TECHNIQUE OF THE ANNAMESE PEOPLE – Part 1: How was this set of documents discovered and named?

the French Orientalist of the Annamese People

describing: many aspects of the material, mental and spiritual life.
that is : the Encyclopaedia of all the instruments, utensils, gestures, deportment, silhouettes, and attitudes of the life and crafts of the Tonkinese-Annamese people .

Associate Professor, Doctor of History NGUYEN MANH HUNG
Nick name: a baggage horse in the university village
Pen name: Beetle


      1.1.1 In the capital city of Hanoi, since the 50’s and 60’s, a number of well-known veteran painters such as Nguyễn Đỗ Cung, Trần Văn Cẩn etc… and certain young researchers have begun to pay attention to a large number of woodcuts, achieved towards the beginning of the twentieth century, that belong in a set of documents which the aforesaid people had started to carry out fact-finding investigations and to study. Later on, various research Institutes such as: the Institute of History, the Art Institute, the Institute for the Compilation of Encyclopaedias, the South- East-Asia Institute, the Chinese and Chinesetranscribed Vietnamese Institute, the Language Institute etc … have also come into contact with the above-mentioned set of documents.

     In the former city of Saigon, maybe towards the 60’s, the Archaeological Institute and several researchers had known about and had tried to learn about that original set of books, especially in the 70’s, when people saw the appearance of a number of the aforesaid woodcuts under the title of “Vietnamese Woodcuts, at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century.” (1).

     1.1.2 In Paris, in April 1978, the Social Sciences Review (Paris) had published an article entitled “Folk Art through 650 Newly Recovered Woodcuts” (2).

     Two months later, an Exposition had been organized at the Cultural House of the Town of Bourges (France) bearing in large capital letters the title: “Peasant artists of Vietnam” (3).

     1.1.3 Following this article and this Exposition a number of Vietnamese magazines abroad continued to introduce those woodcuts, and the Art Studies magazine in Hanoi had also republished the aforesaid article (issue No. 4/78).

     In 1985, the Vietnamese Social Sciences Committee’s magazine “Encyclopaedic Knowledge” had introduced 351 sketches with the big title: “Encyclopaedia in Images” – extracted from the “Vietnamese Cultural and Material Encyclopaedia’” – Woodcuts realized by Anonymous Artists at the beginning of the 20th century. (4).

     Recently, on its Springtime Issue in the year “Mậu Thìn” (Year of the Dragon), the “Đất Việt” (Vietnamese Land magazine of the Association of Vietnamese living in Canada had used 8 of those woodcuts to illustrate its articles on Tết with the annotation: “Newly collected woodcuts of the 20th century”, and right now, another number of magazines also pay attention to those woodcuts and try to exploit them.

     Besides, we’ve seen two woodcuts showing a buffalo in each one of them, that were selected from that set of documents and published in a magazine to serve as illustrations for an article entitled: “The artless buffalo in paintings and sculptures” (5).

     Worthy of attention is a set of books introducing our national culture (6) in which 26 out of the 30 illustrations are drawn after the ones in this set of documents.

     1.1.4 Preliminary, we notice that, though this set of documents has been introduced at
various moments and under different forms, it has never been introduced as a whole and
uniformly. Therefore, this fact now raises many questions that require other answers:

     a. Is it true that after falling into oblivion for a lapse of time of more than a half-century, the fate of a great national cultural treasure of the Vietnamese People “has begun to drift – alternatively disappearing and reappearing – along the flow of events” from Hanoi (in the 50’s) to Saigon (after 1954) and then “has again disappeared into some unknown far off horizon” (Paris-after 1975)?

     b. Is it correct that the woodcuts in this set of documents belong to a new line of folk
paintings – different from the familiar ones of  Đông Hồ village or Hàng Trống street – or
are these woodcuts. “a type of art” or “a different type of scientific research” still unrecognized?

     Perhaps, in the scope of this small introductory booklet, we oughtn’t go thoroughly into all the facets of these woodcuts and should only “describe them exactly as they are”, so as to avoid bestowing upon them “strange values” and thus unintentionally “hurting their intrinsic scientific values

(1) NGUYỄN KHẮC NGỮ – “Vietnamese Woodcuts towards the beginning of the 20th century” – Expounder Magazine – from issue No.1 to 10 in 1970.

(2) PHẠM NGỌC TUẤN – Folk Art through 650 Woodcuts newly recovered – Social Sciences Review, Paris, issue No. 4/78.

(3) PHẠM NGỌC TUẤN – The Peasant Painters of Vietnam – Exposition at the Cultural House of the town of Bourges (France) from June 10, 1978 to July 30, 1978, organized by the Association of Vietnamese living in France, working in coordination with the Museum of Man.

