The Vase of Annam

Its History and Controversy

This page will reference all  Chinese characters using Pinyin romanization. The tables will show Pinyin, Wade-Giles, and Vietnamese for cross-reference.

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It's very difficult to challenge written history, but it is necessary at times. The tools we have today, as well as the increased spread of knowledge that accumulates as time marches on, tell us that we have to correct our mistakes. It shouldn't detract from, nor minimize, the contributions from the many fine scholars and dedicated people involved with the correction. They just didn't have the tools, or finds, that we are lucky to have today. This page will address such an issue, and will hopefully explain how it was a Vietnamese potter named Pei Shi Xi, and not a Chinese potter named Chuang, who painted the world famous Vase of Annam.

This vase first came to the attention of the art world in 1933 when noted scholar R. L. Hobson discovered it in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey.  In his publication, he included the thirteen characters that encircled the shoulder, dating the vase to 1450 AD. Though he did not provide a photograph, he did provide the Chinese characters in text showing the sequence, along with the translation. This is the string he provided, with the translation (in Wade-Giles) just beneath it.

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Painted for pleasure by Chuang, a workman
of Nan Ts'e-chou in the 8th year of Ta Ho
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In his description of the vase, he described it as being exactly 54 centimeters in height. There seem to be few images available of the vase. In fact, I can only find two valid photos ever published. My own thoughts on this are that he was limited in access, and may not have been allowed enough time to perform a close examination, which of course would have included detailed photographs and measurements. Aside from the photograph provided by the Topkapi Museum, I have a second one from when it was on loan to the Royal Academy of Arts for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in 1935. This is a quality black and white image similar to the Topkapi Museum image, differing only in the fact that the base is rotated approximately 75 degrees counter-clockwise. Here is that image.

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Working with the known factor of 54 centimeters, and locating some of my old notes, I can provide the following measurements which should be fairly exact. This will show the true size and majesty of the vase. This, versus referring to it only as a large vase of 54cm in height, as most (if not all) publications do. The image, especially to Westerners who are not familiar with centimeters, gives the appearance that it could sit on a shelf or windowsill. Not quite so. Below will give a better idea as to its true size.

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From the start though, the translation was in question. At one point it was decided the name of the workman was incorrect. Nonetheless, the translation reflecting Chuang was the one used for the Chinese Exhibition and it's subsequent publication in 1937.  

In a 1977 publication, The Ceramics of South-East Asia by Roxanna  M. Brown, a re-examination of the script identifies the 10th character, Pei  as the surname of the potter, not Jiang , with the11th character Thi signifying the gender as female in Vietnamese. I believe noted scholar Roxanna M. Brown was the first to begin unraveling the mystery of the vase.

It was in 1980 when the 10th, 11th, and 12th characters        were finally identified on the inscription as being those of the potter, and for the next 26 years a search was on to find the origin of the name. It was a mix of things that would eventually reveal the true origin. The search actually led to the archaeological discovery of the Chu Dau ceramic kilns in 1983. Interest was reignited in 2000 with the discovery of the Hoi An shipwreck which provided a wealth of Annamese ceramics. More searching over the next few years finally revealed the actual kiln where the Annam vase originated. It also revealed similar artifacts. But it was her present day descendants that provided both documents and artifacts with her name that gave proof positive. This happened on May 29th, 2006.

I was not aware of the find, nor the claim, and only recently learned of it. I'm afraid being retired has removed me from current news in the world of Chinese art. If you are also unaware of the article, here is the link. It might be a good idea to look it over before reading further.

Southeast Asian Archaeology Article

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At first, I thought I'd put together just a brief page explaining why I support the revised translation. But considering the importance of the Annam vase, and to honor the true artisan that has been (until now) unknown, I've decided to go a little more in depth. And since I see there is still controversy, maybe some of my input will have impact on correcting what I feel was a mistranslation made almost 80 years ago regarding this important vase. And last, but not least, it should give credit to noted scholar Roxanna M. Brown who, in her 1977 publication, was perhaps the first to officially challenge the translation. Sadly she is no longer with us.

Here we go......

