Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Mystery of the Painted Scrolls

I had a full six months to do my shopping in Hanoi, but human nature being what it is, I left it to the last minute. Here is another reason why my last week in Hanoi was intense. I spent a few manic afternoons running around stores picking up things like eggshell laquer trays, rosewood chopstick sets, Hmong bookmarks and a pair of stuffed water buffaloes for my niece and nephew.

I also happened upon these two paintings (click on the thumbnails for larger images). I guarded them jealously during my flight home and somehow they survived all the way to Toronto without being crushed by luggage. Now they are framed and waiting to be hung on my walls.

The problem is, I don't know what they are.

I want to try an experiment. There is so much talk these days about the role of virtual communities in the creation and sharing of knowledge. I'm not sure who out there reads my blog, but I'm hoping I can harness some of that collective brain power to help interpret these images.

Painting # 1 (above): My friend Dat didn't know what it was, but he has a theory: these are not six different mandarins, but one. He thinks the painting depicts the adventures of this character as he rides around on sacred animals (a dragon, tiger, phoenix, white horse). He carries with him a wooden card inscribed with his name and rank. At the bottom we have what appears to be an official of some sort, and at the top we have a divine hand. Dat thought the hand belongs to a female divinity because of the fingers and the style of robe. Or is it the Jade Emperor? It's not clear which direction Mr. Mandarin is going.

Painting #2 (right): I wondered whether this is a Dvarapala, one of the guardians of a pagoda. The sword and the stern expression seem to suggest that he might have some role in frightening off evil spirits. These figures are usually in pairs, with one on either side of the entrance to a pagoda. The platform on which he is seated is offset so maybe there was originally another figure on the other side to provide symmetry. My friend Hung suggests instead that this is also a mandarin. Apparently the gate above his head reads "Heavenly Man".

The woman I bought them from couldn't help me. She would only tell me that they were painted by Red Dao people in the Far North of Vietnam. I am not convinced of that. I am unsure of the age of the paintings, but the paper was worn and ragged.

Anyway, those are my best guesses. I may be wildly off. I claim no expertise in these things, but would love to hear other ideas. Please make liberal use of the Comments button below.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am afraid the artist was taking too much liberty in his use of mandarin ideograms.

I am vietnamese. I am not an expert in mandarin ("Han Tu") or the vietnamese adaption of mandarin ("Chu Nom".)

However, I had a reasonably thourough education in the old language ("Chu Nho".)

Perhaps the artist is inventing his own word-riddle or anagram-like riddle.

For example, regarding the column of characters on the right hand side of the scroll:

a) the 10th and the 11th characters pronounced "tu? vi". The pronunciation sounds like it is referring to the chinese divination technique of "tu? bi`nh". However the 10th character "tu?" is written as "man" or "fellow" whereas it should be written as "red"

b) even if all the characters were written correctly, they are only coherent in pairs (not more than two characters at a time.) For example the fifth and the sixth characters pronounced "mo^n ha." meaning "underlings" or "disciples".
But in the context of the phrase that is laid down by the top characters, (assuming the artist is trying to form a phrase here,) "disciples" breaks the phrase completely.

Did the vendor said anything about this scroll being a burial script seals of one kind or another ?

I have seen seals on burial crypts which appear to be complete rubbish, but if one works the "anagram" (for lack of a better term) in pairs (top down, right to left) one might make out whether the seal amounts to curses (against grave thieves) or the seal was meant to be a divination or prediction.

I will pass this along. Hopefully, someone may be able to shed some light on this. For now, I just can't see the connection between the chinese scripts and the illustration.

9:49 AM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

Thanks so much for your ideas! I'll be interested to know if you can dig something up. The vendor didn't say anything about them being burial seals, but then again I'm not sure if that spooky bit of info would help her sales. I hope that's not the case, esp. if they contain curses. I am in the process of hanging them on my walls. Actually I probably should not have called them scrolls. Painting #1 had a string at the top for hanging so it probably wasn't rolled up (except during my flight).

9:59 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the fellow who put in first comment. It was silly of me. You did not say anything about the painting being absolutely Vietnamese.

I was mentally stuck on figuring it as a Vietnamese icon. It is Chinese Taoism.

Once I realized that the painting is chinese, it is easier to recognize that it a depiction of Taoist highest (of 36) heavens (just Google for the key words Daluo heaven or Dalua Jinxian)

The three characters are read from right to left
1) right-most char. = Dai (or Da in mandarin)
2) middle char. is pronounced Lua.

12:20 PM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

I also assumed they were Vietnamese. I bought them in Hanoi. I was told they came from the Far North of VN, so maybe they came over the border from Yunnan Province. Can I clarify which painting you are talking about? You mean #2, ie. the one with the single seated figure? Any ideas about the other one?

12:47 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was referring to IMG_3027.0.jpg

the one with one single mandarin in the center
and 3 chinese ideograms on top.

1:43 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will be scanning through my old East Asia phylo/religion/anthro textbooks when I get home tonights to see where these scripts come from.

I would'nt be surprised if they come from Tao-Tse-Ching Taoist canons

1:49 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


The first painting is really hard to decipher. At least it is so for someone devoid of any understanding of Taoism.

I am passing it along to a former colleague who is currently residing in Hong Kong.

The basic Taoist elements are there. The exact parable is hard to pin down.

We see the four archetypical Taoist creatures. But are they representing the constellations ? (colors and orientations are off) or the elements (missing the turtle.)

And I bet you, these folks are particular about what color goes with what creature.

The mandarin in the red garb to the lower left might be the constellation celestial master Li-Tai-Po. But what on earth is he doing with the fellows riding the creatures. So far I have only seen Zhang Daling depicted as riding the white tiger, never any other dieties riding phoenixes or dragons.

You mentioned Red Dao people, if this term refers to the "Bai Yi", also known as "He-Yi" or Zhao ethnic group in Yunnan, then the we might have to explore their mythology too.

As far back the days when the "Bai Di" had their own kingdom of "Dai Li", which situated just above North Vietnam, they had already incorporated Taoist lexicons into their own animist traditions.

If time permits... hop over to and knock yourself out.

Boy... and I thought Catholic Catechism in Jesuit boarding school was complicated....

7:33 AM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

Hi Anonymous,
I can't thank you enough for your insight! Fascinating. I had no idea they might be Chinese. Now the issue of their provenance becomes even more mysterious. Apparently I have some serious reading to do on Taoist mythology.

1:05 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

The vendor knew what she was talking about. The Vietnameses appellation "Red Dao" translates into Yao Mien (a chinese ethnic group)

The first painting pertains not to plain vanilla Taoism but Yao Taoist.

for example look at this Yao Mien artifact at

It jives with the top left corner of your first painting, doesn't it

Look at this painting of "Hoi Fan Tong" the diety riding on a blue dragon and the caption from

"800 years ago the Yao Hill tribe lived in the mountains near Shanghai but, as the Chinese dynastys needed more territory the Yao have been gradually pushed westward to Laos, Viet Nam, Burma and the remote hill regions of Thailand. Each time they felt crowded, the Yao people packed up their homes, their customs and their gods and moved to ever more isolated areas. So while the Taoist religion in the rest of China was influenced by outside forces, the Yao people managed to keep their 12th century Taoism relatively intact. Central to the Yao religion are sets of ceremonial paintings that are considered to be the actual abode of the Immortal, Gods or Guardian figures that are represented. A complete set of 28 paintings contains the entire Yao pantheon and is essential for presiding over all rituals. The paintings are stone or vegetable colors on mulberry or bambo paper."

By the way, it really sucks when you google for Tao and Yao. The hits from The Tao of Yao Ming are annoying

1:54 PM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

Wow. Great lead.

Given that the Yao Mien ended up in Northern VN, I guess it is still possible that these painting did in fact come from the Red Dao hill tribes in Vietnam rather than from across the Chinese border.

I found more info on the following site:

"...when the paintings are considered too old, usually after about 100 years, the gods are politely invited to leave and they can be sold." So it seems I ended up with some of the cast-offs.

Also check this out:

This painting has some similarities. And the caption says:

"Liaison Officers of The Governers of this World and the Waters"

"According to Jacques Lemoine's detailed book on Yao Paintings, the Yao divide the supernatural agencies into four departments -- the Sky and the Underground and This World and The Waters. The liaison officer of the Governor of This World rides "a white horse which flies in the clouds", carrying reports between the sacred tribune of the Yao priest and the Governor's office. The liaison officer has a sword in each hand. The liaison officer of the Governor of the Waters rides a dragon; the priest's message is clearly seen in his right hand."

