Glazed ceramics of Northern Thailand by a Chiang Mai historian

J.C.Shaw examines the history of ceramics in Northern Thailand with an enthusiast's eye.

By | Fri 23 Nov 2012

I will start by trying to set the stage on which the ceramics appear.

It seems probable that Northern Thai ceramics were made between approximately 1350 A.D. and 1550 A.D. As, indeed, were those made at Sukothai and Sisachanalai. More on that later.

The Kingdom of Lanna was consolidated by the Yuan King, Mengrai, around 1300  and was conquered by the Burmese in 1558 after which it became an isolated backwater. The Kingdom was seldom closely united, often little more than a geographical expression. Fertile valleys were divided by jungle-clad mountains, communications and interaction between the various Thai tribes who lived in these muang were precarious and each muang, often with a fortified vieng, had their own leaders and – unless related by family – paid only loose fealty to the rulers in the capital – Chiang Mai.

One unifying factor, however, was Buddhism.  The Thai people were deeply religious and Buddhism, reinforced by the capture of the highly developed Mon Kingdom of Hariphunchai in 1292, was deeply revered.  The Eighth World Buddhist Council was  held in Chiang Mai in 1477 and many religious edifices were built throughout the land. Under all was a deep belief in animism with its multitude of spirits both good and bad.

From the middle of the 14th century up until the first decades of the 16th century,    Lan Na, it can be claimed, became the most powerful state in the Thai world – this was the Golden Age of Lan Na – so that historically it would seem the most likely period in which the manufacture of fine high fired ceramics could flourish.

 Chiang Mai was at the cross-roads of several trade routes. Ralph Fitch, merchant of London, recorded in 1585 that it took him 25 days to reach Chiang Mai, or Jamahey as he calls it, from Pegu near the Gulf of Martaban. He states that it is ‘a very faire and great towne with faire houses of stone…hither come many marchants out of China and bring great store of muske, golde, silver and many other things of China worke.’

The journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was made, in the 1890’s, by Louis Leonowens, son of Anna, and his girls (gifts for friends), in twelve days; however, going upstream in the dry season it took the unfortunate American missionary, McGilvery, his wife and two young children, three months in 1867.

So we have a prosperous, religious, loosely federated, rather isolated, land-locked Kingdom but with trade passing through, which flourished during the years between 1350 and1550.

One of the most frequently asked questions is, what was the origin of Thai ceramics? Clearly it is no coincidence that high-fired, glazed ceramics were made only in countries close to China during the Song, Yuan and early Ming period. But was it a direct transfer of knowledge, brought by Chinese potters who set up a foreign investment, or were samples of Chinese wares copied by local potters?

When Thais started to reconstruct their country after the sack of Ayuthya by the Burmese in 1767, they also recreated history, tracing the origins of the Royal Family and of Siam back to King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai in 1300.

The existence of ceramics at Sukothai was known. At the beginning of the Bangkok era almost all crafts and trade were in the hands of Chinese; it was natural, therefore, to believe that this had always been the case.  So it was that the fable of King Ramkamhaeng going to China, being received by the Emperor and returning with the gift of a Princess and five hundred potters, was conceived. We now know better although, I believe, this story is still taught in Thai schools.

Further proof of an indigenous industry is that all the potters marks and other writing found on Thai ceramics is in Thai script.  Also some Chinese designs such as the kylin, have been incorrectly copied – this would not have happened had the potters been Chinese. Cobalt was used in Japan, Vietnam and, later, in Korea – counties most likely to have received know-how from China.  Lan Na, Sukothai, Burma and Cambodia never had access to cobalt as they were more remote from Chinese influence.

Ming blue and white sherds have been found at most kiln sites, perhaps samples whose designs the potters copied.

Another theory is that the knowledge derived from Ban Chiang where        low-fired pottery was made and also bronze which would have been smelted in    high-fired kilns. But it is difficult to believe that a civilisation that disappeared in 200 A.D. could have transferred knowledge to potters working a thousand years later.

High-fired, glazed ceramics were made in the Khmer Empire at an early date but they are in a very different tradition. So was it an indigenous industry?  The answer is probably: yes. But it is very likely that the Chinese merchants in Ayuthya, who dominated the export trade, placed what today we would call consultants or technical advisers in the kilns to improve the quality of production.  Also at Kalong some wares show definitive evidence of Chinese involvement.

When were the ceramics made?

Don Hein, the Australian archeologist, has attempted to trace the origins of the Sisachanalai kilns back to the tenth century, but many doubt this; scientific dating has proved unconvincing, and the mid- thirteenth century as a starting date for all the Thai stoneware  seems  more likely.

The Burmese invasion of 1558, devastated much of the Tai world, although Lan Na was less seriously affected.  There is no evidence that production continued after that date.

We know that historically the years between 1350 and 1550 were a time when crafts could have prospered and fine workmanship been appreciated at the court and in temples. This was a time when exports of Sukothai town and Sisachanalai ceramics, mainly to Indonesia and the Philippines, flourished. Northern Thai ceramics do not appear to have ever been exported.

