The Vietnamese were directly exposed to Chinese civilization and cultural artifacts but Vietnamese potters did not copy Chinese ceramics directly; they combined elements in original and idiosyncratic ways, experimenting with new ideas and adopting features from other cultures, such as Cambodia and Champa. Using the excellent clays of the Red River Valley, they created the most sophisticated ceramics in Southeast Asia. The history of ceramic production in Vietnam is captured in capsule by Robert Finney:
Vietnam has developed a sophisticated pottery tradition that represented a distinctive style within the context of Chinese influence. In the first century of the Common Era, armies of the Han dynasty conquered the area that is today northern Vietnam. From that time, even when Vietnam threw off Chinese control, the development of Vietnamese ceramics paralleled that of Chinese wares. In the early Ming period the Yongle emperor (r. 1403 - 24) launched an invasion of Vietnam, an ultimately unsuccessful venture, but as a result of the conflict Vietnamese potters shifted entirely to production of blue-and-white earthenware. Merchants in Tonkin exported Vietnamese pottery in Chinese styles to Japan and Southeast Asia, while craftsmen made tiles in blue and white for the Hindu Javanese court of Majapahit. In the late sixteenth century entrepreneurs shipped some Vietnamese ceramics to Persia, where potters copied their designs - in fact, mainly variations on themes taken from fifteenth-century Ming pieces - onto Persian earthenware whose decorative patterns also came in part from Chinese porcelain. In turn, Chinese potters sometimes copied Vietnamese styles onto their own exports to Southeast Asia.
The introduction of ceramics to Vietnam was considered such a significant event that there are two temples dedicated to the country's most famous potters. The technique was brought here by the Chinese. Hoang Quang Hung came and observed people having to go to the river to drink. Amazed, he taught them how to make a large water storage pot. Prior to this, the Vietnamese had only been able to make much smaller, basic pieces. Now they learned the skills to make larger pottery items. It took three months to learn all the complicated tasks set by the Chinese teacher, but one student, Troung Trung Ai, studied well and became highly skilled. According to legend, he was so grateful afterward for the new knowledge that he offered his teacher twenty gold bars as a reward. Troung then went on to teach his fellow villagers what he had learned. Both teacher and student have a temple honoring them.
The techniques soon spread throughout the country and two of the reasons Vietnam went on to become so esteemed in ceramic production were the great skills of the potters and also the fact that the country has many deposits of the basic ingredient, kaolin. In certain areas the quality is extremely high.
The Ming-period Chinese annexation of Vietnam from 1407 to 1428 and the imperial Chinese prohibition of the ceramic trade from 1436 to 1465 spurred the development of the Vietnamese ceramic industry in the 15th century. The introduction of the blue-and-white technology is the most noticeable effect of these two historical events. Originally used in Vietnam to replace the black underglaze iron decoration common on ceramics made during the 13th and 14th centuries, underglaze cobalt blue quickly became the most common color for painting Vietnamese ceramics.
Although the Chinese annexation of Vietnam may have provided the technology for blue-and-white wares, economic competition was an important stimulus in their development. By the 15th century, blue-and-white wares were the most popular ceramics in the world. Active markets for them existed in East Asia, throughout Southeast Asia, and in the Middle East. The Chinese prohibition of exporting ceramics for almost thirty years during this time of high demand provided an ideal opportunity for the Vietnamese ceramic industry to expand, and the Vietnamese reliance on Chinese prototypes was most likely a deliberate attempt to capitalize on the contemporary desire for Chinese-style wares.
The links with China are obvious and at times it takes an expert to distinguish a Chinese from a Vietnamese antique ceramic. But careful examination of some pieces also indicates similarities with Thai ceramic ware, pointing to a historic link between the two cultures. From detailed archaeological work, it appears there was a link around AD 1300 between northern Thailand and northern Vietnam. But the examination of the past through artifacts is not always a straightforward process. For hundreds of years traders have been honing their skills and the global world of international trade that we see today was not so different in the past. Detailed examination of old pieces across Asia reveals that certain items were made specifically for export to a single area and were made to the design given by the importer. Entrepreneurs knew what the kilns of each country were making and samples or drawings from one kiln were sent to a rival with requests for it to be copied, naturally at a lower price. This has made identifying and recognizing the origins of certain pieces a nightmare for the archaeologists, but from shipwrecks, and land-based digs, careful examination of the designs, shapes, stacking methods and symbols have helped unravel some of the ceramic mysteries of Asia.
With some items it is hard to determine the point of origin because styles were copied so precisely but the majority of pieces have a distinct Vietnamese identity that experts can recognize immediately. The producers had become sufficiently competent and confident to stamp their own identity on their work. For instance the blue and white wares that were so popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth century are based on classic Chinese shapes and designs but are different in feel, spirit and quality. They are far from identical copies and instead have blended and adapted the Chinese style into their own. The favorite items made included a wide range of products from bottles, jars, dishes, plates, bowls, covered boxes, kendis, jarlets, zoomorphic water droppers to miniatures. Glazed tiles became very popular as wall decorations and covered boxes were created for the Indonesian market. This was the heyday of Vietnamese ceramic exports; by the seventeenth century, China dominated the international trade and Japan was producing items for export to Europe.
