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Vietnamese blue and white 

Recent excavations in Jingdezhen has not revealed any datable piece of blue and white before A.D 1335.  Most of the finds in early A.D 1340s consisted of inscription and not motif in blue and white.  The earliest one with simple floral motif was from a tomb dated to A.D 1348.  Another example was dated to A.D 1351.  For more on Yuan Blue and white, please read this article.

The use cobalt blue on Vietnamese blue and white wares most likely took place not earlier than A.D 1350. They consisted of simple floral design that were also found on the iron-painted wares.  Apparently, the iron-painted and blue and white wares were produced simultaneously for a period of time.  Illustrated below are two examples from an unknown shipwreck in Vietnam.  The blue and white bowl has the line near the rim in iron-brown.

Majority of the late 14th/early 15th century Vietnamese blue and white consisted of wares in simple form and with simple floral or cloud like motif. There are spur marks on the inner base of bowls and plates.   The latest example with chrysanthemum scroll and cloud like motif on external wall was found in the Pandanan shipwreck which based on some Chinese blue and white wares found together, most likely dated to about A.D 1440/50. All such items came with a bright azure blue and according to Adrian Joseph the cobalt is of Middle Eastern origin.  

It is intriguing to find out how the Vietnamese potters gained the technical expertise to produce the sophisticated and technically superb blue and white wares in the late 14th/early 15th century wares. Some scholars in Vietnamese ceramics alluded to a transfer of skills through migration of Chinese potters  The neighbouring Guangdong province was cited as a possible source.  Personally I think the most possible place was potters from the Haikang and nearby region.  The jar with floral and phoenix motif illustrated earlier clearly demonstrated the sophistication of the Haikang potters.  The close similarity of the floral motif was also earlier highlighted.   Two Vietnamese vases from the Japanese collections dated to late 14th/early 15th century are of special interest.  The superb iron-painted vase showed the familiar chrysanthemum motif and the Haikang potters preference of using horizontal band and vertical lines to compartmentalise the motifs.

The most likely time that the migration of Chinese potters from Haikang and the nearby region probably took place sometime during the Ming Hongwu period.  Hongwu emperor declared a ban on foreign trade and contact during his reign.  Strict imposition of the ban took place sometime after A.D 1380.  The ban disrupted the export of porcelains and resulted in the cessation of operations of many kilns in the coastal region.  In order to maintain their livelihood, some of the potters could have found their way to Vietnam.  In the initial stage, they probably continued to produce iron-painted wares such as the above vase.  The disruption of supply of Chinese blue and white wares due to the trade ban created the opportunity for the Vietnamese potters to fill the gap.  Hence, the production of some of the late 14th century/early 15th Century blue and white wares with Yuan inspired motifs such as the above blue and white vase.

The introduction of elements from Ming blue and white may have taken place during the Ming occupation of Vietnam from A.D 1407-1427. The most clear influence seems to be in the introduction of Early Ming-shaped vessels such as the below on the right dated to A.D 1450.  Yuan decorative elements still appeared to prevail as demonstrated in the below two vessels.

Those vessels which are clearly of Yuan form are the more likely candidates for pieces dated to before A.D 1450.  Decorative elements are more complicated as a dating guide as Yuan elements are also still present in those vessels after A.D 1450.  The only tell tale sign is that they tend to be more poorly executed and appear more sketchy.  Another indication of post A.D 1450 is the the darkish blue tone used on many of the later pieces.  It must however be noted that the better pieces still have the pleasant bluish tone.

The discovery of the Hoi an shipwreck is a very important event for Vietnamese blue and white.  Generally, the dating is established as  A.D 1480 -1500.  Similar Vietnamese items were also found in the Hongzhi period Lena cargo in Palawan strait of the Philippines.  However, in the Hoi an wreck there were some Chinese blue and white that showed characteristics of Ming Interregnum period/Chenghua period. One is a bowl with waves motif on the exterior and 4 floral sprays on the internal wall.  Another is a blue glaze bowl with vajra motif on the interior. They were the belongings of the crew.  Another piece of evidence that support possible earlier dating is two Vietnamese blue and white cover boxes with floral motif in the Royal Nanhai wreck.  In the wreck there were also some Ming interregnum period blue and white items.  Please refer to this on Royal Nanhai wreck. Hence, the Hoi an items could even be dated to around A.D 1460/1470s.   The main centre of Vietnamese blue and white was in Hai Hung province with the kilns discovered in Chu Dau, Cay and nearby areas (Phuc Lao, Lang Ngoi, Hop Le and bay Thuy.  Chu Dau was identified as the source of much of the Hoi an items.  Chu Dau ceased production by early 17th century according to the article "15th-16th Century Vietnamese Blue and white Ceramic production centres" by Tang Ba Hoanh.

