The mystery of Chu Dau ceramics

We start off this week in Vietnam with a fascinating story about Chu Dau ceramics, named after a 15th century ceramics production site and an artisan named Bui Thi Hy – and an alternative theory that Bui was a woman.

30 September 2007 (Viet Nam News [Link no longer active]) – I’m back after a week of exploring Malaysia and I’ll be catching up on the posts that I missed out on during the last week. We start off this week in Vietnam with a fascinating story about Chu Dau ceramics, named after a 15th century ceramics production site and an artisan named Bui Thi Hy – and an alternative theory that Bui was a woman.

Viet Nam News, 30 Sep 2007

Mystery woman of the Chu Dau ceramics [Link no longer active]
A sunken ship discovered off the coast of Hoi An in 2000 set off a wave of interest in the rare ceramics within. Nguyen My Ha and Ta Quynh Hoa unravel the mystery of the 15th century artisian who created some of the worksAt 62 years of age, Bui Xuan Nhan buried himself in newspapers and magazines, sifting through piles of archived materials to research the Gia Loc District Communist Party for a competition. But during his search, he stumbled across an article that would take him far from his initial pursuit and towards astonishing findings about trade and the place of women in Vietnamese history.

Nhan and his nephew, Bui Duc Loi, worked together to produce a 200-page collection of hand-written texts with more than 300 of Loi’s photographs picturing many villages in Gia Loc District of Hai Duong Province. The collection, which took four months to complete, was awarded a special jury prize in 2006 and is now on display at the House of Tradition in Gia Loc District.

However, after completing their project, Nhan and Loc remained curious about a passage from one of the articles. In 1980, a former cultural attache at the Japanese Embassy in Ha Noi, Makoto Anabuki, wrote a letter to a communist party secretary. The letter was written in regards to an inscription on a blue and white vase displayed at the Topkapi Saraji Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Its inscription read, “The eighth year of Thai Hoa reign, Nam Sach District, sculptor Bui Thi Hy penned.”

An avid aficionado of Vietnamese culture, Anabuki posed three questions in his letter: First, what part of Nam Thanh District was called Nam Sach in the 15th century? Second, where did Bui Thi Hy learn and produce her craft? Third, could he contact archaeologists and fine artists to help research this ancient kiln?

Lost craft

Prior to Annabuki’s letter, archaeologists knew nothing of Chu Dau ceramics. There were antiques in government and private collections, but they were wrongly categorised as ceramics from Bat Trang, 16km north of Ha Noi. The closest matches local archaeologists could find were inscriptions found on oil lamps by craftsman Dang Huyen Thong in Thanh Lam District, located only two kilometres from Chu Dau.

After reading the letter, archaeologist Tang Ba Hoanh, the then director of Hai Duong Museum, conducted two excavations to help confirm the existence of Chu Dau ceramics, and in 1983 several ancient ceramic kilns, including Chu Dau’s, were discovered. Hoanh agreed that the letter “played a vital role in discovering the Chu Dau site”.

Archaeologists now agree that Chu Dau ceramic guild started in the 15th century and lasted for almost 200 years. The craft all but vanished until Anabuki’s letter brought renewed interest to the ceramics.

In 2000, Chu Dau ceramics made world news when thousands of pieces were discovered in a sunken ship off Hoi An. Because the Government at the time could not afford the salvage costs, 90 per cent of the antiques went to the American salvager. They were pictured in detail in two catalogues calling the 2,316 piece collection, Treasures from the Hoi An Hoard. They were auctioned that year, the smallest pieces selling for US$1,000 or more.

Chu Dau subsequently experienced a wave of treasure hunters creating years of chaos for the village. Villagers dug up their yards, their gardens and even their floors in hopes of discovering more antiques. The craze cooled down after the digging spree yielded nothing more than old kiln remnants, broken bowls and pot supports. Though these were not of great value for collectors, they offered strong proof that Chu Dau was once a ceramic centre.

