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Bat trang pottery village

Bat trang, an acient traditional craft village well-known for ceramic items, located on the left bank of the Red river, about 15 km southeast of Hanoi. Originally named Bach Tho, Bat trang village has a story of more than 5 hundred years of ceramics making, producing goods ranging from daily- use implements to royal utensils, from every day gifts to presentations offered to foreign dignitaries. Today, Bat trang ceramic are treasured in local and overseas museums as well as in private collections. Every household in the Red river delta has at least one Bat trang ceramic item among its belongings, be it an incense burner, a tea set, rice bowls, a flower vase or a bonsai pot. The villages’name, which can be translated as a ‘the bowl making village’ or ‘ 100 kilns village’ has been memorialized in folk ballads by young men who would promise to build their lovers houses made of Bat trang bricks.

History of Bat trang village.

Vietnam has long history of ceramic production, dating back 10,000 years to the Hoabinh culture ( Neolithic era ). Terra cotta wares emerged first, with brown-glazed ceramics following. Before the end of  the 4th century, Bat trang had already achieved fame for its glazes. The earliest was a glossy ivory- white glaze. Followed later by cobalt blue and three- color glaze.

Popular sources date the Battrang ceramic tradition to the Ly dynasty in the early 12th century. The annals of families such as Tran, Le, Pham and others acknowledge that their ancestors migrated from Bo tat an area with long tradition of ceramic of making, with the first wave of migration taking place under Ly dynasty (1011 – 1225)

In 1010, when the Ly Thai To King transferred the capital from Hoa Lu ( Ninh binh province ) to Thang long ( present day Hanoi). At that time, Bat trang, known for 72 hills of white clay suitable for ceramic production, was in a prime location to supply raw materials and finished products to this important market.

In the early Le dynasty (1435), Bat trang provided 70 sets of dishes and bowls in tribute to the Chinese Emperor This indicates that Bat trang pottery must have been quite sophisticated by that time. More recently, the discovery of a shipwreck off the coast of Camau with Battrang blue-glaze ceramics dates the export of these wares to the 14th and 15th centuries.

In 1371, China’s Ming dynasty announced a policy that prohibited overseas trade. This effectively limited the export of the famous Chinese ceramic wares, thus creating wider market opportunities for Vietnamese ceramics in the South East Asia. The 15th – 17th centuries saw the strong development of Vietnamese ceramic export wares with two important production centers in the North: Bat trang & Chu Dau. Bat trang convenient location on the Red river between Thang Long & Pho hien, a gateway to the outside world, ensured its prosperity.

The most famous blue and white patterned ceramics were produced from 15th – 18th centuries at Bat trang and other places. These ceramic villages were located near white clay mines along the rivers, which was convenient for transporting materials, fuel and products. These ceramics represent a high point in Vietnamese decorative art. The motifs are somewhat stylized.

Crackled glaze ceramics first appeared in Bat trang at the beginning of the 17th century. An incense burner and lamp stand bearing the date of production have been unearthed in Bat trang. Crackled glaze products are used mainly for religious objects, such as candlesticks, incense burners, and statues. Crackled glaze ceramics represent an important contribution to the development of Vietnamese ceramic art.

In the 14th century, the quality of Bat trang ceramics improved after Chinese techniques were imported to the village. Legend has it that three men who were on a diplomatic mission to the China were delayed by bad weather on their return trip. Taking refuge in Guangdong, they visited a famous ceramic kiln and studied Chinese ceramic production techniques. Each then passed on what he had learned. One of them. Hua Vinh Kieu taught the people in Bat trang how to make the white glaze.

Although there are as yet no traces of kilns from the 16th to 18th and the beginning 19th century, pottery- making declined. Many ceramic export centers collapsed due to a flood of Chinese wares. Bat trang, however, was able to survive because it catered to a large domestic market with the production of utilitarian, devotional, decorative and construction wares needed by all social strata.

