For several decades now, especially since the invasion of Western life-ways in the wake of the adoption of the market economy, cultural workers, scholars in the human sciences in particular, are preoccupied by two major problems: how to preserve our cultural identity, the motive force behind two wars of resistance lasting thirty years? How to open ourselves to Western cultures without losing that identity, in other words, how to reconcile tradition with modernity, East with West?
The latter problem has involved many writers and artists in heated discussions in seminars and symposiums, with no resulting consensus. So much the better!
I believed that cultures of all times face that problem, for even Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures had to evolve and change, i.e. “modernize” themselves if that term could be used. In order to endure while keeping its substratum, all cultural achievements must follow a process of evolution influenced by endogenous and exogenous factors.
Concerning Vietnamese culture let me take as an example the art of lacquer-work.
Archaeological excavations undertaken since 1961 have found in unearthed coffins object of lacquered wood or leather, and even tools used in lacquer work. They proved the existence of that primitive craft in the northern (Red River) delta as early as the 4th century B.C. Those objects, not very numerous and of little variety, had been mostly buried with the dead.
No documentation on the making of Vietnamese lacquer-work in the course of the long period of Chinese domination of the country is available. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, in the reigns of the first major royal dynasties (Lý and Trần) of independent Việt Nam, that handicraft left visible, albeit scanty, traces (in archives, cult objects, funerary articles).
It was in the 17th-19th centuries that Vietnamese lacquer-work was in full bloom, putting itself mostly in the service of religion: architectural decoration, statues, palanquins, wooden panels, columns… It also played a part in the mummification of Buddhist monks: the Đậu Pagoda in Thường Tín District, Hà Nội, contains the mummies of two bonzes in a sitting position of dhyanist meditation, with a red-and-gold lacquer coating. These dated from the 17th-18th centuries made use of Chinese achievements and improved its own technique, strengthening its products resistance to the tropical climate and widening the range of its background materials (lacquer coating on wood, lather, baked earth, stone, copper, rattan, plaited bamboo, etc.). Articles for everyday use were few, the bulk of production being reserved for acts of worship.
Under the French rule, that traditional art followed the same trend in villages of the northern delta (1862-1945). In the first half of the 20th century, the making of curious and objects for secular use (boxes, vases, screen, etc.) prospered in cities and towns.
Vietnamese lacquer-work underwent a renewal in the 1920s and 1930 at its contact with Western art brought into the country through the Indochina College of Fine Arts founded in 1925. Two French artists, Inguimberty and Jonchère, are credited with having encouraged and organized the transformation of an old handicraft which had lost many of its secrets and which was essentially decorative into modern art, true art, capable of expressing all shades of feeling and thought 1. The Hà Nội School of Lacquer-work was thus set up thanks to efforts by young Vietnamese students of the French college of fine arts. They had discovered the technique of pumiced lacquer and enriched the art’s material, colors, subjects and style.
Vietnamese modern lacquer-work, starting from an age old tradition and enriched by several acculturations, could supply an example of faithfulness to national cultural identity, one could say “dynamic and evolutionist faithfulness”. Many villages in the suburbs of Hà Nội are now engaged in lacquer-work.