Guardians of Vietnam's ancient culture

A Japanese professor, a young researcher and a group of art enthusiasts

Published: 31 December 2017

Introduction


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.




Masaaki Shimizu

Japanese professor studies old Vietnamese phonology

Few Vietnamese people today can decipher the meanings of what was written in the Chinese-derived Nom characters found at old temples and shrines across the country, as well as in a myriad of historical records and literary works that date back to before the early 20th century when the seemingly unfathomable script gradually slipped into oblivion and was finally superseded by the Latin alphabet.

Profile: Masaaki Shimizu
 Nationality: Japanese
 Organisation: Graduate School of Language and Culture, Osaka University
 Research topics: Historical phonology of Vietnamese, Nom, teaching of Vietnamese, linguistics, foreign language education
 Awards: Balaban Award, Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation, 2017

But the now defunct script, which constitutes a major part of the Vietnamese culture heritage, holds a strong appeal to a Japanese man, Professor Masaaki Shimizu, who is teaching Vietnamese at Osaka University.

 Professor Masaaki Shimizu receives the Balaban Award from the Nom Heritage Preservation Foundation.

In March 2017 he was given the Balaban Award for his significant contributions to historical Vietnamese linguistics by the US-based non-profit Vietnamese Nom Heritage Preservation Foundation.

The award was named after John Balaban, an English professor at North Carolina State University who co-founded the organisation in 1999 in an effort to rescue the script from extinction and popularise the rich heritage of poetry, history, medicine and religion that is recorded in the script.

A Nom character is usually formed by combining two Chinese components, with one suggesting its meaning and the other denoting its approximate sound.

For example, the Nom character for water 渃 (nước) is made up of the two components ⺡and 若. The left one is the water radical to signify the Nom character’s meaning and the right component pronounced “nhược” is used is to refer to its sound. One has to be proficient in Chinese characters before they can learn Nom, which is why mastering this enigmatic-looking script is extremely gruelling and not for the impatient.

Professor Shimizu is currently a Vietnamese language researcher at the Graduate School of Language and Culture, Osaka University and vice president of the International Association of Teaching Vietnamese.

He has published numerous papers in which he has explored various aspects of the Vietnamese language, especially its historical phonology through the use of Nom materials. In one paper, the Japanese professor managed to reconstruct the phonological system of ancient Vietnamese initials using the Sino-Vietnamese version of a Buddhist sutra, known as Phat Thuyet Dai Bao Phu Mau An Trong Kinh (Sutra on Parental Benevolence), which was believed to be compiled in the 15th century. The Buddhist scripture was also used to examine the Muong features in written ancient Vietnamese.

In other research papers, he looked into the Sino-Vietnamese readings included in the 17th-century Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum (Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary) by the French Jesuit missionary and lexicographer Alexandre de Rhodes, and analysed characters from an inscription at Non Nuoc Mountain, also known as Ho Thanh Mountain, in Ninh Binh province, one of the oldest extant Nom materials which dates back to the 14th century.

 Professor Masaaki Shimizu is reading an old inscription with his colleagues.

Professor Shimizu said that when he began conducting research into Nom characters, he did not think of reconstructing old Vietnamese sounds but when comparing the pronunciation of a Nom character with that of its Chinese phonetic component, he discovered that he could restore the Vietnamese sounds from the 15th century, the time of the prominent poet, scholar and statesman Nguyen Trai, who helped Le Loi expel the Ming Chinese out of Vietnam and regain independence. Nguyen Trai is considered as the first person to use Nom to write his poems.

If we know the pronunciation of each Nom character in Nguyen Trai’s poems, we can get an idea of how the Vietnamese of his time sounded. We can also know more specifically about the feelings of people during that time.

“If we know the pronunciation of each Nom character in Nguyen Trai’s Quoc Am Thi Tap (Collected Poems in the National Language), we can get an idea of how the Vietnamese of his time sounded. We can also know more specifically about the feelings of people during that time”, said Professor Shimizu.

As a student he chose to learn Vietnamese at Osaka University because he noticed that at that time in Japan the Vietnamese language had not been studied extensively, there were only a few books for learning Vietnamese and hardly any comprehensive Vietnamese-Japanese dictionaries. But the greatest influence on his research career came from Professor Kenji Tomita, then head of the Vietnamese Department. He said “As soon as I read an article about the Nom script by Professor Kenji Tomita, I became immediately beguiled by it.”

