Tet paintings from a distant past

The origin of folk woodcut paintings is said to date back to the Ly and Tran Dynasties during 11-14th century, as recorded in “Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi” (“Laws over dynasties categorized”, Vietnam’s first encyclopedia). However, it is Zhuangyuan Luong Nhu Hoc who lived during the Later Le Dynasty and is hailed by craftsmen of Dong Ho painting village as the founder of the traditional craft.

Dam cuoi chuot (Rat's wedding), a popular example of Dong Ho painting

Dam cuoi chuot (Rat's wedding), a popular example of Dong Ho painting

Major locations in Vietnam that still produce these paintings, which are often reserved for Tet, are Nam Du Thuong village in Ha Dong, Sen Ho village in Bac Giang, or Dong Ho village in Bac Ninh. Dong Ho village specifically has gained their fame by practicing the craft through generations and had the honor of having the paintings named after their village.

There were 17 clans during the village’s prime, all of whom made a living through these drawings. Around the 7th or 8th lunar month each year, villagers would scurry to prepare paintings to be sold at the annual spring market. Colorful paper sheets are spread all over the village’s ground, filling one’s line of vision. And just like that, the bustling air lingered in that small community for days.

A man from the North, nesting in the warm South reminiscing about tranh tet (spring paintings) of old times, once wrote: “When I was small, a nameless thrilling sensation would fill my heart whenever I see one of the drawings of hens or piglets. Maybe it was the indication of Tet that came with those brightly colored images that got me excited. I still remember as clear as yesterday, how our mother would always come home from spring shopping with a book of such pictures drawn on Dap Cau paper, each about 40cm long and 10cm wide.

The drawings all showed different scenes, like “collecting coconuts”, “the hen and chicks”, “rat wedding”, or “Dinh Tien Hoang riding a dragon”. All the colorful and flashy images carried such a sense of innocence and whimsy that we could not help but find them absolutely charming. So my brothers and I, young as we were, would always fight over the drawings, sometimes even throwing fists as each other, but in the end we would agree to hang them all over the walls for everyone to see. And the scene of our ordinary home would suddenly be lit up as the air hums with immense excitement for Tet” (cited from Van Hoc - Saigon magazine, 1970).

Even inside crammed thatch cottages, Tet paintings would still be hung around, just like how poet To Huu used to describe them. As I once heard from a friend, the many different themes within Tet paintings tell of the owner’s wishes. For instance, they may choose to display the “Than tai” and “Than loc” couplet (The gods of wealth) to wish for prosperity. The two dignified figures wear long robes and dragonfly-winged hats, drawn either standing or kneeling facing each other. One of them holds a scroll inscribed with the words “tien tai” (wealth aplenty), while the other presents a peach with “tien loc” (money aplenty) written on it.

Some of the more common drawings are images of chickens or pigs, the two most typical farm animals in the countryside. Bright and powerful colors are always utilized in these paintings, mostly powder gold or vermilion, to depict scenes of a hen and her chicks or of a sow and piglets to represent good luck and affluence.

There are also paintings of four little boys holding different items to give the owner blessings of healthy babies. On a painting that shows a boy wearing a golden bracelet watching gold fish, there are Chinese characters that can be interpreted as “happiness aplenty”. There is also a painting of a boy holding a toad atop lotus leaves and a girl sitting in a basket with a ball that says “Trai tai om coc tia/Gai sac be cau xanh”. Its meaning is to wish the family’s males bravery and the females good luck in finding a worthy husband.

Beside paintings that wish blessings, there are many more describing spring activities, like the “Du Xuan do” (image of spring sightseeing) depicting men singing, wrestling and gambling. Its accompanying poem reads: “Spring parties in peaceful times/Near and far the bustle chimes/Music sounds in regal halls/Out in yards are lively brawls”.

The “Thuong Xuan do” (image of spring enjoyment) on the other hand shows the most popular traditional gambling games during old times like xoc dia, with this accompanying poem: “Tossing four a coin/Big spending boozers/Joyous though the shots/Wine knows no losers”. The painting also shows a gambler losing to the point of having to pawn off his pants and get dragged home by his wife, and another cowardly gambler that quits early after gaining just a bit of cash.

The painting markets were only ever full of activities during the 12th lunar month, lamented an old Northern man, when waves of visitors from afar flood in to buy spring paintings. Tet was not a period of time but rather an experience. Nowadays, the fast pace of modernization has denied people the essence of country life, when drawings of a distance childhood are left to collect dust. Nowadays, no one buys spring paintings to decorate their house anymore. But somewhere within the land of nostalgia and culture remains a vigorous “paper soul” of a people’s springtime hopes and wishes.

By Le Van Nghia - Translated by Tan Nghia

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