EARLY ART IN VIETNAM: ANCIENT ART, IMPERIAL PERIOD ART AND FOREIGN INFLUENCES

ANCIENT ART IN VIETNAM

Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, each of which has its own traditional culture. The diversity of the ethnic groups is apparent in the many traditional and cultural Vietnamese treasures. These treasures include the various works of art found throughout the country, including sculpture, ceramic, painting, and casting, made from materials such as clay, stone, bronze, steel, wood, and paper. Preserved vestiges testify that the Vietnamese people have a long history of traditional fine arts. For example, the picture carvings on the walls of the caves in Hoa Binh date back to 10,000 years; a bronze ladle found in Haiphong and bronze tools found in Thanh Hoa are from 4th century B.C. The traditional fine art of Vietnam is comprised of many forms. The art works are diverse and come from many different time periods. The following section introduces several varieties of Vietnamese art. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

On ancient Vietnamese art, Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "Archeological evidence has uncovered a Southeast Asian trading system that dates to at least the second millennium B.C. The broad distribution of bronze drums created by the early culture of Dong Son and the Sa Huynh culture’s jewelry found outside Viet Nam support Viet Nam’s important position in this early interchange. By the beginning of the Common Era, it is clear that Viet Nam also conducted regular exchange with India and China. Along with the advantages of these commercial transactions came the exchange of both technologies and ideas and beliefs, including concepts of statecraft and the introduction of foreign religions. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

The metal, ceramic, and stone objects used to make decorative objects from the first millennium B.C. through the seventeenth century, combine unique Vietnamese characteristics with the iconography and decorative motifs that resulted from cultural interaction. Objects from this period according to fall into one of three groups: 1) the early cultures of Dong Son in the north and Sa Huynh in central and southern Viet Nam; 2) the trading cities of Fu Nan; and 3) the polities of Champa. **

Early Cultures: Dong Son and Sa Huynh (1st millennium B.C.–A.D. 2nd century)

The early prehistoric cultures of Dong Son in northern Viet Nam and Sa Huynh in central and southern Viet Nam are the source of substantial archeological evidence of exchange between coastal Viet Nam and other Asian countries. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

The Dong Son culture, which thrived in the Hong (Red) River valley from the seventh century B.C. to the second century CE, produced a wealth of bronze items, including drums, axes, and bells, as well as ceramics and beads. The broad distribution of Dong Son bronze drums is one of the strongest indicators that trade between Viet Nam and Southeast Asia was widespread during this period. Early Chinese texts indicate Chinese commercial interest in the region and detail the objects of trade that they sought, such as rhino horns, elephant tusks, medicinal plants, and forest products. The Chinese held sway in northern Viet Nam for a thousand years, and their influence is evident in later Dong Son artifacts.

While the Dong Son culture thrived in the north, the Sa Huynh culture flourished farther south from the fifth century B.C. to the first century CE. The culture was first discovered in the early twentieth century, and scholars have only recently begun to study it. The Sa Huynh produced a variety of decorated ceramic vessels, as well as huge, thin-walled ceramic jars and nephrite ear ornaments. Chinese mirrors and vessels and other foreign goods found at Sa Huynh sites, as well as Sa Huynh-produced goods found in the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan attest to the culture’s importance as a center of international exchange.

Dong San Drums

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "Before the period of direct Chinese influence, North Vietnam was the home of a Bronze Age culture called Dong Son. The best-known artefacts created in this culture are large bronze "kettle drums" or gongs, in which dancers and processional performances are also depicted. Together with some cave paintings they give the earliest existing information about the theatrical arts in Southeast Asia. The Dong Son culture derives its name from the village Dong Son in northern Vietnam, which was first excavated in the 1920s. It is now generally thought that it was not the actual political center of the culture, but merely one of the Dong Son principalities loosely linked to each other. The center of the Dong Son culture was the central region of the Red River basin.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Working with bronze was practiced in Vietnam probably from the second millennium B.C. onward and it reached its technical and artistic peak around 500 BC–100 AD. Among the Dong Son bronze objects, such as tools, vessels, ornaments, weapons, arrowheads etc. the most impressive group is that of the large, decorated gongs, or "drums" or "kettle drums" as they are often called. The earliest examples were cast in one piece. Later, when gong manufacturing spread to other parts of Southeast Asia, as far as Bali, the gongs were also cast in two pieces, utilising the so-called lost wax method. The basic design of Dong Son gongs consists of a flat tympanum and sides that narrow in the middle.|~|

There has been much speculation about the function of these gongs. It is now thought that they were connected with both ritual and rank, with many found buried in the graves of high-ranking individuals. The materials with which they were made and the skills needed to manufacture them were such that only the wealthy would have been able to own them. The tympana of the gongs are decorated with a rich variety of motifs, some impressed into the wax through the use of moulds before the bronze was cast and some carved on the wax by hand. The motifs include the central star or sun, which has been identified by Vietnamese scholars as the Solar Star, the central axis of Dong Son cosmology. Comb-teeth motifs, concentric circles and birds surround it. Human figures are also depicted, as well as extremely informative portrayals of everyday life, agricultural scenes, rituals and handsome warships with feathered warriors. |~|

Dancers are often portrayed within the middle section of the tympanum decorations. They are shown in line formations in identical, energetic poses. In their hands they hold different kinds of weapons such as spears, sticks and axes. The dancers wear extremely large feathered headdresses and their lower bodies are covered with long, skirt-like costumes. Similar kinds of dances are still performed in some remote areas in Southeast Asia.

