Artisans and workers in traditional stone carving villages across Vietnam are now struggling after cultural authorities requested that exotic mascots be excluded from religious institutions and public agencies early last month.
Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism issued a document warning against the use of exotic mascots, particularly Chinese-style stone lions, in religious institutions and public agencies.
The warning came as a devastating blow to stone carving villages throughout the country, as few customers are willing to buy new Chinese-style mascots, and existing statues are being moved out of pagodas, temples, and public agencies.
Grinding to a standstill
The Non Nuoc fine arts stone village, in the central city of Da Nang, which was recognized as a national intangible cultural heritage this May, is languishing under the new directive.
According to Nguyen Van Hien, a local official, the 200-year-old village is currently home to over 300 stone carving businesses.
Their products are diverse, but Chinese-style stone lions and kylins account for up to 70 percent of the products, and are the “best-sellers.”
Their clients are mostly affluent people or dignitaries who use the mascots as office gifts or present them to pagodas and temples.
Such mascots, which are traditionally believed to bring good luck and act as sacred guard animals, are typically placed in pairs at the entrance to, or in the yards of, pagodas and temples or other public edifices.
Few people display them at home due to their large sizes.
Huynh Chin, head of the Non Nuoc village management, lamented that the culture ministry’s warning has had a huge adverse impact on local artisans and workers’ lives.
The businesses still have to fulfill orders placed prior to the issue of the warning, but there is no guarantee that their clients will buy the products, he added.
Several truckfuls of stone lions have been returned, and the once-popular mascots are now dumped in yards around the village.
Most businesses have laid off unnecessary workers, while their artisans and head workers have little to do.
Tran An, owner of the Tran An Fine Arts Stone business, located at the foot of the central city’s iconic Ngu Hanh Son Mountain, admitted that he and most other business owners have no idea which stone animals are considered culturally inappropriate.
“For dozens of years, we have produced items based on clients’ tastes. Prior to the ministry’s warning, the Chinese-style lions and kylins were the most sought-after items. We really don’t know what items to craft instead of the mascots, or what the purely Vietnamese mascots look like,” he shared.
Hien, a local official, admitted that the People’s Committee in his ward is also puzzled at how to choose purely Vietnamese mascots for local businesses to produce.
However, they are at a loss as to which mascots are allowed and which are not.
The management is willing to move the mascots off their premises, but do not know where to move them to. Demolishing them is the last resort, as a pair costs up to VND100 million (US$4,707).
Similarly, Ninh Van Stone Village in Hoa Lu District in Ninh Binh Province, the northern region’s largest village of its kind, is also grinding to a standstill.
According to Do Khac Cuong, a local official, the 11-hectare village is home to some 500 fine arts stone businesses, 2,000 artisans and high-skilled workers, 1,000 less skilled workers, and 1,000 migrant workers.
The livelihood of most locals depends on their stone carving craft, with a less skilled worker earning anywhere from VND200,000 to VND500,000 (up to $23.53) per day.
Nguyen Quang Dieu, head of the Ninh Van Stone Village management, said that the village has seen an almost 20 percent drop in the number of workers.
Some 100 businesses which specialize in crafting Chinese-style lions and kylins are going through a particularly tough time.
With most orders of the mascots canceled, their losses have amounted to billions of dong. (VND1 billion = $47,000)
Struggling to find the way out
Most stone carving businesses are struggling to find replacements for the Chinese-style mascots.
Dieu, from Ninh Van Stone Village, said that the village recently received designs for Vietnamese mascots from a local researcher.
However, Tran Cong Dinh, the owner of a stone carving business in Ninh Van Stone Village, observed that it would be very hard for artisans and workers to create the provided Vietnamese designs, which only represent the mascots in one dimension and lack details on ratios and patterns.
He added that while his workshop is temporarily shut down, he will conduct thorough research to find a precise version of the Vietnamese mascot designs.
Dinh is also concerned that it will take quite some time for his artisans and workers to master the new designs, and for clients to develop a liking for them.
Pham Minh Tu, the owner of a mascot business in Xuan Vu Village, also located in the northern province’s Hoa Lu District, expressed his concerns that local clients remain hesitant about Vietnamese mascots.
His workers are currently crafting a pair of Vietnamese lions for demonstration purposes.
Vietnamese vs. Chinese-style mascots
The Department of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition, under the culture ministry, is currently collecting and sending Vietnamese mascot designs to culture departments across the country.
According to local researchers, Vietnamese lions are different from their Chinese counterparts in many aspects.
The head of a Vietnamese lion typically features the word “king” in ancient Chinese characters, indicating that the lion is the king in the wild.
In addition, like other Vietnamese mascots, which are believed to have first appeared between the years 1010 and 1225 under the Ly Dynasty, Vietnamese lions generally hold a pearl in their mouth.
Their teeth are not sharp, and often feature decorative patterns. Their eyebrows, ears and snouts also bear cascading patterns.
Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Vietnamese lions do not display their muscular strength, but flexibility and good proportions are highlighted instead.
Meanwhile, Chinese lions are invariably featured as showing a muscular chest and sharp fangs in a menacing, intimidating manner.
Phan Cam Thuong, a revered researcher on art history and an artist, pointed out that in China, ancient mascot designs were recorded in books in great detail, which are of huge help to local artisans.
“This is not the case with Vietnamese mascot designs, which explains why Vietnamese artisans have no choice but to turn to Chinese books for prototypes of mascots and many other designs, such as the widely displayed statues of Avalokiteśvara (Boddhisatva of Compassion),” he noted.
The researcher urged that books which provide in-depth guidance on how to craft Vietnamese mascots should be released.
He also warned that tact is required when it comes to the removal and relocation of Chinese-style lions from religious and public facilities in Ho Chi Minh City and other areas where Chinese-Vietnamese communities live.
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