Vietnamese art ecompasses art created in Vietnam or by Vietnamese artists, from ancient times to the present. Vietnamese art has a long and rich history. Clay pottery of the Neolithic Age dates as far back as 8,000 B.C.E.. Decorative elements from ceramics of the Bronze Age were used to ornament large, elaborately-incised bronze cast drums of the Dong Son culture that flourished in North Vietnam (from about 1,000 B.C.E. to the fourth century B.C.E.). Scenes of everyday life depicted on these drums show that textiles of the Dong Son culture were highly developed. During a thousand years of Chinese domination starting in the second century B.C.E., Vietnamese art absorbed many Chinese influences, which continued even after Vietname became independent from China in the tenth century C.E.. However, Vietnamese art has always retained many distinctively Vietnamese characteristics.
The golden age of Vietnamese art occurred during the Ly dynasty (1010 to 1225), and its ceramics became prized across East and Southeast Asia and as far away as the Middle East. Many of Vietnam’s architectural treasures date from the Ly dynasty. During the Nguyen dynasty (1802–1945), the last ruling dynasty of Vietnam, the ruling family patronized the production of ceramics and porcelain art for use by the court, and court music and dance, adapted from China, became highly developed.
During the nineteenth century, French art strongly influenced the development of modern Vietnamese art. Some art forms nearly disappeared during the twentieth century, but recent preservation efforts have revived them. Traditional court music and dance (Nhã nhạc) was recognized in 2005 by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and performances now are largely supported by tourism.
Pottery made from clay, dating to the Stone Age (approximately 8,000 B.C.E.), has been found in Bac Son, Vietnam. Early pottery was largely basic and lacked artistic flare. During the Neolithic era, however, Vietnamese pottery and ceramics started to develop rapidly, showing signs of decor. Hoa Loc ceramic products are ornamented with rhythmic designs showing original geometric thinking.
Ancient jars were made by plastering woven objects with clay before putting them into a kiln. At high temperatures, the woven exterior would burn, leaving traces on the ceramic jars which became small decorative motifs. Many ancient ceramic products of the Stone Age in Viet Nam bear these traces.
Ceramic art of the Bronze Age went through three stages: Phung Nguyen (4,000 years ago), Dong Dau (3,300 years ago) and Go Mun (3,000 years ago). The processes involved in making ceramic of this period are similar to those still used in the Vietnamese countryside today. The techniques used to decorate ceramic objects during these stages became the early models for decorative motifs used on the bronze objects of the Dong Son period.
The highly developed Dong Son culture that flourished in North Vietnam (from about 1,000 B.C.E. to the fourth century B.C.E.) large, elaborately-incised bronze cast drums known as Dong Son drums, ranging in height from a few inches to over six feet, and up to four feet in diameter. The drums were elaborately decorated with geometric patterns, and frequently depicted scenes of everyday life such as farming, warriors donning feather headdresses, construction of ships, and musicians. The function of these drums, often found in burials, remains unclear: They may have been used in warfare, religious ceremonies, or as part of funerary or other ceremonial rites. Models of the drums, produced in bronze or clay, were made to be included in burials. Most of the bronze drums were made in Vietnam and South China, but they were traded to the south and west, and were valued by people with very different cultures. Examples produced in Vietnam, in addition to works made locally, have been found in South China, throughout mainland Southeast Asia, and in Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Irian Jaya. A starburst pattern in the center of the tympanum, surrounded by a row of linked concentric circles and crosshatching, was a standard motif on Dong Son drums. These designs were repeated around the side of the top section and just above the base. The earliest bronze drums of Dong Son are closely related in basic structural features and in decorative design to the pottery of the Phung Nguyen culture, indicating that bronze casting may have developed there and spread to northern China. The Dong Son bronze drums exhibit advanced techniques and great skill in the lost-wax casting of large objects. A drum excavated from the citadel at Co Loa, Vietnam, would have required the smelting of between 1 and 7 tons of copper ore and the use of up to 10 large casting crucibles at one time. Archaeological evidence from this period also shows that people in the area had long been weaving cloth. Many of the people depicted on the drums are shown as wearing elaborate clothing.
