Sunday, February 23, 2014

Turn-of-the-Century Kunming

                                                                  by Jim Goodman

shop houses in a quiet part of the old quarter
    In 1999 Kunming hosted the International Horticultural Exposition.  To ready itself for this event, for the previous two years the city had busied itself with a massive renovation and building program.   Most of the overpasses, big hotels, tall buildings and skyscrapers visitors saw that year went up during this period.  The city still had its parks, ancient pagodas and temples, but the transformation included the nearly total obliteration of the city’s old quarter.  Inevitable, I know, but as I observed this happening I was afflicted with a wave of advance nostalgia.
    I first visited Kunming in summer, 1992, when it was not yet attracting many foreign tourists, and when those who did visit made but a brief stopover before heading out to Dali, Lijiang or Jinghong.  My own research was elsewhere in the province, but back in the 90s the only way from Thailand to enter and leave Yunnan was by airplane to Kunming.  So I wound up a few days in Kunming each trip.  And my favorite daytime activity was exploring the old quarter, west of the big square at the intersection of Beijinglu and Dongfenglu.
carved doors and railing on old Wuchenglu
    This was my first Chinese city and once I got past the proletarian metropolis part of the city, with its drab tenement buildings, and got to the neighborhood between Dongfengxilu and Green Lake, I felt I was transported back in time to all those old books and articles I had read describing urban China in the old days.  Redwood buildings dominated the streets.  Some were simply two-story shop-houses, with tiled roofs full of overgrown vegetation.  Others rose higher, with rows of tiny windows on the upper floors.  Some had balconies with carved railings.  Sometimes residents hung potted flowers from the upper balconies or strung cabbages or bunches of chilies on wires to dry.
window of a wealthy house owner
    In future visits I paid more attention to details on the buildings around the old Bird and Flower Market.  On Wenchenglu I spotted carvings of phoenixes and lions on balcony railings, floral patterns on doors and shutters, arabesques on posts.  Some of the fancier houses had ornate, tinted oval windows. More old houses stood on Wuyilu and Guanghuajie, where the warren of shops known as the Bird Market was located.  Besides birds and birdseed, shoppers could find small fish, fish food, turtles, peacock feathers, kites, fishing tackle, Dai umbrellas, jade ornaments, orchids, porcelain and antiques.  And at the north end of this market stood the pair of very narrow, triangular “Sisters Buildings,” the shape of which reminded me of the Flatiron Building, New York’s first skyscraper.
ornately carved shutters on old Wuyilu
    Not every old building featured redwood walls.  Some were built of brick with a redwood front or were plastered over in cream white.  A few had a wooden front of blue or green.  One street was full of sign-making shops.  Alleys in between featured late afternoon teashops, where locals in their classic proletarian blue suits and Mao caps smoked tobacco bongs and refreshed themselves with pots of tea.  Traffic was never heavy, for Kunming then was a city of bicycles.  It was also primarily a daytime city, where it was hard to find a restaurant open after 9 p.m.
tea time in the alleyway
    The same general neighborhood style prevailed south of Dongfengxilu, where stood many old-style small restaurants specializing in Crossing-the-Bridge Rice Noodles, a Yunnan favorite.  A little further west was the Hui quarter, with the same kind of architecture, notable for the slabs of beef and mutton that hung from racks all along Shunchengjie.  At the restaurants in the area the cooks prepared the dishes outside in front of the dining area.  A small mosque stood at the end of this street, but a bigger, more venerable one lay in a courtyard off Jinbilu.
    Architecturally, the exterior of these mosques resembled Buddhist temples in shape and design.  The difference lay in the details.  A crescent moon graced the center of the roof and the decorations eschewed any depictions of humans or animals.  The outer doors were of green wood, with Arabic calligraphy above.  These have both been replaced now by buildings more in the Arabian style.
former Chinese-style mosque in Kunming
    Jinbilu at that time featured a very different architectural style, with yellow, three -and four-story buildings and tiled roofs, but without carved embellishments.  The entire street was lined with trees, like Zhengyilu.  Shops didn’t open until after nine a.m. and closed at dark.  People lived above the shops, for you could tell by the lights in the windows after dark.  In the neighborhood around the Bird and Flower Market this was seldom the case.  At night this quarter was mostly dark, leading me to speculate that the shop owners lived elsewhere, for one reason or another, perhaps because the old buildings were falling apart.
