Nghia Do Village is located on the right bank of the To Lich River and consists of four hamlets: Tien Thuong (also known as Xom Tan), Van Long (also known as Lang Dau), Yen Phu (also known as An Phu), and Trung Nha (also known as Lang Nghe). The village specializes in the production of paper for Imperial edicts (giay nghe). Together with Yen Thai Village, Dong Xa Village, and Ho Khau Village, they form a cluster of paper-making villages. Nghia Do was formerly part of Tu Liem District, Ha Dong Province, but now it is Nghia Do Ward, Cau Giay District, Hanoi. In the past, the villagers mainly relied on weaving and paper-making as their livelihoods, while rice fields were leased to tenant farmers.

The craft of Imperial edict paper-making in Nghia Do has been celebrated in folk verses that are filled with pride:
"The fame of Nghia Do's maidens resounds,
Year-round they make paper to put the emperor at ease"
(Folk verse)

The Lai family is a prominent lineage in the paper-making profession. When Lai The Giap married Phi Diem Chau, the daughter of lord Trinh Trang (Trinh Trang 1623 - 1652), the Lai family obtained the monopoly in producing paper for the imperial court's edicts. The family genealogy of the Lai clan also indicates that they were in-laws with the ruling Trịnh clan for four to five generations, earning them the additional name of Kim Tien clan, bestowed by the emperor. The last known master craftsman in the Lai family was Mr. Lai Phu Ban, who was the 20th generation carrying on the tradition. However, he has since passed away. The final record of Mr. Ban producing edict paper was in 1944, during the 19th year of Emperor Bao Dai's reign.

During the feudal era, the Lai family produced paper based on orders from the imperial court. Edict paper was a rare variety of paper that underwent meticulous assessment by the princes and emperors. It possessed a smooth and lustrous texture akin to silk, and had high affinity for ink for writing and drawing. Some edict papers have lasted nearly 400 years, retaining their original calligraphy, colors, and patterns. In contrast, even the best quality paper available today can only last around 50 years before deteriorating, and it is vulnerable to insect damage, fading, or ink bleeding. In the past, edict paper was considered a "national treasure," and any loss or mishandling of these valuable papers was deemed a serious offense. Thus, the Lai family was not allowed to hold back any paper from different dynasties. To study the appearance of edicts from various eras, one must painstakingly visit temples, shrines, or prestigious ancestral lineages in the hope of finding some preserved specimens. There are different types of edicts, including the "nhat gam" (first-grade), "nhat cao sac" and "nhi cao sac", each with different sizes and decorative motifs.

"Nhất gấm" (first-grade) is used to make edicts for deification, including the supreme deities, intermediate deities, and other deities (exalted deities). The main side is adorned with a large flying dragon surrounded by clouds, known as "long ám". The reverse side features the four mythical creatures: dragon, qilin, turtle, and phoenix.

The paper used for courtiers’ promotion is also divided into three types: "nhất cáo sắc", "nhị cáo sắc", and "tam cáo sắc". "Nhất cáo sắc" and "nhị cáo sắc" are used for honoring officials who have made significant contributions to the country. The front side of "nhất cáo sắc" and "nhị cáo sắc" features the image of a hidden dragon within clouds, known as "long ám". On the other hand, "tam cáo sắc" depicts a visible dragon. The reverse side of "nhất cáo sắc" displays the four mythical creatures: dragon, qilin, turtle, and phoenix. "Nhị cáo sắc" depicts the turtle and phoenix, while "tam cáo sắc" shows a dragon and the character "thọ" (longevity) (some accounts mention the depiction of a wine gourd and a bag of poetry).

Additionally, there is a type of edict paper sold in the market, smaller in size, with simple decorations, and lower paper quality. It is used for writing contracts and for ceremonial purposes at temples and shrines. Every year, Nghia Dô Village produces only a few hundred sheets of high-quality colored paper specifically for serving the imperial court. The rest of the production focuses on regular paper types that are sold in the market.

According to its name, Kim Tiền - edict paper must naturally be yellow in color and represents the essence of paper dyed with natural pigments. The decorative elements must be painted with gold and silver powder. The craft of making regular paper is already intricate, but the craft of making edict paper is even more complex. To obtain a sheet of edict paper, the craftsmen must go through several complicated stages. Choosing the right raw material for making colored paper requires selecting a good, smooth, and high-quality type of paper. For conferral of first rank mandarins, five craftsmen must work together to make a single sheet. Even for lower-rank mandarins (ranging from second to ninth-rank), three craftsmen are required to make a sheet. Once the paper is made, it needs to be rolled using a rolling stick to facilitate the separation of each sheet, and two people are needed for drying each sheet. Once the paper is dry, it is soaked in boiled buffalo or cow hide (glue) called "nước keo." The glue solution must contain acidic lime, and the paper is pressed with a steel plate on both sides, each side pressed twice.

