Traditional pottery in Quang Nam province

Tuesday, 2017-06-27 10:45:32
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Thanh Ha terra cotta park - an attractive destination for visitors
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NDO – Every visitor to the ancient city of Hoi An, Quang Nam province, is impressed by the rows of ancient houses with their roofs covered by moss, as well as the beautiful pottery and terra-cotta zodiac animals on the streets. However, not everyone knows that these products originate from Thanh Ha ancient pottery village.

The five-century journey of the land

Thanh Ha pottery has existed and been intensely developed for 500 years. The book entitled ‘Unified Dai Nam’, which was released under the Nguyen Dynasty, listed Thanh Ha pottery products among the ‘national native products’.

Nguyen Thi Duoc, the oldest artisan in the village, proudly stated: “I began making pottery from the age of 13 and have devoted my whole life to the career. Thanh Ha pottery is now popular around the country and abroad. The products have not cracked or crumbled for hundreds of years”. The nearly 95-year-old artisan has surprised many, who are full of admiration for her toughness and perspicacity. The wrinkled hands of the Quang Nam woman skillfully kneaded clay into a beautiful flower vase within five minutes. The pottery workshop of Duoc’s family is one of 25 workshops preserving the ancient pottery trade in Thanh Ha village.

Artisan Nguyen Thi Duoc is making pottery products.

According to history books, in the early 16th century, immigrants from Thanh Hoa and Nam Dinh provinces formed the pottery industry in Nam Dieu village (now in Thanh Ha ward). With their sophistication and durability, along with the prosperity of Hoi An trade port in the past, Thanh Ha pottery products became famous and were brought to surrounding localities (such as Thua Thien Hue and Da Nang) and exported to Japan, China and Spain. Under the Nguyen dynasty, many artisans in Thanh Ha village were invited to Hue – the capital, to join the team of skillful craftsmen building the palaces and temples. Many of them were appointed mandarins, bringing fame to the trade village.

Over the last five centuries, Thanh Ha pottery has kept its unique traditional methods, shaped by hand and on turntables without patterns, while not being enameled and being baked in traditional wood stoves.

Over the recent years, the clay source has been scarce, the villagers have had to buy the clay from Dien Ban, Duy Xuyen and Dai Loc districts, with a price of VND700,000 – VND800,000 per boat. The villagers then removed any impurities, smashed and sprinkled the clay with water, before annealing them with fine sand. After that, craftsmen molded the clay into products which would be exposed to the sun and decorated with different patterns and then put into kilns.

Especially, Thanh Ha villagers can create pottery products with different colours thanks to their experience in mixing the clay and using the temperature method, without any chemicals. Each product contains the knowledge and feelings of generations of villagers. Thanh Ha is considered as a ‘living museum’ and a valuable documentary source on traditional pottery in Vietnam in general and Hoi An in particular.

However, like many traditional trade villages, Thanh Ha pottery is currently facing many changes and is at risk of falling into oblivion. Pottery products have diminished in popularity and in addition, pottery making requires a lot of effort and time, while income from the trade is not high, and therefore, very few young villagers want to succeed the older generations. Currently, only three old artisans (all over 80 years old) in Thanh Ha village keep standard and fine pottery making techniques. Notably, all the artisans are healthy and keep their love for pottery, so they have maintained their career whilst teaching younger generations.

Preserving ancient pottery

Fortunately, despite many ups and downs, Thanh Ha pottery has not fallen into oblivion, thanks to those who have dedicated their whole lives to their homeland’s trade. Previously, villagers were manufacturing and supplying bricks and tiles for ancient houses, in addition to pottery products. However, since 2012, they have focused on preserving pottery in order to protect the landscape while sustainably developing community tourism and ecotourism. Thanh Ha pottery village, along with Kim Bong carpentry village, Cam Kim mat village and Tra Que vegetable village, formed a belt of trade villages surrounding Hoi An ancient town, which was recognised by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage.

Thanh Ha is now a trade and tourism village which has been methodically planned and managed by Hoi An city. From the money acquired through selling tickets for visiting the village, 40% has been used for trade and tourism promotion and human resources training, while 60% has been used to pay for artisans and workers serving tourism and environmental protection activities.

Currently, there are several young people paying greta attention to the pottery, creating new and impressive products. For example, Thanh Ha terra cotta park, which was designed by architect Nguyen Van Nguyen – a villager, was assessed as the largest and the most unique pottery warehouse in the country. The park was built from bricks and pottery and introduces thousands of diverse and typical products. A wide variety of exhibitions and meetings have been held at the park for artists and visitors who love graphic arts from around the country and from many countries around the world.

In addition, many young villagers, who studied and set up their business in other localities, have returned to their hometown to implement their projects in order to ‘refresh’ the traditional pottery trade, creating more craft pottery products (for interior, park and resort decoration), souvenirs (such as lanterns, masks and paintings), in addition traditional products (such as pots, jars, cups and vases).

Especially, there are also people from other localities devoting themselves to preserving and developing Thanh Ha pottery. Hanoi-based man Do Ngoc Thi Ca, the founder of Song Hoai Fine Arts Pottery Company, fell in love with the land and people of Quang Nam and spent ten years researching and restoring Thanh Ha pottery, as well as seeking the direction and market for the products from the village. He has formed numerous galleries in Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City and his company has regularly provided pottery products for hotels and resorts around the country.

Thanh Ha pottery products now have diverse colours and designs to attract more customers. However, traditional materials, techniques and methods in sculpturing, painting and colouring have created the uniqueness of the village’s pottery. Visitors to Thanh Ha village will have a chance to witness and learn the steps in the process of making pottery products.

The sixth Quang Nam Heritage Festival has taken place, featuring the participation of 33 countries and territories around the world. Thanh Ha pottery products were used and displayed at many events during the festival. On the tenth day of the seventh lunar month, Thanh Ha villagers will hold a ceremony to worship the ancestors of the local pottery trade, which is expected to attract a large number of locals and visitors.

Despite moderisation, Thanh Ha pottery villagers are determined to preserve the traditional handicraft, contributing to creating a unique cultural characteristic of the heritage land of Hoi An.

HOANG MY HANH