    Besides the plethora of small shops, the old quarter featured a lot of mobile merchants pushing carts around of one item or another.  Mini-stalls selling things like hot bread, kebabs and other snacks stood up in the middle of the street between rows of vendors with their goods laid out on a mat on the street.  Outside the old quarter, Tibetans stood on Beijinglu with various furs draped across their outstretched arms and Uighurs stood by carts selling raisins from Xinjiang.   Near the university and in front of the Camellia Hotel on Dongfengdonglu Sani women from the Stone Forest area sold handicrafts and offered to change money.
Sani trader on Dongfengdonglu
    The old quarter didn’t have any hotels, and anyway foreigners in the early 90s were restricted to a handful of the city’s hotels and subjected to the use of Foreign Exchange Certificates for paying hotel bills and air and train tickets.  Ordinary shops and restaurants didn’t want FEC notes because of the hassle of exchanging them, so the Sani women in front of the Camellia did a brisk trade in exchanging FEC and foreign currency for renmenbi at better than the official rate.   Only restaurants around popular hotels like the Camellia on Dongfengdonglu and the Kunhu on Beijinglu had bilingual menus, while some shops tried catering to foreign tourists with oddly phrased English signs like Chinese and Alien Snacks on Huguolu, Jewelry and Queer Stone Shop on Baitalu and The Chafing Dish of Old Turtle on Tuodonglu. 
    Westerners were still a new phenomenon to Kunming people in the early 90s.  While most shied away from the strange foreigners, many Chinese were quick to engage with them. I thought of Kunming then as Hello City.  Students sometimes stopped ne to ask if they could practice English.  Others started conversing without preliminaries.  Old men asked me which country, and when I answered America, they warmly shook my hand.  The Flying Tigers left a very good impression of Americans on that generation.
the Wa Hair Dance in a Dongfenglu restaurant

    Kunming didn’t have much of a nightlife back then.  There were some bars on Wenlinjie near the university and the original Camel Bar on Baitalu.  For most tourists, though, entertainment consisted of a dinner with a stage show of various ethnic dance troupes.  For the first couple of years my visits to Kunming included an evening at the Tai Nationality Girl Hall, as it was called, on Xiziying, which featured Xishuangbanna dances by the Dai and Aini waitresses.  But it was replaced by a Hui restaurant by 95, without a dance show, of course.   Other restaurants offered shows both afternoon and evening, with troupes performing various Yi, Dai and Jingpo numbers as well as the exuberant Wa Hair Dance.  Patrons could enjoy the show just by ordering a ten yuan bowl of noodles. 
    Another kind of entertainment was on display early mornings at the big square at the Beijinglu-Dongfenglu intersection and in the park beside Green Lake.  Groups of mostly middle-aged Chinese gathered to perform physical exercises like tai qi or ballroom dancing to music coming from a portable tape recorder.  Health concern was not the only motive, for most of those present were unmarried and the square and the park were venues to meet the opposite sex without having to spend any money.  Green Lake was like the lung of the city, where the air seemed to be cleaner than
Green Lake boats in the early 90s
anywhere else in town.  Boatmen poled customers around the lake in wooden rafts, while others stood on the shore tossing food to the gulls.  (Unfortunately, metal, self-pedaling boats with Disney character fronts replaced these in the run-up to the Expo.)  
    A much bigger lake, nearly 300 km square, is Dianchi, just south of the city.  The nearest viewpoint was Daguan Park, a quiet and attractive place in Kunming’s southwest suburbs, but by mid-decade big new buildings obscured much of the scenery.  By going up the Western Hills temple route one could get a view of the entire lake and by hiking along the
Dianchi from the western side, looking at Kunming
western shore near Guanyinshan observe fishermen at work with nets, traps and poles.  The water was still pretty blue then and on clear days one could see the cityscape across the lake.  
    By 1997 Kunming’s transformation began to accelerate as the city started molding its new image for the Exposition.  On a bright Sunday first week of October shops on Jinbilu held their final, everything-must-go sale with dramatically reduced prices.  The next day the wrecking crews came to tear down the buildings.  The new street was wider, but it
Jinbilu prior to October, 1997
spared the Catholic Church, which was anyway set back far enough from the original road, and swerved away from the old mosque, ending in a newly created square eventually featuring a pair of ornate gateways and a shopping mall of traditional redwood buildings.
