Prof. Trinh Sinh

In his Phủ Biên tạp lục (Miscellaneous Chronicles of the Pacified Frontier, 1776), when describing the land of Thuan Hoa, now Hue City, the scholar Le Quy Don said: “Both the outer and inner walls are several meters thick, with lime and pieces of broken porcelain in the shapes of dragons, phoenixes, qilin, tigers, flowers and grass on their surfaces.” This describes the mosaic arts created during the reign of the Nguyen lords.

Later, during the Nguyen dynasty, the application of porcelain shards for decoration became a more common craft. In the Tomb of Tu Duc, the art of mosaic is reflected in the blue-glazed porcelain shards that conjure up the image of a longma (a mythical animal with the head of the dragon and the body of the horse) on a folding screen.

A view of the Tomb of Khai Dinh

What might be the pinnacle of mosaic arts is found on the interior architecture of the Tomb of Khai Dinh. In 1920, Emperor Khai Dinh launched the construction of his mausoleum. The chosen location was about eight kilometers south of the ancient capital of Hue. Skilled workers from across the country were gathered for this project. The emperor imported cement, iron, and steel from France, tiles, porcelain, and stained glass from China and Japan, as well as fine porcelain products from Vietnam. For this reason, it was not until 11 years later that this splendid and elaborate mausoleum was completed.

Mosaics are used as interior decorations in Thien Dinh Palace, home to Khai Thanh Hall and the grave of the emperor, where his statue stands. Hundreds of pieces of broken porcelain and stained glass were subtly combined in the recesses of the altar, the columns, and the walls.

The colorful porcelain shards remain as brilliant as ever

The most important theme is the dragon, embodying the emperor’s “destiny as the ruler”. Here, the dragon is portrayed from both the front and side views. This legendary creature has big eyes, a lion’s nose, two sharp horns, a mane, long ears, and whiskers, five claws, a meandering body, and a wide mouth that holds a pearl or a Buddhist swastika. There are also depictions of a pair of dragons courting the sun, and one playing in the water with fish. The mosaics called Long Ngư hý thủy (dragon and fish play in the water) are vividly displayed by the altar. The altar’s dragon motifs may be some of the finest. Notably, swastika designs – a Buddhist symbol of good luck – are prominent in many decorative details. Four pairs of dragons occupy the corners of the altar. In addition, there are many mosaics of plants and flowers. The pieces of broken porcelain used are all colorful. They were obtained from porcelain products bought from various sources that were smashed. Mosaics are neatly featured on every square or rectangular surface in a recess. Their layouts are symmetrical and consistent. The colorful porcelain shards remain as brilliant as ever, projecting an image that is splendid, a little flashy, and stunning in every detail, worthy of the position of a ruler of the Nguyen dynasty. This is the most exquisite altar of all those made to worship the Nguyen emperors. Artisans created this altar with dragons and swastikas as a prayer for Emperor Khai Dinh to enjoy a good afterlife in the Buddha’s realm.

Dragon motifs

Another decorative highlight is found in the main hall of the mausoleum, which houses the emperor’s grave. Here, a statue of his likeness rests under a giant canopy that is made of concrete and steel yet looks very elegant and intricate. At the statue’s base, mosaics of porcelain and glass are laid out in recesses. The themes remain dragons, swastikas, plants, and flowers. The canopy is decorated with dragon motifs. On its level top is an image of a dragon holding a swastika in its mouth. A bat is seen in each corner of the canopy. As “bat” and “good luck” are homophones in Sino-Vietnamese, these decorations bless the emperor. Sometimes, five bats appear together in a decorative pattern, meaning Ngũ Phúc lâm môn – five blissful things come together. The main hall also holds many columns featuring dragons. In the back hall, where the memorial tablet was placed, hundreds of simple Buddhist swastikas are formed by pieces of blue glass.

Statue of Emperor Khai Dinh

The walls of the mausoleum bear mosaics of phoenixes, tigers, deer, sparrows, peacocks, roosters, cranes, ducks, rabbits, flowers, and grass. Many of these images are very familiar to ordinary Vietnamese people, those who mainly reside in the countryside. In addition, there are pictures depicting the typical plants of the four seasons: pine, bamboo, chrysanthemums, and apricots. Sometimes, the lotus is also considered to represent a season of the year. Remarkably, there are images of five bats frolicking in the clouds to symbolize Ngũ Phúc – the five blessings. Paintings with the word Phúc (good luck, blessing, or happiness) or Thọ(longevity) in large sizes are also found here.

Made of porcelain, glass, and stone, these decorative mosaics contain many traditional cultural elements that explore themes familiar to Vietnamese society at that time. These mosaics are quite similar to folk paintings in the topics they cover and their color combinations, which may sometimes seem flashy.

The magnificent beauty of the tomb testifies to the pinnacle of mosaic arts at that time, reflecting the ingenuity of artisans and craftsmen from across the country. Meanwhile, our profound cultural heritage and national values are hidden deep in the themes of these mosaics.