Back in January of 1971, several years into my Chinese study, my mother presented me with a very fine book, The Chinese Exhibition - Faber & Faber, 1937 publication. Though my interest and study focused more on Chinese history and calligraphy at the time, it was my first introduction to the famous Vase of Annam. My interest in calligraphy brought even closer attention to the inscription.

What bothered me about the accepted translation was that it seemed broken in the string (or flow), and it puzzled me that there was no mention or referral  (going left to right) to three characters in the string, the 10th, 11th, and 12th,    . I was also unable to identify any character for the word 'pleasure'. The verbal match-up of all words in the translation seemed to dart back and forth. It did not run sequentially, in either direction. Not a trait of the logical and systematic Chinese writing.

At the time, my focus was more on China, and not Vietnam (previously Annam), so I didn't investigate it further.

When it was announced (almost 40 years later) that a Vietnamese family claimed their ancestor, a woman named Bui thi Hi (Vietnamese pronunciation) painted the vase, it provided the missing link (for me at least). It made the string run smoothly together, in sequence from left to right. It explained perfectly the three missing characters that I questioned many years ago, but didn't have the answer to. Here, in the same order, is the Vietnamese phonetic translation of the character string.

Vietnamese (phonetic association)

Regardless of the almost unquestionable data that has now surfaced, it surprises me that there is still an ongoing debate regarding the translation. And it seems oddly to have focused on Xi , the 12th character within the string. No mention whatsoever regarding Pei  and Shi , the 10th and 11th characters, which are obviously part of the name now claimed. It's clear to me an error was made and the debates will probably go on forever. I will instead offer a different view. This next image shows the lineup of the 'until now' accepted translation to the character string (left to right). The physical lineup of each character to the first translation given. As mentioned earlier, it doesn't seem to flow smoothly. I've also put some focus on the 12th character Xi   since the debates are discussing this character. Also note that the three characters not mentioned in this original translation, are now proven to be the true name of the potter.

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Original Translation

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This next table reflects the changes in showing Jiang    as being a noun for craftsman, not a name, and Xi    as being a name, and not the noun for pleasure as some debates claim. Nowhere within the inscription could I find the character for the word pleasure. Now, with the name Pei Shi Xi         (Vietnamese name Bui thi Hi)  inserted, it flows together smoothly, and offers a better translation that now includes all 13 characters in the string. This is how the original translation should have been shown.

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Revised Translation

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Now that we know the true name of the artisan is Pei Shi Xi       , where did Jiang   disappear to? After all, he was in the limelight for almost 80 years, he's in all the books as being the painter of the vase.

He didn't go far. In fact he still fits perfectly in the string as a noun, but not a proper noun. Jiang  means craftsman. It actually goes with the next character ren    (person) as to say a talented person, and not just a person.

Since the characters circle the neck, the starting point could be other than Ta . Ta may have been chosen since most reign marks begin with that. I suggest possibly bi  with the potters name being the last three characters in the string. It would then read (Wade-Giles) as "Painted for Ta Ho' in the 8th year in south Ts'e Chou by a craftsmen person P'ei Shih Hsi."

Perhaps the lack of photos for the vase has contributed to the mistranslation over the years. Between the two photographs I have, only seven characters are clearly recognizable, three are not clear, and three characters, Jiang , ren , and Pei  are hidden from view. If there are any readers that can provide better images of the vase, specifically the characters encircling the shoulder, please contact me. They would make a nice addition to this page with credits given.

Update

Dec 18th, 2009

Shortly after my placing this page on the net, a very observant viewer contacted me regarding the translation of the characters. He was quick to point out that the character was not Chuang (Zhuang in Pinyin) but Chiang (or Jiang in Pinyin). Further proof that the original translation given was incorrect, or interpreted incorrectly. He also found another character incorrectly used in my tables. I have since made the corrections to show the right call-out in both Pinyin and Wade-Giles. I apologize to any viewers that this may have confused..

Special thanks to Peter Pfister of Taiwan (fluent in both Chinese and Japanese) for pointing out the obvious error included in the original translation (which I missed). The result of which propagated further errors on this page as well. Thank you Peter.

JP

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