Vietnamese Craftsmanship – Lacquerware
In a nutshell, Lacquer it is a sort of natural plastic. In addition to Vietnam, several Asian countries and regions have a long tradition of vegetable lacquer, including China (birthplace of lacquer work about three millennia ago), Japan (where many experts consider that the art of lacquer reached its peak), the Korean Peninsula, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). There are variants in the trees used and the quality of the lacquer obtained, but Vietnamese lacquer was one of the most prized, both for its relative transparency and its flexible and robust finish. In Vietnam, traditional lacquer is made from the milky sap procured by tapping the lacquer tree, cây sơn (Rhus succedanea), often (but wrongly) confused with the sumac, a Chinese cousin. This tree is mostly found in what are now the provinces of Phú Thọ and Vĩnh Phúc (north of the Delta). Resin is collected in the same way that latex is taken from rubber trees (or the way that sweet sap used to be extracted from sugar maples): incisions are made in the trunks of the trees with containers attached beneath, which must be emptied regularly. The natural resin is then decanted, purified and can be tinted. Lacquer thus obtained (before colours are added) is either black (sơn then) or brown (cánh gián: cockroach’s wing). By-products of purified lacquer are used to waterproof baskets and caulk boats, as well as for preparing mastics, in turn, used for smoothing surfaces to be lacquered.
Lacquer provides a high degree of protection: it creates an airtight, waterproof and attractive skin around an object. This protective layer is at once astonishingly flexible, robust and very resistant to the deleterious effects of water, acids, alkalis and abrasion. It protects organic matter from insects (such as termites, wasps or woodworm), and from moulding or rotting. Wood, the most commonly lacquered surface, resists better when thus treated to humidity and heat without swelling, warping or splitting. In addition, the colours of natural or prepared lacquer will only fade very slowly under the influence of light and ageing. A lacquered object, be it matte or shiny, has a pleasant appearance that is hard, smooth and elegant.
With precaution: real traditional lacquer, despite being of purely vegetable origin, is very toxicity: it contains a cocktail of phenols, highly irritant chemical compounds. Contact between the skin and fresh lacquer can result in dermatitis and serious allergies. These reactions are insidious: they don’t occur upon initial contact, but only after repeated exposure. Asian lacquer of antiquity treated their terrible allergies with seafood; today, oysters are good, but a better bet is to wear plastic gloves, avoid touching lacquer directly or use less toxic substitutes. We should point out however that, once dry, lacquer poses absolutely no danger: eating with lacquered chopsticks on lacquered plates is a lot less risky than cooking with aluminium saucepans…
Some say that lacquer has been used in Hạ Thái for a little over 200 years; others locate its advent even longer ago, while some others claim it arrived more recently. The inhabitants of Duyên Trường, in the south of the commune, also work with lacquer. There was a time when the village of Bình Vọng (Thường Tín) was very famous in the Delta for its lacquered handicrafts, but for at least 50 years now, the inhabitants of this village have ceased production. What we can say without fear of contradiction is that people have not worked with lacquer for such a long time in Hạ Thái; that, even today, the village lives relatively well from it – but of late by adopting, let’s say, a flexible loyalty towards the raw material of its traditional craft.
The craft Hạ Thái enjoys a great reputation for the quality of its work and has fruitful and long-term dealings with several other specialised villages, particularly those of woodcarvers and woodturners, those of mother-of-pearl and eggshell in layers and, of course, with the regions at a higher altitude around the Delta where lacquer is tapped from trees and where bamboo and other wood is found. In keeping with the country as a whole, Hạ Thái is changing and getting rapidly richer, to the fully justified satisfaction of its inhabitants. However, things are not quite as they seem…
Let us explain: synthetic lacquer has moved into Hạ Thái (at least 25 years ago, in fact) and nearly everything that is lacquered in the village is now done with these new products. The attractive lacquered items (at unbeatable prices) that you have already seen on sale everywhere in Hà Nội (and that doubtless come from Hạ Thái)? They are lacquered with synthetic substances: often nice to look at, but they offer no guarantee whatsoever of quality or durability. If someone offers you much more expensive items, then it is not totally impossible that they are truly lacquered with real local lacquer and according to tradition, but there is nothing to prove they are either.
There are several different qualities and therefore prices for synthetic lacquer: the cheapest is sơn diều, then comes sơn diều công nghiệp (twice as expensive) and, finally, sơn nhật (a resin, called “Japanese”, and very similar to the natural resin, but produced industrially, and sold for 10 times the price of the sơn diều). As for real vegetable lacquer, sơn ta, it costs about 300,000 VNĐ a kilo or 15 times the price of the cheapest form.
