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The Dragon is an image of particular significance in the traditional Vietnamese culture as this sacred animal is one of the most important pieces of cultural evidence in association with the origin of the Vietnamese nation. The Vietnamese regard themselves as the offspring of the Dragon and the Fairy, in which the Dragon is an embodiment of yang, father, mountains and power, while the Fairy is an embodiment of yin, mother, the sea, and softness.
The Dragon has been ingrained in Vietnamese arts for many lifetimes. Over a thousand years ago, dragon carvings were seen in palaces of Dinh Dynasty. At the dawn of Ly Dynasty, the deed of Emperor Ly Thai To discovered and founded a new capital of the Grand Viet and was also associated with the soaring dragon, thus its name Thang Long. In the dynasties of Ly and Tran, the dragon was densely featured and bared some very recognizable characteristics. Dragons in Ly Dynasty were slender without fins, also known as “worm dragons” as an evolved portrayal of snakes. Dragons in the Tran Dynasty were stronger, more curvaceous, with fins and of a much greater prowess than those in Ly Dynasty. Stone sculptures or ceramic bas-reliefs that feature dragons in Ly and Tran Dynasties that have been excavated and will forever serve as a symbol of national pride for the Vietnamese and their long millennium culture.
In the Post-Le Dynasty onwards, dragons were depicted with increasingly diverse shapes and materials alike. Beside their snake-like builds, dragons were portrayed in some forms, even including half-beasts. But what set these dragons apart are their big noses and much more imposing posture than dragons in previous eras. Dragons were spread beyond palace walls to get imbued with folk arts while in the court, the dragon was synonymous with the absolute power of kings. Stone carvings of dragons in palaces of Le dynasty in Lam K inh within K inh Thien Palace at T hang Long Royal Citadel are well regarded as masterpieces of ancient sculptors in this era.
It was not until Nguyen Dynasty that dragon portrayals reached their peak of diversity in themes, materials and presentations.
Dragon tops the Four Sacred Animals (Dragon, Kylan, Tortoise and Phoenix) which were portrayed to be invincible and powerful at the palace, yet revised with various bizarre adaptations and even some funny and amusing ones in folk arts.
A typical dragon portrayal should incorporate the supposedly choicest features of 9 real beasts: snake body, carp fins, camel head, deer horns, tiger legs, eagle claws, cow ears, lion nose and mane and rooster tail. Dragons that symbolized kings must have 81 yang fins, 36 yin fins, and nine body bends (exactly 9 or multiples of 9 – the biggest positive odd number) and their feet should feature five claws (middle number in the odd row). Without those features above, dragons would no longer be regarded a sacred animal but mere variations, usually seen as dragon’s distant offspring or kin. These dragons were used to represent royals, princes and mandarins or simply for decorative purposes, including giant dragons, water monsters or horse dragons.
Countless works of art in association with dragons in Nguyen Dynasty have still been kept intact. On gold and silver materials, sophisticated carved dragons can be observed on royal seals and priceless screens or indoor partitions. Dragons were made bending around handles with various gaits: coiling, squatting, lying upside down or lying straight, making carvings look alive without losing their imposing look. Screens usually feature symmetrically arranged pairs of dragons such as dragon attending the sun, the moon or gazing ahead.
On bronze material, most recognizable works of dragons are carvings on the Nine Urns before the Ancestral Shrine in the Imperial Palaces. These depict dragons soaring in the sky with great confidence and serenity into divine clouds. Their bodies are virtually engulfed in clouds, with just their heads, tails and feet of five claws exposed. They also make references to emperors at the top of monarchial power throughout their country.
Before the ancient Royal Theater also lies a pair of breathtaking carved dragons. Dragons were placed on a square pedestal, their bodies half coiling and half erected to make a very delightful squatting posture. Their eyes gazed and their mane and back fins erected, making these dragons look more amusing than imposing.
Once on stone, dragons were usually carved as separate works or as reliefs for decoration on the two sides of aisles, doorsteps, partitions or crucial stone stelae in tombs. Dragon carvings on partitions at the tombs of Thien Tho Huu or Hieu Dong are reputed for having achieved classic status. Attending dragons flanking doorsteps of palaces or tombs are usually presented as crawling downward, with highly bending body, rising head and staring eyes. In several places such as Gia Long Tomb and Khai Dinh Tomb, attending dragons on doorsteps were made quite huge of limestone and plaster and their eyes were even crafted out of lively color glass.
However, plaster coated ceramic and porcelain dragons at their most popular are still the ones atop the roofs of palaces. The grander a palace, the larger the dragon carvings, especially the roofs of the Midday Gate, a main gate to the Imperial complex and Thai Hoa Palace, home to the royal throne.
Many fine art experts assumed that no matter what angles of view you took, you would always see 9 dragons soaring all over its roofs. These carvings also make the palace have a more gentle and flexible look. In several plaster coated brick partitions, dragons presented under the form of bas-reliefs also boast refined aesthetic values, particularly those on the partition behind Luong Khiem Palace at Tu Duc Tomb and the dragon face on the partition before Co Thanh Tomb (dedicated to the father of Emperor Gia Long).
Dragons as portrayed on wood in Nguyen Dynasty also widely vary, yet the most outstanding ones are seen on golden thrones and the big golden parasol above. However, the works of highest artistic sophistication are monolithic beams carved with dragons in Long An Palace. These are huge ironwood blocks exquisitely embossed with dragons looming behind clouds and waters, their heads supporting the gable and their feet reaching out to support side beams. Many researchers agreed that these were all the masterpieces of wood sculpture.
Dragons in Nguyen Dynasty were also portrayed on a number of other materials, including lacquer, gilded lacquer, jade, ivory, bones, blue enamel, ceramics, embroideries and textiles, all of which yield some brilliant works of dragons. To explain these exceptional achievements, one can only make references to the statement: The Dragon is truly an essence of Vietnamese culture.