Saturday, June 10, 2017

Origins of Namban pottery: Hội An, Vietnam

I was aware of Namban pottery for a long time, but since my trip to Japan in 2015 this interest became deeper. This fascination arose from the fact that Namban’s origins are shrouded in mystery and I am a person who likes to get to the bottom of things. The best explanation of Namban origins I found so far is here

South-East Asia has always been a suspect provenance of Namban pottery and last year, I made a Namban discovery of my own, while traveling in Vietnam. During a visit to the Museum of Folk Culture in Hội An, I came across of a ceramic piece that simply “screamed” Namban at me (see image below left). For comparison, the image below right is a contemporary piece of similar shape and size made by a renowned Japanese potter Yukizyou Nakano also known as “Gyozan”.

I learned at the museum that the pot has been made in the Thanh Hà village near Hội An. Potters of Thanh Hà village have been making functional low-fired unglazed pottery since the beginning of the 17th century. Nguyen Dynasty records of the time tell us that their wares have been transported by river to the nearby commercial port of Hoi An and from there exported to the coastal provinces of Central Vietnam and abroad. All this got me thinking and I realised that six historical occurrences took place at the same time, all of them at the beginning of the 17th century. Here they are:

1. Potters settle in Thanh Hà village near Hội An in Vietnam.
2. Hội An becomes the most important trade port in the East Vietnam Sea.
3. Tokugawa Ieyasu issues permits to Japanese merchants to trade with Vietnam.
4. A thriving Japanese trading settlement springs up in Hội An.
5. Increasing demand for rustic and unassuming ceramics for tea ceremony in Japan.
6. Earliest Namban pottery appears in Japan.

When the facts line up like that, Vietnamese provenance of some of the early Namban ceramics becomes quite plausible. I could also add here that the oldest extant Vietnamese ceramics have been found in Japan, in a tomb at Dazaifu and they date back to 1330. Vietnamese ceramics made in the 15th and 16th centuries also have been found in Okinawa, Nagasaki, Hakata, Osaka, Sakai and Hiroshima.

One architectural remainder of the former Japanese presence in Hội An is the Japanese Bridge. At the beginning of the 17th century Japanese merchants in Hội An were influential enough to build this bridge across the river to trade with the local residents (see the images below).

As a more general afterthought, I would like to finish this post with a photo of a lidded jar I saw in Vietnam and I hope you see the connection with the topic of this post. Lids of such jars were converted into bonsai containers known today as Namban.