Architecture & Fine-arts
Traditional Fine Arts
Viet Nam 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 Hai Phong and bronze tools found in Thanh Hoa are from 4th century BC.
The traditional fine art of Viet Nam 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.
Folk paintings are a combination of traditional cultural values with ancient artistic methods that have been created through the labour of past generations. There are two types of Vietnamese folk paintings, Tet (Lunar New Year Festival) paintings and worshipping paintings.
The Vietnamese believe in ancestor worship and the deification of natural phenomena, both of which are reflected in the paintings.
Due to their historical popularity, the folk paintings were produced in large quantities. This high demand was met through the use of the woodblock carving printing technique, which has been practiced by the Vietnamese for many centuries. During the Ly Dynasty (12th century), there were many families who specialised in woodblock carving. By the end of the Tran Dynasty, they were also printing paper money. At the beginning of the Le So Dynasty, the Chinese technique of carving printing boards was adopted and improved. The History Museum and the Fine Art Museum in Ha Noi still keep old printing boards as archives.
During the Mac Dynasty (16th century), folk paintings developed quite extensively and were popular among the aristocracy in Thang Long. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the art of folk painting was stable and highly developed.
Depending on artistic style, drawing-printing technique, and the materials used, folk paintings are classified into painting trends according to the name of their place of production.
Each style of painting is different. However, in all the styles, shapes are created based on the concept of don tuyen binh do (single line-simple designs), which uses lines to bend the coloured shapes and to make a border for the picture. Another method used is thuan tay hay mat (easy to draw and to see). With this design form, the folk paintings do not depend on the rules of perspective. The deities are large and take the upper positions, while the ordinary people are drawn on a smaller scale and the size of the animals and the natural scenery depicted depends on their relationship to the sentiment or story being expressed. These unique characteristics make the paintings profoundly impressive.
As a result of cultural exchange, Vietnamese folk paintings have retained and developed certain traditional aspects. As well, the paintings have been influenced and enriched by the genius of other painting styles. One exception is Dong Ho paintings, which continue to exist unchanged against the challenges of time.
Dong Ho Paintings
These paintings which originated in the Red River Delta, are the most famous. The artists coat do paper (the Rhamnoneuron paper) with diep powder (a white powder made from the shells of diep, a kind of fluvial bivalve mollusk) to make silver lustre glitter. Sometimes yellow flower powder called Hoa hoe or orange-red sapandwood powder is used to make the colours more elegant and shiny.
On that background, the colours are applied with a woodblock. Some of the paintings only have simple black lines, while others are printed with one other colour. All of the materials for creating the colours for these paintings come from nature. A wide spectrum of colours can be made using mixing and multi-coloured printing techniques.
Dong Ho paintings reflect people’s innermost feelings, wishes, and simple dreams. Because the paintings appeal to so many people, they are available throughout the country, from the village markets to the capital city.
Hang Trong Paintings
Hang Trong paintings are also printed with black lines to form the basis for the colour. But, unlike Dong Ho paintings, they are made by hand. Large sheets of imported paper and brightly coloured paints are used for Hang Trong paintings. The content of these paintings are very much influenced by Chinese drawings.
Hang Trong paintings are popular as worshipping paintings in temples. As such, the paintings are often hung in spacious living rooms or in holy places.
Hang Trong paintings have traditionally served the poorer classes and are made and sold in the capital city.
Kim Hoang Paintings
Kim Hoang paintings, which are often called red paintings, are made on the outskirts of ancient Thang Long. Kim Hoang paintings are printed and drawn on imported coloured paper (yellow, bright red, pink) and printed with black lines and shapes; other colours used to separate the shapes.
The colours are applied in rough, but flexible lines. Sometimes, the paintings are reprinted to create clear line. The colours used for Kim Hoang paintings are bought and then mixed by the painters, except for indigo, which is self-processed. The themes of Kim Hoang paintings are similar to those of the Dong Ho paintings, but there are also Chinese character paintings Phuc, Loc, Tho (meaning “Happiness”, “Good Luck”, and “Longevity” respectively), that have the typical flower of each season printed next to each character.
Sinh Village Paintings
Sinh Village Paintings, which come from Sinh Village, a suburb of Hue City, are well-known in the central region of Viet Nam. Most Sinh Village paintings are used for worship, and they express the mystical, nature-based beliefs of the ancient Vietnamese.
Among these pictures is the Tuong Ba (Statue of the Lady) painting, the guardian angel of women. Sinh paintings are made using just one printing-board to create the drawing lines and black shapes. After being printed in black, the work is sometimes completed with embellishments made with colourful lines. Some paintings are still printed on rustic paper.
In the realm of traditional art, Vietnamese sculpture has had a significant history of development. Vietnamese sculpture has been heavily influenced by the three traditional religions, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, which come from neighboring countries China and India. Examples of early Vietnamese sculpture can be found in common houses, temples, and pagodas.
