UNESCO title is not enough to save Dong Ho woodblock printing. Make it sell!

Tuesday, 2018-07-10 14:59:35
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A kid is being instructed on how to make Dong Ho print at an event in Ho Chi Minh City (Image: Zing)
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NDO - Vietnam is seeking UNESCO recognition for the almost vanished Dong Ho woodblock printing art in Bac Ninh province and, with its many unique features and techniques, another cultural heritage title is within reach.

But I’m not sure if I should be happy or sad because the title Vietnam is hunting for is that of an intangible heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. Some are joking that since Vietnam is unable to conserve the art, it must now seek international help. But whether or not Dong Ho prints and paintings can be saved like Phu Tho province’s xoan singing remains to be seen.

Unlike physical heritage sites such as temples and shrines, items of intangible heritage are more inextricably linked to daily life. They exist through the activity of a certain community, either orally or through the passing of craftsmanship or some kind of knowledge. The community is the custodian of heritage. Quan ho, for instance, exists through the activities of the singers and local residents in the Bac Ninh and Bac Giang areas, while the gong culture is maintained by the artists and communities of Tay Nguyen ethnic groups.

The bearers of heritage play a crucial role in its existence. But for many items, the role of those who appreciate the heritage is equally important. Ca tru is a prime example. Let’s compare it with quan ho where the practitioners are also the consumers. Quan ho has nothing to do with the economic life of the practitioners. In the meantime, ca tru singing is a profession. From the past to the present, ca tru artists have earned their living by the money from their patrons. If ca tru singers are unable to sell their singing voices and lute sounds, they have to give up their job and look for another means of livelihood. And if it is the pervasive case, then the loss is inevitable.

The art of woodblock printing in Dong Ho village is similar. Dong Ho artists make a living by selling their prints and paintings and if they want to earn good incomes, they need customers. In other words, for the heritage items where the practitioners make a living by selling their products, the role of consumers is as important as theirs.

Many heritages, especially traditional handicrafts, have a close relationship with the market. In Dong Ho village, not everyone wants to make votive paper and then be grumbled at by the media all year round. If the prints sold well, they would dispense with joss paper.

Words of criticism are easily cranked out, especially when it comes to methods of conservation. The government can support several families in making the paintings but not the whole village. And then another question comes up. Where are the products going to? Among the heritage enthusiasts who frequently call for its protection, how many have bought and hung Dong Ho paintings? How often do they buy them? It is apparent that Dong Ho woodblock prints are lacking a market.

Let’s compare Dong Ho with Hang Trong paintings. A Hang Trong painting only has a small part printed by a woodblock while most of it requires extensive painting by the artist. Therefore, each one is unique and can sell for several million Vietnamese dong. A small market can also help Hang Trong painters make a living with their job. But Dong Ho prints are mass produced with one selling for just over a dollar. And the artists need a much bigger market.

It should be added that in the past, people bought Dong Ho prints and paintings and then pasted them on the wall to celebrate the Lunar New Year. After a while, the prints were pulled off and thrown away. That is why people needed to buy new prints every year. The Dong Ho villagers could earn a living by making prints because of such a market.

A Dong Ho print to celebrate the Year of the Dog

Now times have changed. That fewer people hang Dong Ho prints is one thing, contemporary taste is also different from the past. People today are wealthier and their living rooms are more modern. If they buy Dong Ho prints, how would they use them? The habit of pasting Dong Ho prints on the wall is long gone, while it is hard to persuade people to hang Dong Ho prints, which cost little and are a bit larger than the span of hand, as decorations for opulent living rooms!

Heritages should be conserved in a way as close to the original as possible. But for the items closely tied with the market such as Dong Ho prints, perhaps a more inclusive point of view that takes development into consideration is needed.

In the past when people had fewer choices in house decoration, Dong Ho prints naturally enjoyed customers’ great favour. But now decorative items are all too common and diverse in styles.

Besides keeping the traditional way of making cheap prints in bulk, Dong Ho needs radical changes to get into the current market. For example, based on the traditional techniques and aesthetic characteristics, Dong Ho artists could make higher-end products that could be used for interior decoration.

In contrast to Dong Ho, Hang Trong paintings are selling well and the art’s only surviving artist, Le Dinh Nghien, has received lots of orders, while many people are also seeking to learn the trade from him.

Hang Trong paintings’ large sizes, uniqueness and topics are compatible with contemporary interior decoration. Many also buy Hang Trong paintings for collection purposes because the older they are, the more value they hold.

Another successful example is the restoration of Kim Hoang paintings, which were originally products for the masses. But the restoration group has also thought of making premium products, in addition to ordinary paintings. Many high-grade Kim Hoang paintings have been welcomed by the market.

First it is necessary to educate potential customers so that they are able to realise the value of the heritage and then consume it. But that is not all. For Dong Ho, I know that a number of artists insist on making the original prints and criticise those who want to reform. It is somewhat worth treasuring but such prints are only suitable with traditional houses and the habit of pasting the prints on the wall and then removing them later.