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 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|
|terracotta plaque of farming life, Giá village đình wall|
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|
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 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|
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|
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|
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
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|
|the compound of Đình Mông Phụ|
Đình Mông Phụ is one of the stops on the itinerary of my cultural-historical tours of Vietnam.
Go to http://deltatoursvietnam.com for details.