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The dragon and the phoenix
In Vietnamese tradition, four my stoical creatures a considered symbol of the royal court and are tired closely to cycles such as the four seasons and the four compass directions – the dragon, unicorn, tortoise and phoenix.
In particular, the dragon and phoenix were the highest symbols of royalty and considered good omens for life, marriage, luck and prosperity. According to the first Chinese dictionary, written by Xu Shen in 100 AD, among 389 species of scaled replies, the dragon is the greatest and most powerful.
Dragons are the symbol of royalty, closely associated with the image of the emperor.
The phoenix was honored as greatest of all the feathered species, the symbol of the sun, the South and of Summer, In terms of gender, the dragon is associated with the element of the Yang (male), while he phoenix expresses the element of the Yin (female); thus the phoenix is the symbol of the empress.
As a legend has it, the phoenix only appears in the time of peace and prosperity and only lands on the top of the Wu tong tree. A classic verse states: Wu tong tree grows on a high mountain/ phoenix breaks into song to welcome the morning sun. This verse urged the Hue Court and its emperors of the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) to grow as many wu tung trees as possible to welcome phoenixes!
The images of the dragon and phoenix were also used to decorate the costumes of emperors, empresses and the royal members of the Nguyen dynasty in accordance with numerous strict guidelines.
According to the book Kham dinh Dai Nam Hoi Dien Su le (The rules of the Emperors of Great Vietnam) compiled by the Cabinet of the Nguyen dynasty, the crown the emperor wore during his court audience was sewn with 31 gold dragons, 30 square flowers inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and 140 diamond gems and pearls, The hat of the empress was sewn with 9 gold phoenixes, with 4 silver hairpins inlaid with 198 pearls and 231 crystals; her mother wore a hat embroidered with nine phoenixes.
The dragon was only embroidered on the robes of the emperor and the heir prince, while other princes’ robes were embroidered with phoenixes (with three tails), where as the robe of the princess was embroidered with a phoenix-like bird called the loan, with only one tail.
The dragon appeared on the emperor’s robe in many poses, such as flying or looking toward the sun. It was well-proportioned, with an imposing face and five claws, where as the dragon on the robe of the heir prince was smaller, with only four claws, on the robe of the empress and her mother, the phoenix was often expressed in a scheme of three phoenixes, or in a circle with vivid and well-embroidered lines.
The expression of dragon and phoenix in the Hue Court’s costumers depends on the name and function of the robes and crowns, For instance, the robe the emperor wore during the Tet ( Lunar New Year) holidays was called long bao, and was embroidered with 9 dragon decorated with tinsel threads, its eyes made from gem stones imported from India.
The robe worn by the emperor during abnormal court audience was called hoang bao, It was embroidered with a dragon coiled in a circle. The robe the emperor wore during public receptions was called long con, and was black with two dragons looking toward the sun along the front of the robe.
The emperor’s robe for tiling the rice field was called sa kep, with a dragon embroidered amid clouds, the robe for the emperor’s birthday ceremony was adorned with Chinese characters representing longevity, and had sleeves decorated with bats, symbols good luck and happiness.
The two-layer robe word by the heir prince was made with sa nam silk on the outer layer and the bat(eight-fiber silk) material on the inside layer. The hem of the robe was embroidered with a carp turning into a dragon, while other princes’ cloaks had nine pythons.
The robe the empress’s mother wore during Tet was called phung bao. Its outer layer was made of Sa bong (shining gauze) and the inside layer was lined with nhieu (crepe). It was embroidered with three phoenixes with tinsel threads, with sleeves decorated with two flying phoenixes and five-color clouds. On the robe, Chinese characters in white and red glass beads expressed wishes for happiness and longevity.
The robe of the princess was made of doan bat ti(eight-fibre silk) material with an inside layer made of thin silk called que don. 13 phoenix-like loan birds coiled in a circle were embroidered together with the sun and vases on the body of the robe, so it was called doan loan nhat binh(Phoenixes and the Sun). The collar of the robe contained 5 phoenixes.
Today in Vietnam, remnants of this complex symbolism and numerology permeate traditional ceremonies and even ordinary life. But while the dragon and phoenix are now thought of as mythical creatures, in the days of the Nguyen dynasty, the dragon and phoenix were essential to every function of the imperial court, their power very real.
This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel
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