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Hue city amosak of color and history
A friend of time, after visiting Hue, commented that: the mossy citadels, the palaces and temples with are covered in timeless dust, and deserted by the many years of war. The quiet mausoleums that hide themselves under an old pine tree… all these things inspire and capsulated the ancient and majestic feature of a memorable old capital. But one thing that brightens Hue is “Phap Lam” (Painted enamel bronze object). I have been astonished by the opinion of a French scholar regarding “Phap Lam”.
Yes! “Phap lam” has enhanced the splendid appearance of Hue palace and its sanctuaries and shrines by the tones of color.
For people who don’t come from Hue, “phap lam” seems to be a usual and mysterious concept. It is understandable, because, “phap lam” is the essence of art, architecture and culture of Hue. Even though, Hue people weren’t the inventors of “phap lam”, (initially it was imported from china) they have imported from china) they have in compassed the art and perfected it.
“Phap lam” is one kind of architectural material. The core is made from bronze; the outer layer is coated by multi colored enamels. The hardness of the enamels helps to protect against the harsh weather conditions, hence forth protecting it for a long time. Thus, this material is often used to make the decorative spaniels painted with natural beauty, flora and fauna image. Chinese Han script and verses are usually engraved on the ceiling or roof of the palace or on ornately decorated on an array of places. There are households items made from “phap lam”, worshiping objects, and decorative things in palaces, and in the mausoleums of Hue, all have become precious examples inherited from the Nguyen dynasty for posterity.
In the 17th century, three clergymen of Societies lesu from Europe were brought to Guangdong to develop this art using a red bronze core, five different enamel colors were then painted over the core layer and then bunted to get the unique finish. This technique originated from Limoges (France) and Battersea (Uk), called painted enamels. The Chinese in Guangdong had quickly adopted the technique of the West to produce the same products but presenting the typical motif art of China to export to Western countries. Western people called them Canton enamels, while Chinese called “maux hay” Painted enamel.
From Guangdong, “phap lam” objects were carried by Chinese merchant ships all over the world and finally reached Vietnam. Even though it’s difficult to find documentation to prove that Chinese merchant boats brought “phap lang” to Thanh Ha – Bao Vinh seaport (in Hue) or Hoi An (Quang Nam province). Phap lan articles have been found from the King Khang Hi period (1661- 1722 and Can Long dynasty (1735 – 1795) belonging to aristocratic families. Traders often traded in Hue area and the Chinese painted enamel appeared in Hue (and Hoi An) before Gia Long King (1802 – 1820) established the Nguyen Dynasty, painted enamel was bought to display in altars or to decorate the living room. Since the early times of Nguyen dynasty, the mandarins going in business to China also bought painted enamel items to display in their reading rooms.
At that time, Mr. Vu Van Mai from Hue, realized that the demand if using painted enamel amongst the aristocrat class was quite sort after. He went to Guangdong to learn the technique of painted enamel. Coming back home, Vu Van reported to establish the very first “phap lang” workshop to satisfy the needs of Hue citadel, this was called “Phap lang thuong cuc” (means State workshop). Nguyen Dynasty called them “phap lam”. People said that, because the way Hue people pronounced the words “lang” and “land” were exactly the same, so the Nguyen Dynasty pronounced “phap lang” turning it to “phap lam” to avoid the sound “Lan” – which used to be the royal name of the Lord Nguyen (Nguyen Phuc Lan). Other opinions sate that the euphemism was used to avoid the sound “Lan” is the name Ms. Tong Thi Lan, the official women of the King Gia Long. Actually, the word “Lan” is different in hand – writing but same in sound so it was prohibited due to the tabooed names of Nguyen dynasty.
Hue people also used “phap lam” items to store food and drink in. the highly decorated bowls with dragons, clouds or flowers even pictures of trading ships coming from the west to trade in Hue were found on the bowls appeared during the Tu Duc period. “Phap lam” also can be found in a favorite game in Hue called “Dau ho” (one kind of throwing dart). This game was often set up in the palace or in the Nguyen dynasty at spring time. It was recorded in history that Tu Duc and Bao Dai king were the masters at this game. This game were beloved so much then King Nguyen ordered the artisans to make many “dau ho” (like a China decanter) in many different kinds of materials such as wood, pottery, and even bronze glued together and decorated in painted enamel.
“Hue phap lam” today has been brought back to life; the new workshops in Hue have been producing lots of “phap lam” objects with new innovated techniques and new styles, forms and colors, making suitable with the current Hue lifestyle. I myself sincerely hope that: in the future the painted enamel art will be displayed in Hue houses as it used to be”.