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Clay, fire and skilled hands
A Historical Overview of Vietnamese Ceramics


By Phan Cam Thuong
The creative beginning

Ceramic making first appeared in Viet Nam during the country’s primitive stages of development when people gave up their wild existence to live in settled communities, and began inventing new tools and household goods. Artifacts found in archaeological sites dating back as far as the middle of the Stone Age, approximately ten thousand years ago, have been discovered at Bac Son. In the Neolithic Era, when the techniques for making stone objects had reached a high level of sophistication, ceramic products of period also began to take on an artistic character. They were no longer rudimentary jars for containing water or pots for cooking. Hoa Loc ceramic products in particular are endowed with rhythmic designs showing original geometric thinking.

The invention of pottery probably started from observation of the effect of fire on the surface of the earth. Primitive people must have noticed that on places over which fires had passed, the earth became very hard. They began to dig holes, which were baked and turned into containers for harvested rice or water. All the shapes of ceramic products likewise came into existence in the same natural way. Ancient rice bowl and dishes for instance are shaped like cupped hands the form we make with our hands to hold spring water. Jars and bottles used as containers have the same shape as fruits.

Knitted and woven products such as baskets and bamboo cages also influenced the shape of early ceramic products. Ancient jars were made by plastering knitted objects with clay before putting them into a kiln. At high temperatures, the knitted cage would burn, leaving on the ceramic jars its traces, which became small decorative motifs. Many ancient ceramic products of the Stone Age in Viet Nam bear such traces of decorative motifs. This is one possible explanation as to how the decoration on the outer surface of pottery was invented. Ceramic objects decorated with rhythmic design came into existence after the emergence of the potter’s wheel.

Today we can accurately reconstruct the process of shaping and decoration employed in each of the three stage of ceramic art of the Bronze Age: Phung Nguyen (4,000 years ago), Dong Dau (3,300 years ago) and Go Mun (3,000 years ago). The processes involved in making ceramic of this period are similar to those still used in the Vietnamese countryside today. The techniques used to decorate ceramic objects of the three above-mentioned stages became the early models for decorative motifs used on the bronze objects of the Dong Son period. Sa Huynh and Dong Son ceramic in period of the Iron Age reached a remarkably high level of technical sophistication, even as precious bronze objects were beginning to come into common use. We must also add that the tools used during this period were primarily made of iron whereas the household goods were often ceramic and instruments made of bronze. Sa Huynh ceramic objects, characterized by their thickness, were generally made in the South of serve as tombs or as containers for possessions of the dead. The interaction between the shaping of bronze objects and that of ceramic is obvious; many of the ancient ceramics have the same shape as the bronze objects and vice versa.
Phan Cam Thuong is a researcher, art critic and writer of over 12 books in the art and art history fields. He is now a professor at the HaNoi Fine Art University and an acclaimed artist.
Ngh seated, white, green, and brown glazes.( detail) Late 16th / Early 17th century
Jar with lotus-petal collar, two strap handles, ivory glaze, three bands of inlaid-brown vegetal design. 12th/ 14th Century
Ewer with Dong Son cloud decoration , unglazed, brownish- gray stoneware body. 7th- 9th Century
Yuhuchun vase, four Chinese characters panels painted in underglaze-ivory against sea-wave background, lappets above base. 14th- 15th Century
Two beakers with low foot ring, blue and white . Late 15th / Early 16 Century
During the ten centuries of Chinese domination and continual struggles for independence, the Vietnamese went on producing ceramics according to their traditional methods, while trying to learn and adapt techniques of the Chinese version of the craft.

Ceramics excavated from Chinese tombs give evidence of the above statement. These include objects brought by Han from China, those produced by the Vietnamese, and those made by the latter according the specifications their Chinese patrons. Ceramics found in Chinese tombs from the areas stretching from Quang Ninh, Hai Duong to Bac Ninh have common shapes of the time: vessel-shaped bowls, tall cups with large mouths, tall vases called dam xoe with slender necks, large mid-sections and bell-shaped bases and terracotta house models in the architectural design of the tu dai dong duong (dwelling of four generations living together).
It is obvious that bronze objects aesthetically influenced most of these ceramics; the geometric decoration and relief motifs of the ceramic products of the period closely resemble those of bronze objects. Thanks to the high level of technical sophistication and the use of the potter’s wheel, the products were thick-walled (0.5 cm), having solid bodies with a high proportion of silicate and covered with a thin yellow or white glaze.

Ceramic artifacts of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries have also been excavated; many of these were made in the style of Tam Thai (three colours) ceramics, which flourished under the Tang Dynasty. They are covered with a transparent green glaze which accumulates in places into small lumps forming different patterns, a technique known as the “dripping spectrum” an inelegant name connected with a product considered so precious.

