Saturday, May 30, 2015

Some Surviving, Some Thriving--Craft Villages in Vietnam

                                                                     by Jim Goodman

carving wooden panels in Xuyên Thái
       From the time the Vietnamese first cleared lands to make farms in the Red River Delta, the basic aim of any village was agricultural self-sufficiency.  Along with animal husbandry and trapping and fishing in one of the ubiquitous streams and ponds, such a lifestyle provided everyone with enough food.   But after the Lý Dynasty moved its capital to what is now Hanoi in 1010, over the next few centuries some villages began supplementing their farming income, or even replacing it, by specializing in craft production.  Some produced select items for the royal Court and the temples, but many more of them supplied a whole range of products for domestic use everywhere.
       In some cases a particular villager went to China, learned a craft and returned to teach it to his fellow villagers.  Often this person has been deified as the village tutelary deity, or guardian spirit, with a festival staged in his honor every year.  But in many places no one knows how the craft originated, just that it began with an anonymous innovator, imitated by more and more of his neighbors until eventually the entire village became employed in it.
making furniture in Đồng Kỵ
       Over time some villages abandoned their craft specialties while others took up new ones.  The heartland of Vietnamese culture and history—the Red River Delta—is home to over 800 of these craft villages.  A quarter of them date their tradition back several hundred years.  Then in the Lê Dynasty, when Vietnamese began migrating southward, they took the craft village tradition with them.   Another 650 craft villages exist in the rest of the country.
       The concept of craft villages originated with the Lý Court’s requirements for building and furnishing its palaces, shrines and royal compound.  Certain villages produced the building components, furnishings, bedding, clothing and ornaments, etc., and were exempt from ordinary taxes.  Specialized villages also produced the state’s arms and the paper for its official documents.
       Inevitably, the craft village idea spread beyond those that had made some arrangement with the Court.  For items of bronze and wood, silk and ceramics, there were other customers besides the Royal Court.  Temples and village communal houses needed bells, candlesticks, sculptures, incense burners, carved altars and furniture.  Eventually these villages found customers among the wealthy upper class, especially for furniture, silk or something to embellish the family shrine.
building a boat in Kim Bồng
       This still holds true today, as increasing prosperity has enabled many Vietnamese to improve their material life by indulging in things like elegant furniture.  Craft villages devoted to wood products, from statues to carved cabinets with lavish mother-of-pearl inlaid decorations, are flourishing   The streets of the ancient village of Đng K in Bắc Ninh province are lined with sawmills and furniture workshops, supplying the steady demands of households throughout metropolitan Hanoi.  Kim Bồng, in Quảng Nam, whose ancestors built and furnished the elegant homes that make Hội An a tourist attraction and who furnished the palaces of the Nguyễn Citadel in Huế, is still an active woodcrafts producer both for the region and an international market.  The village has also expanded its work to household implements, sculptures and building boats.
young lacquer worker in Xuyên Thái
       The religious revival of recent decades has boosted the business of craft villages catering to temples.  Sơn Đồng village, in Hoài Đức district, west of Hanoi, has for centuries been the major supplier of wooden statues, ceremonial weapons and the sedan chairs and palanquins used in processions.  Đoi Tam, near Phủ Lý south of Hanoi, makes drums for temples all over Vietnam.  Xuyên Thái, in Thương Tín district south of Hanoi, specializes in altars, decorative panels and other furnishings.  All the items are meticulously lacquered, the original specialty of the village and even today it still gets orders to do the lacquered coating for products made by other villages.
       Xuyên Thái artisans apply at least ten coats of lacquer to protect the wood and give it a deep glossy sheen.  They also add gold or silver leaf to highlights of low-relief sculptures, Chinese characters on plaques and signboards, the heads and hands of large statues and even the entire surface of smaller ones.  The production of this gold and silver foil, however, was the work of another craft village, Kiêu Kỵ, across the river from Hanoi, which has been doing it since the Lý Dynasty.  The technique hasn’t changed.  The women prepare small black squares of rough paper or cellophane, then insert thin square wafers of gold, somewhat smaller, in between the black squares.  A man in the adjacent workshop slowly, methodically pounds these out until the ultra-thin gold wafer has been flattened to the same size as the black squares, about 3 cm per side.
preparing gold foil in Kiêy Kỵ
       The expense of gold or silver embellishments on furnishings restricts its customer base to basically temples and communal houses undergoing renovation. The average Vietnamese household will likely eschew such embellishments.  But mother-of-pearl inlay, made from the iridescent insides of mussel shells, is quite affordable.  It’s almost always part of wooden furnishings, as well as tea sets, jewelry boxes, vases, musical instruments and even chopsticks.  Designs range from flowers and vines at the corners of cabinets to large vignettes of rural life splashed across doors and bed panels.  Furniture-making villages know this craft, but the village with the most venerable reputation, dating to the 11th century in the Lý Dynasty, is Chuông Ngô in Chuyên Mỹ district west of Hanoi.  It’s not an easy craft, as it involves sitting bent over for long hours while polishing the shells and then carefully laying the pieces into the desired design.  
bronze worker in Hanoi
      Temples also required the work of stone carvers and masons.  They produced the gates, the guardian lions and other animal sculptures, the wells, the statues and the carved pedestals the pillars stood upon.  Ninh Vân village in Ninh Bình province still specializes in stone products, though more secular-oriented nowadays.  Ninh Vân masons built the famous Phát Diêm Cathedral complex in Kim Sơn village, in southeast Ninh Bình.
       Marble ware is the specialty at Non Nước, just south of Đà Nẵng.  The village lies at the base of one of the Five Marble Mountains, the original source of its raw material though nowadays Non Nước imports its marble.  The skills are still intact, though, and the village produces a huge variety of statues of all kinds and themes for the international market.  Further south, Hội An, a preserved old town that had its heyday in the 16th—18th centuries, seems to have partially adopted the role of a craft village.  Catering to the unceasing flow of tourists, a significant number of local residents started getting into the clothing business, mainly ready-to-wear garments, often of inexpensive silk.  The town and its approaching streets are full of these clothing shops.
