Vietnamese ancient pottery


The thematic gallery “Vietnamese Ancient Pottery” at the Vietnam National Museum of History (*) transportsvisitors to the world of Vietnamese people 4,000 years ago. At that time, ancient Vietnamese people kneaded clay into statues inspired from themselves and surrounding animals. Those statuesare connected toprayer, beliefs and legends.

The oldest piecesof Vietnamese sculpture art arestone and pottery statues of the Phung Nguyen culture. The first statue of Mr. Van Dien (4,000 years ago) expresses the belief in fertility: the statue is reproduced based on a real person with head, leg, eyes and nose. Especially, the statue emphasizes the genitalswith asize 10 times bigger than normal. Reproduction and proliferation were key to these ancient people.

At that time, peoplealso moldedpottery statues of cattle and poultry seen around the paddy fields and the stilt-houses.  This allows us to know animals were domesticated a long time ago: cows are hunchbacked with sharp horns, chickens have high necks, sharp beaks and curved tails.

Somewhat later, long before the ancients casted kettledrums and bronze statues, human’s and many animals’ shapes such as elephants, tigers, panthers, snakes, dogs, and turtles were carved.At that time, farmers who could not afford to cast bronze statues shaped pottery statues of humans and animals although it was asmaller number than bronze statues.


Up to the Ly Tran Dynasty,Vietnamese people continued learning to select better materials to use as clay and tobake it in high-temperature kilns. They created more statues from porousceramics, faience, glazed ceramics, and porcelain with many beautiful and famous glazes of turquoise, brown, whiteenamel, mosaic and blue pattern. Visitors to the gallery can see the statues of Li Bai being drunk, a cat, an elephant, a couple of tigers, a lion and a human-headed snake.

Looking at statues, it is possible to imagine the true image of people at that time: women with pigtails anderrand-boys with two peach-shaped buns. The statues of “three abundances” also show the concepts of success in the past: Happiness – Riches – Longevity.

Animal statues are more common, are more lively and diverse. You can see ceramic statues of two pigs withlong snouts, kneeling down, with eyes and ears clearly visible. A brown-glazed pottery statue of a cat withbig round eyes and prickedears is amusing. The brown-crackleware glazed statues of a pair of tigers made during the reign ofLe Trung Hung were produced in Bat Trang. The tiger statues appear lively in the act of catching their prey. The brown-glazed lion of the Ly – Tran dynasty has a big nose, wide mouth and twistingpatterned mane. Beside the big lion statue is ayoung lion statue made from pottery with a white glaze and brown pattern.Indeed, young lion statues are quite popular and appear to be more of a symbol of beliefs rather than simply a lion. It is a specialanimalwhich combines the features of a lion and a dog and is widely worshiped in Vietnam, and often seen at village gates.

A beautiful, unique and stylish type of statue from theDong Son culture is now called a practical statue. People in the past used statues as religious items in daily use. Thus, to some extent, the secondary role was as decoration. However, from another aspect, items themselves beautified the statues. The ancients paid much attention to thesetypes of statues to make their form blend seamlessly with those daily items.


A typical exampleof this sort of statue is a phoenix-shaped pitcher made from turquoise glazed pottery. The body of the phoenix forms the body of the pitcher. The artisan has created a standing phoenix with a pliantly curved crest and tail.

A pair of hanging pitchers made from Bat Trang grey glazed ceramics, transform into a pair of fish with wide mouths to form the mouth of the pitcher. Some water pots andwine pitchers also have the shape of a bird. The concept of a pair of birds attached byflowers to the body of the hanging vase derives from Cay Mai pottery-kiln in Sai Gon before.

Some other animals such as horses, elephants or a young lion become the inspirationfor creating pitchers or flowerpots. A lying lion statue made from turquoise-glazed white porcelain can be used as a paperweight. Small pottery vases are often created based on the shapes of toads, turtles, a couple of ducks, or fish.

Forthis exhibition, the Vietnam National Museum of History introduces a collection of pottery statues servingreligions and beliefs. It containsBuddhaterracotta statues of the Ly – Tran dynasty, the brown-glazed or white-glazed pottery statues of the Great Buddha, Buddhist monks from 11th to 13th centuries, astatue of Bodhisattva in the Nguyen dynasty, a crackleware Diamond statue from the Le Trung Hung reign produced in Bat Trang pottery-kiln. Visitors have a chance to admire a crackleware pottery statue of Maitreya Buddha made during the Le Trung Hung reign. The statue,with its big ears and big face,sits with shirt open to reveal his big belly. Maitreya Buddha shows the concept about comfort inBuddhism. This theme is quite popular in Vietnamese pagodas. In folklore, he is the Buddha “fasting to wear”, and opposite with Tuyet Son Buddha who “abstains from clothes to eat”.


With about 70 pottery statues of different eras anddifferent types, the exhibition helpsvisitors understand more about the pottery statue heritage which has until now received little attention. There are not only beautiful and artful statues but also a rich historical document repository that historians, ethnographers, artists and historical film-makers can exploit in the long-term.

Further information:

 (*) The thematic exhibition “Vietnamese Ancient Pottery” takes place at Vietnam National Museum of History (25 Tong Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) until August, 2014.

From Internet