The flourish

Vietnamese ceramics underwent an extraordinarily creative period during the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225). Craftsmen of this period undoubtedly drew inspiration from the ancient tradition of Vietnamese ceramics as well as from that of the Tang Dynasty’s Tam Thai ceramics and the Celadon porcelain tradition of the Song from China. The jade glazed ceramics of the Ly Dynasty were famous all over the Southeast and East Asian region and were prized for their beauty as far away as the Middle East. Many of the ceramics products of this period were slender in shape and covered with an emerald glaze. The glaze was produced in different shades: pale grayish green, yellow green. Light green, violet green, etc. Decorative motifs covered by the glaze remained distinct and could still be clearly seen. There were also while and black, and iron-brown glazed ceramics, all very pleasing to the eye. All of the ceramics were imbued with the same aesthetic, which underlined other artistic areas such as architecture and sculpture under the Ly Dynasty.

Alongside the traditional ceramic centers of the Ly period in Thanh Hoa and those of the Tran Dynasty (1226-1400) in the Thang Long (now Ha Noi), others were later developed in Quang Yen and Nam Dinh. According to historical documents, mandarins of this period such as Hua Vinh Kieu, Dao Tien Tri and Luu Phong Tu, who served as ambassadors to China, studied Chinese techniques of pottery making, bringing them back to Viet Nam. They taught the art to villagers in Bat Trang (Ha Noi), Tho Ha (Bac Giang) and Phu Lang (Bac Ninh province). Bat Trang Village specialized in gom sac trang (white ceramics), Tho Ha in gom sac do (red ceramics) and Phu Lang gom sac vang (yellow ceramics). The white ceramics with blue motifs produced at the time differ very little from one made in Bat Trang Village today. The red pottery of Tho Ha, which was terracotta, consisted mainly of large jars and glazed coffins used in the traditional re-burying of bones of a dead body three years after the initial burial (alt for bones). While the yellow or greenish-yellow “eel skin” pottery is still produced in great quantity in Phu Lang, Tho Ha Village ceased producing it a century ago.

Terracotta products came into existence earlier than other kinds of ceramics and have continually developed throughout Viet Nam’s history, though only those of the period between the Dinh (967-980), Ly (1009-1225) and Tran (1225-1400) Dynasties reached heights of artistic excellence. Bricks were produced for paving house foundations, constructing walls and miniature towers, tiles for covering roofs, phoenix or dragon-shaped architectural decoration, and incense burners. Binh Son Tower (Vinh Phuc), 14 m high, dating back to the Tran Dynasty, is a perfect terracotta construction down to the smallest details; nothing like it has been built since.

Just as glazed ceramics were representative of the Ly period, so iron-brown pottery was of the Tran. There are two kind of latter: white background with brown motifs and brown background with white. Ceramics during the Tran period were large and simple in shape: artifacts from this period have a strong and majestic appearance, which conveys the militant spirit of the Tran Dynasty. At the end of the Tran period there also appeared gom hoa lam (white- blue glazed ceramics) and other, which used glazed of various colours between the established jade green and the blue-white glazes or between the brown and the blue-white glazes. Not until the Posterior Le (1427-1527) did white-blue glazed ceramics reach their full development.

The continued tradition

Based on the traditional techniques of making white-blue and iron-brown glazed ceramics, Dang Huyen Thong, a pottery collector and famous craftsman of the Mac period (1527-1598), created a new kind of ceramics decorated with geometric designs and motifs in relief. The power and solemnity evoked by the designs of Dang Huyen Thong’s new pottery expressed the turmoil of the 17th and 18th centuries: ceramic art together with other handicraft developed alongside the changing village and urban centers in the context of a country divided by an internal war which lasted for two hundred years.

After transferring its capital to Hue, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) also paid attention to the ceramic craft for the service of the court and daily life. New centers of porcelain and ceramic production such as Mong Cai and Dong Nai began to emerge alongside long-established old centers and kilns. The porcelain trade under Qing Dynasty in China and the Nguyen in Viet Nam prospered. Many courtiers of Asia Minor and Central Asian imported Vietnamese ceramics.

Nowadays modern ceramics are based on traditional techniques of ceramics making which have operated for hundreds of years. What on the past was a glorious craft requiring great skill is today another developing branch of industry. Beside the ancient centers, which are still operating and continue using traditional methods, many new and old communities have begun using imported techniques, such as casting, the use of chemical glazes, and firing in gas or electric kilns. The shapes and decorations of many products now follow international aesthetic tastes. Traditional ceramics, however, retain their own value, an ancient tree amidst an industrial forest.

Reprinted with the kind permission of VietNam Cultural Windows

Illustrations in this story contributed from the collection of Mr. Bui Hoai Mai. Mr Mai is writing a book about Vietnamese ceramics. For more information contact him at: Jimmai@netnam.org.vn

     

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