Professor Shimizu said that one of the challenges when learning Vietnamese and the Nom script back in the 1980s was the scarcity of available materials. He recalled that there were only a few books about Nom annotated in Japanese by the late Professor Yonosuke Takeuchi that he read with a genuine interest. The first Nom work he read was the 18th century poet Dang Tran Con’s Lament of a Soldier’s Wife written in Chinese characters, which was purportedly later translated into Nom by Doan Thi Diem, a noted contemporary female poet.

After studying Vietnamese at Osaka University, the young student Masaaki Shimizu travelled to Vietnam in the early 1990s to further his language education. He shared that although he had been learning Vietnamese for five years, he still found it embarrassing when addressing other people in Vietnamese.

He told Nhan Dan: “Once I met a room cleaner and addressed her as “older sister”, she looked very puzzled because she was undoubtedly younger than me, while I was thinking that speaking to her that way was polite in Vietnamese. But when I got used to the way of addressing others in Vietnamese, I felt as if they were my real brothers and sisters. That is what I truly love about the Vietnamese language.”

He added “On many occasions, the way we address others can help strengthen our relationship with them. But I could not have had that feeling if I had not lived in Vietnam. There are sworn brothers and sisters from that time whom I can still share anything with. Even in Japan, such a relationship is very rare.”

 Professor Shimizu's time in Vietnam (1991-1998)

Professor Shimizu said the Vietnamese Department at Osaka University currently offers a four-year bachelor programme, two-year Masters programmes and three-year doctoral programmes. After four years of learning Vietnamese, students will be able to write their graduation theses and defend them in Vietnamese. They can choose any topic and made presentations about that topic four to five times before finalising their graduation papers.

For doctoral candidates, they have to give presentations at domestic and international workshops, in addition to talks at the university. Doctoral candidates mainly research phonology, grammar, dialects, Nom reading and languages of ethnic minority groups in Vietnam.

Besides the time teaching Vietnamese at Osaka University, Professor Shimizu also takes part in activities at various academic societies on foreign languages in general and Vietnamese in particular. He is also a member of the organising board of the Vietnamese Speaking Content in collaboration with the Vietnamese Youth and Students Association in Osaka.

 Professor Masaaki Shimizu and his students at the 11th Vietnamese Speaking Contest

This year, aside from Professor Shimizu, the Balaban Award was also given to another Japanese researcher, Washizawa Takuya. According to Professor Shimizu, Japanese people have an advantage in researching Vietnamese because they know and use many words of Chinese origin every day but one of the obstacles facing them is the marked difference between the two phonetic systems and grammar.

However such a difference makes Vietnamese worth studying so that one can find out how differently the two countries acquire and adapt Chinese linguistic elements into their native languages. Professor Shimizu said that Washizawa Takuya is an excellent researcher in this area.

With regards to young people’s lack of interest in their ancestors’ traditional culture, Professor Shimizu shared his view that “the further we look into the future with all of its modernity, the more deeply we need to get to know ourselves and the more we get to know about ourselves, the more necessary it is for us to learn about our history and origin.”

The further we look into the future with all of its modernity, the more deeply we need to get to know ourselves and the more we get to know about ourselves, the more necessary it is for us to learn about our history and origin.

He said that when young people hear of the word “traditional”, they are thinking of something archaic but for him, he very much enjoys reading old poems because on many occasions he feels that the emotions of people in the past are similar to ours today. “In the olden days, when one was sad, such as due to disappointment in love, they also felt a strong urge to express such dejection in the same way as us, the sole difference is the instrument of expression. When we learn about the instrument of expression, ie language, of the past, we can share their emotions and sympathise with them.”

He advised young people that “when you feel happy or sad, try opening ancient books and read a few lines, you’ll meet a lot of people with the same feelings as you throughout history. That is a very large part of our heritage, I suppose.”




Nguyen Huu Su

Young researcher sheds light on Vietnamese ancient calligraphy

Since he was first introduced to calligraphy when he was a fifth grader, 31-year-old Nguyen Huu Su, a researcher at the Institute for Religion Studies, has spent two thirds of his lifetime practising, researching, and teaching the elegant art of calligraphy.

