The present echo of an ancient drum

By Ha Dinh Nguyen, Thanh Nien News

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Vietnam’s ancient bronze drum and President Ho Chi Minh inspire a craftsman to create unique pieces of artwork
63-year-old Ho Quang Son was born to be a fisherman near the famous Lach Bang fisheries harbor in Thanh Hoa Province’s Hai Thanh Commune.

But he gave up a life at sea to be a bronze caster.

“That [being a bronze caster] is a fate,” says Son, who describes himself as one “born in the year of Cat, which means I’m flexible and adaptable.”

After returning from military service and graduating from Hanoi Architectural University, Son worked as a trader in Thanh Hoa.

At first, there was no clue that led him to become a bronze sculptor. But it was my hobby of collecting and exchanging artifacts that first bound me to the ancient bronze drum. I think it’s the king, the mother of archaeological finds. Contemplating the drums is like following the flow of our national history,” he tells Thanh Nien newspaper.

As a collector of antiques and artifacts, Son studied the history and cultures of Dong Son and Ngoc Lu, societies known for casting the giant bronze drums that are now famous symbols of ancient Vietnam.

His fascination soon led him to want to recreate the majestic instruments himself.

“I gathered those who share the same passion with me to create a group of bronze drum craftsmen. We started to research and learned from some aged artisans to keep up the traditional handcrafted manufacturing process.”

What distinguishes Son’s drums from others, both age-old and modern, is the image of President Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) carved on the drumhead.

“The drumhead and body were traditionally decorated with famous cultural figures and Uncle Ho seems to be the most deserved character to be depicted on my restored bronze drum. The father-figure is popular to any Vietnamese, and the bronze drum is the best way to make a perpetual keepsake to glorify him.”

Son said he and his team have made eleven bronze drums carved with various images of Uncle Ho over the last three years. Those drums have been donated to historical relic sites related to Uncle Ho’s life and revolutionary devotion.

Nine of the eleven drums have a diameter of 79 centimeters which symbolize President Ho Chi Minh’s age when he died, and one among those nine was granted to the President Ho Chi Minh historical relic site in Laos. One drum, measured 120 centimeters in diameter was built to celebrate his 120th birthday in 2010, was given to the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi and one with a 100-centimeter diameter, which was made in 2011 and stands for the 100th anniversary of Uncle Ho’s quest to liberate the country, was originally going to be donated to the Nha Rong Harbor where he started his global voyage in June, 1911.

Son said that 90 percent of his drum-making expenditures are covered by his family’s pocket money. Son is also the president of the Association of Lam Kinh Thanh Hoa Cultural Relics.

Pride of the province

Besides Uncle Ho and patterns originated from Hung Kings’ dynasty centuries ago, Thanh Hoa Province’s bronze casting clubs – such as Son’s group – also decorate their drums with other distinctive Vietnamese items like images of the Hung Kings temple and the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Son said the millennial anniversary of Hanoi was also a chance for his team to create a special bronze drum engraved with one thousand dragons, which represented the 1,000-year anniversary of moving the capital from Hoa Lu in present-day Ninh Binh Province to Thang Long, now Hanoi.

“The drum for Hanoi’s 1,000th birthday was my favorite – it was the pride of my province’s tradition of bronze casting. We made a hundred of drums and delivered them from Thanh Hoa to Hanoi. On the way, I heard people’s praises like ‘oh, how stunning the drums are.’ Many foreigners were found among the delighted crowd,” he says eagerly.   

According to a Thanh Hoa provincial newspaper, Son announced that the Quang Binh Province’s People Committee and General Vo Nguyen Giap’s family had allowed Thanh Hoa’s bronze casters to make a bronze drum measuring 103 centimeters in  diameter, with two cannons and a commander’s sword of 65 centimeters in length to pay homage to the General, who passed away on October 4, 2013 at the age of 103.

The objects are intended to be offered at General Giap’s grave in Quang Binh Province’s Vung Chua – Yen Island on the 100-day anniversary of his death or on May 7, 2014 to mark the 60th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu victory day.

Son said that many customers had asked his team to make bronze drums with antique designs for worship.

“It’s a good way for the artifact to fall in line with normal cultural and intellectual life. In early 2012, we also carried out a project in which 18 bronze drums were given to Phu Tho Province’s Hung King Temple and 5 were presented to five Vietnam-based embassies, which embodied the five continents, as a way to popularize Vietnamese bronze drums globally.”

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