Friday, March 26, 2010

Vietnamese words in place of Chinese characters

I did a talk at the Theosophical society last night, in the course of which I showed this photograph.

A friend with an eye for detail approached me later and asked me about the words running up the sides of the shrine. I explained that they were Vietnamese words shaped to look like Chinese characters. Monks have always been able to read Chinese, but have for centuries pronounced them in the Vietnamese language. These wonderful little motifs take the translation a step further, writing the actual words in Vietnamese, but leaving them roughly the same size, shape and look that the Chinese characters would have taken.
It was the first time in a long time I'd thought of this peculiar phenomenon. When I first went to Vietnam in the early 90s this was a very common motif in popular art (especially in Lunar New Year decorations), and it really struck me at the time. The words take on a wonderfully goofy 60s look, which is when I imagine they were first designed. Obviously the use of them has a vaguley nationalistic undertone, i.e. "We have perfectly good words in Vietnamese, we don't need to use Chinese to convey lofty sentiments."
I also realised that this convention is dying out in contemporary Vietnam. Partly because I imagine it appears dated to modern-day Vietnamese, bringing back as it does memories of the harshest days. I also think that with the ubiquity of Chinese-produced goods - especially in the area of Buddhist paraphernalia and New Year decorations - it is simply cheaper and easier to buy the mass-produced Chinese stuff.
So I imagine this quaint tradition is a dying art, but I have suddenly fallen in love with it.
IN a less decorative manner, I noticed that the memorial tablets on Cao Dai shrines are decorated with rather unadorned Vietnamese words. Usually such tablets would be written in Chinese.

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