The pride in national traditions
Last August, an international workshop on the preservation and development of Vietnamese villages engaged in traditional crafts took place in Ha Noi. It was organised by the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and UNIDO in collaboration with Japanese experts.
An event that took place twenty years after the end of the war and ten years after the launching of the policy of renovation, the workshop was indeed a belated but necessary initiative. Between 1991 and 1995, industry recorded a yearly growth of 13.6 percent, which brought about an improvement of the national economic structure. Between 1990 and 1995, the shares of industry, agriculture and the service industry went from 22.7 percent, 38.7 percent and 38.6 percent to 27.2 percent, 30.9 percent and 42.5 percent respectively. In such a scenario, an important contribution has been in the area of small - and medium sized undertakings which account for 93 percent of the total industrial and handicraft enterprises in Viet Nam.
Villagers with traditional crafts shelter many small - and medium sized undertakings. Over the centuries their products bearing authentic Vietnamese features have been recognised and appreciated by the international community. The Vietnamese village, the pre-eminent social cell, was born ages ago in the context of a rice-growing civilisation in Southeast Asia. The crafts bom there were essentially autarkic. However, they supplemented the growing of crops, improved the peasants’ livelihood and contributed to commercial exchanges, some of which crossed national boundaries. Villages with traditional crafts often practised the cult of patron saint who had taught the trade to their population. A patron saint could have been an ambassador who availed himself of his mission to China to learn skills. The indigenous handicraft product absorbed elements from neighbouring countries, even from the West in early 20th century. This was true, for instance, in the case of working with lacquer, that autochthonous handicraft bom in the first millennium before the Christian era came under Chinese influence (technique, motifs) in the Middle Ages (statuary of pagodas, parallel panels). It borrowed elements from Western art (notions of perspective, colours, etc.) to evolve into present day lacquer painting.
The workshop I mention above on villages with traditional crafts dealt with the problem of the promotion, even the resurrection, of traditional hand-icrafts. That problem is of interest to developed countries (breaking the monopoly of chain production) and especially to developing countries contributing to the improvement of living conditions.
In Viet Nam, ever since the 1945 revolution and even during the subsequent resistance war, handicrafts (including those practised in villagers) effectively helped industiy, still insufficiently developed, to serve the needs of the home market and part of the exports. Following the collapse of the East European bloc, the sale of handicraft products to that essential market suffered a severe blow from which it has now slowly recovered. Much hope rests on the West market since the launching of the policy of opening up to it (1986).
The workshop made recommendations with a view tò promoting or reviving traditional village crafts (government policies: funding, vocational training, supply of materials, buying orders, looking for outlets, corporate efforts, etc.).
I have recently visited several such villages. They are relatively prosperous compared to villages drawing their livelihood solely from rice growing. Income from the fields and gardens covers food and small daily expenses. That from supplementary craft supplies the cash needed for important expenses (construction or repair of houses, television sets, motorbikes, etc.). Although equipped sometimes with rudimentary machines the work calls for a great deal of nhvsical effort and give only a paltry income. One of the reasons for that situation is that since the adoption of a market economy, certain businessmen or companies have village craftsmen jobbing for them, selling their products to exporters or State companies, and pocketing the larger part of the profits.
With regard to the promulgation of traditional crafts, the responsible authorities seem to be more pre-occupied with seeking an expansion of dollar earning foreign markets than with a quick development of the domestic market; and this too in a country that has a population of over 70 million. They should launch a mass campaign in favour of national handicraft products. A brief visit to Ham Long street in Ha Noi should supply proofs of the necessity of that measure: snobs come there in droves to buy bad quality porcelain coming from some Chinese border district, shoddy goods which are far from meeting the standards of ceramics turned out by. craftsmen of Bat Trang village. Without falling into chauvinism, one should instil into the masses, especially the young, a pride in national traditions. This can happen in the context of a more broad ranging struggle to preserve our cultural identity.