The Tay Son Dynasty (1778-1802) was associated with the name of the Vietnam national hero Quang Trung - Nguyen Hue, who had made glorious victories against foreign invaders, protecting the independence of the Vietnamese nation. After the victory of battle against Chinese Qing invaders in 1789, Quang Trung emperor focused on restoring the country, stabilizing the society and developing the national culture.
Although only existing in a short time, the Tay Son period has left for posterity the special cultural heritage and unique art treasures bearing characteristics of the era. The Canh Thinh bronze drum is one of the typical examples, which currently kept and displayed at the Vietnam National Museum of History.
Canh Thinh bronze drum was cast in the 8th year of the Canh Thinh reign, Tay Son Dynasty (1800).
Canh Thinh bronze drum was made by the lost-wax casting method with the measures: weight: 32 kg, height: 37.4 cm, tympanum diameter: 49cm. The drum’s tympanum has a curved surface like globe calotte with two relief circles at the center. The drum's body is cylindrical with slight swelling in the middle and divided into three equal parts. Corresponding with each part is a decorative band. The main decorative themes are designed on two bands: on the topmost band, there are patterns of the four holy beasts (Dragon, Kylin, Turtle and Phoenix) which symbolize for the peace and prosperity of the country, meanwhile the lowmost band shows patterns of longma (dragon horse) carrying Hetu (Yeallow River Chart) and Holy Turtle carrying Luoshu (Inscription of the River Lou). Hetu and Luoshu are the two original symbols of Yi Jing (the Book of Changes) - the background of the Oriental thought about the Law of Change. The philosophical thought is applied to many fields of life such as cosmology, astronomy, geography, fengshui, social management and so on. Besides, there are also a lot of auxiliary decorative patterns like lemon flower, T-shaped reiteration, cloud shapes and taotie (a mythological evil).
Leaves decorative pattern
Kylin decorative pattern
Phoenix decorative pattern
Canh Thinh - drum is a unique artifact in the collection of Vietnamese bronze drum. While the Dong Son drum (type Heger I, dating from the 7th century B.C to the 3rd century A.D) and the Muong drum (type Heger II, dating from the early of B.C to the 15th -17th century) have a well-proportioned shape with distinct parts like the tympanum, the barrel, the body and the foot, the Canh Thinh drum is shaped like a traditional leather drum, with two drumheads and the body is also the barrel.
Longma carrying Hetu decorative pattern
Holy Turtle carrying Luoshu decorative pattern
Not only unique in style, but also the characteristic in decoration art. These factors make the drum balance overall. The theme of 4 sacred animals in general and kylin or turtle in particular, appeared early in Vietnamese ancient art. But the combination of these symbols in the same artifact as Canh Thinh bronze drum seems to be the beginning for a flourished stage of art in the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945).
The themes are stylized through the motifs of leaf turning into dragon and leaf turning into taotie. Stylization is the way to express the ability to create a particular style on the basis realistic. By the way, flowers and leaves to stylize the scared animals creating a nature, freedom and closeness.
Besides, we still easy to recognize the inherent elements through popular decorative patterns in the art under Ly - Tran - Le Dynasty (11th - 15th century), showing the continuous development in Vietnamese ancient art. The motif of flying phoenix with spreading wings could be seen as a refractional image of flying birds on Dong Son bronze drums. Moreover, the two relief circles on Canh Thinh drumhead are probably a stylized variant of the center star on the tympanum of Dong Son drums.
The Canh Thinh drum is also considered as a historical source, another factor that makes the special value of the drum. The inscriptions on the body show that the drum was cast in the 8th year of the Canh Thinh reign, Tay Son Dynasty (1800) at Ca Pagoda (Linh Ung Pagoda), Phu Ninh commune, Dong Ngan district, Tu Son district (Nanh Pagoda, Ninh Hiep commune, Gia Lam district, Hanoi today). Particularly, there is a paragraph with 222 Chinese characters mentioning the reason of drum-casting. Ms Nguyen Thi Loc, wife of duke Giao, head of the eunuchs under the reign of the Emperor Le Y Tong (1736) contributed to build Linh Ung Pagoda.To commemorat her merit, the people of Phu Ninh commune have contributed to cast the drum and other worship items to remind the next generations.
The 222 Chinese characters mentioning the reason of drum-casting
Chinese characters mentioning the date of casting
Chinese characters mentioning the place of casting
With the unique form and special values in history, culture and art; showing the preservation and development of casting and using Vietnamese bronze drum over two millennia, Canh Thinh bronze drum was recognized as the Vietnam National Treasure by the Prime Minister in 2012. On the other hand, Canh Thinh bronze drum makes a contribution to affirming the fine art of Tay Son period deserving as a valuable source, enriching the historical material. It not only inherits, promotes the fine art’s values of the past but also creates the premise for development in future generations.
Nguyễn Quốc Hữu
EN: Thu Hiền