The PM’s approval was a good signal, opening up an opportunity for the preservation and promotion of a folk painting artform that is facing the risk of falling into oblivion and disappearing completely0.
Originating in the 16th-17th centuries in a small village along the Red River in Song Ho Commune, Thuan Thanh District in the the northern province of Bac Ninh, Dong Ho folk painting is one of the most famous folk painting styles imbued with the quintessence and cultural values which represent the national heritage. Dong Ho paintings are made using traditional manual methods with raw materials from nature, including wood carvings printed on do (poonah) paper using colours from earth, burnt bamboo leaves and sea shells. Featuring many different forms, including worship, celebration and life, they directly reflect the faithful and spiritual life of the people in the northern delta. The uniqueness in materials, colours and artistic images has made Dong Ho folk paintings not only a valuable Vietnamese heritage but also popular with international friends. The folk painting style was honoured as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2012.
Although the technique of making Dong Ho folk paintings has been preserved, the style has faced many challenges due to the many ups and downs of history. According to old documents, there were still 17 families making the traditional paintings as well as numerous workshops in the village by early 1945. Then many households gave up the craft of making folk paintings to make votive papers or do other jobs to earn living. According to Deputy Director of Bac Ninh provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism Nguyen Van Anh, only two families of artisans Nguyen Dang Che and Nguyen Huu Sam in Dong Ho Village maintain the craft. The village’s prosperity is only echoed in the villagers’ memories.
However, people who have a deep passion for the craft have made efforts to preserve and spread the vitality of Dong Ho paintings. The improvements in economic life have led to an increasing demand for spiritual life and a trend of returning to traditional cultural values, inspiring them to rejuvenate this painting style. Over the years, the families of the late artisans Nguyen Huu Sam and Nguyen Dang Che have gathered funds to purchase thousands of precious woodblock prints from the households who gave up the craft and have passed the techniques of making Dong Ho paintings down to younger generations, with their determination the links remain unbroken. As a result, artisan Nguyen Huu Qua, the second son of late artisan Nguyen Huu Sam, is an owner of a well-known Dong Ho painting facility in the village which has attracted a large number of visitors. The Dong Ho Painting Preservation Centre, which was formed by artisan Nguyen Dang Che, now displays 200 paintings as well as thousands of precious woodblocks and patterns. It has become a destination for Dong Ho painting lovers as well as for young people to learn more about the traditional native craft.
In addition to the management of the centre, artisan Nguyen Dang Tam, the son of artisan Nguyen Dang Che, has conducted attractive tours connecting Dong Ho Village with other surrounding destinations, including Phat Tich Pagoda, Dong Ngu water puppet village and Luy Lau ancient pottery village. The enthusiastic artisans are trying their best to regain a “foothold” for the ancient painting village in many ways.
Their tireless journey has been always supported by Bac Ninh provincial authorities. In 2010, the relevant local agencies honoured and awarded titles to artisans of Dong Ho folk paintings. The province also issued a Decision on restoring and developing folk painting artisan clubs in Dong Ho Village as well as investing in the infrastructure and minimum conditions for the club to operate. In June 2014, Bac Ninh provincial People’s Committee approved a project on “protecting and promoting the value of Dong Ho folk painting cultural heritage in Thuan Thanh District for 2014-2020 period with an orientation until 2030” with a total cost of nearly VND60 billion from the state budget and other sources. The submission to UNESCO for the recognition of the genre as part of an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent protection is expected to offer a great opportunity to revive the Dong Ho painting village.
An international seminar on “protecting and promoting the artistic value of Dong Ho folk paintings in contemporary life” was held jointly by the Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies under the MoCST and Bac Ninh provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The event aimed to seek practical measures to preserve and spread the value of this precious painting genre.
According to experts, in addition to honouring it, the relevant agencies should propose methodical strategies and mobilise the spirit and intelligence of authorities, artisans, enterprises and people towards promoting the heritage’s value. The promotional activities can take various forms such as the organisation of tours, the restoration of painting markets, the introduction of paintings at both domestic and international exhibitions, and the assurance of consistent output of the paintings, all of which are very important. However, it is also crucial to boost the teaching of the craft’s techniques to younger generations.