High-fired ceramics were already being produced in Vietnam 2000 years ago; the white-glazed, white-bodied ceramics from tombs in Thanh-hoa are older than any found to date in China.
By the 1st century, the Vietnamese were aware of the glazing process when Chinese craftsmen followed Chinese soldiers and administrators to form new settlements in the region of modern Hanoi. Vietnamese wares nevertheless, closely resembled Chinese forms.
After the fall of the Han dynasty in the early 3rd century CE, the early Vietnamese ceramic tradition seems to have come to an end. A renaissance of sorts occurred in the period of the Ly dynasty (1009-1225) and received a major stimulus at the end of the 14th century when the Ming dynasty severely restricted exports.
All references are to works named in the Bibliography at the end of this article.
The Bat Trang kilns are located about 10 km southeast of Hanoi. The name first appears in 1352. The first reference to ceramic production here is dated 1435. The site is still active today.
One tradition states that it was founded by people from Chu Dau, while local legend assigns credit for the foundation of the Bat Trang kilns to three Vietnamese scholars who went to China on a diplomatic mission during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1126). They are said to have visited a ceramic factory in Guangdong and brought back the technical knowledge that led to the people of Bat Trang learning how to make glazes: white glazes by one scholar; the second scholar, red glazes; and the third scholar, dark yellow glazes; each to a different region [Phan Huy Lê, Nguyen Chién & Nguyen Quang Ngoc 1995: 48]. Other evidence points to Thanh Hoa as the ancestor of the Bat Trang industry [Miksic 2009: 60].
According to Long [1995: 87], Bat Trang ceramics were sent to China as tribute in the 15th century.
There is a lack of chronology for Vietnamese wares from the 14th to the 17th centuries because “of the internal homogeneity of the wares and the scarcity of archaeological data” [Brown 1988: 27].
Bat Trang wares probably reached peak production in the 15th and 16th centuries, coinciding with the Ming Gap, when Chinese wares were banned from being exported. The modern kilns there, however, have operated continuously at least from the 16th century [Brown 1988: 32].
Vietnamese ceramics of this period are best known for their blue & white wares. The origin of this method of decoration is uncertain, but probably coincides with the Ming invasion of northern Vietnam in 1407. Brown [1988: 25] tells us that “with the introduction of cobalt for underglaze painted decoration, the underglaze iron black and monochrome wares quickly began to disappear,” along with the earlier decorative motifs and shapes.
In terms of decoration, in addition to the blue & whites, overglaze enamels in red and green, and sometimes yellow, are added to the repertoire.
The new varieties are astounding in range: bottles, jars, dishes, plates, bowls, covered boxes, kendi, jarlets, zoomorphic water-droppers, and miniatures. Examples are shown below.
Bat Trang is also known for the production of censers (as you see above, right) in the 16th and 17th centuries. The mass fabrication of these censers might well attest to the revival of Buddhism during that period [Miksic 2009: 61].
Finally, potters of Bat Trang included both males and females, sometimes husbands and wives together. This is shown by a tradition in which potters signed some of their works, like at Chu Dau.
Chu Dau, in the Nam Sach county east of Hanoi, was discovered in 1983, which led to a series of excavations being conducted there from 1986 to 1991. It is estimated to have begun production in the 13th century, reaching a peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, and declining in the 17th century.
Chu Dau is mentioned in the famous vase (left) signed by a woman named Bui and dated 1450 in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul.
In the late 16th century another potter, this time a man named Dang Huyen Thong signed at least tenof his works, including censers and lampstands. He was unusual in that he was a bachelor of literature as well as a potter. His home was located only two kilometres from Chu Dau (Tang 1993: 34).
The Chu Dau kilns produced a wide range of shapes and decorations. These included such fancy items as large stem cups, meiping, lime pots, double-gourd ewers with fine handles and spouts and covered boxes, though the vast majority of products are bowls, many with chocolate wipes on their bases. Decoration included celadon glaze, cobalt blue designs, overglaze enamels, and brown-glazed bowls with incised motifs.
Unfortunately, little remains of the kilns themselves. Much kiln furniture, however, has survived, as well as many saggars. Ring supports with three spurs have also been found.
