In the proto-historical time, on today S-shaped land of Vietnam, there were three brilliant archaeological cultures: Dong Son, Sa Huynh, Oc Eo. They were three cultural transmitting centers in Southeast Asia and beyond. Among these centers, in my point of view, Dong Son culture is more pervasive both in space and time. In terms of space, there have been many monographs mentioning the effects of Dong Son culture on contemporary cultures. In terms of time, however, there is almost no research that explains the nature of the preservation of Dong Son elements in the national cultural flow. In this article, I am going to show the effects of Dong Son art in the post-Dong Son periods in Vietnam. At the same time, I also analyze the geo-political and geo-cultural context that made Dong Son a long-lasting vitality in the Vietnamese cultural tradition.
Ngoc Lu drum, Dong Son culture, ca. 2,500 - 2,000 years B.P. (National Treasure)
Archaeological studies on the Chinese domination period have realized elements of Dong Son culture on numerous artefacts, especially those belonged to the 1st - 2nd centuries A.D. that commonly known as the Han – Viet or Viet – Han era. However, in recent researches, some American and Chinese archaeologists have stated that the Dong Son artefact collection is entirely indigenous. Despite being influenced by the Chinese Central Plain civilization, the artefacts have been localized by Dong Son people through the group of “Southern Viet”. It can be said that these artefacts are a mixture of Viet and Han based on the Dongsonian foundation. Accordingly, we can easily find Dong Son decorative patterns on the bronze drum-basins, on the tripod ceramic plates, on the elephant-headed ewers, on the cord-marked pottery bearing Duong Co style, or in the boat-shaped coffins found around the Red River delta in the early centuries AD.
Grave goods in the Viet Khe boat-shaped coffin
In the 1st - 2nd centuries A.D., Dong Son culture existed as a discrete entity to integrate external factors while the external factors could not dissolve Dong Son culture's structure. The owners of Dong Son culture regulated to absorb new factors and reject the inappropriate ones. Therefore, I do not agree with the assumption that at many archaeological sites, above the Dong Son layer is the Eastern Han layer. It was actually the late phase of Dong Son culture, and in my opinion, the French scholars were reasonable when considering this period as late Dong Son phase.
Dao Thinh situla, Dong Son culture, ca. 2,500 – 2,000 years BP.(National Treasure)
From the 4th century to the 10th century, the Chinese domination seemed to dissolve and assimilate the local and indigenous culture of Viet people, starting from the Six Dynasties to the Sui and the Tang dynasties. Nevertheless, the arterfacts found in this period in Northern Vietnam showed minimal influence. The late Professor Pham Huy Thong - the Former Director of The Institute of Archaeology, stated that “Because of resisting Han – Tang, we are who we are.”
In fact, by this time, based on the Dong Son cultural foundation, the ancient Vietnamese had enough time to restructure the economy and society towards adapting to new circumstances. One of the typical examples is the case of Dai Lai ceramic kiln (Thuan Thanh, Bac Ninh). Although kiln construction technology, ceramic making process, production organization had a Chinese influence, the ceramic products were Vietnamese style. Another typical example is Duong Xa ceramic kiln (Yen Phong, Bac Ninh) in the 10th century. It seems that the shapes, technique and decorative patterns of the ceramic products have returned to the traditional style. There is an opinion saying that this collection marked the revival of Vietnamese culture under Chinese domination and revealed an underlying cultural flow. The question is how did that cultural flow not to be erased after a millennium of colonization. In my point of view, it is thanks to the Dong Son culture foundation preserved in the community, mainly in folk belief. That folk belief is the essence of a religion that recognized as Taoism by Olov Janse. Although without formal doctrine, the belief seems to have a significant impact on Vietnamese history, culture and arts. Many historical examples have proved that the prosperity or recession of each religion has a certain influence on Vietnamese culture.
Collection of bronze and glass jeweleries, Dong Son culture, ca. 2,500 – 2,000 years BP.
During the Ly - Tran period, which known as the renaissance time of the Vietnamese culture, the Dong Son elements reappeared and became prominent on the artefacts of this era. For example, the brown glazed ceramic vases were very similar to the Dong Son bronze situlae. Additionally, decorative patterns like humans and concentric tangent circles arranged in bands on ceramics of the Ly-Tran period imitated those on the bronze drums and situlae of Dong Son culture. Notably, in the Ly-Tran period, Buddism was considered the state religion, and the typical motifs in the art of this period were patterns of lotus flower, bodhi leaf and Buddha imagery which seemed to have little connection with the decorative patterns of Dong Son culture. Therefore, the revival of Dong Son elements on ceramics during this period once again proves Dong Son’s vitality preserved in the ancient Vietnamese consciousness.
Some scholars believe that the long-lasting vitality of Dong Son elements was driven by a group of Vietnamese who were pushed to the high mountains under the pressure of the Northern imperial government. As a result, they preserved the tradition so that when the country was independent, the population contributed to the spectacular return of Dong Son art in the 11th - 14th centuries.
In my opinion, Dong Son elements were preserved in the Vietnamese community since the Chinese domination right in the heart of the Red River Delta with the so-called "village culture" that had a sufficient level of strength to withstand the penetration of foreign factors. The culture was also the ideology and belief of Vietnamese people, so it was difficult for any power to dissolve. For that reason, when the independence was restored in the 10th century, indigenous people returned to the Dong Son tradition as an inevitability, in the context of the Vietnamese monarchical states did not have enough time to build a separate cultural foundation.
