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The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at

The Dragon in Vietnam

Perhaps the figure most used for decorative purposes in Vietnam is the Dragon. It is to be seen in temples, on silverware, and cloth of all kinds, and next to the depiction of bending bamboo is perhaps the most familiar symbol of that land. The dragon is the most important of the four symbolic animals of Vietnamese mythology--to the Vietnamese it symbolizes nobility and power and is believed to be immortal. It can live anywhere--in the air, underground, in water, etc.; it is believed to possess such power that, when provoked, it can spit a deadly vapor which it can turn into either water or fire at will.

While in Western mythology the dragon is an evil beast, and best illustrated by the story of St. George and the Dragon, in the East--especially in mainland Asia--it has an opposite significance. The dragon is the totem, the palladium and emblem, of Vietnam. It is the symbol of man in general, just as woman is represented by the phoenix, another of the four mythical animals of the land. When a dragon and a phoenix are shown together either in cloth designs or carvings, a marriage is represented; sometimes this is emphasized by the addition of a Chinese character meaning joy, and greater emphasis is achieved by repeating the character.

The dragon may be a fanciful elaboration of the several varieties of common lizards of Vietnam, but its symbolic use seems to be of ancient Chinese origin.

According to popular belief, the dragon is a genie that presides over the creation of meteors and other cosmic activity, and belief in cosmic activity is exceedingly strong in Vietnam. In addition, he is often considered to be the god of the waters who lives in the sea and other bodies of water.

According to the Chinese tradition, which is still prevalent in Vietnam, the dragon has the horns of a deer, the head of a camel, belly of a crocodile, scales of a fish, and buffalo-like hair. Its hearing ability is in its horns rather than the ears. The neck of a serpent, eyes of a demon, and claws of an eagle complete a figure which is rather strange to the Westerner.

There are many legends of the dragon with some being used to explain the origin of the Vietnamese people. One of these tells a story of a Vietnamese King named Lac-Long Quang(circa 2,500 B.C.) of the dragon race, who kidnapped the wife of his cousin, a Chinese king De-Lai, and got 100 eggs. From these came a hundred boys: fifty of these, taking after their father, becoming water geni--the other fifty took after their mother and became land dwellers. One of the latter founded the Hung-Vurong dynasty, but its kings were still more at home at the bottom of the rivers than in their palaces. While Vietnam had a dynasty and from time to time the ruler died, the Vietnamese did not say "The King is Dead" but rather "The Dragon has gone up into the upper regions". A second proverb states, "When the Dragon (the ruler) is peaceful and happy, the fish (the people) swim freely".

The reddish color of the Sai river is explained by the following legend. When the Chinese invaded Tonkin in ancient times, their general used explosives to break up the rocks blocking the river. This explosion wounded the dragon hidden in its depths and the wound, having never healed, continues to color the water with its blood. This is very similar to the Chinese legend that the dragons are found everywhere underground, and serious difficulties would result if a dragon were accidentally wounded. His fury could result in untold catastrophe.

There are numerous other dragon tales which might be told, but they have a similar thought and seem to spring from the animistic concept of the earth having a "spirit" of its own which must be worshipped and appeased. These legendary stories have a present-day effect on the thinking of many common folk. To illustrate: a Chinese legend still current in Vietnam is that a three year old carp can be transformed into a dragon by certain rites. The Vietnamese, therefore, do not wish to eat large carp particularly if they are black as this may have dire consequences. While such concepts are entirely alien to the Western thought, awareness of such beliefs may help to avoid needless hostility.

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