Vietnamese people are said to be the offspring of a dragon and a Fairy. Central to the nation’s founding myth; the dragon is an important symbol in Vietnam.
More than 1000 years ago, dragon images were used to decorate the royal palaces of Vietnam’s Dinh and Early Le courts. According to legend, in 1010, King Ly Thai To saw a dragon ascend from a site in what is now Hanoi. The new king chose this auspicious for the capital of the Dai Viet Kingdom.
During the Ly (1010-1225) and Tran (1225-1400) dynasties, dragon images continued to evolve with different forms and features. The dragons of Ly court were slim and had no scales. They looked much like serpents. Under the Tran dynasty, dragons became fatter, grew scales and appeared bolder. Stone carvings and ceramic reliefs from these dynasties are a reminder of Vietnam’s ancient culture.
From the Later Le (1418-1789) onwards, dragons grew more diverse both in terms of form and materials. Dragons took the form of long serpents or acquired animal shapes. Outstanding features were a large nose and a bold and majestic stance. Dragons now moved out of the court an appeared in folk arts, although they still represented royal power. The stone dragons in the Le dynasty palace in Lam Kinh (Thanh Hoa province) and in Kinh Thien Palace in Thang Long can be seen as the climax of this era’s style.
By the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) the dragon symbol reached a new height thanks to a diversity of themes, materials and expressions. In Vietnam’s founding myth, the Dragon represents the male yang element, while the Fairy represents the female yin element.
The dragon is the first of the Four Sacred Animals, the other three being the unicorn, the tortoise and the phoenix. In the royal court, the dragon was depicted with great strength and majesty. However, in folk arts, it might take humorous and strange forms.
The dragon must possess nine auspicious features: a serpent’s body, a camel’s head, a deer’s dorms, a tiger’s feet, an eagle’s claws, a bull’s ear, a lion’s nose and mane, and a cock’s tail. To represent the emperor, a dragon must also have 81 yang scales, 36 yin scales and its body must curl into nine pieces. The number 9 is the highest yang number.
Its foot must have five claws. Without these feature, a dragon could not becomes a sacred animal nut rather one of its variables. These variables were often used to represent members of the family, or just as decorative pieces.
Many Nguyen Dynasty art works comprising dragon symbols have been preserved. Made of gold, silver or other precious materials, the dragon were fashioned with great skill and sophistication. The emperors’ seals are prime examples. The dragons appear powerful and full of vitality. Decorative screens that stood on the emperor’s desks typically feature a pair of dragons looking straight ahead or playing with the sun or the moon.
The vases that stand front of the Ancestors’ Temple in the Hue Royal Citadel are fine examples of dragons fashioned from bronze. The dragons fly amidst with the clouds, their bodies merging with the clouds to reveal only their claws, heads and tails. This is also the symbol of reigning emperor. In front of the Royal Theatre is a pair of dragons made of bass. These dragons sot on a square base, half squatting and half was rising. The dragons look straight ahead with their scales rising up as if they are enjoying the show.
Stone dragons were made in single pieces or as part of a relief for decorative purposes. They were often placed along the sides of a staircase, on screens, or on stone steles or tombs or mausoleums.
The pairs of dragons at the mausoleums of Thien Tho Huu and Hieu Dong are classic examples. Dragon flanking palaces and tombs are often depicted as descending with many curling parts, heads held high, and eyes that look straight ahead.
In some tombs, like those of Gia Long and Khai Dinh, the dragons’ eyes are set with glass balls to make them appear livelier.
Dragons made of mortar and ceramic in lays are the most common form, and are found on the palace’s roofs. The more important the palace, the more dragons it features. Take the dragons to on the roof of Ngo Mon (Southern Gate) – the main entrance to the royal and the Thai Hoa (Spreme Harmony Hall), where the emperor gave audiences – as an example.
According to researchers, nine flying dragons are visible from any position on the roof of Thai Hoa Hall. The roof looks light and flowing. A number of cement screens in also feature scruples dragons that are highly artistic. Examples in clued the screen in Luong Khiem Hall in Tu Duc’s Mausoleum and that in the mausoleum of Emperor Gia Long’s father, Co Thanh.
During the Nguyen dynasty, dragons were also carved in wood. Probably the finest examples grace the royal throne, which sits beneath a giant umbrella. Dragons carved into the roof of Long An Palace. Carvers in incredible skill created a scene of dragons flying and swimming amidst sky and water on a massive pierce of ironwood. Their four feet stretch out to support the beams.
During the Nguyen dynasty, dragons were fashioned from other materials too, including lacquer, ivory, animal bones, ceramics, and brocade. Working in different materials, artisans created masterpieces that are still enjoyed and admired today. We remain fascinated by images of legendary dragons, a symbol of Vietnamese culture.