Vietnamese Ceramics Arts – Earth & Fire


Potter refining a ceramic vessel using a potter’s wheel. A brown-enameled jar with no enamel at the base. Ceramic products include simple artifacts such as a fired clay brick, an earthen jar for prickling vegetables…But they also comprise sophisticated and noble products such as Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese porcelain ware. Ceramics are used in architecture e.g. bricks, tiles, and roof decorations for communal houses and pagodas. Under the Ly dynasty (1010 – 1225), the beginning of Vietnam’s independence period with “the Emperor of the South ruling over the mounts and rivers of the South”, Buddhism was the state religion. Ceramics were then extremely elegant and refined, imbued with Zen spirit. The notched large cup evokes layers of lotus petals. A porcelain bowl has sophisticated incised veiled designs.

Historical Development of Vietnamese Ceramics

A great number of coarse (unexampled) ceramics existing before the Christian era were found m the archaeological vestiges of Hoa Loc, Phung Nguyen, Dong Dau, Go Mun, and Dong Son. During 1,000 years of Chinese rule, the Chinese Han living in our country had built a great many tombs with numerous burial articles put inside them, hoping that the dead would be able to use these funeral objects in the Underworld. Ceramics in Chinese tombs are in appearance similar to copperware. Ceramic enamels (white, yellow, brown, and celadon) emerged in Vietnam in the 9th-10th centuries. Most popular in the Ly dynasty were celadon-enameled ceramics, brown-patterned ceramics, white-enameled and black-enameled (evolving from dark brown-enameled) ceramics.

Beside celadon-enameled and brown-patterned ceramics, there appeared blue-patterned ceramics in the Tran dynasty (1226-1400). Three successful wars led by the Tran Emperors against the Chinese Yuan invaders had created an unprecedented heroic manner for our culture, imparting an imposing, majestic, warrior-like appearance to Tran dynasty ceramics. The Early Le dynasty (1427-1527) was keen on building its feudal absolute monarchy. Ceramic materials were used in the construction of Thang Long Citadel and Lam Kinh, the Citadel where Le Loi successfully founded the Le dynasty. Ceramics were displayed in the Imperial Court as liturgical objects or ornaments. The production of brown-patterned ceramics was thriving. The Mac dynasty (1527-1598) was founded by Mac Dang Dung. Folk culture prospered in this period. Chu Dau ceramic center in Hai Duong province was noted for its famous master hand Dang Huyen Thong. He was a talented ceramic collector and ceramist. Lampstands of the Mac dynasty look imposing and noble.

Incessant civil wars went on between the Mac Kings and the Le Emperors’ offsprings in the 16th century. Next were the Trinh and Nguyen Lords’ conflicts. Brown-patterned ceramics were thriving again. Well-known, ceramic kilns in Hai Duong, Huong Canh, Bac Ninh sold their products all over the country. In the 17th century, people turned their attention to Buddhism. Liturgical objects were then in great demand. Ceramic incense burners of all kinds were scrupulously made like copperware by means of an ambling technique. After the decline of the Le Emperors and Trinh Lords’ regime, the new Tay Son dynasty (1788-1802) set in. Blue-patterned ceramics combined with chiseled Mac dynasty ceramics resulted in solemn liturgical objects. The perfume of allow-wood incense emanates from the hollow of this tripod incense burner. Having restored the absolute monarchy, the Nguyen dynasty needed a large number of ceramic liturgical objects and daily use items for its Imperial Court. Their design and decoration were over fastidious about appearance, just like coquettish young women.

This bowl with the design of a flying dragon amidst fiery clouds over layers of lotus flowers was made in the 16th century. The base, higher than that of current rice bowls, gives it a solemn appearance even in the set of common objects. Perhaps this is a bowl for worshipping purposes or the one used in meals granted by the Emperor to his Court officials. Items for everyday use in ancient times reminded people to observe the Confucian ethical code. Ceramic designs are inspired by animals and fruit shapes in nature. For example, the shape of Wine bottle gourds and some flower vases stem from the figure of a gourd. Fruits have the function of a container. Their elegant wasp-like shape guides the ceramist in designing curved and arabesque lines on the body of ceramic products, in imitation of natural beauty. Even the shape of some musical instruments may give a suggestion for ceramic designs as shown in this pipa-shaped vase.

