The Dragon in Nguyễn Dynasty Art
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In Nguyễn Dynasty architecture, dragons were intricately carved into the columns, roofs, and gateways of imperial palaces and temples.
The dragon holds a significant place in the art and culture of the Nguyễn Dynasty, serving as a symbol of power, nobility, and divine protection. As a key motif in various artistic expressions, the dragon is prominently featured in architecture, ceramics, textiles, and royal artifacts.
In Nguyễn Dynasty architecture, dragons were intricately carved into the columns, roofs, and gateways of imperial palaces and temples.


The dragon is a symbol of vigorous growth, the East, and spring. During the monarchy, the dragon was revered as a symbol of royal power, closely associated with the image of the king, representing the pinnacle of authority.


Interestingly, the dragon, a creature no one has ever seen, is one of the most depicted animals in Eastern art. Four countries—China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam—each give the dragon a significant place in their art traditions. Each nation eagerly claims to be the homeland of the dragon or identifies its people as descendants of the dragon, as seen in the Vietnamese legend of "Dragon and Fairy descendants." The Chinese have even published a book titled "The Chinese Dragon," which is 220 pages long with hundreds of illustrations, discussing the dragon's presence in their land from prehistoric times to the present.

The bronze dragon, cast in 1842, stands as a sentinel in front of Duyệt Thị Đường, part of the Hue Imperial Citadel.

Researchers in Vietnam have also dedicated considerable effort to studying the dragon motif, from the Hùng Kings era to the Nguyễn Dynasty. They generally agree on their observations about dragons in the art of the Lý, Trần, Lê, and Mạc periods. However, opinions on dragons in Nguyễn Dynasty art (1802 - 1945) vary depending on the author and the specific period. Some argue that "Nguyễn Dynasty dragons are heavily influenced by Qing Dynasty dragons from China, appearing majestic, fierce, and oppressive." Others contend that "despite the overwhelming influence of Ming and Qing art, Huế dragons retained their traditional forms and ascended from traditional dragons. While their formality emphasized their solemnity, they remained relatively simple and approachable." Overall, these observations are often generalized or influenced by political biases shaped by the times.


Before the feudal era, the dragon was considered a symbol of water, an element deeply embedded in the consciousness of rice-cultivating societies in East Asia, including Vietnam. During the feudal period, the dragon became a symbol of royal power, closely associated with the image of the emperor, epitomizing the pinnacle of authority. This observation holds true for the role of the dragon's image in Nguyễn Dynasty art. However, this interpretation is not entirely comprehensive, as the dragon in Nguyễn art and architecture was not exclusively reserved for the king or the royal family. The dragon of this era transcended the confines of the palace, appearing in temples, pagodas, and shrines throughout rural areas.

Nonetheless, the social structures of the Nguyễn Dynasty did not permit the indiscriminate use of the emperor's symbol. The Nguyễn rulers, following the Ming Dynasty traditions adopted by the Lê-Trịnh lords, regulated that five-clawed dragons represented the emperor, while officials and commoners could only use dragons with four or three claws. They also transformed the dragon's image into more accessible forms such as giao and cù, effectively democratizing the traditional dragon motif to share it with their subjects. The dragons found in the imperial palaces of Huế and those in the rural architecture of the Nguyễn era are not mere replicas of each other. This can be observed by comparing details such as the head, horns, scales, claws, and tail. Interestingly, these more accessible dragons often appear more lively and expressive than the majestic dragons in the palaces. This reflects a reality where no strict regulations were monopolizing the dragon motif in Huế imperial art.

Furthermore, scholars discussing the Nguyễn dragons often focus on realistic depictions, overlooking the stylized forms like cúc hóa long (chrysanthemum transforming into dragon) and trúc hóa long (bamboo transforming into dragon). These stylizations, which simplified the dragon's form, made the dragon's image more graceful and dynamic.

Overall, the dragons of Nguyễn art inherited and developed from previous generations of Vietnamese dragons while sharing similarities with the Chinese dragons of the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911). This is unsurprising given the significant influence of Chinese culture on Nguyễn culture. Rather than debating the origins or similarities, it is more appropriate to acknowledge that these dragons were created by Vietnamese artisans during the Nguyễn era, making them a legitimate and integral part of Vietnamese art and culture.

Artistic Value:

In my humble opinion, the depiction of the dragon is one of the most successful artistic achievements of the Nguyễn Dynasty. The artisans of that time created dragon imagery not only to serve artistic purposes but also to adhere to contemporary social institutions and cultural norms. These reasons contributed to the diverse and rich representations of the dragon during the Nguyễn Dynasty. In Huế alone, the largest cultural, political, and artistic center of the period, this richness is evident in various aspects: space, material, artistic expression, and decorative themes.

In terms of space, dragons adorned temples, palaces, shrines, and pagodas both within and outside the Huế Imperial City. They appeared on roof ridges, roof corners, eaves, gable ends, rainwater gutters, screens, steps, beams, door frames, ceremonial gates, and other architectural elements. Dragons decorated nine dynastic urns, royal thrones, ceremonial canopies, and altars of the Nguyễn Dynasty kings and officials. They were the handles of seals, official stamps, and stationery items. Dragons were also motifs on the clothing, hats, and shoes of emperors and empresses, or standalone artworks in courtyards and gardens, such as the two dragon statues in front of the Duyệt Thị Đường Theatre. Additionally, dragons appeared on the Nine Sacred Cannons and as designs on the firearms of Emperor Thiệu Trị, which are still preserved in the Huế Museum of Royal Antiquities.

Regarding materials, Nguyễn Dynasty dragons were cast in bronze, carved in stone, sculpted in wood, bone, and ivory, and crafted from precious metals and gemstones. They appeared on fabrics and silk in the attire and headgear of royals and officials. Dragons were made from terracotta to decorate the Ngưng Hy Temple in Đồng Khánh’s tomb, plastered in lime at Gia Long’s tomb or the Thế Miếu Temple, assembled from ceramics and glass in Khải Định’s tomb, and crafted from enamel on the roof of Hòa Khiêm Temple in Tự Đức’s tomb. Dragons were decorative motifs on ordered porcelain, wall paintings on paper in Thái Bình Pavilion, or mirror paintings in Biểu Đức Temple in Thiệu Trị’s tomb.

The mural "Cửu Long Ẩn Vân" (Nine Dragons Hiding in the Clouds) at Khải Định Tomb

The artistic expression of Nguyễn Dynasty dragons in Huế was truly diverse: openwork carving, relief carving, bronze casting, gold and silver crafting, inlaying with mother-of-pearl and ceramics, embroidery on fabric, painting with pigments on paper, and porcelain. Sometimes they were formed into three-dimensional shapes, other times depicted on flat surfaces or painted under a layer of glaze. Their forms were indeed varied and plentiful.

The thematic representation of dragons during the Nguyễn Dynasty was also distinctive. Motifs such as "two dragons fighting over a pearl," "two dragons facing the sun," "dragon playing with water," "returning dragon," "coiled dragon," "dragon chasing," "dragon and phoenix," "dragon and unicorn," "dragon longevity," "dragon and clouds in festive gathering," "bamboo transforming into dragon," and &

Tran Duc Anh Son