Dong Son Culture Appears in Vietnam

The Dong Son, a Bronze Age civilization of skilled artisans, farmers, and seafaring traders, appeared in northern and central Vietnam on the eve of the emergence of historical Vietnam.

Summary of Event

The Dong Son culture was a society of highly skilled artisans, farmers, and seagoing traders centered in the northern part of Vietnam. It is named after the village of Dōng-son on the Ma River in the Thanh-hóa Province of central Vietnam, where some of the most important Vietnamese archaeological finds have been made. The existence of the ancient drums characteristic of the culture had been recognized even before the discoveries in this village. In 1902, the Austrian ethnographer Franz Heger produced a monograph in which he classified the ancient bronze drums into four categories according to weight, shape, design, composition, and casting technique. However, the history of the Dong Son culture in modern scholarship is usually regarded as having begun in 1924, when a Vietnamese fisherman from this village came across a number of ancient bronze objects. He sold these to a French collector named Émile Pajot, who proceeded to hunt for more of the antiquities. In 1929, a French scholar named Victor Goloubew published a study of Pajot’s artifacts that brought them to public attention.

Most early scholars believed that the ancient objects found in Vietnam were results of influences from other, presumably more advanced, civilizations. Goloubew believed that the artistic and metalworking techniques had been introduced by the invading Chinese army of Ma Yüan in 43 c.e. or by other Chinese during the early period of Chinese domination. However, archaeological work since the time of Goloubew has established that the Dong Son products were developed in the region in which they were found, during centuries of technical progress.

The roots of the Dong Son culture may go as far back as 1000 b.c.e., when people in Southeast Asia began to make objects from bronze and sometimes iron. The earliest bronze objects in the region were plowshares, axes, spearheads, fishhooks, and ornaments. By about 500 b.c.e., characteristic Dong Son objects began to appear. These included skillfully wrought bracelets, bronze arrowheads, containers, knives, items made from jade, and pottery. The objects also included the bronze drums that have become recognized as the symbols of Dong Son craft and civilization. These drums were shaped like mushrooms, with flat tops and side handles. Sometimes weighing more than 150 pounds (68 kilograms), they were decorated with scenes and human figures. Apart from the artistic value of the drums, the decorations are important to archaeology because they provide images of life in ancient Vietnam. The drums were apparently used in burial and funeral rites, and they are often found with other artifacts in tombs.

The Dong Son drums follow a fairly standard pattern in their design. At the center of the top face of the drum, known as the tympanum, there is usually a star. The star is surrounded by circular panels of scenes of humans and animals among abstract geometric designs. Some conclusions about religious beliefs may be drawn from the decorations on the sides of drums and from other artifacts. The people of this society held a strong belief in the afterlife, and many of the objects placed in tombs may have been intended to be of use to the dead, who would sail away in boats to some type of paradise in the west. This last idea was probably suggested to them by their seagoing society and by the daily path of the sun.

Life in this world, as well as in the next, is represented on the drums. There are frequent scenes of boat races, thought to indicate the importance of water in this culture, which depended on water both for agriculture and for its seagoing activities. Images of warriors and a wide variety of weapons, including crossbows, hatchets, spears, javelins, daggers, and shields, indicate that warfare was a common part of life. As might be expected from a culture with a drum as a symbol, music seems to have been central to the activities of the Dong Son people. Musicians and dancers appear often in the illustrations. Among the instruments are khens (a wind instrument made of long pipes still found in Southeast Asia), bells, castanets, and rattles, as well as the big drums themselves. On some of the drums, there are images of drummers sitting on the floor while dancers move around in circles.

The Dong Son people lived in houses built on stilts or pilings, similar to houses sometimes still used in Southeast Asia. Their domesticated animals included dogs, pigs, and water buffalo. On land, they were farmers and their staple crop was apparently rice, so that they set the agricultural pattern for later people in the region. They were also a seafaring people who built large boats and traveled about the Asian area. Drums in the Dong Son style have been found from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, possibly as a result of cultural contacts from the traveling and trading of the Dong Son people. They apparently had extensive links with Tibeto-Burman culture, with the Thai culture of Yunnan in southern China and of Laos, and with the Mon-Khmer cultures of Southeast Asia, notably that of the Plain of Jars in contemporary Laos. Bronze Dong Son drums have been found in south and southwest China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia.

Although there were Dong Son colonies, the center of the culture appears to have remained in Vietnam. It reached its highest point of development during the third century b.c.e., but evidence of it can be found as late as the third century c.e., and some scholars believe they have found traces of this culture surviving until as late as the sixteenth century.

The Dong Son overlapped with the origins of the Vietnamese nation. Many Vietnamese believe that Dong Son was closely connected to the foundation of Van Lang, the first kingdom of Vietnam under the Hung kings, which was supposed to have lasted two thousand years, up to the third century b.c.e. Although scholars are often skeptical of these claims, it does appear that Vietnamese nationhood took shape while elements of the more ancient culture still existed. As information about the Dong Son has emerged, the culture has become an important part of the self-image of the Vietnamese nation.


Scholars used to believe that the cultures of Southeast Asia were based primarily on influences from other regions, chiefly influences from India and China. However, excavations of Dong Son artifacts indicate that they came from a civilization that was native to the region and that the society that produced these artifacts was the origin of Bronze Age culture throughout Southeast Asia. The Dong Son people are also believed to have been responsible for turning the Red River Delta in Vietnam into the rice-growing area that it continued to be throughout historical times. Moreover, the archaeological discoveries about this culture suggest that Southeast Asia contained an advanced society that not only was skilled in artistic production but also engaged in seagoing trade over a wide geographic expanse. The artistic influence of the culture extended to a large part of the Southeast Asian region, and traces of it can still be found in many places. The Dong Son culture is particularly important to nationalist Vietnamese historians, who regard it as the origin of the Vietnamese nation.

Further Reading

  • Girard-Geslan, Maud, ed. Art of Southeast Asia. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. A comprehensive work on historical and contemporary art in the region that contains a chapter by the editor on the Dong Son culture and its descendants. Bibliography, illustrations, glossary, index.
  • Huyen, Van Nguyen. The Bronze Dong Son Drums. Singapore: Dong Son Editions, 1989. A compilation of surveys on the Dong Son drums, essential for those who are interested in this culture from the perspective of art history. Illustrations.
  • Taylor, Keith W. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. An excellent work on the history of Vietnam from prehistory until the tenth century c.e. Taylor touches on the Dong Son culture at a number of points in the book, but readers interested in this topic may want to look in particular at the first half of the first chapter. Bibliography and index.
  • Wagner, Frits. A. Indonesia: The Art of an Island Group. New York: Greystone Press, 1967. This volume is now somewhat dated, but the third chapter gives a good overview of the significance of Dong Son artistic traditions for various parts of the islands of Indonesia. Illustrations and index.