Talking about Buddhist woodcuts and talismans

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

Reporter – News AnalystDSCN1064

On Friday evening, September 10, 2013, about 50 people gathered in the Amelia Island Museum’s Baker Hall to hear Florida State College at Jacksonville professor Jim Kemp talk about his return trips to Vietnam in 2008-2010 as an anthropologist researching Buddhist talismans and woodcuts following his first experience in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee during the Vietnamese conflict in the late 1960’s.

Professor Jim Kemp
Professor Jim Kemp

Following his service as an E-3 with the U.S. Navy, Kemp went on to study at Florida State University and a career with the state of Florida.  But he retained his interest in the Far East, learning Mandarin Chinese along the way.  His Masters Thesis was a dictionary translating talisman symbols in Chinese woodblocks into English.  He is an avid collector of Buddhist burial woodcut prints and has had twenty exhibits of these items around the country.

On the Afterlife Research Centre website, Kemp wrote, “I have been researching and collecting Buddhist and Taoist printed paper talismans since 1975. I have about 2,000 from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and South East Asia. My latest work in 2008, 2009, and 2010 has been dealing with Taoist and Buddhist Tantric talismans for burying the dead from Vietnam in the area north of Hanoi. I teach Asian Humanities Florida State College at Jacksonville. “

Kemp brought several prints from his collection, along with some woodcut blocks, to assist in his lecture.  He explained that the woodcuts are not viewed as art forms by the Buddhists, but rather as the required paperwork to enter paradise.  A proper burial would involve 14 woodcuts per coffin, enveloping all sides of the corpse and providing appropriate signage identifying the corpse for the journey to paradise.  The various symbols represented in the woodcuts are talismans to ward off ghosts and evil spirits that might obstruct the soul on its journey.

Professor Kemp explains the meaning of symbols in a burial woodcut.
Professor Kemp explains the meaning of symbols in a burial woodcut.

Today, close to three-quarters of the Vietnamese population was born after the Vietnamese conflict.  The use of these ancient burial rites is being lost.  Only some Buddhist priests today know the formal ritual.

As a returning veteran of the Vietnamese conflict, Kemp was not sure how he would be received.  He said that he was prepared for anger, but found that those Vietnamese veterans who had fought against the Americans seemed interested in shared service memories, even from different sides.  He experienced no trouble traveling as an American vet, even when going off the beaten tourist track.  He was honored to be able to meet and share his research and interests in talismans with his Vietnamese counterparts including Phan Cam Thuong, one of the greatest woodcut printers in Vietnam.

Kemp said that following his second post-conflict trip to Vietnam, he made sure to have his newly acquired woodcuts “desensitized” by Buddhist priests.  Following his previous trip he failed to do so and broke out in a serious staph infection, necessitating his leaving the country before he had intended to seek treatment in the United States.  When he shared this story with Professor Phan on his second trip, Phan did not seem at all surprised, saying that bad luck or illness was known to attack those who did not follow proper rituals.  Kemp made sure to have his first group of woodcuts desensitized back in the United States.

Kemp told the audience a bit about his love of teaching such an interesting topic as eastern humanities to young people.  He allows his students to try their hands at woodblock prints in addition to learning how worship and burial customs change among adherents of eastern religions.  He quoted a Vietnamese who informed him  during his wartime service who told him, “The problem with you Americans is that you think you only have one life.” He believes that it is important for Americans to understand that not everyone in the world views things from the same cultural perspective as Americans.

Following his retirement, he and his wife Ann, a photographer, moved to Fernandina Beach, a place he has enjoyed since his youth.

Museum Education Coordinator Gray Edenfield and FSCJ Professor Jim Kemp.
Museum Education Coordinator Gray Edenfield and FSCJ Professor Jim Kemp.

The lecture, jointly sponsored by Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) and the Amelia Island Museum of History, was presented as part of the Museum program series, Third on 3rd, held the third Friday of each month.  The public is always welcome, and information on upcoming lectures and events may be found on the Museum’s website




Suanne Thamm


Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

September 23, 2013 1:00 a.m.