Breaking the mold to save bronze drums

Published: 27/01/2009 05:00



Lookatvietnam - Drawn to the art of Dong Son metalworking, one man gave up his livelihood to keep the ancient culture from become history.

Scientists with the bronze drum and sword, which Tung made as a gift for General Giap.

Lookatvietnam - Drawn to the art of Dong Son metalworking, one man gave up his livelihood to keep the ancient culture from become history.

Thieu Quang Tung began studying how to cast bronze drums in 1999, and hasn’t looked back since.

Tung won first prize at the Xu Thanh Bronze Drum Casting Festival in the central povince of Thanh Hoa in 2006. One year later, he was chosen as one of the 10 most excellent workmen in the Hue city Festival. In

Casting a drum in Tung’s workshop.

September last year, he offered his drum-casting talents for the Lam Kinh Festival.

The 43-year-old was born into a farmer family of nine. “In over four generations of my family, nobody has adopted this craft, except for me. I want to preserve the fading Dong Son culture by expressing it on the bronze drums.” said Tung.

The Dong Son was a prehistoric Bronze Age

Thieu Quang Tung is determined to preserve the precious Dong Son culture.

culture, centred at the Red River Valley of northern Viet Nam. The Dong Son people were skilled bronze casters, as can be seen in the famous Dong Son drums. The drums, which were apparently both musical instruments and cult objects, were one of the culture’s finest examples of metalworking. Thanh Hoa, Tung’s homeland, was the place where Dong Son archaeological vestiges were first discovered.

Tung faced a lot of difficulties on the road to becoming a drum caster. His biggest challenge was learning the intricacies and nuances of the craft by himself. None of his ancestors had taken up the trade so there were no guidelines to follow. He had to pave his own way right from the beginning. Through perseverance, tenacity and a love of the art, he managed to find methods that worked for him.

There were times when he had to use the last of his family’s money for his study. “My wife advised me to give up the work many times as I was unsuccessful at first. But when she saw my steely determination, she started to nurture my passion,” said Tung.

Because of expensive experimentation with materials and designs for drum casting, Tung had to sell his house to keep working. However, Tung learnt from every poorly made drum and treated his mistakes constructively.

Tung founded a drum casting workshop in 2006, which now has 14 workmen, both young and old. His youngest employee is 17 years old. It usually takes Tung two or three years to train a workman, and at least five years until an employee is fully skilled. Tung pays salaries for his apprentices, as most of them are poor.

“I do not mind employing and paying young people to work for the workshop. My only condition is that they are interested in the Dong Son culture and love the work. The workshop was opened with the aim of preserving the Dong Son culture and workers should be acutely aware of that,” said Tung.

Drum casting is hard work and all steps to creating a masterpiece take enormous amounts of care and patience - from setting moulds to decorating the drums. The drums are predominantly bronze. With traces of tin, zinc, and lead, because, according to Tung “if we make drums from bronze only, it won’t have an echo.”

Moulding and setting a drum is a complicated process. First the decorations are carved onto a wooden mould. After that, it is covered with a layer of clay mixed with rice husk, an ingredient which is impervious to heat. Finally, it is covered by a layer of soil to avoid burning the drum.

“The mould is made by clay, which becomes hard easily. I frequently have to stay up until midnight to finish it. If I leave it until the next day, it will no good.” said Tung.

It usually takes Tung between 45 days to two months to cast a drum, depending on its size and the design detail.

To design the drum decoration, Tung takes into account the history and culture of particular generations. They are often decorated with geometric patterns, scenes of daily life and war, animals, birds, and boats.

In May last year, Tung and his employees presented a bronze drum and a sword to General Vo Nguyen Giap for his 97th birthday. The drum has a diameter of 60cm - symbolising the 60th year of Giap’s military service - and a height of 48cm - symbolising 1948 - the year the late president Ho Chi Minh signed a decree promoting Giap to his status as a top-rank general.

Images of the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the campaign to liberate Sai Gon in 1975, and the images of soldiers in the wars of resistance against France and the US were depicted on the drum and the sword.

Now Tung is dreaming of making his workshop bigger to develop his career, and to preserve a precious culture.

“I wish to learn a foreign language so that I can introduce the products of my village and the Dong Son culture to foreigners all over the world,” Tung says, his eyes brightening with confidence and determination.

(Source: VNS)

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