Profile: Nguyen Huu Su
 Born: 1986
 Organisation: Department of Buddhist Research, Institute for Religious Studies
 Education: Guangxi Arts Institute, Fujian Normal University

As a longstanding tradition, every Lunar New Year, Vietnamese people often ask calligraphers, who are usually Confucian scholars, for a “blessed” letter in hope of good fortune for the upcoming year. Calligraphy is often produced by those who have great cultural erudition and perception of classical Chinese language and literature, therefore its appreciative audience is fairly limited. That is why it is usually misunderstood that calligraphy only exists in China though the art is also practised in Japan, Korea and Vietnam where Chinese characters are known under various names: kanji, hanja and chu han.

Thus, one might wonder whether Vietnamese people themselves have their own calligraphy or not and what the typical Vietnamese styles of calligraphy are. With such questions in mind, Nguyen Huu Su spent four years reading books and documents and travelling across the country to seek the answers, which are represented in his latest book entitled ‘The History of Vietnamese Calligraphy’.

 History of Vietnamese Calligraphy

Published in late January 2017, the book marked Su as the first and the youngest Vietnamese researcher to make a full and in-depth research on the topic.

The 250-page book is divided into two parts. The first is a general overview of the history of calligraphy in the Sinosphere, which includes China, Japan and what is now the Republic of Korea and the DPRK. The second part recounts the development of Vietnamese calligraphy, ranging from the period when Vietnam was under Chinese domination to Vietnam’s 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, such as Le Hien Tong, Nguyen Phuc Chu, Vu Tuan and Nguyen Can.

The publication systematises notions of calligraphy, in which, according to the author, calligraphy is not simply an action of writing letters on paper but it is a visual art related to writing. “It is an art which centred on writing and painting boundaries, a way of getting insight into the writer’s psychology and personality,” he affirmed. Calligraphy is not only a form of art but also a way to preserve the history of art in a country.

He argued in his book that the art of Vietnamese calligraphy was born at the same time that the Chinese characters were introduced into the country and has developed at the same speed as in other countries in the region that use Chinese characters.

He also found that Vietnamese people have developed their own styles of writing, and each dynasty had its own way of writing calligraphy.

The book has sold 1,830 copies as of September 2017.

“Practising calligraphy is a good way to cultivate the soul and mind. Writing is a way in which you form your ego and character.”

“Calligraphy is not only a form of art but also a way to preserve the history of art in a country.”

“What I gain the most after publishing the book is that I have received many contributions of opinions and documents from various sources to improve the content of the book,” Nguyen Huu Su.

He started conducting research for the book at the end of 2012. As there is almost no predecessor research on this field before, Nguyen Huu Su had to do it on his own from the very first step. During the next two years, he accessed several libraries and various other sources for information, skimming documents and official historical records of Vietnam in order to find out even the slightest clue about how Vietnamese people practised calligraphy in the past. It required a great deal of time and patience.

The book is a travel back in time by to trace Vietnam's 2,000-year history in order to shed light on a kind of art form which is still vogue in Vietnamese people’s perception.

Tran Trong Duong
Han-Nom researcher

He then spent his own money making hundreds of field trips across the country to make rubbings of stone inscriptions left by the emperors, mandarins, Confucian scholars and monks, which were carved at Buddhist temples, pagoda, shields of mountains, and caves. The stone inscriptions date from different historical periods. The rubbings were then printed in the book as illustrations for the different styles in calligraphy.

The process of making a rubbing of a stone inscription is very intricate and easy to mess up. First, he had to wash the surface of the stone to make sure that there was no dust that would get in the way of the process. Then he put a white, soft but durable paper sheet over the surface and used a kind of brush to tap into the indentation of the carved characters. He also used a type of ink and sort of a powder brush to make the outer surface dark but the indentation of the characters remained white.

 The process of making a rubbing of a stone inscription. Video by Trieu Minh Hai

When everything was complete he pulled the paper off and he was left with a beautiful image of the stone inscription where the background is in black and the characters are in white. The process and the trips in general took time and money as he had to order papers and ink from abroad to ensure the thinness and durability of the paper, as well as the quality of the ink.