(4) In issues Nos. 3, 4, and 5, 1985 and issue No.1, October 1985 (separate reprint).

(5) NGUYỄN QUÂN – The artless buffalo in paintings and sculptures – Vietnamese Literature Magazine – issue of Tết Ất Sửu (Year of the Buffalo) (1985), p.12.

(6) NGUYỄN THỤ – Illustrations for the set of books on Folk Songs and Poems of the Vietnamese People – A National Culture Palace (vol. 4) compiled by NGUYỄN TẤN LONG and PHAN CANH, Published by Sống Mới publishing house in 1971 in Saigon.


     1.2.1 In April 1984, we’ve officially registered this set of documents as a subject of scientific study (1), under the guidance of the Department of Philology of the HoChiMinh City University and with the assistance of the Folk Arts Association and that of the Vietnam Plastic Arts Artists Association.

     We’ve introduced this set of documents and strived to clarify the aforesaid matters in a seminar organized in Hanoi on July 13, 1985.

     1a. Professors BÙI KHÁNH THẾ (Professor Doctor in Linguistics), CHU XUÂN DIỄN (Professor of Folk Literature), TRẦN CHÚT (Deputy-Head of the Philology Department at the Hanoi University) have guided us to the method that must be used for introducing this set of documents.

     1b. Messrs. ĐẶNG ĐỨC (researcher on Chinese and Chinese-transcribed Vietnamese), Trần Mai and Hồ Nam, (cultural researchers) have helped us with the annotations.

  1c. Professors HOÀNG NHƯ MAI (Professor of Literature), LÊ ĐÌNH KỴ (Professor of Literary Argumentation) TRẦN THANH ĐẠM (Professor of Literature), NGUYỄN LỘC (Professor of Literature), TRẦN THÁI ĐỈNH (Doctor in Philosophy), LÊ VĂN HẢO (Professor Doctor in Ethnology) have read and made suggestions relating to the manuscript.

     1d. Messrs. VÕ SĨ KHẢI (Archaeological researcher), NGUYỄN NGỌC BÁCH (MS), DƯƠNG NGỌC DŨNG (English teacher) have revised the old translation, and this new sub-edited translation and the last minute revision have been achieved by Mr. VŨ ANH TUẤN (Translator)

     Later on, we’ve continued to introduce it at various other places (2) as well as to Vietnamese living abroad when they came back to visit their homeland.

(2) a. In Hanoi, this set of documents has been introduced at the following places:

The Hán-Nôm Institute, The Language Institute, The Department of Vietnamese at the Hanoi University.

     b. In HoChiMinh City: The HoChiMinh City Social Sciences Committee, the Patriotic Intellectuals’ Association, the Medicine Association, the History Group, the Southern Women’s Memorial Hall, The Youth Publishing House, the Permanent Representation of the Cultural Institute, the 4th Oriental Languages Conference of Socialist Nations, organized on Nov. 22,1986 in HoChiMinh university.

     1.2.2 News concerning this set of documents had been carried out on various newspapers and magazines (1) and many specialists had evaluated it under many aspects:

     a. A historical book in images, though incomplete, is quite valuable through its ability to reflect realities and to show various aspects of our nation’s social life at that epoch. This set of woodcuts also constitutes an invaluable contribution to “our nation’s traditional painting treasure” (Fig.1)

     According to HOÀNG THAO – An original collection of woodcuts –People’s Journal July 20, 1985.

Fig 1: BUFFALO-HERD (reproduced from a statuette made of terracotta)

b. Beautiful, lifelike, and very refined woodcuts closely related to the well-known folk-paintings of Đông Hồ village and Hàng Trống street. (Fig.2)

     … In the 50’s, well-known painters, Nguyễn Đỗ Cung and Trần Văn Cẩn have seen that
set of woodcuts in Hanoi, and recently, researcher Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng has made public the original copy that exists in HoChiMinh city.

     P.V. Over 4000 woodcuts folk-paintings towards the beginning of the 20th century have just been discovered – People’s Army, July 20, 1985.

Fig 2: THE CARP PLAYING WITH THE MOON (Vietnamese folk-painting)

     c. Regarding this set of folk woodcut paintings of unusual high value, Professor- Academician Trần Văn Cẩn, Chairman of the Association of Plastic Arts Artists of Vietnam evaluates:

“This set of folk woodcut paintings has a quite high artistic value. The artists of former times have painted these lifelike paintings with a real maestro’s talent. Looking at these paintings today, we feel like rediscovering ourselves (Fig.3). Considering only the plastic arts angle, this outstanding painting collection has provided us with truly useful lessons”

     P.V. A special collection of folk paintings – Newsweek July, “20, 1985.

