The Dragon Motif in Vietnam’s Historical Context

Research has indicated that Vietnamese dragons exhibit distinct characteristics compared to their counterparts in other Asian nations.

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In Vietnam, the dragon holds a sacred significance and is closely associated with the legend that the Vietnamese people are descendants of dragons and fairies. Although dragons are mythical creatures, they have held a powerful presence in Vietnamese history.

Throughout different historical periods, Vietnamese dragons have exhibited unique features, reflecting the rich imagination and skill of talented craftsmen.

Distinctive Attributes of Vietnamese Dragons

Nguyen Quoc Huu, Deputy Director of the Exhibition Department at the National Museum of History, states that dragon imagery can be traced back to artifacts from the Van Lang-Au Lac state, established in the 7th century BC. During this period, Vietnamese inhabitants began creating myths about their origins and worshipping totems. They chose to symbolize the crocodile as a dragon-like creature with a pointed head, elongated body, curved tail, two or four legs, and sometimes horns or manes on the head.

By 1010, the dragon had become an emblem of kingship. Dragons from the Ly Dynasty were characterized by a flaming crest on their heads, smooth and round bodies resembling snakes, and soft, meandering shapes.

Dragon symbol during the Ly Dynasty. Photo courtesy of National Museum of History

During the Tran Dynasty (13th-14th centuries), the martial spirit forged through numerous wars of resistance against foreign invaders influenced the stylization of the Tran Dynasty dragons. They became more robust, plumper, and less curved. They often featured horns or a serrated dorsal fin.

In the restored Le dynasty (15th century), the five-clawed dragon became even more majestic and ferocious.

During the Nguyen Dynasty (19th century), dragons were depicted with swirling or fan-shaped tails. The five-clawed dragon permeated both royal art and royal utensils.

“Over thousands of years, Vietnamese art has seen transformations in dragon representations, yet they always bear unique characteristics infused with Vietnamese identity,” Huu explains.

Incorporating Ancient Dragons into Contemporary Art

The dragon’s symbolism has always been a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. However, accurately portraying the dragon’s essence to convey messages, artistic ideologies, and personal impressions can prove to be a challenging task for artists.

A painting by artist Nguyen Minh featuring the dragon symbol of the Ly Dynasty.

Artist Nguyen Minh believes that incorporating dragon patterns and motifs in contemporary paintings requires thorough research by artists to respect both the aesthetic and cultural values of dragons from different eras. He finds this task challenging but incredibly fascinating.

In celebration of the Year of the Dragon, Son Tay Town’s lacquer artisan, Nguyen Tan Phat, unveiled a collection of 1,000 dragon and fairy-themed works in wood, lacquer, ceramics, and metal combined with lacquer art. The collection’s highlights include a lacquer box adorned with depictions of dragons from various feudal dynasties and a dragon chair inlaid with 2,500 gold leaves, equivalent to 500g of 24-carat gold.

Artisan Nguyen Tan Phat presents the Dragon Chair to foreign visitors. Photo: Ngo Minh/The Hanoi Times

“It took me two years to gather ideas and conduct research to decide on incorporating the Ly Dynasty dragon image. I combined it with the sturdy and powerful five-clawed legs and the dragon’s tail resembling bodhi leaves, which held prominence during the Ly Dynasty,” craftsman Phat shares.

Cultural researcher Tran Hau Yen The emphasizes that incorporating the dragon symbol into modern art necessitates not only historical research but also interdisciplinary knowledge spanning visual arts, graphic design, heritage studies, science, and technology.

According to Yen The, a Vietnamese beer brand uses a dragon image in its brand identity, but the dragon depicted only has three legs, which contradicts ancient beliefs.

“Ancient fine art adheres to a golden rule that every artist must respect. Whether hidden in the clouds or soaring above the waves, the dragon always has four legs, and dragons depicted on royal utensils always have five claws. Painting a dragon with three legs is incorrect,” Yen The elaborates.

Thus, designers must familiarize themselves with the characteristics of dragons from different eras and fully respect the traditional attributes of dragons. In addition, artists should infuse their work with personal creativity, as knowledge and imagination are what set their pieces apart from outputs generated by artificial intelligence, Yen The concludes.