chữ Thuận - Quốc Tử Giám It’s the last day of the year of dragon. After 7 years, I once again feel the spirit of the new year. Cherry and kumquat trees everywhere. House mopping, furniture dusting, bed sheets laundrying. Whole days of prepping food for all the prayers and for the next few days when the market will be close.

After lunch today, I managed to squeeze out a couple of hours to go to the Temple of Literature (dedicated to Confucius, teachers, scholars, and learning in general) to ask for lucky characters. It’s an age old and Chinese influenced tradition: people went to esteemed scholars for a couplet, a pair of hanging scrolls that they would put up by the house entrance to greet the new year. With the introduction of the Vietnamese alphabet and the decline in Chinese scholars, this tradition almost went extinct. It wasn’t till the early 2000s that we saw its revival. I still remember going to the Temple the first year that the new year’s calligraphy giving-away was organized; I was surprised seeing so many young calligraphy writers. The traditional image was that of an old scholar with balding gray hair. 

Quốc Tử Giám xin chữ đầu xuânThese days, few people ask for couplets or poems. Most go for stand-alone characters, could be in Chinese or Vietnamese. I didn’t wait till the new year to go inside the Temple like I used to because it’s got so popular over the years; I’d have to stay in line the whole day waiting for my turn. But no worries, the street outside the Temple turns into a calligraphy workshop for a couple of weeks before the end of the year.

This year, I went with my friend’s little sister. She will be taking the college entrance exam in a few months so I got her the character thành in Chinese (succeed, accomplish). For her sister, my friend MAnh who’s now living in Singapore, I got thuận in Vietnamese (favorable). For myself, it’s simply an in Chinese (peace). The man who wrote “peace” for me offered to write another character for free. – How about thuận?  he asked. – No, I just got that for my friend already. What other characters would be good? – There are so many good ones, depending on what you want. – Ok, over the years, I’ve got thành (succeed), xuân (spring, vitality),  ái (love), and tuệ (wisdom). – Oh, I know what to write you. I’m gonna give you duyên for the new year.

The word never crossed my mind, and yet so appropriate. I couldn’t help smiling. Mostly used to describe predestined affinity, fated love (mom’d say i need it for better marriage prospect), to me, it’s about chance encounters, never knowing who I’d meet on the road, what experience we’d share, what kind of connection we’d make.

chữ duyên - xin chữ đầu xuân Quốc Tử Giám

chữ an

To the year of the snake: may it be filled with peace, happiness, and fateful encounters.