Describing a Bronze Drum from the 5th–3rd century B.C., Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "Bronze drums are the characteristic artifact of the Dong Son culture. Hundreds of drums, some weighing up to 440 pounds (two hundred kilograms), have been found in Viet Nam, southern China, and throughout Southeast Asia. This drum has the rounded shoulders and large size that typify the earliest Dong Son drums. The drums served as regalia, ritual instruments, and burial objects. When played, they were suspended from a crossbar, supported by sticks, over a hole in the ground, which served to enhance their resonance. Craftsmen cast the drums in one piece using the lost-wax technique. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society; the piece is from Hoang (Mieu Mon) Village, My Duc District, Ha Tay Province; now in the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 5724]

Bronze Drums —an Ancient Animist Art Form

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The use and manufacture of bronze drums is the oldest continuous art tradition in Southeast Asia. It began some time before the 6th century B.C. in northern Vietnam and later spread to other areas such as Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Karen adopted the use of bronze drums at some time prior to their 8th century migration from Yunnan into Burma where they settled and continue to live in the low mountains along the Burma - Thailand border. During a long period of adoption and transfer, the drum type was progressively altered from that found in northern Vietnam (Dong Son or Heger Type I) to produce a separate Karen type (Heger Type III). In 1904, Franz Heger developed a categorization for the four types of bronze drums found in Southeast Asia that is still in use today. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The vibrating tympanum is made of bronze and is cast as a continuous piece with the cylinder. Distinguishing features of the Karen type include a less bulbous cylinder so that the cylinder profile is continuous rather than being divided into three distinct parts. Type III has a markedly protruding lip, unlike the earlier Dong Son drums. The decoration of the tympanum continues the tradition of the Dong Son drums in having a star shaped motif at its center with concentric circles of small, two-dimensional motifs extending to the outer perimeter. =

“Bronze drums were used among the Karen as a device to assure prosperity by inducing the spirits to bring rain, by taking the spirit of the dead into the after-fife and by assembling groups including the ancestor spirits for funerals, marriages and house-entering ceremonies. The drums were used to entice the spirits of the ancestors to attend important occasions and during some rituals the drums were the loci or seat of the spirit. =

“It appears that the oldest use of the drums by the Karen was to accompany the protracted funeral rituals performed for important individuals. The drums were played during the various funeral events and then, among some groups, small bits of the drum were cut away and placed in the hand of the deceased to accompany the spirit into the afterlife. It appears that the drums were never used as containers for secondary burial because there is no instance where Type III drums have been unearthed or found with human remains inside. The drums are considered so potent and powerful that they would disrupt the daily activities of a household so when not in use, they were placed in the forest or in caves, away from human habitation. They were also kept in rice barns where when turned upside down they became containers for seed rice; a practice that was thought to improve the fertility of the rice. Also, since the drums are made of bronze, they helped to deter predations by scavengers such as rats or mice. =

“The drums were a form of currency that could be traded for slaves, goods or services and were often used in marriage exchanges. They were also a symbol of status, and no Karen could be considered wealthy without one. By the late nineteenth century, some important families owned as many as thirty. The failure to return a borrowed drum often led to internecine disputes among the Karen. =

“Although the drums were cast primarily for use by groups of non-Buddhist hill people, they were used by the Buddhist kings of Burma and Thailand as musical instruments to be played at court and as appropriate gifts to Buddhist temples and monasteries. The first known record of the Karen drum in Burma is found in an inscription of the Mon king Manuha at Thaton, dated A.D. 1056.. The word for drum in this inscription occurs in a list of musical instruments played at court and is the compound pham klo: pham is Mon while klo is Karen. The ritual use of Karen drums in lowland royal courts and monasteries continued during the centuries that followed and is an important instance of inversion of the direction in which cultural influences usually flow from the lowlands to the hills. =

