itself, I have excerpted it with the journal’s permission below. To learn more about the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle’s history and natural history, I recommend joining the International Society for the History and Bibliography of Herpetology; the standard two-year membership includes a journal subscription beginning with issue 9 (featuring “The Herpetological Legacy of Linnaeus”) as well as issue 10(1) on Swinhoei’s softshell turtle. Individual issues can also be purchased for $7.50 each as instructed here.

The Legend of the Sword Lake Turtle

“In the six-hundred years since the Dragon King first guided the farmer king to victory, the legend of the Sword Lake Turtle has evolved in the telling. The heart of this legend roughly holds true to the historical record. Between 1418 and 1426, after enduring years of violent occupation under an invading force of the Chinese Ming, the farmer Lê Lợi raised an army of 500 volunteer soldiers – the Lam Son army – to free their country.  Although Lê Lợi’s guerilla tactics demoralized and chipped away at the invader’s forces, the Ming occupation persisted (Trang 2006). It is here that the lines between legend and history blur.

As retold by Minh Trang in “Sự Tích Hồ Gươm (The Legend of Sword Lake)” (Trang 2006; see also Asian Turtle Conservation Network 2008), legend has it the Dragon King – witnessing from his underwater palace the Lam Son army’s struggle – sent forth the Golden Turtle (referred to as the “Golden Tortoise” in Trang 2006) to deliver a magical sword blade to Lê Lợi. Whether by design or by accident (here the legend is unclear on all counts), this blade was delivered, not to Lê Lợi, but to a fisherman, Lê Thận. Lê Thận cast his net three times, each time entangling it in the sword blade. It wasn’t until the third cast that Lê Thận, beguiled by the reappearing blade, tucked it in his belt and returned home. Soon thereafter, Lê Thận joined Lê Lợi’s resistance army.

One night, after stopping by Lê Thận’s quarters to visit, Lê Lợi noticed the blade on the wall, which began to glow in his presence. Inspecting the blade, Lê Lợi saw the radiance emanated from two words etched on the blade: “Thuận Thiên” (“Heaven Approves” or “The Will of Heaven”). Several days later, during a retreat of Lê Lợi’s guerilla army before an anticipated Ming attack, the farmer king again saw a strange glow – this time from the canopy of an ancient banyan tree. Upon closer inspection, Lê Lợi saw that it was a sword hilt decorated in gems and etched with the same divine words: “Thuận Thiên.”

When Lê Lợi and Lê Thận next crossed paths, Lê Lợi asked to see the blade; the blade and hilt were a perfect fit. Seeing this as a sign from heaven, Lê Thận knelt before Lê Lợi, bestowed him the sword, and swore his allegiance to the farmer king that he might save their people and their homeland (Trang 2006).

As word of Lê Lợi’s magical sword spread, his Lam Son army grew (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). Backed by a growing resistance some 350,000 soldiers strong, reinforced with horses and elephants, and – by legend’s score – armed with the magical sword that made Lê Lợi grow tall and gave him the strength of many men (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008), Lê Lợi destroyed the Ming forces and led his people to victory. After years of oppression, in 1427 the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese people’s independence. One year later, Lê Lợi was declared king under the title Lê Thái Tổ, founder of the Lê Dynasty (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008).

Not long after Lê Lợi became king, he was touring Lục Thuy (“Green Water”) Lake when the Golden Turtle emerged from the waters to retrieve the divine sword. By some accounts, the Golden Turtle asked for the sword’s return and Lê Lợi respectfully complied (Trang 2006); by others the messenger instead plucked it from Lê Lợi’s belt, inciting the king to retrieve it (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). In the end, however, Lê Lợi acknowledged the sword’s return to the Dragon King and in tribute, renamed the waters Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, “The Lake of the Returned Sword” (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008)” (Bettelheim 2012).


Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2012. Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei): The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 10(1): p 4-20.

Acknowledgements: This work could not have been undertaken without the help of Scott Davis, Balazs Farkas, Uwe Fritz, Richard Gemel, Douglas Hendrie, Gerald Kuchling, Steve Leach, Peter C. H. Pritchard, Clayton Statham, Robert G. Webb, and Roger Bour.

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  1. #1 by Doug Smarr on September 28, 2012 - 4:20 am

    Matt, congratulations again on your article. The blog post itself is very interesting. Very interesting story about a pretty amazing species of turtle.

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