An ancient Chinese tradition with an ardent Vietnamese following, particularly among royalty and mandarins, is now drawing the interest of people from other walks of life. Do Quang Tuan Hoang reports.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Vietnamese feudal dynasties such as Le, Trinh and Nguyen were interested in ordering porcelains from China’s Jiangxi Province.
During the Nguyen dynasty, not only royalty but also mandarins and the wealthy ordered the porcelain items for daily use, display, gifts and for use in worship.
The practice is now part of Viet Nam’s fine arts history.
“No teapot is as excellent as the zisha teapot,” said Chinese Confucian scholar Li Yu of the Ming dynasty. Director of the 7P Joint-stock Company Nguyen Ngoc Tuan, a devoted follower of the philosophy, has been interested in zisha teapots since 2003.
He went to China’s Shandong Province to buy teapots that could be put on display and also used to enjoy tea at his house. His relatives and friends were also interested in the teapots and asked him to help them order the product.
Since 2004, he has been visiting Shandong every three months to select teapots, cups and trays for people who share his taste.
In 2010, Tuan hired a store at the Vincom Centre in Ha Noi to open a shop of zisha tea service.
He wanted the articles to have a Vietnamese soul, and so started getting Vietnamese sketches made on the teapots from 2010.
Tuan asked calligrapher Giang Phong to write Vietnamese words meaning ‘heart’, ‘blessing’, ‘righteousness’, ‘politeness’, etc, and then asked the local artisans in Shandong to paint the words on the tea sets.
Buddhist nun Mac Khong Tu was the first person to respond to Tuan’s idea. She got her poems written on the teapots.
In 2012, Tuan asked painter Do Son Huy to sketch Viet Nam’s landmarks on the teapots, such as One Pillar Pagoda, Turtle Tower and Ben Thanh Market, besides the Truong Tien Bridge.
In 2014, Tuan requested monk Nhuan Thuong to draw the Ly dynasty dragon, and designer Kieu Minh Y to draw the portrait of late President Ho Chi Minh on the teapots.
“Thanks to the drawings, different cultures were added on one product. The pot and cup are art products, as also the pictures and words written on them. The makers have a soul and the buyers also have a soul,” Tuan said.
The initial days when Tuan visited Shandong to get sketches done on the teapots were full of obstacles.
Chinese people like large teapots that can be easily decorated, whereas Vietnamese clients prefer small ones. It is more difficult to decorate small teapots and the process needs moretime. Thus Tuan had to convince the makers and share with them the Vietnamese people’s pleasure in drinking tea so that they agreed to make the pots.
The sketches on the teapots also posed a lot of problems for Tuan.
Vietnamese people often like green teapots. One person ordered a green teapot in the shape of a peach. But the Chinese artisan flatly refused to make it. He said it was unnatural and peaches could be pink or yellow only.
Another person wanted the image of the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in the northern province of Bac Giang on a teapot. But the artisan refused to do the complicated pattern.
By now, several Vietnamese artisans such as Hua Ngoc Quan, Quach Quan and Tran Van Tai were helping Tuan in drawing Viet Nam’s images on the teapots. They discuss with Tuan which images are suitable to which material and teapot shape.
“The days orders are placed become days of cultural exchange,” Tuan said.
“I will continue to honour the Vietnamese soul on zisha teapots and cups. Next time, I will order the painters to draw the landscape of the country and even its map on the teapots,” he said.
So far, Tuan has got sketches drawn on hundreds of tea sets, which have been bought by domestic and international customers.
He dreams of organising a meeting at least once a year of collectors who want to display their collections and share their passion of Vietnamese tea culture.
Following Tuan’s initiative, several people have responded to the enterprise. Ly Bac Quang, the owner of the Tan Sanh Shop that sells zisha tea sets in HCM City, also gets Vietnamese images sketched on his products. He orders the Chinese artisan to the images of Dong Son bronze drums and red-headed cranes on the teapots.
Each handmade teapot is sold for at least VND50 million (US$2,380). If it has been crafted partly by hand, it can be sold for VND15 million ($700).