Miniature underglaze blue decorated covered boxes with missing lids, possibly from Chu Dau. 15th Century.
Top: D: 4 cm, H: 2 cm; ACM HC SEA 011
Exterior decorated with a horizontal band of lotus petals between 2 lines; interior grey-green glaze with visible pooling in well; rim and recessed base unglazed.
Middle: D: 5.6 cm, H: 2.5 cm; ACM HC SEA 010
Moulded form corresponding to decorative panels of alternating designs comprising four-petaled flowers and leaf scrolls; all in blue underglaze; a fine grey-green glaze in interior; rim and recessed base unglazed.
Bottom: D: 6.4 cm, H: 3cm; ACM HC SEA 009. Exterior decorated in bright blue underglaze of 4 visible panels of alternating wave and leaf scroll motifs; panels separated by vertical lines; around base, 3 horizontal bands in blue-green underglaze; rim unglazed; interior with a grey-green glaze with slight pooling in well; unglazed recessed base.
Go-Sanh, literally ‘pottery mound,’ is located in the Binh Dinh province of central Vietnam. In pre-modern times this was the realm of the Cham people, a Malayo-Polynesian speaking group who established a number of important kingdoms and were feared adversaries of the Khmer and Vietnamese before they were gradually subdued in the 15th century.
The ceramics from Go-Sanh can be divided into three categories. The first consists of greenish or bluish-grey glazed saucers with unglazed stacking rings on their interior bottoms, such as the example right. The greyish clay on the unglazed interior, which appears on these types of wares as well as celadons, also helps identify this piece as belonging to this kiln site.
Celadon dishes make up the second category and have a similar type of clay as the above, visible on the unglazed foot of this beaker-shaped bowl. The celadon glaze has eroded over time, but some of the colour is still visible where the glaze has pooled on the uneven surface.
The final category comprises obrown-glazed vessels of various shapes that tend to exhibit an orangey to reddish-brown clay. This clay is surprisingly light in weight and can be seen on the unglazed bottom half of the jarlet from Binh Dinh shown below.
Decoration is generally rare on Binh Dinh wares, except for large brown-glazed storage jars which sometimes have incised or moulded appliqué motifs.
Northern Vietnam was conquered by the Chinese from the Han to Tang Dynasty (111-979 CE), and was ruled by them as far south as Thanh Hoa (about 150 km south of Hanoi). There was a second period of Chinese dominance from 1407-1427.
Thanh Hoa was excavated in the 1920-30s due to French public works. Burial wares of the 1st-3rd centuries and 10th-13th centuries were found, roughly contemporary with, respectively, the Later Han and the Song dynasties in China. These became known as Thanh Hoa ware, and were recognised as Vietnamese in their own right, not Chinese. The first exhibition of these artefacts was held in 1931 at the Musée Guimet in Paris.
From 1925, severe looting of the area caused the authorities to enact laws prohibiting illegal digging. This, unfortunately, did not prevent amateur collectors from amassing substantial collections. There was also a constant problem of badly kept records by all—excavation managers, looters and collectors.
During this early stage of excavations, no kiln sites for glazed wares were found, only 20 cross-draft kilns (the source of unglazed, high-fired reddish-bodied wares). No kilns responsible for producing the Han-period cream or slightly greenish glazed white-bodied wares were found.
Thanh Hoa ware, found at these burial sites, is divided into two groups.
The first is classified, according to Roxanna Brown [1988: 17], as ‘Later Han Period’, ranging from the 1st to the 3rd centuries CE, and were “white-bodied wares with cream-white to slightly greenish glazes.” Miksic [2009: 58] tells us that at that time, the only known kiln site in north Vietnam was Bat-trang, 10 km north of Hanoi, which dates to the mid-16th century. That high-fired ceramics were produced in Vietnam 2,000 years ago was, however, well-known. The white-glazed, white-bodied ceramics from the Thanh Hoa tombs were older than any known at the time in China. Contemporary pottery in Han territory was made from reddish-brown or buff clay and covered with a matte green glaze. Shapes, nevertheless, closely resembled Chinese forms.”
The second period is what Brown calls ‘Ly Dynasty’, corresponding approximately to their reign from 1009-1225, or the 10th to 13th centuries. This was a period of great pride to the Vietnamese, having successfully shrugged off Chinese authority. Many consider this also to be an age of artistic renaissance, with trade being re-established.
