The communal temple is a cornerstone of each Vietnamese community. A line in an old song states: “Going through the communal temple, I remove my hat to look at it. The temple has as many tiles as I have ways to love you.”
According to ancient beliefs of feng sui, the placement of the communal temple was very important. If it was misplaced, the villagers would suffer from swollen eyes. Even the trees in the temple’s yard were chosen with care. Trees with large leafy canopies, such as banyans, were the best. The communal temple had straight pillars and a curved roof. The interior carvings were very important, as these designs depicted the philosophy, values and lifestyle of the local community.
From the book Dai Viet Su Ky, we know that communal temples existed as far back as the Tran dynasty. At that time, the temple also served as a guest house. Carvings appeared during the Le dynasty. By the reign of King Le Hy Tong at the end of 17th century, communal temples were built in every single village. Wood carving reached a peak at that time. The 17th century was a golden age for Vietnam’s traditional arts.
At that time, King Le and the Trinh Lords were fighting for power. Some regions were set free. Dragon motifs representing the king spread from palaces to the rural areas, where they were depicted as wood carvings. People associated dragons with their daily lives. For instance, dragons are shown spraying water in Chem temple. Many motifs show dragons and fairies. The image of a fairy riding a dragon is popular. What began as a symbol of the supremely powerful Son of God spread to the common people. Many god characters are shown riding dragons. An old man and some girls ride a dragon in Tho Ha Temple.
Other images show dragons among regular people. Dragons are shown watching village boys teasing girls, or watching a mandarin drinking wine. Some images are explicit. A nude girl lies on the beard of a dragon. In the Phu Lao communal temple a dragon is shown watching a couple having sex.
Wood carvings from the 17th century are very lifelike, and depict many aspects of life, including sexuality.
We can see a carved scene of an intertwined naked couple; and a scene of a Western man putting his hands on a girl’s chest in Duong Lieu Communal Temple, Hanoi. A carving in Phu Lao Temple, Lang Giang, Bac Giang depicts a woman lying on her back with her dress rolled up and her legs around a man’s back. Similar images are found in Ngo Noi Temple, Yen Phong. A carving in Tay Dang Communal Temple, Ba Vi, Hanoi, shows a girl sitting on her heels, combing her hair, between two imposing mandarins with pyramid hats and long tunics. One mandarin is touching the girl’s thigh. These motifs of men and women expressed people’s hopes that their crops would multiply like humans. This link between crops and human reproduction dates back to the Dong Son culture.
Wood carvings on communal temples influenced images portrayed on other materials such as terra-cotta and stone, and the carvings in pagodas and other temples. On a brick in Sau Gia Temple, Hoai Due, Hanoi, there is an image of three naked girls bathing in a lotus pond. In De Tam Temple, Nam Dinh, there is another image of three naked girls. One girl uses a lotus leaf to cover her lower body, while a man holds her hand and cups her breast. In Dong Vien Temple, Ba Vi, Hanoi, there is an image of four naked girls, including one with an emphasized clitoris. Here again, a man is shown touching a girl’s breast.
Besides sexuality, carvings in communal temples depict many traditional activities, as well as animals, flowers and trees. Looking at these wooden carvings, we can feel three-dimensional space, and appreciate the artisans’ skillful use of shadow and light. With their stylized style, symmetry and lack of perspective these carvings remind us of traditional folk paintings.