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Sinh village prints tell a thousand words about soul of the nation
By Nguyen Huu Thong

With their simple, striking lines and bold hues, religious prints provide a colourful window into the spiritual world of the Vietnamese peasant.

In central Viet Nam, the historical centre of production for these prints was Sinh Village, 7km from the centre of Hue on the road to Vi Da-Thuan An.

The village’s original name is Lai An, one of the first to be founded in Central Viet Nam during the southwards expansion of the Vietnamese nation.

Its name appears in historical records as early as the 16th century. In the O Chau Can Luc (O Chau Reports) by Duong Van An, it is described as a bustling commercial centre.

Though located right by the modern port town of Thanh Ha, Lai An still retains the appearance of a traditional craft village.

Making the pictures was once an involved and painstaking process that called on the different strengths and skills of all the people in the village.

Some would go to the sea-side to catch diep (mussels), while others would head for the forest to gather the plants and herbs to make the dyes.

Once the raw materials had been collected, the first task was to ready the paper and prepare the colourings.

The pictures are printed on poonah-paper, covered with a layer of diep colouring to give it a glittering background.

Next came the mixing of the dyes. Mong toi (Basella alba) seeds processed with hoe (Sophora japonica) seeds created a sky-blue used for the fringes of robes and scarves. Red hues were made from brick powder and applied to fans and the toes of slippers. Light yellow was made from dung leaves mixed with hoe buds, crimson from bang (tropical almond) leaves, and black from the cinders of ground and filtered straw.

When the dyes are applied to the white diep paper, the result is a glossy texture that brings the warm and vibrant images to life.

Unlike Dong Ho folk prints popular in the northern delta, Sinh village artists start by printing the lines first, and then adding the colours, much like the technique used in Hang Trong folk pictures in Ha Noi.

Because different brushes must be used for each colour, the artists gradually developed a "production line" approach, whereby one worker would only apply one or two colours on a determined part of the picture. They became so skilled that even a young worker could hold two brushes in one hand and apply two colours simultaneously. The most difficult parts were reserved for foremen who approved the final works.

An examination of Lai An’s old printing boards yields some fascinating images. Three themes in particular seem to dominate: human images, usually displayed on altars or on house pillars and doors; objects such as dresses, bank notes, household appliances, bows and arrows, which were burned after the offering ceremony; and pictures of animals such as buffaloes, oxen, pigs, horses used to pray for the health and fertility of domestic animals.

However, the demands of the market economy are being felt even in this most traditional of villages. Many of the worship pictures are hurriedly printed with chemical colourings on tissue paper or newsprint, rather than the original natural materials.

Due to competition from rival printing centres such as Cho Dinh and Gia Hoi, and the availability of other objects for worship, both the quality and quantity of Sinh printing products has suffered.

And while folk prints were once made all year round, now their production is reserved only for the approach of Tet.

Now, only by finding one of the traditional prints can we glimpse the discreet charm and deft skill of the Sinh craftsmen of old.

Reprinted with permission from VietNam News Agency.


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