Communal Houses in Vietnam

To make a comparison, people often say: “as large as a communal house” although this building is not as imposing as the Egyptian pyramids, the Khmer Angkor Vat or as long as the Chinese Great Wall. The above comparison only makes sense when we return to our village: the largest building is truly the communal house and the biggest tree the banyan tree. The banyan tree, the river wharf, the communal house yard is the images of our native village.

The “common house” (nha rong) of our Tay Nguyen fellow countrymen in fact is very large with its colossal roof. Similarities can be found between a “common house” and a “communal house”. “Nha rong” is both the largest building and the common house of the whole village. It is besides a house on stilts. The elevated floor off the ground makes the house high, dry and clean, especially in a climate of persistent rains, strong winds and storms, floods and high humidity such as that of our country.

In more ancient times, on the drumheads of Dong Son bronze drums, we also see figures of large common houses with extremely curved roofs like those of communal houses (dinh lang). The roof is pointed like a huge conical hat. In some cases, the roof measures 3/4 of the building height which is very impressive and original. This wooden house is 30m long, 15m wide, 9m high. It has 9 rooms and is supported by 60 large columns whose circumference occasionally measures up to 2m. Such a building belongs to the category of titanic wooden structures in Vietnam. We are now quite unable to construct similar ones. A mere look at the drawings would make one giddy because of the complex structure of the communal house, yet the chief carpenter of two gangs of workers only needs to know the width of the communal house floor, the length of each room and the height of the columns to calculate all the details and make an estimate of the necessary quantity of timber (approximately they need 100m3 of logs!). Two gangs of carpenters jointly work, each group is responsible for the construction of an equal half of the building division, separated by the middle line. Upon completion of the work, the two halves of the communal house are closely fitted. That is the day of the communal house erection celebration, the most solemn festive day of a village. It is common belief that communal houses first appeared in the Le dynasty – 15th century – but the oldest communal house that remains belongs to the 16th century and Tay Dang communal house is an example. The whole system of wooden rafters and columns rests on large stone blocks so that people can change the direction of the whole building without disassembling the entire wooden structure. Until the middle of the 20th century communal houses were still being constructed in southern Vietnam, but they were made of wood according to an entirely different design. Direction is the determining factor to be taken into consideration in the construction of a communal house, for: “The cause of swollen and red eyes must be found in communal building’s direction” “Not me alone but the whole village suffers from this condition!”

Village people believe that the stateliness and the direction of the communal house determine the destiny as well as the good or bad fortune of the whole village. The most recently built communal house in the photo above differs greatly from ancient communal houses. Several decades ago, people stopped constructing communal houses, so this category of buildings now belongs to the past. The system of imposing wooden rafters is the unprecedented achievement of Vietnamese architecture because it possesses in itself a structural and decorative beauty with a charming, vigorous look. The best accomplishment of wood sculpture and decoration appears on those rafters. They are bas-reliefs depicting the peasants’ everyday life in our villages. Wood carvings for ornamentation densely cover the rafter surface to lighten and elate the sturdy architectural frame. Fairies riding a dragon. They are actually village girls wearing pink Vietnamese bras and a blue purse-waistband; one man is riding a tiger, the other an elephant: they can dominate wild beasts. The carving lines are clear-cut, all in one stretch. The styles vary greatly: hollow carving, carving in alto relieve, carving in intaglio (with several layers). The men even dare to ride symbolic animals exclusively reserved for king, lords and gods!

Artists focus on depicting life in their native villages, e.g. Buffalo fight at Do Son; as for wrestling competitions, they were held in every village. The human figures look like dwarfs. In former times, the Vietnamese were shorter than their offspring’s today but the artist had stylized his personages’ height to accentuate the head (the major part). The trunk was intentionally “squeezed” to fit the width of the wooden beam. Several layers of carvings which figure men, beasts, flowers and fruit densely cover the rafters. These are scenes of alcohol drinking, farming, hunting, kicking the shuttle cock, Chinese boxing, bath in the lotus pond, children’s game ”Picking flower-buds and blossoms”, mother carrying her child with a pole, playing musical instruments, playing chess, singing and dancing …Village communal house carvings have exerted their influence on several of our present-day artists. It seems we were shown a documentary film on life in an ancient village. The artist had turned the whole communal house into an imposing and consistent project. The highly stylized figures and shapes by the artist’s improvisation look innocent, natural and unexpected.

Throughout the centuries, why had the Viets spent so much money, human strength and skills to construct thousands of communal houses? They held meetings, worshipped a village god as their tutelary village spirit and amused themselves during festive days. Like the Gothic cathedral in Europe, the communal house is the site where tuong (traditional theatre opera) cheo, (popular opera), music, sculpture, painting, decoration, handicrafts, water puppetry, dancing, singing, sports … in short, the whole cultural life of a village had developed. The communal house was both the cradle of traditional arts and the village public house with many functions: administrative, religious, cultural, etc. The phrase “as large as a communal house” encompasses this wide semantic field. Such a kind of building is the inalienable part of a Vietnamese village. As of 1997 there were 762 communal houses in 37 provinces and municipalities classified as “Historical and Cultural Relics”. Let us remember the above bas-relief. It represents the portrait of the founder of carpentry and statue-making in our country.