Playing and Making Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “When played, the drums were strung up by a cord to a tree limb or a house beam so that the tympanum hung at approximately a forty-five degree angle. The musician placed his big toe in the lower set of lugs to stabilize the drum while striking the tympanum with a padded mallet. Three different tones may be produced if the tympanum is struck at the center, edge, and midpoint. The cylinder was also struck but with long strips of stiff bamboo that produces a sound like a snare drum. The drums were not tuned to a single scale but had individualized sounds, hence they could be used effectively as a signal to summon a specific group to assemble. It is said that a good drum when struck could be heard for up to ten miles in the mountains. The drums were played continuously for long periods of time since the Karen believe that the tonal quality of a drum cannot be properly judged until it is played for several hours. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

For the Karen, the bronze drums perform a vital service in inducing the spirits to bring the rains. When there is a drought, the Karens take the drums into the fields where they are played to make the frogs croak because the Karens believe that if the frogs croak, it is sign that rain will surely fall. Therefore, the drums are also known as "Karen Rain Drums" =

“The town of Nwe Daung, 15 kilometers south of Loikaw, capital of Kayah (formerly Karenni) State, is the only recorded casting site in Burma. Shan craftsmen made drums there for the Karens from approximately 1820 until the town burned in 1889. Karen drums were cast by the lost wax technique; a characteritic that sets them apart from the other bronze drum types that were made with moulds. A five metal formula was used to create the alloy consisting of copper, tin, zinc, silver and gold. Most of the material in the drums is tin and copper with only traces of silver and gold. The Karen made several attempts in the first quarter of the twentieth century to revive the casting of drums but none were successful. During the late 19th century, non-Karen hill people, attracted to the area by the prospect of work with British teak loggers, bought large numbers of Karen drums and transported them to Thailand and Laos. Consequently, their owners frequently incorrectly identify their drums as being indigenous to these countries. =

Other Objects from Dong San Period

Describing a bronze halberd from the A.D. 1st century B.C.–1st century, Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The halberd, a weapon based on a spear, combines the merits of both a spear and an axe. The weapon was used for hook-cutting, pecking, or piercing one’s opponent. This example was collected in northern Viet Nam, but blades of similar shape have also been excavated in southern Viet Nam. A fantastic crocodile-like creature decorates both sides of this halberd. If it is read from its jaws upward, it becomes a tall, thin standing creature with a feathered headdress, a motif found on Dong Son period vessels. This figure and the spotted creature on the blade appear to have been stamped into the mold before casting." [Source: Hai Phong City, Kien An District, Hai Phong Province; now in National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 1408]

Describing a glazed stoneware Chicken-headed Ewer (Han type) from the A.D. 1st–3rd century, Tingley wrote: "From the first to third century CE, Vietnamese potters produced ceramics in Chinese style for Han tombs, but the vessels produced were never exact copies of the Chinese originals. The fine clay of the Hong (Red) River delta is distinguishable from the coarser clay used for Chinese ceramics of the period, and the Vietnamese modified the Chinese shapes. In the case of this chicken-headed ewer, the everted feet, the ring around the body, and the flat, rectangular handle differ from the Chinese versions of this type of vessel, which are found only in southern China." [Source: now in National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 15062]

Describing an earthenware Burial Urn with Cover from the Sa Huynh culture, 4th–2nd century B.C., Tingley wrote: "At least a thousand jars like this one have been excavated in Viet Nam’s Quang Nam and Quang Ngai Provinces since 1975. The jars, placed in the soil vertically, contain offerings that include earthenware ceramics, bronze and iron utensils, and jewelry, some of which were destroyed as part of the burial ritual. The peoples of the Sa Huynh culture are believed to be linguistically related to the peoples of island Southeast Asia; it is most likely not coincidental, therefore, that burial jars have also been uncovered elsewhere in Southeast Asia. [Source: found at the An Bang site, Hoi An District, Quang Nam Province; now in Hoi An Center for Monument Management and Preservation, Cl(AB)95]

Describing a Nephrite Bicephalous Ear Ornament from the Sa Huynh culture, 3rd–1st century B.C., Tingley wrote: "Bicephalous (two-headed) ear ornaments like this one have been discovered in sites in Taiwan, the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Thailand, and are considered a characteristic object of the early Sa Huynh culture. We know that these ornaments, sometimes produced in glass, were hung on the ears, as at least one has been found still attached to a skull. The two-horned animal heads on either end of the ornament resemble a bovine (Pseudoryx nghetinensis) found in Viet Nam." [Source: found at the Giong Ca Vo site, Ho Chi Minh City, Can Gio District, Ho Chi Minh Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 13619]

Art from Funan in the Mekong River Delta (A.D. 1st–5th Century)

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The Fu Nan culture flourished in the Mekong River delta in southern Viet Nam and was a center of Southeast Asian trade between the first and fifth century. This period saw an increase in international trade from the Mediterranean to China. Westerners sought the gold of the East, and with the development of more advanced sailing ships that harnessed the power of the monsoon winds, transoceanic travel became possible. Few details are known about the Fu Nan people; however, it is evident that they were a technically advanced seafaring people with the means to participate in trade on a large scale. One third-century source describes their ships as two hundred feet long and able to carry seven hundred men and an extensive cargo. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

