Forest Colors & Mountain Hues in Vietnam Traditional Arts

Forest Colors and Mountain Hues

Lullaby my baby, Sleep soundly! Dad goes fishing. Mom to the terrace field’s going. To catch the red-lipped grasshopper, the purple drone layer. The spot -necked kite. And the buffalo with horns crooked and off-center. Mom will return soon to mouth feed you, my baby. The mouthful of chewed rice smells good and tasty…This honey-sweet lullaby gently indulges the baby into sleep amidst forest winds, mountain sounds, in its mother’s arms. Thus little baby gradually grows up.

Among the ethnic Tay, there is a belief that Mother Flower owns a marvelous tree with a predicting power: a boy will be born when it blossoms in gold flowers and a girl when its flowers are in silver. The goddess will endow the newborn with talent and beauty. Hence “Flower Bridge” picture is generally hung at the bedside of women in childbirth so that Mother Flower will take their babies under her wing.

The legend of Pan Gu is always present in the psyche of the ethnic minorities living in the range of hills. Pan Gu emerges when the universe is still chaos inside a colossal egg with neither Heaven nor Earth. Suddenly he smashes the eggshell into pieces and there gradually appears sky and earth with all living creatures…

The ethnic Dao believe that when they were floating on the open sea, amongst heaven and waters, Pan Gu had shown them the way to the Vietnamese soil. In this picture, it is interesting to note that Pan Gu is inside a Tortoise boat. This reptile is one of the four sacred animals and is often referred to as the symbol of slowness. Yet Pan Gu is riding a dragon-headed tortoise, and probably in order to sail faster, the Tortoise boat needs two boatmen.

Heaven and Earth having been created, the boundless universe was also divided into different regions. The ethnic Cao Lan has compactly presented the universe in these two pictures: each square corresponds to one space: Heaven, Earth, forests, seas, hills, and mountains. And here are the images of the immortals, the gods who rule over different territories, they have deep insight into everything that happens in the universe. People often pray to solicit gods’ protection but man can also be blissful by doing philanthropic acts, as the saying goes among the population: “Kind deeds pay rich dividends to the doer”.

Men and beasts in the picture are both realistic and unrealistic. The animals look so kind and familiar. Yet they are the envoys who go to meet the Emperor of Jade, the supreme and almighty god.

Farming is a source of living for our highland countrymen. They know nature very well and have interestingly summed up their experience of weather conditions in the Highlands with the view of regulating their farm work: “When the muntjac calls, it is sunny. When the rusa screeches, it is rainy”. Or: The sky is starry, the weather is rainy. The sky grows starless, drought sets in readily. Than Nong is the god of agriculture. People pray for his assistance in the religious ceremony “Raising up the basketful of paddy” celebrated by the ethnic Cao Lan. Despite the titanic size of the sun and the moon, Than Nong is able to lift the moon with one hand and support the sun with the other hand, since he is the most powerful god who influences crops and harvests.

The gods move freely about the universe to submit man’s entreaty to the Emperor of Jade. Rolling hills and mountains, high and low terrace fields are skillfully portrayed by folk artists through consecutive, undulating sequences of space while the whole process of paddy rice cultivation is related in detail, from hole digging (to put grains of paddy in) to harrowing and plowing… On top of that are two good spirits: the god of agriculture (Than Nong) and the god of cattle-rearing and chicken farming (Dia Trach). Many contemporary artists have learned a lot from these folk artists.

The picture opposite is interpreted by old Mr. Nong Van Nguyen (an ethnic Tay from Nam Tuan, Cao Bang province) as follows: “The Birdman” has a hooked bill like a woodpecker or a parrot, his hands and feet are obviously birds’ legs and toes with feathers beside his wings. His upper hand is holding legendary hero Thach Sanh’s axe, his lower hand seizing a stick of bamboo with many joints. One of his feet is grasping a big drum. The background is a mountain with innumerable stone veins. The word “Birdman” in Tay language is “tua gan goc”. He symbolizes man’s domination over the tremendous and frightful force of Nature.

And here is the picture of an old general with bristly hair and whiskers. He is scowling to show his authority, with a hand holding a whip parallel to his emblematic flag and a foot trampling on the head of a ferocious tiger. That is the image of Pu Luong, the master of mountains and forests.

