Tang/Song Guangdong Trade Ceramics

 

Since time immemorial, the Chinese civilisation was known to have contact with the West.   The overland silk route through central Asia was firmly established by the Han period and served as the main conduit for the exchange of goods and culture with the west.  By the Tang period, an alternative maritime trade route emerged.  Guangzhou became the main gateway for the maritime trade with Nanhai (ie Southeast Asia region) and the west.  Shipping vessels facilitated the transportation of larger volume of commodites and heralded the first peak of maritime trade in Chinese ceramics.  The Arabic style Guangzhou Huaishen mosque (广州怀聖清真寺) lighthouse witnessed a glorious chapter in the history of maritime trade.  The light from the lighthouse guided ships entering Guangzhou port during the Tang Dynasty.  It is located near Guangta (光塔路) road and was the location where foreign traders resided.  A further testatment and echo of its past history are many of the streets with name related to the type of transacted business/trade. 

 

Tang Guangdong Ceramics

In the last 50 years, archaeological excavations of kilns sites, ancient habitation/burial sites and shipwrecks have provided wealth of information important for our understanding of trade in ancient Chinese Ceramics.  With significant degree of confidence we can piece together the broad picture and know where the main ceramics products were produced and its export markets.  During the Tang phase besides the famous Yue, Changsha, Xing/Ding wares, Guangdong celadon wares also formed an important component of ceramics cargo mix.  Guangdong kilns with its natural advantage of proximity to Guangzhou port became important suppliers of export ceramics products.  Historical and archaeological evidence clearly shows that the fortune of many of the coastal kilns was inextricably tied to the rise and demise of the neighbouring port.

Large Guangdong celadon jars featured among its most prominent export.   Besides serving as a commodity, they were also used as storage for smaller ceramics vessels during transportation.  The main production sites of such large jars were kilns located in the vicinity of tributaries of the Pearls river delta.  So far, archaeological surveys have uncovered production sites in Xinhui(新会) , Heshan (鹤山) and Gaoming (高明).  The most well-known site excavated was the Guanchong kiln () in Xinhui . The glaze has a characteristically snake skin-like uneven and runny appearance .  

Guangdong Tang celadon jars from Belitung wreck

Guangdong Tang celadon jars exhibited in the Guangdong Nanyue Palace Museum

The typical uneven and runny glaze on Guangdong celadon jar

Guangdong Jar from Belitung wreck
Guangdong Green glaze jars found in Indonesia

 

Besides jars, Guangdong kilns also exported other vessels such as bowls, dishes, basins, ewers and etc.  Two examples of bowls recovered from the Indonesia Palembang Musi rivers are shown below:

   
Celadon bowl recovered from Indonesia Palembang Musi river.  A distinctive feature of such bowls from Guanchong and the neighbouring kilns such as Gaoming/Heshan is the patches left by clays lumps used as separators for stacking of bowls during firing.
   
  A dish-shaped vessel from Guanchong or nearby kiln 
Two Tang Guangdong ewers from a Vietnam wreck 
   

Archaeological excavations revealed that the best quality Guangdong greenwares were produced in kilns in Chaozhou Beijiao (潮州北郊) , Chaozhou Beiguan (潮州北关) and Meixian shuiche (梅县水车).  Some Chaozhou vessels were found in the Tang Belitung wreck. The glaze of Chaozhou celadon is thicker and glassier than those found on Yue celadon and usually have fine crackles.  Products from Meixian and Chaozhou kilns, which were located near the Hanjiang river (韩江), were transported down the river to the Chaozhou port.  

During the Chinese economic boom of the last few decades, Hanjiang river was dredged for sands required by the Chaozhou building industry.   Together with the sand, sizeable quantity of Meixian and Chaozhou celadon wares were recovered.  Most of them were intended to be transported to the Chaozhou port but were discarded most likely because of damages or ended up in the river because of sunken vessels.