"More than three hundred Fu Nan archeological sites have been identified in the Mekong delta region; these sites are characterized by domestic architecture built on stilts, terracotta wares and buff-colored ceramics, gold jewelry, and Buddhist and Hindu architecture and sculpture. A preponderance of imagery from this region is associated with the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu, and several examples are on view here. Extensive excavations of the city of Oc Eo have yielded rich local artifacts and a few examples of international contact, including Roman coins and jewelry, Chinese sculpture, and Indian beads. The dominant position of the Fu Nan people in international trade fell significantly by the sixth century and then came to a halt around 650." **

Funan Art Objects (A.D. 1st–5th Century)

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The Fu Nan culture flourished in the Mekong River delta in southern Viet Nam and was a center of Southeast Asian trade between the first and fifth century. This period saw an increase in international trade from the Mediterranean to China. Westerners sought the gold of the East, and with the development of more advanced sailing ships that harnessed the power of the monsoon winds, transoceanic travel became possible. Few details are known about the Fu Nan people; however, it is evident that they were a technically advanced seafaring people with the means to participate in trade on a large scale. One third-century source describes their ships as two hundred feet long and able to carry seven hundred men and an extensive cargo. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

Describing an Ekamukhalinga from the 6th century Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The Hindu god Shiva is frequently worshipped in his linga (phallus) form, which according to ritual texts signifies Shiva’s highest level of being. This is an example of an ekamukhalinga, or one-faced linga. The linga is generally installed in the garbhagrha ("womb," or central, chamber) of the temple, and is the primary object of worship for devotees of Shiva. The form of the linga is divided into three sections, a square section that alludes to Brahma the Creator; an octagonal section, to Vishnu the Preserver; and the cylindrical upper portion, to Shiva the Destroyer." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **. found at the Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province; now in Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5532]

Describing Three Intaglio made from carnelian and crystal from the 6th century, Tingley wrote: "These intaglios, along with Indian inscribed gems, cameos, and Roman medallions, attest to the cosmopolitanism of Oc Eo. The use of carnelian for stone seals was common in the western ancient world. A close look at these carnelian intaglios reveals that they were produced with a rotary abrasive tool, which creates a round edge at the end of a cut. In contrast, the crystal intaglio was more coarsely carved with a chisel, and was probably made at a different location. Several similar crystal examples with figures seated in the posture of royal ease were excavated at Oc Eo." [Source: ** found at Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 2248, BTLS 2258, BTLS 2253]

Describing a stone lintel from the late 7th century, Tingley wrote: " The lintel of a Southeast Asian temple, positioned above the doorway, served as the sculptural focus for the temple’s entrance and provided a large surface for deep relief carving. The lintel framed the image of the primary deity inside and was one of the first views the devout had of the building. As in this example, early lintels often included a curved arch that imitated wooden prototypes." [Source: ** found at Thuy Lieu Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5977 ]

Bronzes combine elements of indigenous animism with tantricism. Buddhism. Describing a bronze Vishnu from the 7th century, Tingley wrote: "Vishnu was the most popular Hindu god during the Fu Nan period, and four-armed images of him are abundant throughout the Mekong delta region. In these images, he holds a conch (a symbol of the origin of existence); a mace, which also serves to support the figure in this example; a clod of earth; and a wheel (a symbol of power), broken here. The long dhoti he wears recalls earlier images of Vishnu, but also suggests Pallava south Indian influences. The silvery patina of this piece reveals that the bronze is of high tin content, which is typical of Southeast Asian bronzes. The large hands and the backward thrust of the second pair of upper arms are also common in sculpture of this early period." [Source: ** found at the Tan Phu site, Tan Hoi Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 1585]

Describing Three Elephants made of gold sheet from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "The site of Go Xoai, excavated in 1987, included a square brick temple measuring approximately 50 feet (15.4 meters) on all sides. The temple contained a smaller structure in its western section. In this secondary structure, the excavator found a hole filled with white sand and ash, as well as a thin inscribed gold leaf text; inlaid jewelry; and tortoise, snake, eight elephants, and a number of lotuses all in gold repoussé. The dedication of a temple in Southeast Asia was an important religious and secular event that involved the practice of burying gold and other precious objects in the foundation. The Agni Purana, an Indian text of which the Southeast Asians were aware, states that a tortoise and five objects of cosmological significance were to be buried in the base of the temple." [Source: ** found at the Go Xoai site, Duc Hoa District, Long An Province; now in the Long An Museum, BT87-M1-I-3]