Celadon – Enameled & White – Enameled Ceramics

They are the crowning achievement and know-how of ceramists. Celadon-enameled ceramics are jades tone-green, light green, or yellowish-green. The body and the hollow of the ceramic article are decorated with veiled designs incised under the enamel, free from any other drawing. The Chinese call them Long Chuan porcelain or Song Qing ci which means green porcelain of the Song dynasty. Europeans give them the name of celadon ceramics. These products are transparent and deep, cold to the touch, emitting a limpid sound when we knock at them. Hence they are very rare and precious. White, ivory yellow or celadon ceramics were very popular under the Ly dynasty, suitable for making fragile things of daily use or jeweler containers.

Could you guess the use of these objects – a lotus-shaped jeweler box and a lotus-shaped box of cosmetics? Jeweler, lipstick, and face powder like lotus blossoms are flinging their perfume around; the beauty and charm of a young girl can be compared to lotus flowers and their fragrance. The artist is romantic indeed. Truly, this is a poem… in ceramics!

Brown – Patterned Ceramics

If celadon-enameled ceramics suit fragile articles, brown-patterned ceramics are fit for large-sized and thick-edged products such as vats, vases, and basins, and large cups. The decorative motifs include lotus petals, birds, or coarse and robust warriors highlighted by contours deeply incised in the ceramic products. There are two forms of brown patterned ceramics: white enamel background with brown decorative patterns (ferric hydroxide brown) and brown enamel background with white decorative patterns. The latter is deeply incised to form large motifs which consist of many clear-cut, coherent, and robust points encircling the body of the ceramic product. Writing brushes can be used to draw patterns on the white enamel background. The decoration is also made with cracked enamel as the jar in the photo opposite. The difference in temperatures between the enamel and the paste will form cracked enamel. Its veins look like those on a bird’s leg or bean-pods under transparent enamel.

Blue – Patterned Ceramics

The Vietnamese under feudal dynasties used to write Chinese characters with writing brushes, so they were very brisk in drawing pictures. This white enameled wine decanter, made in the 15th century and decorated with an indigo strip of hibiscus blossoms, is typical of blue-patterned ceramic articles. White clay used as the material is very smooth, it nearly melts in firing thus the paste is getting hard and several products are even transformed into porcelain under a firing temperature of about 1,280 – 1,300 degrees. The strokes made by a writing brush are free and lively, not dependent on realistic models.

Three – Color Ceramics

Three-color ceramics (or: “San cai” ceramics). San cai in Chinese means three colors. Three-color ceramics are products decorated in red, yellow, and green (or: red, royal blue, and black). They were mostly found in the Tang dynasty (China, 7th-10th centuries), hence the name Tang san cai ceramics. Boxes and vessels III three-color ceramics made in the 15-16th centuries usually had lively, ingenious decorative patterns.

Ceramic articles with detachable components like the incense burner shown here have been popular since the 16th century e.g. the lampstands made by Dang Huyen Thong under the Mac dynasty. The signing of an artisan’s name under his products proves that ceramic artists were held in high regard at that time. The incense burner Opposite consists of three detachable components: the mouth, the body, and the base. It is all over decorated with carving motifs in relief. Imposing and noble, it looks totally different from the ceramic vessels refined by a potter-wheel in the preceding photos.

Besides household ceramics such as bowls, plates, vases, and liturgical objects such as lamps, incense burners, ceramics are also used in sculpture and in toy-making. Sculptural and toy ceramics are generally farfetched, produced as job work and the ceramist must combine several techniques of the ceramic craft. This cylindrical incense burner with 6 separate handles firmly attached to it and numerous carvings and a drawn motif was made in the 16th-17th centuries. It looks very lively, like a lotus flower with petals unfolding out of its calyx.

Some Technical Information

1. Fired-clay ceramics: Firing temperature: 600-9000C; brick-red, porous, water-absorbent.
2. Brown terra-cotta (material: clay): Firing temperature: 1,100-1,2000C; the paste melts in fire.
3. Porous terra-cotta (material: white clay): Firing temperature: 1,200-1,2500C; ivory yellow; the paste is porous; slightly water absorbent.
4. White terra-cotta (material: white clay): Firing temperature: 1,250-1,2800C; the paste is about to melt in fire; waterproof.
5. Porcelain (materials: white clay, feldspar, quartz): Firing temperature: 1,280-1,3500C; the paste melts in the fire; transparent.