Chaozhou celadon wares from the Belitung wreck. The typical Chaozhou bowl has 3 unglaze patches on the foot 

Chaozhou celadon wares in the Chaozhou shi museum 

Bowl from the Meixian Shuiche kiln

Tang Meixian Shuiche Jar

Song Guangdong Ceramics

The Northern Song regime was relatively weak and the North/Northwest region was frequently troubled and raided by nomadic tribes.  The constant unrest disrupted the flow of goods along the overland silk route.  Foreign trade was an important source of revenue for the court.  Hence, special attention was paid to implement policies and measures to stimulate and promote the maritime trade.   Mingzhou was established as the gateway for trade with Korea and Japan and Guangzhou for Southeast Asia and the western region such as India and the Middle East.  In 971 A.D, the Song government established an Office of Maritime Trading in Guangzhou.  Its main roles were to collect tax, administer and regulate the flow of import and export of goods.  Guangzhou port maintained its dominant position until the end of Northern Song period.  After which it was displaced by Fujian Quanzhou when northern China fell to the Jin and the Song imperial family fled and established its court in Hangzhou.  As aforementioned, the fortune of the coastal ceramics production industry rose and waned with the importance of its neighbouring port.  

During the Northern Song period, many kilns sprouted along the  Guangdong coastal region. producing ceramics to meet the demand of overseas market.  Two of the most important Song Guangdong kilns which have been surveyed and information more widely available are Xicun (西村) near the west of  Guangzhou and Chaozhou Bijiashan (笔架山).  Xicun produced mainly green wares and some quantity of Qingbai, brown and low-fired green lead glaze vessels.  Based on the survey of the shards at the kilns, Chaozhou Bijiashan produced over 40% Qingbai wares and the rest mainly green and brown glaze wares.  In general, the products showed clear influence of Yue and Yaozhou greenware and Jingdezhen Qingbai.

View where Bijiashan kiln is located as view from the river Hanjian

An excavated remains of a kiln in Bijiashan

The Nanhai Qishi (南海奇石) is notable for the production of dark brown glaze big storage jars.  Among them, the three kilns produced literally all the major and typical types of Guangdong export wares found overseas.  Needless to say, the export included products from other coastal kilns which were similar and base on current level of knowledge indistinguishable.

 

Northern Song Guangdong Xicun/Chaozhou Wares

Xicun is located about 5 km Northwest of Guangzhou.  The kiln was located in the area called Huangdi Gang (皇帝岗), ie emperor's hill. A report was published in the 1958 and listed 15 types of vessels including dishes, bowls, cups, ewers, jars, lamps, boxes, pillows, bird whistles and other miniature figurines. The Guangzhou shi Museum (广州市博物馆) has a permanent display of a group of Xicun shards excavated from Huangdi Gang.

Examples of excavated Xicun wares from Philippines Butuan and Malaysia Tioman Islands were published in the 1980s. In 1989 a wreck discovered near Pulau Buaya of the Lingga archipelago (about 90 km south of Batam) carried a substantial quantity of Guangdong ceramics and small quantity of Jingdezhen and possibly Fujian ceramics. However,  none of the three distinctive types of Xicun vessels, ie bowls with painted or carved floral motif or iron-brown spotted vessels were among the ceramics finds.  But in 2012, some large Xicun bowls , one type with iron-brown painted and the other carved floral motif surfaced in the Singapore antique market.  They were salvaged from 2 shipwrecks, one in the Riau archipelago and the other near the Belitung Island.  Unfortunately information so far has been rather sketchy but it appeared the wrecks carried mainly Guangdong wares.  

The 'Riau" wreck carried iron brown floral painted celadon big bowls, qingbai/white bowls and brown glaze basin with impressed floral motif.  The  'Belitung' wreck carried celadon bowls/jars with carved motif and qingbai/white bowls and white/qingbai glaze ewers.  The two shipwrecks, with the Riau wreck likely dated earlier, are rather important wrecks and they are the only known wrecks of the Northern Song period that carried typical products of Xicun kiln. 

