A mainstay of any home’s Tet decoration is a work of calligraphy with Chinese characters that express the desire for health, success and prosperity for the New Year. Alongside green chưng cakes, a five-fruit tray of bright colors and a peach blossom tree planted in a ceramic jar, inscribed calligraphic paintings are an indelible spring tradition for Vietnamese families.
In Ho Chi Minh City, District 5 – the traditional Chinatown area – comes alive around the Tet holidays with hundreds of ornament vendors all lit up in red, crammed side-by-side with calligraphy vendors. People flock to the area to purchase calligraphic characters of Fortune, Prosperity or Five Fortunes Entering the Gate, as well as to pick up ribbons, bronze chimes or little lanterns as ornaments for their flower displays at home. In Hanoi, calligraphy connoisseurs head to the Temple of Literature, where a yearly festival is held in which Confucian calligraphers don áo dài and headbands and sit in the wintry chills to portray sacred characters with their masterful brushstrokes.
The most popular characters are centered on desires for happiness, material affluence and peace of mind. Some couples come asking for characters to express a strong relationship and family happiness, and students may be fond of characters that express their wishes of academic success. For the elderly, a common parallel text reads “Fortune is as expansive as the East Sea and stretching fountains – Longevity is as everlasting as Southern mountains and evergreen pines,” insinuating physical resilience and happiness for older people to rejoice with their children.
For business families, paintings that portray eight galloping horses that read “Horses come heralding Success” are much in vogue, because these characters reflect their wishes of surmounting odds and obtaining fruitful results after daunting challenges. For some families, the best Tet presents include paintings with characters “Filled with gold and silver” as a wish of surging and long-lasting prosperity. The inscription also refers to the wish of an abundance in offspring, who in their turn glorify their clan with academic accolades, because knowledge was held to be gold and silver in ancient culture, and wisdom and affection in the family were the greatest assets of each member.
During Tet holidays, homes are refreshed and reborn with an air of vitality and harmony. For families who adhere to old fashioned rituals, Tet is the high time for children to set up and clean altars, carefully wash ritual offerings, wipe the bronze urn, the pair of bronze cranes and candlesticks to rid the stain of time, and of course, decorate ancestral altars with a new pair of parallel calligraphic sentences. In a modern family, calligraphic paintings can be framed, hung on walls or fixed like ancient scrolls or placed beneath the tempered glass of a coffee table to fully admire the mirrored beauty of the painting.
Each character is comparable to a work of art, incorporating shades of brushstrokes and perspectives, a carefree spirit expressed through hooked and curved lines, or perhaps the contemplation of innermost thoughts or the subliminal rebellion of soul through extended lines. During Tet holidays, these calligraphic paintings contribute to the radiance of the traditional Vietnamese New Year ambience.