The beauty of broken pieces

Artisans from the Nguyen Dynasty were skilled in creating beauty from a broken piece of ceramic or porcelain.

By CAC TRUC on May 06,2018 04:51 PM

The beauty of broken pieces

Photos: CAC TRUC

The whole world admires the Japanese for their golden joinery art Kintsugi, which turns broken ceramic and porcelain pieces into art, highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of the object. There are clues that from the 11th to 13th centuries, during the Ly Dynasty (from 1010 to 1225), Vietnamese craftsmen also collected broken pieces of porcelain and kilned them into architectural decorations. The use of a beautiful piece of porcelain would not come to an end when it was damaged or broken. The craftsmen left behind an early heritage of embracing the flaws and imperfections and accepting change and fate as simply aspects of life, though at the time their skill was not considered an artform.

The decorative motifs at Emperor Khai Dinh’ tomb feature both traditional Oriental references and the Western influence he picked up on his travels. 

It began to again find favour in the 17th century, among peasants who wanted to decorate the coffins of their dead but had limited resources. It became a type of folk art, and then began to appear in royal architecture and reached its peak during the Nguyen Dynasty.

After moving the capital from Thang Long (now Hanoi) to Hue, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) had a renewed interest in ceramics and porcelain art with unique decorative motifs for the court and royal life. Talented craftsmen with skills in porcelain and ceramic joinery were chosen from different provinces around Vietnam and even given promotions to work in a government department called ‘Ne ngoa tuong cuc’, which oversaw construction works nationwide.

There are many styles of porcelain joinery that can be seen in different royal architecture: imperial citadels, monuments, palaces, and pagodas. One must visit Emperor Khai Dinh’s Mausoleum - the epitome of Vietnamese joinery art and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - to understand Vietnamese porcelain and ceramic art and the art of emphasising imperfections and turning them into artworks.

Known for his bon-vivant, ‘playboy’ manner and wanderlust, Emperor Khai Dinh (1885-1925) travelled to many places, both in Vietnam and in foreign countries. This explains his interest in various architectural styles in Vietnam as well as Gothic, Romanesque, Indian, and Buddhist styles, which can be seen clearly in his palaces, residences, and especially his tomb. Being the first Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty to travel overseas (to Marseilles, France in 1922), the 12th reigning emperor was also the very first ‘traveller’ to explore Vietnam’s pristine and picturesque nature, such as Lang Co Bay, which was recognised as one of 30 most beautiful bays in the world by the Club of the World’s Best Bays (Worldbays) in 2009. After ascending the throne in 1916, Emperor Khai Dinh chose Lang Co Bay in modern-day Thua Thien Hue province for the location of his summer palace, Tinh Viem, and Chau Chu Mountain, on the outskirts of Hue, for his ‘house after death’ - the Ung Mausoleum (Ung Lang). Though the summer palace was totally destroyed during the movement against feudalism, the mausoleum miraculously survived through war despite the fact that the emperor was very much loathed by his people due to his close collaboration with the French occupiers.

The beauty of broken pieces

Starting in September 1920, the mausoleum features ceramic joinery and took eleven years to build and was the most expensive in the history of the Nguyen Dynasty because of the complexity and sophistication of its design and materials. Climbing 109 stone steps from the foot of the mountain is one interesting way to access the mausoleum. The mountain where Emperor Khai Dinh built his mausoleum was carefully selected based on ‘feng shui’. There were hills to the left and the right of the tomb, representing ‘Dragon in the Left’ and ‘White Tiger in the Right’, to protect him. The water in the Chau E Ravine at the front was to lighten the way, while the hill behind the tomb was said to be the emperor’s pillow.

The mausoleum was home to an imperial court, featuring columned gates influenced by Indian architecture, reinforced concrete steles in the shape of stupas in the Buddhist style, a stele pavilion supported by octagonal pillars with a Romanesque-style arch, and 12 stone statues representing bodyguards in a traditional Vietnamese design. Close to the top floor was the Thien Dinh Palace, the main building and consisting of five parts attached to one another and with intricately-designed glass and porcelain decorations on the walls, where craftsmen showcased their talent, were all intricately decorated with embossments joined by glass, ceramics and porcelain, which reflected the cultural and artistic values of the dynasty, historical transition, and the emperor himself.

As one can easily see, the decorative motifs at Emperor Khai Dinh’ tomb feature both traditional Oriental references and the Western influence he picked up on his travels. The ceiling of Thien Dinh Palace was decorated with nine intricate dragons - ‘Nine Dragons Hiding in Clouds’ - painted by artisan Phan Van Tanh. The rear room is home to a temple containing Khai Dinh’s grave, an altar dedicated to him, and a statue bearing his likeness, cast in Marseilles. The front of the palace was decorated with murals of the ‘Four Seasons’ (spring, summer, autumn and winter, as represented by cedrus, bamboo, chrysanthemums and orchids), the ‘Eight Precious Objects’, including jewels, coins, open lozenges (diamond-shaped objects), a pair of books, a mirror, a jade gong, a pair of rhinoceros horns, and an artemisia leaf (associated with the granting of wishes, wealth, victory, learning, a just and upright life, happiness, good luck, the prevention of disease, and unbroken conjugal happiness, while counteracting evil influences), and ‘The Five Blessings’, including murals of spirits representing prosperity, like dragons, unicorns, turtles, paradise birds, and so on. As cut surfaces of glass and porcelain reflect light at sunset, the whole room looks as if it was embroidered in silver. The stunning view simply takes your breath away!

Inlaying these intricate glass and porcelain mosaics for imperial buildings is more complicated than anyone can imagine. The patterns and motifs are dainty and the glaze must be made by hand to ensure performance and aesthetic appearance. Craftsmen must be very careful when choosing materials, so that different colours and materials are compatible. They then honed and sharpened the pieces so that all fit together according to the sketch, like a sophisticated puzzle. As everything was made by hand from organic materials, even the stitching glue for the porcelain was made from leaves, oyster shells, honey, and limestone. It took more than just time and patience to practice joinery art, which has become one of the most significant heritage values of Hue Royal Architecture.

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