Excavations of Chinese tombs in the area indicate that during the ten centuries of rule by the Chinese, Vietnamese began to apply newly learned Chinese techniques to art and specifically ceramics, in conjunction with the continued production of art based on local traditions. The tombs contain objects brought by Han from China, objects produced by the Vietnamese, and objects made by Vietnamese artisans according the specifications of their Chinese patrons. Ceramics found in Chinese tombs from the areas stretching from Quang Ninh, Hai Duong to Bac Ninh include vessel-shaped bowls, tall cups with large mouths, tall vases called dam xoe with slender necks, large mid-sections and bell-shaped bases and terracotta house models (tu dai dong duong, "dwelling of four generations living together"). The geometric decoration and relief motifs of the ceramic products closely resemble those of bronze objects of the same period. There was a high level of technical sophistication and the potter’s wheel had been introduced. Ceramics were thick-walled (0.5 cm), with a high proportion of silicate and covered with a thin yellow or white glaze.
Many ceramic artifacts of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries were made in the style of Tam Thai (three colors) ceramics, which flourished under the Tang Dynasty. They are covered with a transparent green glaze which accumulates in places into small lumps forming different patterns, a technique known as the “dripping spectrum.”
Vietnamese art and ceramics flourished during the period of independence from the Ngo to Tran Dynasty (approximately tenth to fifteenth centuries). The ceramics from this period were thought to have been largely influenced by both ancient native styles and the Tang and later Song dynasty art. Vietnamese art received a lasting influence from adopted Chinese philosophies of Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Some art historians also claim there are small traces of Cham influence.
The Ly dynasty (1010 to 1225), is considered the golden age of Vietnamese art, and its ceramics became famous across East and Southeast Asia and as far away as the Middle East. Many of the ceramic products of this period were slender in shape and covered with an emerald glaze of different shades such as pale grayish green, yellow green, light green, and violet green. Distinct decorative motifs can be clearly seen under the glaze. White and black and iron-brown glazed ceramics were also produced.
Many of Vietnam's landmark structures were also built during the Ly dynasty, including the Temple of Literature, One-pillar pagoda, and Quynh Lam pagoda. The Tran Dynasty that immediately followed in the thirteenth century saw a more subdued approach to art.
During the Tran period, two kinds of iron-brown pottery were produced: white background with brown motifs and brown background with white. Tran period ceramics were large and simple in shape: their strong and majestic appearance conveys the militant spirit of the Tran Dynasty. At the end of the Tran period there also appeared gom hoa lam (white-blue glazed ceramics) and others which used glazes of various colors in between the established jade green or brown and the blue-white glazes.
According to historical documents, mandarins such as Hua Vinh Kieu, Dao Tien Tri and Luu Phong Tu, who served as ambassadors to China, studied Chinese techniques of pottery making and taught them to villagers in their home provinces in Vietnam. Bat Trang (Ha Noi province) produced gom sac trang (white ceramics with blue motifs), Tho Ha (Bac Giang province) gom sac do (red ceramics) and Phu Lang (Bac Ninh province) gom sac vang (yellow or greenish-yellow “eel skin” ceramics). The red pottery of Tho Ha consisted mainly of large terracotta jars and glazed coffins used for the traditional re-burying of bones of a dead body three years after the initial burial.
Terracotta products, though they were produced earlier than other kinds of ceramics and have continually developed throughout Viet Nam’s history, reached heights of artistic excellence during the Dinh (967-980), Ly (1009-1225) and Tran (1225-1400) dynasties. Terracotta was used to manufacture bricks for paving house foundations and constructing walls and miniature towers, roof tiles, phoenix or dragon-shaped architectural ornaments, and incense burners. Binh Son Tower (Vinh Phuc), 14 meters (46 feet) high, dating from the Tran Dynasty, is constructed of dark red terracotta bricks with flower imprints and has 11 floors, each with a curved roof.
The fourth Chinese domination (1407–1427) of Vietnam was short-lived but harsh. Many classical Vietnamese books were burned, thousands of artifacts were taken to China, and sinicization was enforced. The art of this period and the subsequent Le Dynasty was heavily influenced by the Chinese Ming dynasty artistic tradition. White-blue glazed ceramics reached their full development Posterior Le dynasty (1427-1527).
