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Dong Ho – A typical folk painting genre of Vietnam

Dong Ho – A typical folk painting genre of Vietnam


Dong Ho village, formerly named Mai village, in Song Ho commune of Thuan Thanh district in the northern province of Bac Ninh is known as the cradle of one of the most famous folk painting genres of Vietnam.

Telling the history of Dong Ho paintings, artisan Nguyen Dang Che, who has been working hard to preserve this genre, said according ancestors’ documents, the craft of making paintings in Dong Ho dates back to the 16th century, and it is now more than 500 years old. So far, no one has ever heard about the founder of this craft, and all the quintessence of this folk painting genre has been handed down from generation to generation by artisans for centuries.

This genre had been in its prime before 1944. At that time, local residents mainly earned their living by making paintings to sell in the Lunar New Year (Tet) festival and producing votive papers. The village was busy all year round, and there were up to 17 clans involved in making paintings. Usually, the whole village made votive papers from the first lunar month to the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. From the 8th to the 12th month in the lunar calendar, they turned to producing paintings for Tet.

At that time, the 12th lunar month was the busiest period as there were six market days for selling paintings in this month. The first market day fell on the first day of the 12th month, and it was opened every six days, on the 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 26th. People from far and wide flocked to the market to buy paintings and then went to various places to re-sell them to others to decorate their homes during Tet. The atmosphere was bustling all the time with busy buyers and sellers, Che recounted.

According to Prof. Dr Truong Quoc Binh – member of the National Cultural Heritage Council, Dong Ho is a long-standing folk painting genre that is the most famous in Vietnam and deeply imbued with the cultural identity of the Vietnamese people. With the diversity in terms of design and theme, Dong Ho paintings reflect all social aspects, from customs, daily life to the spiritual life of the people in the Red River delta.

Over hundreds of years of development, Dong Ho folk paintings have become an indispensable “spiritual food” for a large number of people from all social strata in the country for many centuries.

Each painting has its own meaning, reflecting aspirations of the working class, from simple to sacred and noble things. Such paintings as “Vinh hoa” (Honour), “Phu quy” (Wealth), “Tien tai” (Richness), “Ga dai cat” (The rooster of good fortune), “Phuc” (Happiness) and “Tho” (Longevity) show the wishes for a new year.

Meanwhile, to commemorate national heroes, artisans created “Hai Ba Trung tru giac Han” (Trung Sisters defeat the Han enemy), “Ba Trieu danh quan Ngo” (Lady Trieu fights against the Wu troops), and “Ngo Vuong Quyen danh Nam Han” (King Ngo Quyen fights against the Southern Han troops), among others. To inspire the traditional fondness for learning and the respect for teachers, there are such works as “Hieu hoc” (Fond of learning), “Vinh quy bai to” (Returning home to pay tribute to ancestors after achieving academic honours), “Muc dong doc sach” (Herdsman reads book), and “Thay do coc” (Toad teacher).

Dong Ho paintings also criticise bad habits, vices, as well as injustice in society. Among them, “Dam cuoi chuot” (Mice’s wedding) is a profound satirical implication. The cat represents the ruling class that is greedy and eager for bribery while the mice, representing peasants, are wise and always stay alert to the cat. Meanwhile, “Danh ghen” (Scene of jealousy) criticises some men’s womanising while secretly giving advice to them to help prevent a family tragedy.

“Tu quy” (The four seasons), “Tung hac” (The pine and the crane), “Ke cuc” (The rooster and the chrysanthemum), “Lien ap” (The lotus and the duck) imply the virtues of honourable persons. There are also paintings depicting traditional cultural activities of the daily life or festivals in the northern region like “Danh du” (Swinging), “Danh vat” (Wrestling), “Ruoc trong” (Drum procession), “Mua rong” (Dragon dancing), “Mua lan” (Kylin dancing), and “Choi trau” (Buffalo fighting).

Additionally, some works were also inspired by old stories that praise the faithfulness and moral standards such as “Tong Tran – Cuc Hoa”, “Luu Binh – Duong Le”, “Thach Sanh”, and “Truyen Kieu”.

Che noted doing this craft, artisans also created new works reflecting changes in society. Notably, when the westernisation movement was popular in the early 20th century, Dong Ho artisans made many paintings that criticised the miscellany and preposterousness in society at that time.

Those paintings include “Nhay dam” (Dancing), which depicts a bar with waiters and two couples dancing a waltz; and the couple of paintings “Trai tu khoai – Gai bay nghe” (Four joys of men – Seven jobs of women), which condemns the self-indulgence of urban men and women in the French-ruled period.

Following the success of the August Revolution in 1945, the whole country joined hands in addressing hardships and eradicating illiteracy and hunger, and artisans of Dong Ho village became part of those drives by paintings promoting mass education.

A number of works were also made to support other movements then such as “Vua san xuat vua chien dau” (Concurrent production and combat), “Bao ve hoa binh” (Protecting peace), or “Kien thiet quoc gia” (Contributing to the nation). Some also features modified proverbs written in the national script so that they can become closer to ordinary people.

Artisan Che said during the resistance war against the US, he also created more than 10 paintings under new themes by himself like “Hop tac xa mua ban” (Trading cooperative), “Cai tien nong cu” (Innovating farm tools), “Bac Ho voi thieu nhi” (Uncle Ho and children), and “Phu nu ba dam dang” (Three resourcefulnesses of women).

Particularly, in “Khong cho chung no thoat” (Do not let them escape), he depicted the scene of Vietnamese troops and people arresting a US fighter pilot during the 12 days of the US’s air raid on Hanoi in 1972. Many foreigners have come to buy this painting, he said.

With its unique values and diverse content, Dong Ho folk paintings are not only precious heritage in the country’s art treasure but also hold an important position in the world’s fine art history. Given this, the genre was included in the list of national intangible cultural heritage.

A dossier is being compiled to seek UNESCO’s recognition of the Dong Ho folk painting genre as part of the humanity’s intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding./.