Character building calligraphy proves a hit

Once the preserve of ancient scholars and elites, calligraphy has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years as anxious students seek hangings in ancient Han-Nôm characters which are thought to bring good luck.

At last spring is upon us, and for many Vietnamese people, now is the time to conjure fresh wishes, hopes and beliefs.

Joining throngs of festival-goers, 18-year-old Lê Thanh Thúy makes her way through spring drizzles on a Lunar New Year’s day to the Street of Calligraphy in Hà Nội in the hope of finding fresh luck.

“Could you make me a piece of calligraphy? I’m going to take university entrance exams this year,” asks Thúy in her timid voice. She hopes to commission a work in Han-Nôm (Han Chinese and Vietnamese ideographic characters) from an weary-looking calligrapher perched on the pavement outside the Temple of Literature.

“Well, I’d recommend you have one with đăng khoa as the characters. The words do not only connote passing the exam, but also being successful hereafter,” replies Đinh Việt Thành, the calligrapher clad in traditional black long robe.

While making New Year resolutions is the norm for Westerners, Vietnamese people will visit pagodas and markets or ask for a piece of traditional calligraphy as part of their holiday celebrations.

Each person flocking to the Street of Calligraphy – which is temporarily set up in Hà Nội every Lunar New Year and is the only one of its kind – brings along their own secret ambitions or wishes which will only be revealed to the calligraphers so they can paint them into delicate words on a piece of paper.

Sacred skill: Only a small number of old people can write calligraphy in Han-Nôm scripts in Việt Nam today.

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Drawing crowds: Vietnamese calligraphy is also attracting foreign visitors.
Different strokes: Young generations of calligraphers opt to write calligraphy in Roman-based scrip, the modern national language.

General wishes are for happiness, wealth, longevity or success, but they are conveyed in a variety of different characters agreed between the customers and calligraphers.

Asking for a calligraphy piece on a New Year day has spiritual elements to it, like you are searching for a new belief,” Thành explains to his young customers before sweeping his brush across the paper to form the first strokes.

If you have belief, plus your own desire, then you’ll make it,” the 65-year-old continues.

To Thúy and her friends, calligraphers like Thành are their spiritual mascots.

But Thành confides proudly that he and more than one hundred of his peers joining the business on the same street have a more crucial role to play: preserving the traditional culture of calligraphy, which has been dwindling as the ancient language continues to disappear.

History

Calligraphy has had a long and colourful history in Việt Nam. According to researcher Nguyễn Văn Thanh at the Hà Nội-based Institute of Hán-Nôm Studies, calligraphy is the art of writing characters used in the country at the time when Han Chinese was the main language, and later Nôm characters.

In the past, even when literacy in the old ideographic writing systems of Việt Nam was restricted to scholars and elites, calligraphy played an important part in Vietnamese life.

On special occasions, such as welcoming a new baby, celebrating an old birthday or the Lunar New Year, people would ask the village teacher or Confucian scholar to make them a calligraphy piece, which could be poetry, folk sayings or even single words in the hope that they would bring luck.

Ideographic scripts lost their historical role in Vietnamese culture at the dawn of the 20th century (when the country gained independence in 1945) as the nation shifted to using the romanised script Quốc Ngữ, which remains popular to this day.

Calligraphy written in the old language, henceforth, lost its place in people’s lives, and only returned around two decades ago during the Lunar New Year, says researcher Thanh.

Today’s stories

However, both researchers and calligraphers shared the same view that commissioning calligraphy has become a trend due to popularity among an increasingly large crowd, rather due to any yearning for the deep meaning conveyed in each character.

Calligraphy embodies not only the beauty of writing, but the special educational values,” says Thanh.

“For instance, a majority of young people flock to the Temple of Literature to ask for the word Học Giỏi (Studying Well), but Ham Học (Thirsty for Studying) should be advisable, since when they are thirsty for study, they will study well,” he adds.

“In general, calligraphy drives people to strive for improvement, such as how to behave properly or how to be dutiful to their parents.”