marble work in Non Nước
       After its demise as a port, though, Hội An did develop a local craft—silk lanterns.  Several resident families still practice this trade in old town shop houses in full view of passers-by.  A good portion of Hội An houses feature mounted or suspended lanterns.  They are distributed throughout the region.  And in recent years the local government has publicized this aspect of Hội An culture by requiring that on the 14th night of every lunar month, the night before full moon, only lanterns may be used to illuminate old town streets and building interiors.  Visitors and residents also float little lamps in the river. 
       Originally the silk for Hội An’s lanterns came from Thi Lai village, up the Thu Bồn River in Duy Xuyên district.  The village has been working in a partnership with Đông Yên village since the establishment of the craft by immigrant weavers from the North in the 15th century.  Đông Yên raises the silkworms and produces the cocoons.  Thi Lai does the spinning and weaving.
making lanterns in Hội An
Hội An silk lanterns
       Silk has a much longer history in the North.  According to legend, a Hùng princess introduced the whole complex process—mulberry tree cultivation, care of the worms, extraction of thread and weaving of cloth—to a Red River Delta village 3000 years ago.  From there it spread and several villages adopted the trade.  The most famous is Vạn Phúc, near Hà Đông, just southwest of Hanoi.  The wife of a Tang Dynasty official set up the village here because of its lovely riverside setting.
       It's still an active production center, supplying shops in Hanoi and throughout the North.  You can hear the sound of looms as you walk down any of its lanes.  Hanoi residents like to come to Vạn Phúc to shop if they want something special, rather than check the shops in the city.  The prices will be lower, the atmosphere pleasant and the selections greater.  As silk is still the preferred material for special clothing among Vietnamese, Vạn Phúc’s future as a viable craft village looks pretty secure.
transporting craft products in the countryside 
       So does that of Chuông, south of Hanoi, which makes the conical cap that is the favorite headgear of rural Vietnamese, a preference not likely to change for some time. Villages specializing in a particular food item, like the green sticky rice (cốm) of Vọng, or supplying flowers, fresh or embroidered, are likely to retain their customer bases.  The fate of other craft villages is less certain.  Even those relatively successful now, like those producing furniture, are facing a raw material shortage.  The wood now comes from Laos, rather than Vietnam.  For some Vietnamese wooden furniture has become too expensive and so villages that specialize in bamboo and rattan work, making furniture, strong baskets and cases, household implements and so on, have attracted more interest and customers, reviving their trades.
Bát Tràng ceramics village
       Industrialization also threatens the future of some craft villages.  Plastic sieves, for example, are easier to produce, and cheaper to buy, than sieves made from split bamboo.  Another problem might be simply a change in taste.  People might prefer plastic sieves because they come in several colors and are easier to clean.   Or take the case of the sleeping mats, of sedge, jute or rush plant, that every traditional household had.  Nga Sơn in Thanh Hóa and Cẩm Nê near Đà Nẵng have been famous for their sedge mats, thick and soft, cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  Kim Sơn in Ninh Bình produces mats from the rush plant peculiar to the area.  If future generations decide to sleep on raised beds, they won’t need these mats and these villages may have to revert to farming.
18th c. Bát Tràng vase, Hanoi History Museum
       That probably won’t happen to the most famous craft village in the country—Bát Tràng, the ceramics village on the east bank of the Red River, 15 km downstream from Hanoi.  It lies in an area rich in deposits of high quality clay, kaolin and natural oxides.  In the past boats took the village products—bricks, tiles, earthenware and glazed ceramics—up to the capital for local consumption and to Phố Hiến for export.  Its artisans achieved a high standard many centuries ago, mastering the application of different colored glazes and developing a new technique of crackled glaze.   Bát Tràng skills peaked in the 18th century and exquisite ceramics found their way to ports all over East Asia and eventually to museums in the region and in Europe.
       Virtually every family in Bát Tràng is involved in the ceramics business and practically all the houses have at least one kiln.  Products of all kinds, shapes and sizes stand outside many homes.  Tourists can pass by an active workshop on any lane they wander down and later marvel at the incredible variety of items on display at the central market.  They can learn how to make small pieces themselves.  And their purchases and a major factor in Bát Tràng’s continuing success.
Bát Tràng workshop
       Elsewhere in the Delta production in ceramics villages, like Hương Canh and Phú Lãng, north of Hanoi, has declined.  The number of families employed in the trade has dropped from all of then to just several in each.  They make household pottery for the most part, which suffers from competition with more durable modern alternatives.  Thanh Hà, however, a Lê Dynasty ceramics village near Hội An, has, like Bát Tràng, benefitted by marketing new products to the tourist crowds. 
       Thus, many craft villages have survived because of their success in attracting non-Vietnamese customers.  But domestic demand for everything, including traditional craft products, has also increased thanks to ever-increasing incomes among the population.  Workers in these crafts are earning enough to keep them from looking for a different line of work. The innate conservatism of crafts workers is also a factor.  So long as what they already know garners a sufficient return they prefer to remain in that line and train their children to keep it up.  That attitude, combined with the importance of craft village production to the economy, as well as the beauty of the craft items themselves, augurs a good future for this Vietnamese tradition.

Thanh Hà's children learn basic pottery skills at an early age.
                                                                                * * *
                     Craft villages are on the itinerary of my cultural/historical tour of Vietnam.  
                                        See the website 

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