A Dragon, a Turtle and a Carp

Folklore immortalized in broken pottery.

There is a wonderful piece of mythological sculpture in a temple garden in Hoi An that I visit every time I go to the Old Town. It stands in the forecourt of the Quang Trieu Assembly Hall and is truly one of the finest examples of folk mosaic I have ever seen. It reminds me of the mosaics from Antoni Gaudi, and is imbued with the same wit, artistry and invention. Gaudi commissioned custom glazed tiles to achieve the desired look for his work but the mosaic panels and sculptural reliefs found in Vietnam’s temples are mainly made from shards of broken pottery, making them all the more ingenious and well crafted.

Gaudi’s dragon (El Drac) that stands at one of the entrances to Parc Guell in Barcelona is possibly one of the most famous pieces of 20th century mosaic art in the world but, beautiful as it is, it doesn’t come close to the matching the vigor, splendor, passion and cultural legacy embodied in the fountain sculpture at 176 Tran Phu in Hoi An. Interestingly, the two may have been constructed within only a few decades of each other. The Assembly Hall itself was erected in 1885 from components crafted in China; Parc Guell was completed in 1914. It is possible the fountain even predates Gaudi’s work.

The fountain sculpture is loaded with symbolism of Chinese mythology. The imperial dragon (signified by its five claws) is attributed with the power to control water, rain, floods and typhoons which, in this corner of the world, make him someone worth keeping in with! Its scales are of peaty, sea green and a ridge of spiky ochre fins runs down its back. Its white belly is made of a continuous stack of white saucers and it has rice bowls for its protruding, flashing eyes.

The dragon is in good company with a leaping carp and a turtle. Because the carp, which comes from the same clan as the dragon, is known for leaping up waterfalls just like the homecoming salmon, it has come to represent tenacity, courage and achievement in Chinese culture. There is a high waterfall on the Yellow River in Hunan known as the Dragon’s Gate, and there’s a belief that any carp strong enough to leap it will be transformed into dragons and fly up to the heavens. and the sacred turtle is said to have helped Pangu create the world. Ancient Chinese thought the turtle’s flat belly and the domed carapace of the shell was like the flat earth and the domed sky. The turtle represents endurance, tenacity and stability.

Visiting traders and fishermen seeking shelter and good company in Hoi An would have been much comforted by the sight of these three heavenly creatures as they moored their ships at the dock in front of the Assembly Hall where the original waterfront used to be.

For me, the dragon riding on his heavenly swirl of spiraling blue and white clouds looking down on his cousin the koi and the sacred turtle speaks volumes about the culture of this tenacious little town. Hoi An has survived centuries of typhoons and floods to become a haven for craftsmen and artists from many fields of art and design. Go to the Assembly Hall on a sunny day to enjoy this sparkling sculpture at its best and be uplifted by its infectious energy.

A professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget holds drawing classes for beginners and improvers in Saigon. For more of Bridget’s work including her new book, see BrushwithAsia.blogspot.com

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