Lesson 02

South East Asian Field Trip

Văn Lang – Âu Lạc culture

Let’s begin our research field trip by visiting the origin of the Vietnamese culture within the South East Asian background. Here you will find the Vietnamese identity[1], i.e., the original characteristics of the Vietnamese people of the ancient time before it co-existed with the Chinese culture. It was:

– The life described on bronze drums and bronze jars

– Custom of the Hùng Vương era that are still currently practiced, such as Mẫu (Holy Mother) Cult, medium sessions, bánh chưng bánh dầy rice cakes, betel and areca, skirt wearing…

Characteristics of South East Asian culture

As living habitat of the Indonesian and Malayo-Indonesian peoples, South East Asia is located between India and China. The presence of the ancient bronze drums discovered in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Southern China gives us a sense of the relative frontier of South East Asia. This region had a specific pre-historic culture – civilization with the following characteristics:

– Material civilization: cultivation in rice paddies, using primitive metal tools, cleverness in boat rowing

– Society: respect for women, matriarchy

– Religion: nature worship, ancestor worship, earth god worship, burying of human remains in jars

– Mythology: mountain – river, bird – fish oppositions

– Language: monosyllabic Mon-Khmer.

Within the South East Asian habitat, the Đông Sơn culture of the ancient Vietnamese people in the Hùng Vương era was located in the midland, the basins of Hồng River, Mã River, and Cả River (2000-700 B.C.), with the South East Asian cultural characteristics of the Vietnamese people still recognized through:

– Languages of the Việt Mường, Việt Tày

– Patterns on the bronze drums, bronze jars

– Mythology, legends, Mẫu Cult, conventionalities (betel and areca, skirt wearing)

– Agriculture with rice cultivation.

Being representative for the Đông Sơn culture of the ancient Vietnamese people, bronze drums and bronze jars were mostly found in the Phú Thọ, Thanh Hóa areas. It is appropriate, therefore, to begin our research field trip by visiting a museum to make observation of the original cultural heritage of the Vietnamese people still engraved on these bronze drums and bronze jars.

Visiting museums

Bronze drum and bronze jar are the two ancient objects representative of the Đông Sơn culture of the ancient Vietnamese people in the South East Asian area. These two ancient objects found in Vietnam belonged to the Âu Lạc – Lạc Việt people, evidenced by:

– History has recorded that Ma Yuan (14 BC – 49 AD, a famous Chinese general of the Eastern Han Dynasty) had exhaustively confiscated bronze drums belonging to the local leaders, had them melted and casted bronze horses and a big bronze pillar; Hậu Hán Thư (History Book of the Later Han Dynasty) stated: “Giao Chỉ people had only bronze drums as sacred objects, and they were very excited in battle when the drums were played.”

The traces from these two symbolic ancient objects can still be found in the Red River area until now: the skirt and the loin-cloth engraved on the surface of the bronze drums, the fertility festival representative of the sexual intercourse on the bronze jars.

Bronze drums

Bronze drums were a kind of musical instrument and at the same time a symbol of power, religion, economic and cultural life of the ancient Vietnamese people.

Ngọc Lũ bronze drum

Based on the legends and the engraved motifs on the surface of bronze objects like the Ngọc Lũ bronze drum[2], a number of researchers have formulated the following theory of the pre-three-philosophy religion of the Vietnamese people.

According to Madeleine Colani, the ancient Vietnamese people worshipped the Sun[3]. The engraved figures on the Hùng Vương era bronze drums are a proof: in the middle of the drum is the figure of the Sun with shining rays from the center on everything around (people, houses, birds, animals…). The Sun was considered as God, the Father of every living being.

On the contrary, H.Q. Quaritch Wales believed that the engravings on the Ngọc Lũ bronze drum represented the shamanism of the ancient Vietnamese people[4]. In the present, shamanism[5] is still being practiced in some places of South East Asia, such as the Torajas people of Sulawesi (an island of Indonesia, formerly known as Celebes) or has left traces in many other peoples. Based on this belief, H.Q. Quaritch Wales provided the following explanations:

– The group of people wearing bird-feathered hats were not a group of dancers celebrating the totemic Hồng (or Lạc) bird as in Goloubew’s and Karlgren’s theory but were shamans holding spears to chase bad spirits and to search for sick people’s souls. Disguising as birds in religious ceremonies was something quite common in the Batak people (Sumatra) and Dayak people (Borneo).

