There was a time when Dong Ho paintings were used mostly for religious worship or decoration in memorable occasions. For quite a long time now, Dong Ho village has been famous for its folk works of arts that are printed on Zó papers from Duong O. However, the customers have now lost their interest in these drawings, leading to the disappearance of handmade papers in Duong O, Bac Ninh.


The handmade paper appeared in Vietnam in the 3rd century, and started to develop in the 8th and 9th centuries.  Duong O hamlet (located in Phong Khe, Yen Phong, Bac Ninh province) has been recognized as one of the most premier paper producer. For the sake of creating a thin, long lasting sheet of paper, the workers here have to put a lot of effort with as much attention to detail as possible.

Firstly, Zó fresh peels are soaked in cold water for one or two days, then soaked again in diluted lime water for 3 to 5 hours, and finally boilt in a bain-marie for 15 – 20 hours before being transferred to other stages. After having removed all diluted substances, the starch will be washed again and mixed in the barrel with mo plant starch inside. The workers then put the sickle into that mixture, gently wiggle it side-to-side until the pulp on top of the screen looks even and wait until most of the water has drained from the new paper sheet. When the mold stops dripping, gently place one edge on the side of a fabric square with the paper directly on the fabric. Repeating the steps above, the artisans would use a sponge to press out as much water as possible, and gently separate the sheets. There are different 13 kinds of papers, with the largest size as 60 x 80 and the smallest size as 20 x 30. Dong Ho village is the main consumer of products from Duong O. From 1945 backwards, there were 250 households making this handmade commodities, however, with the current development of modern society, the mass-production of traditional papers has been transferred to recycled ones. 

In the modern age, as industrial paper production boomed, the art of hand paper-making has been driven nearly to extinction – being practiced only by a few fine artists and crafts people. At present, the industrial paper business has drawn approximately 2,000 to 3,000 blue collar employees from a variety of geographical backgrounds, stated by Mr. Pham Duy Luong, an artist from Duong O. Furthermore, a vast majority of manual laborers also earn their livings through printing calendars, making tissues, joss papers, packing sheets and toilet papers, leaving a few families preserving their handmade industries, including the family of Mr. Luu. However, the product output of Mr. Luu’s household is dependent on demands from Dong Ho village, Han Nom Institute of Studies, Institute of Archaeology and foreign visitors. The home accessory industry, at the present, has to confront with difficulties relating to not only the output but also the material supply of products, due to the shortage of Zo peels in the Northern midland and mountainous areas. Furthermore, only from August to October of moon calendar are the Zó peels collected, as the peels will split themselves from plants in this time; the rest of the year, on the other hand, is quite difficult and hardly any peels can be taken, as they will stick tightly to the plants. It usually takes 03 million to purchase 01 quintal of peels that create from 5 – 7 kg of paper; after subtracting labor expense, the revenue for this industry is far low to the recycling paper business. Owing to this reality, a great number of artisans quit their jobs with just a few number of committed craftsmen nowadays. Mr Luu, even though having been over the hills, is still diligent in creating new products with different models and better good looking appearance. Zó craft products have been handed down from Mr. Luu to his descendants; however, in order to well retain and further develop the tradition, it is widely believed that the government should provide financial assistance to all home accessory products, especially their turn out achievements.

With a great part of Dong Cao local people, the long history of Zó has steadily faded away. As a result, people can’t recall reputed artists in names, even the most dedicated artisans. The prosperous time of Zó, when all families in the village made handmade papers, with the voice of Zó pounding spreading all over the times, has lost in this modern age. Instead of that, the brand name of Dong Cao paper has been replaced with other industrial products, accompanied by the substantial decrease of local suppliers as well.

Through several patiently searching, we finally reached the house of Mr. Pham Van Tam in Duong O hamlet. The intensive acrid smell from paper soaking barrels has made a strong impression on us. With 5 manual committed workers, Mr. Tam reasonably divides each stage of works basing on his childhood experience with Zó industry. Although there are many subtleties which affect the quality of a paper, papermaking in essence is a simple process that starts by selecting good dried materials, shredding the material into small strips and soaking them in muddy water for 10 hours to loosen the fibres. Being undergone through numerous stages, the Zó starch now will be submerged again in additive mixture. When finished, the fibres are washed with fresh water to remove impurities and then separated into small particles before being bound for sales.

Up to now, Mr. Tam’s store has more than 20 various samples, with the largest number is art painting having most enormous size as 79 x 109 cm and small size as 20 x 30 cm. The regular number of product manufacturing at his store is around 500 with 5 million revenue; this figure is enough beneficial to their family after excluding all costs relating to workforce and material procurement. The main market of this family has majorly been focused on familiar customers in Ho Chi Minh City and some painters from Dong Ho villages, with a small proportion coming from foreign visitors who purchase Zó for souvenir and memory purpose. Therefore, the intention of extending this business has never been considered, as the main materials are collected from Tuyen Quang, where the issues of overusing natural resources and low growing new Zó plants have been brought into for long time. Realizing the unstable output and very cheap prices of Zó papers, Mr Tam and his wife has never expected to guide his offspring to this industry.  

In fact, not only the household of Mr.Tam is fallen into impasse. Mrs Nguyen Thi Xuyen, a local member at Dong Cao village that used to do the seo stages for Mr Nguyen Van Suot, had developed this handmade product for long time. However, as none of the children in her family continued their traditional livings, the product business also came to a close down. Even doing this work requires great physical efforts and affecting hands to be blood in drying seasons and eroded in summers, the final income never goes beyond 1,2 millions per month.

It is generally believed that Dong Cao Zó papers are being impoverished; however, most of the people here take it for granted. The prosperity of the current industrial paper at Phong Khe also originates from the old traditional products of our ancestors, stated by the old people. A good example of this could be illustrated at Duong O village hall that worship the Tam Giang God. On the Nhu Nguyet riverside, there’re still many traces of appointment promotion in the previous ages of Vietnam. Without enthusiastic support from competent authorities, the tradition of Dong Cao zó products could easily fall into silence, in spite of its former prosperity time.

Theo Báo Bắc Ninh


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