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An Illustration Project Brings Life to the Pages of 16th-Century Literature

Find yourself immersed in the world of mythical fiction through these enchanting illustrations from the art project Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục.

Numerous works have arisen from the dialogue between literature and visual art, much like how 'Ophelia' drew from the Shakespearean classic Hamlet, or The Da Vinci Code from the timeless smile of 'Mona Lisa.' Also taking inspiration from literature, graphic design student Hoàng Văn Tài launched his illustration project Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục, which is based on the literary work of the same name by author Nguyễn Dữ, to show his appreciation for the genre through the lens of a modern interpretation.

Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục (The Legend of Mạn Lục) is a 16th-century collection of short stories written in Chinese in the form of prose, with a dash of pianwen and poetry. The work records folk tales rooted in oral lore that uses elements of fantasy to satirize the corruptness of a feudal society, as well as showing compassion for those who suffered from it.

The new project illustrated two notable stories ‘Chuyện người con gái Nam Xương’ (The Young Woman From Nam Xương) and ‘Chuyện tướng Dạ Xoa’ ('The Tale of General Dạ Xoa), in which the main characters typify the pitiable lives of those living in a feudal society, like virtuous women that were oppressed by strict Confucian rules (Vũ Nương) or intellectuals that were bound by the constraints of their time (Dĩ Thành).

The project's paintings are mostly illustrated with two contrasting tones of pink-orange and dark gray, seemingly to clarify the contrast between the tropes and the themes in Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục. The dark gray reflects the harsh reality dictated by Confucian laws, while the orange-pink highlights the appearance of benevolent characters and magical elements.

Sharing with Urbanist, artist Hoàng Văn Tài said he had wanted to adapt Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục into artwork since he learned about it in school. He was also greatly inspired by his instructors: “My two art teachers were much older, so they told me a lot of stories about how people used to live. I think that’s why I was motivated to find out more about cultures from back in the day.”

Tài also said that he had a hard time at the beginning of the project because he was "a person living in modern times" and thought about switching to a different topic, but then decided to pursue it to the end because of "the passion had seeped into [his] body."

Each story in Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục belongs to a different context and dynasty, so determining the exact historical period to accurately represent the culture, customs, and costumes of the time was challenging. "I had to make sure to get every detail and pattern right so that the illustrations would look beautiful without misrepresenting, say, the way people dressed or did their hair at that time," Tài said.

In order to accurately depict those details, he had to research and compare his drawings with numerous sources, from scholastic studies such as Nghìn Năm Áo Mũ (Thousand Years of Costumes) and Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư (The Encyclopedia of Đại Việt History), to historical and cultural sites such as Đại Việt Cổ Phong and Đại Nam Phục Ảnh.

Previously, Tài had worked on another project about Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục in the style of digital art, but he felt as if it weren’t able to bring out the “spirit” of the literary work. In his new attempt, he took reference from traditional Vietnamese art like silk and Đông Hồ paintings, and art from revered Vietnamese painters such as Mai Trung Thứ and Nguyễn Phan Chánh; and then combined those with his personal style to create a new artistic direction that was more modern but could still encapsulate the mythical appeals and cultural facets of these stories.


With the box of literature being checked, Tài said he hopes to explore more about spiritual matters or even religious subjects in his future work.

See more of Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục's magic here:

[Illustrations via Hoàng Văn Tài's Behance page]

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