Dragon is a sacred and legendary creature appeared long time ago in the arts of the West and the Orientation cultures. In Vietnam, the dragon icon has been found since the nation building time of Hung King through the legend of Vietnamese ancestors of "Con Rong chau Tien"(Children of Dragon, Grandchildren of Gods). To Vietnamese people, the dragon brings rain, essential for agriculture. It represents the emperor, the prosperity and power of the nation.
The Vietnamese ancient people of Dong Son Civilization, the first civilization with many achievements in Vietnam, had settled down and united to form an administrative state called Van Lang – Au Lac. Together, the national consciousness was born and people wished to make up a legend of the national origin by themselves. As the belief of animal worship, they chose the crocodile to be the worshiping creature. That crocodile was not as of that in the nature but with the sharp head, slim and long body, curving tail, with 2 or 4 legs, with or without horns or mane, called "Giao long". The images of a couple of "Giao long" (crocodile dragon) can be seen in many bronze wares of Dong Son. However, in the first centuries AD, as influences from the exchange with the Chinese culture, the Viet dragon was changed from reptile to be animal and decorated with more legendary factors.
Bronze axe decorated with "Giao long" image, Dong Son Culture, 2500 – 2000 years ago
In 1010, Ly Thai To King moved the citadel from Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh province) to Dai La (Hanoi capital) and named the capital as Thang Long (flying dragon). At that time, the dragon image had been built and became the symbol of the throne. The dragon of Ly dynasty is with the fiery crest on the head, smooth and rounded body as a snake, in a long sinuous shape, tapering gradually to the tail. The head, held high, is in proportion with the body...The distinction is the direction that the dragon flies, vertically or horizontally.
Bodhi leaf with carved dragon decoration, Ly dynasty, 11th - 13th centuries, Phat Tich Pagoda, Bac Ninh province
A sample of tower with embossed dragon decoration, Ly dynasty, 11th - 13th centuries
In Tran Dynasty (13th - 14th centuries), as the throne was transferred in peace so the Tran Dynasty dragon was similar to that of the Lý Dynasty but looked more rugged. The Tran dragon symbolized the martial arts, because the Tran kings were descended from a mandarin commander. The Tran dragon has new details: arms and horns. Its fiery crest is shorter. Its slightly curved body is fat and smaller toward the tail. In general, Tran Dynasty dragon is less complicated but more simple, liberal and stronger.
The door set with carved dragon, wooden, Tran Dynasty, 13th - 14th centuries, Pho Minh Pagoda, Nam Dinh province
In Le So Dynasty (15th century) - the most achieving period of Vietnamese feudal culture with the great development of Confucianism. The royal government had tightening regulations on the ceremonies, rituals, majesty; the dragon symbolized for the king. The dragon with five sharp claws is only used for the King. The dragon icon had change into another form. It was influenced by the Chinese dragon like the eyes of devil, nose of lion, body of snake, crust of fish, feet of crocodile and claws of hawk. It looks more majestic, imposing and stronger. But since 17th century, the folk culture had been developed led to the change in the dragon form. The dragon now had a folk style, representing for the fun, open-minded. This style can be seen particularly in the wooden carvings architecture in the village's communal house.
Stone dragon on the steps of Dien Kinh Thien, Thang Long Royal Citadel, Le So Dynasty, 15th century
Lamp base with dragon decoration, ceramic, Mac Dynasty, 1580
Incense burner with dragon decoration, ceramic, Le Trung Hung Dynasty, 1736, Bat Trang Ceramics
Nguyen Dynasty is the last feudal dynasty in Vietnam. The dragon is regarded as the first of four legendary animals namely the dragon, kylin, turtle and phoenix. It has a spiral tail and a long fiery sword-fin. In the royal arts, dragon has restored its power for the majesty. Images of the Dragon King have 5 claws, while images of lesser dragons have only 4 claws.
Golden basin with dragon decoration, Nguyen Dynasty's royal object
On the anniversary of the Year of Vietnam in France, 2014, the VNMH Museum and the Guimet Museum have collaborated to organize a special exhibition called "The flight of the Dragon – the Royal Art of Vietnam". This is the first time for the Vietnamese royal artworks with dragon icons to be introduced to the world. The exhibition is opened from 08/7/2014 to 15/9/2014 at Guimet Museum of Asian Arts (Paris, France).
Nguyen Quoc Huu (Vice Manage of Exhibition Division)
EN: Tran Trang