The big celadon (grayish green) bowls (dia. 33 and 23 cm respectively) have boldly painted iron-brown floral motif.  There were also some bowls (dia. 23 cm) decorated with 4 characters in running script that read Zhihe Yuan nian (至和元年)。Zhihe was one of the reign marks of Emperor Renzhong and hence we can date the bowl to 1054 A.D.  This is a very important piece of evidence which enable us to date the artefacts to the Northern Song period. 

 

Some  celadon bowls with iron brown painted floral motif from the Riau wreck

 

The 23 cm bowls have more crudely formed foot

 

The bigger 33 cm bowl has well form and finer paste foot




Bowls with 4 characters Zhihe Yuan Nian (至和元年) ie 1054 A.D

Examples of iron-brown painted motif on pillow and fragment of a bowl exhibited in Guangdong shi museum

In the past, many ceramics experts suggested that they are Cizhou inspired type.  However, the Xicun version is stylistically very different from those from Cizhou.  Furthermore, they have celadon glaze whereas Cizhou wares has white transparent glaze. One possible source of inspiration of the painted style could be from a geographically closer region, ie  Song Hunan Henghshan (湖南衡山) kilns. The Song Hengshan kilns had inherited and further developed the Tang Changsha painted decoration tradition. Similar to Tang Changsha wares, Hengshan wares are also celadon wares decorated using both copper and iron oxide.  The Guangdong potters however did not adopt the technique of copper green motif.

Song Hengshan kiln copper/iron-painted floral motif

Not found in either wreck but there are known excavated examples of iron painted bowls which has carved floral motif on the inner wall.  The below example was excavated in Sarawak.

An iron painted floral bowl with carved floral motif on inner wall from the Sarawak museum

On the subject of iron-brown painted vessels, the Guangdong archaeologist Zheng Guangyi in the book "Ceramics Finds from the Tang and Song kilns in Guangdong", mentioned that two sites in Nanhai , ie Qishi (奇石) and Jiaotou Ling (交头岭) produced iron painted vessels decorated with a variety of motif such as orchid, floral scrolls, reeds, bamboo leaves, human motif and etc.  Recently, I learnt that similar iron-painted wares were also produced in Panyu Shabian kiln (番禺沙边窑).  Indeed, some iron-brown painted fragments were excavated from the Nanyue Palace site. 

Iron painted fragments in the Nanyue Palace Museum

The Guangdong potters also copied a repertoire of motifs from Northern Song Yue wares. The motif is executed by using one or combination of carving, incising or combing techniques. 

Two examples of Yue style carved/combed motif from Xicun kiln in Guangdong shi museum

From the "Belitung" wreck, there are many examples of celadon bowls with carved floral motif on the inner wall.  The outline of the flower is formed by punched like arcs. This is a distinctive feature which is so far only found on wares from Xicun.  It showed that the potters did not just copied but also introduced distinctive elements in the carving technique.  The bowls have light grayish green glaze and grayish paste. On some examples where the glaze pool, the green colour is more distinct.

The flower has the outline formed by punched-like arcs.  Example came from the "Belitung" wreck

Example from Xicun Huangdi Gang exhibited in Guangdong shi Museum

I have also came across an excavated big bowl (33 cm) with the floral petals further decorated with cluster of 6 iron brown spots.

Bowl found in Indonesia and belonged to an Indonesian collector

The kilns in Xicun, Yangjiang (阳江) and Huizhou (惠州) also produced a form of Yaozhou style impressed floral motif bowls.  As compared to the Yaozhou counterpart, the impressed motif from the three Guangdong kilns are not as sharp and quality of the motif more crude. 

Examples of Yaozhou style impressed floral bowls from the Xicun kiln exhibited in Guangdong shi museum

 

A Xicun celadon dish from a wreck from Indonesia

 

Example of Xicun kiln Yaozhou style shallow bowl

One popular decorative element of the period is elongated 's' lines that are carved on the outer wall of vessels.  For those rough version, the 's' lines became carved slanting vertical lines.  Those from Xicun has greyish paste and the glaze is a light grayish green colour tone.  Chaozhou has more varied glaze colour tone which to a certain extent is affected by the colour of the body. The glaze appears light grayish green if the paste is grayish and more clear light whitish blue/yellow if the paste is white.

