Vanishing secret of ink making

Bac Ninh Province’s Vinh The village is famous for making Chinese ink but one only hear the ink making story from the last ink makers in the village.

People can easily see the wealth and prosperity of the village, which was mainly brought by its traditional ink making, when they visit Vinh The, currently known as Tu The. The villagers, however, rarely know anything about ink making. It took a great effort for SGGP to track down a couple who did. Mr. Ngo Van Dai and Mrs. Pham Thi Mo used to make Chinese ink.

“When I was a child, my grandfather told me that the ink making industry had been in this village for a long time,” Dai recounts, “ in the sixteenth century, the scholar Nguyen Van Hien, a Vinh The villager, who received a second-rank doctor degree in 1502, was sent to China as the king’s envoy. He learnt to make ink and brought the skill to the villagers when he returned.”

But in 1946 and 1947, there were only five ink making families left in the village.

Mrs. Mo said that in 1938 when she was 13 she got married to Mr. Dai and became the main producer in his family. Every week, Dai’s father went to Yen Bai Province by train to buy pine resin, the main material for making ink. Pine resin would be carefully preserved in big jars.

Every morning, Mo mixed pine resin with sawdust. When the mixture was well-kneaded, she rolled it into small pieces of tinder then used a paddle to put them into a kiln and tried to keep the fire burning. Smoke was released from the tinder sticks on the pot’s bottom. She then collected the soot. This is the high quality ink.

There is a small door in the kiln to release the smoke into a chamber in which she hung many baskets. She took out the baskets after a few months to collect ink. This is the normal ink that would be sold to Dong Ho village to make offerings.

Making ink was painstaking but brought in more money than other industries, she said.

Mr. Dai and Mrs. Mo are the last people who know how to make ink in this village. The secret of traditional ink making may disappear with them; the couple is both over 80 years old.

By Hai Duong – Translated by Thuy Doan

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