In the 11th century, in a small village that today is still made up of only around 220 households, a tradition was born that would spread across Vietnam and become an internationally recognised symbol of Vietnamese culture. This tradition was the art of woodcut painting and the village was called Dong Ho. Dong Ho can be found in Bac Ninh Province on the banks of the Duong River, around 35km from Hanoi.
Giving the story some colour
The woodcuts were originally produced in black and white. However, during the 15th Century, a wider range of colours of paints began to be used in the production process. These included red, green, yellow and blue.
The colours were produced by sourcing dyes from the surrounding environment. For example:
- red is made from powdered red gravel,
- black is produced by burning bamboo leaves,
- white is made from powdered shells.
Dong Ho, the place to go
Various other villages were producing woodcuts and paintings of their own at a similar time, but Dong Ho managed to beat off the competition and emerge as the name that everyone knew.
Traditionally, the process took several months, so the woodcuts were produced for Tet, the celebration of Vietnamese New Year. The purchase of them became a tradition and almost a necessity across Vietnam. The lively images were seen as a good luck symbol and their simple, fun take on life would have brightened up the households that they were bought for.
The vast majority of the villagers became involved in the production process. This included carving the woodcut panels, collecting materials to produce the differently coloured paints, creating the special diep paper and producing the prints.
How would woodcuts be cut?
A simplified version of what goes into making woodcut paintings is:
- a sketch is made and the colours to be used are decided upon,
- separate panels are cut for each colour to be used,
- panels are covered in ink one-by-one and pressed onto paper,
- once dry, the painting is covered with a sticky rice paste to protect it.
The big advantage that woodcuts have over freehand paintings is that, once the panels have been cut, it is relatively simple to make large numbers of copies of the image. The more highly skilled artists and carvers are only needed to produce the design once. After that is done, the copies can easily be made by low skilled workers.
The woodcut paintings cover a range of subjects. These include good luck signs, pictures of traditional tales, representations of historical figures and satirical comment on the times. Hundreds of different designs and themes have been produced over the centuries, but there are some that have become synonymous with Dong Ho woodcut paintings. Examples of these are:
- ‘Rat’s wedding’, in which a rat bride and groom and their guests present gifts to a cat,
- a fattened pig being suckled by piglets, all with the yin and yang symbol emblazoned on their sides – symbolizing peace and happiness,
- ‘Catching coconuts’, which depicts people collecting coconuts,
- a hen with many chicks, symbolizing families’ joy at having many children.
A picture of decline?
In recent years, the amount of business that the village has received has begun to suffer. Replicas, that are often poor quality, are very easily and cheaply made using modern printing techniques. Most of the woodcuts that are currently made in Dong Ho are sold to tourists who visit wanting to purchase a piece of traditional Vietnamese culture.
As often happens, what was once an integral part of life in the country has become an outdated process that is kept alive mostly by the disposable income of curious tourists and enlightenment-seeking backpackers. However, in an effort to preserve this precious piece of cultural history, a submission is to be made by the Vietnamese government to UNESCO to ask for Dong Ho woodcut painting to be recognised and safeguarded as ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Only time will tell if this is successful in keeping the tradition alive.