Example of carved 's' shape lines found on a bowl from xicun and exhibited in the Guangdong shi museum

 

Example of shallow bowl with light grayish green glaze from Xicun kiln.  On the inner wall, there is carved/combed floral motif.  Noted the similarity of the carved floral motif with that from the Sabah museum discussed earlier

 

A more thinly potted and more refined version with greenish glaze from the "Belitung" wreck. This example is more likely from Chaozhou kiln

 

 

Examples from the Riau wreck.  The shards are from the Bijia Shan kiln which show the similarity in terms of glaze and paste.

There are also wares decorated with carved lotus petals, either in high relief giving the embossed effect or just using carved lines.  This is a popular motif of the Northern Song period and well represented in many Northern and Southern kilns in China.  Both celadon and white/qingbai types are available from Guangdong kilns.

 A celadon glaze jar with carved lotus petals, most likely from the Xicun kiln

 A white glaze bowl with carved lotus petal.  Mostly likely from a Chaozhou kiln.

 

Qingbai jar with carved lotus petals from Chaozhou kiln

 

Two other examples gren glaze executed using carved lines from the Xicun kiln. The style is similar to that on the lower body of the Xicun phoenix head ewer.  They came from the "Belitung" wreck.

Two examples (left) of carved lotus petals of incense burners from Bijiashan kiln

Chaozhou Bijiashan kiln produced a form of Qingbai bowls/plates with abstract floral which is executed in a distinctive fast and fluently incised lines.  Most of such products are more likely from the Chaozhou region although small quantity was known to be produced in Xicun kiln.

An example with light grayish green glaze from the "Belitung" wreck.  A similar example was found the Chaozhou Bijiashan excavation.

 

Two incised floral motif from the Chaozhou Bijiashan kiln exhibited in an exhibition on Chaozhou wares

 

The 3 shards came from the 1955 excavation of the Xicun Huangdi Gang kiln.  The one on the left and bottom are similar stylistically to those from Chaozhou Bijia shan kiln. However, such Qingbai examples are few among the shards collected.

More examples of bowls with incised floral decoration from the Bijiashan kiln.

There is also a distinctive group of Xicun celadon wares decorated with iron brown spots/splashes. The glaze is usually light grayish green or grayish yellow in colour tone. One distinctive form is bottle with ribbed neck. There are versions with the lobed globular body.   Most are of celadon glaze but there are also small quantity with dark brownish or qingbai glaze.   Besides bottles, jarlets with iron-brown spots/splashes were also produced in large number.  Chaozhou kilns also produced similar vessels but could be distinguished by the finer paste/potting, well-formed foot and clearer white/qingbai glaze. Some were found in the Pulau Buaya wreck.

Two xicun ribbed neck bottles with iron spots decoration

Some other Xicun vessels with iron-brown spots or splashes

 

Examples excavated from Xicun kiln shown in Guangdong shi museum

Xicun cover box

 

Xicun Dark brown vase found in Indonesia

 

Three Chaozhou kiln Qingbai examples which has whiter paste and clear Qingbai glaze.  The potting and the foot is usually more refined.

 

Qingbai jarlet with iron-brown splashes.  Most likely a product from Guangdong region.

Another well-known Xicun vessel is phoenix head ewer. The more common form has a light grayish green celadon glaze which is usually decorated with carved floral motif.  I came across one example which was found in Central Vietnam.  Another with a light grayish blue Qingbai glaze was found from the same site.  I have also came across a shipwreck Xicun Qingbai example with an intricately formed pheonix head.

Phoenix head celadon glaze ewer.  It also has the typical Xicun floral decoration with punched arcs.  Artefact was excavated in Central Vietnam

 

Green glaze phoenix head ewer from Xicun.  Also excavated from Central Vietnam

 

Shipwreck example with an intricately formed pheonix head

Phoenix head ewers were also made in Chaozhou kilns.  They have qingbai glaze which is light bluish in colour tone and has whitish paste.  The features of the phoenix head are also different, typically more fine and intricate in details.