– The star in the middle of the surface of the bronze drum was not the Sun like suggested by M. Colani but was the North Star around which every natural object would move as frequently seen in Asian beliefs.

-The boats engraved on the body of the bronze drum were the boats used by the Shamans in their search for sick people’s souls or in their leading the souls of dead people, exactly like the practices still currently carried out by the shamans in Indonesia, who use rainbows, birds, deers to transport the dead people’s souls.

Economic life: agriculture through the pattern of rice husking.

Clothing: the robe having either two short laps or two long laps[6]; men wearing loin-clothes with their heads shaven or with their hair knotted in a bun, women wearing skirts (skirts made of bird feathers or leaves and worn at ceremonies or festivals), and bird-feathered hats[7].

Lodging: the ancient Vietnamese people built piled houses with round roofs and piled houses with boat-shaped curved roofs.

Techniques: metallurgy, casting bronze drums, bronze jars.

Folk literature: legends and mythology.

Music: bronze drums in praying for rain[8] and khèn bầu (squash flute) were the two original musical instrument creations of the Đông Sơn culture.

Bronze jars

After the bronze drums, let’s go take a look at the Đào Thịnh bronze jar dated 2500 years ago, discovered on September 14, 1961 at the village of Đào Thịnh, district of Trấn Yên, province of Yên Bái[9]. Its body is covered with figures of boats, people in disguise with bird feathers, crocodiles… very similar with the patterns on Đông Sơn, Ngọc Lũ, Hoàng Hạ, Cổ Loa bronze drums… The most special feature is the belief of “fertility” presented on the lid of the Đào Thịnh bronze jar in 4 blocks, each block is a couple in sexual intercourse, the man wearing a loin-cloth with a dagger attached at one side of his waist, the woman with a short skirt. The main objective of the belief of fertility is for praying for the reproduction of man and nature, using male and, female genitals and sexual intercourse as symbols.

Đào Thịnh bronze jar: figure of sexual intercourse and pattern


  1. Bản is origin, something belonging to us; sắc is colours, objects with shapes we can see. Bản sắc is the original colours of the Vietnamese people, indicators, bases for localisation of the culture of the ancient Vietnamese people.

  2. Ngọc Lũ bronze drum was found in Hà Nam around 1739-1765, in 1902, the École française d’Extrême-Orient bought it and kept in Hanoi

  3. Colani, Madeleine, Vestiges d’un culte solaire en Indochine, BIIEH, III, 1940, fasc. 1, p. 37-41.

  4. H.Q. Quaritch Wales, Prehistory and religion in South East Asia. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd., 1957, ch. 3, p. 48-56.

  5. A shaman is a preacher, a sorcerer, a healer specializing in healing soul. During the ceremony, the shaman can extract his soul out of his body, his soul will go up to the heaven or go down to the hell, approach the gods, bypass all places to search for the soul of the sick person to heal him or her.

  6. In Chinese history book, it is called “tứ di tả nhậm.” The term “tứ di” was used for the four ethnic groups living around China: Bắc Địch (Enemy of the North), Nam Man (Barbarian of the South), Đông Di (Primitive People of the East) and Tây Nhung (Barbarian of the West). China was at the Center and therefore was called Trung Quốc (Middle Kingdom). The Vietnamese people (living in the South of China, thus, Nam Man) had their robe buttoned at the left side (tả nhậm).

  7. According to Đào Duy Anh, Lạc bird is one kind of migrating birds like the wild goose chosen as the totem by the Lạc Việt and was engraved on Ngọc Lũ bronze drums.

  8. Today the Mường and Tày peoples use curved wooden sticks covered with fabric to beat the the center surface of the drums, making sounds like thunders; they also use two bunches of bamboo sticks to batter slightly on the edge of the drum surface to create sounds like rain drops.

  9. Today the Mường and Tày peoples use curved wooden sticks covered with fabric to beat the the center surface of the drums, making sounds like thunders; they also use two bunches of bamboo sticks to batter slightly on the edge of the drum surface to create sounds like rain drops. Of the total of 250 bronze jars discovered, 235 were found in Vietnam. They were used to store rice grains, or to preserve human remains like bones, ashes.