The art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was characterized by the turmoil of a war that lasted two centuries and increasing urbanization. Dang Huyen Thong, a pottery collector and craftsman of the Mac period in northern Vietnam (1527-1598), developed a new style of ceramics decorated with geometric designs and motifs in relief.
The Nguyen dynasty, the last ruling dynasty of Vietnam, saw a renewed interest in ceramics and porcelain art. The ruling family patronized the production of ceramic objects for use by the court and in everyday life. New centers of porcelain and ceramic production such as Mong Cai and Dong Nai began to emerge alongside long-established centers and kilns. Imperial courts across Asia imported Vietnamese ceramics. The Nguyen dynasty also patronized the performing arts, such as imperial court music and dance, which became highly developed.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, French artistic influences spread into Vietnam. By the early twentieth century, French art institutions such as the Fine Arts College of Indochine (FACI) taught European methods to Vietnamese artists, and French-influenced modern art mostly thrived in the big cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Modern Vietnamese artists began to utilize French techniques with many traditional mediums such as silk and lacquer, creating a unique blend of eastern and western elements.
Modern Vietnamese ceramics are still produced with the traditional techniques used for hundreds of years. Beside the ancient centers, which are still operating and continue using traditional methods, many communities have begun using imported techniques, such as casting, chemical glazes, and firing in gas or electric kilns. The shapes and decorations of many products are now designed to please an international market.
It is believed that in prehistoric times, Vietnamese people lived in stilt-houses, as depicted on the bronze Dong Son drums. Similar kinds of houses can still be found in Vietnam today.
When Chinese influence permeated Vietnam, Chinese architecture had a large influence on the basic structure of many types of Vietnamese buildings, mostly pagodas and temples, communal houses, houses of scholar-bureaucrats, aristocracy, and imperial palaces and quarters. Nevertheless, these structures combined both Chinese influences and native style; Vietnamese architecture is generally much more somber and muted than Chinese architecture, using different colors and materials.
With French colonization of Vietnam in the nineteenth century, many French-style buildings were constructed, including villas, government buildings, and opera houses. Many of these buildings still stand in Vietnam and are the most visible remnants of the French colonial legacy.
Some of Vietnam's most notable architectural structures include:
Calligraphy has had a long history in Vietnam. For centuries Vietnamese calligraphy used Chinese characters (known as Hán tự in Vietnamese), and Chu Nom, an obsolete form of writing using characters based on the Chinese model that developed during the 10th century. Most modern Vietnamese calligraphy uses Quoc Ngu, a script based on the Latin alphabet.
Though literacy in the old character-based writing systems of Vietnam was restricted to scholars and the elite class, calligraphy played an important role in Vietnamese life. On special occasions such as the Lunar New Year, people would commission the village teacher or scholar to make a calligraphy wall hanging, often poetry, folk sayings or even single words, for their homes. People who could not read or write also commissioned scholars to write prayers which they would burn at temple shrines.
The technique of painting with ink on silk followed Chinese styles for centuries. After a long period of development, Vietnamese silk painting emphasizing softness, elegance and flexibility of style reached its height between 1925 and 1945. Silk painting uses the unpainted silk background to suggest sky, water, mist, clouds, empty spaces, and, in paintings of people, the skin. In 1946, Vietnamese silk painting was introduced to the world when Vietnamese silk paintings won two prizes at the official Salon in France. Modern Vietnamese silk painting has a unique character and transparency of color that is different from the ancient paintings of China and Japan. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, French influence was absorbed into Vietnamese art and the liberal and modern use of color especially began to differentiate Vietnamese silk paintings from their Chinese or Japanese counterparts.
The subjects of Vietnamese silk paintings are typically the countryside, landscapes, pagodas, historical events or scenes of daily life.
Vietnamese woodblock prints or Dong Ho painting (Vietnamese: Tranh Đông Hồ) is a folk art originating in Dong Ho Village, Song Ho Commune, Thuan Thanh district of Bac Ninh Province (north of Hanoi) that has been practiced for at least three centuries. The background paper is originally white, made of bark of a tree called "Dzo." The paint is made with natural orange, pink, yellow, purple pigments refined from the leaves of local trees; red pigment is taken from earth of hills and mountains; the black is made from burned bamboo leaves; a shiny white paint is made using ground sea shells. The paint is applied to carved wood blocks and pressed on paper, and the process is repeated for each color. A layer of sticky rice paste (called "ho nep"), applied to protect the painting, makes the colors very durable.
