Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art

Article excerpt

Dragons and lotus blossoms: Vietnamese ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art By JOHN A. STEVENSON and DONALD A. WOOD, with an essay by Philippe Truong Birmingham, AL: Museum of Art, Birmingham; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011. Pp. 263. Map, Colour plates, Bibliography. doi: 10.1017/S0022463413000787

The beautifully presented Dragons and lotus blossoms catalogue was published to accompany an exhibition of Vietnamese ceramics at Alabama's Birmingham Museum of Art. The strength of this impressive collection, which covers almost two thousand years of ceramic production, lies in the creativity and beauty of several extraordinary pieces dating from the Ly and Tran dynasties, eleventh-fourteenth centuries CE. The broad range of Tran era glaze types and decorative styles are also well represented. During the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries large quantities of ceramics were exported from Vietnam to Southeast Asia and West Asia and the exhibits on pp. 166-209 indicate the diverse decorative styles of such tradewares.

The catalogue's superb colour photographs enable the reader to fully appreciate the quality of the glazes and expressive designs of the exhibited pieces that are presented on pp. 42-237. Additional Vietnamese ceramics from the Museum's collection, which did not form part of the exhibition, are shown on pp. 238-57. On pp. 10-11 there is a chronology outlining major historical periods and a map showing the expansion of Vietnam's borders. Unfortunately, three dynasties established after Vietnam won its independence from China in the tenth century CE--Dinh, 968-80, Early Le, 980-1009 and Ly, 1010-1225--are either missing or misrepresented in this chronology.

Three essays present an excellent historical background and aesthetic appreciation of Vietnamese ceramics. John A. Stevenson explores the evolution of ceramic production in Vietnam and explains that ceramics are one of the few examples of the country's culture to have survived its turbulent past. Whilst noting Chinese cultural influences, Stevenson points out several features that make the Vietnamese ceramic tradition distinctive. Donald A. Wood's essay further examines indigenous and borrowed cultural meanings and the symbolism behind Vietnamese ceramic decoration. He states that potters derived inspiration from the natural environment and they represented not only what was important to them, but also typical aspects of their daily lives.

Philippe Truong's essay explains how archaeological research and museum collections are managed in present-day Vietnam, and he warns about the forgery of admired ceramics of the past. Both Stevenson and Truong discuss the significance of recent shipwreck discoveries, in particular the Hoi An excavation that is represented by a few exhibited pieces (pp. 192-5 and 208-9). Surprisingly, the essays omit to mention Vietnamese kiln site excavations that provide valuable information about firing methods, forms, and clay body types. Tang Ba Hoanh, in Chu Dau Ceramics published in 1999, provides significant data about a kiln site in northern Vietnam, while the Go Sanh kiln sites in Central Vietnam are well documented in the 2002 excavation report edited by Aoyagi Yoji and Hasebe Gakuji.

The ceramics exhibited in the Dragons and lotus blossoms catalogue are presented in chronological groups with a brief introduction to each section. The influence of Chinese decorative styles is highlighted where applicable and the catalogue's authors rightly hold a high regard for Chinese ceramics. Nevertheless, the comment that kiln grit on a Vietnamese bowl was a deficiency that Chinese potters would have rejected (p. 70), implies that only fine ceramics were produced in China. The Chinese imperial kilns ensured that only the highest quality wares were supplied to the emperors by destroying pieces with even minor imperfections. Yet, privately owned kilns in China and Vietnam could not afford to follow such wasteful practices and market demand sometimes meant that less than perfect ceramics were saleable. …

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