The production of Zó has been a major form of employment in many areas in Vietnam since hundreds of years, and the two hamlets at Phong Khe village (Bac Ninh province), namely Duong O (or Dong Cao) and Dao Xa (or Dieu Thon) are no exception. However, the important economic development of the country has a huge impact on the situation. The products made of Zó are becoming less popular despite the fact that they used to be associated with the famous traditional Dong Ho paintings.
Zó has been produced in Vietnam since the 3rd century, but it only started to develop between 700 and 1300. Back in 1980, all of the local people at Duong O village used to make Zó paper. Nowadays, only two families are continuing this tradition. It is not always easier for the production of handicraft to keep up with the constant changes of the market trends, which presents a major challenge for them. As a result of all these factors, the production of Zó papers has been quickly replaced by industrial paper.
At the moment, the home accessory industry is confronted to difficulties regarding not only the output but also the material supply of products. Also, the shortage of Zó peels in the Northern midland and mountainous areas has led to another scarcity of material supply.
The Zó peels can only be collected from August to October of the moon calendar, as the peels will split themselves from the plants at this time. The rest of the year, on the other hand, it is quite difficult and hardly any peels can be taken, as they will stick tightly to the plants.
This art form requires a lot of efforts as the process of making a final Zó paper has to undergo 10 steps, lasting for nearly one month. With one quintal of peels, the crafts person can make 5 to 7 kg of paper; but after subtracting the labor expense, the revenue for this industry is far low to the recycling paper business. Owing to this reality, a great number of artisans have quit their jobs.
After collecting peels, the workers will start removing the black layer, leaving the white layer torn and submerged in lime water for 1 or 2 days. Then, the peels are picked up, bound in sheaves and soaked in calcium hydroxide water again. The next step is to cook Zó by using charcoals (usually 50kg of Zó will use around 20kg of coals for cooking), the time charcoals turning into ash is also the time that Zó cooking is finished. One day later, these papers will be submerged in cold water again to remove all lime substances from the papers. It’s a must that all lime ingredients have to be removed before the materials are washed and soaked for another 15-20 day period. Then artisans will take those papers to pound continuously in 3 – 5 hours, filter the mixture to get the pure water, and wash the remaining mixture again.
The workman is trampling upon mò peels for its starch revealing. This starch will prevent sheets of paper from sticking into each other, as well as preserve the original color ink written on .
Zó flour will be mixed into a barrel that has been added mo starch in advance. The craftsmen call this mixture “huyền phù”, a substance that will be made in liquid or solid form subjecting to paper genres. The next step, also called “seo”, is a section specifically conducted by girls at Duong O and Dao Xa hamlets. A sickle with bamboo blind or thick copper will be used to stir up the mixture, starting by placing the flour on the mould, shaking the mould until the sheets get thick enough, and finally taking back the mould to its place and arrange each sheet of paper onto their positions.
“Seo” is an essential part of this industry as it shows skillful hands of girls from Duong O village and determines the final quality.
When the sheets of papers are arranged thickly, the artisans would use a sponge to press out as much water as possible, then dry and separately each sheet before binding them for sales.
Ms. Nguyen Thi Do, a local resident of Cham Khe hamlet, Phong Khe commune, has made Zó papers for more than 20 years. Her main duty is to “seo” the papers, depending on the paper size, she can make 500-1000 papers per day, on average.
The paper makers can sale each sheet for about 5,000 VND to the Institute of Hán Nôm Studies or directly to The Masters who do their writings at The Temple of Literary.
Mr. Ngo Duc Dieu (76 years old), is the oldest artisan that make Zó papers in Duong O hamlet.
For product creativity, he has continuously invented new ways to bind Zó books and deliver the papers to souvenir stores on Van Mieu or To Tich streets. For a book of 20 to 40 pages, he can earn from 20,000 to 40,000 VND.
All tracery papers are designed with flower endless patterns at manufacturing stages in order to create the most unique products that are only found at this place.
At the age of 75 years old, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Nham is still separating each sheet of dried Zó papers for her husband to saddle stitching. However, none of their five children wants to continue the family tradition.
According to Mr. Dieu, Zó papers can be used for up to 500 – 700 years if they are made traditionally. However, the home accessory products have been made with industrial methods due to the downward trend of the amount of peels. A majority of Zó pure peels has been replaced with mulberry materials with lower quality; and the physical works like peel pounding, pushing barrels now have been taken over by motor machines.
Using a motor could have a very negative impact on the fiber, making it torn away and short lasting. It has been known that the the Zó papers produced like this would only last 60 to 70 years.
Mr. Pham Van Tam and Mrs. Nguyen Thi Huong are the most famous family producing Zó in Duong O. Nowadays, their store has more than 20 various samples : the papers for painting, for example range from 20 x 30 cm to 79 x 109 cm.
In Mr. Tam’s house, nearly every surfaces are used to dry the paper !
Unfortunately, Phong Khe has turned it into an industrial paper production place. The Zó industry, as a result, has slowly but surely been forgotten by most local people at Dong Cao village. Now the famous brands like Dong Ho and Hang Trong handmade paintings have replace the production of Zó, even at its birthplace Dong Cao.
At Phong Khe, Zó papers somehow have made a great contribution to the development of Dong Ho handicraft village, including their decoration, colors, flower traceries and the spirit of Song Ho artists (Thuan Thanh, Bac Ninh).