The Tak Hilltop Burial Sites, which were discovered in 1984, produced thousands of Chinese Yuan and early Ming wares, and in association with them were found many Northern Thai and Sukothai wares as well as some Vietnamese and Burmese pieces  All fall well within our period.

Sunken junks with cargoes of ceramics and burial sites in Indonesia and the Philippines tell the same story.  So I stand on the period 1350 – 1550.

Where were Thai ceramics made?

For long it was thought that the only important center of production was in the Kingdom of Sukothai. A paper read to the Siam Society in 1937 was the first mention of northern ceramics, but, perhaps because of the war, little notice was taken.  Even today many still consider that the northern wares are poor country cousins, probably made by slave potters brought from Sukothai, inferior in every way. But this is simply not true.

If, as is generally thought, Thai people, in the years before 1200, trickled into what is today the north of Thailand, from areas in Yunnan and Vietnam, crossing the Mekong, pausing, perhaps, at Chiangsaen and Chiangrai and then following the rivers Ing, to Phayao,  Mae Lao to Kalong, Kok to Fang and the Ping to Chiang Mai,  then these places with their fertile river valleys would be where the Thais first coalesced into viable states.  And indeed we find early settlements and kilns at Phayao, Kalong, Phan and Sankampaeng. Moving on to the south down the rivers Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan, we find kilns at Nan, Lampang and finally in what was to become the Kingdom of Sukhothai.

In the early years, Lan Na had three distinct power bases, Chiang Mai and Hariphunchai, Phayao and Chiangsaen.  Strangely, kilns have not been found at Chiangsaen.  Very fine ceramics were made at Phayao and this Kingdom is thought to have flourished in the thirteenth century.  It is my belief that this was the first production center of celadon stoneware and that knowledge of manufacturing      high-fired stoneware in cross-draught kilns spread out from there. Each muang used the knowledge differently according to the clay available and the market requirements.

These are the known Northern Thai kiln sites:

Vieng Kalong (including Wang Nua)
Amphur Phan
San Sai
Lampang (3 sites)
Lamphun (Hariphunchai)

Celadon wares were made at all these sites except for the Wat Chedi Sao Lampang site were only brown wares are known and Hariphunchai where probably only unglazed wares were produced. Chiang Mai University has a sherd library were sherds from each individual kiln are recorded.

One common denominator of northern kilns is that dishes were fired lip to lip and base to base. There were exceptions to this, notably at Kalong, but it is significant that the early, so called Mon wares of Sisachanalai were also fired in this way.

Thai Buddhists cremated their dead and scattered the ashes so that no ceramics had been found in graves until 1984, when hill tribe people stumbled on burial sites high up in the mountains along the Thai-Burmese border. No controlled excavation was ever carried out but thousands of graves were looted and a staggering number of superb and hitherto unknown ceramics flooded into the market – the majority of wares ended up in Japanese collections.

Wild theories circulated on who these people were. It now seems most likely that they were Lawa, the original inhabitants of the area – as it were the Celts of Europe. They must have exchanged forest products, in great demand for the China tribute trade, for ceramics, beads, bronze and lacquer wares, from the markets of Chiang Mai, Sukothai and Burma.

Perhaps the most exciting discoveries were green copper decorated ceramics, almost certainly from Pegu in Burma, dishes of royal quality from Sukothai town and Sisachanalai, and wares from the northern kilns previously only known as broken sherds and kiln wasters.

What were the ceramics used for? There are no written records. Almost certainly northern wares were not exported, the kilns are simply too far from any port.  When the Ayuthya, Chinese driven, export of Sukothai wares began, much larger, well built kilns were introduced; such kilns are not known in Lan Na.

Large jars were made as funeral urns and as domestic containers.  We now know that dishes and bowls were in great demand as grave furniture.  Animal miniatures were, perhaps, used as offerings to the spirits, chess pieces, weaving pulleys and seals are known; the jarlets and vases may have been used in Buddhist ceremonies; there were oil lamps, pipes and lime pots for use in betel chewing. Clearly there was a large demand both for simple household wares and for sophisticated ceremonial ones.

How were the ceramics made?  The kilns were simple, usually slab built, cross-draught, in or above ground; they varied in length from three to five meters; At Phan bricks were used and the kilns were slightly larger.  At Kalong a varied selection of kiln furniture was used – tubular and tripod supports, both large and small; saggars have been reported from Nan. The temperature was 1260 Celsius; the kilns were wood fired in a reduction atmosphere.

J.C.Shaw was born in England in 1934, educated at Sherborne and Magdalen College Oxford where he obtained a M.A. in Modern History. He then spent many years in marketing with various companies such as Fisons, the Borneo Company in Indonesia and finally retired to run his own business based in Chiang Mai, Trisila Company Limited, parent of Citylife, CityNow and CityNews. He married Duangphorn Kemasingki, took Thai nationality and produced one daughter, Pim. His main interest is Thai ceramics and he has written books on ceramics and other Thai subjects. For five years he was Honorary British Consul at Chiang Mai and on retirement was awarded the MBE.