Painter Phan Cam Thuong's book Van Minh Vat Chat Cua Nguoi Viet (Vietnamese Material Civilisation) published last year tells the story of objects people create and use and is regarded as unique and interesting. Some of the 1,500 illustrations from the 700-page book have been displayed in Ha Noi recently. Thuong spoke to Culture Vulture about the project.
It took almost 20 years for the book to be printed. Is that too long for a publication?
I started thinking about the issues [the book covers] in the 1990s but not about compiling them into a book. Then I embarked on gathering materials and documents, and drawing antique objects. Since 2000 one of my students also has helped with photographing objects wherever he went.
In 2006, the book came into being like a clear picture with a great deal of details that I just needed to put together. In 2008, it was almost completed. It took nearly two years for the book design because it was extremely hard to combine 858 photos and 565 sketches into the text.
In fact, during the 20 years I've worked on many other books. To let these issues mature in my soul over such a period of time feels neither long or short. Even when the book is published, there are still many other matters that are untouched.
What difficulties and successes did you encounter during the process?
Writing a book has never been easy, especially for those who are free researchers like us because we do not have any source of financial assistance. The major challenge then, of course, is money. To collect materials and build my own knowledge, I travelled to China, Japan, Thailand and other areas with a similar long-standing agricultural history to ours, to see what they have and learn about their research methods.
Travelling within our borders was fairly expensive, let along travelling abroad, and at one point I couldn't even make it to the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta River.
Nevertheless, during the process of compiling the book, wherever and whenever I went, I received support from the local people, particularly farmers as they understood what I was doing. Seeing my sketches of farming tools, they were greatly touched and many often told me that if I did not do this, their children and grandchildren would have never known about their ancestors.
What discoveries did you think were most interesting about Vietnamese civilisation, and how has it changed over time?
I do not dare say that I found something unique or interesting, that is up to the readers to judge. For myself, when I did the research, I found many issues which were different from what I had learnt or read in history books. I even cut out comments I thought would create too much of a shock. For example, before the 10th century our population was around 1 million. With a vast area, and densely criss-crossed forests, rivers and streams, people did not need to cultivate crops because there were sufficient natural sources of nourishment such as rice and wild animals.
By the 11th century, dikes had been built and rivers were separated from fields. When cultivated land dried and became harder, early ploughs came into being with the beginning of agricultural production. Material life changed over this time too, and was not dependent on politics or religion. I cover this period in detail in the Historical Slices part of the book, in which I explain about life in each period of time. I explain in detail when summer crops entered the Dai Viet (Great Viet), when che lam (sweet paste made of sugar, ginger and glutinous rice), banh khao (cake made of roasted glutinous rice flour) appeared, when Vietnamese people started eating morning glory and when tomato, broccoli and cabbage were first grown. Nothing appeared by itself, but in accordance with the advancement of human life and development of the nation. Under such conditions, spiritual civilisation also varied.
What comments have you received from the public and your colleagues in art circles for the book and the recent exhibition of the book's sketches and pictures?
After the book was published I received many comments, both praise and blame. The majority said together with the objects displayed at the Museum of Ethnology and similar collections, what I did was necessary to raise public awareness about what existed in our material life that is being lost into oblivion. However, my knowledge was limited to the reality in the North, not in the South. I want to make this book open so readers can add what they think necessary. — VNS