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Overview - Embroidered Paintings - Silks & Woven Goods - Lacquer Ware - Ornamental Fans - Fashionable Scarves

The Rich History of Vietnamese Embroidery

Written by Cynthia Weill
Researced by Nguyen Ngoc Huong

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Walking through Quat Dong today one is reminded of medieval Europe. Through open courtyards and windows one can see whole families embroidering pictorial scenes, red commemorative banners, posthumous portraits and household items. In the following story as well as other stories in his cover issue, which our guest, Cynthia Weill helped organize, the reader will become acquainted with the history and development of an art so often laced with fact and fiction.

 

As I walked through the Old Quarter after arriving in Han Noi two years ago, I could tell that Viet Nam’s most important crafts is embroidery. Just about every shop on Hang Gai Street displayed examples. I enjoyed looking at the traditional scenes of Vietnamese life, children’s stories and well known Western masterpieces. Soon I decorated my new apartment with embroidered tablecloths, duvet covers and hand towels. Shopping for household items, I noticed that some pieces were beautifully rendered while others had been hastily finished. I was fascinated by this craft and wanted to know more about it origins. One day, while reading the local English-language newspaper in a small restaurant, I spotted an article about Quat Dong Village in Ha Tay Province, where Vietnamese embroidery began.

The next Saturday, article in hand and riding behind my trusted xe om (motor cycle driver), I headed off to Ha Tay. The village is not well marked, but after stopping and asking directions a few times, we found the entrance. Once there, we wandered through the village, purchasing small pieces of work from different artisans and chatting with the local people. I especially liked the work of Mr. Dinh, who is highly regarded for his skills. Later, villagers invited me to a celebration in one of the town pagodas, where old ladies fed me rice cakes and patted my hair. All told me that I must return in July for the ancestor-worship ceremony honoring Ambassador Le Cong Hanh, who had brought the craft of embroidery to Viet Nam.

Since that time, I have returned to visit Mr. Dinh and other villagers and to learn more about embroidery. A Vietnamese friend, Huong, acted as interpreter. Through discussions and scholarly research, we pieced together the history of embroidery and of Quat Dong Village.

Although accounts differ, some say that embroidery came to Viet Nam from China. As many know, attacks from this northern neighbor checker Vietnamese history. The Chinese often waited for a Vietnamese dynasty’s weak moment to invade. The Vietnamese king still had to pay his respects even when the Chinese were not ruling Viet Nam. During the 15 th century, King Le Loi sent a young mandarin name Bui Cong Hanh from Quat Dong Village as one of Viet Nam’s ambassador to China.

The Chinese king and his court frequently devised situations to test the Vietnamese ambassadors’ intelligence and prove that the Chinese were superior. The story goes that the Chinese led Bui Cong Hanh to a room high above the ground and accessible only by a ladder, which was later removed. The room contained a bottle of water, a statue of Buddha and two large ceremonial umbrellas known as long. The umbrellas were richly embroidered. With plenty of free time, Hanh passed his solitary confinement learning the secrets of embroidery by unraveling the threads.

One day, Hanh looked up and saw an inscription about the Buddha: “Buddha is at your heart.” In Chinese and Vietnamese “Buddha” does not only mean “god.” A person who is good and warm-hearted, kind and honest may be a “Buddha” even if he had not attended pagoda ceremonies. One’s heart decides whether one is a Buddha. The saying also has a more practical element. In Vietnamese “heart” can also mean “stomach.” It occurred to Hahn that there might be something at the heart of the statue. Upon examination he found that the statue was made of flour and sugar. By slowly eating the statue, the ambassador was able to spend many more days in the room, all the while unraveling the parasol’s decorative threads and gaining more and more understanding of the craft. When he was ready to leave, Hanh jumped from the room using both umbrellas to break his fall.

Hanh’s resourcefulness impressed the Chinese King, who treated the ambassador with respect during the rest of his stay. Hanh used his time in China to learn more about the techniques of embroidery. When he returned, he brought back to his home village the heretofore unknown skills of embroidery, crafting festival umbrellas and executing a type of painting used in pagodas. Hanh’s performance in China so impressed the Vietnamese king that he gave him his surname, Le, and so the ambassador became Le Cong Hanh. Subsequent kings of the Le Dynasty decreed that the village worship the ambassador on his death anniversary. The last king of the Nguyen Dynasty issued a similar decree. A red laquer placard about the altar in the Quat Dong pagoda where Hanh’s ashes rest extols in Chinese his virtues of loyalty, intelligence and decisiveness.

Embroidery in Vietnam has evolved through the centuries. In the beginning, Vietnamese used embroidery to add quotations from devotional works to pagoda curtains, to embellish ceremonial cloths and to decorate clothes from royalty. The first embroidery threads were silk, although cotton is now most frequently used. Silk is very time-consuming to work with, but last for centuries. Ancient samples still remain in a few of Quat Dong’s pagodas. Further changes included embroidery frames in wood other than bamboo. Needle technology changed from bone or wood to metal, and work became more pictorial than decorative once the French began ordering pieces.

During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the village worked under the collectivized system to export table-cloths, bedspreads, sheets and pillow-cases to other socialist nations. The exports came to an end in 1990 with the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Later, with doi moi (renovation), villagers began making goods to sell on the open market. Today many Quat Dong townspeople supplement their agricultural income with embroidery they sell to visitors and wholesalers.

Quat Dong today is reminiscent of medieval Europe. A peek through open courtyards and windows reveals whole families embroidering pictures, red commemorative banners, posthumous portraits, and household items. With some encouragement, caretakers will open the temple dedicated to Ambassador Hanh and the pagodas with find examples of early embroideries. Visitors can reach Quat Dong from Ha Noi by traveling twenty kilometers south on Highway 1 to Thuong Tin District, Ha Tay Province.

Quat Dong craftspeople can copy any picture; a photograph, a wood-block print or some other favorite image. Buying directly from a craftsperson insures that all funds go to the artisan and also gives the purchaser a direct connection to Vietnamese people.

I traveled back to Quat Dong many times over the next month. Every conversation during my any visits to Quat Dong ended with an invitation to return in July for the commemoration of Ambassador Hahn’s death day. One early morning last year, I traveled back to Quat Dong to visit the temple dedicated to Le Cong Hanh. Strangely there were only a few people around. It turned out that the man who organized the celebration every year had died the day before. Disappointed I returned to Han Noi, hoping to attend the ceremony this year. However, my annual home leave came in July; and I figured that I had missed my chance to honor Mr. Hanh.

One morning this September, I stopped back in Quat Dong with some friends. As we pulled into the lane leading to the village, a parade rounded the corner. Following the dragon dance were old men playing traditional instruments, town elder in ao dai and Buddhist monks and nuns. Other villagers carried empty throne chairs symbolizing the presence of the ambassador. The village was celebrating it recent recognition by the government as a historical and cultural site. Thrilled by the spectacle my companions stood and watched it all. Later, we went to the temple with the townspeople, lit incense and finally were able to pay our respects to Mr. Hanh.

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