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A gift of words

(No.6, Vol.7,Dec 2017-Jan 2018 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)







Though not an obligatory rite, asking for and giving written words is a cultural feature of the New Year celebration, especially popular in the cities.
Morning on the 9th day of New Year at the Temple of Truong Han Sieu, a famous scholar in Ninh Binh, I saw a lot of people offering incense, begging for good fortune and asking for written words. 80-year-old Mr Trinh Dinh Bao came with a grandson from Ninh Phuc Commune, Ninh Binh City and told me that in the days of his youth, the custom of asking for written words was very inspirational and popular. People take home the written words they are given to hang on the most visible place on the walls as mottoes for the family members to follow, to remind them to do the right things and improve themselves in the spirit of those words. This year, Mr Bao asked for the word ‘Heart’ to worship because he believes the heart is the origin of human deeds. A good heart motivates good deeds and brings success and everything one wishes for.


As a part of their New Year’s celebration Vietnamese people have an age-old custom of asking for and giving written words.


Ms Le Kim Son from Khanh Trung Commune, Yen Khanh District, a teacher at the vocational college Lilama I, holds a word ‘Peace’ waiting for the ink to dry. She happily shares that as an educator she values literacy and wishes for a peaceful life. The word ‘Peace’, simple though it may seem, includes big aspirations about a peaceful, settled life, security and certainty in everything.
People asking for written words belong to all ages, all professions. They come from all walks of life. Those of mature age ask for ‘Heart’, ‘Righteousness’, ‘Patience’. Young souls ask for ‘Fame’, ‘Charm’, ‘Piety’, ‘Loyalty’. Students want ‘Light’, ‘Excellence’, ‘Intellect’, ‘Ambition’. For parents they wish ‘Heart’, ‘Health’, ‘Peace’. For the elderly it’s definitely ‘Tranquility’, ‘Godsend’, ‘Longevity’. Businesspeople value ‘Godsend’, ‘Honor’, or ‘Prosperity’. Each word can suit a person, a situation, a job, a sentiment, a desire, a secret wish, or a state of mind, a moral for oneself and for one’s descendants to live up to.
Each word takes less than a minute to write, and a lot more time to dry. But everybody waits patiently and happily till it’s absolutely dry before going home.
The givers put their whole self into each meticulous and virtuoso stroke of the brush, to make the letters full of spirit, matching the meaning it carries.
The words given are usually written on red or pink papers, the colors of good luck. Depending on the word to be written, the writer uses black Chinese ink or gold emulsion to accentuate its meaning for the person who asks for it.
To His Venerable Thich Minh Quang who spent 30 years studying Mandarin Chinese, a Doctor of Philosophy and member of China’s Association of Calligraphers, it’s best to use the first brushstroke of spring to convey the simplest, deepest wishes and bring hopes to people.
I hope that in the coming years, this refined and meaningful tradition will be maintained and spread over again. It is a soft manifestation of the fact that the hectic rush of everyday life will not make people forget about the good New Year customs.

*The article in Vietnamese version was printed on www.pgvn.vn, 21 February, 2013


Text by My Hanh and Photos by Lai Diem Dam
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