Lions are some of the most cunning and powerful creatures in the animal world, whose roars make other beasts tremble. For millennia, cultures worldwide have proclaimed this species to be “The King of the Jungle”. Lions came to be used as religious symbols. Their fame spread far and wide to regions with no native lions
According to Buddhist myths, the lion is the precursor of the Buddha. Its power is associated with the Buddha’s power. His scriptures and doctrines were compared to the roar of a lion and his seat was called the “Lion seat”. Lions are not native to Vietnam. The depictions of lions in Vietnamese arts were adopted from Buddhism. These images were adapted to include local traditions and beliefs.
The depictions of lions and nghê in Vietnamese arts are not totally realistic, but instead highly conventional and stylized. Their expressions are diverse and familiar: sometimes powerful and invincible, other times droll and mischievous, etc. Physically, the depictions fall into two categories: lion’s form and dog-lion’s form (combining a lion’s head and a dog’s body). Lion depictions span all eras, while doglions appeared later during the Preliminary Le Dynasty (15th century) mainly on religious items, wooden reliefs in titular temples creatures portrayed as lions were called “lions” and those portrayed as dog-lions were called “nghê”. However, while dog-lions were colloquially called “nghê”, some ancient woodblocks refer to them as “lions”.
Depictions of lions became popular in Vietnam during the Ly and Tran Dynasties (11th – 14th centuries), mainly in Buddhist arts. In the late Tran Dynasty, when Confucianism was thriving, lions were used to embody royal powers at court. At this time, a great diversity of lions/nghê were depicted on many backgrounds and materials. Their physical features and symbolic meanings were highly varied.
Depictions of lions in Vietnam’s Buddhist arts are consistent with those of other Buddhist countries in the region. Accordingly, lions were usually carved on the lotus pedestal of Buddhist statues; depicted as the mounts of Manjushri Bohdisattva; or as a guardian animal before the pagoda to remind guests to take their Buddhist faith seriously. For Confucian scholars, lions were among the symbolic creatures associated with ranks of court mandarins. Attires and seals attributed to each rank were decorated with lions. Particularly, in the Preliminary Le Dynasty, lions were regularly portrayed on ceramics. Popular motifs symbolised prosperous and peaceful nations and included the Five Lions, Three Lions, Lions Playing with Money or Lions Playing with Balls, etc.
In architecture, lions/nghê were usually carved in pairs and set on top of pillars, at entrance gates and before edifices, temples and mausoleums to serve as protective guardians. The Ly, Tran and Le Dynasties favoured lion designs. After the Renaissance Le Dynasty (17th and 18th centuries), nghê grew in popularity. In this era, folk arts thrived and lions/nghê with amusing expressions were frequently carved in wooden titular temples. From being symbols of sacred cults and royal power, lions gradually changed into familiar pets of the common people. Also in this era, lions/ nghê were often associated with the extraordinary features of the kylan and depicted with a horn on their head, a mane on their back, or fins on their body.
According to old legends, nghê love sweet scents and sitting still, thus nghê were typically carved as bas-reliefs on the base of frankincense urns or on urns’ lids. The earliest versions include bas-reliefs of lion faces on the base of ceramic frankincense urns made during the Mac Dynasty (16th century). More popular forms in the Renaissance Le Dynasty were urns with nghê-shaped lids. Depictions of lions on frankincense urns’ lids were quite rare. In the Nguyen Dynasty (19th – 20th centuries), lions prevailed again with portrayals of pairs of nghê or lions on both sides of altars. Depictions of attending nghê date back to at least the 15th century and grew more common in the 17th and 18th centuries. During the Nguyen Dynasty, attending lions were the most popular form.
It could be argued that depictions of lions and nghê have undergone the most complex evolution of any sacred animals in Vietnam. Hopefully, more research on this topic will help the community to gain a deeper understanding of depictions of lions and nghê in Vietnamese culture, thus rekindling our appreciation for these cultural mascots.