The craft of bamboo weaving in Hà Tây Province is said to date from the 16th century and alleged to have started at Phú Vĩnh. It all began with Nguyễn Van Soi, who in 2008 was formally recognised as craft ancestor by the local People’s Committee. The story goes that this ancestor, who was born in Phú Vĩnh in the 16th century, learned how to make bamboo artefacts while travelling in Thanh Hóa Province with his father, a distinguished mandarin. Upon returning to Xóm Thượng village he practised the trade within his family, passed it on to his children and taught it to his younger clansmen. Phú Vinh and the other villages around lay in a lowland area dotted with a little rocky surface, and at that time were frequently flooded and therefore rich in shrimp and fish. The people had great need of bamboo tools for fishing (traps, baskets) as well as for domestic purposes and agriculture. They also needed other livelihoods, as rice farming was not well developed due to the awkward terrain.
At first, the ancestor’s descendants supplemented their income by making objects from bamboo, natural fibres and grasses that grew by the roadside, selling the surplus to neighbouring villages. They even made hats from stork feathers. But the ancestor’s descendants wanted to keep the secret of the method to conserve a monopoly on the industry. However, the market grew, from local towns to the Đồng Xuân market in Hà Nội and, through Chinese middlemen, out to neighbouring provinces. Production grew with it and the clan was obliged to pass on the craft to others in the village.
It was roughly 1,000 years ago in the villages of Thanh Hóa Province (150 kilometres south of Hà Nội) that bamboo craft emerged in Việt Nam. Not far from these villages was the site of Hoa Lư, one of the ancient capitals of Việt Nam and a centre of gravity for artistic production, especially of bamboo and rattan work.
In the early 1700s, bamboo became the material of choice for works of art. In 1712, a work in four panels representing the plants that symbolise the four seasons (apricot, pine, chrysanthemum, Moso bamboo), made by craft workers in the village of Phú Vinh, was offered to the King. (The work is today in the Ethnology Museum in Huế.). Phú Vinh became famous for the quality of its bamboo products and at the beginning of the 18th century, it was a major manufacturing centre making bamboo articles traded across northern Việt Nam.
The modern era of French colonial times (1858-1945), bamboo craft in the village retained considerable notoriety. Under King Tự Đừc (1848-1883), nine artisans from the village swore allegiance to the King and vowed: “never to teach their trade to people from other localities.” Villages began to diversify and craftsmen began making items in rattan for the French market (rattan is made solely for export: it cannot be used in the tropics because it tolerates neither humidity nor termites). In the village, a group of French traders monopolised the purchase of bamboo and rattan items and their export to France. By this point, the basket makers were really branching out: the years 1936-1940 were the most prosperous in the village’s history, with 80% of households involved in the craft activity. They also worked with a giang, short, solid type of bamboo used to weave little plates and trays for rich families. The French traders bought what was produced up until 1943 when they stopped because of the war. After the war came a period of recession, with agriculture often not able to provide food for the villagers. After the First Indochina War against the French, the villagers improved their water system and upgraded farm production. Bamboo and rattan manufacturing returned.
In 1957, the commune of Phú Nghĩa saw its first agricultural co-operatives come into being. In March 1963, a village craft co-operative was founded and 400 villagers joined it, most of the artisans from Phú Vinh. They gave up their land to the farming co-operatives and were paid in rice vouchers by the state, like other workers and officials.
The creation of the craft co-operative indicated the start of the centrally planned economy that made its mark on many of the craft villages. However, the master craftsmen of Phú Vinh clung on to their special status, transmitting their savoir-faire through the training of other co-operatives and retaining their monopoly on rattan weaving, a more difficult art than bamboo craft (giang or nứa). As the years went by, the trade was kept alive and even prospered as Việt Nam, now locked behind the Bamboo Curtain, found new export markets in the territories enclosed by the Iron Curtain. But once again, this approach to labour organisation had mainly negative consequences for craft expression and originality, operational flexibility and general manufacturing quality; the results took their toll when collectivisation and its structures fell apart, well before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
The craft co-operative was officially dissolved in 1991, but already it was unable to sell its products. The co-operative was handed over to the communal People’s Committee in its entirety. In 1993, after land redistribution reforms, the former members of the craft co-operative recovered their old lands, but most of them rented these out to farmers and continued their weaving crafts. Despite all the ups and downs of trade and labour, the fame and prestige attached to the village of Phú Vinh went from strength to strength, and the widening of the home and overseas markets under the liberalising reforms of Đổi Mới “socialist-oriented market economy” in 1986 helped set Phú Vinh back on its feet.
The villages of Phú Nghĩa are more skilled in rattan craft, a more difficult art form, while in those of Đông Phương Yên commune, artisans are more specialised in high-quality bamboo work. In other villages, people work essentially with bamboo only, with less refined techniques. As basket making is strictly a manual task, it is not possible to produce on a large scale. The work is spread out, a little here, a little there: one homestead weaves the base of the basket, another the sides, a third the lid.
“Once upon a time, among the craggy karst, where rugged pagodas hang over the boggy plain, a ragged rustic with magic fingers twiddled his thumbs in the high bamboo…”
Drop by to visit some of the village workshops when you visit Vietnam. Each with its own speciality to find out more on the distant origins of the bamboo craft, where it all began:
- Phú Nghĩa, and the village of Phú Vinh, home of the basket trade (rattan);
- Ðông Phýõng Yên, and the villages of Ðồi Ba and Yên Kiên (various kinds of bamboo);
- Trýõng Yên, and the village of Phú Yên (giang, a type of thin bamboo).