A lot of difficulties resulted from the fact that ancient objects had been wildly looted in remote localities. Each trip took him up to four days and many a time he had to return to the places he already visited. For instance, he made 15 trips to Bac Ninh province to the northeast of Hanoi just to make rubbings since it is home to a number of stone inscriptions whilst he did not have enough time to make all of the rubbing in only one visit.

One of his most noteworthy trips was to the northern province of Cao Bang to copy a stele by Le Loi (1385-1433), the first emperor of the Later Le Dynasty, during which he had to climb up hills and walk through streams. The stele is located so high that he had to construct a 25-metre tall bamboo scaffolding to climb up the stele and make a rubbing. Things got even worse as it was raining during the process. But he embraced the rain and tried his best to finish the rubbing. When it was done, a local resident gave him a tasty boiled chicken as a gift.

Actually, there are a lot of available stone inscriptions which were made from the French colonial period right up to present but those who want to look at the details of calligraphy like Nguyen Huu Su, whose work requires proven evidence, double checking and carefulness, need better quality stone inscriptions.

The History of Vietnamese Calligraphy has succeeded in dealing with such a tough topic which has challenged veteran researchers for many years.

Phan Cam Thuong
Culture researcher

In reply to a question on whether he felt a little bit discouraged during four years working on the project, he asserted “Never”. As for him, the field trips, after all, were just excursions full of joy and pleasure. As long as things were done, he didn’t mind the obstacles he faced.

“It seems like you have fallen into calligraphy so deeply that admiring a calligraphic character can even make you happy. You are then willing to embrace hardship or tiredness, spend your time and your money. Overall, it’s worth the cost.”

The more he researches, the more he realises how beautiful and magnificent Vietnamese calligraphy is, and the important role that calligraphy has played in the country’s history of arts. The trips have also helped to broaden his knowledge on calligraphy, Han Nom characters and history, thus consolidating his basis for carrying out the research.

Not only devoting his time to conducting research, Nguyen Huu Su also longs to keep alive the beauty of ancient writing of ancestors through teaching activities. He and his two friends, Nguyen Quoc Vuong and Tran Quang Duc, established a society called Tam Dan Xa.

The progress and civilisation of a country or community would be impossible without its citizens having a scientific awareness and a free mind. Tam Dan Xa was founded to actualise this common aspiration of its founding members.

“We chose the name ‘Tam Dan’ to pursue determination to “khai dân trí” (invigorate the people’s spirit), “chấn dân khí” (broaden the people’s mind), “hậu dân sinh” (enrich the people’s well-being) of Phan Chau Trinh (1872-1926), an established Vietnamese intellectual and revolutionist in the late 19th and early 20th century”.

“Tam Dan Xa” also means three (tam) ordinary men (dan) standing and working together, he added.

Sharing a common passion for ancient culture, the trio launched a Facebook page to share their perspectives and perceptions on education, the arts, culture, language and religion to the development of society. They have also opened short-term courses to provide learners with a basic knowledge of the Han Nom characters and Vietnamese calligraphy.

Since its establishment, Su has hosted four courses on Han Nom calligraphy. According to him, each course has 16 classes held every Sunday, attracting on average 30 learners, aged from 20 to 40, with four in five being young people.

“We want to limit the number of participants in each course so that the lecturer can cover every single student and take time to give personal instruction for each of them at class,” Su said.

Su comes to the classroom with an overview of the history of Chinese and Vietnamese calligraphy, writing methods and basic styles of calligraphy.

In addition, Su is a senior member of Van Yen Thu Xa, a social network group of calligraphy enthusiasts, where he posted photos and information on calligraphy. Members of the page are divided into different groups to practise calligraphy and Nguyen Huu Su gives comments and amendment for their works so they can improve them.

The passion for calligraphy which naturally animates Nguyen Huu Su not only draws on those days when he learnt calligraphy from Buddhist monks during his childhood and during his academic years studying at Guangxi Arts Institute and then Fujian University in China, but also draws on his dedicated and arduous work as a researcher.

“We should consider our job as a passion which allows us to do what we like therefore we are willing to accept any hardship. Happiness always comes after we go through hardships. Many times in my life, my happiest moments have happened as I overcame the toughest challenge.”

“Just like now, when the ‘The History of Vietnamese Calligraphy’ was finished and introduced to readers, I realised that the happiest moments that I have had so far in my life happened during the years I was immersed in the book.”




