eMuseum Southeast Asia Ceramics

Thanh Hoa


Sites in Vietnam

Thanh Hoa
Chu Dau
Bat Trang

High fired ceramics were already being produced in Vietnam 2000 years ago. The white-glazed, white bodied ceramics from tombs in Thanh-hoa were older than any then known in China.

By the 1st century, the Vietnamese were aware of the glazing process when Chinese craftsmen followed Chinese soldiers and administrators to form new settlements in the region of modern Hanoi. Vietnamese wares nevertheless, closely resembled Chinese forms.

After the fall of the Han dynasty in the early 3rd century, the early Vietnamese ceramic tradition seems to have come to an end. A renaissance of sorts occurred in the period of the Ly dynasty (1009-1225). Vietnamese ceramics received a major impetus at the end of the 14th century when the Ming dynasty severely restricted exports.

Click on markers on the map to find out about individual sites in Vietnam.
Thanh Hoa

Northern Vietnam was conquered by the Chinese from the Han to Tang dynasty (111-979 CE), and was ruled by them as far south as Thanh Hoa (about 150 km south of Hanoi). There was a second period of Chinese dominance, from 1407-27.

Thanh Hoa was excavated in the 1920-30s, due to French public works. Burial wares of the 1st-3rd C and 10th-13th C were found, roughly contemporary with, respectively, the Later Han and the Song dynasties in China. These became known as Thanh Hoa ware, and were recognised as Vietnamese in its own right, and not Chinese. The first exhibition of these artefacts was held in 1931 at the Musée Guimet in Paris.

From 1925, severe looting of the area caused the authorities to enact laws prohibiting illegal digging. This, unfortunately, did not prevent amateurs of ceramics from amassing substantial collections. Not only that, there was a constant problem of badly kept records, both in the excavations and collections.

However, in this early stage of excavations, no kiln sites for glazed wares were found, only 20 cross-draft kilns, the source of unglazed, high-fired reddish-bodied wares. The kilns which produced the Han-period cream or slightly greenish glazed, white-bodied wares were not found.

Thanh Hoa ware, found at burial sites, is divided into two groups.

The first is classified, according to Brown (1988: 17), as “Later Han Period”, ranging from the 1st to the 3rd CE, and were “white-bodied wares with cream-white to slightly greenish glazes.” Miksic (2009: 58) tells us that “when Roxanna Brown published her MA thesis in 1977, the only known kiln site in north Vietnam was Bat-trang, 10 km north of Hanoi, which dates to the mid-16th century. That high-fired ceramics were produced in Vietnam 2,000 years ago was however well-known. The white-glazed, white-bodied ceramics from tombs in Thanh Hoa were older than any then known from China; contemporary pottery in Han territory was made from reddish-brown or buff clay and covered with a matt green glaze. Shapes, nevertheless, closely resembled Chinese forms.”

Unglazed house model with a flat base, reddish body and removable roof
1st-3rd C
L: 27.5 cm
Saigon National Museum
(Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. I a)
The second period is what Brown calls Ly Dynasty, corresponding approximately to their reign from 1009-1225, or the 10th to 13th centuries. This was a period of great pride to the Vietnamese, having successfully shrugged off Chinese authority. Many consider this also to be an age of artistic renaissance, with trade being re-established. 

Between the first and second periods is an intermediary one, from the 4th to 10th centuries but little has been found that could be assigned to this period without a doubt.

The Ly Dynasty period wares are typically unglazed blackish-grey bodied, primarily covered urns, as well as white to greyish-bodied wares. The latter have the following glaze types: iron brown inlay; pale greenish-ochre, white, black, and brown monochromes. There are also two types of celadon: one thin, pale and translucent; the other thick and dark. Finally, there are also underglaze iron black decorated wares. (Brown 1988: 17) Examples are shown below.

