THE CUSTOM OF HANGING HORIZONTAL PANELS AND PARALLEL SENTENCES IN VIETNAMESE CULTURE
Our ancestors passed down a saying: "Nhất chữ, nhì tranh, tam sành, tứ gỗ" (First characters, second painting, third porcelain, fourth wood). According to this saying, aesthetic words have been highly valued, to the point of reverence, along with the long-standing Confucian tradition of our nation. The custom of displaying “Hoành Phi” (horizontal panels) and “Câu Đối” (parallel sentences) has also been well developed over the years.
The ancestral altar is a place of worship for the land deities, ancestral spirits and deceased relatives. On the ancestral altar, various ceremonial objects are arranged, such as the ancestral tablet, incense burners, offering plates, candle holders, and flower vases. Especially in historical sites, temples, ancestral halls, and family patriarchs' homes, horizontal panels, scrolls or parallel sentences of various designs are often hung. Before hanging the horizontal panels and parallel sentences, it is important to understand the meaning conveyed by them. parallel sentences consist of two lines that complement each other and express the author's thoughts, emotions, or viewpoints regarding a phenomenon or event in social life. “Hoành Phi” (horizontal panel) or “Cuốn Thư” (scroll) are the distilled wisdom of our ancestors, praising the virtues of the ancestral lineage or the village gods, and hoping for peace and prosperity. There is a distinction between Cuốn Thư and Hoành Phi. Cuốn Thư is typically a rectangular wooden plaque in the form of a painting or calligraphy written in Chinese characters. Its central part resembles an ancient Chinese scroll seen in period dramas. On both sides of the Cuốn Thư, there is a brush on one side and a sword on the other, symbolizing knowledge and strength, often adorned with dragon and phoenix motifs, creating a traditional and solemn aesthetic. Hoành Phi is a large rectangular wooden board, sometimes oval or fan-shaped, with simpler patterns than Cuốn Thư. Parallel sentences are usually composed of two rectangular boards placed symmetrically on both sides of the ancestral altar or hung on two pillars. The content of the couplets on the right and left sides should convey positive meanings, reflecting the moral teachings and principles of ancestors on ethical or customary issues in life. Therefore, depending on the purpose, different parallel sentences are chosen for worshiping deities, mother goddesses, or for the ancestral altars. A set of Hoành Phi with Câu Đối for the ancestral altar can be customized according to the owner's preferences, allowing the craftsman to add or subtract certain decorative elements. In the past, Cuốn Thư with Câu Đối were also seen as decorative screens, dividing the space within a room. Due to their high aesthetic value, with intricate dragon and phoenix carvings, Cuốn Thư scrolls became valuable ceremonial gifts for significant occasions such as ancestral worship, celebration of longevity, housewarming, or store openings.
For example, there is a story about the famed poet Tam Nguyên Yên Đổ Nguyễn Khuyến. There was a neighbor who was a butcher, and when the Lunar New Year approached, they asked the poet to write a couplet to hang at their shop to bring good luck. He took out a pen and wrote the following lines as a gift:
"Tứ thời bát tiết, canh chung thủy
Ngạn liễu đôi bầu, dục điểm trang"
This couplet can be translated as:
"Four seasons, eight festivals, perpetual loyalty
Riverside willows, two shores, as if to adorn"
In a simplified sense according to Chinese characters: the four seasons and eight festivals come and go. Riverside willows on the two shores want to adorn. The cycle of the universe, spring comes and goes, making everything radiant, giving birth to fresh and pure life following the departure of cold winter days. People's hearts are filled with optimism for the new year, new opportunities, joyful wishes for all the goodness. What is interesting about Nguyễn Khuyến’s parallel is not only the well-written lines, with well-structured verses, but also the presence of two words: "bát tiết canh, đôi bầu dục" (a bowl of blood pudding, a pair of kidneys) which are very suitable for the neighbor's pork shop.
Currently, the traditional use of Cuốn Thư and Hoành Phi is not as common as before. However, in historical sites or traditional buildings, those who cherish tradition still hang them above the ancestral altar. Apart from their elegant traditional beauty, the imagery of the brush and sword on the Cuốn Thư represents intellect and power, helping to ward off negative energy and bring tranquility to the worship space. The meaning conveyed by the written characters on the Cuốn Thư can be considered the most important factor when choosing a scroll or couplet. The most commonly seen characters on Cuốn Thư include "Đức lưu quang" (Virtue passes down glory), "Phúc Mãn đường" (Good fortunes fill the hall), "Thiện tối lạc" (Goodness is the utmost happiness), "Phúc lộc thọ" (Blessings, wealth, and longevity), "Phụng gia tiên" (Serving the ancestors). These characters are commonly used and seen daily, with "Đức lưu quang" being one of the most frequently encountered, meaning Virtue radiates eternally. In addition to the main inscription, there can also be additional small sentences called Lạc Khoản. For example, "Bảo Đại thập tứ niên tạo" (Created in the 14th year of Emperor Bảo Đại's reign).
To hang Hoành Phi and Cuốn Thư couplets, there are certain guidelines to ensure a beautiful and solemn worship space. In temples, pagodas, ancestral houses, or large worship halls, people often hang the parallel sentences together with the door curtain (võng), and they can also add a Cuốn Thư scroll. When hanging, attention should be paid to the size of the altar to ensure a balanced display. Hanging a parallel or Cuốn Thư that is too large or too small in proportion can disrupt the aesthetic harmony of the worship space. It is important to select appropriate characters that align with customs, traditions, and moral values. When hanging, use a ruler to mark the positions for hanging, ensuring that the Cuốn Thư is centered above the altar. The distance between the Cuốn Thư and the altar should be around 0.8 to 1 meter, and it should be tilted at an angle of 20-25 degrees from the wall. This angle allows for clear visibility of the characters and patterns when standing below. The parallel sentences should be hung on both sides of the altar and must be positioned lower than the Hoành Phi or Cuốn Thư.
The transliteration and translation of the Cuốn Thư and Câu Đối to be displayed at the ancestral altar theme in the Hanoi Museum.
The transliteration and translation of the Cuốn Thư reads "Hòa khí" (Harmony), and the parallel sentences (read from right to left) are as follows:
Transliteration: "Vân đạm nguyệt minh thiên cận niên, Nhân khang vật thịnh phúc trọng thân."
Approximate translation: "Clear sky, tranquil moon, approaching the new year; People’s wellness, material affluence, good fortunes repeat."
Phạm Tân Tiến