The lion originally symbolizes a Buddhist mythological creature. According to Buddhist mythology, the lion was one of the past lives of the Buddha. The strength of the lion represents the power of the Buddha, and the Buddha's teachings are likened to the roar of a lion, known as the "Lion's roar." The seated posture of the Buddha is referred to as the "Lion's seat".

Vietnam does not have actual lions in its wildlife, so the presence of lion imagery in Vietnamese art is a result of the influence of Buddhism. However, it has been creatively adapted with a distinct style that aligns with the country's cultural traditions and national identity while also showcasing a clear artistic imprint of the specific era.

Just like other countries in East Asia, in Vietnamese culture, the lion is also referred to as "Nghê" (Toan nghê). The earliest records of Toan nghê can be found in the ancient Chinese dictionaries "Er Ya" and the book "Mu Tian Zi Zhuan." Guo Po (276-324), a scholar of the Jin Dynasty, explained in his annotations to these books that "Toan Nghê" means "lion" (狻猊即獅子也 - Toan nghê means lion). In Chinese artistic representation, both nghê and lion are depicted in the form of lions, but they are referred to differently based on their context. They are called lions when they serve as guardian creatures and are called nghê when they are carved at the pedestal of Buddha statues or used as the mount of Manjushri Bodhisattva, bearing incense burners, or seated on top of the incense lid. In the ancient and medieval art of the Korean peninsula, the lion-shaped incense lid is referred to as "Toan nghê xuất hương" (Toan nghê emitting fragrance).

In Vietnam, the forms and names of lions (sư tử) and nghê exhibit diverse variations. Folk beliefs often differentiate lion and nghê based on their physical characteristics: if they resemble a lion, they are called sư tử, while if they combine the head of a lion with a canine body, they are called nghê. Lions have appeared in various art forms throughout different periods in Vietnam. Nghê, on the other hand, began to appear at least from the late Tran Dynasty (13th-14th century), primarily in worship objects, architectural decorations, or as guardian creatures.

Regarding names, Buddha statues with lion-like depictions are referred to as "Sư tử tọa" (Lion's seat), but they are also sometimes called "Nghê tòa" or commonly known as ông Sấm. Folk tradition often refers to creature combinations of lion and dog as nghê, but the formal texts still use the term sư tử. For example, the pair of lion guardians at the gates of Phu Dong Temple (Gia Lam, Hanoi) are described as sư tử in the inscriptions on the belly of a dragon staircase outside Nghi Mon, created in the first year of Vinh Thinh (1705). The Nanh Pagoda's nghê statue is clearly engraved with the characters for sư tử on its side.

The depiction of lions (sư tử) and nghê in Vietnamese art became prevalent during the Ly Dynasty, particularly in Buddhist sculptures, architectural decorations, and worship objects. Over time, especially from the Tran to the early Le Dynasty and onwards, as Confucianism flourished, lions were chosen by feudal dynasties as symbols of imperial power. This led to a widespread presence of lion imagery in various art forms, showcasing a great diversity in their physical characteristics.

Depending on the type of art form, position, and intended function, the lion representations in Vietnamese art convey different symbolic meanings.

Lion- Nghê in Bhuddist arts

Due to the influence and propagation of Buddhism, the lion-nghê imagery in Vietnamese Buddhist art also reflects a unity with the Buddhist art of East Asia. Accordingly, the lion-nghê is often depicted with the characteristics of a lion, in a posture supporting a lotus throne for the seated Buddha (Lion's seat), as a mount for Manjusri Bodhisattva, or as guardians placed in front of temple gates, reminding sentient beings to maintain solemnity and tranquility at the entrance of the Buddha's abode.

Lion - Nghê in architecture

In architectural art, the lion-nghê is often carved and placed on the heads of the two main pillars, as well as on staircases in front of gates, ancestral halls, temples, shrines, or on both sides of the paths leading to ancestral tombs. They serve as guardian creatures, standing watch and providing protection. During the Tran and early Le Dynasty, the lion was predominantly depicted. From the Mac Dynasty to the Nguyen Dynasty, the nghê, with the characteristics of a lion's head and a canine body, appeared in dense numbers.

In the 16th to 18th centuries, nghê appeared on the roof ridges of religious architectural structures, similar to the Trào Phong, symbolizing coolness and safety for the building. During this period, folk art flourished, and the nghê was intricately carved on frames, roof brackets, timber curtains, or door lintels, often portraying a joyful and playful appearance. From being a symbol of divine and regal power, it gradually became a familiar image in folk culture.

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A pair of bronze Nghê from the 17th century

Lion- Nghê in worship objects

In worship objects, the lion-nghê symbolizes steadfastness and reverence. According to ancient conventions, the nghê is an animal fond of fragrances and enjoys sitting in one place, so it is often intricately carved on the legs of incense burners and the lids of censers. The earliest known example is on blue-gray ceramic incense burners from the Mac Dynasty, created by the artisan Dang Huyen Thong, with lion faces molded on the upper part of the legs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it became common to have censer lids with Nghê-shaped knobs made of materials such as bronze or ceramics, although lion figures were less common. In the Nguyen Dynasty, lion figures became popular again on incense burners and censer lids.

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Ceramic seated nghê, 17th - 18th century

In addition to incense burners and censers, we also commonly find the lion-nghê imagery in the form of sculptures, such as pairs of seated lions or seated nghê statues placed on both sides of the ancestral altar. The lion-nghê statues have been present since at least the early Le Dynasty and saw significant development in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the Nguyen Dynasty, seated lion became popular again. Furthermore, the lion-nghê imagery is also adorned on various other types of ancestral worship items, such as lamp bases, altar platforms, wine holders, and offering vessels.

Lion- Nghê in every day objects

From the early Le Dynasty to the Nguyen Dynasty, the lion motif became a popular decorative theme in daily household items. Particularly during the early Le Dynasty, lions were extensively depicted in decorative patterns on ceramic wares, appearing on various types of vessels such as bowls, plates, jars, vases, boxes, teapots, ewers, and jars. These depictions showcased the uniqueness, refinement, diversity, and versatility of the lion motif, featuring various poses and patterns, such as lions holding coins or lions playing with a ball, symbolizing a peaceful and prosperous nation.

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A seated nghê of the 19th century

Currently, the Hanoi Museum is preserving numerous artifacts that feature the sculpting and decoration of lion-nghê imagery on various materials such as ceramics, bronze, stone, wood, etc. These artifacts hold high artistic value.


Nguyễn Kim Ngân