Describing a stone Surya from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "Surya, the sun god, is an important generative force derived from Indian Vedic and other solar deities. When portrayed without his chariot and attendants, he can be distinguished by the two lotuses he holds and his heavy clothing. Early images of Surya have been found in many areas of Southeast Asia. His importance derives not only from his independent identity as sun god, but also from his close association with the Hindu god Vishnu. In this sculpture, Surya’s headdress recalls that of Vishnu, although this headdress has an octagonal form, rather than the more common circular shape." [Source: ** at the Ba The Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5527]

Art from Champa (5th–early 19th century)

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The seafaring people of Champa inhabited the central coast of Viet Nam between the fifth and the early nineteenth centuries. The region is divided by numerous rivers, in turn often separated by mountains. As a result, the Cham were not a unified kingdom, but a loosely knit series of polities whose power waxed and waned depending on the efficacy of their current ruler. [Source:Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

"Since maritime trade was the primary source of income for the Cham, their ports became entrepot for the exchange of both goods and ideas. Though much of their trade was with the Chinese—like other Southeast Asian peoples, they provided coveted forest goods to the Chinese—Indian religion and ideas of statecraft were important elements of Cham culture. Early Cham inscriptions are in Sanskrit, and traces of Indian influence can be seen in the impressive fifth- through fifteenth-century sculptures and relief carvings on view in this section of the exhibition, which were created for Cham Hindu and Buddhist structures. **

Many of these structures were dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and built on hilltops, a probable reference to Shiva’s role as Lord of the Mountain. Although the Cham were known for their bricklaying skills and some decor was carved into the brick, stone sculpture was the major source of temple adornment; the tympana over doorways and windows were favored surfaces for the depiction of gods and goddesses. **

Champa Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "The kingdom of Champa, or as was most often the case, rather a network of Cham principalities, flourished in the coastal regions of present-day Vietnam from the early centuries AD to the second half of the 15th century, after which, much reduced in size, it survived until the middle of the 19th century. The region of Champa with its river valleys served as an important stop for the maritime trade route system of the "Southern Silk Road" connecting China to Southeast Asia, India and further to the Mediterranean world. The principal Cham sites, with traces of brick-built temple towers, are scattered around the coastal regions and partly on the plateaus of the interior. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Champa’s history was overshadowed by wars, victorious as well as disastrous, especially with the Khmer. It was finally swept from the political scene by the Sinocised Vietnamese in the 15th century. The legacy of Champa’s arts includes brick temples, fully round sculptures both in stone and bronze, high reliefs, bas-reliefs, ceramics and embossed metal works. The predominant religion of Champa was Hinduism in its Shivaistic form, which developed in Champa in its own way. Vishnuism played a minor role, whereas Buddhism in its Tantric Mahayana form was popular for a period from the 9th to the 11th century, during which time Chinese influence can be recognized in some of the religious sculptures. |~|

The collection of some 300 sculptures and reliefs in the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang, in Central Vietnam, and the much smaller collection at the Musée Guimet in Paris together with those reliefs and sculptures which are still in situ or in minor site museums, form the rather limited core of all Cham sculpture. The motifs of the dancing Shiva, found in the tympana reliefs, show a remarkable iconographical variety. These reliefs served as anthropomorphic representations of the main deity of the temple, which was represented on the main altar as the non-anthropomorphic linga standing on its yoni base. The earliest surviving example of the Shiva tympana reliefs is from the 8th century. Their iconography seems to derive from 6th–8th century West India. |~|

Probably the most widely illustrated of all the Cham sculptures is the 10th century "Tra Kieu dancer". It is a rather well preserved portrayal of a dancer sculptured on a large pedestal. It has been pointed out that this image clearly reflects Indian and Javanese influences. The pose and the gestures of the Tra Kieu dancer reflect Indian influence. In the dancer’s pose one can, however, recognise one particular element, which is seldom present in Indian or even Javanese dance images. It is the over-bent elbow joint of the left arm, which could easily be seen as the artist’s inability to portray human anatomy. However, it can also be interpreted as the earliest so far known surviving portrayal of the technical and aesthetical characteristic, which was and still is a distinctive feature in classical Javanese and, especially, Thai-Khmer dance techniques. |~|

If the above interpretation is correct, the Tra Kieu dancer reflects, to a certain degree, the localisation process of the Indian-influenced dance tradition in Champa culture. This also applies to another famous pedestal dated to an even earlier period, the 7th century. This pedestal, which once supported a large Shiva linga, shows groups of dancers on the risers of its stairway. The pedestal is otherwise decorated with musicians as well as ascetics in various activities. |~|

The central figure in the upper panel has turned his muscular back to the viewer while waving a long scarf in his hands as if offering it to the deity. The side figures are in frozen poses and hold offerings in their hands. The poses and gestures of the dancers in the lower panel are clearly Indian-influenced, but what is striking is the dominant role the dance scarves have in these panels. The use of dance scarves is rare in the Indian Natyashastra-related traditions, whereas scarves are depicted in Central Javanese reliefs and they have become an integral element of Javanese dances of later times. |~|

