A flower village blooms again

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Artisan innovates and revives centuries old traditional vocation of making paper lotuses in a craft village in Thua Thien-Hue Province

A Thanh Tien villager makes paper flowers

Almost half-a-century after they faded away, lotuses are in bloom again in Thanh Tien Village.

Thanks to artisan Than Van Huy, the village, located in Phu Mau Commune, Phu Vang District, Thua Thien-Hue Province, has retrieved and revived its most important tradition, the art and craft of making paper flowers, especially the lotus. 

Huy's success was stamped on the national and international map when he and some fellow artisans from Thanh Tien  demonstrated the technique of making paper lotuses at the biannual Hue Festival in 2008, offering visitors a chance to discover a craft villages which located just 10 kilometers northeast of Hue.

Huy, now 66, has been recognized as "the first person who successfully restored the craft of making of paper lotuses" by Guinness Vietnam 2010.

He remembered that when he was a young boy, veteran artisans in Thanh Tien used to make paper lotuses that were used to decorate homes or offer in worship at altars. However, after the 1950s, demand for the products dropped dramatically as the nation entered a difficult period of prolonged wars, and the vocation disappeared.

"My family then made other types of paper flowers, not lotuses. However, as a painter specializing in drawing lotuses, I used to dream of reviving the village's tradition using this flower," Huy told Vietweek.

Huy tried to learn about the technique of making paper flowers by asking elderly villagers, who still remembered parts of different stages. After several trial and error efforts, he gained initial success in making lotuses from paper. But that was not enough.

Huy worked on perfecting his technique, even using "new" materials to make the products more vivid and eye-catching.

In the past, people used flimsies and cardboards to make lotus petals but he began using the A4 paper used for printing. Previously, bamboo or steel were used to make the lotus peduncles, but rattan, with greater pliability, has helped them become suppler, Huy said. 

An important part of making the paper flowers is dyeing. Huy applied the tone values used in painting to the technique of dyeing, making his products look real. For instance, pink paper lotuses would have their petals have darker hues in the upper part, lighter ones in the middle and remain white at the bottom, Huy said.

Huy's aim was to revive the tradition, so he did not keep his technique a secret. He shared it with other villagers. Since 2008, he has held many free courses at home to teach villagers and other interested people how to make paper lotuses.

His small house in Thanh Tien Village has since become a stopover in many tours organized by travel agencies in Hue. Visitors can not only see how the paper lotuses are made, but also try their hand at making them.

Bernard Brown and Alyssa Powell from Australia could not hide their happiness as they added the final touches to their creations.

"It's not easy. Making paper lotuses requires skill and creativity. Having a chance to learn the technique with assistance from veteran artisan Huy is one of the unforgettable memories in my trip to Vietnam," Powell said.

300-year-old craft village

I visited artisan Nguyen Hoa's house in Thanh Tien last week. His small front yard was filled with rattan and bamboo.

"These are being dried for being used as materials to make paper flowers at the end of the lunar year," 53-year-old Hoa said as he invited me into his house.

According to Hoa, Thanh Tien residents began making paper flowers around 300 years ago, and the products were first used for worship.

Other elders in the village said Thanh Tien was set up 400 years ago under the Nguyen Lords; however, its special craft was officially recognized after Lord Nguyen Anh became the first king of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802.

The newly-crowned King Gia Long ordered each of the localities to bring a precious flower to the capital as a gift. A mandarin from Thanh Tien offered the king "plants" of colorful paper flowers made by his village artisans.

Each "plant" comprised eight different flowers. Three flowers in the middle part symbolized "Quan-Su-Phu" (king-teacher-father), "Thien-Dia-Nhan" (heaven-earth-human) and "Trung-Hieu-Nghia" (fidelity-filial piety-righteousness), with the biggest red or yellow  flower symbolizing the Sun or The King. The remaining eight flowers symbolized "Nhan-Le-Nghia-Tri-Tin" (humaneness-politeness- righteousness-intelligence-faithfulness) the five characteristics a person must have under Taoist tenets.

Impressed by the mandarin's explanation of the meaning of Thanh Tien's flowering plants, Gia Long issued a royal decree encouraging Thanh Tien villagers to develop their work, making more products for decoration and for sale nationwide. He also told the villagers to share their know-how with others.

A cultural spirit

Ho Tan Phan, a Hue culture researcher, said "Thanh Tien's paper flowers have spiritual import. Every year, many families in Hue buy these flowers to decorate their altars and other places of worship."

Paper flowers, including chrysanthemums, roses, orchids, apricots and gerbera are mainly used to decorate altars to worship the Buddha, the Kitchen God, the God of Land and ancestors, and as offering in rituals, especially during the Tet (Lunar New Year Festival), he said.

Old flowers are usually replaced as a new lunar year approaches, he added.

Every lunar October, Thanh Tien residents begin to prepare materials for making paper flowers. The busiest time of the season for them is from early lunar December till the last day of the lunar year.

A distinctive feature of these creations is that flower buds are made from pith of cassava plants. Whenever the cassava harvest season comes, usually in October or November, Thanh Tien villagers rush to buy the plants to take their pith and then dry them out.

Hoa said paper flowers go through many stages, from cutting paper into shapes of petals for different types of flowers, dyeing and sticking the petals, making stems, attaching the flowers to the stems and so on. All these tasks require skilled people, he said. 

In the old days, handmade paper was the major material. The paper was also dyed using  traditional methods. There were five major colors called ngũ sắc red, yellow, white, green and purple, created from different types of plants.

For instance, the yellow color is created by a mixture of búp hoa hòe (Sophora japonica buds), tea leaves and quả dành dành (Gardenia Jasminoides Ellis); red from gấc vang (Caesalpinia sappan), lá bàng (Tropical Almond leaves), barks of Casuarinaceae trees; green from rau ngót (Sauropus androgynus) and lá lốt (piper lolot leaves); and purple from mồng tơi (Basella alba) ripe fruits.

However, color paper easily found in the market is used these days.

Thanh Tien paper flowers have over the last few years extended their popularity beyond Thua Thien-Hue to neighboring localities like Da Nang and Quang Tri. In fact, paper lotuses have also been brought to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and sent to other countries like Thailand, the US and France.

During the days before Tet, Thanh Tien residents can be seen selling their paper flowers on many streets in Hue. Each vendor carries a large pole with 300 to 500 flower plants. Each one sells for VND4,000 to 5,000, with lotuses priced higher, usually at VND15,000-20,000.

The recent restoration of many traditional craft villages in Hue has offered Thanh Tien a chance to build on its old fame and prestige, but the most important thing, Hoa said, is that the villagers can hold on to a tradition passed through generations.

"Such a cultural spirit will live for ever," he said.

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