Nature revisited by Vietnamese potters

Conference by Philippe Truong, independent researcher, specialist in Vietnamese ceramics.

Philippe Truong recalls that if the history of Vietnamese ceramics goes back to prehistoric times, it is only from the Lý dynasty (1009-1225) that it really begins to acquire its intrinsic characteristics.

Indeed, after ten centuries of Chinese colonization, the first Lý sovereigns had to consolidate the kingdom of Dai Viet ("Great Kingdom of the Việt") at the administrative, defensive and economic levels. After having reorganized (promulgation of the first Penal Code, establishment of literary competitions, development of agriculture and crafts, development of a communication network, etc.) and consolidated their kingdom (establishment of a powerful army organized and a solid defense system capable of facing the enemies, the Song in the north and the Chams in the south), they had to forge a national identity, develop a national or even nationalist art, to unite under their banner the population then divided into several fractions. They must then construct an art capable of addressing both the educated aristocratic class and simple peasants. Therefore, this art must be visual and symbolic at the same time. It must be simple enough to be understood, borrowing the pictorial language of everyday life at the time, hence the reference to Mother Nature, which would become the hallmark of Vietnamese art and ceramics.

In addition, this propaganda art must also refer to:
– to the ancient culture of the Lạc Việt, that of Chinese pre-colonization, making it possible to link the Lý to the first dynasty of the Hùng kings and to legitimize them,
– to the war of independence to arouse the patriotic spirit of the population,
– to Buddhism, a religion introduced in the 2e century allowing the natives to support the foreign dictatorship and erected into a state religion,
– and finally to integrate foreign influences even those coming from their Chinese and Cham enemies.

To serve this art, the potters designed a figurative decoration, incised and painted in iron oxide. This great technical innovation made it possible to adorn luxury tableware (covered jars, basins, etc.). It consists, after laying a creamy white ash-based engobe, incising a decoration on the still damp clay, then removing this engobe from the surfaces intended to be enhanced with iron oxide, before firing. The decoration is still divided into three horizontal panels delimited by a painted line, thus taking up that of the bronzes of Đông Sơn.

Jar decorated with a wader. Stoneware incised and painted with iron oxide. Thanh Hoa.11th -13th c. ©Philippe Truong.

Urn with five tigers. Stoneware with incised decoration and painted with iron oxide. 13th-14th c. ©Philippe Truong.

Roof parapet in the shape of a makara dragon. Terracotta. Thang Long Palace. ©Philippe Truong.

What animal could most appeal to the imagination of the Vietnamese than the wader, totem both of the Lạc (peacock) tribe and of the Hồng Bàng (common crane) clan, and whose name designates both the capital (Mê Linh : a variety of heron) than the kingdom (Văn Lang: a water bird with white plumage). By adopting the waders, the Lý thus link their dynasty to the pre-colonization dynasties (Lạc Việt and Âu Việt).
The other symbolic animal borrowed from Đông Sơn's repertoire is the crocodile since the latter, associated with the crane (as on the drum of Hòa Bình, Phú Xuyên or Kinh Hoa), evokes the legend of Lạc Long Quân and the immortal Âu Cơ, that of the creation of the Kinh (Viêt) race. Unlike waders, this crocodile undergoes a transformation. Like the Chinese rulers, the Lý rulers adopted the dragon as their emblem. Thus was born the dragon giao long (snake dragon) which inherits its crocodile head and legs from the Lạc, which retains its serpent body from the Chinese dragon, and from the makara cham its elephant trunk suggested in the form of a flame placed in front of its upper snout. Declined on architectural ceramics (ridge tiles, tips, antefixes, etc.), it adorns the constructions (palaces, pagodas, temples) of the new capital Thăng Long founded in 1010. Its head is modeled on the spout of the kundika, Indian ritual vase intended to contain lustral water in Buddhist ceremonies. In Vietnam, these jugs have an ovoid body and a decorative handle, most often in the shape of a parrot and, more rarely, crab, eel or saphira (freshwater shrimp with long claws). Their sinicization is only noticeable from the 15e century, during the Lê, when the dragon adopted Chinese criteria and adorned imperial tableware.

Jug with spout in the shape of a dragon. Sandstone under cover. 13th-14th c.

Jug in the shape of a trained dragon. Porcelain stoneware. Underglaze cobalt blue decor. Wreck of the Hoi An. 15th c.

Flat. Porcelain stoneware with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. 15th-16th c.

