Vietnam Art Books -- Banyan tree tells history of Vietnamese culture (April 11, 2005)

Banyan tree tells history of Vietnamese culture (April 11, 2005)

After reading my book, Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture, an American friend asked me why I had decided to illustrate the cover with an old banyan tree.

This is how it happened. The final draft had already been sent to the printer, but the cover was not ready yet. The various photographic designs previously proposed to me were not satisfactory, and the designer did not know what to do next. Then, by chance, I met An Kieu, son of the late Nam Son, who, together with Jean Tardieu, had founded the Indochina Fine Art College in French colonial times. I asked An Kieu if he could provide me with something from his father, a painter known for his attachment to national cultural heritage. An Kieu gracefully responded to my request by sending a woodcut of a banyan tree, made some eighty years ago, that perfectly suited my purpose.

Why did I choose this banyan tree for the cover of my book on Vietnamese culture?

First of all, a banyan is an essential part of the rice-growing civilisation of the Song Hong (Red River) Delta, as is the curved roof of a communal house, the pyramidal stupa in a pagoda, a leafy bamboo hedge girdling a traditional Viet village, or a river landing.

Furthermore, a banyan, venerated for its great age and considered sacred, is always associated with a pagoda or a communal house, where the titular village genius is worshipped (a banyan was the symbol of the UNESCO-marked Year of the Elderly).

In my opinion, Nam Son’s banyan, with its trunk and four principal branches, is an apt representation of the structure, the characteristics and the evolution of the Vietnamese culture over the past three thousand years.

Why three thousand years, instead of the four thousand years mentioned in classical literature, in various patriotic documents, and even in the different constitutions adopted by the Vietnamese State prior to 1992? Four thousand is an imaginary figure, whereas three thousand has been scientifically proven. The nascent State of Viet Nam, as founded by Kings Hung, belonged to the Dong Son civilisation (the Bronze Age), which thrived from the seventh to the third centuries before Christ. Dai Viet Su Luoc, an ancient history book in the fourteenth century, also refers to "the beginning of the seventh century."

So, Vietnamese cultural identity, symbolised by the trunk of the banyan, was formed three thousand years ago, in the first millennium before the Christian era. The figure of three thousand corresponds to the criteria of that historical period: the advent of metal making and evidence of written text. The original culture of Viet Nam gave rise to the Red River civilisation, which is part and parcel of the rice-growing civilisation of Southeast Asia. It has been preserved up to now, constantly enriched and modified through contacts and exchanges with other cultures, or acculturations, as represented by the four principal branches.

The first branch stands for the acculturation with China that lasted two thousand years, through a period of Chinese domination (179BC – 938BC), and a period of independent royal dynasties (938BC – 1858AD).

The second branch symbolises the period of acculturation with the West, through eighty years of French colonisation.

The third branch is meant for the period following the 1945 August Revolution that put an end to the French rule. Then the problem of Viet Nam was internationalised, resulting in two resistance wars against French and American aggressions, lasting from 1946 to 1975. This period was marked by the influence of socialist countries in the northern part of the country and, in the southern half, the influence of the West.

The fourth branch illustrates the country’s embarkation on the path of Doi moi (renovation) in 1986 by switching to a market economy and advocating an open-door policy. Culturally speaking, this period is characterised by the country’s integration into both the global and regional scenes and its return to the Francophone community. — VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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