Pottery is one of the markers of ‘civilisation’. With archeological examples dating back to B.C. 3,600, Thailand’s pottery traditions are amongst the oldest in the world. Over the years clear regional styles developed, with the quality of the products largely dependent on the types of clay found in the area.
Ceramics traditions also crossed borders: with the migrations of people and as a commodity across the region. For example, King Ramkamhaeng (1279-1298) brought potters from China to set up the now-famous Sukhothai kiln, and 600 to 800 more kilns were built around the region using the imported technology during the Sukothai period.
Today many of the small cottage industries in the Thai ceramics business make Chinese-style pottery, with one of the most popular being the ‘blue and white’ under-glazed porcelain, sometimes called ‘Ming’ porcelain (although the style originated in the earlier (1127 – 1279) Yuan dynasty).
Over the last fifteen years, Thai ceramics producers have repositioned themselves to become significant international exporters. They have used the quality of their products to compete favourably against regional rivals (China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia) in the the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and United Kingdom markets.
In addition to the popular blue and white pottery, Thailand is famous for its celadon: high-fired stonewares with the distinctively crackled feldspathic and wood-ash glazes. The traces of iron in the clay, or in the glaze formulation itself, give celadon its characteristic colours: greens that are almost-white, subtly grayed, honey yellow, brown, rich Jade or olive.
Benjarong, another traditional Thai porcelain, has its roots in the Ming dynasty style of painting enamels onto a white porcelain base. The Thai name ‘Benjarong’ is from the Pali and Sanskrit words Benja and Rong, meaning ‘Five Colours’, and is descriptive: five enamel colours (red, white, yellow, black and green) are most commonly used, although some Benjarong patterns use only three colours, while others have as many as eight. Gold is liberally featured and the intricately repeated patterns are applied much more thickly than in the earlier Chinese examples, giving a highly textured finish.
Last month I was able to visit two porcelain factory outlets close to Bangkok for a small glimpse of the quality and range of Thai ceramic products. I was travelling with a group of women from ANZWG (the Australian New Zealand Women’s Group), and so we were invited ‘backstage’. “If they had shown us the workroom first, I would have appreciated the pieces even more!” exclaimed one of the women as we watched the men at work. For while the kilns and potters’ wheels might be greatly improved over what they were a thousand years ago, much of the process of creating beautiful ceramics has remained unchanged. Every piece is painstakingly painted by hand – a fact that is NOT, by Western standards, reflected in the local selling prices.
Sitting on our balcony later that evening, watching the storm clouds rolling in over a city of shiny ceramic-glazed high rise buildings, I couldn’t help but think about how ceramics define modern ‘civilisation’ – being used for everything from teeth to tiles, from car parts to communications, from everyday kitchen products to aerospace. At the same time, Thai pottery traditions continue to evolve as they have for six thousand years.
Blue and white ceramics are like a symbolic bridge between the past and the future.
And, an example of the time and effort that goes into things of beauty.