The past through ancient lamps


A collection of ancient lamps, spanning 2,500 years up to the Nguyễn dynasty is on display at the Viet Nam National Museum of History until May, 2013(*). The exhibition highlights beautiful and typical lamps of each dynasty.

From early birth, when human beings invented the fire that helped them to not have to eat raw food, they discovered how to create fire by setting wood on an earthen tripod. Many kinds of cookers and earthen tripods can be found in Vietnamese prehistoric archaeological relics.

Long after the appearance of tripods, lamps were invented. While tripods were used for both lighting and cooking, lamps were only used for lighting. People could control the fire and did not have to keep a keen eye on the flame to avoid conflagration.

Among prehistoric relics found in Việt Nam, the lamp appeared about 2,500 years ago in the Sa Huỳnh culture in Central Vietnam or pre-Đông Sơn in the North. At first, it was a porcelain object with a hole to contain oil (maybe also included a lamp wick). Ancient people created beautiful flower patterns for lamps as evidence of their love for these products.


About 2000 years ago, when bronze was strongly developed, bronze lamps were seen. That was when the fine arts of Đông Sơn and the late Đông Sơn period were at their pinnacle. At that time, lamps were not only for lighting but were also products of true art. Ancient people used lamps to reveal their thoughts and spirits. Typically, the lamps feature people kneeling with the lamp statue excavated by a Swiss archaeologist in Lạch Trường (Thanh Hóa) in 1935. At present, this is the only bronze lamp that is listed as a precious national object. The lamp is shaped like a man kneeling down with both hands offering a lamp dish that is round for containing oil. This kind of oil was also seen tens of centuries later in feudal regimes.

The lamp statue is extraordinary because it is not like a Vietnamese person, but a person from Central Asia or India with side-whiskers, curly hair and high nose. Ancient people might imply the power. Does that kneeling “foreign” house servant offering the lamp raise the position of the person, who is offered the lamp? Aside from the Lạch Trường lamp, there are also many other lamps with different postures in the display such as an exciting kneeling statuette offering the lamp in both hands or a man with a leg stretched and a leg bent, the right arm offering the lamp or kneeling, the other standing akimbo. Does it seem that in the noble mind, lamp statues must be kneeling house servants in order to create a sense of luxury?

Another favorite kind of bronze lamp are the ones with animals, in which the most beautiful one is the bronze lamp of an elephant.  The elephant has a natural appearance with a long trunk, four legs, ears, eyes and tail. On its head stands the elephant keeper. In the middle of its back is a high pillar and a man holding the pillar. There is also lamp plates and statues of humans and animals on the pillar. This may be one of the most sophisticated bronze lamps. It also features a complex of lamps in the statue of the elephant. Such a big lamp might have been used for lighting up a big hall of a mandarin at that time.

In addition, a deer lamp statue depecits a deer with multi-branch horns, four legs, tail, eyes, nose and mouth. A bronze pillar with lamp plate is put on a pillar on its back. Another type of lamp is the three-leg lamp, sometimes with handles. Ancient people decorated many statues of human and birds on the lamp handles, which were often found in tombs of late Đông Sơn period.


In the Lê – Mạc period, people started to prefer porcelain lamps with high leg, a slim appearance, and carved with dragons holding gems with scales, claws and beards. In addition to images of dragons, clouds, leaves, flowers and plants are decorated. Many of them are also inscribed with Han scripts, especially the blue porcelain lamp of the third Diên Thành in the Mạc dynasty (in 1580). Besides, it is the brown or blue porcelain lamp with five original wicks of the Lê dynasty. It is decorated with lotus petals and other flowers seen in symbols of Buddhism. In the history of lamps, the porcelain type is the most common, made by Chu Đậu pottery kiln for kings and palaces. These lamps, now becoming antiques, used to sparkle in luxurious castles of the Lê Trung Hưng period, when there were many historical upheavals but also bright marks for the Vietnamese ancient art.

It is a pity that the passion of lamps is reflected in antiques, but the appreciation for lamps is now seen in bibliography. “Two sides are filled with thousands of lamps. Four faces are sparkling with golden objects. It can be said to be more than that of any dynasties and even the Creator. Gather all pleasures of people and make the night become day. Satisfy all inner wishes of the world and the old are growing young again”. That spirit is written down in an epitaph of Long Đọi Sơn pagoda about the most vibrant, striking festival in the year of Canh Tý (1120) and Bính Ngọ (1126) in Long Trì, the capital city of Thăng Long under the Lý Nhân Tông dynasty. The festival lasted 7 days and 7 nights.


At the end of the Lê and beginning of the Nguyễn dynasty, aside from porcelain lamps of Bát Tràng, there were also wooden and iron lamps with decorations of flowers and animals. During this period, another type of “lamp” appeared. It was a candle made of special material without traditional oil. Viewers have a chance to look at a strange lamp, which is actually a candle-holder made of cracked enamel describing the legend of bamboo being transformed into dragon.

Oil lamps finally could survive nearly 2000 years. Until a Frenchman, Henry Oger, who came to Việt Nam at the beginning of the 20th century, carved the image of this lamp in his collection of wooden carvings.

After oil lamps, Vietnamese people changed to petroleum lamps with chimneys to protect against the winds. These lamps used to be called “American” lamps without any specific reasons. Then came electricity.

By contemplating Vietnamese lamps, we can understand artistic characters that were created by ancient people. They are as beautiful and romantic as present fine arts. And it is said that ancient people wanted to include scenery, people and surrounding things into a lamp.


The display names “Vietnamese ancient lamps” taken place from February to May, 2013 at Vietnam National Museum of History, No 1, Tràng Tiền, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội.


Text and photos: Prof. Assoc. Trịnh Sinh