Hoa Van Dai Viet

Young people revive ancient patterns in contemporary life

How to identify and apply ancient Vietnamese patterns in today's cultural and art products, such as architectural designs, decorations, traditional costumes and illustrations for comics, amid the overwhelming influence of alien cultures as Vietnam is becoming increasingly integrated into the world not only economically but also culturally?

Profile: Dai Viet Co Phong
 Founded: 2014
 Members: Young people with a passion for ancient Vietnamese culture
 Aims: Study and popularise knowledge on the authentic culture of Vietnam; reproduce and restore the traditional culture of Vietnam

The embarrassing question had helped to bring together young people with a shared passion for ancient Vietnamese culture, who have been working enthusiastically for over a year to digitise and make public a collection of 250 of ancient Vietnamese decorative patterns spanning nine centuries from the Ly Dynasty to the Nguyen Dynasty.

Known in Vietnamese as Hoa Van Dai Viet ("Patterns of Great Viet"), the collection is now publicly available on the web for the community to use completely free of charge.

The Hoa Van Dai Viet collection is arguably the first and only project of its kind in Vietnam with a considerable scope for application, which is not only limited to ancient art research but can also be used in consumer products. The collection’s unveiling has brought complete amazement and a sense of satisfaction to Vietnamese culture buffs.

 Dragon horse

But behind its success is a long story to tell about a group of enthusiasts assembling under the name Dai Viet Co Phong and making every effort to realise their ambition since the project was first launched in 2015.

Cu Minh Khoi, a 26-year-old artist and head of the Dai Viet Co Phong team, said that the idea for the project first occurred to him when he was struggling to find ancient patterns to design costumes for a movie about the Emperor Tran Nhan Tong, who lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Khoi realised that he could hardly find any authentic ancient Vietnamese patterns available in the vector file format to use for his film project.

The project leader also noted that the sources of available indigenous Vietnamese patterns are very rare, causing difficulties for designers and artists to approach traditional patterns and apply them to their contemporary projects.

When designers want to use imperial patterns, such a dragon or phoenix, they have to download the available vector patterns originating from China or Japan. "So why don’t we create our own library and database of the beautiful and precious designs that our predecessors have left?" Khoi wondered.

Thus, a team of youngsters with a similar passion began to collect, research and digitise authentic ancient Vietnamese patterns in a bid to revive the ancient Vietnamese culture and popularise knowledge on Vietnamese culture to the public as a shield against the onslaught of cultural invasion.

 Members of Dai Viet Co Phong

Hoa Van Dai Viet is a crowdfunding project with the aim of using vector technology to redraw the most representative of ancient Vietnamese patterns. The fundraising process was assisted by the local online comic platform Comicola with the amount raised going beyond expectations, demonstrating the genuine public interest in ancient Vietnamese culture.

With this project, youngsters are laying the foundation for revitalising traditional fine arts in contemporary life.

Nguyen Manh Duc
Painter

Khoi said that his team encountered enormous challenges when running the project as most of the project members are inexperienced and untrained in drawing and recovering ancient patterns.

They had to travel to numerous historical and cultural sites including temples, pagodas, royal tombs and museums throughout the country to take photos of ancient patterns. They also managed to collect Vietnamese patterns on antiques drifting abroad and called on the public to send photos and related documents to the team to help them with the redrawing of patterns.

But they soon encountered difficulties as the details of many patterns have worn off due to the ravages of time and the elements, forcing the team to carry out further research and hold consultations with experts to make the recovered and redrawn patterns as accurate to the original versions as possible.

In addition, the project team also had to study and compare Vietnamese patterns with similar patterns of countries sharing a similar culture with Vietnam, to create the most accurate patterns. It took the team months to complete just a few patterns.

 Book and Sword

And their efforts paid off with the completion and launch of the 250 digitised ancient Vietnamese patterns in January 2017, which gained great appreciation and attention from the public.

The team made 200 out of the 250 digitised patterns available to the public to use for free and fees are only charged for 50 special patterns.

“Everyone can download and use Vietnamese patterns as much as they wish”, the team says.

Khoi emphasised that the project aimed to present a database of authentic ancient Vietnamese patterns to the Vietnamese art community so that such patterns can be applied to their contemporary art products, such as cinema, comic books, fashion, architecture, and decoration, among others, to contribute to preventing the encroachment of alien culture.