The elephant symbolizes the cult of the heroes of the War of Independence. Present from the Han-Viet period (1er-3e century) in the form of a jug hu with a spout in the shape of an elephant's head, its representation, under the Lý reveals, by its harness, that it is a war mount. In popular imagery, he embodies, among other things, the revolt of the two Trưng sisters (40-43), the first ephemeral victorious revolt against the Chinese occupier. Under the Lý, it symbolizes the war of independence, the incarnation of the heroes who have become Genius Protectors of the Nation that the Vietnamese evoke during the invasions of the Yuan and the Ming. From 15e century, the elephant lost its national value to become mounts either for the bodhisattva (a dish in the Metropolitan Museum) or for parade.
Adopted as the emblem of the kingdom, the parrot, so coveted by the Chinese since a couple who could speak was offered in 121 BC. J.-C to the Han emperor, inspired the potters with the first zoomorphic pieces (jugs, oil lamps and, more rarely, boxes) of great finesse of execution.

Jar with incised decoration of elephants and foliage. Than Hoa. 13th-14th c. ©Fiftieth Anniversary Museum. Brussels.

Jug in the shape of an elephant. Blue and white porcelain. 15th-16th c.

Jug (or lamp?) in the shape of a parrot. Celadon stoneware. 11th c.

Buddhism as a source of inspiration occupies a primordial place. Fervent followers, the Lý sovereigns were the patriarchs of Buddhist sects and granted multiple privileges and powers to the monks who then constituted the intellectual elite. Emblem of Buddha, the lotus was declined in all its forms: foliage or flower as decoration engraved, incised or printed on the monochromes, incised and painted in iron oxide, or row of lotus petals modeled in relief around the openings of the jars, jugs, on the lid around the grip button. For the altar of Buddha, the cult objects take the form of this flower with multiple rows of petals treated naturally with the tip always slightly curved upwards and alternating one large and one small petal. The interior of the small trays (d. 10 cm) showing an incised lotus on a pecked background and left uncovered, intrigues researchers who suggest its possible use as an ink stone or as an offering tray of lotus seeds or other dried fruits .

Cylindrical jar with lotus decoration. Stoneware with incised decoration and painted with iron oxide. 13th-14th c.

Small tray in the shape of a lotus flower. Partially glazed stoneware. 15th-17th c.

Anonymous Lime pot, 1400. Stoneware White paste, two glazes: ivory and green. ©Cernuschi Museum, Museum of Asian Arts of the City of Paris.

Endowed with an ecumenical spirit, the Lý protected Confucianism, Taoism and Brahmanism, for a purely political purpose, by erecting these divinities as protectors and guardians of the Việt kingdom. This religious syncretism is perceptible on the Lý-Trần ceramics. Let's mention the inside of the bowl decorated with tortoiseshell adorned alternately with Taoist trigrams and a Buddhist swastika, or the one mixing the eight Taoist emblems with those of Buddhism. The three religions are also present on the jar of the Guimet Museum: in the lower register, carp crossing the waves (Confucianism) among the lotuses; in the central register, lotuses in bloom (Buddhism); and in the upper register, kinnari, Indian celestial musicians and imported from Champa (Brahmanism). Such decorations are inconceivable in China.

Revered as a tutelary genius, the design of the lime pot illustrates the legend of the quid of betel whose paternity is attributed to the 4e King Hung. Taken in by a hermit, two orphan brothers fell in love with his daughter, who, according to tradition, chose the eldest as her husband. Abandoned, the youngest decided to return alone to their native village and found himself blocked by a deep river. He died of grief and turned into a rock. Having gone looking for him and not finding him, his elder brother leaned against the rock and turned into an areca palm. Saddened by the latter's absence, his wife arrived in front of the river and metamorphosed into a betel vine that wrapped around the areca palm. Thus, the ovoid body of the lime pot symbolizes the rock, its handle the trunk of the areca tree around which the betel is wrapped. Areca nuts and barbs are modeled at the base of the socket. To accentuate the realism of the decoration, the potters posed a green enamel which runs on the white body to imitate the foam and a brown ring to mark the ground.

The glazes of the ceramics are dull colors, ranging from ivory white to black brown through a whole range of yellows, browns and greens. This choice corresponds to the nuances of the landscapes of North Vietnam as described by Pierre Pasquier: " Nature in Annam is not happy. Above all, you should not get an idea of ​​colorful exoticism from Tonkin. The absence of a colorful sensation is the characteristic of this country. The sky is often grey, whether it is overheated and turned white during the summer or bereaved by the mists of spring. The hut and mud houses are sepia. The suits are brown in color. The buffalo is the color of mud. The rivers are heavy and roll sienna waters. Yet this nature is enveloping, it takes you slowly, seizes you gently and we always keep in the heart subtle and delicate sensations having the finesse of the sensations that a light watercolor gives us. ».

As we have seen, Nature, real or mythical, has greatly inspired Vietnamese potters who have interpreted it according to the techniques and fashions according to their inspiration.


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