Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Mong Cai kiln

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The large unglazed brown jars made at the Mong Cai kilns are representative of widespread unglazed stoneware production in northern Vietnam. They are distinguished by mold-formed lugs on the shoulder bearing linear relief decoration. Until recent decades Mong Cai jars could be found in the kitchens of most homes in Hanoi or in the countryside, where their role was similar to that of the red earthenware jars from Ko Kret in Bangkok.

The kilns in Mong Cai making unglazed stoneware jars were active until the mid-twentieth century. One jar of this type, now in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, belonged to six generations of one family across more than 150 years. At various times family members used it to collect rainwater for cooking and drinking, to store rice, and to store alcohol when one family member ran a pharmacy. Mong Cai jars were also employed for making soy-bean sauce, fermented fish paste, and fish sauce utilized in Vietnamese cooking.

Mong Cai is located in the far north of Vietnam, close to the border with Guangxi province in China. The port of Van Ninh, in modern Mong Cai, was established after the founding of the Ly Dynasty (1009–1225) and became a major port of contact for Chinese trade, complementing the port on Van Don island in Ha Long Bay, which focused on trade with countries to the south (Abe and Kikuchi 2006, 131). The port facilitated distribution of Mong Cai ceramics via coastal shipping, until the railroad connecting the north with the south was built. Jars from Mong Cai are found all along the length of the country. Some examples have been recovered from sunken ships, where they held commercial goods or drinking water.

Other kilns in Mong Cai made porcelain with cobalt decoration, mainly jars and temple vases, from the eighteenth through the early twentieth century. This aspect of Mong Cai ceramic production has been the focus of research by Augustine Vinh.

While the glazed white stoneware of the Red River Delta kilns of northern Vietnam has been well studied, the far more widely produced unglazed dark brown stoneware is less well known. The close relationship between unglazed and glazed stoneware production became apparent when unglazed cylindrical jars were excavated at the Chu Dau kiln site (Ha Thuc Can and Nguyen Bich 1989). Such jars were found along with Chu Dau glazed ware on the Hoi An shipwreck, which foundered off the port city of that name in Central Vietnam in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century (Butterfield 2000, lots 700–9). Unglazed wares were also recovered from wells in the Thanh Long (Ba Dinh) citadel site in Hanoi (Thang Long 2006, 96). During her survey of northern kiln sites, Morimoto Asako noticed "immense quantities of brown-bodied unglazed stoneware" (Morimoto 1997, 87).

The plain brown jars of this type that reached Japan from the mid-sixteenth century onward, however, were of immense interest to practitioners of the tea ceremony, who used them as water jars and vases (Nezu Bijutsukan Nezu Institute of Fine Arts 1993; Cort 1997). The name by which these and other unglazed objects were first known—namban (southern barbarian) ware—continued in use until the 1990s, when Japanese scholars finally identified their source at kilns in North and Central Vietnam (Morimoto 1993, 1997). Vertical chatter marks distinguish many namban vessels made in the north. Ongoing production of such wares at the Houng Canh kilns northwest of Hanoi demonstrated that the marks were left by bamboo tools used to consolidate the surface (Cort 1994, Kikuchi and Abe 2000).