    The Bird and Flower Market survived in a slightly altered form, but work crews destroyed everything on Wuchenglu, with its old church and even older traditional homes, as well as the classic shop houses on all the adjacent streets. When I watched old houses being dismantled on Wuchenglu I wondered what would happen to the carved embellishments on the posts, doors and railings.  In subsequent years I never
the lost art of Wuchenglu
saw them in antique shops, nor could anyone I knew guess their fate.  Firewood?
    Shunchengjie, the Meat Street of the Hui quarter, survived this phase of reconstruction until post-Expo development reached in to destroy it in 2005.  In between the new Jinbi Square and the roundabout at the end of Nanpingjie classical style gates went up over a pedestrian walkway in between new department stores.  The roundabout was sealed over a new underpass below, full of small shops, and a statue of a snub-nosed monkey, the Expo mascot, mounted on top.  The blind masseurs who used to operate at the roundabout moved downstairs or over to the street along the Panlong River, joining the ear-cleaners and bootblacks.
meat merchants on Shunchengjie
    In the early 90s I had to hold my nose when crossing this river, but the city’s renovation included the river, cleaned up and outfitted on both sides with parks and tree-lined walkways.  Young couples and families now filled the benches beside the river, which no longer exuded the odor that in the past made people hurry past it.  The addition of gardens here also helped and in fact, just before the Expo opened city authorities arranged for pots of flowers, altogether two million of them, to be set along all the city’s widest, cleanest avenues.
    The Horticultural Exposition was a great success and its gardens remain a tourist attraction even today.  But having knocked down its old quarter getting ready for the Expo, development in Kunming afterwards took a slightly different approach.  The city rebuilt its Jinrilou Tower, formerly the main entrance into the old walled city, which had stood near the East and West Pagodas and had been destroyed in the early 50s.  The re-creation was exactly the same size and style as the original.  The same held true for the two gates erected on Jinbi Square and the renovation of the Taoist temple, teahouses, stage and shrines of the Zhenqingguan compound on Baitalu.  The white, Tibetan-style pagoda, though, was put up in the compound, rather than at its original location in the middle of the street.
    Of course, towering new buildings and shopping malls dominated development work in the new century, but the conscious recreation of classical architecture did mean the city was still conscious of its history.  The old residential area was gone, but at least it wasn’t turned into an artificial theme park, like Lijiang’s old town.  And the presence of ancient and restored buildings served as evidence that Kunming wanted to preserve at least a part of its heritage, rather then leave it all buried beneath the foundations of the new skyscrapers.  Not all of it had to submit to the international standards of modern architecture.  The city still has areas where the atmosphere of Old Kunming prevails, where it still feels like the authentic Chinese city I encountered on my very first visit.
vanished Kunming
                                                                       * * *   

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

People of the Stone Forest

                                                        by Jim Goodman

    From the opening of Yunnan to foreign tourists, an essential part of everyone’s itinerary was a trip to the Stone Forest.  Lying just over 100 kilometers east of Kunming, a visitor could do it as a day trip.  The excursion was a convenient combination of the province’s natural and cultural attractions—a unique landscape of eroded limestone pillars and a colorful ethnic minority, the Sani, a branch of the Yi nationality, who inhabit the vicinity.
eroded pillars in the Stone Fores
     For the origin of the Stone Forest phenomenon, the geologists have an explanation.  Once upon a time in the Permian Age, some 270 million years ago, a lake occupied the county’s territory.  Fossilized ammonite shells are still found in the area and were one of the tourist souvenirs on sale at the park.  Sudden shifts in the earth’s crust thrust the limestone lakebed upward to form a tableland.  Rain, wind and seeping water daily nibbled away at the limestone over the eons, causing fissures on the pillars, sculpting them into grotesquely suggestive shapes.  Chinese tourists, who have been coming here since the Ming Dynasty, dubbed some of them with fanciful names like Phoenix Preening its Wings, Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon, Camel Riding an Elephant, Wife Waiting for her Husband.
"The Brothers" (left) at Naigu Shilin
    The local Sani have their own version.  Accordingly, an ancient hero named Jinfang Roga, sort of a Sani Prometheus, sought to improve the lot of his people by building a great dam to hold the waters as a defense against drought.  To do this he sneaked into Heaven and stole a magic whip, capable of driving mountains like sheep.  All night he drove the peaks together from eastern Lunan County west towards Yiliang.  But he failed to finish before dawn, when the whip’s magic powers ceased.  The herd of peaks stood fast to
"stone grove" near Suogeyi
become the Stone Forest (Shilin in Chinese), while the vengeful gods captured the hero and put him to death.
    Actually, the Stone Forest is merely an 80-hectare concentration of a phenomenon that characterizes much of the county’s landscape.  Another conglomeration of much darker rocks lies several kilometers north, called Naigu Shilin, after the Sani word for black.  Clusters of similar stones jut up all over the pastures and rolling highland plains, while many Sani villages lie adjacent to “stone groves” of weird pillars equally as eye-catching as those of Shilin.  A particularly interesting set stands next to Suogeyi, 15 km south of Lunan town, where I found myself ready to emulate the ancient Chinese poets and bestow names of my own on certain limestone formations:  Buffalo Rampant, Drunken Sentry, Crooked Phallus, Tower of Pebbles, Easter Island Immigrant, etc.
    These karst formations, as they are called, disappear when crossing the county’s boundary lines.  They have become such a tourist attraction that in 1998 the government changed the county’s official name from Lunan to Shilin, though residents still refer to the county capital as Lunan.  The name in Chinese means “south of the road,” but in the Sani pronunciation means “dark stone.”  The tourist business at the Stone Forest Park, with its ever-increasing ticket prices, souvenir stalls, guides in ethnic clothing and variety of Sani entertainment shows, is the most important economic generator in Shilin County.  But with the crowds, the Chinese characters painted on the pillars, the obvious commercialization and plethora of souvenir stalls, it can be somewhat overbearing.
tobacco plants offshore at Yuehu (Moon Lake)
    Compared to Shilin Park and Naigu Shilin, the rest of the county’s scenery remains relatively unmolested.  Just past Suogeyi, off the road to Guishan, lies Changhu, Long Lake, a picturesque, oblong shaped body of water that can be circumambulated in an hour.  The only manmade structure here is a small stone lion on the southern shore.  Fishermen stand on the banks to cast their lines and Sani villagers occasionally come here for picnics.  About 12 km east of Shilin Park, in a much wilder setting, is Yuehu, Moon Lake, with a shape resembling a thick crescent moon.  West of Shilin Park are a few karst caves, their walls and stalactites illuminated with lights of
Daduishui waterfall
different colors.  And in the southwest, an hour’s ride from Lunan town, the Bajiang River drops 96 meters over a cliff into a pool.  Called Daduishui, splayed 30 meters in width, this is Yunnan’s most spectacular waterfall.
    In between these gems the land undulates gently, bounded by a horizon of distant hills and mottled by villages, patches of forest, flocks of sheep and goats and tilled fields of red earth, with crops of rice, maize or tobacco.  Sani villages usually lie around one or two large ponds that serve as principal water source.  Houses are of typical Yunnanese rural construction:  rammed earth walls, timber posts, tiled roofs, the ground floor for living, the upstairs for storage.  Back walls sometimes have built-in beehives for honey production.  The wheels of carts and barrows, as well as the old-fashioned threshers, are often made of wood and stacked against the rear wall.
typical Sani village
    In the past the Sani lived mainly in the hilly eastern part of the county, forced there by aggressive Han immigrants.  Hereditary chieftains ran autonomous villages, dominated by aristocratic landlords.   But in the late Qing Dynasty, opium-addicted Chinese landowners began selling off lands around Lunan to pay off debts and since then the Sani have occupied places all over the county.  Most Sani villages are animist, honoring deities assumed to be in control of the natural elements affecting their environment.  They venerate the tiger as their totem animal and keep a tiger image in their homes as a protective spirit.
    A small number of villages, though, are Catholic, due to the efforts of a remarkable French priest named Paul Vial in the late 19th century.  French missionaries had already had some success in the Nujiang and Lancangjiang canyons, but virtually no converts in cities like Lijiang and Dali.  The Sociéié des Missions Étrangères, in charge of French Catholic work in the province, decided in 1888 to transfer Père Paul Vial from Dali, where he had had no success, to Lunan County.
    Vial took an instant liking to the place and its people.  He learned the language and delved deeply into the traditional culture.  Distrusting individual conversions, for they might be subject to social pressure from traditional believers and lead to recantation, Vial preferred the conversion of whole extended families and villages at once.  He did not demand a wholesale rejection of Sani customs in embracing Christianity, but sought to incorporate some of their traditions into the faith he was offering.  For example, Sani children traditionally wore baby caps festooned with badges of protective spirit images.  Upon conversion, mothers did not remove the caps, just replaced the “pagan” badges with little medals of Catholic saints.