Dong Ho painting is considered one of Vietnam's cultural symbols. Subjects depicted in these paintings are usually scenes of ordinary life, Vietnamese landscapes, seasons of the year, and prosperity symbols.
Traditional Vietnamese music is extremely diverse, consisting of many different styles varying from region to region. Some of the most widely known genres include:
Vietnam has 54 different ethnic groups, each with its own traditional dance. Among the ethnic Vietnamese majority, there are several traditional dances performed widely at festivals and other special occasions, such as the lion dance.
In the imperial court there also developed throughout the centuries a series of complex court dances which require great skill. Some of the more widely known are the imperial lantern dance, fan dance, and platter dance. The theme of most of these dances is to honor the sovereign and ensure his longevity and the prosperity of his country. Imperial court dance was recognized in 2005 by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, along with Nhã nhạc.
Water puppetry is a distinct Vietnamese art which had its origins in the 12th century. In water puppetry, the “stage” is a pond or waist-deep pool. The puppets are carved out of wood and often weigh up to 15 kilograms. Up to 8 puppeteers stand behind a split-bamboo screen, decorated to resemble a temple facade, and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanisms hidden beneath the water’s surface. Epic storylines are played out with many different characters, often depicting traditional scenes of Vietnamese life.
A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides background music accompaniment. The instrumentation includes vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle), and bamboo flutes. The bamboo flute's clear, simple notes may accompany royalty while the drums and cymbals may loudly announce a fire-breathing dragon's entrance. The puppets enter from either side of the stage, or emerge from the murky depths of the water. Singers of Cheo (a form of opera originating in northern Vietnam) sing songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets. The musicians and the puppets interact during performance; the musicians may yell a word of warning to a puppet in danger or a word of encouragement to a puppet in need.
Water puppetry almost died out in the twentieth century, but it has been saved by preservation efforts of preservation and is now largely seen by tourists to Vietnam.
The cinema of Vietnam has largely been shaped by the wars fought in the country from the 1940s to the 1970s. In the 1920s, a group of Vietnamese intellectuals formed the Huong Ky Film Company in Hanoi. It produced documentaries on the funeral of Emperor Khai Dinh and the enthronement of Bảo Đại, and the silent feature, Một đồng kẽm tậu được ngựa (A Penny for a Horse). The first sound films were produced from 1937 to 1940, with Trọn với tình (True to Love), Khúc khải hoàn (The Song of Triumph) and Toét sợ ma (Toét's Scared of Ghosts) by the Asia Film Group studio in Hanoi with the participation of artist Tám Danh. The Vietnam Film Group, led by Trần Tấn Giàu produced Một buổi chiều trên sông Cửu Long (An Evening on the Mekong River) and Thầy Pháp râu đỏ (The Red-Bearded Sorcerer).
The government Ministry of Information and Propaganda formed a film department around 1945 and documented battles in the First Indochina War. After the end of the First Indochina War and the creation of North Vietnam and South Vietnam, there were two Vietnamese film industries, with the Hanoi industry focusing on propaganda films and Saigon producing mostly war-society-themed or comedy films.
Hanoi's Vietnam Film Studio was established in 1956 and the Hanoi Film School opened in 1959. The first feature film produced in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was a nationalistic work directed by Nguyễn Hồng Nghị, Chung một Dòng sông (Together on the Same River). Documentaries and feature films from Hanoi attracted attention at film festivals in Eastern Europe at the time. The documentary Nước về Bắc Hưng Hải (Water Returns to Bắc Hưng Hải) won the Golden Award at the 1959 Moscow Film Festival, and the 1963 feature by Phạm Kỳ Nam, Chị Tư Hậu (Sister Tư Hậu) won the Silver Award at Moscow. It starred lead actress Trà Giang. The Hanoi-based industry focused on documenting the Vietnam War, producing 463 newsreels, 307 documentaries, and 141 scientific films between 1965 and 1973, in contrast to just 36 feature films and 27 cartoons.
