VietNamNet Bridge – Mythological animals that star in ancient tales and art play a vital role in religious beliefs and perspectives on life.
Ancient people believed that sacred animals were the embodiment of natural phenomena, mysterious forces, or supernatural power that could influence human life and the universe.
In fact, those animals were created by people and used as cultural symbols, with the aim being to present their beliefs, religions and perspectives on life. These objects were described in mythology, legend and presented on statues, paintings, worshipped objects and architectural constructions.
Along with history, they have become part of Vietnamese culture, as they express the talent of craftsmen.
Vietnamese sacred animals could be created by Vietnamese people or adopted from foreign countries, which reflect the spiritual life of people, as well as their cultures. Each animal presents its notion of cultural identity and its characteristics from historical periods.
An exhibition of sacred animals is ongoing at the Viet Nam National Museum of History. It displays the abundance of the significant objects from Vietnamese culture and history dating from the Dong Son culture (the first millennium BC) to the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945).
The exhibition of 27 types of sacred animals presents 100 objects, being the largest such exhibition ever and provides a comprehensive view on how those animals were used by Vietnamese people in the past.
The notable exhibits include icons of dragons, kylins, tortoises, phoenixes and 12 oriental zodiac animals.
The objects and their explanations were selected and compiled by a council of historians and researchers, including Nguyen Van Doan, Pham Quoc Quan and Duong Trung Quoc.
“This exhibition aims to provide audiences with an understanding about the cultural symbols of the sacred animals of Viet Nam and the sculptural arts of those animals, thus helping to raise the public’s awareness in the uses of those cultural symbols,” said Doan.
“Not many people have an adequate understanding of Vietnamese sacred objects, although they play an important role in the nation’s culture and history,” he said.
“The fact is that Vietnamese culture has much more than popular symbols of dragons and kylins,” he added.
In Viet Nam, the image of dragon appeared at the beginning of the period of states of Van Lang – Au Lac (2524-179 BC) and became sacred symbols related to the ancestors and origin of the nation through the legend that Vietnamese people are children of the Fairy and the Dragon.
“In this case, the dragon means a totem,” said Nguyen Quoc Huu, curator of the exhibition.
“On the other hand, as one of the cradles of wet rice agriculture, the Vietnamese dragon also became a good god, providing good weather for abundant crops.”
Through more than 2,000 years, dragons in Vietnamese art have changed in style as they displayed different traits. They also became symbols of royal power in feudal times.
“The dragon images reflect people’s desire to free themselves from restrictions and limitations. The dragon can fly in the sky, hide in the clouds, swim, walk and crawl. The dragon symbolises human aspirations for strength and the freedom to live a better life,” said cultural researcher Dang Van Bai.
Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to view a collection of imperial objects bearing images of dragons made from gold, silver and jade.
“While the dragon symbolises powerful men in feudal times, the phoenix represented the queen, princess, as well as noble women. In Viet Nam, the phoenix has become a popular decorative motif in different arts throughout the history.
“Legend has it that the phoenix is the king of the birds, bearing dozens of good characteristics and virtues. The phoenix only appears in peaceful times, and disappears in wartime. Therefore, its image symbolises peace and prosperity,” Huu said.
The dog is familiar to the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people to expel evil spirits and pray for blessings, stone dog statues were often placed in front of residential houses, temples and prefectures. Dog statues used in houses were smaller than those found at religious monuments. Also, the dog worshipping custom has been popular in many regions.
The tiger is an animal associated with Mother Goddess worship. In the temples of this religion can be found altars containing five tigers with five colours – yellow, blue, red, black, white – which characterise five basic elements and the five guardians of five directions.
The tiger is also considered to be the lord of the forest. For this reason, it has been deified and became a symbol of power and strength.
The tiger was often depicted on the front door of ancient buildings, as was the kylin. The kylin is also called by a different name in Viet Nam: nghe.
Since the Tran dynasty (1225-1400), the kylin was used as a symbol of royal power, as Confucianism began to develop. The kylin also appeared in many different art forms, with different styles and meanings.
“Few people know that the snake is also a sacred object in Vietnamese culture. It rarely appears in artworks,” Huu said.
It is a symbol of the god of water, and is representative of the two opposite characteristics: bad and good. In the Vietnamese original belief, snake worshipping was very popular, connected with the rivers and water of agricultural populations. The image of a couple of snakes twisted together were symbols of fertility, as well as birth and life.
There are four countries in Asia that use images of the 12 zodiac animals to represent the 12 months in the lunar calendar, calculated based upon the cycle of lunar phases. Zodiac animals have been also used to consider those factors related to human fate and life.
