Sculptor hands craft to new generation

Published: 28/03/2009 05:00



Veteran artists teach the young how to uphold the village’s traditional craft, which their ancestors sweated to preserve.

Nguyen Van Cung’s family have been sculpting for generations. Now he is preparing to pass the baton onto the next generation.

In many Vietnamese villages, people live by their traditional trade, which is passed from father to son, generation to generation.

When he was a child, Nguyen Van Cung watched his grandfather, Nguyen Van Vy, and his father, Nguyen Van Dien, wrapped up in carving and sculpting. He watched the rough stone blocks slowly transformed into living statues under the skilful hands of his elders.

Cung first learned how to use a chisel when he was six. Now, at 75-years-old, he is still working with stone. As a veteran artisan in Long Chau Mieu Village, Cung has been passing on his knowledge and skills to the younger generation, to maintain the village’s long-standing tradition.

Veteran chiseler

“I don’t know when the trade began, it has been passed down for many generations,” Cung says.

“Like the other young children, I was curious when I watched the elders work.”

Cung borrowed his father’s set of tools and made his first tentative taps when he was still very young.

“I learned the trade before learning the alphabet,” he says.

Once, when his parents were out, Cung sculpted furtively on a stone stele his father had left unfinished. Unfortunately, he damaged it and got a memorable spanking.

“I consider the thrashing a valuable lesson from my father in being careful with your work,” Cung says.

Engraving stone is harder than other trades, according to Cung. It requires carefulness, creativity, patience and thinking aesthetically.

Before the August Revolution, Cung’s Village was quite poor. His family was often ordered to make gravestones and millstones. The work couldn’t put bread and cheese on the table so Cung, 12, followed his father to the capital to earn a living.

Cung took a break from the trade to join the army in 1959, when he was 22. After twelve years serving his country, he was discharged because of bad health.

He returned to his village, determined to get back to his vocation.

Trade secrets

He taught trade secrets to his children, grandchildren and young people in the village free of charge, as soon as they decided to take up the trade.

Cung has trained hundreds of local youths in stone carving and sculpture. He actively seeks out commissions and is single-handedly making the trade popular again. Customers come from Bac Ninh, Quang Ninh and Phu Tho Provinces to order stonework from the village.

“A novice should observe the work and then practise extensively on the stones,” Cung says.

“The most difficult thing is infusing a soul into the statue. If you fail, it’s a lifeless stone.”

Cung’s son, 39-year-old Nguyen Van Trong founded his own Trong Ven Company to develop the trade. Trong hired 50 employees trained by his father.

“It’s easy to find stones here, they are everywhere, workers are covered with stone dust,” Trong says, “Our lives are strongly attached to stones.”

“It’s said that anyone who pursues the trade has to live with stone, even love stone,” Trong adds, smiling.

Nguyen Xuan Giap, Cung’s grandson, is a very promising successor. He already works as vice director of his uncle Trong‘s company.

“When Giap was a child, I would trust him to plane a stele smooth after I had finished it,” Cung says.

Giap graduated from the Ha Noi University of Fine Arts. He is often put in charge of designing stone products.

“Giap is a good and energetic boy,” Cung says. “Judging by the way he works, I don’t believe the trade will decline.”

The Chairman of the Communal People’s Committee says he is happy more young people are returning to the traditional trade.

“Local people often buy stones from Thanh Hoa and Ninh Binh Provinces,” he says. “The trade allows workers to arrange their time well. They can take advantage of leisure time after harvests to carve their stone.”

There are more than ten workshops and several companies in the whole commune, says the chairman.

Cung and his family have carved hundreds of stone steles. He helped restore five ancient steles at Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Ha Noi. His sons restored numerous statues, incense-burners, dragons and towers at the Yen Tu Pagoda (Quang Ninh Province), Do Temple (Bac Ninh Province) and other pagodas across Ha Noi.

The traditional trade of the village had declined in the early 20th century but thanks to Cung and other old artisans, the old art has been revivied. Cung doesn’t ask for money when training the young, he simply hopes his efforts will help tradition stay the pace of modernity.


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