In Vietnam, the dragon holds a sacred significance as it is closely tied to the legend of the Vietnamese people descending from dragons and fairies. Although dragons are mythical creatures, they have played a significant role in Vietnamese history and hold a special place in the hearts of the Vietnamese people.
Throughout different historical periods, Vietnamese dragons have evolved and exhibited unique characteristics that reflect the vivid imagination and skill of talented craftsmen.
Distinctive Traits of Vietnamese Dragons
According to researcher Nguyen Quoc Huu, Deputy Director of the Exhibition Department at the National Museum of History, dragons can be found on artifacts dating back to the establishment of the Van Lang-Au Lac state in the 7th century BC. The ancient inhabitants of Vietnam began to create myths regarding their origins and started to believe in totem worship. They chose to portray crocodiles stylized as dragons, featuring pointed heads, elongated bodies, curved tails, two or four legs, and sometimes horns or manes on their heads.
From 1010 onwards, the dragon became a symbol of kingship. Dragons from the Ly Dynasty were distinguished by a flaming crest on their heads, smooth and slender bodies resembling snakes, and soft, meandering curves.
|Dragon symbol during the Ly Dynasty. Photo courtesy of National Museum of History
During the Tran Dynasty (13th-14th centuries), the martial spirit forged by resistance against foreign invaders influenced the depiction of Tran Dynasty dragons. They became more robust, corpulent, and less curvaceous. Some had horns or a serrated dorsal fin.
In the restored Le Dynasty (15th century), the five-clawed dragon became more majestic and ferocious.
During the Nguyen Dynasty (19th century), dragons were depicted with swirling or fan-shaped tails. The five-clawed dragon was a common motif in both royal art and regal utensils.
“Throughout thousands of years, dragons in Vietnamese art have evolved, but they always embody unique characteristics imbued with Vietnamese identity,” said Huu.
Incorporating Ancient Dragons into Contemporary Art
With such profound meanings and symbolic value, the dragon image has continuously inspired contemporary artists. However, accurately representing the dragon image in artworks, conveying messages, artistic ideologies, and personal impressions, has always been 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 into contemporary paintings requires artists to conduct meticulous research to honor both the aesthetic and cultural values associated with dragons throughout different historical periods. He finds this process to be challenging yet incredibly fascinating.
To celebrate the New Year of the Dragon, lacquer artisan Nguyen Tan Phat from Son Tay Town presented a collection of 1,000 dragon and fairy-themed artworks made from wood, lacquer, ceramics, and metal combined with lacquer art. The most remarkable piece is a lacquer box adorned with images of dragons from various feudal dynasties and a dragon chair inlaid with 2,500 gold leaves, equating to 500g of 24-carat gold.
|Artisan Nguyen Tan Phat presents the Dragon Chair to foreign visitors. Photo: Ngo Minh/The Hanoi Times
“Coming up with ideas and conducting research over a span of two years allowed me to make a conscious decision to incorporate the dragon image from the Ly Dynasty. I combined elements such as the sturdy and powerful five-clawed legs and the dragon tail resembling Bodhi leaves in Buddhism, which possessed great significance during the Ly Dynasty,” said craftsman Phat.
Cultural researcher Tran Hau Yen The states that incorporating the dragon image into modern art necessitates not only thorough historical research but also interdisciplinary knowledge encompassing visual arts, graphic design, heritage studies, science, and technology.
According to Yen The, a Vietnamese beer brand utilizes a dragon image in its brand identity; however, the depiction of the dragon features only three legs, which contradicts ancient beliefs.
“Ancient fine arts follow a golden rule observed by every artist. Whether concealed in the clouds or soaring over the waves, the dragon always has four legs, and the dragon portrayed on royal utensils consistently possesses five claws. Depicting a dragon with three legs is erroneous,” he stated.
Therefore, he suggests that designers fully grasp the characteristics of dragons from each era and genuinely respect the traditional attributes of dragons. Additionally, artists must infuse their work with personal creativity since only knowledge and creativity can generate unique artworks that cannot be confused with products created by artificial intelligence, according to Yen The.