Living only 20km south of Chu Dau, successors of the Bui clan, Bui Xuan Nhan and Bui Duc Loi, had no idea their ancestors founded a successful ceramic guild. But as Nhan continued to ponder Anabuki’s second question of where the woman learned her craft, he recalled that his own ancestors had once had a ceramics business. With this in mind, he spoke to Loi, and they went in search of the author of the article containing the letter, Tang Ba Hoanh, who was now Chairman of the Hai Duong Historical Society. With them, they brought a copy of their family annals, so Hoanh could help them makes sense of the Han-Chinese characters.

Hoanh wrote in a recent article for the Viet Nam Historical Society magazine, that he felt the search for the artisan on the vase had begun to fade after 26 years of continuous efforts despite continuing disagreements regarding the gender of the vase’s maker.

But shortly thereafter, Hoanh remembers hearing a knock on his door. The two Bui clan presented him with the information which years of search had not yet yielded. “The issue had become almost hopeless, but then at 2.30pm on May 29, 2006, Bui Duc Loi and Bui Xuan Nhan gave me two leaflets from their family annals and some ceramic samples,” Hoanh wrote.

After reading the excerpts, Hoanh went and retrieved an older, cloth version of the annals. The paper version had been copied in 1932, the year of the Monkey under King Bao Dai, by Nhan’s father, village chief Bui Duc Nhuan. It had been copied from another cloth version in 1832, the year of the Dragon under King Minh Menh.

According to the oldest version, the founder of the Bui clan in Quang Anh fief was Bui Dinh Nghia, son of general Bui Quoc Hung of Son Tay Province. Bui Dinh Nghia was born in 1387 and in 1407 he moved to Quang Anh (what is today Quang Tien Hamlet, Dong Quang Commune in Gia Loc District, Hai Duong Province) to flee from Ming invaders. There he had two children. The elder daughter was Bui Thi Hy, born in the year of the Rat, 1420, and a son, Bui Dinh Khoi, was born in the year of the Cat, 1423.

The annals stated that Bui Thi Hy was a talented lady of literature and writing, blessed with a special talent for drawing. She disguised herself as a man to sit in the royal exams. She made it to the third round before being exposed and expelled. She later married Dang Si, a rich man who owned a ceramic business in Chu Dau, Thanh Lam District of Nam Sach, and there she showed great skill as a potter. In the 10th year of Thai Hoa reign in 1452, she and her husband went to Quang Anh to help her brother Bui Dinh Khoi set up a ceramic kiln on the northern edge of the fief near Dinh Dao canal. From here, they were able to transport ceramics by boat to Chu Dau, and they co-operated with Chu Dau to make ceramic offerings to the Royal Court. They also exported to merchants in the northern country (China), Japan and the West. Year by year, the Bui clan in Quang Anh grew wealthier.

Lady Hy never had children, so in her old age, she moved back to her father’s home and died there at the age of 80 on the 12th day of the eighth month of the Year of the Goat, 1499.

Feminist: Archaeologist Tang Ba Hoanh, chairman of the Hai Duong Historical Society, has dedicated his efforts to proving that the artist responsible for the 1450 vase now in Istanbul was a woman.

Paraphernalia: A bowl in the shape of a poison fish held a traditional chewing gum.

Woman’s work: A lion bears inscriptions suggesting Bui Thi Hy was the sculptor. Photo courtesy of Tang Ba Hoanh

All in jest: The blue and white vase in Topkapi Saraji Museum in Istanbul is of Vietnamese origin but has Chinese elements in its design. It bears either the signature of a woman craftsman or a ‘joyous’ message.

A trick of interpretation

On the blue and white vase in Topkapi Saraji Museum, the inscription Bui Thi Hy but, can be translated two ways.

Han-Chinese professor Nguyen Dinh San said it could mean that a female sculptor named Bui (last name) Thi Hy wrote this line or a male sculptor named Bui joyously (hy) wrote this line.

Many archaeologists favour the second theory saying a man likely wrote this line for fun.

