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Bronze turtle and crane figure, Hanoi, Vietnam, L. 20th C.


The tortoise (dwells on land) and the turtle (dwelling in water) are symbols of many diversified explanations. They represents the double symbol of Heaven and Earth. Its oval and convex shell represents the vault of heaven, while the square plaque on its underside symbolises the surface of the Earth. The tortoise is the emblem of longevity and perfection, and is generally represented with a coral branch in its mouth, a crane on its back, and a box containing the sacred book of "Lac Thu" placed under its back This book serves as a reminder of the invention of a diagram representing the division of the universe into male and female principles; this diagram as made by Emperor Dai Vu (2205-2197 B.C.), and was inspired by his study of the sacred tortoise's shell. The crane on the back of the tortoise is the symbol of longevity, seen mostly in temples dedicated to Confucius, emperors and local spirits. In principle, the symbol of crane is not used in Buddhist pagodas. The tortoise is believed to live ten thousand years, and the crane one thousand years; thus, the presence of this symbol means, a "May you be remembered for one thousand years, and may your cult endure for ten thousand years."

Generally, the images of the tortoise and turtle atop a crane are found in temples are made of lacquered and gilded wood; sometimes only the crane is made of wood, and the tortoise of stone. Some of these cranes are more than three meters high, and are placed in pairs before the altar. Vietnamese also make copper reproductions of the crane. In this case, the lotus flower usually held in the mouth of the crane is hollow, and can hold a candle. Such cranes are commonly placed on ancestral altars.

This bronze figure (produced using the lost wax process) measures 11" tall. Portrayed standing together, they symbolize enduring power, healthy long life of happiness. It originated in Hanoi and dates from the mid 20th century.