Nguyen Quoc Huu
Birds and flowers have long been key themes in Vietnamese fine arts, portrayed on every material from wood to paper, fabric, gold, silver, bronze, jade, ivory, stone and ceramics. Decorations of birds and flowers grace household items and religious items, ceremonial tools, musical instruments, weapons, personal stationery kits, jewelry, clothes, buildings, embroideries and paintings.
A dialogue with nature
Ancient Vietnamese artisans studied nature to portray the miraculous world of birds and flowers through their arts. They studied the properties of flowers and the behaviors and motions of birds to create works that touch our hearts. Birds such as falcons, eagles, owls, peacocks, pheasants, parrots, swans, Mandarin ducks, cranes, storks, swallows, kingfishers, red whiskered bulbuls, magpie-robins, sparrows, and starlings are shown flying, perching on branches, beating their wings, feeding, hunting, mating, sleeping or dying.
Artists and artisans portrayed flowers in various forms and stages of growth. We can see blooms that are half-shut, or a bud with the outer petals folding out and inner ones tightly embracing the pistils. There are flowers in full bloom with the petals exposing the central pistils, and even wilting flowers with the petals shredded and fallen. The leaves are equally varied. If we take the lotus as an example, we can see fresh leaves coiled into bunches and spreading leaves. Portrayed in profile, the leaves look like folding fans. Some leaves are fully open while others start to wither, their trunks bending and their edges shut.
Metaphors and symbolic meaning
As well as being beautiful, images of birds and flowers hold symbolic meaning. Each species of bird and flower was associated with certain virtues and symbolic references. Bamboos represent heroism. Ochnas represent beauty. Peonies are signs of material affluence and chrysanthemums are symbols of hermits. Lotuses symbolize purity as they remain clean and beautiful despite growing in mud. Spruce trees, bamboo and ochnas can withstand frost, thus they were known as “the three friends of winter” and used to symbolize patience and fortitude in the face of life’s ups and downs. Some flowers were typically depicted in sets. Ochnas, orchids (or lotuses), chrysanthemums and bamboo (or spruce) were often shown together as the “Four Great” to symbolize the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, or the “Four Sages”. Pairs of mandarin ducks are symbols of happiness. Cranes represent longevity and eternity. Eagles are emblems of heroes.
To add liveliness, birds are usually depicted with flowers. Typical pairings include sparrows and bamboo; peacocks with peony or lotus blooms; Mandarin ducks and lotus flowers; cranes with spruce; and cranes or parrots and peach blossoms.
Falcons were portrayed in the image “the gathering of heroes” depicting a fierce battle between a falcon and a python. Another popular image was “lone-wolf hero” in which a solitary falcon spreads its wings over a cliff. Long-ago artists also employed metaphors through homophonic words to express good wishes. Behind an image of a sparrow perching on a bamboo branch is a wish for personal progress. “Trúc” (bamboo) sounds like “chúc” (wishes) while sparrow, “tước” in Chinese-Vietnamese, is homophonic with “chức tước” (titles). The motif of a pair of Mandarin ducks swimming and cuddling in a lotus pond infers conjugal affection and happiness. In Chinese-Vietnamese lotuses are called “liên”, homophonic with “liên tục” (continual, forever).
A famous motif called “phi, minh, túc, thực” (flying, calling, sleeping and eating) portrays four birds performing four different activities. The image of a bird spreading its wings to fly (phi) represents the most basic survival skills in life. “Phi” (flying) is written like “phi” (extraordinary career) to symbolize success. A bird craning its neck to cry out (minh) is a token of the exchange of affection. “Minh” (calling) is spelled like “minh” (brilliant) in reference to a bright career. A bird nuzzling its wings in sleep (túc) refers to resting to refuel lost energy for survival. “Túc” (sleeping) is homophonic with “túc” (affluent and prospering) and is a symbol of fullness and abundance. A bird finding food (thực) represents the most basic demand for survival. “Thực” (eating) also sounds like “thực” (proliferating and growing), which symbolizes evolution and development.
As well as being keen observers of nature, ancient artists were highly skillful. Whether creating detailed images or portraying birds and flowers with only a few brushstrokes, long-ago artists breathed life into their works. As an example we can examine pictures of spruce trees. They were always portrayed to stand tall in contrast with the wintry background. Their trunks rise from hard rocks and their bark is rough. Their foliage is dense and exuberant. All of these features suggest the trees’ indomitable stance in the face of storms. Sometimes, to highlight the symbolism, artists added a bent and leaning tree with bare and scrawny branches. Both trees are authentic depictions of nature and life at their finest.