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Young history buffs hold onto nation’s past

Update: October, 22/2017 - 09:00
Inspiration: Ancient knowledge is essential to understand the spirit of traditional patterns.
Viet Nam News

A group of young people with a shared passion for history and culture has taken a practical approach to popularise native culture. Hồng Vân reports.

A collection of more than 200 traditional Vietnamese art and architectural graphic patterns from the 11th century to the 19th has been collected for public use after a year’s hard work by a group of Vietnamese youths.

Phan Huy Lê, a 25-year-old man with a bachelor degree in international economics, rarely works in design or the art industry. Yet it was his special passion for history and ancient indigenous culture that led him to bring people together with an interest in history to share their knowledge about history, ancient practices, costumes and architecture throughout Việt Nam.

Lê and Cù Minh Khôi, a young painter with a similar passion, run the organisation named Đại Việt Cổ Phong (literally translated as Great Việt Nam’s Ancient Customs). They copied digitally centuries-old patterns for artists, art designers and architects to use as reference points.

In three years of operation, the organisation has more than 23,000 followers. Hundred of people actively share their knowledge on the forum. 

Lê established Đại Việt Cổ Phong in May, 2014. It is run by 10 executive members. The organisation offers hundred of writings, themed traditional costumes, practices, architecture, patterns as well as traditional music and religion often compiled from books and ancient documents.

“What makes me so proud is that it is now a platform where those with an interest in culture and history can discuss and share their findings,” Lê said.

Eye stopper: A dragon pattern from the Nguyễn dynasty. The dragon is one of the most popular patterns in Viet Nam. It was used on costumes, architecture and furniture in royal palaces, temples and pagodas.

Recovering patterns

Đại Việt Cổ Phong group has used painting as a means to illustrate history since its first days.

“Initially we shared with each other paintings featuring old costumes and architecture. All the details are based on descriptions in books and ancient documents. Painting is a convenient and effective means to illustrate the old customs. It can reflect the aesthetic beauty of clothes, architecture, furniture as well as the ancient mysterious landscape,” Lê said. “Besides, it doesn’t cost much to make a painting.” 

Khôi, a 26-year-old painter with a graphics major from the University of Industrial Fine Arts, joined the group. In 2015, he worked as a design painter for the movie Phật Hoàng Trần Nhân Tông (Buddhist King Trần Nhân Tông) which features the glorious Trần Dynasty (1225 - 1400) and life of the King. While Khôi and his colleagues were working on the ancient costumes for actors and actresses, they found it difficult to access collections of characteristic Vietnamese patterns in the Trần Dynasty.

“My job was, along with other artists and designers, to work on the costumes of the actors and actresses as well as design the landscape of the 13th century,” Khôi said. “While we were working with the fashion designs, we encountered a big challenge. It was hard to find authentic ancient Vietnamese design samples to be used as references to decorate costumes for kings, royal palace officials and ordinary people at the time,” he said.

Khôi discussed the situation with Lê. Given that the group had a number of history documents and the appetite for native culture preservation, the two launched the project in January, 2016.

Revived: VietnamAncient offers notebooks, calendars, colouring books and cards featuring Vietnamese patterns.

The group raised more than VNĐ190 million (US$8,300) from public support to start the project.                                    

The project started collecting information on art and architectural design patterns. They sorted out photographs and started recovering some first designs to get feedback from the community.

To have a digital supply of Vietnamese ancient patterns, project members firstly collected images and information on the patterns from books, temples, pagodas, former Thăng Long Imperial Palace and former Huế Imperial Palace.

“Collecting designs can be hard because while some have survived a long period of time, details have often faded or even been lost,” said Khôi.

Reference to similar patterns in countries that share a similar culture with Việt Nam, such as Korea, China and Japan, is also essential.

“We redraw the pattern by computer. During this step, it is necessary to put emphasis on the aesthetic element as well as basic elements in painting so that we can make our drawings more graceful while maintaining the spirit of the pattern,” he said. 

One of the difficulties is that most artists involved in the project have little experience in painting and recovering ancient designs.

Early phoenix: A phoenix pattern from the Lê dynasty. It looks stronger than the elegant images of the Nguyễn dynasty.

“To express the spirit of traditional patterns, the painter needs not only to understand the pattern, but also to have knowledge about ancient oriental painting, because the drawing lines of oriental Asian art and painting are different from ancient Western art and modern Vietnamese painting," Khôi said. 

“The most popular and characteristic patterns of Việt Nam inlude sacred animals like the dragon, phoenix, unicorn; flowers such as the peony and chrysanthemum. Yet details of these patterns vary in different dynasties,” he added.

“The collection of patterns by Đại Việt Cổ Phong group can be used as reference for designers to make ancient costumes and landscapes for movies. It can also be used by artists whose Manga comics feature the ancient time of Việt Nam,” Nguyễn Khánh Dương, a co-founder of Comicola. He is also the scriptwriter and producer of fictionalised Vietnamese historical comic Long Thần Tướng (Marshal Long).

“Collecting and recovering patterns requires comprehensive research and joint efforts by experienced researchers, experts and management agencies. Most of the project members are non-professional in this industry, so their products may have some limitations. But I think the project is appreciated and should be studied more deeply,” said historian Dương Trung Quốc at an exhibition of ancient objects early this year.

Painter Nguyễn Mạnh Đức who has great experience in traditional art and painting and was the major design painter for the movie Phật Hoàng Trần Nhân Tông told Việt Nam News: “With this project, young people reach back to the roots of culture. They help to establish pride in Vietnamese culture as well as create a basis for the revival of traditional art in contemporary life,” Đức said.

“It is pleasing that young people have a great interest in traditional culture and are taking action to preserve it,” he added. 

Currently, the group raises funds by selling colouring books, T-shirts, calendars, key fobs, envelops and cards. All feature Vietnamese traditional patterns made by group members.

Nghê (mythological kylin) has long been a symbol of Vietnamese culture. The image of this animal is often carved at a temple or pagoda entrance gate or in the base of Buddha statues. I use yellow, brown and dark red to express the sacredness and the power of this animal. These colours also help to illustrate the prosperity and creativity of art, architecture and religion of our country,” said Phan Hà Thanh Vy a customer of a colouring book featuring the Vietnamese patterns.

The inspiration

In 2010, when Lê was a freshman at Hà Nội Foreign Trade University, he was obsessed with concerns about how to popularise traditional culture among young people given the influence of exotic culture and the increasing cultural integration.

“I had been thinking of it very often, but I hadn’t yet had a specific idea,” Lê said. In October that year, when there were a range of festivities to celebrate the millenial anniversary (1010-2010) of the capital of Hà Nội, among which was the screening of history movies.

“These movies failed to attract local audiences. Then I realised that we have limited knowledge on our country’s history and ancient customs.What our ancestors wore, what their houses looked like, how furniture was displayed, all these are so vague,” Lê said. 

“That was the reason I became determined to gather a group of young people to share a passion for Vietnamese culture and history,” Lê added. 

That was how the idea of Đại Việt Cổ Phong arose. 

After three years, the group is now a favourite platform for young people to learn and discuss the nation’s history and culture. VNS 

Out of the past: Cù Minh Khôi (L) presents a painting for director Nguyễn Văn Lượng (R)from the movie Phật Hoàng Trần Nhân Tông (Buddhist King Trần Nhân Tông).
On show: Đại Việt Cổ Phong members held an exhibition of traditional patterns early this year. —Photos courtesy of Đại Việt Cổ Phong


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