Story: Tran Tan Vinh – Tran Hieu

Photos: Tran Hieu

Sculptures of fairies found in Vietnam’s ancient communal temples are invaluable artifacts of village life.

Fairy and Dragon in Phu My Communal Temple

Communal temples are a tradition found in many Vietnamese villages, dedicated to the village founders and serving as gathering places for the local community. They are also invaluable sources of historical Vietnamese art and architecture, with the oldest extant temples dating back to the 16th century.

Wooden sculpture art in communal temples is a fascinating treasure, featuring magical characters and folk animals. On many reliefs, one can easily spot a favored motif of fairies riding dragons. This theme was tremendously popular in communal temple architecture during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the artists who were entrusted to create it were held in the highest esteem.

Portrayals of fairies in communal temples are of great diversity. Sometimes they come in the guise of farm maidens wearing crimson bodices and red skirts, riding on dragons and singing jovially like those found in the communal temples of Cao Dai, Hung Loc and An Hoa. Or sometimes fairies are portrayed as spirits in water puppetry, spreading their wings like those in the communal temples of Phu Tien, Ngoc Than and Phu Huu.. In Huu Bo Communal Temple, a fairy resides in a solemn posture in resemblance of the Holy Mother. In contrast, fairies in the communal temples of Ha Hiep, Dai Phung and Kim Hoang are gilded in a regal halo.

Fairies in Gie Ha Communal Temple

Fairies as farm maidens are portrayed with rustic costumes such as round-collared bodices, bare arms, short skirts and hair in a bun worn high on the head. Although these were all traditional garb of the peasantry under the reign of the Le Emperors and Trinh Lords, a closer look reveals that ancient craftsmen devoted much attention to their depictions of earrings. Earrings were usually large and elongated, similar to lively flowers that inferred to the cosmetic desires of women given the constraints of a feudal society.

Fairies as inspired by water puppetry were normally given a more elaborate portrayal of exquisite, sometimes flamboyant costumes. They also carried by their side a everyday beauty items such as mirrors and combs. In the communal temples of Ha Hiep, Dai Phung and Kim Hoang, fairies were marvelously carved with refined and well-depicted costumes. To round-collared tunics, sleeves were added and enlivened with hems of decorative patterns and elaborate details like aristocratic costumes. Skirts were patched with fine fabric sheets like those on the tunics of Le empresses in the 17th century. On the heads of these fairies are meticulously chiseled tiaras. These fairies were depicted to be more imposing, with their benevolent, solemn and regal faces while still brimming with folklore characteristics such as the supple arms of dancing fairies on dragon’s back.

Fairies were a surprisingly unique theme of sculpture in communal temples in the 17th and 18th centuries, demonstrating the versatility and creativity of ancient folk craftsmen who devoted their entire labor and lives to chiseling and carving out the shared dreams of their villages.