The joy of "first writing of the new year" (khai but)
By Thuy Ngoc

Saigon (MF) January I971. It is crisp this morning, the first of the New Year. I have already started an aloe wood fire to chase away the wicked atmosphere of yesteryear and have washed my hands in perfumed water. Now it is time for the "first writing of this new year", a most important task.

Yes, all is in readiness; the scarlet red Hong Dieu paper for cheerfulness and luck, a new brush pen of sable for cleanliness and purity, and a fresh slab of stark black ink symbolizing stability.

What shall I write to guide the destiny of this coming year? A "Duong" poem like Phan Dinh Phung, "The oriole sings melodiously in the yard..." That would be in keeping with Vietnamese heritage.



Vietnamese calligraphy

How far back are the origins of the first writing of the New Year tradition? Thousands of years, back into the antiquity of ancient China where the beauties of graceful calligraphy prompted man to seed in the written word not only the moral worth of the author but the external symbolization of his character within the disciplined beauty of his penmanship. How true is the old Vietnamese maxim, "Senseful ideas, beautiful hand-writing."

The "first writing of the New Year" is the most important. For each year is a completely new phase of life, a circle of destiny. What happened last year is forgotten; just as nature shrugs off the moldering leaves of winter, so does man. A new period is begun different, vital, promising. One's thoughts at this first moment must be noble and enriching.

True, many uneducated people buy quick poster calligraphy from fortune tellers at the pagoda rather than trust themselves to the ritual of the first writing. But I prefer to cast my own fortune with my own hand. Happiness, luck, joy, all may be mine during this New Year.

Ah, but that too is an ignoble thought for this occasion. On New Year's morn, one must rise above mundane things for beauty and honor go beyond self. That is the importance of a New Year, of the "first writing". No mere Phuc (fortune) or the usual "five happiness" calligraphy suffices for one's own home.

The first writing must be elegant, noble and beautiful. Such as the verses of famed female poet Ho Xuan Huong:

"On the last night of the old year doors should be closed tightly else Satan will bring in his devils,

"On the first day of the new year, the Creator opens wide the door for the Lady to welcome Spring."

I must elevate myself to a lofty plane and execute the writing with precision, clarity and strokes bold yet delicate, full-bodied yet sharply defined. It must be kept throughout the year in the Confucianism tradition.

What shall I write? It must be universal, something to set the mode of life for the coming year, to create the tone and temper of events for my family and my country.

Ah, I have it!

"Hoa Binh" -- Peace. How perfect!