Writer: Truong Quy
Photographer: Ba Ngoc

While Vietnamese people have grown accustomed to images created and reproduced via high-tech equipment, they still cherish old methods that contain their cultural identity. One of these is the art of Dong Ho folk painting. These colored woodcut prints vividly portray the lifestyles of Vietnamese people over many centuries. They graced the walls of ordinary people’s homes, shining bright colors during festivals and conveying everyday wishes for prosperity.

This print depicts folk games

Like blank sheets

While Vietnam has many styles of traditional folk painting, Dong Ho prints were especially diverse and popular, making them stand out as a traditional form of Vietnamese visual art. Painted on paper, these artworks shed light onto all aspects of life of various social strata, over centuries.

The history of Dong Ho folk painting goes back to the time when inscriptions of Buddhist sutras began to circulate in Vietnam. At this time, Bac Ninh was still the Buddhist cultural center of Dai Viet. Researchers surmise this type of painting began when woodblock printing became popular in the 16th-17th centuries, at which time similar folklore themes were being explored in the sculptures of communal houses.

Eventually, Dong Ho paintings became a cultural staple of community life. Poems by Pham Thai, Ho Xuan Huong, Nguyen Khuyen, and Tu Xuong reveal these folk paintings’ influence and portray the beauty of contemporary people:

How old are they, my lady?
The sisters are both pretty,
Like blank sheets are their features,
Their timeless youth’s evergreen.
(Poem by Ho Xuan Huong – Translated by Khoa Ngo)

First of all, Dong Ho paintings stand out because they are made with natural materials commonly found in Vietnam. Their production requires a great deal of preparation. The paper on which they are printed is made from the bark of Rhamnoneuron trees, ground to a pulp and blended to create a slurry mixture. A mold is dipped into this mixture and removed. Paper fibers that adhere to the mold are pressed, dried, rolled, and dried again.

Printed Dó papers are dried outdoors

Long ago, people in Dong Ho village had the brilliant idea to embellish the paper, using a pine needle brush to apply a layer of glue mixed with a fine powder made of crushed sea scallop shells. As a result, the paper has a finish of fine shiny horizontal streaks, like the iridescent lines of a seashell. Thus, it is called  “điệp paper” (seashell paper).

The pigments used for printing also hail from nature: red from finely crushed gravel; reddish-brown from the trunks and roots of sappan trees; green from the bark and leaves of the mountainous cajuput tree; yellow from senna flowers; black from charcoal or burnt bamboo leaves, chinaberry, or other things available in the villages. With these colors in hand, the artisans can mix other colors such as green from verdigris. Over time they improved their techniques to create the standard five-color palette associated with Dong Ho prints to this day.

After the paper and paint are prepared, the next step requires the woodcuts. Sheets of newly-made dó paper measure 30x70cm.  They are cut into halves (30x35cm), thirds (30x23cm), and “jackfruit leaf” sizes (30x17cm). The woodcuts must fit these sizes.

Each painting is comprised of multiple colors and requires from three to five separate woodcuts to print each layer of color and the overall black outline. These woodcuts are carved from blocks of gold apple trees, another familiar tree in Vietnam’s northern villages. The image is made by applying colors onto a woodblock — one color for each block — and pressing it onto the paper. Despite coming from the same block, the finished works may have interesting variations since they are made by hand. The artisans may apply thinner or thicker layers of color to the blocks, or change the pressure they apply on the seashell-coated paper.

The Dong Ho Village Communal House

So noisy on the wall, this sketch of a rooster

Dong Ho paintings also served as Tet paintings, forming a cultural memory ingrained in Vietnamese people’s minds over centuries, for the topics they depicted were so familiar, so full of hope for peace and prosperity, while extolling the joy of being alive: Gà đàn (A Flock of Chickens), Gà Đại Cát (Great-Luck Chicken), Lợn ăn lá dáy (A Pig Eating Leaves), Đám cưới chuột (Rats’ Wedding), Rước rồng (Dragon Procession), Múa lân (Lion Dance), or witty stories of daily life, such as Đánh ghen (Jealousy), Hứng dừa (Harvesting Coconuts), Đấu trường (Arena), Thầy đồ Cóc (Master Toad), etc.

Myriads poems were inspired by these painted depictions of Vietnamese life, creating an indelible sense of our origins:

Sporadic and dull, the tiny crackers popped,
So noisy on the wall, this sketch of a rooster.
(Poem by Tu Xuong)

Vibrant Dong Ho paintings with chickens and pigs
Radiant folk colors on điệp paper.
(Poem by Hoang Cam)

The poem Bich Cau ky ngo (A Strange Encounter in Bich Cau), written in Nom script, tells the story of a beautiful woman, To Nu, who steps out of a painting. This tale and other folktales and poems were printed in cursive Nom script, embodying the mutual relationship between poetry and art and forming a rich cultural dimension. The 20th century also witnessed the evolution of Dong Ho paintings as artisans  explored different subject matters and themes, such as historic and heroic feats; the transformation of society in the face of Western cultural influences; and labor and production activities during wartime.

Meritorious artisan Nguyen Thi Oanh

There used to be 17 families who made Dong Ho paintings. Among them, the Nguyen Dang and Nguyen Huu families still uphold this tradition, helping  to make the Dong Ho painting village by the Duong River in the Kinh Bac region — called Mai village in Nom script — a destination well worth visiting. Even in this age of technological advances, these rustic paintings on thin paper still hold a special attraction. They reveal the aesthetics of a simple farming civilization, distilled from the hardships of everyday life to help form the soul of our nation.

A folk song states: “Dear fair lady with the green satchel, are you accompanying me to Mai village? / The village with dignified and courteous people, with cool rivers and a painting craft…” This verse portrays the picture-perfect scenery of Dong Ho village, as well as its residents’ rustic yet romantic natures and ability to work in harmony with nature.

After centuries of ups and downs, it is remarkable that these prints are still being produced in tiny houses during an age when handmade things are increasingly rare. Dong Ho prints have become like pages from an ancient journal, depicting times when your nation was young.