The hard work and the skill required to apply sơn ta; an object that would require six months of work and drying to be lacquered with sơn ta will be ready in six weeks if it is only lacquered with synthetic resin. If time is money and that time is at a premium, an artisan who also markets his or her own wares may well be tempted to take short cuts.
Traditionally in Hạ Thái, the art of lacquer was in the hands of great experts and talented artisans. With the economic liberalisation of the country, mass production of lacquered products exploded; these days, workers with minimal training add layers of lacquer and sand down items on a production line without much heed for craft or quality.
Another problem: currently there is no quality-labelling. How can you tell if lacquerware marked as “real” is really real? Enthusiasts say that good lacquer can be spotted with an attentive and experienced eye (for example, synthetic lacquer is more opaque, more homogenous and less shiny than sơn ta), but the immediately obvious differences can be subtle (and sometimes deliberately disguised). Some artisans use different types of resin on the same object, the final layer having the distinction of being with ‘Japanese’ lacquer to make it look real!
Above all, it is the inexorable test of time that will indicate whether it is real lacquer properly applied – or not. Synthetic lacquer will have a limited life: its colours will fade and it will blister on poorly dried wooden or bamboo objects. We should also mention here that utensils coated with synthetic lacquer are not suitable for use with food: they can expose the user to risks of contamination that do not exist with vegetable lacquer (once fully dried).
Such a shift to lacquer simulacra throws a spotlight on the thorny paradox of Hạ Thái… This village was once famous for its expertise working with a material used to preserve religious objects and works of art, prepared amid worship and asceticism; a material mixed with gold and silver, that was once used to mummify monks in spiritual ecstasy and to beautify the teeth of girls in the first flower of womanhood…
Although a few scattered master craftsmen and women still insist on working with sơn ta, the vast majority now only use a synthetic substance that no longer preserves the objects thus lacquered, especially when it is applied hurriedly by workers who are often under-trained and poorly-motivated.
For the moment, those who have taken this route are turning a tidy profit. But the historic reputation of the village is fading, not unlike the lacquer of doubtful quality on many products made essentially for export and the tourist trade. In the medium and long term, without credible guarantees of quality or an organisation of lacquerware producers that can facilitate regulation, this village lacquerware, even if it is cheaper, will soon suffer from comparison with, for example, the equivalent Thai or Japanese products. In these countries, it must be said that synthetic lacquer is very widely used, but in general, there is more regulation, so more care is taken of, there is less counterfeiting and standards are higher. And if it really wants to find a niche with this curious concept of cut-price ‘disposable lacquer’, Hạ Thái and villages like it will have their work cut out to steal a march on some northern neighbours: Chinese industrialists produce lacquered objects in huge quantities, and of all qualities imaginable…
For at least three millennia in Vietnam (and elsewhere in East Asia), many men and women had their teeth irreversibly blackened. This practice was always more common in northern and central Vietnam and among mountain-dwelling ethnic minorities. In 1938, the French researcher Pierre Huard estimated that 80% of peasants in “North-Vietnam” still had “lacquered” teeth. These days, you would be hard-pressed to assemble even a small handful of men with a coal-black smile, and almost no women under the age of 65: this idea of beauty has been reversed within the space of a generation or two.
Why did people lacquer their teeth?
The most simple and subjective reason is that people found it attractive, especially for women.
According to popular belief, it preserved teeth from caries (possible, but questionable, especially given that the natural enamel coating on teeth had to be removed in order to apply lacquer).
There are theories associated with the chewing of betel quid, a practice loosely linked to that of lacquering teeth (apart from in Japan): the discolouration of teeth brought about by this gentle stimulant is apparently concealed by lacquering, or alternately lacquering mimics this discolouration, a sign of social prestige.
There was a time when it is possible that the Vietnamese lacquered their teeth in order to look different from the Chinese.
But is it really lacquer? We’re very glad you asked that question. In fact, blackened teeth are not the result of any unique technique: each region, each ethnic group goes about it in its own way with the means at their disposal. However, the principle of applying some kind of varnish onto teeth that have first been stripped of their natural outer layer remains the same. A little anecdote (from a forgotten source): During the French colonial era, a Vietnamese military officer is invited to a dinner dance. At the end of the evening, one of his French counterparts, his face flushed, asks him: – “Well, old chap? What do you think of our French women?” The Vietnamese officer bows slowly, cracking an embarrassed smile and replies: – “They are very beautiful… But their teeth are white like those of dogs!