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Sculpture and carving have a long history in Vietnam. At the outset, sculptures were mainly carved from stone or made of ceramics. By the Dong Son era, around 2,500 years ago, copper casting techniques reached a peak and copper sculptures flourished. Ancient Vietnamese people at this time created a new artistic tradition and shaped the core identity of Vietnam’s sculptural arts.
Copper statues were made in three main styles during the Dong Son era. Round statuettes were created as stand-alone sculptures. Decorative figurines were crafted to be stuck onto precious belongings as adornments. And other useful items were decorated with sculptural elements. Thanks to their rich imaginations and skillful techniques, Dong Son people transformed everyday items into works of art.
Through copper statues, Dong Son people portrayed themselves and the surrounding world of animals such as elephants, tigers, deer, toads, tortoises, snakes, birds, dogs, and chickens. One amusing figurine portrays two men carrying each other while blowing horns. Another, excavated in Viet Khe, shows a man blowing a horn stuck onto a copper ladle. Four couples making love are symmetrically joined on the lid of a Dao Thinh jar. Many daggers have human-shaped shafts. The men were portrayed without shirts, dressed in loincloths and with long loose hair. The women were shown wearing skirts and short tunics. Their hair was braided or worn in a bun. Dong Son people lived closely with nature and portrayed animals going about their daily lives – tigers catching prey, snakes twisting around each other, a snake biting a tiger’s foot, elephants carrying copper drums, birds perching on a roof or on an elephant, a mother toad embracing its baby.
As well as creating realistic depictions, ancient Vietnamese artisans followed accepted conventions to portray emotions. Many details of these statues were simplified and formulaic. The eyes were depicted by plain circles. Artisans played with proportions to highlight certain qualities. To stress the virility of statuettes of couples making love, ancient artisans enlarged the men’s penises and the women’s bosoms. To show symbolic meaning, they fashioned unrealistic images, such as three people sitting on a bird’s beak.
During the first 10 centuries AD, when people fought against Northern rule, Dong Son copper casting techniques were highly evolved. However metal statues made during this time are rare. Well into the era of independence, from the 10th century to the early 20th century, copper was considered a precious material used for minting coins. Wood and stone were typically used for statues. That said, the copper sculptures reveal an evolving culture.
Copper statues of this era fell into the same three types as during the Dong Son Culture. Most were small and depicted daily life. However, there were some famous large statues, such as the Buddha in Quynh Lam Pagoda, one of the “Four Great Belongings of Annam” in the Ly and Tran Dynasties. Sadly, this artwork no longer exists. Other large statues include the Xuanwu statue in Quan Thanh from the Renaissance Le Dynasty and the Xuanwu statue in Xuanwu Temple made under the rule of the Tay Son.
Copper statues were sometimes gilded and plated like wooden statues, or carved and made with two or three types of precious metals to intensify their beauty. Artistic styles leaned further towards realism without the conventions popular during the Dong Son Culture.
Copper statues were often crafted to satisfy religious needs. The most popular forms were Buddha and deities. As religious rites grew more varied, religious items and offerings in the style of round statuettes grew in popularity. These included altar lamps, cauldrons and urns adjoined with figurines or modeled after sacred animals such as the dragon, phoenix, tortoise, kylan, crane, elephant, foo dog or lion. These items were not only religious but also practical and pleasing to behold. Statues of mortals and ordinary animals were extremely rare.
Thankfully, these ancient Vietnamese artisans left us beautiful records of our society’s evolution.