After the paper is dry, the next step is to dye it using the extract of Styphnolobium japonicum flower. The dyeing process requires two main colors: "da thị" (Diospyros decandra color) and "da đồng" (bronze color). However, to achieve the bronze color, the extract must also include a touch of "bột điệp" (grounded scallop shells). Each side is dipped into the colored water twice. Once the dyeing process is complete, the paper goes through the "nghè" stage (pounding on large, flat, and polished stone). The paper is placed on it, and two people evenly pound it with a wooden mallet. Initially, the paper is porous, and the sound of the pounding is muffled, but as the process continues, the sound becomes sharp, indicating that the paper is compacted. The resulting paper is smooth and sturdy.

Next, a wooden block engraved with patterns is used to print decorative borders and characters. The men specialize in drawing. There are two types of drawings: "vẽ chạy" (fresh drawing) and "vẽ đồ" (tracing). "Vẽ chạy" requires skilled hands to create beautiful and precise lines, while "vẽ đồ" is done to complement and enhance the overall design.

The decorative motifs on the colored paper are created using gold or silver powder. Genuine gold or silver is used for high-quality works, while for lower-grade products, bronze and tin foils are used. The image of a winding dragon amidst swirling clouds with a shimmering golden or silver glow on the "da thị" or "da đồng" background is particularly beautiful. The ancient edict papers that have survived to this day, some dating back several centuries, still remain durable, with delicate and vivid drawings and writing. Only the decorative borders and colors bear the distinct marks of time, adding a sense of solemnity and sacredness.

The techniques involved in making colored paper are kept secret and only passed down to sons and daughters-in-law, not to daughters. From the selection and processing of raw materials to the papermaking, pressing, and drawing stages, each step requires highly skilled craftsmen with extensive experience. It is also because of the intricate craftsmanship that colored paper commands a high price.

During the reign of Emperor Khải Định in the Nguyen Dynasty, in the ninth year of his rule (1924), the emperor organized his 40th birthday celebration and ordered the purchase of tens of thousands of sheets of edict paper from the village of Nghĩa Đô to write imperial bestowel for officials and deities. The paper village of Nghĩa Đô thrived that year.

Creating colored paper requires highly skilled artisans with a refined sense of aesthetics and the ability to demonstrate intricate techniques in calligraphy, decorative patterns, and vivid motifs that possess soulfulness. The art of colored paper painting is still a relatively unexplored field of art that requires further research. The Hanoi Museum has been collecting, researching, and exhibiting imperial edicts from different dynasties.

Currently, the demand for even dó paper has declined, let alone for edict paper. Only those specialized in Hang Trống, Đông Hồ folk paintings, or practicing calligraphy still use dó paper, but the quantity is limited. The production of dó paper, especially edict paper, is extremely costly, making it difficult to compete with industrial paper, so few people are willing to engage in this craft. Furthermore, the craft of making edict paper is an exclusive and secretive tradition passed down within the Lại family, so it cannot be entrusted to outsiders. Since 1945, the craft of making edict paper in Nghĩa Đô is no longer practiced.

In 2003, the collectors of the Hanoi Museum conducted research and investigations in the hopes of preserving some aspects of the unique traditional handicraft of the Lại family in the ancient capital of Thăng Long - Hanoi. We had the opportunity to meet and exchange with Mr. Lại Phú Bàn, the last remaining artisan who possessed the secrets of the craft. During our conversation, he expressed great pride in the traditional craft of his family but also worried because he was getting old and had not found anyone to pass down the multi-generational traditional craft of his family. He said, "This is the exclusive craft of the Lại family, so I cannot pass it on to anyone outside of my descendants, even though many foreign visitors begged me to sell them the secrets."

Due to the demand from certain places and individuals who need duplicates of ancient edicts, Mr. Bàn intended to revive the craft, but it remained only his wish. Now, Mr. Lại Phú Bàn has passed away, but before his departure, he managed to pass down the craft to his children. The Lại family now has only two descendants who possess the secrets of making colored paper, Lại Phú Trạch and Lại Thị Hà (the 23rd generation of the family). Other members of the family only have a basic understanding of the process.

Nowadays, although edict paper no longer plays as significant a role as it did in the past, this high-quality paper is still necessary for restoring documents with emperors’ remarks in archival institutions, libraries, museums, and for certificates of recognition from the President or the Prime Minister. In my opinion, edict paper should be used for long-lasting mementos and as a way to show respect for preserving a cultural heritage of the nation, while also encouraging the conservation of a unique craft that has existed for thousands of years in the capital city.

The three artifacts of edict paper reconstructed by Mr. Lại Phú Bàn currently being preserved and stored at the Hanoi Museum.

A “Nhị cáo” edict in the style of the Thành Thái period.

A “tam cáo” edict in the style of the Nguyễn dynasty

A “supreme deity” edict in the style of the 44th year of Cảnh Hưng reign of the Restored Lê dynasty


Nguyễn Thị Trung