In fact, according to scholars Tu Chi, Tran Quoc Vuong, Ha Van Tan, Pham Duc Duong, and Nguyen Van Tai, the mountainous groups that preserved the Dong Son tradition - especially the Muong group in Hoa Binh province - appeared later, around the end of the 10th century.
Recently, I have proposed that the separation point occurred around the 12th and 13th century, based on similar funeral arrangements between the ancient Vietnamese (the Kinh) and the high-class Muong people (Lang Cun and Lang Dao). There were also many other connections between these two ethnic groups and the separation mainly took place in the old Hanoi area. When separated, the Muong people moved to nearby cities namely Ha Tay and Hoa Binh, of which only the Muong people in Hoa Binh preserves Dong Son culture in their daily life. For other regions like Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Phu Tho, Dong Son remarks had faded a lot more. Moreover, during the 12th and 13th century, there was a literature work called “Vuon hoa nui coi” (Mountain flower garden) by Muong Thang Dung Phong from Hoa Binh. “Vuon hoa nui coi” told the story of how Emperor Ly arranged a marriage between his daughter and Lang Cun. Together with physical evidences of royal class ceramics belong to the Ly – Tong dynasties presented in Muong, they proved that the Muong – Viet relationship was very close at that time.
The Muong – Viet relationship should be decribed precisely as the relationship between central government and local chiefs during the Tran, Early Le and Later Le dynasties. It was a tight connection not only based on marriage but also on politics, in order to bind border villages with central government through the “kimi” structure or giving tittles to the Muong nobles. Evidently, the gravestone of Muong Dong Kim Boi of the Quach family in HoaBinh said that he was a “Ve Cam y” (Defense Officer). This regime of giving ordinations to village chiefs founded one of the nation greastest heroes – Le Loi Emperor, who was a native Muong. He gathered a powerful army and led the Lam Son revolution, which later initiated the longest reign in Vietnam history - the Le dynasty.
During the Le – Mac dynasties, when Buddhism was no longer the official religion, the Confusianism dominated the country, especially among the educated and aristocratic class. Therefore the Dong Son elements which bearing the spirits of Taoism and folk beliefs seemed to appear less during this era, especially during the Early Le dynasty. Instead, cultural foundation was based on Confusianism, while folk arts still embranced Dong Son cultural values. Evidently, it showed through decorative patterns on communal houses in the Le dynasty.
By the end of the Nguyen dynasty, especially in the late period, when the impact of Confusianism faded and Christianity hadn’t become the religion of the majority, the folk beliefs arose once again and influenced decorative patterns on lamps placed in Taoist temples and ancestral worship altars.
Bronze kneeling human-shaped lamp, ca. 2,000 to 1,700 BP. (National Treasure)
In general, lamps have played an important role in the life of ancient Vietnamese and other East Asian communities for more than 2,000 years ago. During the Dong Son period, O. Janse suggested that lamps found in tombs served as a guiding figure for the deads in the afterlife. The afterlife was how the livings viewed death. Moreover, in mystical Eastern religions and its’ nocturnal liturgies, the light also played a crucial role. This was closely related to universal ideas and was seen as the noble reflection of the sun, moon and stars. The light was also the symbol of the soul and divine aura which honored religions, beliefs, and immortality. Thus, the lamp could also be considered as representing the reincarnation of the Creator.
Therefore, as the lamp was an essential figure in Eastern religions, lamps crafted in the post-Dong Son era were extremely diversed, such as lamps in the shapes of human, spiritual animals, deer, bull, elephant and so on. In fact, each lamp has two parts, and these humanoid and animal figures are the lower part of the lamp that functions as a base, and the upper part is related to the cosmic tree. The cosmic tree radiates branches and each branch has a plate that symbolizing the moon and the stars. During the ceremonies, the community celebrates around the cosmic tree - the lamp, showing reverence and invoking peace and a good crop. The mysticism of the universe is the core of folk beliefs and Taoism.
Back to the lamps of the Nguyen dynasty, previously mentioned was a lamp used in Taoist rituals that carried the Dong Son remarks (i.e. hanging optical plates and cosmic shape). This lamp was part of a lamps collection, including a lamp in the shape of a dear standing on a painted pedestal. It resembled the Dong Son deer lamp found in Lac Vac site (Nghe An). There was also the human lamp (teu) that was quite similar to the Lach Truong lamp dated from the late Dong Son era in Thanh Hoa and many other human-shaped lamps reflected the Dong Son culture. Additionally, in a five-piece collection for gods worship altar, there were lamps in the shape of a crane standing on a turtle, which were consistent with pelicans and turtles symbols of Dong Son shaping arts, especially on ritual lamps. I think that such deep impact of the Dong Son culture can be explained by its’ close link with religious beliefs, of which basic elements are Gods, Universe, Yin Yang and the Five Elements (Wu Xing).
In sum, the Dong Son arts was built on human morale and became vital in the daily life of ancient Vietnamese. Despite the ups and downs, it always got preserved as a traditional heritage. In this article I try to explain the cause of Dong Son’s vitality throughout history. However, only a small part of the holistic picture can be portraited. In my opinion, Dong Son vitality is a very interesting phenomenon in the history of Vietnamese culture, so it needs to be further studied.
Dr. Phạm Quốc Quân
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