A qingbai phoenix head from Chaozhou kiln

A qingbai phoenix head vase in Hainan Museum

Chaozhou Beijiashan also produced of distinctive white glaze fish-shaped ewer.

Chaozhou Bijiashan also produced several other forms of Qingbai and brown glaze ewers.  Some are illustrated below.

Some variety of ewers from Chaozhou Bijiashan kiln

Another interesting product from the Bijiashan kilns is Qingbai/white female figurines.


Example found in Indonesia

Examples from the Bijiashan kiln sites

In the Riau and Belitung wrecks, there are bowls with a thickened lip.  The bowls are of different light bluish tone.  They are generic product and not easy to attribute such bowls to a particular kiln as they were produced in many kilns in China.  Many examples could also be found in Chaozhou kilns. The Pulau Buaya wreck also carried large quantity of such bowls.  Those from the Xicun kiln are of a celadon greenish colour tone. 

A thickened lip bowl from Xicun Huangdi Gang

 

Two examples of thickened lip bowl, top from the "Riau" and the bottom from the "Belitung" wreck.  The Riau one is similar to those produced in Chaozhou Bijia shan kiln.

Another common form is bowl with rim that curves outward and relatively tall foot.  They are usually decorated with whitish/Qingbai or grayish green colour glaze.  The interior is either plain or decorated with carved motif.  They are likely from unidentified Guangdong kilns.

   
Left is a white glaze bowl with a tinge of blue and came from the Riau wreck.  On the right is a bowl with light yellowish qingbai glaze. It has combed motif on the interior.  Similar type were found in the Pulau Buaya wreck.

 

Two other products from the Xicun kiln are flower-mouth bowls and dark brown glaze bowls with white glaze rim. Such bowls were also produced in Fujian and other kilns in other provinces.

Flower mouth shallow bowl and dark brown glaze bowl with white rim from Xicun Huangdi Gang

The Chaozhou Bijiashan kiln also produced a form of Qingbai tall cover boxes.  Similar types were also produced in the Fujian Nanan (南安) kiln.  Xicun also produced such cover boxes but the are of a greyish greenish celadon glaze.

 
Example of cover box from the Riau wreck. A similar shard from the Bijiashan kiln
 Two more examples from the Riau wreck.
 

Various forms of Qingbai tall cover boxes from the Bijia Shan kiln

In the Riau wreck, there are many brown green glaze basin-shape vessels with impressed flower.  Such items are products of the Xicun kiln.  The Pulau Buaya wreck also carried some quantity of such vessel.

A brown glaze basin-shaped vessel with impressed flower from the Riau wreck

In the "Riau" wreck, there are also some brownish green jars.  They share common characteristics in term of glaze and paste with the Xicun basin and could also be from Xicun or Qishi kiln.

   
Brownish green glaze jar with impressed floral decoration.  Similar type found in Nanhai Qishi kiln. 
   
Glaze of this squat jar degraded but remaining traces show that it is of brownish green colour tone 

In the "Riau" wreck, there is also a form of bulbous jar with brown glaze.  Similar jars were found in the Pulau Buaya wreck.  They should be products from a Guangdong kiln but could not be positively link to any of the known kilns.

Bulbous jar with the brown glaze missing from the Riau wreck

Bulbous jar with Yellowish brown glaze. Similar type were salvaged from the Pulau Buaya wreck. Most probably from unknown Guangdong kiln

The kilns in Xicun and Bijiashan also produced Qingbai and brown glaze miniature figurines of western breed dogs and bird whistles for export.  Some example of such dog figurines were excavated in Philippines.

Brown and qingbai glaze miniature dog figurine from Xicun Huangdi Gang

 

Brown glaze miniature dogs figurine from Bijia Shan kiln

Qingbai dog figurines with brown spots from Bijiashan kiln

 

Song Guangdong Nanhai Qishi (南海奇石) Kiln Brown Jars

In the Pulau Buaya wreck, there were some quantity of big storage jars with dark brown glaze.  The shoulder has impressed floral motif. Such jars could be found in many of the Southeast Asian ceramics collections.  They are products from the Nanhai Qishi kiln.  There are also those with impressed Chinese characters such as that indicating the year of production,  Zhenghe sixth year (政和六年) ie 1116 A.D , identifying ownership Pan Residence (潘宅) and etc.

