Craftsmen work to spread the fame of Bát Tràng pottery

July 24, 2016 - 09:00

On the bank of the Red River, there is situated a seven-century old pottery village. Bát Tràng, the most famous and long-standing pottery village in Việt Nam is an interesting attraction in the capital that tourists should not miss a chance to visit.

A tea set made in Bát Tràng. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng
Viet Nam News

On the bank of the Red River, there is situated a seven-century old pottery village. Bát Tràng, the most famous and long-standing pottery village in Việt Nam is an interesting attraction in the capital that tourists should not miss a chance to visit.

By Minh Thu – Lê Hương

I wish I could marry you/ I will buy Bát Tràng bricks to build our house/ Building vertically then horizontally/ Building a semicircle pond where you can wash your feet.

The humourous and beautiful folk verses honour the quality of Bát Tràng pottery.

On the bank of the Red River, there is situated a seven-century old pottery village. Bát Tràng, the most famous and long-standing pottery village in Việt Nam is a landmark in the capital that tourists should not miss a chance to visit.

Ornate: Vương Mạnh Tuấn presents the jar made from tử sa pottery. He’s one of the veteran artisans in Bát Tràng Village. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

The fact is that Bát Tràng bricks are the pride of people in the north of Việt Nam. They are firm, durable, not wet on humid days and not easily stuck to by moss. Not only Bát Tràng’s bricks, but also their celadon (greenware), crackle-glazed vases, dinnerware, decorative objects and traditional designs are popular around the world.

Many generations of Bát Tràng potters have worked hard to preserve the art of making ceramics by hand. They make sophisticated artworks, meanwhile they have also developed the trade of making pottery in modern ways. Here in Bát Tràng, tradition and modernity are mixed.

Red clay pottery master

Artisan Vương Mạnh Tuấn in Bát Tràng was born in 1964, and has spent nearly 50 years working in the ceramic industry. Tuấn is a descendant of the Vương family, one of five clans that established the trade village in the 14th century.

He started following his dad and uncles to their work grilling clay and making ceramics when he was very young.

He’s famous for red clay pottery, and is the only one in Bát Tràng who successfully mastered the way to make red clay teapots. These teapots originated from Jiangsu, China, where a special red clay for the teapots exists.

Tea drinking has existed for a very long time in Việt Nam. Over the years, Vietnamese people have preserved the art and turned it into a common cultural feature in their daily lives. When Chinese merchants brought red teapots to Việt Nam, they became the favourite choice of Vietnamese tea enthusiasts due to the teapot’s artistic and cultural value.

“Drinking tea is a elegant hobby. Drinkers are not only attracted by the scent, the taste of the tea, but also impressed by tea service articles,” Tuấn said.

“A red teapot shines sand light from the bottom and tinkles like a bell or the sound of metal when knocked on,” said Tuấn.

“The longer a teapot is used, the harder and more shiny it becomes. The clay teapot turns as brown as copper. Moreover, the minerals in the clay to make the teapot harmonises with the tea leaves to make a wonderful taste and scent. The fragrance of the tea and the hot temperature of the water can last for a long time.”

Novel teapots: To serve tử sa pottery collectors, Tuấn created sophisticated tea sets in different sizes and forms, for example, pumpkin-shaped and lotus-shaped teapots, as well as bronze and silver-rimmed teapots. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

“That’s why red clay teapots became precious and treasured by tea connoisseurs,” he said.

In 1988, Tuấn opened a pottery oven at home. Tuấn said the key to making pottery is to have creativity, passion and an understanding of the materials.

Being different from other artisans, he often looked for new materials. He travelled to many places that are well-known for ceramics, like Phù Lãng (Bắc Ninh Province), Quế Quyển (Hà Nam), Chu Đậu (Hải Dương) and China.

He always brought samples of local clay with him to study and research. Gradually, he found the method of mixing different kinds of clay to make red clay pottery.

To make a red teapot, it requires several processing stages, each showing the meticulous care of the craftsman. The materials, kiln temperature and the gloss of red teapots are different from other tea service articles, which creates unusual features and have great artistic value.

“The red-clay pottery is made with my own formula of blending the materials. The temperature in the kiln must reach 1,200 degrees Celsius,” he revealed.

Tuấn is so proud that the clay in his homeland is excellent and can be used to make wonderful objects.

“In the past, to have a red-clay tea set, you had to order from China, and in many cases, you might get a counterfeit. Now you don’t need to go to Jiangsu, in Bát Tràng we also have red teapots. We’re proud that Việt Nam has its own pottery of high quality and that it has its own characteristics."

From teasets, Tuấn developed a red clay pottery genre by making dinnerware including bowls, ash-trays and toothpick containers.

To serve red clay pottery collectors, he created sophisticated tea sets in different sizes and forms, for example, pumpkin-shaped and lotus-shaped teapots, as well as bronze and silver-rimmed teapots. Each object is made by his hands with meticulous care.

He also mass-produces red-clay tea sets in a simple style to meet the demand of a large number of customers.

He still works every day on searching for new materials, create new designs and products to satisfy his passion for the craft and make Bát Tràng pottery live long.

One more thing that makes Bát Tràng pottery distinguished is the glaze, which is of high quality and a variety of colours, such as blue, brown, white, moss green, in both breaking and melting glazes.

Tô Thanh Sơn is one of the veteran artisans in the village who holds the secrets of the glazes. He spent 15 years researching to revive the cracked enamel originating from the Lý Dynasty (tenth century) and he was successful.