    In addition to his missionary work, Vial launched a side career as ethnologist and linguist.  He composed reports on his mission work to the Société’s newsletter, while also writing scholarly volumes on the history, culture and customs of the Sani.  He even compiled a Sani-French dictionary.  He was an indefatigable defender of Sani interests, Christian or traditional, in any disputes with outsiders or the government, a reputation that endeared him to all Sani.
    He only managed to convert a small number of villages during his time in Sani country.  But these villages have remained Catholic to this day, with churches renovated and active.  Once denounced as a Western imperialist agent, as all missionaries were, Vial nowadays is in official favor for his non-mission work.  Sani intellectuals value him for his meticulous recording of Sani history and traditions, not to mention his linguistic achievements.  Since the beginning of the Reform Era in the 1980s the Sani have been much more immersed in traditional culture.  And with preferential treatment accorded to minority nationalities, even mixed families in Shilin County, Han husbands with Yi wives for example, have been registering in each census as Yi.
young Sani women in Lunan town, Shilin County
    The most visible manifestation of this ethnic consciousness is the tendency for most Sani women to wear their traditional clothing.  In the past every house had a bamboo-frame, two-treadle loom.  The women stood at the rear of it and wove narrow bands of cloth, to be stitched later into clothing components, shoulder bags or blankets.  Rather than cotton, they used hemp thread, going through 76 steps to turn the hemp from seed to plant to thread to cloth.  Much of the laborious work involved treatments and rinsing in various solutions to soften the stalks.  Nearly all Sani garments were made from hemp cloth, supplemented with thicker cloth made from the thread of another plant, called fireweed, usually employed for warm outer jackets or vests.
    With access nowadays to modern markets selling finished bolts of cotton cloth, the use of hemp cloth has been reduced to shoulder bags, men’s vests and women’s capes, while items made from fireweed cloth have practically disappeared.  The rest of the clothing uses mill-made cloth with parts, like shoulder bags and baby-carriers, hand-embroidered.   Women wear a long-sleeved tunic, trousers, an apron with embroidered strap ends, and a round turban with an opening at the back, through which they hang their ponytails.  Married women favor dark blue and black.  Younger women prefer lighter and brighter hues, while their headgear, with stripes of contrasting colors around it, sports a pair of triangular tabs over the ears, to indicate their status as single women.
unmarried Sani women
    Men’s clothing is much simpler, basically a blue-bordered white vest and wide black trousers.  Both sexes might wear straw hats and capes of palm fiber.  In cooler weather, they might also don a fireweed cloth jacket, while older women prefer capes of sheepskin, fastened, like all types of cape, by tabs appliquéd with ornate cut-out designs.   Women devote much of their free time to embroidery, even producing items like strips of tiny flowers, sold to Kunming shops for use as garment trimmings.
    Men are responsible for construction, quarrying, fishing and plowing.  Women do most of the farming and domestic chores.  They also gather herbs and edible roots and fungi from the forest to sell in the streets of old Lunan on the Wednesday and Saturday market days.  Villagers journey to the city packed in tractor-trailers and trucks.  The markets fill with rural merchandise, from animals, vegetables and goat cheese, a Sani specialty, to utilitarian items like carrying poles,
sundry types of rope, stools of coiled straw, baskets,
whisks and brooms.
the old Lunan market, 1995
    In former times the Sani youth would return from market day and stage a round of singing and dancing in the village center.  The effects of television have undermined this tradition, but the spectacular development of the tourist industry has spawned the revival and preservation of Sani music.  Instruments include flutes and long-necked, three-string lutes, “elephant-leg” drums and even a certain type of broadleaf.  The grandest display of traditional music takes place during the Torch Festival, held the 24th day of the 6th lunar month, staged in the stunning arena of Shilin Park.  Besides songs and dances, the program includes wrestling matches and bull fights as well.
older woman in the Lunan market
    The songs, however, may be heard at any time.  They are in the Sani dialect of the Yi language, a Tibeto-Burman tongue characterized by short vowels, a tonal system more musical than Chinese, and many guttural and sibilant consonants.  Singers may accompany their tunes with a thin, bamboo mouth-harp, called mosheen.  The most popular are those dealing with the tragedy of Ashima, the Sani national heroine.  An alabaster statue of her stands at the center of Lunan town, with many shops and streets named after her.   Old folks sit on stools at weddings and sing her ancient ballad, while those whose marriages turned out unhappy find solace in singing of her fate and identifying with her.
