Talking, laughing and a rhythmical pounding resounds in Sinh village. The boisterous working ambiance as paintings were made was thought to have been lost forever. In recent years, though, thanks to efforts in preserving the traditional trade by local authorities and artisans, the sounds are heard once more, particularly as Tet nears.
In a house in Lai An village (commonly known as Sinh village) in Phu Mau commune, Phu Vang district in central Thua Thien Hue province, paper, colours and woodblocks are strewn about as Dinh Thi A and her sons and daughters colour the paintings. Two to three months before Tet is the busiest time for local artisans, so they must find the time to finish their orders, A said. ‘People’s lives are so much better now,’ she went on. ‘Their spiritual demand for worshipping is higher, like the saying “Honour changes manners”. It helps increase demand for Sinh paintings, which are used only for worship.’
When northerners headed out on the southward expansion centuries ago, one of them, an artisan by the name of Ky Huu Hoa, brought his traditional trade of making paper paintings from woodblocks so he could earn a living in his new home, Sinh village. On the banks of the Huong (Perfume) River, Sinh village was created in the 15th century. On the opposite bank is Thanh Ha town, a well-known port during feudal times and a bustling trade and cultural centre of Hue. The location helped in the development of a trade village for the paintings.
In the early days the paintings had a lot of common with the famous Dong Ho folk paintings, which are used for decoration. But in Hue, the land of a rich spiritual and ritual beliefs, they changed to match local tastes. Sinh paintings became famous as worship art for display at the altar or for burning like votive objects.
Sophisticated work from the past …
Sinh paintings are traditionally hand-made and require multiple phases, according to Ky Huu Phuoc, an artisan and the ninth descendant of Ky Huu Hoa.
Do (a type of tree) paper, a common material used in Vietnamese folk paintings, is selected and coated with diep, a scallop shell pounded and mixed with rice flour and water, which is then used to print the woodblock. The raw painting is dried and the colour prepared by the artisan.
Thanks to their skilled hands, the colours in Sinh paintings are totally made from nature and they are more diversified than other types of folk paintings. All of the colours - blue, green, yellow, red, purple, black - are made from plants and flowers. Each artisan also has their own secret method of mixing the colours to make their palette more colourful and the products unique.
Brushes also play an important role and are handmade from the roots of pineapple and come in various sizes for tiny details. All of the artisan’s talent is expressed in the details of their paintings, such as the brooch on the blouse of a woman or the drawing on the musical instrument in her hand.
Together with colour, the subject of Sinh paintings is also diversified, with about 50 themes reflecting the ancient credence and divided primarily into three main groups.
Character paintings feature images of deities believed to bless families and drive away bad luck. The most common is a woman in a luxurious dress with two young girl servants by her side. This type of painting is usually displayed on altars all year round.
Meanwhile, object and animal paintings are usually used as offerings to deities and burnt after a worship ceremony. The object paintings may be nice costumes, money, or furniture, while the animal paintings may be of fowl, cattle, elephants, tigers, or the 12 signs of the Vietnamese zodiac. The animal paintings are also used at cattle farms, to express respect for the animal world and bless all the cattle.
… are restored
Sinh paintings have long appeared at worship ceremonies, ritual events and festivals, particularly Tet. The golden days of the village were prior 1945, when all of the villagers were involved in the task.
It fell into oblivion, however, as during Vietnam’s fight for independence people struggled for food and schooling and no longer paid so much attention to traditional acts of worship. No one bought Sinh paintings any more. Many villagers gave up the trade and moved elsewhere to find new livelihoods, according to Phuoc.
After independence came in 1975, everything was scarce, including paper. Painting was considered wasteful and Sinh paintings were looked upon as part of a superstitious ritual and fell further out of favour. Woodblocks were collected and destroyed. Most of the villagers found other work, and only a few artisans, like Phuoc, continued their passion for Sinh painting in secret.
In his effort of retain the trade of his ancestors, Phuoc covered the finest woodblocks and buried them deep in the ground. He made a small basement to continue the artform. When each painting was finished, he wrapped it up and hid it in his jacket as he looked for buyers. ‘To be honest, the profit was very little,’ he said. ‘I was only trying to stop the trade from disappearing in my generation, which would have made me feel guilty with my ancestors.’
His efforts were eventually rewarded. When Vietnam adopted the ‘doi moi’ or renovation policy in 1986 and became more open, the restoration of trade villages, including Sinh paintings, was encouraged. By that time, however, all of the artisans had already left, and only Phuoc knew how to do it. He made new woodblocks and took them to each local household to teach people about the trade. He also supported them in selling their products at markets in the region. Again he found success. There are about 30 or 40 households in the village now working in the traditional trade, mostly during their leisure time after the harvest and just before Tet.
The Sinh paintings found today, however, are different. Instead of using do paper and natural colours, industrial materials are used for convenience. Only Phuoc remains loyal to the natural methods. ‘It’s the beauty and also the quintessence of the work. I must maintain it,’ he said.
Thanks to Phuoc, the soul of Sinh paintings is intact. In modern times, as demand for artworks thankfully increases, Sinh paintings are now available not only for worship but also for decoration. New subjects have been added, which are favoured by foreign tourists, such as scenes from local festivals, tug of war, blind man’s bluff, wrestling, and eight musical instruments, among many others.
The village has been welcoming visitors for a few years now, who are keen to learn about the trade and buy the paintings. Many also try to study the craft and make their own paintings. One of them, Clement Vivant from France, said that Sinh paintings are unique and exquisite, and the story behind them is interesting with significant cultural and historic value.