"Rat’s Weddings" galore as Vietnamese woodcut artist prepares for Tet

A Dong Ho woodcut paintings artist is busy with the “The Rat’s Wedding”, a highly popular traditional motif, for the upcoming Tet festival.

57-year-old Nguyen Huu Qua is one of just three people who are still pursuing the art of Dong Ho folk woodcut paintings in the eponymous craft village in Bac Ninh Province, about 35 km (21 miles) from Hanoi. 

As the upcoming Tet is the Year of the Rat, "Dam Cuoi Chuot" (The Rat’s Wedding) is in high demand.

"The Rat’s Wedding" woodblock.

Paint is applied to the woodblock and pressed on a sheet of handmade paper, like a stamp. The process is repeated with different colors with different woodblocks. To make his work perfect, Qua chooses high-quality wood with smooth surfaces.

The original Dong Ho paintings did not have garish colors. They were warm and easy to the eye, all made from all natural materials: red from the rock on Thien Thai Mountain, white from the shell of scallops, black from the ash of burned bamboo leaves, yellow from flowers of the Japanese pagoda tree, and green from the bark of cajuput trees.

Red color is created from grinding the rock onto a china plate. The powder is mixed with water and sticky rice paste to prevent fading.

The traditional papers have a layer of scallop powder, making it shiny. The order to print is that red/purple comes first, then green, yellow, black and white. After printing each color, the artisans have to wait for around half an hour and use a traditional material to rub the paper, ensuring the colors are evenly spread.

With large paintings, instead of using woodblocks, Qua has to draw and paint.

The Dong Ho paintings used to be popular at Tet time, but declining demand make many people abandon the traditional art, Qua said. Most of his clients are foreigners and overseas Vietnamese, he added. This year, his family has made 200 sets of calendars, postcards and notebooks, all themed on the rat.