Among the earliest Ly Dynasty wares are those with inlay decorative patterns. The shapes are restricted to “covered urns, some with hollow stand-type bases”, such as the example below, which might have lost its lid. Brown tells us that other shapes include “tall cylindrical urns, wide basins, and squat jar with flaring mouth-rims.” These “decorations are carved in outline with wide scrapes and the space within then is glazed brown. The remainder of the vessel is then covered with an often runny, transparent or slightly greenish glaze. On some rare examples this colour scheme is reversed […] Occasionally, a thin coat of white slip can be detected under the glaze. Bases are always unglazed and usually flat, and the clay body is whitish or pale grey. The decorative patterns are mostly vegetal, with vines and simple flower blossoms, usually lotus, predominating.” (Brown 1988: 20-21)

A crackled green glazed granary with a cross-shaped décor resembling a flower with 4 long petals and inlaid with brown glaze. The body is divided into 4 panels by an incised brown-glazed vertical line. See also Brown 1988: pls. I and II.
10th-11th C
H: 20.5 cm, D: 19 cm
NUS Museum NU30439

The next type are monochrome wares, some of which share the same shapes as the previous group, such as this covered urn below. However, more shapes appear, including “dishes, bowls, and sometimes beakers, shapes mostly of the 13th century which presage the earliest trade ceramics […] The vessels are carved or moulded with strong geometric decoration.” (Brown 1988: 21)

Covered urn having a lid with knop handle surrounded by a collar of 6 lotus petals and relief decoration. It is covered in a watery green glaze. The body has 4 perfunctory handles, a carved décor of lotus petals and is divided by 4 vertical incised lines. See also Brown 1988: pl. I c.
13th-14th C
H: 23 cm; D: 18 cm
NUS Museum S1999-0009-018-0

Monochrome green glaze dish with carved lotus in centre medallion which shows 4 spur marks. See also Brown 1988: pl. IV.
9th-10th C
H: 3.5 cm, D: 12.5 cm
NUS Museum S31095-0

Brown glazed wares are, according to Brown (1988: 21-22), “relatively rare among the Thanh Hoa finds and normally monochrome.” They “probably begin in the 12th century and include a small number of covered urns, small jars, beakers and bowls. The bowls often have a brown-slipped or ‘chocolate’ base, a common characteristic of the later trade wares. Yet the only brown-glazed wares excavated abroad have been bowls with a brown exterior and cream-glazed interior; these invariably have an unglazed stacking ring on the interior bottom.” An example of this last is given below, after the brown monochrome just under this paragraph.

Brown monochrome glazed bowl with foliate mouth-rim, 5 spur marks and 8 indistinct stamped motifs in the interior well.
12th-14th C
H: 7.5 cm; D: 16.5 cm
NUS Museum S1999-0009-05-0

Brown glazed bowl with interior glazed off-white, with a stacking ring visible at the bottom.
14th-15th C
H: 9.1 cm, D: 17.9 cm
NUS Museum S1968-0070-001-0

The next group of wares are the green celadon and white monochromes which “seem to have endured throughout the Ly period into the 14th century. Both comprise shapes related to the inlay brown wares, as well as to early trade wares, although they seem to have been most popular in the 13th and 14th centuries. Bowls and beakers from Thanh Hoa often display a brown slip, ‘chocolate’ base, just as do later versions of these shapes discovered abroad.” (Brown 1988: 22)

Glazed bowl with foliate mouth-rim, stamped with a décor imitating metal work and 5 spur marks. The pale grey-green glaze is almost white.
14th C
H: 9 cm; D: 21 cm
NUS Museum S1999-0009-019-0

Finally, Brown (1988:22) tells us, “Among the later Thanh Hoa finds, those of the 12th to 13th centuries, are two types of celadon, both of which can be found among early trade wares. […] One type usually makes its appearance on heavily potted, medium-sized, relatively plain bowls with everted rims and carved foot rings. It is think, opaque, murky dark olive green in colour and usually laid over a whitish slip that can also be quite thick. Many of these pieces have a ‘chocolate’ (brown slip) base, and most have either spur marks on the interior or an unglazed stacking ring. Only occasionally does this type have an attractive medium green colour.”

13th C
Top: D: 16.3 cm
Bottom: H: 9 cm
Saigon National Museum
(Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. 7 a and b)

Further on, she adds, “the second type of celadon is translucent and a very pale green or yellowish-green in colour. This is found on late Thanh Hoa wares as well as on bowls found among the Tak Om Koi burial finds of Thailand.”

A bulbous celadon bowl in the shape of a crucible, with a wide inverted mouth-rim and carved foot.
12th-13th C
H: 11 cm; D: 13 cm
NUS Museum S1999-0009-017-0
Sources: Brown 1988: 13-23; Miksic 2009