Sơn doesn’t just revive the fine enamel of Bát Tràng but also other traditions as well. It took three years for him to collect 3,000 old Bát Tràng bricks to build Thuận An Đường, an ancient house that brings a feeling of pleasure to anyone who visits. The house bears traditional architecture with furniture, worshipping objects, calligraphic works and of course, pottery artworks made by Sơn.

The jars, vases and incense burners are all sophisticated with dragon and phoenix patterns. They are covered by ancient enamel which was preserved by the artisan.

To celebrate Thăng Long–Hà Nội’s 1,000th anniversary, Sơn made a 1.65m high jar that received much applause from cultural researchers and the public.

The jar is decorated with historical events from the Đinh (10th century) to Lý dynasties that leads to King Lý Thái Tổ’s decision to move the capital to Thăng Long (nowadays Hà Nội).

The jar is covered with tea-coloured enamel that was polished then burned at 1,270 degrees Celsius.

“It’s a pinnacle of Bát Tràng pottery, a perfect pottery artwork,” said Lê Xuân Phổ, chairman of the Bát Tràng Ceramics Association.

“The relievo are very sophisticated. The ancient enamel attracts people’s eyes at first sight. Sơn also made a breakthrough in producing pottery objects a large scale.”

Keeping hands on job

All artisans in Bát Tràng Village have admired Phạm Anh Đạo for his strong will to stick to traditional ceramic skills.

They have considered him as an active descendant of the handicraft village’s ancestors. He works to revive the traditional skills to create unique products while many households have applied industrial assembly lines for mass production.

Đạo’s workshop is located in the middle of the old village. Visiting him, one may find him losing himself in his work.

Born as a 1.5kg baby together with a twin brother, he was fairly weak and had to take lot of antibiotics, which resulted in an ear-impairment.

He could not speak until he was seven and found it hard to study at school.

At 17, he worked as a worker at Bát Tràng Ceramic Factory, where he learned a lot of techniques. Within a year, he could do difficult tasks that had often been done by well-experienced workers.

He then decided to open his own workshop to create in his own way.

While neighbours applied mass assembly lines to turn out thousands of products everyday, he made only few hundred items every month.

Yet his products were unique, none was similar to another.

He could sit for hours shaping clay, and making glazes in his own way.

Many Japanese architects, who worked nearby at the Thanh Trì Bridge construction site, often visited the village and were interested in his hand-made products

Domestic orders also started flowing to his workshop, and pieces were sold all over the country.

“I was extremely worried when we first opened our workshop in the 1980s,” recalled Nguyễn Mỹ Trinh, Đạo’s wife, who is also his “speaker”, “marketing, sales assistant” and everything. “At that time, all ceramic producers in the village shifted to mass production, and hand-made products were not appreciated by customers as before.”

Domestic products were also “attacked” by cheap Chinese ceramics. The couple hardly made ends meet with their small-scale production.

“I know while heating the ovens, he thought very deeply of ways to ’rescue’ our family from poverty while sticking to the traditional making process,” Trinh said.

"More than once, I told him to change his mind and set up industrial assembly lines but he refused, saying: ’I will not change to other ways, only the traditional one’."

Seeing his strong will, Trinh supported him at work. They had no money to hire workers, so she did all the subordinate work while Đạo fulfilled the tasks of shaping, drawing and glazing.

Đạo has tried to make the brown flowery glaze of 11-14th century, the blue and white glaze of 15th century as well as crackleware of 17th century.

Trinh said sometimes he got up at midnight and worked on a design that he suddenly had in his mind for fear that he would forget it the next morning.

In 2010 his workshop fulfilled a task that many generations of artisans in the village would dream to achieve: the making of a pair of giant jars by hand. Each measures nearly 2m in height; 1.2m in width, and 500kg in weight.

The jars were covered with ancient crackle glaze. They were exhibited in downtown Hà Nội during the 1,000th anniversary of Hà Nội City in 2010, and were just auctioned in May this year at VNĐ6 billion (US$267,000).

“Đạo is a rare artisan in our village, who works with his great passion,” said Lê Huy Thanh, vice chairman of the Hà Nội Ceramics Association. “In the past few years, more and more well-to-do people prefer hand made ceramic products rather than industrial products as in previous decades.”

The couple’s patience resulted in delicate products with the trademark Đạo Trinh Ceramics being more and more appreciated. They have sold more products and could afford to build a better house and workshop.

“Hand-made products requires more labour and we charge at a higher price,” Trinh said. “Every year, we sign contracts worth nearly VNĐ1 billion to domestic and overseas customers.”

Trinh said she exchanged with customers mainly through email.

“Customers just figure out their ideas for the products. We design models, and send back to them. When they agree with the models, we start producing,” she said.

“Yet Đạo prefers creativity,” she said. “He sometimes changes his mind about the designs and doesn’t follow the order, which has brought us no end of troubles with hard customers.”

Nowadays, there are more and more hand-made ceramic workshops in the village inspired by Đạo’s family.

"Đạo has been the first artisan to revive the traditional way of making ceramic wares after decades of neglect," admitted Đào Xuân Hùng, chairman of the Bát Tràng Commune People’s Committee.

Everyday, artisans in Bát Tràng can be found busy working. They join hands together to uphold the traditions and develop the local trade. The products are well-known in foreign markets proving the Vietnamese craftsmen’s skill and creativity. VNS

A tea pot made in Bát Tràng. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng
Absorbed: Phạm Anh Đạo loses himself at work. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng
Feeling it: Bát Tràng pottery products are made by hand. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng