Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

A scene from A Mice's Wedding, a dong ho print at the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts

Safeguarding Dong Ho Woodblock Printing in Vietnam

Dong ho woodblock printing originated in Dong Ho Village, Song Ho Commune, Thuan Thanh District, Bac Ninh Province, about 35 km east of Hanoi. The colors, color processing, printing paper, woodblock carving, and manual printing techniques, as well as the skills of craftspeople give dong ho woodblock printing its famous “naïve soul.” Printing colors, paper, and woodblocks are handcrafted from natural materials. Each color is printed on a separate woodblock, so the number of woodblocks used depends on the number of colors needed. In a multicolor print, craftsmen print colors in the following order: red, green, white, yellow, and finally black. After applying each color, craftsmen hang paintings to dry before printing another color.

Dong ho woodblock printing peaked in the 1940s when most village households with good craftsmen earned their living through the art form. At that time, Vietnamese families often bought dong ho prints during the Lunar Tet holidays for worship and house decoration since the prints represent good omens, luck, happiness, and aspiration of people and they depict the beauty of nature, country, and people.

Current Issues of Dong Ho Woodblock Printing

Today, in the wake of wars, economic transition, urbanization, and globalization, dong ho woodblock printing is no longer in high demand. Most of households change to higher-income businesses, such as votive paper making, manufacturing, and trading in other commodities. In the village, two craftsmen and their family members persist with dong ho woodblock printing despite challenges. Furthermore, the number of craftsmen is also decreasing due to aging, and the young generation shows little interest in the traditional handicrafts. All these factors have restricted the output of dong ho woodblock printing in recent history.

Safeguarding Dong Ho Woodblock Printing

Realizing the risks of deterioration and the loss of dong ho woodblock printing, the Vietnamese government at all levels and the relevant communities have launched a series of activities to safeguard the ICH element.

Printing woodblocks arranged in color order © Nguyen Thi Thu Huong

Government Initiatives

The first landmark since the 1945 August Revolution is when the Bac Ninh Provincial Authority established a dong ho woodblock printing cooperative in 1967. In 2009, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued Decision 4518/ QD-BVHTTDL to approve government funds for making an inventory of dong ho woodblock printing. The Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies (VICAS) started the inventory in 2010 and completed it in 2012. Based on the historical, cultural, and artistic values of dong ho woodblock printing and acknowledging its importance, the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism and inscribed the dong ho woodblock printing on the national list of intangible cultural heritage on 27 December 2012.

Determined to safeguard the valuable heritage, the prime minister directed the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to collaborate with the People’s Committee of Bac Ninh Province to work with relevant communities to prepare a nomination file of dong ho woodblock printing to submit to UNESCO for the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in the coming years. This represents the concerted action among the government and the community to safeguard the element.

The international effort to safeguard and promote dong ho woodblock printing can be seen through a two-year joint project Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage on the Verge of Extinction—Vietnamese ICH Element Dong Ho Woodblock Printing signed in November 2013 between VICAS and the International Research Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region (IRCI) in Japan. Through the joint project, young generations have opportunities to be involved with documenting and promoting the transmission of traditional techniques and knowledge of woodblock printing. Part of the project’s activities included IRCI holding the Young Film Makers for ICH Video Documentation Workshop in February 2014. IRCI invited and sponsored the Bac Ninh Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s director, Mr. Nguyen Van Phong, and a young practitioner from Dong Ho Village, Mr. Nguyen Dang Tam. Workshop participants learned basic technical approaches for film making and creating a shooting plan. After the workshop, Mr. Tam was provided with additional ICH documentation skills and knowledge (using equipment and filming techniques) so that he can guide the community.

A practitioner carving a printing woodblock © Nguyen Thi Thu Huong

Another activity within the joint project is the two-day workshop, the Roles of the Community Centre/Museum in ICH Revitalization that IRCI, VICAS, and the Bac Ninh Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism co-organized. It was held on 27 and 28 January 2015 in Hanoi and Bac Ninh Province. Experts from IRCI, Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, Kyoto Institute of Technology, Editorial Design Office, Root Design Office, Oga Municipal Board of Education, Kyushu University, and VICAS as well as representatives of Bac Ninh leaders, craftsmen, and practitioners from Dong Ho Village attended. The participants discussed creating contents for a “community-led museum” for sustainably safeguarding dong ho printing techniques and developing consumer markets. Dong ho woodblock printing practitioners also had an opportunity to learn and share experiences of safeguarding the ICH element with Japanese experts.

More recently, on 30 June 2014, the People’s Committee of Bac Ninh Province issued Decision 660/QD-UBND approving and funding a project titled Protection and Promotion of Cultural Heritage Value of Dong Ho Woodblock Printing in Thuan Thanh District for the Period 2014 to 2020, a Vision toward 2030, which shows the most visible and profound evidence for the awareness, interest, and responsibility of the Bac Ninh authorities for safeguarding dong ho woodblock printing.

Activities of ICH Bearers

To highlight the importance of ICH bearers in practicing and transmitting dong ho woodblock printing, I returned to Dong Ho Village in March 2016 to talk with craftsmen Nguyen Dang Tam and Nguyen Huu Qua to find out what they have done to safeguard the ICH element. Tam gave a ten-year history of his family’s safeguarding activities. In 2006, the Bac Ninh provincial authority put up 5,600 square meters of land to lease, and Tam’s family took the land on a fifty-year lease and invested money to build the Folklore Exchange Center of Dong Ho Woodblock Printing, a large complex for safeguarding the element, where ancient woodblocks, paintings, and records of dong ho woodblock printing are conserved. Furthermore, at the center, Tam’s family has regularly implemented activities through manufacturing, teaching, and practicing dong ho woodblock printing. Thus, this multifunctional Center has become a leading destination, drawing a large number of domestic and foreign visitors every day.

Similarly, for three generations, Nguyen Huu Qua’s family has made great effort to collect and conserve ancient woodblocks and transmit the dong ho techniques from one generation to another. As a result, the family has developed good practices for safeguarding the ICH dong ho element. Overall, they have implemented a number of safeguarding activities—namely,

  • collecting and conserving ancient printing woodblocks and creating new printing woodblocks for revitalization,
  • continuing to manufacture dong ho woodblock printing despite its ups and downs,
  • safeguarding original techniques of dong ho woodblock printing to transmit to future generations,
  • diversifying forms of dong ho woodblock printing products to meet contemporary consumers’ demand, and
  • raising public awareness among younger generations and igniting interest among a wide demographic of domestic and foreign visitors.

Conclusion

It is important to note that without the safeguarding strategy of the Vietnamese government at all levels and community involvement, dong ho woodblock printing would be in a precarious condition today.

Dong Ho Village, traditional painting (woodblock printing).