Tranh Đông Hồ – traditional woodcuts from Dong Ho village, Bac Ninh province, has been around for hundreds of years, and was most popular during the 17th and 18th century. People commonly refer to them as tranh tết as they’re often produced and sold around Tết (lunar new year) as decorations as well a charm to bring good luck. In recent years they’ve suffered from lost of interest and consequently economical difficulties. What was once a whole village’s craft, passed down through the generations, has now dwindled to a few households. The rest of the village has now turned to making hàng mã (offerings for the dead) as it is more profitable. There are only 2 woodcut masters alive who know how to make these woodcuts in the traditional style, Nguyễn Hữu Sam and Nguyễn Đăng Chế.
Tranh Đông Hồ obtain their subjects from from village life and folklore, they often depict farm animals, sometimes with human and other times by themselves. In some cases, the animals even take on the activities of human beings (such as in Đám cưới chuột – Mouse wedding, Thầy đồ cóc – the frog mandarin). Animals motifs work as allusions and metaphors. They provide rich insight into the relationship between human and animal, and the extent of respect given to animals that goes beyond seeing them merely as food.
There are 4 main themes in Đông Hồ woodprints.
Traditionally the prints were made on dó paper, a handmade paper from the barks of the balansae tree. A mixture from finely grounded scallop shells (so điệp) and sticky rice paste is then spread onto the paper using a branch of pine leaves, creating ridged texture on the paper and a glowing background.
Colors for the prints were extracted from natural material. Black is from the soot of bamboo leaves, indigo is from rusted cooper or the leaves of the indigofera, yellow from the pagoda tree flowers, and red from red gravels. The designed images are cut onto wood, each color is a separate wood block, because of this Đông Hồ woodcuts tend to have only 3 to 4 colors. After printing the images onto the paper, it is left to dry under the sun.