During the seven centuries Vietnam was a major ceramic producer in Asia, there are six distinctive periods and certain pieces for which they have remained famous. Hollow wall tiles are one of these and animal designs often featuring birds or fish is another, but perhaps the most popular still are the pouring vessels made into animal shapes. These are a Vietnamese specialty and reflect a sense of humor and fun as well as great artistic ability that is so much a part of the people's character. While Vietnam is no longer the largest exporting country for ceramics, its industry is still very vital and there are a number of active centers around the country. Traditional time-honored techniques are still used in many villages and so a visit to a ceramic center is like a window into the past. Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh each have an active center lying just outside their boundaries, making a visit an easy and fascinating travel option.
Archaeological digs have found several important historic sites. Production was usually concentrated in a village and a large kiln area indicates a good sized population must have lived there. Because of the wealth that came from the ceramic trade, these villages were coveted and protected by local rulers. Today, production still tends to be clustered around certain villages. Locations are known for their work and can be distinguished by the type of product they make. Mong Cai, Hai Duong and Bat Trang are known for porcelain-ware, Song Be and Dong Nai for pottery and Thanh Hoa, Bien Hoa and Song Be, again, for earthenware.
The most famous region is the Red River Delta area, within about a hundred kilometer radius of present day Hanoi. Here the bulk of the classic pottery of the last 1000 years was made and a significant amount of the specifically produced export pieces. Although there is little remaining evidence of many of the ancient pottery centers, there was certainly plenty of the basic raw materials of kaolin and feldspar available. These historic pieces are rather confusingly known as Annam ware. Annam means 'pacified south', and at the time when ceramic production was at its height, this was the name given by the Chinese to this part of Vietnam. Later, this northern region was renamed Tonkin and Annam became the name for what is now central Vietnam.
Central Vietnam also had its own village production centers and the ancient Champa kingdom was known for its glazed pottery. The Go-Sanh kilns near Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh were well-established and probably stopped production around the late fifteenth century as the Champa Kingdom fell.
Ceramics are not a new export and for centuries the country was known for making some of the finest in all of Asia. As one of the early industries, producing for both the domestic and export market, it had a significant impact on the country's history. Since Hoang Quang Hung taught his skills to Troung Trung Ai, probably around 100 BC during the Chinese Han period, a time when a thick green glaze was popular, Vietnam's ceramic production has tended to parallel that of China in both form and style. This is not surprising considering their intertwined histories. But the Vietnamese students were so talented they became highly successful at directly competing against the Chinese in the export market. By the Ly Dynasty, in the late thirteenth century, exporting was firmly established. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century much of the production went to the Middle East and Japan. The earliest export to Japan found so far, is dated at 1330 AD. The quality and type of ceramics sent overseas varied dramatically and items have been subsequently found as highly prized pieces in royal collections, tribal and family heirlooms, wall decorations and burial items.
A quick glance around today indicates that the same business acumen shown by traders in the past is still present today. Just as exports were a crucial part of the trade centuries ago, so too, today's modern ceramic businesses are producing a huge eclectic mix of items for both the export and domestic markets, depending on demand. There are finely painted elephants with flat tops as side tables, umbrella stands, gaudily painted fish-shaped plates, and classic shaped kendi pots for keeping water cool.
From Hanoi, the village of Bat Trang is just six miles downriver to the southeast. It is a compact village where tiny alleyways lead past tall brick walls. Round, thick black discs can be seen plastered against the brick. Close examination shows they are coal pats drying in the sun, an essential ingredient in the firing process. Off the main road, the alleys are deeply rutted as heavily laden carts swing by carrying loads of huge finished pots. Here traditional techniques and designs are blended with new ideas, glazes and patterns. These kilns were producing at least as long ago as the sixteenth century and maybe even beyond that.
Another large producer in the area currently are the porcelain factories of Hai Duong about 30 miles east of Hanoi. Now a provincial capital, it is located in a strategic geographic position and being on the summit of a delta is an ideal trading location.From Ho Chi Minh City, the area of Song Be is a popular half-day trip to visit some of the many scattered factories. It is also possible to purchase direct from the producer there as well as see the pieces being made.
Texts were culled from the following sources:
http://www.asiasocietymuseum.com/region_results.asp?RegionID=3&CountryID=11&ChapterID=21Ceramics from Vietnam
http://www.thingsasian.com/stories-photos/1194Vietnamese Ceramics by John Stevenson and John Guy, Art Media Resources, Ltd., Chicago, 1997.