Chu Dau pottery - the journey to maintain Vietnamese cultural quintessence

Tuesday, 2018-11-06 16:46:06
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Artisan Ha Ba Dinh draws motifs on Chu Dau ceramic pottery. (Photo: NDO/Dang Anh)
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NDO – Chu Dau pottery (Nam Sach district, in the northern province of Hai Duong) is among the elite Vietnamese pottery genres, flourishing from the 14th to the 17th centuries. After more than 300 years of waning in popularity, Chu Dau is now reviving strongly, becoming a valuable handicraft item on both the domestic and international markets.

Seeking the origin of the ancient pottery genre

More than 30 years ago, it seemed unlikely that Chu Dau village (Thai Tan commune, Nam Sach district) - a tranquil village on the left bank of Thai Binh River, where locals earned their living by weaving shichitoi mats and agricultural production, was associated with a pottery genre that had a brilliant development history.

The trace of the ancient pottery village was discovered by accident. In 1980, Makato Anabuki, former Secretary of the Embassy of Japan in Vietnam, on a business trip to Turkey, saw a 54cm tall blue ceramic pot displayed at the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul. On the jar were written ancient Chinese words saying: "The eight Thai Hoa Year (in 1450), made by a potter of the Bui family, from Nam Sach district.” The vase is a national treasure of Turkey and covered by an insurance contract worth millions of US dollars.

Makato Anabuki then sent a letter to Ngo Duy Dong, Secretary of Hai Hung provincial Party Committee (Hai Hung then divided into Hai Duong and Hung Yen provinces as today) to verify whether the pottery had originated from any local pottery villages. This information helped the authorities concerned to seek and collect the traces of Chu Dau ancient pottery village.

In April 1986, Hai Hung province’s Department of Culture and Information excavated the relic site. After eight excavations on an area of ​​70,000 m2 in Chu Dau village, Thai Tan commune and Minh Tan commune, archaeologists discovered multiple ancient ceramic artifacts, with more than 100 underground pottery oven bottoms. The findings affirmed that Chu Dau was a high-grade pottery producing location from the 14th to 17th centuries.

According to scientists, when the Trinh-Mac Civil War broke out, the Nam Sach region, including the Chu Dau pottery village had been destroyed. Local artisans were forced to travel to other regions, establishing new pottery villages. Then, in 1993 and 1997, Chu Dau potteries were found on a shipwreck offshore of the Philippines and Cu Lao Cham islet in Vietnam’s central province of Quang Nam province. More than 240,000 artifacts were salvaged, most of which were Chu Dau ceramics, showing that Chu Dau ceramics not only flourished in Vietnam, but were exported to many foreign countries at that time.

Chu Dau pottery is rated as an elite ceramic genre, which is "thin as paper, pure as jade, white as ivory, and sounds like bell ringing". All of its appearance, enamel, motifs and decorative patterns exemplify the Vietnamese cultural essence very closely and also bear the traditional values, beliefs, philosophy and spirit of the Vietnamese people from the ancient period. The patterns on Chu Dau pottery are highly artistic, depicting the natural scenery and life of the Red River delta inhabitants, such as the herds-man with buffaloes, birds sitting on flowers, fish in the water, and roofs by the rivers.

The manufacturing method of Chu Dau reached a high level, which is, making raw ceramic on a turntable, before the product is separated into several stages and reassembled in later processes. The products are shown on white glaze, green enamel, or “tam thai” enamel (painted in the three colours of green, red and yellow glaze). Currently, 46 museums around the world have Chu Dau ceramic artifacts on display.

Revitalisation and strong growth

Recognising the significance and value of Chu Dau pottery, the Nam Hanoi Production, Import and Export Service Company (now the Hanoi Trade Joint Stock Corporation (Hapro) - a member of the BRG Group) decided to set up a pottery production facility to restore the ancient ceramic genre that was lost hundreds of years ago, developing it into a high-end ceramic brand to be consumed in both domestic and export markets, while turning this countryside into a tourist village. With the support of the local government and people, in October 2001, Chu Dau Pottery Enterprise (now Chu Dau Ceramic Joint Stock Company) was established. The 33,250 m2 production base was built on the foundation of the ancient pottery village.

Director of Chu Dau Pottery JSC, Nguyen Huu Thuc, said that the unit has invited artists from Hanoi, Binh Duong province, Bien Hoa city (Dong Nai province) and Hai Duong province to study the characteristics of Chu Dau pottery, and then instruct the local potters. Hundreds of workers, mainly local people, have been recruited for training. Most of the young workers at that time have now become skilled potters and many of them have been honoured as Artisans. Employees have been treated with a good working environment, accompanied with support policies to assure them in dedicating themselves to the work and remaining close to the unit.

In order to create high-quality products with typical artistic values, the company has focused on reproducing ancient, valuable and unique ceramic samples, which are stored in 46 museums in 32 countries around the world. Meanwhile, it has developed new product lines with designs suitable to consumers' tastes. At present, the unit focuses on producing and trading the main product lines, including worshiping ceramics, high-grade gift items, ceramic products for interior display and exports, and household ceramic products. In particular, the line of high-grade gold-lining ceramic products has a high average growth rate of 25% per year.

In addition, the company has strengthened the trade promotion and market expansion for both domestic and export markets. From the first batch of Chu Dau ceramics exported to Spain in May 2003, the company's products have been exported to more than 20 countries in the world and expanded into other provinces and cities across Vietnam. Chu Dau pottery has been chosen as gifts for heads of state in multiple major diplomatic events hosted in the country, or accompanied Vietnamese leaders when they travelled abroad, contributing to promoting the Vietnamese culture to the world.

Not only focusing on promoting production and business operation, the company’s showrooms and workshops have also become an attractive place for tourists and students to experience the process of making pottery. In recent years, on average, the facility has received more than 20,000 visitors each year to visit and shop. Thanks to these achievements, the company has created stable jobs for hundreds of local workers with a high income, while fulfilling its responsibility in contributing to the State budget, as well as helping promote the development of the local countryside.

In the coming years, Chu Dau Ceramics JSC will intensify its trade promotion and market expansion for their products in both domestic and export markets. In order to improve the quality of Chu Dau products and create new products to meet the needs of the market, the company will restore the ancient models and enamels with sophisticated patterns and high artistic values to create sets that bear the characteristics of the prototype versions.

Furthermore, it will continuously promote the brand, in addition to establishing links between tourism and culture with the traditional handicraft village, making Chu Dau pottery become a major export item of Hapro, with a firm foothold in the domestic market, thus contributing to the promotion of Vietnamese culture.

With the efforts to revive and develop the Chu Dau high-class pottery bearing the typical Vietnamese cultural identities, in early 2018, the Chu Dau Pottery JSC was granted by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc with honoured words: "Chu Dau pottery - Vietnamese identity, shining across the five continents”.

BRG Group Chairperson cum Head of the Board of Directors at Hapro, Nguyen Thi Nga, said that after becoming a member of BRG Group, Hapro will continue to promote its role as an economic and commercial enterprise to contribute to the economic development of Hanoi. By 2020, it strives to expand its export market to 80 countries and territories around the world, while developing the Hapro Export brand in association with the BRG Export brand.

In the development orientation after its equitisation, Hapro continues to promote Hapro's exports of key agricultural products, foodstuffs and handicrafts, in which the focus is on Chu Dau ceramics - one of the most special items of the business. In recent years, Chu Dau ceramics has had a strong foothold in the domestic market. In the near future, Hapro will focus on developing this product into a key handicraft product in the international market, contributing to the promotion of the Vietnamese cultural quintessence to the world.

MAI HOA