Thai Stoneware and Celadon
Stoneware in Thailand is not just a product line that is made to attract the millions of visitors to the country each year. It is an important part of Thai culture that has a unique history unto itself, and along with earthenware it is representative of the life pattens of the entire Southeast Asian region.
Since the 10th century, stoneware has been common to the various cultures of Thailand and has been one of the main container materials. Large water jugs used in every Thai house, cooking pots and storage bins, and even utensils are the most obvious examples, but purely decorative stoneware vases and bowls have also been an important part of Thai life.
Since the 13th century, the more decorative glazed stoneware has been most popular and although there was a long period during which stoneware crafts were not made, the Thais continued to rely on it for most of their daily needs. Even today, unlike so many peoples who have given up this type of traditional container, the Thais in their agricultural setting have found that stoneware still accommodates their needs.
The development of stoneware in Thailand was the result of a combination of cultures at different periods in history. While earthenware was the most common pottery during the pre-Thai Mon Dvaravati and Mon Haripoonshai Kingdoms in the 7th to 11th centuries, stoneware was a specialized craft in the Khorm Angkor Kingdom from the 8th century onwards and the craft of glazed stoneware began to appear in Thailand in the 10th century.
When the Thais began to rule the area in the 13th century, stoneware had already been an important craft in the ancient city of Si Satchanalai for 300 years. In the 13th century production methods and designs were greatly improved in Si Satchanalai and the craft was further established in the Thai capital of Sukhothai. By the 14th century the art of glazed stoneware making was extended to Chiangmai and the Lanna Kingdom.
The glazed stoneware that Thailand became most famous for at a very early date was celadon, the green-glazed type known so well today. Celadon was an original product of China and the green glaze was popular because it simulated the green of jade, the most auspicious of Chinese colors and materials.
In the second half of the 13th century, when the Thai kingdoms of Chiangmai and Phayao were united under King Ramkhamhaeng at Sukhothai, a broad, all-encompassing agreement was reached between Mongol China and the new Thai Kingdom which included the transfer of stoneware crafting techniques and equipment. This contributed to the expansion of the Thai celadon industry and it developed into a more refined art.
From this time onward much more elaborate and decorative celadon temple structures and fittings as well as sculpted mythical figures out of Buddhist and Hindu mythology were made in Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai. At the same time, the Thais added their own unique touches to the smaller decorative pieces and the authentic wholly Thai motifs began to form.
By the 15th century, China was in the midst of one of its recurrent closures to the outside world, and with Chinese makers being forbidden to sell abroad Thai celadon became a much sought after product throughout Asia. By this time, Chiangmai had become a major production center and had evolved into an artistic center in its own right. Glazed stoneware production in Thailand increased dramatically and continued on through the mid-16th century when the Burmese invasions brought the industry to a halt.
In keeping with the times, the Burmese conquest of Thailand allowed them to capture all Thai artisans and take them to Burma as slaves. When this was done, many of the Thai arts disappeared forever, but celadon was vigorously picked up by the Burmese and the tradition was continued.
The Thais finally ousted the Burmese in a series of long battles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and at the beginning of the 20th century groups of Tai Yai celadon craftsmen from the Shan States of Burma brought the craft back to Thailand with their immigration to the Chiangmai area.
Chiangmai's celadon kilns as they were developed in the early 20th century were based on the kiln sites at the ancient city of Si Satchanalai. From the beginning, the purpose of the Tai-Yai artisans was to use the ancient methods to make glazed stoneware that would connote the same authenticity and excellent craft of the 14th and 15th century celadon.
They built their production process around clay material sourcing from nearby quarries, the ancient clay preparation method of using a pug-mill to remove air pockets, and the two Si Satchanalai shaping methods: hand-shaping and wheel-throwing. In addition, they reconstructed the ancient brick kilns which were tunnel-shaped and had rear chimneys, and they applied all glazing by hand thus giving the celadon a natural uneven finish.
These old production methods are still used at the kilns in Chiangmai today, but certain modern features have been added. One is the use of machines and moulds for flat pieces such as plates and complex pieces such as sculptures. These were seen by the makers as a necessary modern aspect to meet demands of customer orders and to meet commercial standards in some product lines. It is so characteristic of the Chiangmai artisans now that they explain this with a bit of an apologetic tone, clearly indicating how valuable they regard their ancient craft to be.
In the broad span of time that Thailand's glazed stoneware has been crafted, first in Si Satchanalai and then in Chiangmai, quality and workmanship as well as a natural glaze finish have been maintained. Today, glazed wares in the celadon green and in brown, blue, black and white are an extension of the ancient craft.
Ten centuries of artistic development has altered the product in only the most positive ways. Even a 350-year hiatus to Burma did nothing but bring about the reinstitution of the ancient craft in Thailand, and throughout this entire historic period the Thai sensitivity to artistic warmth and proven traditions in authentic Thai celadon have never lost their unique flavor and unusual vitality.
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