on honouring true Vietnamese ceramics
A story & philosophy
At Authentique, we believe that Vietnam's independent ceramics tradition is one of the most beautiful lost traditions of the world. The pure and quiet beauty of genuine Vietnamese art could be found in the remnants of its Ly Dynasty ceramics, before Confucian influence, when the aesthetic expression of the Vietnamese people were revealed in the intimate, zen-like strokes of paint and moulds of clay that revered the country's humble natural flora.
In olden times, the value of true ceramics was understood, and each piece was considered to gracefully honour the table in Vietnamese households. Yet, sadly stagnated by centuries of hardship, war, and colonisation, its authentic essence has rarely been seen since. In today's industrialised world, in a country out of touch with its beautiful, authentic history, we endeavour thus to unearth the true beauty of Vietnam's traditional crafts to the world, whilst creating an organic and beautiful space in which they may radiate and blossom into a source of great pride and beauty for Vietnam.
The following is a story about Vietnam, its stunning ceramic tradition, and the importance of bringing about its long-awaited renaissance.
A lost tradition...
I grew up during the last twenty years of the Vietnam war. The delicacy of ceramics proved inharmonious with the harsh trials and tribulations of war, because anything that broke easily was not compatible with the bombs and weapons that plagued our lives. Although my grandfather had a ceramics collection, to us, it might as well have been invisible. My aunt had bought big weaving baskets made of bamboo, poured husk into them and hid all of the precious ceramics inside to stow the collection away in the basement or at a friend’s house. Despite this, I was able to catch a glimpse on a relatively peaceful new year’s day, although I could not hold them in my own hands. The sweet pudding my aunt had made as a divine offering was served into my grandfather’s white ceramic bowls that were adorned with delicately painted cherry blossoms. When the three days of celebration had passed however, the bowls had already been sent back to their place in the baskets of husk that were being sent around to the various different places that could hold them amidst the turmoil.
Many years thereafter, I had the opportunity to sit at the dining table of a Japanese person. The nobility of the Japanese could always be seen in the way in which the tableware was displayed. They do not use fixed dining sets as Westerners do. They would be given a handful from their parents, and purchase some every time they visit a place that made beautiful ceramics, or be given some as presents. When guests come to eat, they take great care to set the ceramics as well as the meal as meticulously and beautifully as if they were putting together a work of art. Each piece of ceramic stands on its own and has its own place in the arrangement, and the most beautiful bowl is saved for the most distinguished guest, along with a little story about where they had bought it from, and how long it had followed them along since. On this day, they had asked me about Vietnamese ceramics. By this time I had never seen a truly beautiful, purely Vietnamese piece of ceramic, as they were being crafted in the kilns that were located in the northern half of my country that had been torn in two, so I did not know how to reply. As it goes with war, people will naturally find themselves saddened by it even when it had long been gone. The tragic disruption of tradition is one such sadness.
the tumultuous history of vietnamese ceramics
It can be said that Vietnamese civilisation develops rather quickly. In studying the pieces of pottery found in the Red River basin from about two thousands years BC, we know that they had been kneaded on the turntable from soft clay and carved with delicate patterns. The Ly and Tran dynasties had, from the 14th century, ceramics coated with white and celadon glazes that bore refined carvings and an independent and confident discernment for art. The end of the Tran Dynasty, and subsequently the step into the Tien Le and Mac dynasties in the 15th century, brought with it the introduction of blue ink on pottery. Using bristled brushes, the ink could be applied onto ceramics with varying degrees of thickness, and, when fired in the kiln, would lightly wash and penetrate into the glaze, giving the ceramics suppleness in tone and a divinely soft, dreamlike touch. Ceramic pottery had become an important canvas on which art could be painted, and yet, by and large, Vietnamese art was only concerned with sculpture, and little so with painting. Multicolour glazes, used for three colour (tricolour) and five colour ceramics, were used in this period. Through to the Hau Le - Trinh dynasties of the 16th and 18th centuries, we begin to see the use of crackle glaze, which is slightly thick and smooth like white stone, and is one of the most beautiful glazes in the world. International trade had become prominent in this time, and Vietnamese ceramics were being sold to Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Japan. Even Dutch merchants were bringing Vietnamese ceramics to the Middle East and Europe. Tho Ha, Bat Trang, and Phu Lang, among others, had henceforth become thriving pottery villages.
Hue became the Vietnamese capital under the Nguyen Dynasty. Although ceramics were still being produced in the Bat Trang pottery village, the imperials had commanded that the citadel and noble residences may only use blue and white ceramics ordered from the kilns in China. A common misconception that many people hold is the idea that Hue’s blue and white ceramics were made in Hue, but the truth of the matter is that the ceramics have their origins in China, and had been royally commissioned. The turbulence of war and the lack of respect held by the aristocracy are two factors that greatly contributed to the eventuality of one of the most beautiful and precious Asian ceramic traditions gradually falling into disgrace and withering away. Since that moment and the proceeding years, almost all of Vietnam’s pottery villages had closed, lost their family heritage, or only produced household and low-budget ceramics.
modern day remnants
In the early 90s of the last century, Vietnam had opened its doors to the world. A great number of Japanese people came to Vietnam for business, and they knew the true value of antique Vietnamese ceramics, spending substantial amounts of money and effort to collect them. Before this time, a porcelain dining bowl from the Thanh Dynasty or a blue-inked one from Hue that was rather unremarkable in the eyes of the world could sell for ten or twenty times the amount people were willing to pay for an antique, rare, and absolutely beautiful Chu Dau bowl. The Japanese, perhaps the people who loved ceramics most in the world, had helped the Vietnamese look back at our legacy and the true value it had. When a hotel abroad wished to build a Vietnamese cultural space, they sought and placed orders for the provision of Vietnamese ceramics for their Vietnamese restaurant. A number of ceramic masters and their families in Bat Trang had managed to keep the antique glaze formulas from years bygone, or had worked them out from studying ceramic models they could collect, and just like that, the art of ceramics saw its renaissance in Bat Trang village, Ha Noi. Subsequently, Bat Trang fast became both renowned and prosperous. Almost everybody was surprised by the buyers’ love and admiration for Vietnamese ceramics, but we know that it could very simply explained by how truly beautiful Vietnamese ceramics really are, and always have been.
