Much has changed and adapted throughout Vietnamese history, and calligraphy, an essential element of Vietnamese culture, has seen old and new streams merge into one as seen today.
Calligraphy is called “Thu Phap” in Vietnamese, “Thu” means script while “Phap” means rule, together the term means “the rule of writing”.
Through time, Vietnamese calligraphy has grown beyond its original meaning as the rule to write beautifully to become an art of blowing the beauty into every single character.
Different from the Western calligraphy style, which uses a number of drawing tools like pen nibs, erasers, rulers, compasses, and squares to achieve accurate letter proportions, while Vietnamese calligraphers only use brushes and black ink to achieve the beauty of philosophy hidden inside.
Many people when they hear the word “calligraphy” think of a Chinese piece of art. This thought process is understandable since China is the birthplace of the art. Vietnamese calligraphy is strongly affected by that of China due to cultural exchanges in the past and its neighboring geographic location at the present. Vietnamese calligraphy also follows the standards of Chinese calligraphy and uses Han script (Chinese language) in many of its writings.
However, as Han scrip failed to fully represent the richness of Vietnamese language, Nom script came to replace Han in Vietnamese calligraphy.
This is one main distinction between Vietnamese and Chinese calligraphy. Han - Nom calligraphy is also called classic calligraphic stream.
Basically, Han and Nom calligraphy are not too different from each other in terms of writing style, character shape, and both of them required the same tools and paper type and size.
However, instead of expressing complex ideas of scholars, which requires strict criteria like Han, Nom calligraphy goes into people’s hearts by plain inspiration rooted from simple feelings about life and natural dreams of people.
This art was born with the purpose to serve Vietnamese civilians, focusing on the virtue, the right, the beauty and the dreams of people, or maybe an inspiration of the writer.
Not satisfied with the invention of Han - Nom calligraphy, Vietnamese calligraphers kept on contributing to the copiousness of calligraphy to keep up with the development of Vietnamese with two more calligraphic methods: modern Vietnamese script calligraphy and “Tien Ve” (Zenei shodou) calligraphy.
Inheriting most of the quintessential qualities of Han - Nom calligraphy, Vietnamese script calligraphy was created and became prosperous during the last 10 years.
The method of calligraphy was a respectful innovation that closely followed classical methods and preserved a meaningful traditional art of Vietnam.
Vietnamese script calligraphy shares many similarities with Han - Nom calligraphy such as using brushes and Chinese ink, writing on white and red paper, having letters arranged inside round or square blocks, the position of the seal, and the meaning of the calligraphy. However, the follower is richer in terms of writing style.
The third and also the latest calligraphic stream in Vietnam is called “Tien Ve” calligraphy. This new stream was first brought to Vietnam by calligrapher Le Quoc Viet in 2006 after he visited an art exhibition in China and fell in love with it.
Since then, Viet and his team named “The Zenei Gang of Five”, which was composed of five calligraphic experts, have been putting their hard efforts into promoting this new stream and have since gained lots of attention.
Interestingly, one doesn’t have to understand the meaning of Han and Nom to enjoy this art stream because it didn’t intend to express meaning through intellectual understanding, but through feeling.
Tien Ve calligraphy is closer to abstract painting than writing technique as it is a combination of painting and calligraphy, so different perspectives may have different interpretations on the same writing.
This new style doesn’t follow any standardized basis of the traditional ones. Tien Ve calligraphers may use any type of script in one work, Han, Nom or Roman scripts. Also, they don’t have to care about the arrangement of the writing in which there could be many layers and sizes of script.
Besides, Tien Ve calligraphy can be written on a variety of materials like paper, glass, wood or even human bodies. Writing tools are even more unique; calligraphers may spray water, allow a dog or a cat to step on their work to create a cute flower, splash ink, or print bamboo leaves to increase innovative elements.
Viet said that his intention when he brought this new calligraphic stream into Vietnam was to create a new definition, a new way to approach this lofty art because if he continued to write traditional calligraphy, his final destination would be nothing more than what the pioneers have done. So, it’s time for him to blow fresh air into Vietnamese calligraphy, which is becoming obsolete.