In his book entitled Handbook of Vietnamese Ceramics with Inscriptions from the Fifteenth to Nineteenth Centuries, Nguyen Dinh Chien of the Viet Nam Museum of History listed the 1450 vase in Istanbul as the oldest inscribed Vietnamese ceramic. He also supported the idea that the inscription was made by someone whose last name was Bui. The second oldest ceramic in Chien’s book was from 1576, 116 years younger than the first.

According to Chien’s book, “The blue-and-white vase produced in the eighth year of Dai Hoa reign (1450), is considered to be the most surprising and interesting of 15th century Vietnamese ceramics. From the time it was first made public by Hobson in 1930, this vase has commanded a great deal of attention and always features in projects focused on Vietnamese ceramics.

“It should be mentioned that the long cylindrical neck and squat spherical body are not traditionally Vietnamese. Furthermore, the floral scroll designs on the vase bear a Yuan-Chinese influence. However, the Han-Chinese characters inscribed on the vase’s shoulder clearly show its Vietnamese origin as well as its date of production.

“Due to the lack of documentation, there is still no satisfactory explanation for the absence of inscribed ceramics for over a century after this phenomenon.”

Chien, like many other archaeologists, was skeptical about Hoanh’s findings.

“I still believe someone joyously wrote the dateline,” he said. “The family annals were copied, so it’s a problematic source.” To support his opinion, Chien referred to a wide-mouthed jar dated in 149 AD currently on display at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Art and History in Brussels in the Huet Collection. He argued that inscriptions on ceramics in Viet Nam did not start with the 1450 blue-and-white vase; inscriptions began much earlier. Thus, Chien argued that the jar found in Viet Nam dates from the second century with the inscription of someone by the name of Ly.

Others, who did not have the chance to read the family annals, were also skeptical of Hoanh’s findings, feeling they were too good to be true.

In response, Hoanh referred to one of his teachers who said, “Luck only comes to those who are devoted to it.” Hoanh said his findings are up for debate and should be researched further.

A very talented woman

On May 16 of this year, Tang Ba Hoanh said the Bui men showed him a terra cotta young lion with an inscription underneath. The lion was a decorative piece often found on the walls of old buildings. It reads, “Made by Bui Thi Hy at Quang Anh fief in the first year of Quang Thuan Reign.”

This inscription clearly shows that Bui Thi Hy made the lion and eliminated the gender questions posed by the 1450 vase.

It was Loi, the 15th nephew of Lady Bui Thi Hy, who made the discovery. After learning about his Aunt’s strength and achievements, Loi said he became curious about anything found in or near the old kiln, which is now a pond. Every time the local fishermen cast their nets, Loi would hover in the hopes something might surface, shedding light on his family’s forgotten past.

On July 10, Loi brought a saucer with an inscription to Mr Hoanh. The saucer had been discarded because it was not been properly fired and the glaze didn’t show. Perhaps that was why it was left at the kiln. “The unluckiness of the 15th century becomes today’s luck,” Mr Hoanh tends to comment when mentioning the happy accidents that have led him to his ceramic discoveries.

The line inscribed around the bottom of the saucer reads, “Made by sister Bui Thi Hy, brother Bui Khoi at Quang Anh fief, Gia Phuc District in the first year of Dien Ninh 1454.”

“So far, we can attribute three ceramic works to Bui Thi Hy,” Tang Ba Hoanh said, “all with inscriptions, proving her talents in drawing, sculpting and shaping. This is enough to confirm that 550 years ago, there lived a very talented woman.”

Tomb inscription

Last month, as Loi’s father lay sick, he gave his son a family heirloom, a round copper tray with part of its rim burned. “I wasn’t feeling well, and I was afraid I was going to die,” said Bui Dinh Dau, Loi’s father.

