Chu Dau ceramic tradition finds a new lease of life

25 November 2007 (Vietnam Net Bridge) – A feature on the Chu Dau pottery tradition, centred on the Chu Dau village and recently revived for the international market. Chu Dau’s pottery was once popular during the 14th-17th centuries.

Northern pottery village wakes up to 500-year-old craft

Lying snugly beside a graceful river in northern Viet Nam’s Hai Duong province, the Chu Dau Pottery Village, dating back to the 15th century is churning out tens of millions of artistic handmade items a year, many of which have found their way to over 50 countries worldwide.Verging on the bank of the Thai Binh River, it used to be the biggest pottery center of Vietnam from the 14th to 17th centuries and its potters were the most talented in making azure glazed pottery. Its products were ordered in huge quantities by Japanese and French businessmen at that time, according to history books.


However, the village’s pottery making tradition was only revived in the late 20th century when a Japanese diplomat became interested in a ceramic vase on display in Turkey.

The story started thus: in 1980 Makoto Anabuki made an official visit to Istanbul where he found an object that caught his eye at the Topkapi Saray Museum there.

It was a 54cm tall vase decorated with beautiful lotuses and thirteen words, “Thai Hoa bat nien, Nam Sach Chau, tuong nhan Bui Thi Hy but” (The year is 1450, the place the Nam Sach Chau region. Written by Bui Thi Hy”.

Mesmerized by its beauty, the diplomat sent a letter to the local government in Hai Hung province where the Nam Sach Chau region was once located wanting to know more about the vase’s origin. According to historic annals, Nam Sach Chau was home to many pottery kilns that produced the finest pottery in the Le So and Mac dynasties in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Archeologist Tang Ba Hoanh who was put in charge of investigating the vase’s origin told Sai Gon Giai Phong it was not until 1983 when a group of experts were sent to a small village named Chu Dau in Thai Tan commune to study its traditional craft of weaving sedge mats that the pottery tradition was discovered.

In this small village covering less than 60 ha and housing only 1,000 inhabitants, experts accidentally found beautiful, elaborately-decorated pottery objects buried deep under the soil.

But it took another three years before the province had the village dug up.

The five excavations during the next six years unearthed many ceramic flower vases, bowls, plates, basins, jars and cooking pots made hundreds of years ago in different shapes and sizes, glazed with different colorful coatings, white, blue, yellow and brown, some objects coated twice.

The decoration of the ceramics is extremely lively, featuring everyday life in the delta regions: a woman in traditional dress ao dai (long gown), in a palm-leaf conical hat, buffalos, birds, peach flowers, ducks and fish.

As the story concludes, the vase in Istanbul was made in 1450 by a Chu Dau artisan named Bui Thi Hy. It is now insured for US$1 million.

Restoration

Nguyen Van Luu, director of state-owned Chu Dau Pottery Enterprise, told Sai Gon Giai Phong that when most of the 400,000 objects salvaged in 2000 off Vietnam’s coast were discovered to be Chu Dau pottery, Luu was appointed to return to Chu Dau, his hometown, to restore the craftworks there. Shortly after, the Chu Dau Enterprise was born.

“In the beginning, it was very difficult. The village at the time had been nothing but a swamp. But thanks to local support, Chu Dau now produces tens of millions of products a year and exports to over 50 countries. We cannot even produce enough to meet demand”, Luu proudly said.

When Sai Gon Giai Phong compared Chu Dau to Minh Long pottery, another famous brand from the southern Binh Duong province, Luu laughed, saying the latter is for practical, every day use while Chu Dau is for connoisseurs and artistic purposes only.

Pointing to a flower vase glazed with a reddish brown coating on which a red-skin man in a feather hat is depicted, Luu said the reddish color is natural and not artificially induced, unlike any other.

“Foreigners like it very much”, he added.

“It is a miracle. Clay here has been created the same way for thousands of years. No other place can yield such wondrous clay”, Luu claims.

Regarding difficulties his operations face, Luu said only 20 of his 300 staff can draw decorations well enough to be used on his products.

Nowadays, Chu Dau pottery is preserved by 46 museums worldwide. In Viet Nam’s Hai Duong province alone, 22,000 Chu Dau objects are being preserved.


Books about Vietnamese pottery:
Vietnamese Ceramics: A Separate Tradition by J. Stevensen, J. Guy and L. A. Cort
The Ceramics of Southeast Asia : Their Dating and Identification by R. M. Brown
Ceramic Traditions of South-East Asia (Asia Collection) by J. S. Guy
Folk Pottery in South-East Asia by D. F. Rooney

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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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