Threadbare
12:16' 21/03/2010 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet Bridge - Exhibition of embroidered pictures by the national museum seeks to infuse fresh originality into a fading art. 

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As one of Vietnam’s most famous handicrafts, embroidery began in the 1st century but it was not until the 17th century that it developed into an art of “playing with colors,” says Pham Quoc Quan, director of the National Museum of Vietnamese History.

Since then the art has come a long way, with the addition of innumerable techniques and has expanded from its cradle in Hanoi’s Quat Dong Commune to distant localities like Da Lat Town, Hai Duong Province, and Hue Town.

However, experts are concerned that current works are no longer as original as the ones created hundreds of years ago.

“Most of the modern craft villages nowadays are sinking into oblivion as embroiderers are replaced with machines,” Quan said.

To rekindle interest in the art and the traditional skills involved, the national museum put on display last month over 30 out of around 100 embroidered pictures in its collection dating back to the 1920s and 30s.

The pictures, which were made at Quat Dong Commune in Thuong Tin District, are categorized into four traditional themes: birds and flowers; Chinese parallel sentences and big characters; animals like chicken and tigers whose portraits are rather close to Dong Ho woodblock paintings; and mythical and human characters.

Bird-flower pairings, of peacocks and hibiscus or cranes and bamboo, dominate the collection, clearly presenting traditional embroidery techniques, including the blending of colors.

Character-themed pictures, meanwhile, feature the three gods of happiness, longevity and wealth; and there are larger pieces featuring traditional ceremonies with lots of detail that obviously demanded masterful skills.

Although the pictures came from various sources, including those kept by French scholars at École française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of Far East) during the period of French colonization, their colors have not faded even after such a long time.

This is because the silk, threads and colors were all made of natural materials, say experts at the museum.

Visitors to the exhibition that will remain open until February 14 can also find other related artifacts like postcards of embroiderers during the period of French dominance and the biography of Le Cong Hanh, often mentioned as the forefather of Vietnamese embroidery.

Glory days

Legend has it that Le Cong Hanh, who was born in Quat Dong Village in 1606 and worked for the Le Dynasty (1428-1788), was detained in China after being sent there as an envoy.

During his captivity, Hanh learned Chinese embroidery techniques and taught them to his countrymen on his return.

Quat Dong’s embroiderers then came to Thang Long capital city (now Hanoi) to open shops selling embroidered products along a 40-meter street which was called the Pho Hang Theu (Embroidery Street), part of the capital city’s famous “Old Quarter” comprising 36 guild streets.

According to historical records, the street was no less crowded than any other guild street. Products sold there served not just feudal officials but also commoners who used them for traditional ceremonies.

Many residents of Thang Long as well those from other provinces gradually learned the techniques from Quat Dong craftsmen, and the skill spread to other parts of the country.

However, most of the embroidery villages nationwide, including Quat Dong, are languishing on the edge of extinction, their glory days set to become history.

Trinh Dinh Mien, vice chairman of Quat Dong Commune People’s Committee, said the 400-hectare commune now has eight villages with 1,900 families.

After the initiation of the doi moi (economic reform) policy in 1986, most residents sought work in factories and industrial projects that now account for more than half of land area in Quat Dong. Up to 90 percent of families earned their living through embroidery in the early 1980s, Mien said.

Worse still, among the very few families who are still engaged in embroidery in Quat Dong, not many preserve traditional techniques and models.

Acting on their own, they just make whatever is ordered without paying any attention to preserving traditional knowledge and skills, Mien said, adding that the embroiderers earn between VND400,000-5 million (US$21.89- $273.6) apiece.

In fact, the commune has four embroidery artisans honored by the government, but to date one has died, another has left his job behind to move to Hanoi with his family, and the other two are very old, Mien added.

Mien was pessimistic about the future of traditional embroidery and regretful that the art has not received the support it needs to survive and thrive in the modern market.

VietNamNet/Thanh Nien

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