According to legend, the king of the dragon-kind Lac Long Quan, the fifth generation grandson of Shennong, lived in a settlement near the Dong Sea. He fell in love with the Goddess Au Co who was the beautiful daughter of the bird-kind king de Lai and soon after married her in an elaborate ceremony. As a result of the blissful union Au Co bore 100 eggs which hatched into 100 fine sons. Naturally the first-born son Lac Viet became the heir to the throne. Upon his succession he formed the first dynasty of Vietnam, and proclaimed himself Emperor Hung Vuong. The succession passed to Huang Vuong, Hung Vuong, and so on, lasting for 18 generations.
This is the source (foundation) of the well known Vietnamese proverb: “Con Rong, Chau Tien” which means, “Children of Dragon, Grandchildren of Gods.”
Historically the Vietnamese people have always established the settlements near rivers. They venerated crocodiles as “Giao Long”, the first kind of Vietnamese dragon; furthermore the representation of the Vietnamese dragon merges the very likenesses of the crocodile, lizard, snake and the bird. Some archeological objects have been found depicting crocodile-dragons with the head of a crocodile and the body of a snake.
(vietnamese_dragon _hai_ by_stevegoad curtesy of Facebook.com/artsofstevegoad)
The Dragon first appears as a decorative motif in Vietnamese prehistory. The cat-dragon on a glazed terracotta piece excavated in Bac Nnh shares some features of the Dai Viet period Dragon such has the whiskers and fur that are found on the Dai Viet dragon image. It does not have a crocodile head however; its head is shorter. It has a long neck and the wings and dorsal fin are represented as long lines.
In Co Lao, represented on the brick from the Ngo Dynasty (938-965), the dragon is short with a cat-like body and a fish’s back-fin.
Buddhism was the most prevalent religion during the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225) which laid the foundation of Vietnamese feudal culture and founded the first feudal university: Van Mieu.
The slim flowing dragon of this
period represents the King and is the dragon of literature. They had perfectly
rounded bodies lithely curved into a long sinuous shape tapering gradually to
the tail. The body had 12 segments, signifying the 12 months of the year. The
head, held high, is in proportion with the body and has a long mane, beard,
prominent eyes, a crest pointing forward on nose, but no horns. The jaw is
opened wide, with a long, thin tongue. The dragon always keeps a ‘chau’ (jewel
or gem) in their mouth, as a symbol of humanity, knowledge and nobility. On the
Dragon’s back are small, continuous, standard fins. The legs are small and
thin, and usually 3-toed. Similarly these dragons are believed to be able to
change the weather and are responsible for the welfare of crops.
|Dragon in architecture of the Ly Dynasty, 11th-13th centuries.|
|Dragon on timber doors of the Tran Dynasty, 13th-14th centuries|
|Dragon head of the Ly-Tran Dynasties, 11th-14th centuries|
At this period in history, because the Tran kings were descended from a Mandarin commander and the nation was engaged in warfare with Mongol invaders, the Tran Dragons became symbols of the martial arts.
In the Le Dynasty, the Vietnamese dragon’s image was heavily influenced by the Chinese dragon because of the Confucianism’s expansion policy. The Dragon’s image once again underwent change and the dragon’s body now only curved in two sections.
The feet have five sharp claws and instead of fiery crest they now had a large nose. Still, looking more regal with a lion-head, the Dragon adopted a curved posture and was represented amidst clouds.
|Dragon on a censer of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945)|
Finally, in the period 1883-1945, the Dragon’s image deteriorated and became crude, losing its majestic shape. It’s representation in art became an indicative sign of the decline of the last Vietnamese dynasty.
Typically some proverbs and sayings incorporating word Dragons have different implications:
"Rồng gặp mây": "Dragon meets clouds" – In favourable condition.
"Đầu rồng đuôi tôm": "Dragon's head, shrimp's tail" – Good at first and bad in the end; something which starts well but ends badly.
"Rồng bay, phượng múa": "Dragon flight, phoenix dance" – Used to praise the calligraphy of someone who writes Chinese ideograms well.
"Rồng đến nhà tôm": "Dragon visits shrimp's house" – A saying used by a host about his guest: the host portrays himself as a humble shrimp and his guest as a noble dragon.
"Ăn như rồng cuốn, nói như rồng leo, làm như mèo mửa": "Eating as dragon scrolls, talking as dragon climbs, working as cat vomits" – A criticism of someone who eats too much and talks a lot, but is lazy.