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Both Nature and Human touch Present

    We have envisioned to a certainextent what were placed on the ancestral altar. However, the altar articles known to us were just made of iron, bronze or wood by skillful artisans. In fact, we can recognize in the displayed objects arranged by human hands the presence of Nature. HENRI OGER provided us with sketches of three five fruit trays at which we will have a look later in this book. What was the meaning of the fivefruit tray in such a grand festival as it is today ?

   As regards the Vietnamese people, from time immemorial, flowers and fruit were indispensable among altar pieces dedicated to Genies, Buddha and Ancestors. It was commonly seen that at the middle of the altar stood a collective josstick bowl behind which was either a five fruit tray or a “threemountain” frame (Fig.1) on which flowers and bowls of water were displayed. “Tam sơn” (Three mountains) is a kind of wooden worshipping object consisting of 3 days having a common base, but the one in the middle is higher than the other two on its two sides that have a same height, thus it is shaped as a mountain, hence its name “Tam sơn” (Three mountains).   

Three moutain -
Fig.1: Threemoutain

  Also from time immemorial, the five fruit tray has gone beyond the wall of pagodas and temples to reach Vietnamese families as a fine traditional practice.

    The five fruit tray has become a popular motif expressing the practical content, and at the same time, bearing the folk aesthetic value. The five fruit tray is a thing which not only beautifies the worshipping place but also creates a cosy atmosphere for the Tết holidays.

    In antipation of the Lunar New Year Festival, the peasant took care of his garden and, among his banana trees, he chose a bunch of bananas of the same big size with glossy dark green skin and mature enough but not yet ripe. Apart from banana, other fruit such as grape-fruit, finger citron, persimmon, orange, kumquat… were ripening. Also counting on each plot of garden, the peasant picked some peony flowers, a cluster of aglaia, some roses or chrysanthemums… and all of them were placed on a red and golden painted wooden tray. A fruit tray often comprised two parts: the upper part was a round tray for keeping fruits and the lower part, a stand with an appropriate height. Stout bananas fanned out on the tray as a good base for round golden grape-fruit. Furthermore, the grape-fruit could be replaced by a finger citron still attached to its end or green leaves. The finger citron was not round and its skin not smooth but it perfectly matched with the green of bananas, the yellow of oranges, and the bright golden of small kumquats arranged alternately among bananas. These colours and graphic outlines added beauty to the five-fruit tray in a wellknit composition, suggesting an artistic creation somewhat like a painter’s making good use of his paint brushes and colors2.

     At the beginning of the century we could not only look at “the five-fruit tray” as shown in the adjacent but also had a chance to admire the skill of a certain handicraftman who had made a “five fruit tray” out of bamboo roots.

The Five Fruits Tray and Incense and Smoke at TẾT

    From time immemorial and according to Oriental philosophy, the world is constituted of the “Five Elements”, namely metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Corresponding with the standard of the five elements are the geniuses controlling them such as “The Genius of the Earth, the Fire Genius, the Water Genius …” That’s why in their spiritual life, the Oriental peoples in days past always hoped that such geniuses would protect mankind and allow them to live luckily and blessedly. That thought had deeply penetrated into the spiritual and cultural life of Oriental peoples, particularly the Chinese and the Vietnamese. From that time on, each year at Tết, there’s always on the altar a tray of Five Fruits, representing the strength, the respect, and the aspiration to turn to virtuousness in each family.

   Depending on the development, the historical and social conditions, as well as the characteristics of each region, people arrange the tray of five fruits in different ways, but its main sense remains unchanged and is realized with the following main types of fruits and colours:

   The green colour – representing the intense vitality of nature, grass and trees, and materialized by green bananas that look like fingers on an open hand that wraps inside it the immense and prosperous world, and this is the image that mostly sets off the tray of five fruits.

   The yellow colour – representing a good harvest that secures people from cold and hunger, and originating from a big pomelo or a papaya, placed at the centre of the tray, implying the idea of being the central and most important part of man’s life.

    The red colour – representing the strength, the aspiration for achieving victory and for obtaining good luck. People usually choose the red-ripe persimmon or a mandarin and place it between the green colour of the banana or the yellow colour of the pomelo.

