Bronze casting requires skill and sophistication to create perfect products (Photo: VNA/VNS)
“The bronze casting craft has existed for very long time in my home village. It is a prestigious craft”.
“You need to be patient to be able to create a bronze casting product. If you are in a hurry, you can’t be successful”.
“The more I do this craft, the more passionate I become. It is not only a craft handed down by my predecessors but it has historical and cultural significance”.
Local legend has it that two men of the Vu family introduced bronze casting to Tra Dong village in the 17th century. Other elders argue that the founder of the bronze casting craft is Buddhist monk Khong Minh Khong (1065-1141), who is worshipped in the village’s communal house.
According to historical books, nearly 900 years ago, in Yen Khanh (now Ninh Binh Province), there was a boy who followed Zen Master Giac Khong to become a monk at a very young age. With profound knowledge, he traveled to many regions to teach others. When visiting Tra Dong, he taught the villagers how to make moulds for casting bronze. The craft has existed in the village for centuries. During the reign of King Tu Duc (1848-1883), the villagers built a temple to worship him in and his contribution.
Tra Dong bronze casting village is well-known for many creations such as bronze drums, fine arts, special products for ceremonies and worshipping like incense burners, candle holders as well as decorative objects shaped like holy animals.
In the late 1980s, the bronze casting declined as its handmade bronze products failed to compete with cheaper products made from aluminum and stainless steel. Many local artisans turned to other jobs to earn their living. In recent years, the restoration of many traditional craft villages as well as local artisans’ desire to revive traditional handicrafts has gradually resumed Tra Dong bronze casting. Notably, local artisans still successfully keep the characteristics of the local bronze products.
At present, Tra Dong village has 25 bronze-casting establishments. In 2018, the craft generated 44 percent of local people’s income and created hundreds of jobs. 4 local artisans, including Le Van Bay, Nguyen Ba Chau, Le Van Duong, and Dang Ich Hoan were recognized as Emeritus Artisans by State President for their contributions in reviving the traditional craft.
Bronze casting requires skill and sophistication. It consists of a number of processes, each of which directly affect the product quality. Emeritus artisan Le Van Duong said it takes time and a number of processes to create a bronze product: “First, you have to make the kiln and moulds, design patterns, set fire, melt the bronze, pour into the mould and then cool down the products. It’s time-consuming”.
The bronze casting techniques are generally handed down through family generations. In the skillful hands of the artisan, many products like bronze statues, worshipping items and art work are produced. Local artisans of Tra Dong can remake traditional Dong Son drums with traditional patterns.
Bronze casting does not follow a fixed procedure and combines traditional methods. The bronze products made in the village are made by hand. According to young artisan Le Van Dao, the moulding process is very important because it determines the success of the product. The mould needs to be fired before the casting process. Adjusting the temperatures is the most difficult and requires skill and experience so that the mould will not crack or scratch. Dao said: “The casting has to go through many stages, like choosing clay for the kiln. The clay must be dried under the sun, then soaked in the water and mixed with husks for several days. It is then ready to make the mould”.
Emeritus artisan Le Van Duong said at present, bronze casting is supported by machines but making moulds, melting bronze, and cooling still need skills and experience. Bronze casting still follows the traditional techniques handed down from predecessors. Mr. Duong said: “Apart from skills and techniques, a person must be really dedicated and patient in order to preserve the bronze casting craft”.
Tra Dong bronze casting village set a record when it made Vietnam’s biggest bronze drum. In 2000, artisan Le Van Bay successfully made a version of Ngoc Lu bronze drum. He then cast Vietnam’s biggest drum with a diameter of 1.51 meters and the height of 1.21 meters in 2007 which was officially recognized in the Vietnam Guinness Book of Records.
Artisan Nguyễn Bá Châu with statues of the legendary Âu Cơ Mother which were given as gifts to heads of states during the APEC Summit in Đà Nẵng in November 2017. (Photo: baodansinh.vn)
In 2012, artisan Nguyen Ba Chau managed to cast a double-headed bronze drum which was considered a breakthrough in drum making technique. “This is the first double-headed bronze drum ever made in Vietnam. I want to prove that we can do anything with bronze material,” said Chau.
With traditional techniques passed down from previous generations, Tra Dong bronze casting craft continues to thrive.