Tay, Nung, Dao and Cao Lan ethnic minorities all have their own festival celebrations. These are characteristic festive days proper to each ethnic group in which religious rites are celebrated to pray the gods for good harvests and peace in the household. They are followed by songs and entertainments such as: cloth shuttlecock tossing festival, religious chant festival (hoi then), young men and girls’ alternating songs festival (hat luon), etc.

This is a religious picture for use in Tay Nung’s Long Tong fête which begins on the 3rd day of the Lunar New Year. Than Nong, the god of agriculture is also presented offerings on this festive day. The picture figures the gods and immortals in three realms: Heaven (Shang yuan), Earth (Zhong yuan), and Waters (Xia yuan). Besides worshipping the gods who are their life’s protectors, all ethnic groups universally make the cult of their ancestors. The altar is installed in the middle room facing the main entrance, occasionally it is set up at the gable; foreign visitors are well-advised to keep away from those sacred places. During various festivals, people cook special dishes to make offerings to the gods first and have a delicious meal all together thereafter. Here is the picture “Meat and drink offerings” that portrays cookery. People pray to the god of the kitchen to bring food, clothing, and happiness to all the members of the household.

The picture represents the heavenly god responsible for the register of deaths. Like other deities, his head is crowned with a halo, the symbol of strictness, impartiality, and righteousness. The lines and strokes of the picture apparently look simplistic but in fact, they are well selected and refined. There is a superstitious belief that all human deeds are recorded in a celestial book. After death, the soul of the deceased must go through ten underworld palaces in which those who are free from faults will be rewarded, those who are sinful will be subject to punishments.

The first judge is King Tan Quang Vuong. He weighs the merits and sins of each soul. Living amidst the immensity of heaven and earth, and surrounded by a magnificent natural environment, our highland countrymen are simple and honest in their language and behavior. They are concerned to teach their children and grandchildren good and correct things, in the belief that those who commit wrongdoing will finally be punished.

From the Second Underworld Palace onwards, each judge is responsible for passing sentences on different sins. Overall, the folk artist’s imagination is truly fertile. Each underworld palace, each scene, each judge differs greatly in terms of countenance and facial expression: one king looks severe, the other thoughtful, seemingly undeceive, while the third is blushing with fury. The tribunal scenes also vary with some frightful images in underworld palaces.

It is very likely that the offenders on trial here have committed extremely serious crimes. In King Ngu Quang Vuong palace many moral teachings and court sentences hang on the walls, which creates a specific space owing to the picture’s composition with intermixed figures and Chinese characters. The tribunal of the Sixth King Bien Thanh Vuong punishes those who have done harm and injustice to people. The images are horizontally laid out, going from top to bottom. The sizes of the figures are drawn according to their social rank and power. Court trials are strictly conducted through various instances at nine underworld palaces. The 10th Underworld Palace of King Chuyen Luan Vuong (the King of Metempsychosis) is the only building where the dead’s souls are not punished. He will judge the sins and share of happiness of each soul to show him the six ways: three good ways – the gods’ way, the humans’ way, the titans’ way – and three evil ways – the demons’ way, the animals’ way and the hungry ghosts’ way (the Hell’s way). Some souls will be reborn into gods, kings, common people or birds, animals, fish, and shrimps respectively on earth or in deep oceans. The religious term is “reincarnation”. The evil will permanently remain in Hell to suffer punishments.

According to Buddhist beliefs, this Bodhisattva always preaches that beings in the 10 strata of Hell should “wake up” and quit evil for good, with the hope of being reincarnated into a better afterlife. When there is a death in a family, its members often pray to this god for the salvation of the dead’s soul.

“Man is better than silver and gold. He is the flower of Heaven and Earth”. This is a variant of the picture “Flower Bridge”. During Tet holidays, people of the Tay ethnic group usually with one another to have “girls with flowery beauty and boys with talents and a mandarin’s career”. Mother Flower is always by their Side. The figures of gods, immortals, enlightened Taoists draw on paper to express their dream of a peaceful, happy, and just life. The pictures are simple, not as refined and noble as Hang Trong religious pictures, or not so brilliant and jovial as Dong Ho folk drawings. The colors are warm and toned down. The artists draw directly on paper. The common spirit having deeply imprinted in their view, so their figures are both general and individual.

In short, that is the spiritual world of those kind-hearted, simple people – an imaginary world extremely fertile that exists in parallel with a treasure of passionate, tasteful melodies and songs amidst immense rolling hills and mountains. “With clasping hands we chose beautiful words, with hands folded we select very sweet terms. Fine words do not litter the floor, and pretty terms will not sink to earth anymore”.