Teaching a village

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A Son Dong sage passes on the art of Chinese calligraphy

The 69-year-old retired farmer and veteran Nghiem Quoc Dat practices writes Chinese calligraphy, which is helpful for people to perfect their character

Every Sunday afternoon, nearly a hundred students gather to listen to the teachings of Nghiem Quoc Dat.

On a recent afternoon, the old man sat in the cramped quarters of his living room"”his former classroom. A blousy kerchief hangs from the slight 69 year-old man's neck like a flag. A large plush blazer ruffles against his narrow shoulders as he paints the beautiful tapered lines of a single Chinese character.

Dat, a retired farmer and former soldier, is perhaps his village's most vital mind.

Five years ago, he began teaching the lost art of Chinese calligraphy. "I principally began doing this because I wanted the children in my family to carry on our traditional love of learning," Dat says. "But, what's more, my village is famous for its lacquered boards and wood panels which are all engraved with the complex characters. The younger generation needs to know about this so they can preserve the village's traditional trade."

Located some 25 kilometers from Hanoi, Son Dong Village has long been a home to craftsmen and artisans. The town boasts a number of Confucian scholars still capable of rendering and interpreting the nearly 4,000 year-old pictorial alphabet.

The characters first appeared in Vietnam in the first century BC.

Because the language is character-based (each word is represented by a symbol that must be memorized to be understood) it requires intense study to master. Modern Chinese dictionaries contain more than 47,000 symbols; a "literate" adult may only know between 3,000-4,000.

Portuguese missionaries began developing the current Romanized script in Vietnam in the 16th century to advance evangelical efforts. By the late 19th century, the Chinese alphabet had all but disappeared.

Since then the art has been carried only by artisans and scholars.

Startled by the possibility of its disappearance, Dat consulted the small educational board chaired by his extended family (the Nghiem clan). They encouraged him unanimously to begin teaching at the end of 2006.

The old man shelled out a huge chunk of his meager monthly pension to buy ink and brushes for his students.

He refused to accept any money from the children's families and cleared out his 25 square-meter living room to make space for students.

The first class was made up entirely of Nghiem kids. He called it Sao Khue, after the Chinese astrological constellation that has served as symbol of art and literature in Chinese and Vietnamese culture.

Dat had no teaching experience when he began his Sunday lectures. But he soon found himself peppering his lessons with poems, puzzles and stories. The old scholar's lessons don't merely focus on the technical aspects of classical calligraphy. When teaching a given character, he inevitably delves into its complex Confucian meaning. For example, the symbol for "rest" combines the symbol for "man" and "tree." Thus, a man sitting near a tree is deemed to be at rest.

His method worked. The floor of Dat's living room swelled with students crowding onto the floor. He was forced to cap classes at 20 pupils until a local secondary School principal offered him the use of a classroom.

Dat believes in the old Vietnamese adage: net chu net nguoi - literally, "handwriting reveals your character".

Dat's tutelage has won praise from satisfied parents.

"We all know that Dat has a profound knowledge and, more than that, lots of personality," said Van Thi Duyen whose ten-year-old son attends the old teacher's class. "We all love watching naughty children improve under Dat's moral guidance."

In addition to kids, Dat's classes are frequented by teachers, artisans, farmers, and Buddhist priests who attend whenever they can. Shocked by their dedication, Dat tends to gush when speaking about his pupils.

In some cases, it seems as though the old man's calligraphy lessons have given some men a new hope in life.

"Tien is a war invalid," Dat said. "But for the past two years he has driven his three-wheeler some 20 kilometers to come to class. He used to be a hot-tempered man but after a while in my class, he has developed a patience that extends into all things."

Nguyen Phuc Hiep was born to a poor family in Dong La Village"” some 15 kilometers away. Though he loved to learn, Hiep had to leave school to begin working at the age of 13. He now works on construction site and is one of Sao Khue's top students.

"Studying calligraphy is very interesting," said Hiep, who enrolled in the class three years ago. "Besides studying the meanings behind each character, I've fallen in love with the act of writing them. I really enjoy every lesson and want to organize a class to teach people in my village"

Several Sao Khue alumni have gone on to pursue calligraphy professionally. Thrilled by their success, Dat has no plans of stopping. "I still want more students," he says. "I will continue to teach free until my health forces me to stop. The biggest reward for me is seeing my students absorbed in their work."

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