Today, in addition to individual family kilns, Bat trang is now home to several trading companies acting as agents, hiring households to produce ceramics according to certain designs and exporting the finished products.

In 1958, during an excavation of the Bac Hung Hai canal, vestiges of the village were discovered some 12 -13 m deep underground. The western side, which faces  the river. Is now sustaining sever soil erosion. Future archaeological excavations may reveal more clearly the depth of Bat trang’s history lying beneath alluvial deposits.

What makes Bat trang and its ceramic so special ?

Bat trang’s fame grew mainly out of the special features of its ceramic: The use of white clay; the harmonious and original shapes; white, cobalt blue and white, and three- coloured glazes; and the patterns of it products, particularly devotional wares. Ceramic with crackled glaze are also a Bat trang specialty.

In contrast to the Chinese style of ceramics with its sophisticated technique and designs and insistence on perfection, the Bat trang ceramics have more free flowing designs. They are useful as well as purely decorative. Bat trang ceramic are warm, friendly, well- used and well loved.

In a wider context, Bat trang village can be considered a typical case in the development of Vietnam’s traditional craft villages.. According to the recent statistics, there are approximately 1,400 craft villages in the whole country . In each village, between 600 and 700 households are typically involved in a particular craft. As such, craft villages make a positive contribution to employment and income generation for the residents of each village and beyond. The experience of Bat trang in applying new technologies to further enhance development objectives as model for other craft villages throughout the country .

The pottery- Making process.( four phases are decisive in the making process )

1.Clay preparation

Ceramic centers such as Battrang were closely associated with the location of suitable sources of clay. Once Bat trang’s white clay reserves. Being on the bank of the Red river meant by boat from the delta region to Bat trang.

Today, clay is transported by road mainly from Hai phong to Bat trang and goes in blocks to a processing centre where it is put into tumblers with water, quartz stones ( to facilitate the disintegration process) and the right proportions of kaolin, depending on the potters’ requirements. Clay & kaolin are complementary in nature and are blended to achieve a more practical, workable clay body. The tumbles are operated over 48 hours. A combination of sodium silicate are soda ash is added to the mixture to make a smooth-flowing liquid suspension and the “casting slip” (used to pour into molds) is brought out ready for use in big drums taken to the various production areas. Clay for hand- shaping or throwing on the wheel is prepared manually and undergoes as process as settling to achieve the right degree of plasticity and stiffness.

2.Shaping

The traditional shaping method used in Bat trang was the potter’s wheel. Either the clay was formed on the potter’s wheel directly by hand or created by building layers of clay coils on the wheel. Now, few potters in Bat trang still process these skills, although wheels are used to smooth and trim pots that have been formed in molds.

Applique molding, the joining of various components together to complete on object, is a method that requires a high level of technical efficiency and artistic competence . Once a common practice , this type of production has mostly been replaced by the use of plaster of Paris molds that are modeled from a prototype.

The production of object using a pressing mold has been implemented to satisfy the needs of mass production and standardization. A mold is made of plaster of Paris and wood and is secured to the center of a wheel. The clay is thrown into the mold and pressed against the sides. As the wheel turns, a lever presses down into the mold and object is formed.

An other type of mold in widespread use in Bat trang is also made of plaster of Paris. These molds range from simple construction( only two parts) to complicated ( with several sections) , depending on the shape and size of the objects being made. This type of mold is used with a liquid clay mixture. The prototype is made in an exact replica of the object, but is from 15% to 17% larger, to allow for clay mixture is poured into the molds where a layer forms on the inside walls. The excess liquid clay is poured off. The different sections are then attached to one another. This allows for quick and simple mass production of identical objects.

In the past, the wares were left to dry in a well-ventilated area, but now some potteries use the kiln for drying to speed up the process.

Objects and statues produced for religious purposes are often embossed using an appliqué process to produce designs in relief. The molded designs are stuck on with wet clay, trimmed and corrected. Other designs are etched into the wet clay using carving tools.