    The bittersweet ballad
Sani guides at Shilin Park
depicts Ashima as the ideal Sani maiden.  She is beautiful, honest, a talented singer and mosheen player, a happy herder and farmer, whose love of nature in her native land is reciprocated by all the birds, beasts and people around.  Far away lives the evil magician Rebubala, who also plants flowers around his domain, “but to his flowers no bees would come to sip the nectar.”  Yet Rebubala has staked his prestige on securing this renowned beauty as a wife for his repulsive son.  He dispatches a greedy go-between, but Ashima refuses to leave her home for the wealth of her suitor, for “clear water will not mix with foul.”  The envoy kidnaps her and takes her to Rebubala’s home where, for her obstinacy, she’s whipped and cast into a dungeon.
    Her brother Ahei hears of her distress, mounts his steed and gallops after her.  The ogre and his son challenge Ahei to a singing-riddle contest, which Ahei wins to gain entry into the castle.  Thereafter he must pass several more tests, with his sister playing warnings on the mosheen, until he triumphantly escorts Ashima out of the castle.  But the double-crossing Rebubala conjures up a flood to thwart the pair just as they reach the Stone Forest.  A wave sweeps away Ashima, leaving behind only her echo.  Her spirit remains to inhabit a pillar in the park’s Little Stone Forest.  Nowadays
tourists like to pose their lovely Sani guides beside it.  They are especially pleased when the girl gazes poignantly at the pillar, since it makes a good photograph.  Virtually none of them have any inkling of how evocative a moment that might be, in the mind and heart of their guide, as she looks upon Ashima Rock.
Ashima Rock, Little Shilin
                                                                        * * *

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Communal House of a Vietnamese Village

                                                             by Jim Goodman

    From ancient times Vietnamese villages have always been semi-autonomous social units, with their own hierarchies, administrators, history and heritage, rites and customs, clubs, mutual aid groups, and local guardian spirits.   When the Lý Dynasty set up its administration, organized the defense of the state, promulgated laws and the obligations and taxes required of its citizens, it opted to deal with the villages as individual units.  The Court established the amount of taxes and the number of men required for military service or corvée labor and it was up to the villages themselves how they went about meeting those requirements. 
    Villages had a representative called lý trưởng who dealt with Court affairs, the one who received the government communications and orders and was held responsible if they were not implemented.   The village chief (phố lý) was in charge of security and a Council of Notables ran village affairs.   This entailed carrying out state directives, establishing village regulations, budgets, tax shares, law enforcement and the management of village funds and the periodic re-distribution of communal property.
Đình Sồ, west of Hanoi
    The venue for deliberations was the đình, which translates as “communal house,” though the only actual resident here was the village tutelary deity, its guardian spirit, known as thành hoàng.  The đình grew out of conditions in the waning decades of Chinese rule in Vietnam, when villages took advantage of the fading Chinese power structure to set up their own administrations.  The Lý Dynasty formalized the institution by issuing an edict in the 11th century requiring every village to have one. 
    The đình was not the only public building in a village.  It might also have a văn chi, a temple for the Confucian scholars, a võ chi, temple for the martial gods and heroes, a Buddhist or Taoist temple, and in more recent centuries a church.  But the đình was the most important building in the village, serving as the office of village administration, the venue for the tribunals that adjudicated disputes between villagers and the site of the communal feasts.   As it also housed the village thành hoàng, it was the main venue for the great festival and entertainment programs.  Thus it was the most imposing building, for it was the village’s political, social and cultural center, the focal point of its identity.
the đình of Đình Bảng, Bắc Ninh province
     The earliest đìnhs have all succumbed to the ravages of time and war.  The basic architecture probably hasn’t changed much over the centuries, for surviving buildings from the 17th century on show a basic similarity.  They were set a bit apart from the main residential area, preferably beside a pond with some greenery in the vicinity.  Ideally, this should include acacia, palm, frangipani and jackfruit trees.  Geomancers determined the exact spot on which to build.  It was laid out like an inverted T, with the altar for the village deity to the rear of the building.  It featured a heavy, wide, low-hanging, tiled roof with upturned corners, open sides and thick pillars, on a rectangular raised platform of brick or earth, appearing as if it were floating on its base.
terracotta plaque of farming life, Giá village đình wall
    A long wall enclosed the đình and the open yard around it.  Occasionally these walls, as at the đình in Giá village, west of Hanoi, sported decorative terracotta plaques of scenes from everyday life, like plowing with buffaloes or boating on the river.  An ornamental gate marked the entry point, with tall columns topped by sculpted animals.  Gates constructed in the Nguyễn Dynasty, like the one at Lệ Mật, near Hanoi, are more ornate, with several roofed tiers, similar to those of Buddhist temples.