Between the first and second periods is an intermediary one from the 4th to 10th centuries, but little has been found that can be confidently assigned to this period.
The Ly Dynasty period wares are primarily covered urns, typically unglazed blackish-grey bodied, as well as white to greyish-bodied wares. The latter have the following glaze types: iron brown inlay, pale greenish-ochre, white, black, and brown monochromes. There are also two types of celadon: one thin, pale and translucent; the other thick and dark. Finally, there are also underglaze iron black decorated wares [Brown 1988: 17].
Among the earliest Ly Dynasty wares are those with inlay decorative patterns. The shapes are restricted to “covered urns, some with hollow stand-type bases”, such as the example (above right), which might have lost its lid. Brown tells us that other shapes include “tall cylindrical urns, wide basins, and squat jar with flaring mouth-rims. [These] decorations are carved in outline with wide scrapes and the space within then is glazed brown. The remainder of the vessel is then covered with an often runny, transparent or slightly greenish glaze. On some rare examples this colour scheme is reversed…. Occasionally, a thin coat of white slip can be detected under the glaze. Bases are always unglazed and usually flat, and the clay body is whitish or pale grey. The decorative patterns are mostly vegetal, with vines and simple flower blossoms, usually lotus, predominating” [Brown 1988: 20-21].
Next are the monochrome wares, some of which share the same shapes as the previous group, such as the covered urn (right). However, more shapes appear, including “dishes, bowls, and sometimes beakers, shapes mostly of the 13th century which presage the earliest trade ceramics…. The vessels are carved or moulded with strong geometric decoration” [Brown 1988: 21].
Brown glazed wares are, according to Brown [1988: 21-22], “relatively rare among the Thanh Hoa finds and normally monochrome.” They “probably begin in the 12th century and include a small number of covered urns, small jars, beakers and bowls. The bowls often have a brown-slipped or ‘chocolate’ base, a common characteristic of the later trade wares. Yet the only brown-glazed wares excavated abroad have been bowls with a brown exterior and cream-glazed interior; these invariably have an unglazed stacking ring on the interior bottom.” An example is shown below right.
The next group of wares are the green celadon and white monochromes that “seem to have endured throughout the Ly period into the 14th century. Both comprise shapes related to the inlay brown wares, as well as to early trade wares, although they seem to have been most popular in the 13th and 14th centuries. Bowls and beakers from Thanh Hoa often display a brown slip ‘chocolate’ base, just as do later versions of these shapes discovered abroad” [Brown 1988: 22].
Finally, Brown [1988:22] tells us, “Among the later Thanh Hoa finds, those of the 12th to 13th centuries, are two types of celadon, both of which can be found among early trade wares…. One type usually makes its appearance on heavily potted, medium-sized, relatively plain bowls with everted rims and carved footrings. It is thick, opaque, murky dark olive green in colour and usually laid over a whitish slip that can also be quite thick. Many of these pieces have a ‘chocolate’ (brown slip) base, and most have either spur marks on the interior or an unglazed stacking ring. Only occasionally does this type have an attractive medium green colour.”
Bibliography and Recommended Reading:
Bui Minh Tri and Kerry Nguyen-Long, Góm Hoa Lam Viet Nam: Vietnamese Blue & White Ceramics, Hanoi, Vietnam: Social Sciences Publishing House, 2001.
Miksic, John N. (ed.) Southeast Asian Ceramics: New Light on Old Pottery, Singapore, Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 2009.
Richards, Dick, South-East Asian Ceramics: Thai, Vietnamese, and Khmer from the Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Rooney, Dawn F. Ceramics of Seduction: Glazed Wares from Southeast Asia, Bangkok: River Books, 2013.
Shaw, John C., Introducing Thai Ceramics also Burmese and Khmer, Bangkok: Duangphorn Kemasingki, 1987.
Stevenson, John and John Guy, Vietnamese Ceramics: A Separate Tradition, Chicago: Avery Press, 1997.
Young, Carol, Marie-France Dupoizat and Elizabeth W. Lane (eds.), Vietnamese Ceramics, Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 1982.