Correcting, trimming and the addition of spouts and handles are done with or without a wheel.

3.Glazing

Glaze is used to decorate pottery and to make it durable and non-porous. It is glazing that brings life and beauty to an item or even simple form, and the process requires both technical and artistic abilities. With centuries of history behind them, Bat trang potters demonstrate a high level of proficiency and variation in glazing.

The glazes are applied on dry clay before the firing process. The high temperatures in the kiln cause the glaze to melt, the colors appear through chemical changes and the pieces achieve a hard, non- porous and often shiny surface. More and more ceramic- makers fire their raw wares first (‘bisque- firing’ at 700 oC) before applying glazes in order to achieve the patina and glaze color required. Flaws occur more frequently in once-fired than in twice-fired wares.

The first glossy white glaze had three main components: white clay, baked lime and rice husk ash. From 14th century onwards. Bat trang potters developed the blue glaze. This glaze is made from ground red rock ( cobalt oxide ) that changes color at 1200 oC, a temperature that could be achieved in the ‘frog’ and ‘toad’ kilns. The designs are painted on using a fine hairbrush, the amount of colour applied giving depth to the designs.

A high level of skill is needed to produce these hand- painted designs, and Bat trang is famed for its fine freestyle decorations. The decorative design is drawn directly on to the rough clay and so can not be rubbed out . Then the glaze is applied on top. This type of work is called ‘underglazed decoration’. Blue-and-white utilitarian pieces are decorated with flowers, birds, fish and dragons, phoenixes, tortoises and unicorns.

Crackled glaze came early to Vietnam, and Bat trang made a major contribution in developing it in the 17th century. The crackled appearance is achieved by using glazes that crack uniformly during the firing process. This glaze is not used for utilitarian pieces because the surface is not sealed and food flavors would soak in the clay.

4.Firing

The success or failure of the firing is the most important element in the production process. The control of the fire by gradually increasing the temperature to the maximum level, and the cooling once the firing process is over are the keys to success.

No ancient kilns have yet been excavated in Bat trang but it is assumed that there were probably several kinds of kilns used. The earliest ceramic kilns were the Lo Ech (frog kiln) and Lo Coc (toad kiln), which were up to 7 meters long and sometimes dug into the hill. They were usually quite narrow and low. Lo Dan, a later development is long kiln with chambers divided into sections. It could attain high temperature, a necessary when fine blue and white wares became popular. One style of Lo Dan is the huge LORONG ( dragon or gourd skiln). It has bowl-shaped chambers like overlapping clam shells( one of these last dragon kiln has been preserved in the HAMICO compound).

Some 30 years ago,the Lo Hop ( vertical narrow box kiln) made their appearance in Bat trang within almost every home. These inexpensive family kilns became extremely popular, when large companies were struggling economically to fill up the dragon kilns. The box kilns are still used extensively in the old quarter.

The clay pieces are stacked in the kiln, protected by round saggars and fired with the help of charcoal patties. These patties, which festoon the walls of the old village and the interior of the kilns, are made by hand to dry on the warm interior and exterior kiln walls. Patties on the inside kiln walls burn during the firing process at the same time as those stacked in empty spaces around the saggars.

With forest depletion and environmental concerns mounting, wood and coal are being slowly phased out and modern gas-fired kilns, though more expensive to set up, are taking their place. The heat generated is more even can be more easily controlled and reach higher quality of wares. The new kilns produce little pollution and thus provide better working conditions for the artisans and a cleaner environment for the whole community.

A more recent version of the gas kiln is “ in closed circuit”. Instead of getting into the atmosphere, the heat generated by the firing process in returned to a special chamber to dry the items. This feature is not only environment- friendly but is particularly appreciated in the  winter months when the high humidity levels affect the drying process.

After coming out of the kilns, the products are trimmed, smoothed, checked for quality, and packed for transport.

Sources : Bat trang traditional pottery village . Published by  Thegioi publisher

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