Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Stoneware kilns in the Red River Delta

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The Red River Delta region in northern Vietnam belonged to the earliest settlement area for the ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), speakers of a language in the Mon-Khmer family. During the early historic period, the area lay at the periphery of China and was known as Annam ("Pacified South"). When an independent kingdom was established in 1009 it was named Dai Viet, and its capital became Thang Long ("Ascendent Dragon"), now Hanoi, on the Red River.

Production of glazed stoneware originated at kilns in the north under the influence of Chinese technology and culture. Stoneware vessels made at local kilns during the first through third centuries bore intentional drops of green glaze on shapes similar to Chinese ritual vessel shapes of the period. Kilns for such wares have been identified at Tam Tho in Thanh Hoa province.

During the Ly dynasty (1009–1225), local production of glazed wares reflected the styles of green-glazed and white-glazed Chinese ceramics imported to the region (Dupoizat 1997). The Vietnamese wares made from fine-grain off-white local clay bore clear or ivory-toned glaze and often featured decoration "inlaid" by scraping away the base glaze from designs outlined by incising, then filling in with iron glaze.

In the Tran dynasty (1225–1400), celadon glaze came into use and brown slip-coated "chocolate bases" appeared on some bowls in the late thirteenth century (Stevenson 1997, 35). Bui Minh Tri observes that the five kiln complexes known to have been active during this period all lay on land belonging to or managed by the elite, and he suggests that the Dai La kilns in the western suburbs of Hanoi may have been operated as an official kiln for the court (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 115–16). Some porcelain bowls excavated from the Thang Long site bear the Chinese character for "official" molded in the bottom. Morimoto Asako estimates that the Dai La kilns operated from the fourteenth through the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries (Morimoto 1997).

Another important Tran dynasty kiln site was located ninety kilometers south of Hanoi in Thien Troung, the old homeland of Tran and the second most important city after Thang Long (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 116–18). The mark "made in Thien Troung" is inscribed on the base of some mold-formed dishes (Nishino 2001). The Van Yen kilns, in Hai Duong, may have been the first to operate within the old Nam Sach prefecture. These kilns produced early vessels decorated in iron or cobalt under the glaze, while other kilns in the vicinity made unglazed stoneware. Bui Minh Tri estimates that they operated from the end of the thirteenth through the fourteenth century (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 118–19).

Excavations in 2000 validated documentary evidence that the kilns in Bat Trang ("Bowl Village"), which still thrive outside Hanoi, were operating by the early fifteenth century and made sets of wares sent as tribute to the Ming court. The investigation uncovered wasters of cobalt-decorated bowls from a site south of Bat Trang along the river (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 119–20).

The kilns in Hai Duong province came into their own after the end of the Ming occupation (1407–27) (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 108). Five kiln centers have been identified in the former Nam Sach prefecture. The prefecture name first gained notice when it was discovered in an inscription on a blue-and-white bottle, which was dated 1450 and was once thought to be Chinese, in the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul (Hobson 1933–34). Chu Dau was the source of most of the remarkable cobalt-decorated wares found on the Hoi An shipwreck. The adjacent village of My Xa, once part of Chu Dau, is the only place known so far to have made blue-and-white ware decorated with polychrome enamels over the glaze. My Xa potters may have moved in the sixteenth century to Hung Thang, home village of the famous potter Dang Huyen Thong, who produced numerous signed temple altar vessels. Linh Xa and Phi Mao (Quao) fired unglazed stoneware and  earthenware (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 121–26).

The other ceramic centers in Hai Duong clustered along the river in Binh Giang district. Ngoi made bowls bearing the "palace" mark in the fifteenth century, and some of its cobalt-decorated wares may have been aboard the Hoi An shipwreck. Ba Thuy produced dated temple vessels. Cay began operation in the fifteenth century, flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and is still active today (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 126–34). Hop Le used a glaze formula that ran at high temperature, blurring the cobalt decoration beneath it, and it is now thought to be the source of (possibly order-made) tea bowls for the Japanese market distinguished by their blurry decorations of dragonflies (Morimoto 1992; Yamasaki et al 2003–4).

During the Le dynasty (1428–788), kilns also operated further south along the coast, reflecting the gradual southward expansion of the territory of Dai Viet (Morimoto 1997). In most cases kilns were associated with ports (Abe and Kikuchi 2006).


Bui Minh Tri observes a gradual overall decrease in production for export in the sixteenth century. Several outstanding kilns in Hai Duong declined in the second half of the seventeenth century. The Dutch East India Company established a factory at Pho Hien in 1636, but in their orders for ceramics to market in insular Southeast Asia, they emphasized quantity over quality. The rest of the kilns (except Bat Trang and Cay) had ceased operating by the mid-eighteenth century, unable to compete in the face of the return of Chinese goods to the market following the change in Chinese government policy in 1684 (Bui and Nguyen-Long 2001, 111, 153, 183).

The emerging clarification of the cycle of activity at the Sawankhalok kilns in north-central Thailand, with their ties to the international port at Ayutthaya, suggests the type of story that should be possible to tell about the kilns in the Red River Delta and their relationship to the ports of Van Don and Pho Hien (Abe and Kikuchi 2006). A similar sequence seems to have unfolded: Influenced by the capital of independent Dai Viet, established in 1009, regional kilns that had supplied domestic markets began developing to meet the demands of international trade beginning in the fourteenth century, then refocused on domestic production after the seventeenth century.           

Red River Delta wares were distributed southward along the coast to ports of the Cham principalities, then upland to the Central Highlands, as recorded by the finds in the Dai Lang cemetery in Lam Dong province (Morimoto 1996, Bui et al 2000, Bui 2007). These ceramics were widely distributed as well to overseas markets ranging from Japan to Turkey and Egypt. Trade included such special commissions as the tiles made for the Majapahit kingdom on Java (Guy 1988-89; Dupoizat and Harkantiningsih 2007).

Morimoto Asako has studied the ebb and flow of Vietnamese ceramics into Japan, based on finds at excavated sites (Morimoto 1993). She divides finds of Vietnamese ceramics in Japan into three phases:

1. Second half of the fourteenth century (at Dazaifu and elsewhere in southern Japan)
        At this time, most Vietnamese ceramics were directed to Indonesia.

2. Second half of the sixteenth century to 1630 (at Sakai and other ports)
        Japanese merchants, seeking silk to supplement what was available from China, traded         mainly with the Nguyen family domain in Central Vietnam, via the port of Hoi An.

3. Second half of the seventeenth to early eighteenth century
        Trade was enabled by Dutch and Chinese merchants reaching Japan, as Japanese         overseas voyages ceased in the 1630s. Japan now had its own source of fine porcelain         from the kilns in Hizen province.