    In the 17th century, despite the demise and fall of the Mạc Dynasty and the restoration of a much weaker Lê Dynasty, the architecture of the đình continued to develop.  Having established the basic shape, the architects now worked on embellishments, especially on the roof and the interior.  They created a molded ridge along the roof sections, often latticed, and added ornamental elements at the apex and at the end of the roof slopes.
carvings beneath the apex of the roof
    These molded ridges generally end, at the upturned corners of the roof, in a stylized dragon or lion.  The tail or mane is often curved into a coil.  Depending upon the artist, this ornamental roof would end with a pair of lions or dragons, or perhaps one on top of the other.  And another one might be mounted halfway up the ridge.  Details like scales and whiskers are usually part of the sculpture as well.
    Artistic adornment was also a feature of the triangle beneath the apex.  Either the head, and maybe the paws, of a mythical animal filled the space in a single, low-relief carved plaque, or a floral design, in open, lattice-work wood or mortar, hung from the top of the triangle, its pattern standing out against the shadowed background.
    Mythical dragons or lions, without the coiled tails, stood flanking the đình’s compound gates, as well as the three-step staircase at the entrance to the building itself.  Sometimes the dragons are independent sculptures, which descend from the top of the staircase.  Sometimes they are carved in low relief on stone plaques at the bottom of the steps.  Because they are likely to be touched, stroked and sat upon by humans, these sculptures were made of hard stone instead of mortar.
mythical animals on the roof corner
    The coiled dragons arched near the upturned corners of the roof enhanced the building’s majestic silhouette.  The guardian lions or dragons at the đình’s entrance added to its imposing appearance. It looked like the important building it was.  Inside the building, đình artisans produced intricately carved altars, furniture, decorative brackets, plaques, column heads and statues, depicting subjects both religious and secular.
    The first visible examples of their work were the altars, incense tables, carved figures and statues, which stand right in the middle of the interior. The altar itself is basically a multi-level table, upon which rest the images of the guardian spirit or the ornate miniature thrones by which they are sometimes represented.  The small incense table in front of it, standing closer to the worshiper, was something to which the đình artisans imparted the best of their skills, featuring panels of dragons, lions, phoenixes, floral vegetation, etc., while on the four corners stood openwork carvings.
    Mounted above the altar was the large, ornamental panel called cửa võng.  These were done in a variety of shapes and styles, no two alike, employing an array of carving and chiseling methods and the most ornate designs.   They could take the shape of a three-sided canopy, as at Đồng Kỵ in Bắc Ninh, or a multi-paneled arrangement of carved elements on the frames and posts of a triple window, as in the cửa võng of Đình Diên Lộc in Gia Lương, Bắc Ninh.  And above this the ceiling itself might be intricately decorated with red lacquered plaques, flanked by low-relief carvings, gilded so that they stand out.
the interior of Đình Văn Phuc, Hanoi
    When a visitor enters the central compartment of a đình the eyes first behold the altar and its paraphernalia.  Tall thin cranes perched on turtles flank the altar and in front of it stand the ceremonial protective weapons—lances, halberds, swords, etc.—and the ornate incense table.  These are the familiar components of temples and evoke a religious atmosphere.  But as the eyes move up to the elaborately crafted cửa võng and the ornamented ceiling, the effect is one of palatial splendor, enriching the setting and the luster of the community rituals performed beneath it.
    Further examination of the interior, though, reveals how the đình artisans further enhanced the interior with the art of woodcarving.  Their favorite motif seems to have been the dragon.  It symbolized power, majesty and prosperity and was part of mythology and folklore.  Its monstrous head, with flaring nostrils, bulging eyes and bared fangs, was inherently eye-catching.  Its long, sinuous body lent itself to myriad styles of depiction.  Dragon heads stuck out from the junctures of the posts with the horizontal crossbeams.   They formed the ends of the roof beams.  Long and winding dragons climbed up columns and sprawled across rafters.
dragons in the đình
    Sometimes carvers filled a large panel, door or plaque with intertwined dragons, with clouds, flames or plants in between, each spaced harmoniously apart.  The work as a whole is an aggregate of curling and swerving lines.  And on close inspection the details emerge.  A dragon is dragging a baby lion by its tail.  Two recumbent dragons face each other, both jaws locked on the same single pearl between them. A dragon’s whiskers turn into swirling flames that terminate in a straight sword.  The mane and whiskers of dragons’ heads turn into bamboo shoots, atop which fairies dance.