The Cham dance reliefs reflect the localisation process of Indian dance in Southeast Asia. The over-bent elbow of the Tra Kieu dancer and the dominant role of the scarf in some of the Cham dance images are clearly indigenous or are at least Southeast Asian features. However, the Indian influence continued to thrive during the whole of Champa’s golden period as can be seen, for example, in a lintel relief from the 11th century showing female dancers and musicians. The dancers hold their hands above their heads in a salutation mudra while their open legs are in a typical Indian-influenced position. The asymmetry of their pose may be explained by the fact that the reliefs show not the first movement of the salutation, but one of the following movements when the dancers bend their bodies from side to side. These kinds of invocation dances or sequences of dance are still part of the repertory of Indian dances as well as of some Thai ritual dances. One could conclude that the Indian, especially Southwest Indian, influence is prominent in the Cham dance images, although they are only seldom based on direct Indian models, maybe because the Indian influence could have been, at least partly, received via Indonesian islands. |~|

Art Objects from Champa (5th–early 19th century)

The Museum of Cham Sculpture (intersection of Trung Nu Vuong and Bach Dang Streets, Danang City) houses the most extensive collection of Cham art in the world. It contains an impressive display of 300 Cham sandstone and terra-cotta friezes, sculptures, statues and bas-reliefs collected from the Cham kingdom sites such as Tra Kieu, Dong Duong, Thap Man and My Son."Monumental in size, exquisite in detail, " wrote Susan Brownmiller in the New York Times, "Cham art is an eclectic mix of Hindu deities and legends that gradually incorporated Buddhist themes as the Cham underwent a religious conversion. The museums' three connecting galleries around a graceful courtyard follow the Cham civilization from the 7th through the 14th century...I strolled past awesome sea monsters, mythical lions, smiling elephants, prancing apsaras, proud Shivas and a lot lingams—huge phalluses of stone."

Describing a stone Pedestal from the 8th–9th century, Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "Embellished pedestals, which supported an object of devotion, are a distinctive feature of Cham art, with no comparable form existing in Indian temples. The upper register of this pedestal is carved with images of Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, and a fourth figure holding a kendi (water vessel) in his left hand (the right is broken). On the lower register, rampant lions appear below the four dikpalas (directional deities) on each corner. The presence of the horned Rahu, the ascending node of the moon, on one side, illustrates the Cham inclination to combine the dikpala with the navagraha (nine planets)." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **, from the Van Trach Hoa Village, Phong Dien District, Thua Thien Hue Province; now in the Thua Thien Hue Historical and Revolutionary Museum, TTH 2813/D99]

Describing a stone Relief of Figure Making offeringfrom the late 10th century, Tingley wrote: "This figure kneels before a floral motif and holds a closed flower bud. The gesture of the raised flower and the figure’s kneeling posture suggest that he is making an offering. The original placement of this relief remains uncertain. Curved tympanums were placed over the doors of temples, but it seems unlikely that this figure, possibly representing a donor, would have been placed in such a prominent position. Other examples of architectural elements depicting single figures holding a lotus bud are known to have decorated the spires of temples." [Source: ** now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5906]

Describing a sandstone Dancer from the 11th century, Tingley wrote: "The active pose of dance, as seen in this sculpture, was a favorite of Cham sculptors. It was used in depictions of minor figures like this one, as well as in numerous depictions of Shiva in his form of King of the Dance. The temple site at Tra Kieu, where this figure was discovered, included a number of these dancing figures, which were likely placed around the exterior base of the structure. This particularly lively male swirls a scarf around his body as he raises one leg." [Source: ** found at the Tra Kieu site, Quang Nam Province; now in the Hue Royal Antiquities Museum, DKC 44]

Describing a a stone Gajasimha from the 12th–13th century, Tingley wrote: "The site of Thap Mam in Binh Dinh Province yielded many sculptures, including numerous fantastic beasts like this gajasimha (elephant-lion). The region thrived from the eleventh to the thirteenth century when patrons constructed a large number of temples there. Thap Mam style is characterized by monumentality and the use of big, broad surfaces as background for ecstatic patterning. This gajasimha, one of a pair, stood a good distance from the front of the main shrine and was undoubtedly intended as a guardian figure that demarcated sacred space. The two massive gajasimha, with their stylized elephant heads and lion bodies, would have created a formidable deterrent to anyone with ill intent." [Source: ** found at Thap Mam site, Binh Dinh Province; now in the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture, 38.7]

Describing a stone Lion from the late 12th–13th century, Tingley wrote: "A number of acrobatic lions were found at the site of Thap Mam, both in inverted and upright positions. A corner piece was also discovered, which suggests that the lions were placed around the base of a building. From the earliest period of Viet Nam’s history, prancing and preening lions were used as decorative building supports. This lion stands on his forepaws, and his back legs would have figuratively held up the structure. The blocky body is typical of Thap Mam sculpture, as is the profuse surface decoration from the lion’s grimacing face to its curling tail." [Source: ** found at the Thap Mam site, Binh Dinh Province ; now in National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 21187]