Saigon produced numerous documentary and public information films, as well as feature films. The most well known feature film in the late 1950s was Chúng Tôi Muốn Sống (We Want To Live), a realistic depiction of the bloody land reform campaign in North Vietnam under Communist-dominated Vietminh. Some mid-1960s black-and-white features dealt with war themes, with actors such as Đoàn Châu Mậu and La Thoại Tân. Some later popular color features revolved around the theme of family or personal tragedy in a war torn society, such as Người Tình Không Chân Dung (Faceless Love) starring Kiều Chinh, Xa Lộ Không Đèn (Dark Highway) starring Thanh Nga, Chiếc Bóng Bên Đường (Roadside Shadow) starring Kim Cương and Thành Được. Comedy movies were usually released around Tet, the Vietnamese New Year; most notable was Triệu Phú Bất Đắc Dĩ (The Reluctant Millionaire) starring the well loved comedian Thanh Việt.
After Reunification of North Vietnam and South Vietnam, studios in the former South Vietnam turned to making Social Realism films. Vietnamese feature film output increased and by 1978, the number of feature films made each year was boosted from around three annually during the war years to 20. Films from the years following the war focused on heroic efforts in the revolution, human suffering created by the war and social problems of post-war reconstruction. The shift to a market economy in 1986 dealt a blow to Vietnamese film making, which struggled to compete with video and television. The number of films produced in Vietnam has dropped off sharply since 1987.
A number of filmmakers continued to produce film that would be seen on the art cinema circuit. Trần Văn Thủy's Tiếng vĩ cầm ở Mỹ Lai (The Sound of the Violin at My Lai) won Best Short Film prize at the 43rd Asia Pacific Film Festival in 1999. Đời cát (Sandy Life) by Nguyễn Thanh won best picture at the same festival the following year. Bùi Thạc Chuyên's Cuốc xe đêm (Night Cyclo Trip) won third prize in the short film category at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000.
Better known, however, are European productions in Vietnam, such as The Lover and Indochine, as well as films by Việt Kiều directors Tran Anh Hung and Tony Bui. Tran's first feature, The Scent of the Green Papaya won the Golden Camera at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 and was the first Vietnamese film nominated for an Oscar, in 1994. His other films include Xích lô (Cyclo, 1995) and Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng (Vertical Ray of the Sun) in 2000. Tony Bui's Ba mùa (Three Seasons, 1998) won prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. Another European co-production, Mùa len trâu (The Buffalo Boy) by Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh, has won numerous awards at film festivals, including the Chicago International Film Festival in 2004.
In recent years, as Vietnam's film industry has made efforts to modernize and move beyond the government-backed propaganda films, contemporary Vietnamese filmmakers have gained a wider audience with films such as Buffalo Boy, Bar Girls, The White Silk Dress, and Muoi.
Vietnamese literature is literature, both oral and written, created largely by Vietnamese-speaking people, although Francophone Vietnamese and English-speaking Vietnamese authors in Australia and the United States are counted by many critics as part of the national tradition. For much of its history, Vietnam was dominated by China and as a result much of the written work during this period was in Classical Chinese. Chữ nôm, created around the tenth century, allowed writers to compose in Vietnamese using modified Chinese characters. Although regarded as inferior to Chinese, it gradually grew in prestige. It flourished in the eighteenth century when many notable Vietnamese writers and poets composed their works in chữ nôm and when it briefly became the official written script.
While the quốc ngữ script was created in the seventeenth century, it did not become popular outside of missionary groups until the early twentieth century, when the French colonial administration mandated its use in French Indochina. By the mid-twentieth century, virtually all Vietnamese works of literature were composed in quốc ngữ.
Some defining works of literature include The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du, and Luc Van Tien by Nguyen Dinh Chieu.
Legendary female poetess Ho Xuan Huong (born near the end of the eighteenth century) composed much of her poetry in Chu nom, and most of it has been translated into Quoc ngu for modern Vietnamese. Her poetry continues to be widely popular. The works of some poets such as the famous Mandarin official Duong Khue were adapted into songs that are still famous today, such as the Ca trù-genre song "Hồng hồng, tuyết tuyết."
Vietnamese poetry, along with much folk "literature," is primarily an oral tradition, because until the twentieth century literacy was restricted mostly to scholars and the elite.
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