The peak period of Vietnamese blue and white production most likely was during the reign of Emperor Le Thang Tong (A.D 1460 - 1497) when Le Dynasty was strongest.  In the year 1471 A.D, the Le Army decisively defeated Champa in Central Vietnam.  It ensured the Le Dynasty's control over the maritime trade route along Vietnam coast.  It would definitely have a positive impact on the ceramics production and export.  

Blue and white in Vietnam History Museum

More than 250,000 items were discovered in the Hoi an wreck.  The range of decorative motifs/designs and the form of vessels is numerous.  It serves as a good reference to identify blue and white of A.D 1450-A.D 1550.  The majority are of reasonably good quality and some are really superb such as those vessels in the form of animals or human.  Attached below are photos of both category of items.

The Le throne was usurped by Mac Dang Dung in A.D 1527.    He was challenged by a movement led by the Trinh and Nguyen clans to restore the Le Dynasty.  The period of instability adversely affected the ceramics industry.  It most likely suffered and declined during the ensuing period of civil war after 1527 A.D.  During the 16th Century, Chinese blue and white also appeared to capture quite a big share of the Vietnamese market.  A good indication was numerous Ming blue and white of Jiajing to Wanli/Tianqi period  (about A.D 1550 onward) that were found in graves in provinces near Hanoi.  Comparatively,  Ming blue and white found in Vietnam  dated earlier than than Jiajing is  much less.

The actual features of late 16th century and later Vietnamese blue and white wares is relatively unknown and not well researched.  However, base on what was available in the Vietnamese  antique market, it is quite clear that the blue and white  motifs were greatly influence by those found on Chinese blue and white.  They are more thinly potted and with glazed outer base.  Some even carried Ming reign mark or some marks similar to those found on Jingdezehn blue and white of the late 17th/18th century.  Although based on some ancient records, Bat trang was known to produce ceramics  at least since the 15th century.  However, so far archaeological findings appear to indicate that the products were mainly from the 17th century onward.  The wares  are characterised by a glaze which is often crackled.  Bat trang till today is still an important porcelain production centre.

Mid/Late 16th Century blue and white plates.  The motif became more sketchy and abstract.


Example later than the Hoi an wreck.  Probably dated to 2nd half of 16th Century.  Comparatively the quality of the drawing has deteriorated and appeared more sketchy.

16th Century blue and white with human motif.

Blue and white vase dated 1580 A.D

Blue and white vase dated 17th century


Late 16th/17th Cent. Vietnamese blue and white plates.  Stylistically the abstract scrolls and a Chinese charater at the central base, are similar to those plates produced in China Guangdong and Fujian kilns


Example  dated to 2nd half of 17th century.  It has a Xuande Nianzhi mark.  The motif is chinese inspired.  The paste has a light yellowish tone which is typically Vietnamese and the bowl was fired at lower  temperature and glaze shows fine crackles


Example  dated to 18th century.  Similar motif could be found in Chinese blue and white from Jingdezhen and dehua.  It also carried similar square mark at the base. The paste has a light yellowish tone which is typically Vietnamese and the bowl was fired at  lower  temperature and glaze shows fine crackles


Blue and white Jar dated  19th century

Two examples  of vessels dated to late 19th to early 20th century


Vietnamese enamelled wares

The earliest blue and white with overglaze enamelled motif was first produced in China during the Xuande period.  However, it only gained popularity during the Ming Chenghua period (A.D 1465 - 1488) in the form of Chenghua Doucai, ie essentially motif outlined in blue and the area within covered with overglaze enamels.   Most of the Vietnamese enamelled wares are likely to date to second half 15th century to first half of 16th Century.  The Vietnamese version has its own distinct character.  Instead of covering the area within the blue outline with a even coat of enamel, the Vietnamese potter drew additional details in line form with overglaze enamels.

The Hoi an shipwreck also carried a substantial portion of such wares.  Unfortunately, the overglaze enamels of majority of the pieces were badly degraded by the sea water.



Brown glaze inlaid and Iron-brown painted wares 

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Vietnamese white/Qingbai/brown/celadon wares of 12th/14th Century

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Written by : NK Koh (Updated 29 Nov 2010)


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