The main categories of Vietnamese sculpture include:
The sculpture of the Funan and Champa kingdoms in South Viet Nam
The sculpture of the Chams in Central Viet Nam
The sculpture of the Dai Viet in North Viet Nam
The sculpture of the Grave Houses in the Central Highlands
The prehistory covers the period from the Nui Do culture, 300,000 years ago, to the Dong Son culture, 2,500 years ago. Cultural activities from this time are not clearly known, nor are the artistic practices.
There are no prehistoric sculptures, only expressions or manifestations. For example, a 10,000- year- old carving of three human faces and a wild animal can be found in Dong Noi Grotto(Lac Thuy District, Hoa Binh Province). Small ceramic and stone carvings have also been uncovered at archaeological digs in Phung Nguyen, Dong Dau, and Go Mun.
The Dong Son culture is famous for its kettledrums, small carvings fastened to objects of worship, and home utensils, which have handles sculpted in the shape of men, elephants, toads, and tortoises.
Sculpture of Grave Houses in the Central Highlands
The five provinces of Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong are located in the highlands of south-west Viet Nam where a brilliant culture of Southeast Asian and Polynesian nations lived. The linguistic families of the Mon-Khmer and Malay-Polynesian played the main role in the formation of the language of the Central Highlands, as well as the traditional customs, which have remained very popular among the scattered communities of the region.
Mourning houses erected to honour the dead of the Gia Rai and Ba Na ethnic groups are symbolised by statues placed in front of the graves. These statues include couples embracing, pregnant women, and people in mourning, elephants, and birds.
The association between the two Cham clans of Cau and Dua led to the establishment of a feudal state, which was heavily influenced by Hinduism. The royal kingdom of Champa took shape in what is now South Viet Nam. This ancient country was dispersed along the coastline.
Archaeologists believe the kingdom began to develop during the second century, but it was only during the 7th and 8th centuries that the presently-found forms of Cham architecture and sculpture were created; this time period is closely linked to movements of Buddhism and Hinduism.
The Chams possessed astounding creative ability and produced magnificent works of art and architecture. The most magnificent remains of the Cham civilisation can be found in Amaravati (Quang Nam Province), Vijaya (Binh Dinh Province), Kanthara (Nha Trang) and Paduranaga (Phan Rang). Sculptures were harmoniously laid together in architectural complexes, which were based on the distinct functions of particular towers.
The development of Cham sculpture is divided into six main periods:
- My Son E1(first half of the 8th century).
- Hoa Lai (first half of the 9th century).
- Dong Duong (end of the 9th century).
- Tra Kieu(end of the 9th century and beginning of the 10th century).
- Thap Mam (12th and 13th centuries).
- Poklong Gialai (end of the 13th century to the 16th century).
In 1470, Emperor Le Thanh Tong conquered the South and was followed by Vietnamese immigrants who were encouraged by the Nguyen lords to move. Since that time, the art of the Chams remains as a tribute to the outstanding heritage of their splendid past.
Ly Dynasty (1010 - 1225)
Dai Viet became an independent, powerful state after Ly Cong Uan came to the throne and moved the nation’s capital from Hoa Lu to Thang Long (present-day Hanoi). Buddhism became the national religion, and it gradually became a part of everyday life. Buddhist centers formed in Quang Ninh, Ha Nam, Nam Dinh, and,especially in Bac Ninh Province.
The native area of the Ly Dynasty was built in the traditional architectural style of Southeast Asia. During this time, pagodas were generally built in grades, with high towers and statues of Buddha at the centre. The statue of Amida Buddha in the Phat Tich Pagoda (built in 1057) was one of the first works of Buddhist sculpture in the north. A monument found at the Dam Pagoda (built in 1086) is derived from the Cham symbols of Linga and Yoni. At 5.4m high, this is an imposing work.
Tran Dynasty (1225 - 1426)
The Tran Dynasty, which followed the crumbling of the Ly Dynasty, continued the development of Vietnamese feudalism. Victorious resistance against Mongolian invaders in 1258 and 1288 preserved the independence of the country and had a deep influence on literature and arts. At the same time, war ravaged the country, limiting artistic creation. Buddhism continued to be widespread; however, pagodas of this period were not as fantastic as previously constructed pagodas. Numerous lotus form rectangular bases for statues were produced that can presently be found in pagodas in Thay, Boi Khe, and Duong Lieu.
Woodcarvings and engravings with subjects of dancing dragons and fig tree leaves can be found in Pho Minh Pagoda (Nam Dinh Province) and Thai Lac (Hung Yen Province). In the mausoleums of the Tran Dynasty, stone sculptures are mainly of men and animals paying respect to the royal family. The statues of tigers in Tran Thu Do’s mausoleum (one of the founders of the Tran Dynasty) and the statues of buffaloes and dogs in Tran Hien Tong’s mausoleum are the first forms of sculpture in Vietnam’s tombs.