Fragment of Big Jar from Nanhai Qishi kiln and with Zhenghe 6th year mark

 

Another example with similar form from the Cirebon wreck

 

Rubbings of the impressed markings and drawing of the storage jar based on the finds in the Nanhai Qishi kiln

Certainly there are other Guangdong kilns that produced large jars but generally they have similar glaze characteristics.  Based on current level of information, it is difficult to give a specific kiln attribution. Some examples are illustrated below.

Two examples of othe shape of brown glaze jars from the Cirebon wreck dated to beginning of Northern Song period

Example with incised dragon motif from the Northern Song Intan wreck

 

Some comments on the Pulau Buaya wreck

In the Pulau Buaya wreck, there were some celadon bowls with carved and combed swirling abstract motif with slashed lines on the outer wall.  The author of the book on the Pulau Buaya wreck has attributed them to Fujian Tongan or Nanan kilns.  Such celadon bowls were inspired by the Longquan celadon of the late Northern Song period and much copied by the Fujian kilns.  In actual fact, similar types of bowls were also produced in Guangdong, some examples were excavated in Chaozhou Bijiashan kiln.   Some examples of such Longquan inspired motif bowls from Chaozhou kilns are illustrated below.



Celadon bowls from the Chaozhou Bijiasha kiln

Examples form the Longquan kilns

The above was a case in point on the dynamics of export trade in Ceramics.   By the Late Northern Song period, Yue kilns were already in decline and Longquan kilns emerging as the new star in the production of Southern Celadon wares.  The Longquan celadon wares were thus copied by the Guangdong and Fujian kilns.  

Besides the typical late Northern Song Jingdezhen Qingbai wares, there were a number of Qingbai wares from some provincial kilns.   There are some Qingbai bowls with carved deer motif enclosed with a lozenge on the inner base and floral like carved/combed motif on the inner wall.  Such bowls were produced in Southern Fujian Zhangping (漳平) and quite a few examples from the kilns have been published in a book on Zhangping kiln. 

Similar Late Northern Song Jiangxi Hutian qingbai wares were recovered from the Pulau Buaya wreck

 

Pulau Buaya wreck Qingbai bowl with deer motif

Qingbai bowl with deer motif from the Zhang Ping kiln

As the above celadon and Qingbai wares made their appearance during the late Northern Song period,  the Pulau Buaya wreck is most probably from the late 11th to early 12th Century.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, Guangdong as one of the ancient main gateway for maritime trade is essentially an emporium for all types of export ceramics. During the Northern Song phase, the most high quality ceramics came from Yue, Jiangxi Hutian and Yaozhou kilns.  It is not surprising that the Guangdong potters copied such successful products.  In comparison, the Guangdong products are of poorer quality but they could compete successfully because of the lower cost due to the kilns proximity to Guangzhou. The Guangdong ceramics were able to meet the needs of one segment of the overseas market which price may have been the main consideration.  Guangdong lost this competitive advantage once Fujian Quangzhou became the dominant port during the Southern Song period.  In particular, historical records showed that Chaozhou was ravaged by pirates during the early Southern Song period.   The difficult situation inevitably disrupted production and  obstructed port operation.  It must have accelerated the demise of the Chaozhou coastal kilns.  The archaeological findings showed that most of the Guangdong coastal kilns which catered to overseas markets ceased production during the Southern Song period.

Written by: NK Koh (16 Nov 2012) updated: 30 Jun 2013, 18 Jan 2017, 3 Jul 2017

References:

1.  Ceramic Finds from Tang and Song Kilns in Guangdong

2.  Guangdong Ceramics from Butuan and other Philippine sites

3. A Ceramic Legacy of Asia's Maritime Trade - Song Dynasty Guangdong Wares and other 11th- -19th Trade Ceramics found on Tioman Island, Malaysia

4. The Pulau Buaya Wreck

 

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