Dông Sơn bronze drums are today a symbol of Vietnam. The images of bronze drums and the details on them (birds, etc.) can be found everywhere in Vietnam. But why do people think that they are so representative?
And if they don’t really represent Vietnam, then what does?
This is a question that Digital Humanities can help answer.
A friend recently scanned and sent me some pages from a new book by Vietnamese author Tạ Đức on bronze drums in Vietnam called The Origin and Development of the Đông Sơn Bronze Drums (Nguồn gốc và sự phát triển của trống đồng Đông Sơn).
This friend sent those pages to me because some of the ideas that I have posted about bronze drums on this blog are criticized in this book. In particular, I have argued that the cultural world of the people who used bronze drums for rituals and as symbols of power in the Red River delta in the first millennium BC is different from the cultural world of the people whom we today refer to as the Vietnamese (see, for instance, here, here and here).
In 1976, Edward Schafer published a book about “the South” in the medieval Chinese imagination called The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South. Filled with fascinating details about everything from plants to people, Schafer’s book demonstrated how vast and rich the information in Chinese sources is for the region of what is now Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, as well as northern and parts of central Vietnam, in the first millennium CE.
At the same time, however, in focusing on how Chinese “thought” about the south, The Vermilion Bird is not an ideal work to read in order to gain a sense of “what actually happened” in that region during that time period. This is a gap that Keith Taylor’s 1983 work, The Birth of Vietnam, partially filled as it provided a very detailed narrative of the history of the Red River Plain, part of the larger region that is examined in The Vermilion Bird, from the earliest times up through the period of Tang Dynasty rule.
There is a wonderful book by Catherine Churchman coming out in a couple of weeks called The People between the Rivers: The Rise and Fall of a Bronze Drum Culture, 200-750 CE.
I will post a detailed review of this important work when it is actually published, but in anticipation of that, here is a musical.ly review of the book.