Calligraphy Streams in Vietnam

Although small in geographical area, Vietnam still has so much to be proud of, especially in terms of arts and culture.

Much has changed and adapted through the line of history and Vietnamese calligraphy, an essential element of Vietnamese culture, has seen old and new streams merge into one as seen today.

A Quick Look Into Vietnamese Calligraphy

Calligraphy is called “Thu Phap” in Vietnamese; “Thu” means script while “Phap” means rule, in combination, the term means “the rule of writing”. Through times, Vietnamese calligraphy has grown beyond its original meaning as a rule to write beautifully to become an art of blowing the beauty into every single character.

Vietnamese's Ong Do performs Thu Phap - Calligraphy

Different from the Western calligraphy style, which is made up of a number of drawing tools like pen nib, rubber, ruler, compasses and square, to meet the requirements for accurate proportion of words; Vietnam calligraphers only use brushes and black ink to achieve the beauty of philosophy hidden inside.

Han-Nom Calligraphy - The Classical Calligraphic Stream

When one mentions the word "calligraphy", people may first think of a Chinese art piece. It’s understandable since China is the birthplace of this art. Although Vietnamese calligraphy is strongly affected by that of China due to the cultural exchange in the past and neighbored geographic location at present. Vietnamese calligraphy thus also follows Chinese calligraphy’s standard and use Han script (Chinese language) in many of its writings.

An original calligraphy written in Chinese script

However, as Hán scrip failed to describe the richness of Vietnamese language, Nôm script came to replace the Hán one in Vietnamese calligraphy. This is also the distinction of Vietnamese calligraphy comparing to that of China. Hán-Nôm calligraphy is also called classic calligraphic stream.

Basically, Hán and Nôm calligraphy are not too different from each other in terms of writing style, characters’ shape, and both of them required the same tools and paper type and size. However, instead of expressing supernatural scholarly ideas of polyhistors which require strict criterions like Hán, Nôm calligraphy goes into people’s hearts by plain inspiration rooted from simple feeling about life as well as natural dreams of people because this art was born with the purpose to serve Vietnamese civilians, focusing on the virtue, the right, the beauty and the dreams of people or maybe an inspiration of the writer.

Not satisfied with the invention of Hán - Nôm calligraphy, Vietnamese calligraphers keep contributing to the copiousness of this art and catching up with the development of Vietnamese by two more calligraphic streams: modern Vietnamese script calligraphy and “Tiền Vệ” (Zenei shodou) calligraphy.

Modern Vietnamese Script Calligraphy

Inheriting most of the quintessence of Hán-Nôm calligraphy, Vietnamese script calligraphy appeared and became prosperous during the last 10 years. This is really a respectful innovation which follows closely the classical one and preserves a meaningful traditional art of Vietnam.

Vietnamese script calligraphy shares many similarities with Hán - Nôm calligraphy such as using brushes and Chinese ink, writing on white and red paper, letters is arranged inside round or square block, the position of the seal and the meaning of the calligraphy. However, the follower is richer in term of writing style.

“Tiền vệ” Calligraphy (Zenei Shodou)

The third and also the latest calligraphic stream in Vietnam is called “Tiền vệ” calligraphy. This new stream was first brought to Vietnam by the advent-garde calligrapher Lê Quốc Việt in 2006 after he visited an arts exhibition in China and fell in love with it. Since then, Việt and his team named “The Zenei Gang of Five”, which composed of five calligraphic experts, have been putting their hardest effort into promoting this new stream and have gained lots of attentions.

Interestingly, ones don’t have to understand the meaning of Hán and Nôm to enjoy this art stream because it didn’t intend to express meanings through intellectual understanding but through feeling. Tiền Vệ calligraphy is more like abstract painting than writing technique as it is a combination of painting and calligraphy, so different viewers may have different viewpoints on the same writing.

This new style doesn’t follow any standardized basis of the traditional ones. Tien Ve calligraphers may use any type of script in one work, whichever Han, Nom or Roman scripts. Also, they don’t have to care about the arrangement of the writing in which there could be many layers and sizes of script. Besides, Tien Ve calligraphy can be written on a variety of material like paper, glass, wood or even human’s bodies. Writing tools are even more special that calligraphers may allow a dog or a cat step on their works to create a cute flower; spray water, splashes ink or print bamboo leaves to increase innovative elements.

Le Quoc Viet said that his intention when he brought this new calligraphic stream into Vietnam is to create a new definition, a new way to approach this lofty art because if he continues writing traditional calligraphy, his final destination would be nothing more than what pioneers have done. So, it’s time for him to blow fresh air into Vietnamese calligraphy, which is becoming obsolete.

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