by Vo Quy Cau and An Vu
|Top gong: Thi has made bells for the last 60 years. He also passes trade tips to one of his sons Doã Duc Cam.
For the last 60 years, Do Thi has made hundreds of bronze bells of all sizes. The only successor of a well-known bell casting family in Duc Hiep Commune, he is a living legend whose works will influence many generations.
When the first bronze bell rings at Thien An Pagoda, local people in the central province of Quang Ngai wake from their sound sleep. Everyone knows that the bell is made by Thi, who despite his 78 years devotes himself night and day to casting bells.
Historical documents reveal that the province has long been famous for its bronze bell casters. Before him, Vo Hiet and Tho Kinh were the village's best-known bell casters.
When Thi was born, his grandfather, a reputable bell caster of Chu Tuong Village (an ancient home of bronze bell casting) passed away. As his father did not follow the same career path, Thi was sent to study with another caster.
During an internship at his father's friend's workshop, Thi learnt to cast bells on his own. With observants eyes and skillful hands, in a short time he was able to make a small bronze pot with a sophisticated pattern - far better than those produced by more experienced workers. By the time the old casters started to leave the job, Thi had become a full fledged bell maker.
"In 1957, a chief district officer called Bang Chuong asked local people in Chu Tuong Village to cast a bell for De An Pagoda. When the bell was finished, he was angry that it did not match what he had imagined. So he assumed that the qualified casters had all died," recalls Thi. "When I heard the story, I visited the chief and told him that I could make him a bell. He looked at me with doubtful eyes, saying that was impossible. But I knew that I could prove to him that it was true."
After returning home, he chose the best soil in the village and mixed it with charcoal and rice husks to form a mould, which he filled with high-quality bronze. One month later, when the bell was finished, he had local workers hang it up and strike it to let people know the work was complete.
When Bang Chuong heard the pure sound from the bell and saw the artistic lines that adorned its body, he was speechless. He could only look at the young man with eyes filled with admiration.
"You are the true successor of Chu Tuong Village's bronze bell casting profession," the district chief told Do Thi when he finally regained his voice.
That success fueled Do Thi's rise to fame. After each temple was restored, Thi received tonnes of orders from customers around the village. The 78-year-old has laid his skillful hands on many bronze bells in Thinh Thinh, Dieu Giac and Thien An pagodas, as well as many others.
"The bell is considered beautiful when its belt is sharp and its body is steady. When it is hit, it must make a loud sound, and it echos a long time in the air.
To make a perfect bell, you need more than high-quality materials and mastery of technique. You also need a good heart. If you try to make a bell when your heart is not at peace, the bell's sound will not be pure and echo for a long distance, Thi says.
The decoration on the bell must also include images of dragons and unicorns, which are symmetrical and harmonious.
|Dying trade: Thi is one of four casters left in the village where hundreds of workers once worked in the craft. — VNS File Photos
Thi has a habit of refusing to accept payment from monks and priests, and does not carve his name or his village's name onto the bell to show off.
"People know me by my talent, not my name," he says. "The more bells I make, the more compassion I feel for my homeland. Many bells in my home country were destroyed by war and natural disasters. After the temples were rebuilt, I persuaded many benefactors to donate money for the bells' restoration, and I tried as hard as possible to restore their former glory."
Besides casting bells, Thi also makes bronze pots, which he sells to several shops in the central province of Binh Dinh's Hoai Nhon District, and gongs, which he sells to ethnic minorities in Quang Ngai and Kon Tum provinces.
"In my spare time, I put all my heart and strength into making bells," Thi says. "To be honest, bells are far more strenuous to make and less profitable than bronze pots. But I feel extremely excited when making them."
At the age of 78, the craftsman still works like a young man in his early 20s.
"Since I keep away from cigarettes and wine, I have the strength to make the bells I love," he says proudly. "I want my village's name to last forever, so that Chu Tuong Village continues to be famous for its bronze bells even though other villages have lost their ancient name."
But this dream is looking increasingly idealistic. Today, Thi is one of four casters left in the village where hundreds of workers once worked at the craft.
"I've passed on my passion to my six sons. Among them, my oldest son Do Gia Ven is the best. That gives me some peace of mind," he says.
Duong Van To, director of Department of Agriculture and Rural Development of Quang Ngai Province, says Do Thi is a living symbol of the village's rich tradition of craftsmanship.
"Thanks to Do Thi, the village's bell casting profession has been preserved. I always tell him to focus on passing this precious tradition to the next generations, while also finding a way to modernise the products so that they still have a market," he says.
When we left Chu Tuong, Thi and his son Do Duc Cam were sketching out plans for a new bell.
"Although there are only a few youngsters in the village still making bronze bells, I can feel peace joining my ancestors, since I know my children will take my place. The sound of Chu Tuong's bells will continue to echo for years and years in the future," he says. — VNS