The 82-year-old man with black lacquered teeth knew he had been hiding a treasure but had never confessed the secret to his children. “My father was very good at Han Chinese, but I don’t know a word,” he said. “When he gave it to me, he only said, ‘This is very precious; you have to keep it safe.’ I’ve kept it mostly safe, despite the raid by the French in 1948, which demolished the house. I hid it next to our wall and when the wall fell, coals fell on the tray, burning part of the rim. After, I hid it in a terra cotta jar and buried it deep beneath the house. Now I’ve given it to my son in case something happens to me.”

Mr. Dau felt he had completed his father’s wish in handing over the vase to his son, who then took it to the archaeologist.

“Luckily, though the rim was burned, not a word of text is missing,” Mr. Hoanh said.

The inscription is the same as that on Bui thi Hy’s tombstone. In 1932, Loi’s grandfather Bui Duc Nhuan had copied it onto the copper tray in case the original stone stele was lost. The tray bears 379 Han-Chinese characters, some of them Nom characters and corroborates much of what was written in the cloth annals.

The tombstone was written by Dang Phuc, second husband of Lady Bui Thi Hy in the second year of Canh Thong reign 1502, three years after her death. The last words on the copper tray read, “Even if times change, the original stele of the Great Aunt kept in the sacred land forbids any breaching.”

The tombstone was dedicated to “The wonderfully talented wife named Bui Thi Hy”.

The tray confirms that in 1452 Lady Bui and her brother set up a ceramic kiln in Quang Anh fief to trade with Chu Dau and that Bui’s first husband was Dang Si. However, it added that he perished in an East Sea shipwreck. She then married Dang Phuc, also from Chu Dau. The tombstone reads, “She was a lady who excelled in martial arts and was fluent in literature. She led the business to Japan, China and the West to trade special wares.”

The text confirms she could not have children and says she eventually moved to Quang Anh and made several charitable donations for building and bridge construction.

“In the night of the 12th day of the eighth month of the Year of the Goat (1499), there was a typhoon with heavy rain, lighting and thunder; Lady lay behind a screen, glowing with a rose-coloured light like an ascending dragon. Then she passed.”

From what was written on the copper tray, Tang Ba Hoanh drew some telling conclusions, not only about Bui Thi Hy, but also about the trading scene at the time and the history of women.

“Up until now,” said Mr Hoanh, “when studying Chu Dau ceramics, we always thought that foreign trading vehicles visited Chu Dau to ship goods away. But this document clearly shows the merchants of Chu Dau, notably Lady Bui Thi Hy, led their own shipping fleets abroad.” This important detail has corrected the belief that only foreign ships docked at old Vietnamese harbours to export goods. It is also corrected the idea that foreigners’ stories were responsible for scenes of ships on Chu Dau ceramics.

But even though Bui’s ships may have indeed sailed, the problem of geography remains. The “West”, Bui supposedly traded with may only refer to Southeast Asian countries, West Asia and the Middle East where many Chu Dau ceramics survive. “We know that in the British Library there are over 1,200 pages of diaries about trading with Pho Hien (today’s Hung Yen Province) in 17th century,” Mr Hoanh said. “My thought is that maybe the diary about trading with Chu Dau has been hiding somewhere and needs further research.”

Another issue raised by the inscription is women’s place in history. “We know that a Vietnamese man leading his ships abroad was quite rare, and in this case we have a woman doing a man’s job,” Mr. Hoanh said. “An outstanding lady, whose second husband didn’t hesitate to call her exceptionally talented, can now be appreciated as an extraordinary 15th century sea merchant of Viet Nam.

“She was brave enough to sign her own name on her works, an assertion of her rights and authority. And she was daring enough to move on after her first husband died and remarry. She deserves to be more greatly appreciated.”

Last month, a conference was held in Hai Duong to commemorate Bui Thi Hy’s death and to inform people about the latest findings on her life and work.

As for archaeologist, Tang Ba Hoanh, he said he hoped that further excavation would reveal more about the lady and hopes the original tombstone will substantiate the writings on the copper tray.

But the Lady’s descendants under the instructions of 82-year-old Bui Dinh Dau will likely follow the warning written at the end of the copper tray to preserve the sanctity of their ancestor’s tomb.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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