Vietnamese neglect Han-Nom heritage
|Re-writing history: Caligraphers at work in Van Mieu Street, Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Anh Tuan
|Happy shopper: A foreign visitor admires his latest purchase at the Temple of Literature. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
|The writing's on the wall: Visitors to Dinh Bang Village, in northern Bac Ninh Province, look at the order to move the capital in the Han script during the reign of King Ly Thai To. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan
|Han-Nom exhibition: An exhibition entitled "Han-Nom Cultural Heritage of Viet Nam" was recently held at the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Ha Noi. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Vu
For thousands of years, Han and Nom were used to record Viet Nam's culture and history, yet fewer and fewer young people know how to read and write these scripts. Hoang Trang-Lan Nguyen
Han Chinese script and Nom (Chinese-based ancient Vietnamese script) have played an important role in linking the past with the present, said associate professor Dr Trinh Khac Manh.
"Viet Nam has many valuable Han-Nom literary works on historical and medicinal topics that have saved lives in the past. These collections were left to us by our ancestors," Manh said.
For thousands of years Han-Nom were the scripts used to record Viet Nam's culture, history, science and religion.
"Despite its importance to Vietnamese people, it has not been given proper attention by culture authorities," Manh said.
In the past Hanoians of all ages visited the Temple of Literature on Van Mieu Street on the first day of the Lunar New Year to ask a calligrapher to write a Han-Nom word for them.
Last Tet hundreds of people wearing their best clothes arrived at the temple to ask for a lucky symbol.
Luu Thi Lai, 50, made her yearly pilgrimage from her home in Cau Giay Ward to the temple with her two children in order to pray that they would excel in their studies.
"Many others asked for words such as Loc (good fortune), Khang (peace and good health), Phuc (blessing), and Thuan (concord) but we all ask for the words Duc (morals) and Dat (achievement)," said Lai.
Calligrapher Tran Quoc Chi, deputy head of the Ha Noi UNESCO Club, said the tradition was nice but that many people did not understand the meaning of the written words.
"Calligraphers from the club are very happy to satisfy the increasing demand from people who wish to have a meaningful Han word in their home. Last Tet we also painted for many foreigners who said they liked calligraphy and wished to have it in their house during the new year," said Chi.
Manh, who is also director of the Han-Nom Research Institute, said South Korea and Japan used Han scripts like Viet Nam's in the past but have now moved to different systems.
However, their education sectors have set out a rule that secondary school and university students must learn a certain amount of Han script before graduation, said Manh.
"These rules do not exist in Viet Nam, meaning that fewer and fewer young people know how to write a traditional document in Han. This has caused a widening cultural gap between generations," said Manh.
"We should educate modern Vietnamese youth in the heritage of Han-Nom by introducing the scripts into school curricula," said Manh, adding that the process would be difficult because Han-Nom lecturers are very rare now.
Few people wish to learn Han-Nom because they would not have many career options after graduation except jobs at research institutes and cultural centres, said Manh.
He said his Han-Nom Research Institute had a plan to put together a scientific summary record for 2010 but there was not enough money to print the book.
"Despite all these difficulties, we should promote the protection of Han-Nom heritage by popularising Han-Nom works so that people want to learn by themselves after attending a class.
"Culture departments should post interesting Han-Nom works on the internet to raise awareness," Manh said.
He believes Han-Nom works have lessons to teach that can be applied to daily life. "Our ancestors describe how to build a cultural community or establish village rules and conventions. Many of them remain suitable models for us to follow in the modern era."
Han-Nom heritage is protected by the Preservation Association of Nom Script, which has received the Balaban award for its work, said Manh.
In particular, the award was granted to Professor Nguyen Quang Hong, former deputy head of the Han-Nom Research Institute, for his efforts in bringing 10,000 Nom words into international Unicode and ISO 10646.
Pham The Khang, director of the National Library, was also granted the Balaban award by making the library becomes the first in Viet Nam to displaying 4,000 ancient Han-Nom documents.
"These ancient documents are very useful and important for Vietnamese and foreigners, particular for any Han-Nom researchers wishing to access Han-Nom heritage," said Manh.
|Word-perfect: A young girl proudly displays her calligraphic work of art. — VNA Trong Duc
Scholar teaches Han
Hanoian Nguyen Nghiem Dat, 70, has taught Han script to more than 100 students.
One of Dat's students is Luc Van Khoan, a 60-year-old herbalist from the northwestern province of Dien Bien, said he was taking the course in order to research traditional medicine in the Han texts.
"I'm also very happy to write Han-Nom for people in my village so they can hang calligraphy in their houses to welcome Tet," said Khoan.
Dat said Khoan was one of his first three students and a very quick learner.
When more and more people signed up, Dat officially opened a class to teach his students every day and holds free sessions on Thursdays and Sundays.
To help students understand and remember Han-Nom lessons, Dat tries to arrange words in poems.
Dat said the role of Han script is very important for locals to understand because they make wood statues and horizontal lacquered boards engraved with Chinese characters and parallel sentences.
Many villagers send their children to Dat, hoping to encourage the new generation to learn Han script for use in traditional crafts.
Dat said the secret to writing an elegant Han word is to hold and control the brush in the right way.
"I'm very happy because I've trained them in ethical behaviour through writing Han scripts," said Dat.
Dat said he has a student who often behaved insolently towards his parents, but who had improved after learning Han script and understanding its significance. Now Dat wishes to open a proper school where his students can learn Han-Nom script. — VNS