Nostalgia for village gates

Saturday, 2019-02-09 16:41:20
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The gate of Yen Coc village on the outskirts of Hanoi
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NDO - Whenever I return to my home village, I always stop at the village gate. Looking at the road leading to the district centre, I remember my father’s words that in the past when the doors of the gate were still there, water buffaloes were herded to the field through the two small side doors. The middle door only opened at the time of the village festival or reception for special guests.

Every village used to have two gates, on the two ends of it. The back gate was for the people to go through when there were funerals or fleeing enemy’s raids. It was when the gong was sounded. The front gate was firmly shut.

When my grandfather taught me to play the zither, he told me that the sound must resound as far as the village gate to be considered beautiful. One time he painted two doors like the two eyes on a human face. He told me that they are the eyes of the homeland. Whenever one who is away from their homeland sees a village gate, they will think of the eyes of their own village where their relatives are waiting for them.

Once I went astray onto a road along the Nhue River. On the desolate dyke only the rustle of bamboo leaves and bird songs could be heard. All of a sudden, a small eye appeared, a small round door on the top of the gate. The eye of the homeland, like how my grandfather had said. I stopped, looking towards the gate in excitement, pricking my ears to hear if anyone was there. The winds from the river rose up, sweeping through the village road. I looked back at the gate, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

On another occasion, I had an opportunity to follow a procession on the outskirts of Hanoi when a sedan chair was rotating as if it was enchanted by some spirit. The young men who were carrying the sedan chair plunged themselves into a nearby field while I was thrown onto a tuft of grass. A large banyan tree appeared before my eyes. Its roots and branches latched onto the village gate firmly.

Carrying the rotating sedan chair through the village gate was not easy. In an instant, I came across two eyes looking attentively through the village gate. The sound of my grandfather’s zither rang in my head. The banyan roots which gripped the village gate must have been hundreds of years old. I was startled. Only when the sedan chair bearers uttered their prayer while calling out to the spirit did the spirit allow the procession to go through the road into the village.

The gate of Trinh Tiet (Virgin) village near the Perfume Temple in southern Hanoi was elegant and slender like the physique of a woman in the land of rivers and canals. Meanwhile the gate of Chanh Thon village, which is famous for its a dao singers, features meandering roads.

We can enumerate several ancient village gates that are still preserved until today such as Yen Thai, Duong Lam, Dong Ngac, Lai Xa, Ninh Hiep and Sui in Hanoi; Tho Ha, Diem or Giau in Bac Ninh province; Nom in Hung Yen province and Ke Ry and Thieu Trung in Thanh Hoa province. Each ancient village gate opens up a different cultural space of each region. Each village has their own festival, market, relics and traditional crafts.

Ten years ago Microsoft chairman Bill Gates attended a ceremony to kick off a project to provide cheap computers for Vietnamese people at the gate of Tam Son village in Bac Ninh province. He was amazed by this ancient village gate, behind which is a different world. The village was home to 17 scholars who scored excellent performance in imperial examinations in the past. That is why there is a folk saying that Tam Son is the source of talented people.

For the Sui village in Hanoi, three Chinese characters meaning Village of Loyalty and Righteousness from the Le Dynasty can still be seen today. Sui is considered the home village of Lady Y Lan, a prominent figure in the Ly Dynasty with a major role in the victory against an aggressive war of the Song Dynasty.

Perhaps the Giau village in Bac Ninh province is the most exceptional as its four gates are still conserved, with the front and back gates connected with each other by a marble-paved road.

In fact, the number of ancient village gates still in existence is nothing compared with tens of thousands of villages awarded the title of “Cultural Village”. About ten years ago, an exhibition was held at the Ha Dong Cultural Centre in Hanoi to display 84 photos of surviving ancient village gates in the Red River Delta. So it can be said that most of today’s villages do not have their “eyes”. In many so-called “cultural villages”, a small welcoming gate was put up just for the sake of it. In other places, old village gates are not repaired and left to the ravages of time.

Late Professor Tu Chi said that village gates played an important part in the daily and spiritual lives of villagers. Every village has its own history and hundreds-of-years-old relics. And the village gate must represent such a treasure trove of culture and history. Each village gate must represent the essence of a region, especially if it is considered a sacred land with talented people. The gate is the eye of the village. It is also a warm greeting as if it is about to tell a fairy tale created by the villagers.

The villages with beautiful gates are always charming with their banyan trees, the wharf and communal temple courtyard. And I am still dreaming of such village gates, beautiful in their own right, with antiquity in the dreams of thousands of years past.