The lone guardian of an art (July 28, 2003)
The last link to an ancient craft unique to East Asian countries is one 80-year-old man. Lai Phu Ban is the only artisan anywhere still practising the 500-year-old traditional of Kim Tien, or golden paper-making for royal edicts. Experts fear the art will die with him if steps aren't taken to preserve it.
|Lai Phu Ban restores an old golden royal edict.|
"I cannot pass this craft along to my children and grandchildren, because they don't want to do it," says Ban, who began the practice of mashing, dyeing and embroidering the paper at age 12. "I want to give my secret to the government."
Isamu Sakamoto, a Japanese researcher who has studied Kim Tien paper effortlessly, says the craft is very special to Vietnam and Japanese researchers have been unable to replicate it using modern machines. "This is a precious heritage of Vietnam," said Sakamoto, a professor at Kibi International University.
Along with the samples exhibited last month in the first attempt to draw public attention to the craft, visitors could see old edicts survive time and the climatic changes over the years. The paper is preserved in several other Asian countries, mostly in China. But the difficult practice of the craft itself, whose paper can last indefinitely, is threatened with dying out with its last practitioner.
"Even after hundreds of years have elapsed, the royal paper still preserves its original beauty," said Dr Trinh Khac Manh, director of the Han Nom Institute. "It doesn't fade or become ruined over time."
The handmade paper has been dated as far back as the 15th century. Lai Phu Ban says his ancestors in Long Dang village, in suburban Tu Liem district of Hanoi, supplied the paper to the Le and Nguyen Dynasties, who would use it for royal edicts and other official certificates.
The paper was chosen to supply past kings because it is large, handmade, humidity-proof, and lends itself to ornate design of ornate dragons flying on clouds. The oldest edict in the exhibition, dated 1492, surprised visitors for its long-lasting quality, said Dr Manh, taking into account Vietnam's humid conditions.
|An edict issued by King Le Hien Tong in the 44th year of his Canh Hung Reign.|
For royal edicts, a large dragon would be drawn on the paper, symbolising the power of the emperor. After the 17th century it was dyed yellow, in the belief that the colour would strengthen that power. It has also featured further designs, including the red hallmark of the king.
The last king of Vietnam, Bao Dai, left the throne in 1945 to give way to the birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Since then, there has been no demand for the royal paper as there were no edicts to be issued. Yet proponents say the paper would be perfectly good even today for official government documents.
Lai Phu Ban is determined to keep himself in low profile, saying he only wants to pass on his secrets to authorised people from the Ministry of Culture and Information.
"The ministry welcomes Mr Ban's goodwill," said Nguyen Thi Ly, deputy head of the ministry's Preservation and Museum Department. Mr Ly said she has only recently heard of Mr Ban's proposal and has not met the man or discussed the matter with him.
The cultural officer said the government might take steps to start the secret technique transfer process.
The first-ever exhibition of the special paper was held in Hanoi last month. The exhibition curators were forced to advance the date of the exhibition, owing to Mr Ban's old age.
The Vietnam-Japan Research Centre and the Han Nom Institute, which promotes conservation of the Chinese Han and Vietnamese Nom scripts, jointly organised the exhibition. (VNS)
Reprinted with permission from Nhan Dan Newspaper
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