Epic wood carving scene breaks national records

April 09, 2023 - 08:18
A giant wood bas-relief depicting a pastoral landscape has recently wowed the public with its elaborate designs.

By Lê Hương & Minh Phương

A giant wood bas-relief depicting a pastoral landscape has recently wowed the public with its elaborate designs.

The spectacular carving illustrates the scene “Vinh Quy Bái Tổ”, a traditional procession whereby a man who has passed a royal exam to be eligible to work in the court, returns home to pay tribute to his ancestors to the tumultuous welcome of the whole village.

The stunning work was made on a huge, single plank of rosewood imported from South Africa, measuring 8.33m long, 1.7m high,and 0.16m thick.

The artwork was granted two records by the Vietnam Record Association for the biggest hand-carving on a single plank of wood, and the bas-relief with 348 figures, the highest number so far.

“My brother and I are of the young generation in a village with a long-time traditional handicraft,” Bùi Trọng Quân, who runs the Bùi Gia Carpentry Shop in Ngọc Than Village on the western outskirts of Hà Nội. “We decided to do something to make a landmark in our career. So, we tried a big-size landscape bas-relief.”

Quân said they chose the "Vinh Quy Bái Tổ" theme as it expressed many traditional customs, philosophy, and cultural features of the Vietnamese people, such as the solidarity, diligence, eagerness to learn, and love between husband and wife.

The artisans then searched everywhere for materials and consulted experts before making sketches.

WOODWORK: A worker at the workshop. VNS Photo Lê Hương

Quân’s older brother Bùi Trọng Lăng said he had visited many museums and historical heritage sites in the former imperial citadel in Huế, the Literature Temple and Thăng Long Imperial Citadel complex in Hà Nội, and gathered many documents to decide the patterns for the carving.

“It took us a year to make the first sketch,” he recalled.

Then he consulted cultural and historian experts to complete the draft with a proper scene of a newly conferred mandarin returning home.

“Each cluster of details requires special technical care,” he said. “We paid much attention to the charisma of the mandarin, the main character. He is a symbol of a hard-working scholar, who gets success in the royal examination to return home with great pride. He will then use his talent to serve the king.”

"The charisma of the mandarin can be seen in his countenance, which expresses his happiness. The mandarin sits comfortably on a horse, with his head raised a little high."

Quân said carving the figures on the wood was the most challenging work.

PROUD: The central figure in the giant bas-relief is riding a horse. VNS Photo Minh Phương

“We had to carve the mandarin on another piece of wood first as a trial before carving him on the giant wood plank,” he said.

The whole process took them 27 months to complete the bas-relief with 348 figures.

“With the giant and elaborate carving, we have realised our strong willingness to make a landmark in our career as well as praise traditional handicrafts,” Quân said.

The procession stretches two-thirds of the total length of bas-relief and is depicted with the figures’ moving gestures.

The scenery features layers of clouds on top, which symbolise the long-time tradition of studying.

Dozens of clusters of plants, trees, flags, and palanquins have also been carefully carved onto the scene.

Prof Bùi Hoài Sơn, permanent member of the National Assembly’s Culture and Education Committee, noted that the carving had a practical significance in preserving and developing traditional identity in a new era.

“The artwork stresses the good characteristics of the Vietnamese people,” he said. “The creation of traditional values on wood is suitable for the present-day public. Thanks to such a creation, our cultural values are passed on.”

Historian Dương Trung Quốc, who gave consulting remarks for the sketches, said he appreciated the skills of the artisans.

"The authors of the artwork have not only been brave in ideas and time and money investment, but also have a strong will to implement their vision for the project,” he said.

EPIC: The bas-relief contains 348 figures and various elaborate designs, depicting a classic pastoral landscape. VNS Photo Lê Hương

The Bùi Gia Carpentry Shop each year produces 40-50 wooden works of various sizes. The workshop gathers 10 carpenters who are highly experienced in carving.

Phan Mạnh Cường, a carpenter in the workshop, said he strongly believed in the development of the art.

“We are sometimes bogged down with difficulties when we cannot sell our products, but provided that the national economy is stable, the demand for wood carving will rise,” he said.

Cường said the most challenging aspects of wood carving were creating lively human figures.

“We should describe proper facial expressions, and the gestures of people like in real life,” he said.

The workshop has customers throughout the country.

Long-time craft

The carpentry shop is one among over 100 workshops in the area providing wood carvings to domestic and foreign markets such as the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and the US.

According to Đỗ Đình Thường, chairman of the Ngọc Than Wood Carving Handicraft Association, the main products in the area include wooden altarpieces and Buddha statues.

Nguyễn Tiến Dũng, chairman of the Ngọc Mỹ Commune People’s Committee, said more than 140 households in the area engage in the craft.

“The income from the handicraft accounts for some 60 per cent of the whole income of the commune,” he said.

“Last year, two artisans sent their products to compete in the One Commune One Product programme of the city and got 4-star recognition.”

Family business: Brothers Bùi Trọng Lăng (left) and Bùi Trọng Quân by the artwork. VNS Photo Minh Phương

“We have submitted a plan to open a special zone for handicraft production with a total area of 23ha, where local craftsmen will set up bigger workshops.”

There will be areas for handicrafts, heavy industry, and shops displaying products near main roads, where enterprises can rent the land for 50 years to open businesses. The workshops for rent will cover an area of about 500sq.m.

“We hope next March we will have the land for the project. We hope to link local handicraft with a series of tourism products in the area soon, so that travel agencies can bring guests to the area to experience the wood carving art."

RECORD BREAKER: The giant scenic carving in all its glory. VNS Photo Minh Phương

In the past few years, local authorities have opened many courses on the art for the youth. Household businesses have been able to get loans from banks and Farmer Support Fund with favourable interest rates to better invest in production.

“I strongly believe that the carving art will develop well with incentive policies,” Dũng said. VNS