So it seems the first painting could be of these officers, shuttling between the Yao Priest (bottom?) and the Governor of This World (top?). Ths would explain the fact that they seem to be going in different directions. Also they are not carrying mandarin name cards, but messages between the priest and governor. Whaddya think?

2:24 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


While I am waiting for words from my mandarin speaking friend. I am just wondering if you can discern what kind of paper the paintings were produced with.

Browing through ethnic-art newgroups, I am hearing that older Yao Mien ceremonial illustrations which are made from indigenous bamboo papers, and colored with mulberry dyes are more sought after/appreciated than those rendered on contemporary wood-pulp/manufactured papers, and modern inorganic pigments.

I am guessing that painting #2 (Daluo Jinxian figure) is authored by a different artist and probably older, any tidbit from the vendor ?

4:32 PM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

They are definitely different artists. I don't really know how to tell what kind of paper they are on. Painting #1 is on a off white paper specked with little fibres. Painting #2 is on a kind of brown paper about the same colour as a paper bag, but with no obvious fibres in it. As for the paints they are pretty bright colours in both cases. I don't know if organic mulberry paints can produce those sorts of colours.

5:02 PM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

If you check out the sword handle in painting #2 you can see the colour of the brown unpainted paper.

5:04 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, gotten myself caught up in this discussion I forgot to tell you that I very much enjoy your journal.

I hope you would continue to keep this online diary active. (Your writings resonate sincerity aplenty to my mind that I think of them as your diary.)

Even if you (eventually I guess) stop writing about Vietnam or about travels, the thoughts and sentiments expressed on this blog would continue to liven up my day.

Believe it or not, I have an automated script scheduled to run everyday scanning this blog for signs of new entry.

I really hope that you do not get miffed by my reticense. I do envy you and others for the good fortune of being part of a community that let you be who you are.

I can only wish in vain that my kinsfolk would one day realize the true value and meaning of honesty.

Dont' get caught up into the phony spiritualities of my world, they are just make-believe. The world of vietnameses is very unforgiving, in Vietnam or elsewhere.

7:33 PM

Blogger T said...

For the first picture, it can also be the depiction of Táo Quân. Vietnamese myth had it that Táo Quân lives in the kitchen of every households and returns to the Heaven seven days before Tết New Year to report to Ngọc Hoàng (Jade Emperor). And yes, this myth has a very close link to Taoism.

9:22 AM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

Thanks so much for your comments Anon. It's gratifying to know that my blog speaks to people. I guess it is a sort of diary, except I find that the fact that I know it's public means I write differently than if I were writing a private diary. The blog is an interesting genre (seems to have elements of diary, serial, journalism and the letter). I have tried to write about personal things only when I thought they would have some significance to others. It forces me to be more formal in my writing but probably also more reflective. I'm very curious as to who you are. If you feel like writing, email me at


7:13 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark, the world is indeed getting smaller...

My chinese friend in HongKong pleaded ignorance on the subject. However he yielded us a surprising referral:

It seems that one of your "neighbor" may prove to be an authority on the subject of Yao anthropology.

Check out his writings at

under the title/heading
"The Role of Daoism in Yao/State Contacts"

perhaps we can solicit the author's insight on the paintings...

3:21 PM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

Thanks for the tip Anon. I left a message on Wulingren's blog asking for his insight. We'll see. I also asked a Mandarin speaking friend to look at them but he couldn't make head nor tails of the characters on Painting #1.

8:31 PM

Blogger Wulingren said...

Hi Mark,

I saw your comment on my site, from very early in its history, about June of last year. Good thing it was emailed to me. I will have to think about it, but they are most likely Daoist ceremonial paintings used by Landian or Mun Yao. I am more familiar with the Iu Mien paintings discussed in Lemoine's, Yao Ceremonial Paintings. I would also check out Jess Pourret's Mien and Mun Yao. You could also try to find Michel Strickmann's article, "The Tao Among the Yao: Taoism and the Sinification of South China," which is not easy to find, but is what got me started. Finally, check out the bibliography on everything Yao from one of my professors, Barend ter Haar of Leiden University:

So far, I can't make out the writing; I'll have to get a closer look. However, based on what I've seen of other Yao writing, it probably does make sense, though it might be influenced by a Yao dialect. I have also seen Yao texts substitute one character for another. Nonetheless, difficulty reading Yao documents influenced decisions I made as I was working on my dissertation. Daoist texts are never easy to read; Yao Daoist texts are even harder.

Generally, the paintings are hung in one's home around the family altar, turning the home into a temple.