“Viet Nam is the only country that used the cat to represent the fourth zodiac animal, instead of sheep or rabbits as in Japan, China and Korea,” said Huu.
“That’s an example of the creativity and opinions of the Vietnamese people when they adopt a cultural symbol from other countries.”
The exhibition also features many mythical animals from Vietnamese culture that were adopted from foreign countries during centuries of trading.
Pegasus is a prime example, according to Huu.
It was adopted to Vietnamese culture beginning in the 15th century when traders from Western countries came to Viet Nam and ordered local craftsmen to produce pegasus statues from Vietnamese pottery and ceramics.
“Local craftsmen expressed their interest in this object. They began creating similar products, based on samples provided by Westerners,” he said.
“Beside a winged horse, Vietnamese people even created winged fish, lions and tigers.
“We found many artifacts bearing images of these animals from shipwrecks in the waters off Cu Lao Cham, the central province of Quang Nam.”
Garuda is a mythical bird creature originating in India and often described as a humanoid bird, which symbolised truth and power.
In Viet Nam, garuda appeared in Champa arts as a Hindu divinity, a Vishnu’s vehicle, from the Ly dynasty (11th-13th centuries) to the Mac dynasty (16th century), and the garuda image became a sacred creature depicted as a guardian at the stupa corners, supporting pedestals or ridge poles for pagoda roofs. Garuda is also a representative of the cultural interaction and exchanges between Dai Viet (the former name of Viet Nam) and Champa cultures.
Some mythical animals adopted from China are named bo lao (Pulao), si van (Chiwen), tich ta (Jiaotu) and thao thiet (taotie). From these original versions, Vietnamese people created objects bearing their own names and used them in their ordinary lives.
Pulao likes loud sounds and roaring. Pulao was also very afraid of the whale. Whenever the whale strikes him, pulao would roar loudly. Therefore, ancient people often made bells with a pulao on top, and bell-striker in the shape of whale.
Jiaotu is legendary and characterised by his laziness, as he often sleeps in a curling-up position and does not like to be bothered by strangers in his domain. Jiaotu was often carved on front doors to protect the lord of the house and warn strangers not to break in.
Taotie is a creature that was very gluttonous. Therefore, taotie is described as being frontal, with only its head and two forelegs showing, making it both fierce and having a superb appearance.
Originally, taotie was displayed on dinner-sets in order to remind people to eat and drink politely. Afterwards, taotie appeared on several different utensils and became a symbol of prosperousness and sustainability.
Chiwen is a marine animal described as having a bending and circular tail. Whenever chiwen’s tail beats the waves, it starts to rain. That’s why the chiwen has often been placed on ridge poles of architectural roofs, in a bid to guard against fire. In Viet Nam, chiwen is also called kim, and having different appearances, such as a dragon-headed beast or a dragon with a fish tail.
When Confucianism was introduced in Viet Nam, some symbols were adopted, such as a kylin that represents mercy. It became popular in the Le dynasty (15th century) when Confucianism reached its highest development. Its basic traits are always the body of hoofed animals, while covered by fish scales.
The carp transforming into a dragon is part of mythology, seen through the generations in Viet Nam. It became part of the tale of the carp that passed the dragon gate, which was very accustomed to Confucian school examinees. The tale reflects the persistence of examinees on the path to success, and the theme “carp transforming to dragon” appeared beginning in the Tran dynasty (13th-14th century).
The crane is a sacred Taoist creature, symbolising nobility and immortality. However, the crane image has become a common symbol of Buddhism because of the acculturation of religions in Viet Nam. The crane has often been described as standing on the tortoise’s back or as the divinity of a fairy, which is a common decorative theme in communal houses.
In Buddhist mythology, the monkey is a sincere disciple of Buddha. In Viet Nam, many statues of monkeys were found at the Chuong Son stupa site in the northern province of Nam Dinh which dates to the Ly dynasty. The statues of the three wise monkeys, include one covering his eyes, one covering his mouth and one covering his ears. These refer to the three principles of Buddhism: see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
Gregoire Nuss, a consultant in cultural heritage from France, said he was impressed by the exhibition and the abundance of mythical animals in Vietnamese culture.
“An exhibition of artifacts dating from many centuries ago may not be too interesting, but the exhibition of mythical animals really attracted me,” he said.
“These objects proved the talent of craftsmen and the uniqueness of Vietnamese culture.”
It is expected that the exhibition will help people become aware of true Vietnamese sacred objects, and craftsmen will find inspiration in creating symbols that are authentic to Vietnamese culture.
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