Layers of Meaning in Đám Cưới Chuột (Rat’s Wedding) Paintings

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Đông Hồ, a craft village in Bac Ninh province, has been famous for its folk woodcut paintings since the 11th century. The paintings provide a reflection of contemporary social issues and convey farmers’ desires of a better life. One of the most special features of the Dong Ho paintings is that they are totally made by natural elements with điệp paper (powders of seashells and glutinous rice), and colours refined from various kinds of natural materials.

Đông Hồ painting’s signature features: 

Each painting of Dong Ho has four basic colors such as black, red, green, and yellow. To make a painting, craftsmen have to press woodblocks with different colors on a sheet of paper. Then, the painting is covered with a layer of rice paste to strengthen its durability and dried under the sun afterwards.

Photo by Minh Nguyen
Photo by Minh Nguyen
The woodblocks are carefully carved by hand and handed down from generation to generation. (Photo by Minh Nguyen)

 

In this post, I will introduce you one of the most famous paintings of Dong Ho – “Đám Cưới Chuột (Rats’ Wedding) which dates back 500 years ago. It is a painting that carries both humour and sarcasm.

Analysis of “Dam Cuoi Chuotpaintings:

The humorous factor lies in the story featured in the painting: a rat can get married to another rat. The artist’s message is actually beyond the story of rats’ wedding. Many layers of meaning are hidden in the painting.

The first layer of meaning is that it depicts wide class gap in the contemporary society where the ruling class had supreme power to control the lives of the lower class. In the painting, big cat represents ruling class, while small rats represent farmers – a very low class in the society. For a long time, farmers were destined to live under the control of ruling class and could not find ways to change it. Besides, the painting depicts the fright of lower-class people confronting the power of ruling class. The rats accompanying the couple are scared to death. The leader, who is supposed to be the most confident, walks towards the cat with curved body and folded tail (that’s why its tail cannot be seen in the painting); meanwhile, some of the other rats are looking behind cautiously. Note that: the craftsmen who created the painting did not dare to express their indignation but to borrow a story of animals in a painting.

The second layer of meaning is that corruption issue in the old society was very common. The couple in the painting has to bring a bird and a fish to the cat in exchange for silence. Moreover, the groom is riding on a horse and the bride is sitting in a palanquin, which shows that the couple has a high social status. Considering their corrupting behaviour, some people doubt that their social status may be bought by money. In the old society, money could buy anything. Stupid people could get higher positions if they had money; on the contrary, poor people remained to stay lower class for their entire lives in spite of their talents.

The third layer of meaning is that the rats are conducting the mission of sending gifts of a Vietnamese king to a Chinese emperor for allegiance. The image of the first two rats carrying the cat’s favourite food – a bird and a fish – shows the relationship between Vietnam and China at the old time when a Vietnamese king had to regularly send gifts to a Chinese emperor to express his loyalty and support. That’s the reason why many generations of Vietnamese rulers called themselves kings, while Chinese rulers emperors.

In conclusion, behind seemingly simple depiction of the wedding of the rats are there many layers of meaning. In general, “Dam cuoi Chuot” is a skilful painting which depicts social issues in the past and expresses the farmers’ discontent at the oppressed society. The painting will always play an important position in traditional Vietnamese art.

Writer: Minh Nguyen


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