Despite such successes, a rather worrisome fact remains; the traditions and ceramics that were of highest artistic value were only being sold to foreigners, most of whom were Japanese. Middle and upper class Vietnamese people still esteemed Western and Chinese ceramics more than their own, even though the ceramics they were buying and using were industrially made and held little more value than their commercial worth. To have placed the survival of one of our greatest artistic traditions in the hands of foreign importers is a reality of grave concern - firstly, because the preferences of its customer base can be fickle and unreliable, and those tasked to stock the supplies for their ever-changing markets will inevitably and consistently come to seek new and different things, and subsequently abandon us. Secondly, if our ceramics were always made to order and in accordance with foreign standards and demands, then our ceramic villages will quickly deteriorate into being no more than a form of outsourcing of labour. We do not need to scrimp on innovations in design; it is a small convenience, and yet may prove to be a devastating one. Traditional ceramics are at once well respected, and yet also tightly bound at the hands and knees in the term “antique pottery.” No tradition can truly survive without development and investment in its innovations, to inspire the work therein to be a kind of passion for allowing the products to grow along with today’s aesthetic notions and maturations, so that the tradition may escape the grim fate of becoming mere imitations of the past, no matter how honourable that past may once have been.
I do not wish to imply that the ceramics tradition in Bat Trang had encountered its innumerable difficulties simply because it had been abandoned by the Japanese clientele, but rather because it had been abandoned by the people of its own home since the very beginning days of its renaissance. This lack of respect from the Vietnamese people for the craft has pushed the artisan pottery villages into the desperation of seeking work through the meagre and dishonourable means of producing for low-budgeted markets for domestic appliances, if not for export.
"All of the most beautiful glazes are indeed antique glazes. The glaze formulas for such are always difficult, and people of the olden days have ploughed through exhaustive trials and a very great number of defective products to perfect them. The ceramic industry remains one of the most beautiful crafts of Vietnam, and the ceramic works from the Ly Dynasty in Vietnam are some of the most beautiful things I have ever laid eyes on. They are beautiful when they stand on their own - each piece is whole, complete. When I look at them, it seems to be as if this ever-moving world of ours had suddenly come to a standstill, and I too often get lost in thought, wondering how they could be so much more beautiful than the items we use today.
Ultimately, I surmise that it is because of the needs and demands of consumers that have changed. In antiquity, each single piece of ceramic was a precious item, used with respect, and would always be placed with great care in an honourable place in the house. Life today is fast-paced and diverse, and man simply does not have enough quietude in his life to have such affections or to appreciate any real kind of a relationship with the things that surround him. And yet I find that people have begun to give themselves and their environments and homes more and more time in recent years. I sincerely have great hope in the end-of-year collection of mine. I hope that these items will keep timelessly in the house and bring a kind of beauty that is both precious and friendly."
— Doan Thanh Nghia, Furniture Designer
A long-awaited renaissance
From that very date on which I was sat at the dining table of that noble Japanese family, from that very moment when I realised the rightful claim we had as a country to this extraordinarily beautiful, long lost heritage of ours - one we never knew we had because it had been brought to a standstill by the horrors of war - I still ask myself, what would we be like, what would our world be like today if this interruption had never happened?
The habits and cultural values of a family can be seen on the dining table more so than in any other place. Yet, today, on the dining tables of the Vietnamese people - while the cuisine could be said with pride to be genuinely Vietnamese - we barely have enough ceramics for display, along with the food, in creating an image that truly represents the Vietnamese and cultural identities of our families, of our cities, and of our country.
At the Cam Ha ceramics workshop, we produce ceramics using traditional body, glaze, and ink formulas, the techniques and materials that remain unsurpassable even to this day. But Vietnamese ceramics need not always be of the antique kind. Though the forms and patterns we rely on have been inherited by way of tradition, they are constantly being made anew and delicately hand-drawn with every brush stroke. In this they aspire to retain the spirit and charm of antique Vietnam, before it was disturbed by Confucian influence and still had room for creativity and innovation. Our greatest teacher and inspiration is and always has been nature. The curve in the stem of a wildflower is an expression both of its weakness and that of the gentle breezes of the meadow, and to bring such ephemeral softness onto a material as hard and timeless as ceramic would be a challenge which, if we were to surpass, would give us the confidence to place a ceramic bowl of ours among the great ceramic masterpieces of the world without hesitance. The boundary drawn between a handcrafted item and a work of art, too, would fade away; our ceramics must thus, in this endeavour, be beautiful enough to remind us all that the craft is the cradle of the art, rather than its lesser little brother.
A ceramic bowl if left unbroken will always remain timeless. It will stay here for a great many years even after the artisans that have crafted it will have already gone. In this way it is far bigger than us, and in this way we understand that the least we could do as practitioners of the craft is to keep our promise to make it beautiful enough to surpass even time itself and to conquer its owners, whether today or at any other point in time. It is our hope that, for how much love we give it in its making, it shall once again receive in equal amount of love from those who use and collect it.