Hoi An Hoard, Part Two - The Collection

by Kim Fay, Feb 14, 2003 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hoi An

When divers finally finished their job of excavating a fifteenth-century shipwreck off the Hoi An coast of Vietnam in 1999, they'd made history. The underwater archaeological techniques they had used were groundbreaking. And the collection of porcelain rescued from seventy meters below sea level was unprecedented.

Of the ship's eighteen holds filled with ceramics, four were completely excavated. Altogether 244,000 artifacts were retrieved, with a miraculous 150,000 of these pieces still intact. Included in the cache brought to the surface were hundreds of like objects, such as jars shaped like phoenixes and boxes adorned with pagodas, presumably intended for everyday use by elite members of society in countries throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East. There were also many individual pieces in the cargo of high-fired stoneware.

Scholars of the subject are quick to agree on the origins of the pottery. "We know for sure that it came from Chu Dau or a town in its near vicinity," says Mensun Bound, head of the Oxford University marine archaeology department that oversaw the excavation of the shipwreck. "What's amazing is that it wasn't coming out of China's Ming Dynasty, but from peasant villages in the Red River Delta."

Chu Dau, an ancient pottery center, is still in operation in the Nam Thanh District in the northern province of Hai Duong. It has been called, "the oldest seat of pottery and ceramics" in Vietnam, and the quality of its porcelain was so highly regarded that its ceremonial incense-burners and lamp-stands adorned many Buddhist temples during Vietnam's Mac Dynasty.

The concentration of fifteenth-century production in this area has been the subject of intensive studies since professional excavations began in 1983. Methodical research techniques have identified the region as the source of many ceramic specimens discovered abroad. Yet until the discovery of the Hoi An Hoard, Vietnam's singular artistic and commercial contributions to this time period were still not recognized beyond the small circle of specialists devoted to the subject.

Lack of comprehensive evidence and the fact that Vietnam's cultural traditions have long played shirttail relative to China's venerated, well-documented past are just a part of the reason that Vietnam's rich artistic history has been so neglected by the limelight. Unfortunately, a modern history of colonization and war categorically and exhaustively eclipsed what is considered to be one of the most significant chapters in the story of Vietnam.

This noteworthy era began with China's fifteenth-century invasion of Vietnam. The goal of the Ming armies, while they occupied the country from 1407 to 1427, was to turn the country into a Chinese province. In a campaign focused on the conversion of arts and culture, Vietnamese artisans were trained to manufacture export quality porcelains in Chinese styles.

Later in the century, a seemingly unrelated set of circumstances unfolded. China declared war against the Mongols on their country's northwest border. During the period from 1436 to 1465, the Chinese government focused its resources in this area. It withdrew its financial support for overseas trade missions and halted all orders for porcelains from the imperial kilns. The result was an unfulfilled demand for high quality ceramics in Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

Because of the mass production skills of export quality porcelain developed during the Ming occupation, Vietnam's northern kilns were in a perfect position to take over this role as manufacturer and supplier. But although Chinese styles were considered the most marketable for export -- if only because of their reputation -- this did not discourage the independent-minded Vietnamese from imbuing their work with its own unique personality.

The Ming may have imposed many practical techniques beneficial to the commercial production of ceramics, but their time-honored stylistic practices were incapable of taking root in Vietnam's artistic tradition -- a tradition that has recently been described as lively, animated, energetic and poetic. Long before the Ming invasion, in 1009 AD, the local Ly Clan won popular support in Vietnam. The dynasty's rulers encouraged the cultivation of national cultural values. Distinctive, non-Chinese features and motifs emerged, many of which can be seen on the porcelain found in the Hoi An Hoard.

"There was quite a range of themes," says Bound. "Mythological animals. A lot of animals that, well, defied description. Rodents were quite common. The rat was usually portrayed with some loathing, but the mouse, on the other hand, was obviously something they liked. A happy, cheeky little chappy. There were a lot of little bats, too, slightly off kilter. There is a cartoon style to many of the drawings. Whimsy was obviously a part of it."

Henry Kleinhenz, an Asian Art Specialist at Butterfield's Auction House adds, "There is a vivacity and sense of humor that is unique to Vietnam."

In the 1680s, the Chinese ceramics industry was revived and overseas trade resumed. Vietnam did not possess the resources for competing with its well-equipped northern neighbor in the export market. Although it faded from the Southeast Asian trading scene, domestic production continued. The most significant pieces being manufactured were altar vases and incense burners for temple use, and after the seventeenth century, few ceramics of note appear to have been produced. Only time will tell whether or not this is actually the case. After all, just a decade ago, the story revealed by the Hoi An Hoard was sitting dormant, unknown, at the bottom of the South China Sea.

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