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Coat of Arms of South Vietnam, 1955-1975.
Vietnamese dragons (Vietnamese: rồng or long 龍) are symbolic creatures in the folklore and mythology of Vietnam. According to an ancient creation myth, the Vietnamese people are descended from a dragon and a fairy.
To Vietnamese people, the dragon brings rain, essential for agriculture. It represents the emperor, the prosperity and power of the nation. Like the Chinese dragon, the Vietnamese dragon is the symbol of yang, representing the universe, life, existence, and growth.
The 5th-generation grandson of Shennong, Lạc Long Quân– king of the dragonkind living near the Đông sea, married a goddess, Âu Cơ who was the daughter of the birdkind king Đế Lai. Âu Cơ bore 100 eggs, which hatched into 100 sons. The first-born son became the king of Lạc Việt, the first dynasty of Vietnam, and proclaimed himself Emperor Hùng Vương. The First was followed by Hùng Vương The Second, Hùng Vương The Third and so on, through 18 reigns. This is the origin of the Vietnamese proverb: “Con Rồng, cháu Tiên” (“Children of Dragon, Grandchildren of Gods”).
Historical development of Vietnamese dragon image
The Vietnamese dragon is the combined image of crocodile, snake, lizard and bird. Historically, the Vietnamese people lived near rivers, so they venerated crocodiles as “Giao Long”, the first kind of Vietnamese dragon.
There are some kinds of dragons found on archaeological objects. One group is that of the crocodile-dragons, with the head of a crocodile and the body of a snake. The cat-dragon excavated on a glazed terracotta piece in Bac Ninh has some features of Đại Việt period dragon: it does not have a crocodile head, its head is shorter and it has a long neck, its wing and backfin are long lines, and its whiskers and fur are found in the Đại Việt dragon image.
Ngô Dynasty (938–965)
On the brick from this period found in Co Loa, the dragon is short, with a cat-like body and a fish’s backfin.
Lý Dynasty (1010–1225)
The Lý Dynasty is the dynasty which laid the foundation of Vietnamese feudal culture. Buddhism was widespread and Van Mieu, the first feudal university, was opened. The slender, flowing dragon of this period represents the King, and is literature dragon.
These dragons’ perfectly rounded bodies curve lithely, in a long sinuous shape, tapering gradually to the tail. The body has 12 sections, symbolising 12 months in the year. On the dragon’s back are small, uninterrupted, regular fins. The head, held high, is in proportion with the body, and has a long mane, beard, prominent eyes, crest on nose (pointing forwards), but no horns. The legs are small and thin, and usually 3-toed. The jaw is opened wide, with a long, thin tongue; the dragons always keep a châu (gem/jewel) in their mouths (a symbol of humanity, nobility and knowledge). These dragons are able to change the weather, and are responsible for crops.
Trần Dynasty (1225–1400)
The Trần Dynasty dragon was similar to that of the Ly dynasty but looked more intrepid. The Tran dragon has new details: arms and horns. Its fiery crest is shorter. Its slightly curved body is fat and smaller toward the tail. There are many kinds of tail (straight and pointed tail, spiral tail) as well as many kinds of scale (a regular half-flower scale, slightly curved scale).
In this period, the Vietnamese dragon’s image was influenced by the Chinese dragon, because of Confucianism‘s expansion policy. Differing from those of the previous dynasty, dragons in this age are not only represented in a curved posture among clouds but also in others. These dragons were majestic, with lion-heads. Instead of a fiery crest, they have a large nose. Their bodies only curve in two sections. Their feet have five sharp claws.
Dragon roof detail, imperial enclosure, Huế
(1802–1883) During the early part of the Nguyễn Dynasty, the dragon is represented with a spiral tail and a long fiery sword-fin. Dragons were personified by a mother with her children or a pair of dragons. Its head and eyes are large. It has stag horns, a lion’s nose, exposed canine teeth, regular flash scale, curved whiskers. Images of the Dragon King have 5 claws, while images of lesser dragons have only 4 claws.
(1883–1945) In this later period, the dragon image degenerated and became unrefined, losing its natural and majestic shape, and was seen as a signal of the decline in art of the last Vietnamese dynasty.
Dragon in literature
One of four dragons in front of Ngu Long Mon
Some proverbs and sayings mention dragons but imply something else:
“Rồng gặp mây”: “Dragon meets clouds” – In favourable condition.
“Đầu rồng đuôi tôm”: “Dragon’s head, shrimp’s tail” – Good at first and bad at last; something which starts well but ends badly.
“Rồng đến nhà tôm”: “Dragon visits shrimp’s house” – A saying used by a host to (or of) 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.
Vietnamese place-names, and other things, named after dragons
Ha Noi (Vietnamese: Hà Nội), the capital of Vietnam, was known in ancient times as Thăng Long (from Thăng, meaning “to grow, to develop, to rise, to fly, or to ascend” and Long, meaning “dragon”); the capital is still referred to by this name in literature. In 1010, King Lý Thái Tổ moved the capital from Hoa Lư to Đại La, which decision was explained in his Chiếu dời đô (Royal proclamation of moving capital): he saw a Rồng vàng (yellow dragon) fly around on the clear blue sky, so he changed the name of Đại La to Thăng Long, meaning “Vietnam’s bright and developed future”. Furthermore, one of Thăng Long Four Defense Deity (Vietnamese: Thăng Long Tứ Trấn) is Long Đỗ Deity (literally: dragon’s navel- where is the center, the place that Earth and Sky meet each other- according to orient’s view, the belly has a role which is as important as the heart is in western view). Long Đỗ Deity helped Lý Thái Tổ to build Thăng Long citadel.
Many place-names in Vietnam incorporate the word Long, or Rồng (also meaning dragon): Ha Long Bay (vịnh Hạ Long), the section of the Mekong river flowing through Vietnam contains 9 branches and is called Cửu Long (meaning nine dragons); Hàm Rồng bridge, Long Biên bridge. Other things named after dragons include: Thanh Long (dragonfruit), vòi rồng (waterspout), xương rồng (Cactaceae), long nhãn (dragon eyes: Vietnamese cognate word for longan fruit).