 Ly Dynasty dragon

Meanwhile, Phan Thanh Nam, a team member said that Hoa Van Dai Viet is the first project in a series that Dai Viet Co Phong wishes to carry out with the aim of introducing patterns through the dynasties of Vietnam and the aesthetic changes through each dynasty. The purpose of digitising patterns is to make them convenient for designs and to stimulate the public to use them. Culture is not to be worshipped on the altar. If traditional cultural elements are not infused into contemporary life, they will not be preserved.

 Calendar

Painter Nguyen Manh Duc said that “With this project, youngsters have traced back the patterns to their origin, bringing the ancient values into today’s life. They are laying the foundation for the pride of Vietnamese culture and revitalising traditional fine arts in contemporary life."

Dr. Tran Trong Duong from the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences said that Hoa Van Dai Viet is among the products he has been looking forward to for more than ten years, noting that it is the first ever collection of ancient patterns based on artefacts of traditional fine arts.

“The project redraws ancient patterns based on dragon, phoenix and qilin samples at historical and cultural sites in Vietnam. If anyone has any doubt about the resemblance between Vietnamese patterns and Chinese or Japanese ones, they should understand that all elements of a culture are within the common context of the regional culture.”

With the help of advanced technology, many products such as buttons, ties and key fobs can carry traditional patterns too.

Nguyen Xuan Khue
Director of the Hanoi Old Quarter Culture Exchange Centre

Nguyen Xuan Khue, Director of the Hanoi Old Quarter Culture Exchange Centre said that the project has brought traditional culture closer to daily life. “Previously, ancient patterns were only applied in temples and costumes. But with the help of advanced technology, many products such as buttons, ties, and key fobs can carry traditional patterns too. This is a very practical application, "Khue said.

Besides the project to digitise ancient patterns, Dai Viet Co Phong also serves as a forum for culture enthusiasts to discuss, research and publish documents on the history and culture of Vietnam. The team also hold various events to bring traditional culture to today’s life including reproducing ancient costumes, architecture, rituals and landscapes through painting, comic books, movies, cosplay, and others.

Moreover, the project seems to open up a new discussion on how to bring ancient patterns to contemporary life as there remains much to do before turning an art project into commercial products.

 Colouring book

Nguyen Dong, a team member, said that in the long-term the team will focus on how to make users gain a better understanding of ancient patterns, for example, if people know that a tortoise, one of the four sacred animals according to the ancient beliefs, is a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, they can’t use tortoises as the feet of a table.

 Lucky money packets

Since the vector patterns were made public, the project team has begun to apply them onto a number of commercial products, such as a colouring book of the 250 vector patterns, calendars, notebooks, cards, key fobs, T-shirts, envelopes, bags, among others.

However, there have been arguments concerning the accuracy of the redrawn patterns as most of the team members are non-professional in the area of restoring ancient patterns.

Historian Duong Trung Quoc, General Secretary of the Vietnam Association of Historical Science said that there were a number of debates on the fidelity of these vector patterns but the contributions of these youngsters to the public are worthy of appreciation. He valued the youngsters with a passion for ancient culture and having the capacity to use technology to preserve heritage and help the community to recognise and use ancient Vietnamese cultural quintessence.

 Patterns on traditional Vietnamese costumes

According to the historian, “the collection and restoration of patterns is a scientific issue, requiring a long and systematic research in addition to the joint efforts of experienced researchers, experts, authorised agencies and enterprises.”

“Most of the project members are non-professional so their products may reveal inadequacies. But I think that their project is appreciated and positive. Project members can record, copy and use technology to reproduce patterns but it requires deeper research to approach the full values of ancient patterns”, he added.

The project by Dai Viet Co Phong also raises a question on the role of the authorised agencies and the cultural circle in the preservation and promotion of ancient Vietnamese patterns, a job that should have been done long ago.

“I hope that the authorised culture agencies and social science and humanities research agencies pay further attention to, pour investment in and create conditions for the team to develop further. I think that the project is also their start-up which will open up new opportunities and bring about practical benefits.” Historian Duong Trung Quoc said.




Credits


Production Manager: Nguyen Dieu Thuy

Content: Tran Thu Hang, Tran Thi Thuy, Bui Van Hoa

Design: Trieu Nhan


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