Describing a stone Kinnara from the late 12th–13th century, Tingley wrote: "This kinnara, a supernatural being that is half man and half bird, raises its two hands in anjali mudra, the gesture of devotion. The sculpture would have originally been located on the exterior of one of the Thap Mam towers to ward off evil. In Southeast Asia, the kinnara, unlike other minor deities, attained an independent status and was frequently depicted in art. Most often, only the upper torso was shown. In this example, the large, bold patterns of the ornaments encircling the smooth flesh are characteristic of Thap Mam style." [Source: ** Thap Mam site, Binh Dinh Province, Hue Royal Antiquities Museum, DKC 33]

Ly Dynasty Art and Architecture

Architecture and ceramics that reached a level of excellence during the Ly period. With the spread of Buddhism, many pagodas were built. Some of the most famous have been preserved. Unfortunately, however, the ravages of war and climate have destroyed the majority of the works of art from this period. What remains can only give us an idea of what was achieved at that time. Some works from the Ly period have been erroneously classified by French historians as being from an earlier period, that of Dai La (9th century). [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

On the stele of Linh Xung, erected in 1126, an inscription records that "wherever there was beautiful scenery a pagodas was built ". One of the essential characteristics of these pagodas was harmony with the surrounding landscapes, the building nestling amidst trees, and the gardens and ponds, an integral part of the construction; most often, the background was a hill or winding stream, and the slow ringing of bells in the calm morning or evening seemed part of nature itself. ~

Some pagodas had to be of significant size, since they would accommodate thousands of pilgrims coming to take part in great celebrations. Dien Huu Pagoda, commonly known as the One-Pillar Pagoda and built in 1049, is a graceful pavilion built on a stone pillar standing in the middle of a pond, the whole complex resembling a lotus flower in bloom. The lotus flower motif often appears on monuments. The flower symbolizes beauty and purity, for "though springing from mud it is free from the stench of mud". Stone pillars, some of significant size, often rest on "lotus flowers"; the remains of a pillar in Giam Pagoda, built in 1086, has a base measuring 4.5 meters in diameter and is over 3.5 meters in circumference. At the foot of some of these pillars are carved stones representing waves, and the columns seem to emerge from a stormy sea. A couple of dragons climb the pillar, forming graceful but complex spirals. ~

The pagodas have curved roofs and often comprise a tower with as many as 12 storeys. These pagodas are noted for their architecture, statues and sculptures. At Phat Tich Pagoda, the bases of pillars have stone sculptures representing the bodhi tree (of Buddhist enlightenment) in the center with two worshippers presenting offerings and behind them. four musicians dancing and playing various instruments. The ground is littered with flowers. The atmosphere is joyful and the gestures graceful, far from Buddhist meditation on the unreality of this world. ~

Relics found in the northwestern suburbs of Hanoi, where the palace of the Ly was located, show it great variety of sculpture, statues and decorative motifs on ceramics. A frequent motif is that of the crocodile, with head raised, protruding eyes looking to the right and to the left, and quivering nostrils; the body is lithe and the beast standing on its hind legs seems ready to spring. Stylized lions on ceramics have also been found. ~

Excavations in 1965 on the site of the Chuong Son Pagoda built in 1105 unearthed images of birds with human bodies among other motifs—chrysanthemums, phoenixes and dragons—all frequently found on the works of the period. There is a great variety of products: articles for both daily use and decoration, and pottery and porcelain ware with fine enamel. Among the most beautiful enamels are the opalescent-green and brown-grey ones with a low shine and in various shades. The decoration is varied: flowers, dragons, lotuses, birds, and where the surface permits, frescoes and landscapes with human figures. The drawings and bas-reliefs always have a natural look with graceful lines and a cheerful environment: the movements of birds, elephants and dancers, harmonize with flowers in bloom or contrast with the antics of warriors. Particularly remarkable are the richly decorated porcelain items. Ceramics were sent as far as China to be sold or presented to the imperial court. Under the Ly dynasty this art reached its peak. ~

Art from Trade and Exchange in Hoi An (16th–18th century)

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The port of Hoi An was an ancient center of trade, first for the peoples of the Sa Huynh culture, then for the Cham, who moved farther south in the fourteenth century. The port’s most prosperous era was during the seventeenth century when the Nguyen kingdom of Dang Trong controlled it. Although information about the port in early eras is incomplete, excavations confirm that Hoi An was a port of call for ships from the south carrying Vietnamese ceramics to Asian markets in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. During the seventeenth century, the Nguyen rulers levied few tariffs in Hoi An, making the port an attractive trading center. Hoi An developed rapidly, becoming the Vietnamese port of choice first for the Japanese, then the Chinese, and eventually the Europeans. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

