Vietnam’s economy is advancing rapidly and almost everyone seems so obsessed with amassing material wealth as much as possible that many of the national cultural values are at times treated as unimportant and forgotten.
Elites in the cultural circle have warned of the enormous costs when economic growth was given more prominence than cultural development. But every cloud has a silver lining. As Vietnam is deepening its international integration and the downsides of a market economy are laid bare, the role of culture in society has been revisited and highly appraised.
Some compare the relationship between economic growth and cultural development to a car’s accelerator and break. Economic growth is like the accelerator to drive the country forward rapidly, but as the economic car is gaining speed, culture acts as a break so that the car is able to steer clear of potential dangers lurking behind the economic prosperity.
Nguyen Ngoc, a well-known Vietnamese author, said that culture could help a wealth-drive society wind down. And as Vietnam’s economic car is still roaring ahead, there are still people who have been tirelessly looking for long-established cultural values which have been shrouded in the mist of time, but which also hold a strong appeal and wait to shine again.
In this special series, we are recounting the journeys of those who have been scavenging what many consider relics of the past to revive Vietnamese cultural values. The special thing about them is that most are young people while one is a foreigner with a passionate love for the Vietnamese language.
It is Nguyen Su, a young researcher, who spent four years traversing the country in search of elegant calligraphy works left by men of letters of the past, which in his own words are among the happiest years of his life. The result is a 280-plus-page book on the development of Vietnamese calligraphy from the period when Vietnam was under Chinese domination to the era of independence under the Ly, Tran, Le, Nguyen dynasties. It also explores the different styles of Vietnamese calligraphy and introduces distinguished calligraphers throughout history.
It is young members of Dai Viet Co Phong, who got together in the Hoa Van Dai Viet Project and sifted through moss-covered stone steles and reliefs in order to recover the glory of the past and create a database of ancient Vietnamese patterns at a time when everyone is preoccupied with the race to get rich. After months of hard work, their project came to fruition with a collection of more than two hundred digitised patterns which can be applied to a wide a variety of products from notebooks and calendar to T-shirts and lucky money packets.
It is Japanese professor Masaaki Shimizu, who is fascinated by the ancient Vietnamese Nom script, which he used to study in order to see how the Vietnamese language was pronounced in centuries past. His research helps us understand how the 15-century scholar and poet Nguyen Trai’s poems written in Nom are pronounced as they were at the time and the many other aspects of the Vietnamese language in the past. He is also an active force in making Vietnamese more popular in Japan and helping strengthen the relationship between the two countries.
Each embarks on their own journey, but converges at one point that is the common love for ancient Vietnamese culture and their stories are as much engaging as what they are pursuing.