Le Dynasty (1427 - 1527)
For 100 years from the beginning of the Le Dynasty, Buddhism gradually integrated into all the villages and hamlets, and Confucianism began to play an important role in royal matters and in the agricultural economy. Relations between farmers and landlords flourished. However, aside from the three impressive stone statues erected at the Ngoc Kham Pagoda (Bac Ninh Province) at the beginning of the Le Dynasty, the image of the Buddhist sculpture faded out.
Instead, Buddhist sculptures were replaced by magnificent works on the mausoleums and tombs of the Le emperors in Lam Son (Thanh Hoa Province). Following the style of Emperor Le Thai To’s Mausoleum, built in 1433, eight mausoleums for kings and two for queens were built. They had square surfaces with a path in the middle for the gods to run through. Along the sides, there were two rows of statues of mandarins, unicorns, horses and tigers.
After 20 years of war with the Chinese Ming occupation (1407–1427), the country was devastated. Numerous products were stolen, temples and pagodas were destroyed, and skilled workers were captured and transferred to China. Emperor Le employed farmers from neighbouring villages to carve statues and to build mausoleums. As a result, the new monarchy saw the production of relatively poor quality sculptures.
Le - Trinh - Tay Son
The Mac Dynasty, which lasted from 1528 to 1598, followed the Le Dynasty. A new style of commercial house sculpture (dinh lang), which was a stark contrast to previous religious and feudal works, developed throughout the countryside.
In the 17th century, Nguyen lords came into power and conquered the South. Seven conflicts broke out between the Trinh and Nguyen families during this century. Buddhism was restored and was considered the salvation of the people’s spirits. Over the next 200 years, culture and arts developed and reached high levels of prosperity. Sculptures became more and more diverse and included Buddhist sculptures in village pagodas, sculptures of native religious beliefs in temples, and sculptures for the mausoleums and tombs of the emperors and mandarins of the Le and Trinh dynasties.
The statue of the goddess Kuanin with 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms in the Ha Pagoda (Vinh Phuc Province) is a fine example of the grandiose sculptural work of the 16th century. The Kuanin statue in But Thap Pagoda (in Bac Ninh Province) is symbolic of 17thcentury work. The statue is 3.7m in height, and features 48 large arms and 952 smaller ones, all of which are bunched, together in a dark ring around the eyes.
Sculptures featured in commercial houses, such as in Phu Lac, Chu Quyen, Tho Tang, Lien Hiep and Huong Loc, are full of vitality and have liberal features and imposing structures. The identities and styles are a mix of deity and Buddhist images, commercial life, and agriculture.
Nguyen Dynasty (1802 - 1945)
The Nguyen Dynasty saw the transfer of the capital from Hanoi to Hue, and the building of a grandiose imperial city and a complex of mausoleums and tombs. The sculptures of these feudal mausoleums and tombs are considered to be artistically weak and rigid.
Traditional Pottery and Ceramics
Pottery has taken form early in Viet Nam. According to ancient document, pottery appears in Viet Nam ten thousand years ago. Following information is general outline of pottery and ceramics appearance through historic development.
In prehistoric times, ceramic products were understandably coarse as most were mixed by women from sand and other materials. Most of the designs on the surface of the ceramics were created with sticks while the products were still wet. All of the pottery products from this era had useful applications for household duties and cooking.
Most of the pottery products from the Bronze Age were formed on turn tables and had diverse styles. As well as cooking utensils, there were also artistic ceramics and products for tool production.
The diverse products were decorated with carved images and covered by a different coloured layer of an enamel-like substance. The adornment of pottery products from this period was performed using bronze tools.
Iron Age pottery products developed in all regions of the country. These products were produced at low temperatures using somewhat rudimentary techniques. The form and ornamentation of the Iron Age pottery products was quite unique to this period. This craft developed from traditional experience, and from the influence of the Chinese.
Architectural pottery, including bricks and tiles, also originated during this time and small simple statues of animals, such as pigs and oxen, were introduced.
From Ly Dynasty until now
After more than ten centuries of Chinese domination, the Ly and Tran dynasties saw the reestablishment of national independence. During this period, pottery experienced splendid achievements in quality and diversity through large-scale production.
Basic elements, including the form, decorations, and coloured enamel, were employed to create beautiful products. The painted decorations were simple, but incredibly attractive. Unique carving characteristics developed and various kinds of enamel were applied.
Since the 15th century, ceramic started to bear white enamel with blue designs and fabrication techniques improved.
Nowadays, some localities are still specialized in producing ceramics, including Bac Ninh Province, Thanh Hoa Province, Nam Dinh Province, and Ha Noi.