These bronze masterpieces are known to many of
the peoples of Asia. The rain drum is known by many different names,
including "Dongson drum," "frog drum," and "moko drum."
Over the years, competing assertions have been made that the rain drum
originated in China, India, Thailand, or Vietnam. It would appear that
interpretations of the significance of archeological discovers have often been
influenced by national pride. The rain drum is now believed by most independent
scholars to have originated in northern Vietnam in the fifth century BC. Some
have asserted an origin dating back to 2500 B.C., although scientific evidence
to support this claim is preliminary. The best conclusion is that bronze
casting began in Southeast Asia (most likely in Vietnam and Thailand) and was
later borrowed by the Chinese and other cultures. In truth, the entire region
can be proud of the accomplishments of the Dongson culture for these people
occupied an area that encompasses parts of present-day Vietnam, Thailand, and
During the Dongson era in which Vietnam came to develop a strong national
identity, the tribes of north Vietnam constructed drums (now often referred to
as "Dongson drums") out of bronze using lost-wax casting methods. Over the
years many drums dating back to antiquity have been found in this region. New
drums are being discovered to this very day.
The original drums were used by the Dongson culture in ritual ceremonies. Many
have been uncovered from ancient burial grounds, suggesting an important role
in funeral rituals. Indeed, some of the drums uncovered were used as urns to
hold the cremated remains of presumably important members of the Dongson
culture. The drums were also used to call soldiers to war.
Many symbols can be found on rain drums. The tympanums (tops) of these drums
often feature a star in relief, usually with eight points. These points are
often surrounded by a geometric display of other symbols. Sometimes twelve
points are shown, as is the case in the image to the left, presumably
representing the twelve lunar months of the year.
Frogs and toads are also a common feature. Very often, four equally spaced
frogs are positioned along the tympanum’s outer rim. Frogs are so frequently
found on rain drums that many people know this bronze art form as the “frog
drum.” Other forms of wildlife, including elephants, monkeys, snakes, bulls,
snails and birds are also found on rain drums, including the earliest Dongson
drums. Drums with abstract geometric patterns have also been unearthed.
Ships, usually sailing counter-clockwise, are another common image. It is
believed that this sailing direction represents the burial rites of some early
mainland Asian groups. These drums sometimes show a naked steersman seated at
the ship’s stern. This is believe to be the King of the Dead, who carried the
souls of the deceased across the sky to the next world. This pattern is
consistent with the cultural traditions found in some parts of Indonesia. The
associated drums often have tympanum suns with twelve points and ships with
twelve sails. Some of these drums have been discovered in East Java and have
contained human bones and earthly possessions.
Other drums record simply the daily lives of the people who made them,
including farming scenes, musical performances, religious ceremonies, and
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