Viet Nam: the Dragon & the Fairy

Viet Nam particularly has not one, but 2 symbols that are parallel and harmonious together. They are a couple of creatures considered the ancestors of Vietnamese: a Dragon and a Bird, symbolizing an opposing pair of Father – Mother, Male – Female, representing the Yin – Yang philosophy of ancient Vietnamese people.

Location-of-Vietnam
Location of Vietnam (maphill.com)

Theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIvqCSryPPY

1. History of Viet Nam

Viet Nam is located in Southeast Asia. According to many legends, the first Vietnamese state was established around 2879 BC. However, after the fall of Au Lac state in 179 BC, Viet Nam had to endure 1000 years of Chinese domination. Until year 938, Viet Nam officially regained its independence after the historic battle on the Bach Dang river, led by Ngo Quyen, and defeating the Souther Han army.

ngo-quyen
Ngo Quyen – the king of Vietnamese kings (viettoon)

Over the following centuries, Vietnamese feudal dynasties such as Dinh, Early Le, Ly, and Tran kept their independence from China (only lost it in a short period of about 20 years under the Ho dynasty ), developed economic, political, military potential and reached the Golden Age under the rule of king Le Thanh Tong, Later Le dynasty.

le-loi
Le Loi – the king who resurrected Viet Nam (civilization-v-customisation.wikia.com)
ho-chi-minh
Ho Chi Minh (wikipedia.org)
By the time of Nguyen dynasty, the last feudal dynasty of Viet Nam, the French attacked and invaded the country in 1858. On September 2nd, 1945, chairman Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence giving birth to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. After defeating the French in 1954, Viet Nam was divided into 2 halves: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The Americans’ intervention led to the Vietnam War which ended on April 30th, 1975 when Viet Nam was finally unified again.

2. The legend of the Dragon & the Fairy

The most ancient and purest symbols of the Vietnamese peope are the Vietnamese dragon and the Lac bird, traced back to the legend of the Dragon and the Fairy, which tells the origin of Vietnamese people from the time of the Van Lang state in the 7th century BC. Images of these two sacred animals can be seen on the surface of the Dong Son bronze drums, artifacts of Dong Son culture (centred at the Red River Valley of northern Vietnam).

hoa-binh
Hoa Binh bronze drum (bacsinguyenxuanquang.wordpress.com)

This legend recounts that Lac Long Quan was the son of King Kinh Duong Vuong and Long Nu – Dragon king’s daughter under Dong Dinh Lake. He is stronger than any man, possess extrodinary martial arts and travels all over the ancient Viet Nam. He used his sword, the Thuan Thien sword to slay vicious demons that harmed the people such as Ngu Tinh (fish demon), Ho Tinh (fox demon) and Moc Tinh (tree demon). After that, he also taught people how to grow and cook rice, how to build stilt houses to live, how to be fathers and husbands.

lac-long-quan
Lac Long Quan slaying Ngu Tinh (zidean.com)

At that time, king De Lai brought his troops from the North to the South, along with his very beautiful daughter, Au Co. Knowing this, Lac Long Quan immediately returned from the sea to the mainland, defeated De Lai’s army and met Au Co. Lac Long Quan brought Au Co back to his palace on the high mountains, they fell in love afterwards and finally got married.

au-co
Mother Au Co  (viettoon.net)

Lac Long Quan stayed with Au Co for a while before Au Co was pregnant and gave birth to 100 eggs. Each egg hatched a son. Those 100 boys grew up incredibly fast, all were handsome, strong and smart. Dozens of years passed, Lac Long Quan lived happily next to his big family, but he was still a dragon after all so he still missed the sea and it was difficult to stay on the mountains with Au Co forever. So he said his farewell and led 50 sons to the sea while the remaining 50 followed Au Co to live on land.

The eldest son stayed in Phong Chau land, and was titled Hung King of Van Lang Kingdom. Hung King divided his goverment into 15 ministries, advisors were called Lac Hau, generals were called Lac Tuong. Kings’ sons were called Quan Lang while the daughters were called My Nuong. The following kings used the mutual title Hung King.

50-50
50 children stayed on land – 50 children went to the sea (tinhoa.net)

Thanks to this legend, the Vietnamese people still consider themselves as the descendants of Dragon and Fairy, a yin-yang pair, in which the Dragon is Yang, abstracted from 2 reptiles: snakes and crocodiles.  And the Fairy is Yin, abstracted from waterbirds that are very much distributed in Southeast Asia and Vietnam. This pairing represents the dualistic philosophy, yin and yang of ancient Vietnamese residents.

3. Lac Long Quan – the Vietnamese dragon

ca-sau
Ancient crocodile (kienthuc.net.vn)

The legend of Lac Long Quan proved that in those old days, the Dragon already existed in the mind of Vietnamese people as a sacred symbol. Ancient Vietnamese people used to live in watery areas so they worshipped crocodiles as a sacred animal since ancient times, because they represent abundance and power. During the reign of Hung King, there used to be a lot of crocodiles living in the land of ancient Vietnamese people so they were forced to tattoo themselves with crocodiles, sepents before going underwater in order to avoid being attacked by these dangerous animals. Later on, the Vietnamese people sanctified the crocodile species to become ‘giao long‘ (the dragon of Giao Chi, indicating Vietnam during the Northern domination) as a way to add to the image of a crocodile with more meaningful imagination attributes

lac-long-quan
Lac Long Quan rides a Giao Long (zidean.com)
ly-cong-uan
Ly Cong Uan (viettoon.net)