Like hundreds of calligraphy customers, 12th-grader Thúy (mentioned above) has no idea about the word she asks for until it is explained by the calligrapher.

“This is the first time I have visited a calligrapher, as this year will be a milestone in my life, and I hope I’ll have luck,” she says, as her eyes remain glued to the characters being drawn.

Two friends who accompanied her are also practical in choosing the words for their calligraphies. One envisions graduating this year, but wants to continue further study, and opts for Thành, which means successful. The other wishes to travel abroad for study, and gets Thuận, meaning safe journey.

The Street of Calligraphy, located at the first university of Việt Nam, the Temple of Literature, was started by just five calligraphers during Lunar New Year 2004.

Over time, the number of calligraphers has risen to the approximately 150 seen this year, each owning a small space on the pavement which is over a hundred metres long.

It is open for about two weeks up until the middle of the first lunar month, offering business for the hard-pressed calligraphers.

And, it is a brisk business. Each piece of calligraphy is sold for about VNĐ100,000, making skillful calligraphers a profit of between VNĐ10-20 million (about US$400-900) for that duration.

Researcher Thanh says that in the past, people asked for a calligraphy hanging of a spirit respected by both the writer and his customer – who would return the favour with small tokens, such as a vial of home-brewed wine.

Nowadays, it seems to have become a trade,” he says.

Many people even name the Street of Calligraphy the “market of scripts” to joke sarcastically about the boom of both calligraphers and customers.

But, the calligraphers have fought back against such jibes.

Asking and giving for free is no longer suitable in the market economy,” says Đặng Hoài Nam, a 26-year-old calligrapher.

A couple of years ago, a company joined the business by setting up demonstrations in the street with a view to restoring the old-time practice, whereby people who want calligraphy hangings don’t have to pay the calligraphers. Instead, they only had to buy papers from a stall next door and bring them to the calligraphers.

It failed within a year, as the costs became too high for the customers, according to Nam.

The young calligrapher also claims that they are not just here to make a profit.

“After a year of leaving our brushes idle or practising at home, here is a chance for us to be out on the street showing off our skills, our passions and exchanging them with our peers,” he says.

Script writer: Acalligrapher with his large set of brushes for calligraphy writing on display.

Outlook

As Han-Nôm is now rarely used among the majority of the population, due to the gradual disappearance of old Confucian scholars in traditional black dress and headgear, writing calligraphy in Vietnamese romanized script has become more popular among younger generations.

In the fast pace of modern life, having calligraphy hangings at home to view and contemplate can help people calm down,” says Kiều Quốc Khánh, founder of calligraphy writing club Việt Tâm Bút in Hà Nội.

“However, in Việt Nam, it is yet to become a popular hobby,” he says, adding that calligraphers are therefore not recognised as professionals.

There is a vast difference between Vietnamese calligraphy and its forerunners from China and Japan.

Yoshino Eri, 22, a Japanese girl who joined the Street of Calligraphy this year to write these Vietnamese script, agrees.

“To many Vietnamese people, commissioning a calligraphy hanging stems from their hope of finding luck, so in that way, calligraphy is not regarded as an art, like it is in Japan,” she says in her broken Vietnamese.

Eri adds that she loves studying calligraphy in Vietnamese script, as it combines both the strong strokes of Chinese and the gentle ones of Japanese, but she hopes people will care more about calligraphy so that calligraphers are forced to sharpen their skills.

Both researcher Thanh and calligrapher Khánh suggest that bringing calligraphy to primary and secondary schools would pave the way for the popularisation of this art in the country.

“In addition, there should be an association that gathers specialists to evaluate pieces to give calligraphers objective appraisals and recognition,” Khánh says.

His is a dream shared by the older generation of calligraphers.

A certificate to recognise our profession, like a work permit would be very good,” says Thành, who has extensive experience in writing calligraphy as a vendor around the city.

“I feel heart-broken to see that our culture of writing beautiful scripts is losing its true values.”

VNS

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