Đông Hồ prints depict a number of animals found around farms such as the carp, buffalo, frog, toad, duck but by far the most popular animal is the chicken, the pig comes second. Prints used as good luck charms are commonly called tranh gà lơn which means pictures of chicken and pigs. This goes to show their importance in people’s cultural lives, and the wealth of hopes and meanings embedded into their images.
A flock of chicken is an allusion to fertility, to having a big family with lots of children and grandchildren. Story goes that the print above, Gà thư hùng (the name of a local breed of chicken), was designed by the woodcut master Đám Giác as a wedding present for the local official Chánh Hoàn’s daughter in 1915. Beside the image, in Nôm – the old Vietnamese writing system using Chinese characters, he engraved the phrase lắm con nhiều cháu giống lông giống cánh (children and grandchildren in flocks, sharing the same feathers, the same wings). The image consists of a full family of rooster, hen, and chicks in the composition of a swirl, with their male and female energy complimenting each other like the yin and yang, creating perfect harmony.
Having lots of children is crucial to the Vietnamese family, especially in the past due to the need for labor on the farm. Boys are much more valued than girls since they were allowed to carry on the family name, whereas girls are traditionally considered to belong to the husband’s family once they marry. This is why a lot of the prints have baby boys in them, holding an auspicious animal. With consideration to yin and yang, this type of prints come in pairs. The choice of animal corresponds to the title and alludes to a variety of folklores, fables, as well traditional symbols.
This pair is called Vinh hoa (Glory) and Phú quý (Wealth). I’m not clear why the rooster stands for glory and the duck for wealth. In western culture there’s the story of the goose that lay gold eggs, but we don’t have anything similar.
And this pair is called Lễ tri (Refinement) and Nhân nghĩa (Kindness). Turtles traditionally signify wisdom and scholastic endeavours, if you have a chance to visit the Temple of Literature in Hanoi there are many big turtle sculptures along the hall ways in the compound. The toad alludes to the folk tale Toad is the Uncle of Heaven, where a courageous toad, angered by prolonged drought, travelled up to the sky to demand why the Heavens had not created rain in so long. With his wits and persistence he succeed in bringing rain and saved all beings on Earth.
Back to the most popular animal – the chicken, with the rooster in the spotlight. Because the rooster is considered a power that calls to the sun and chases the darkness away, there are a variety of rooster designs in pairs, such as Gà đại cát nghinh xuân (Dai cat Roosters greet Spring), Gà trống và hoa hồng (Rooster beside roses), Dạ xướng Nhật minh (Night crows, Day shines).
Above is the Da xướng Nhật minh, inscribed on the print on the left were the verses dạ xướng ngũ canh hoà meaning “regularly crow 5 times a night”, and on the right nhật minh tam tác thụy meaning “bring 3 fortunate things with the day.”
For more information on design motifs in Đông Hồ prints visit here, and here. For information on Nôm inscriptions read this article by Phùng Hồng Kổn, and for photos of the current Đông Hồ village visit this forum. All of the writings are in Vietnamese.