In more than 1000 years being ruled by China, the image of the Vietnamese dragon was developed under cultural influence, therefore it had many features of a Chinese dragon. Until the Ly dynasty built its cultural independence, king Ly Cong Uan officially chose the image of the dragon to become the national symbol of the independent Dai Viet state. To get rid of the Chinese influences, Ly Thai To sought to Indian culture to create the Ly dragon, with its own special characteristics:

  • Its body is soft and curves into 12 parts, represent 12 months of a year, symbolize the change of weather, the power of rain, the prosperity Vietnamese civilization which was based on the Southeast Asian semiaquatic rice. This soft body resembles the Naga snake in Indian mythology rather than the Chinese dragon.
  • Its head is completely different from dragons in other Asian countries. It has a long mane, a goatee, no horns. Especially the crest on its nose has a wavy shape (some may call it the fire crest), not an animalistic nose like the Chinese dragon.
  • Its beard was moled into a shape of a bohdi leaf, a specific decorative motif of Indian culture
  • Its jaw always holds on a pearl instead of holding the pearl by its hand like dragons in other countries. The pearl represents humanity, knowledge and nobility. The dragon always looks up to seize the pearl expressing the respectful attitude towards humanity values, pursuing knowledge and noble spirit.
vietnamese-dragon
Ly Dragon (wikipedia.org)

The harmonious combination of Chinese and Indian features has made this project one of the most remarkable images in Vietnamese art history. These unique characteristics represent the assertion of human rights, kingship and sovereignty of the Vietnamese people. In fact, the Vietnamese dragon did appear once on the Coat of Arms of the “State of Vietnam” – a political regime of the French Indochina Federation, existed between 1948 and 1955.

coat-of-arms-of-south-vietnam
Coat of arms of the State of Vienam (wikipedia.org)

4. Au Co – Lac bird 

If the custom of dragon tattooing showed that the ancient Vietnamese identified themelves with the sacred dragon, then the figures of the masquerade and costumes of theirs found on the Dong Son bronze drum revealed that they also identified themselves with birds. Antoher concrete proof for this is that the Vietnamese consider their ancestors are of the Hong Bang clan, which is a big water bird. The word “bang” means big, while the word “hong” is actually a combination of the word “giang” (river) and the word “dieu” (bird).

trong-dong
Figures on the Dong Son bronze drum (kttemp.blogspot.com)
chim-lac
Lac Bird (anhsontranduc.wordpress.com)

The image Lac bird on the surface of the bronze drums is considered a symbol of Van Lang state and Hung kings, symbolizing pure Vietnamese culture and spirit. However, the archetype bird of the Lac bird is still a mystery and controversy until today. The most popular theory says that just like in the case of the Vietnamese dragon upgraded from crocodiles, the Lac bird is originally water birds, such as storks, because of the similarity in shape. as well as the meaning of the name.

stork
A stork (mapio.net)

According to the legend, 50 children followed Lac Long Quan to go to the sea and do fishery, whilte the remaining 50 people followed Au Co to stay on land to work in agriculture, cultivating semiaquatic rice. The word ‘lac‘ is a transcription of the word ‘water‘, so it can be said that Lac was a bird that lived close to the paddy fields, attached to agriculture. Among the birds living in the Vietnamese rice fields, the stork is the most popular, spreading from North to South, where there are rice paddy fields then there are storks. Storks also have long necks, long beaks, long wings, which seem to match the Lac bird’s description on the bronze drums.

The stork also has a close and long-term connection with the Vietnamese agricultural life that they have appeared in folk songs, folk lores and proverbs, expressing the sentiment of Vietnamese people, especially the farmers, towards the storks, for example:

Con cò mà đi ăn đêm,
Ðậu phải cành mềm lộn cổ xuống ao.
Ông ơi ông vớt tôi nao!
Tôi có lòng nào, ông hãy xáo măng.
Có xáo thì xáo nước trong,
Ðừng xáo nước đục đau lòng cò con.

(The stork went out to eat,
Perching on soft branches, it fell onto the pond.
Mister, please pick me up!
If I’m dishonest, you can cook me.
If you do cook please use clear broth,
Don’t make it turbid, hurting my child.)

Thus, it may be that at the dawn of national history, the Lac Viet people also lived closely to the stork on the rice paddy fields and recorded its image on their artifacts which are the bronze drums. In other words, the bird figure on Lac Viet bronze drums can be storks on Vietnamese rice paddy fields, which still exist throughout the Vietnamese countryside until today.

stork
A Vietnamese stork (ocuaso.com)

Reference:

Đinh Hồng Hải. (2016). Những biểu tượng đặc trưng trong văn hóa truyền thống Việt Nam – tập 3. Hà Nội: Thế Giới.

Jean Chevailier & Alain Gheerbrant. (2002). Từ điển biểu tượng văn hóa thế giới. Đà Nẵng: Đà Nẵng.

Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ. (2016). Hình Tượng Rồng Trong Văn Hóa Phương Đông. TP. HCM: Chính trị quốc gia.

Nguyễn Văn Chiến. (2012). Hình tượng Rồng trong Mỹ thuật cổ Việt Nam. Hội mỹ thuật Việt Nam

Trần Gia Phụng. (2005). Hình chim trên trống đồng Lạc Việt. – http://www.luanhoan.net/Bai%20Moi%20Trong%20Ngay/html/bm%2023-11-17.htm

Trần Ngọc Thêm. (2004). Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam. TP. HCM: Tổng hợp TP. HCM

Trần Ngọc Thêm & Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ. (2011). Nguồn gốc con rồng dưới góc nhìn văn hóa, Tập san Khoa học xã hội và Nhân vănhttp://nguvan.hnue.edu.vn/Nghiencuu/Vanhoa/tabid/107/newstab/450/Default.aspx

https://vi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vi%E1%BB%87t_Nam

 

 

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