    Carvers worked in teams and specialized in individual tasks.  Some were dragon-carvers, while others only did dragon heads.  Others did lions or phoenixes.  Some took care of the arabesques or flaming swords.   Still others carved the clouds or ocean waves or the human figures.   Classical models existed for all the motifs.  But these served as guidelines, not as exacting requirements.
    What makes the wood-carved artworks of the đìnhs particularly special is its deployment of both religious and secular themes.  While the religious imagery had to follow more or less established standards, mostly imported, the secular imagery had no restrictions.  Scenes of village life were part of the đình’s ornamentation and it was in this field that the carvers had the greatest liberty of expression.  Today their extant works of art are a valuable source of insight into the daily life of times long past.
depiction of an elephant vs. a tiger
peasant life depicted in  a đình carved panel
    For those carvers assigned to the secular themes, though, no such classical models existed.  No traditional aesthetic standards instructed them how to depict real animals and real people or what details to include in vignettes of everyday life, or even what those vignettes should portray.  The artists simply made careful, attentive observations of the world around them and then re-created it in wood.  They got the shapes of the animals right, the proportion of limbs and heads on the people correct and covered a huge range of activities.  Far from being crude folk art, the carvings often reach a high level of execution.  Even moods and facial expressions are discernible.  Taken as a whole, the body of secular woodcarvings in the đìnhs is one of the most outstanding legacies of the indigenous imagination.
    The most impressive of these carvings are the long friezes of processions of various people and animals.  Sometimes they are peasants going to market, leading their animals or riding buffalo carts.  Other times they are royal or military parades.  Some of the officers ride horses or elephants, soldiers brandish weapons and trumpeters blow conch shells.  And in the midst of such processions an irreverent detail might slip in, like in the frieze at Đình Đệ Tam Đông in Nam Định, where a mandarin fondles the breast of one of three naked bathing girls.  She covers her lower parts with a lotus leaf, but she and the other girls, and the mandarin as well, are all smiling.

leisure time in old Vietnam
    Another saucy example is of flirting youths, in Đình Hưng Lộc, Nghĩa Hưng, Nam Định.  A smiling boy sits with a scantily clad girl on his lap, she looking quite contented, while a third youth, grinning as well, tickles the boy’s face.  The figures are in full relief and wedged into the open jaws of one of the dragons in a large portrait of an assembly of dragons and fairies.
    One of the most unusual friezes is the vibrant vignette in a rafter in Đình Liên Hiệp, Phúc Thọ, west of Hanoi.  In a crowded scene one man rides a galloping horse through a gathering of peasants.  In front of him a soldier points his rifle at a seated peasant, while another man holds up a pig by its hind legs.  The carving has been given two names—“Officials Plundering Peasants’ Wealth,” which is certainly what it looks like, and the less seditious-sounding “A Hunting Party.”
    Artisans didn’t like to leave smooth, unadorned surfaces on any of the wooden components other than the big pillars.  Besides the long horizontal friezes, they carved scenes from daily life on posts, beams, cabinets and wall plaques.  The portraits could be realistic, like a woman carrying her children in baskets suspended from a pole, an acrobatic performance, two buffaloes locked in head-to-head
boating scene in Đình Tây Đằng
combat, a pair of wrestlers, a game of chess, etc.  Or they could be a little fanciful, like an elephant plowing a field, two men playing badminton while a tiger watches their game, military commanders riding leopards, etc.
    When a villager entered the đình, then, two sets of contrasting imagery caught the eye.  The religious imagery was a reminder of the belief system that ordered life.  The secular imagery was a reminder of the everyday reality in which those concepts operated.  The Vietnamese saw no contradiction in including both kinds of imagery in a single building.  What those images represented was all part of one system anyway—the indigenous way of life.

the compound of Đình Mông Phụ 
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Đình Mông Phụ is one of the stops on the itinerary of my cultural-historical tours of Vietnam.
                                       Go to for details.