"A multitude of foreign wares, such as Chinese porcelain and Japanese silver, were exchanged in the busy entrepot. Equally important were traditional regional exports, including precious timbers, cinnamon, and gold, brought to Hoi An via the thoroughfare of rivers, lagoons, and streams that connected the port with smaller inland communities. Ships carrying ceramic goods produced at the kilns of the north and China stopped in Hoi An for supplies or to deliver their wares. Some foundered along the treacherous coast, as ceramics included here from the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck indicate." **

Art Objects from Hoi An from the 16th–18th century

Describing a glazed stoneware Large Basin from the Ly–Tran dynasty, 12th–14th century, Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "Although ash glazes appeared in Viet Nam under the influence of the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC–221 CE), it was during the Ly (1009–1225) and Tran (1225–1400) periods that glazed wares became more common. Barrel-shaped jars with ivory glaze and inlaid designs were first discovered in Thanh Hoa Province and are known as Thanh Hoa wares, although we now know they were produced at a number of other sites in northern Viet Nam. This deep basin, heavily thrown and exhibiting a rolled rim, is a more unusual form, although other examples exist." [Source: Asia Society **, found in Thanh Hoa Province; now in the Viet Nam National Fine Arts Museum, 4975-G2-1851]

Describing a stoneware ewer painted with underglaze cobalt blue and remnants of overglaze enamel from the late 15th century, Tingley wrote: "The potters who created this ewer, with its tall, thin spout and handle, appear to have been looking at West Asian prototypes, possibly of metal. The practice of fabricating ceramics for a specific market existed in both Southeast Asia and China. This ewer is one of numerous solid-blue ceramics excavated from the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck, representing a body of previously unknown material. The bisque openwork on the side of this piece would have been originally decorated in red, green, and gold enamels." [Source: **found on the Chu Dau kiln, Cu Lao Cham shipwreck; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 16997]

Describing a glazed stoneware Pair of Nghe from the late Le dynasty, 16th–17th century, Tingley wrote: " The Vietnamese call these fantastic creatures nghe. They are part lion and part dog, and their spiky eyebrows, flaming manes, whorls of fur on their legs, and flamboyant tails are all aspects of their fantastic nature. The nghe were always made in pairs and are generally seated on their haunches; this pair is unusually animated as they crouch and appear to be on the run. Crackled glaze, technically difficult to achieve, became popular in Viet Nam during the sixteenth century. The surfaces of these two nghe are particularly well applied." [Source: ** from the Bat Trang kiln; now in National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 13572, LSb 13573]

Describing a glazed stoneware Lime Pot from the 15th century, Tingley wrote: "This lime pot represents a unique Vietnamese vessel type. It was used to store powdered lime, an essential ingredient of betel leaf chewing, an important social activity practiced throughout Southeast Asia and in southern China. Lime pots appear in Viet Nam as early as the second to fifth century. By the fifteenth century, this characteristic type had taken form: a bulbous body, elevated foot, and a handle that mimics the trunk of an areca tree, the nut of which is chewed with the betel leaf." [Source: ** now in the Viet Nam National Fine Arts Museum, CDA-5/04-4599]

Describing the Hoang Nguu and Nguyen Phong Lai Lamp Stand made of stoneware painted with underglaze cobalt blue dated 24th day, 6th month, 3rd year of Dien Thanh’s reign (1580), Tingley wrote: "This lamp stand is one of a pair dated to the equivalent of 1580. The inscriptions on this piece and its companion list the donors, who include the high princess Phuc Thanh, as well as the artists, Hoang Nguu and Nguyen Phong Lai. The numerous dated ceramics from the fifteenth through nineteenth century provide a firmer chronology for later Vietnamese ceramics than is available for earlier periods. In a temple, lamp stands like this one were placed in pairs on an altar with vessels relating to the offerings of incense, light, water, and flowers." [Source: ** found at Nghia Lu Commune, Cam Giang District, Hai Duong Province; now in National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 13771]

Describing a glazed stoneware Incense Burner and Pair of Lamps from the early 17th century Tingley wrote: "An inscription on the base of this censer in Chinese characters states that the burner is a donation to the pagoda Chua Sung Bao. The donation was made on December 3, 1634, and given by Do Luan (Phuc Mien) and his wife Lady Thi Nhuong (Dieu Tam), along with others in the village of Lai Oc. The complex decoration of the incense burner is typical, with its inset cartouches and appliqués of bisque (unglazed ceramic) ware. On an altar, two lamps would have been placed on either side of the incense burner. The pair included here did not originally accompany this particular censer, but they are of approximately the same date." [Source: ** from North Viet Nam ; now in National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 12834, LSb 17251, LSb 15407]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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