The Daluotian comment was correct.

Well, congratulations on your discovery. I'll see what more I can make out.

6:19 AM

Blogger Wulingren said...

Oh, I have been moving away from Yao studies, and academia in general, since I finished my degree in August. However, now that I am living in Taipei (probably for awhile), I do want to visit Yao areas in Vietnam.

6:26 AM

Blogger Wulingren said...

One more thing: I haven't been able to enlarge the writing on the first painting, though it would probably be hard to read without the right dictionaries and spending a lot of time with it. However, I did notice reference to the 3 primals (sanyuan)--that is, the upper, middle, and lower primals--which are prominent in the form of Daoism practiced by Yao and many other groups, from Hunan westward to Sichuan and southward through Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan, to Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Some people refer to this brand of Chinese religion as Meishan, or Plum Mountain Daoism, because of the Meishan that is mentioned in certain rituals in South China, and among Yao living in Southeast Asia.

You might find similar examples of this first painting in Jess Pourret's book, which you probably could have bought inexpensively in Hanoi. I bought it in Chiang Mai, where he has been living for over 15 years, and I have seen it for sale in Taipei. His book is great because of the pictures

11:42 PM

Blogger Wulingren said...

I've been looking at the first painting a little more, and can make out mostly the writing on the right side. The painting seems to be a representation of what takes place on a heavenly level during an ordination ritual, and is probably hung during the ritual. In the bottom you see the teacher, in this case, surnamed Li, and the student, with tablet. Much Daoist ritual is modelled on ancient imperial rituals, and the relation between priest and deity is likened to that of official and emperor. On the right side, it says, "receive the disciples of the sanyuan (translated as 3 primals, 3 origins, 3 principles--the upper primal/heaven, the middle primal/earth, and the lower primal/water). At first I thought the painting should be a representation of the sanyuan, but there are four flying figures. Could they be "disciples of the sanyuan," with tablets in hand, flying up to the heavens, to be received in the courts of the sanyuan, or another deity, such as the Jade Emperor, etc.? The four animals could be the four directional animals, such as have been common in Chinese religion since the Han Dynasty, and before (See for instance,
Just some thoughts. Again, this is likely not a Mien Yao painting, such as Lemoine thouroughly discussed in his "Yao Ceremonial Paintings," but Mun or Landian Yao. The ideal would be to spend time in villages in North Vietnam, and ask and observe how it is used in rituals, and if it is part of a larger set, which it most certainly is. Again again, Jess Pourret might have more on this, but unfortunately, I don't have access to his book now.

6:51 AM

Blogger goodydaze said...

Mark, I am Chinese and was trying to decipher the words for you, unfortunately the fonts were a tad too small and besides some of the words are characters I am not familiar with.

It also features Chinese characters called "Fan Ti" which is not commonly used now as opposed to the current "Jian Bi".

7:51 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


when in hanoi did you ever discover the shop called "54 tradiitions"? it is near the water tower. the web site is here:

the owners, mark and nhung, are very knowledgeable about works of the 54 ethnic groups in VN. i would email them to see if they can shed any additional light on your scrolls.

good luck.

9:50 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If anyone is in California and is interested in seeing Yao Ceremonial Paintings in a ceremonial rituals, let me know. The Yao/Mienh in the US are going through a religious revitalization process these past few years. They are beginning to use the paintings to perform some of the most complex rituals now. I can be reached at

12:38 AM

Blogger yaoteam said...

This painting despict the 4 messengers of the 4 worlds:Sky;Underground ;This world ;Waters.
This painting is in the moun lantien tradition.In tne Yao Mien tradition is separate in two paintings with two messengers each.The messengers carry the request of humans to the gods.They are called also Kong Dzo ou Congdao.
they are mounting respetively a crane ,a tiger,a horse and a dragon

7:32 AM

Anonymous Thai Radio said...

Those paintings are really nice!

3:33 AM

Anonymous t_saephan said...

yes, these paintings are from the red dao(vietnamese mien). these pictures r very different from ours(im lao mien).instead of four messengers on one picture, we have two on one picture.Governer of Heaven and underworld(teen fow dei fow)who rides the bird and horse.Governer of earth and the waters(sui fow hou fow)which rides the dragon and tiger.

5:42 AM

Anonymous t_saephan said...

the words to the left are the 28 constellations in Taoism. The handwriting is kind of sloppy so i cant really make out the words.

9:57 PM


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