(punishment for a pupil who writes incorrectly a Chinese character)

d. Professor of History Phan Huy Lê remarks:

     “This is a historical collection of paintings pertaining to our people’s living condition in the past, and going from all branches of social activities to various aspects of moral and cultural life. More than 4000 woodcuts constitute a lively, diversified, and extremely rich document which permits us to learn about the customs, habits, and beliefs of our people in a past historical period”. (Fig.4)

     P.V. A special collection of folk-paintings – Newsweek July 20, 1985.

(to eliminate evil spirits, to cure diseases, to keep one’s house in peace)

     e.… “The whole collection consists of more than 4000 woodcut paintings, painted by our artists in the past, engraved, and hand-printed in the years 1908-1909 in Hanoi. All the paintings have detailed legends in Chinese and Chinese transcribed Vietnamese, explaining their contents that cover various activities such as production, breeding (Fig.5), ceremonies, habits, entertainments of our people at the beginning of this century”.

     Introducing the collection of folk-paintings at the beginning of the 20th century – New Hanoi, July 20, 1985.


     f. “Over 4000 folk-paintings that look like a historical collection in images, reflecting our people’s traditional living condition in the past, and going from various branches and professions in our traditional society to spiritual and physical activities (Fig.6), which the folk artists have realized in an extremely clever and succinct manner”.

     Scientific Seminar on the occasion of the collection of more than 4000 folk paintings being made public – Liberated Saigon daily, July 17, 1985.


     g. …“But, perhaps the most precious thing is the value of a set of documents in images,
with annotation in Chinese and Chinesetranscribed Vietnamese (Fig.7) (2), that has recorded in a fairly adequate way the activities of broad masses of our people in the last century.

Safeguarding the old national cultural legacy is the task of this young generation, as they still have a lot of time ahead of them to study the national culture in the old days”.
HUỲNNH DŨNG NHÂN – Sunday Youth, issue No. 24/85, August 25, 1985.

(in the year of the Monkey – 1908 – one uses medicinal herbs to plait a monkey and keeps it in the house. Later on, these herbs could be used to cure diseases)

     h. …“Maybe this is a meaningful introduction to many fields of study such as: folk literature, ethnography and sociology (Fig.8). Moreover, this collection which consists of over 4000 paintings also reflects the original plastic arts value of the engraving artists of those old days”.

     HỒ KIM – Concerning the collection of over 4000 folk paintings at the beginning of 20th century – The Vietnamese Roman Catholic, issue No. 32, June 11, 1985.

Fig 8: WRESTLING (Terracotta)

     i.“With a sense of confidence and scientific collaboration researcher Hùng has shown me his whole set of documents, and communicated to me his gains through many  years of research and study; he also let me know about problems that still remain unsettled, as well as his tossed about matter and expectation in coming days. Thanks to his staying power and his industrious work, he’s now able to understand and annotate more than 4000 paintings with legends in Chinesetranscribed Vietnamese; and  particularly to detect the real vestiges left behind by the Hải Hưng dialect – Hải Hưng being the homeland of the artists. However, as some paintings bear enigmatic contents, he has had to consult many professors, and old persons coming from North Vietnam to be able to get the proper answers” (Fig.9).

     ĐẶNG ĐỨC, – Văn Nghệ (Literary magazine), issues Nos. 5-6, February 1, 1986 – Lunar New Year Bính Dần (Year of the tiger) 1986.


     j. …“These paintings, painted towards the beginning of the 20th century, have been achieved with a real high technique, and have reflected the life of the Vietnamese at that time. Many among them have high scientific research values, particularly with regard to ethnography.” (Fig. 10).

     (4000 folk paintings collected – Vietnam News Agency Hanoi – VNA – July 16).

(One of the six ceremonies of a wedding, a servant carries a tray of betel
and areca on his head, the bridegroom with an umbrella, the mother-in-law
with her inseparable broad-brimmed hat)

     k. …”Various cultural organizations have set up teams of researchers in charge of determining the sources of these paintings, and finding out the curriculum vitae of the painters. One hopes that original copies can be found and printed into several fascicles”.

     A remarkable collection – The Courrier of Vietnam – September 1985.

     l. …”An additional period of time is required to make necessary preparations in view of publishing this collection of Vietnamese Folk Paintings at the beginning of the 20th century, as this is a precious legacy in our nation’s rich cultural treasure, and also because this publication is aimed at preserving and broadly introducing Vietnamese plastic arts to our people inland and abroad” (3)

Splashing about one’s feet in water,
and throwing the dip net to catch thousands of big fish…”

     “The contents of this collection of paintings deal with many aspects of life in the traditional Vietnamese society (Fig.11), being no longer limited within the technical field.


