Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Noble Craft

Vietnam Air's inflight magazine, Heritage, had an article on the Vietnamese style of embroidery. Reading it on the plane from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue made me want to revisit the XQ Hand Embroidery Workshop in Hue, one of several around the country. After sending the husband off to work on demos for the class he now starts teaching tomorrow rather than Monday, I headed for the workshop. According to the magazine article, embroidery was viewed as a "noble craft" in the Confucian world. It was seen as reinforcing the "Four Feminine Virtues" of arrangement skills, beauty, polite speaking manners, and dutifulness. There is evidently an old saying that "A man should devote himself to literature; and a woman should practice embroidery and sewing." Interestingly, although all the people I saw doing embroidery today were women, the current master embroiderer, based in Hanoi, is a man.

Where to begin? No one was working on this design, though two women were working on many of the others I saw being stitched.
These women are used to being watched and to being photographed. As you prepare to shoot, trying to be quiet and unobtrusive about it, their hands magically stop moving at the precise moment you are ready to click the shutter.
The detail in the works is amazing. Some pieces are three-dimensional. Others are, I kid you not, two-sided or reversible. These are actually quite hard to photograph since transparency means you get another image behind the embroidery and reflection means you might also get a third image that is in front of the embroidery.
The thread that they use is, as you could see in the detailed shot above, incredibly thin, and they specially dye the colors they need.
Here are just a few more shots of works I couldn't resist.

As I walked around after visiting the embroidery workshop, I was again struck by how much has changed and how much has not. The electrical wiring, for example, still boggles the mind. The amount of construction in the past three years also boggles the mind. The sons may not recognize that this is what is now across the street from the hotel at which we stayed then. And turning to the left from where I took that photo, this is a sidewalk that used to be quite treacherous, as well as home to a street barber. The trick to crossing the streets remains not to show fear, though it doesn't work for everyone.
You know how they say to do one thing every day that scares you? Mine today was riding bitch on the back of a scooter through the traffic in which one should not show fear. The husband was scheduled to present t-shirts to all the students in the Advanced Physics Program, and he asked me to go with him. He said a car would be coming, so I donned my rucksack with camera inside and waited with him outside the hotel. Instead of a car, two scooters showed up. The husband rode with the young man who will be his teaching assistant and I rode with the young woman who is directing the program right now. All I could think about as we darted in and out of bicycles and other scooters, up one street, down another, and around this or that curve was that given the amount of grief I took over last trip's dog bite, all I needed on this trip was to get hurt in a scooter accident (interestingly, I've not seen a scooter accident here). We arrived safely, and the t-shirts were presented. Readers interested in gender equity in academic disciplines might be interested to know that the class the husband will be teaching, the current first-year students in the Advanced Physics Program, includes 17 women and a lone man. Some of the students seemed quite surprised to learn that in the States it would not be unusual for that gender distribution to be reversed.

So, the husband starts teaching tomorrow, and if the sun is out I may head to Bao Quoc monastery, a place I remember quite fondly from three years ago. I may also look into how to get to the arena in which the emperor used to pit tigers against elephants. I'm not sure if that's close enough to walk or if a bicycle rental might be in order. Whatever I do, I expect there will be some surprises and some things that turn out just as I expected.


Debi said...

That embroidery. Wow. Just wow.

I hope you enjoy tomorrow's adventures as well! Can't wait to read about them! :D

ksingel said...

Ditto on the hand work....especially the transparency. Stunning!!