     Nowadays, to develop more strength and good luck, people can add a few tomatoes or pimentos to increase the attractiveness of the tray of five fruits.

    The greyish brown colour – representing the strength and the bare quietness of the earth. People used to choose the siamese cinnamon or a roughskinned orange that is both greyish and yellowish. Besides, to increase the aesthetic nature and the richness of the tray of five fruits at Tết, people can choose the additional silky yellow colour of apples, the dark violet colour of grapes, and the rosy colour of the “thanh long” (blue dragon) fruit or the oleaster fruits. The tray of five fruits in the North is small and neat and usually consists of green bananas, pomelos, oranges, mandarins, siamese persimmons, and egg fruits. As for the tray of five fruits in the South, it’s usually much bigger and consists of a pair of water-melons, mangoes, durians, custard-apples, blue dragon fruits, star-apples …Using the tray of five fruits as a kind of offering is a fine traditional feature of our people on Tết days, as it provides the altar in each family with a cosier and more solemn atmosphere.3

Southerners have a Pair of Water Melons

   In southern Vietnam, the fruit tray is a bit different from that of the North. Pineapple was cut to the figure of a phoenix whose bill was made of red chilly and wings by curly bananas. Particularly, the five-fruit tray of southerners often included a pair of water melons about the size of a tea basket stuck with a red paper band bearing some inscriptions in Chinese characters…

    Today, in the month adjoining Tết, the markets in Saigon are practically flooded with mountains of water melons, occupying tents and stalls temporarily set up outside them… The Southern water melons have particular characteristics depending on each one of the regions they come from. In the South Eastern area, the water melon has a thin white outer skin, while its pulp is red and greasy, glittering like refined sugar. In the Southern end of Central Vietnam, the water melon has a vermillion like pulp …   

Selling water melons -
Fig.2: Selling water melons

  On the gateway to Central Vietnamat a distance of about thirty kilometres from Thanh Hoá as the crow flies, there exists the type of Nga Sơn water melon that has been considered as the An Tiêm’s type so often evoked in Vietnamese legends. Being an exile living on a deserted island, An Tiêm and his wife had succeeded to plant that kind of water-melon to bring it to the mainland to repay the Huøng Vöông tribe’s kindness. In North Vietnam, the water-melon4 grows “unseasonably”- i.e. it cannot be displayed on the Tết fruits tray as it grows in summer. Therefore, at Tết, people in the North have to wait for the “flavour” of the South to be able to toy with this type of faithful and virginal fruit which has “a red pulp and a blue peel”. However, in the 80’s people at some places were able to create a type of winter water melon to be enjoyed at Tết. The fruit thus obtained also has a blackish blue peel and a freshly red pulp, but it still could not attain the majestic size of the one of the South (Fig.2)…

1 Associate Professor HUNG NGUYEN MANH, Doctor of Phylosophy in History.
2 According to ĐẶNG ĐỨC – (The fivefruit tray at Tết) – Hanoi, Folklore magazine No.2, February 1986, pp.51-52.)
3 According to HÀ THẮM – “The tray of five fruits and incense and smoke at Tết” – “Vietnamese Commercial and Industrial Marketing magazine” – Page 30 – Printing House of the Ministry of Culture and Information.
4 According to MAI KHÔI – Homeland flavours – The water-melon at Tết – pp.181 to 184 – Arts Publishing House 1996.

01 /2020

◊  Source: Vietnamese Lunar New Year – Major Festival – Asso. Prof. HUNG NGUYEN MANH, Doctor of Phylosophy in History.
◊  Bold text and sepia images has been set by Ban Tu Thu –

◊  From Sketches in early 20th century to traditional rituals and festival.
◊  Signification of the term “Tết”
◊  Lunar New Year Festival
◊  Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for KITCHEN and CAKES
◊  Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for MARKETING – Section 1
◊  Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for MARKETING – Section 2
◊  Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for Dept payment
◊  The tray of Five fruits
◊  The Arrival of New Year
◊  Vietnam Lunar New Year – vi-VersiGoo
◊  etc.

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