     This is the type of square hand-woven net, made of linen threads with sizes varying from 1.5 to 2 metres, and having a handling pole of three or four metres, used for catching fish and shrimps at deep waters, not deeper than a man’s height (river, canal, pond, lake…); the dragger usually wears a basket at his belt to hold the caught fish and shrimps. There exists a kind of bigger net, called raft-net, which is installed at a portion of river between two alternating water sources and which has a hut for people to live in and watch on the very spot. But, there exists also a movable type of drag-net, which the dragger has a basket at his waist, and a type of small net for catching shrimps which is only a small piece of cloth.

     Among over 4000 paintings, we can see that about 1000 of them are of noting down nature, painted with very simple technique and showing simple objects such as a ladder, a lamp (Fig.12) a mortar, a pestle, a saw and the like… There are sophisticated ones with great plastic arts value, rich in industrial plastic forms that will furnish the researchers with precious documents in the visual aspect.”.

     MAI TRANG – … 4000 folk paintings at the beginning of this century – Religious Review, September, 1985.

Fig 12: OIL LAMP

     m. “Because of the requirement for illustrating a concrete intention, or for visually noting a certain aspect of life, some of these noting-down paintings, showing scenes such as decapitation (Fig.13), a pigsty (Fig. 14), urinating or begging persons etc … still remain quite naturalistic …”

     ĐẶNG ĐỨC – The collection of folk woodcut paintings at the beginning of the 20th century, seen from the plastic art angle -Folk Culture, issue No. 3/1986.

Fig 13: BEHEADING (the head being tossed as it was cut off)

     Ordinarily, there exists no farmer who doesn’t think of breeding pigs to obtain the manure for his ricefield. If not too poor and in difficult situation, one must have at least a pigsty made of woven bamboo slats and covered with leaves, each side of it about 2 or 3 metres long (just like the image shown on this sketch). People in a better financial situation would save a compartment to be used as a pigsty. At some other places, people build the pigsty together with the cesspool, or place it beside the kitchen, building earthen walls and fixing posts all around, calling it “chém” (pigsty in vietnamese), so as to prevent the pigs from troubling the house. As for wealthy people, they would construct pigsty with bricks. Inside the pigsty, people put husk, straw, thatch for the pigs to lie on, shit, and urinate. When the dung becomes turbid, they’ll put over it another layer of husk, straw and thatch to make the dung-pit. This is the spot used for stocking and covering the dung called pit-dung, a kind of principal manure used in the lowlands, as for people in the semimountainous or mountainous areas, they use only green manure as in the said areas pigs are allowed to wander.

Fig 14: PIGSTY

     n. With today’s overwhelming scientific and technical progress, we do not only have printed encyclopaedias, but we also have other kind such as encyclopaedia in images, soundencyclopaedia, projected-slide encyclopaedia and computerized encyclopaedia. Here, we’re dealing with a Vietnamese Encyclopaedia in Images that appeared at the beginning of this century…”.

     LÊ VĂN HẢO – A rare and precious cultural work in the Vietnamese cultural treasure: the 4577 folk woodcut paintings in the Vietnamese Encyclopaedia in Images of the Vietnamese artists at the beginning of the 20th century – Liberated Saigon, issues of July 16 and 17, 1987.

     o. “In the cultural and artistic life in these last few years, there was a fact that attracted the attention of many people, particularly those in the art world, folk cultural branch and some other social science branches: certain cultural, artistic, and social science organizations have worked to make public a fairly large collection of woodblock paintings that were painted at the beginning of this century…”

     QUỐC ANH – Reestablishing the value of a set of woodblock paintings painted at the beginning of the Twentieth Century – Culture and Arts studies – Ministry of Culture – Issue No 2/1988 (page 48).

(1) Such as, the Vietnam Press Review, People’s Journal, People’s Army Journal, New Hanoi, Liberated Saigon, Religion Review, Newsweek, The Vietnamese Roman Catholic, “Le Courrier du Vietnam” (in French), Youth’s Movie, Literary Review (issue of Tết Bính Dần 1986), Today’s Knowledge, issue No 2/88…

(2) Monkey plaited with medicinal herbs and annotated with the line of Chinese characters that reads: “On the Đoan Dương Tết day (the fifth day of the fifth lunar month), people use safran leaves to plait an animal effigy, depending on the year represented by such or such animal”. The year Mậu Thân (1908) being the year of the Monkey. so they plaited a monkey’s effigy and called it “Hầu tử”, then hung it over the main door to eliminate misfortunes. Later on, if someone in the family happens to be sick with enteritis, people would take some safran leaves from that effigy to serve as medicine.

(3) During the Seminar, the Chairman of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese United Association of Literature and Arts – poet CÙ HUY CẬN – inspired by the folk painting entitled “Dip net raising” (fig.11) has composed the two above-mentioned verses.