Maritime Silk Route Chinese Trade Ceramics

During the Han/Tang period, the overland silk route served as the main conduit for the exchange of goods and culture between China and the West. By the Tang period, an alternative maritime trade route was firmly established.  Guangzhou became the main gateway for the maritime trade with Nanhai (i.e. Southeast Asia region) and the west. Nanhai is the Chinese term for present day Southeast Asia.  Since ancient time, Southeast Asia was known as a region rich in gold and exotic products.  To the Chinese, it was referred to as Nanhai, the source of abundant exotic products such as pearls, corals, kingfisher feathers and aromatic products.  The Indian Sanskrit literature referred to it as Suvanadvipa, the "Golden" land.  

The region is strategically located along the maritime trade route, linking  the East and West.  Ancient maritime travel between East and West was dictated by the monsoon wind.  The present day Sumatra in Indonesia/East Malaysia was an ideal region to break the journey and  await  the change of wind to bring one to the next destination.   Besides supplying regional exotic, aromatic products and spices desired by merchants from the East and West, it also served as  entrepot and  emporium for the trading of goods between the East and West region.  Since the first millennium, many Southeast Asian states have capitalized on this advantage and prospered. Major maritime powers of this region included Srivijaya of the 7th to 13th Century, Majapahit of 13th/15th Century and Malacca of 14th/16th Century.  Besides silk and lacquer, Ceramics was another key export by the Chinese to Southeast Asia region and the West.  Because of its durability, it became the only major historical testament and evidence of ancient maritime trade. 

This article discusses the various types of ceramics that were exported from 9th Century Late Tang to 19th Qing period.  During this long historical span of time, many famous ceramics types were created and well represented in museums all over the world.  They constituted an important component of the export ceramics mix.  But what was less known were many "imitation" of the famous brands produced in the coastal region of Guangdong and Fujian. In the past, they have been conveniently labeled as provincial wares due to lack of information on the actual production sites.  However, in the last 50 years the mainland Chinese archaeologists have carried out many surveys and excavation of kilns sites in Guangdong and Fujian.  Significant amount of information are now available to assist us in identifying the kilns that produced them.  In actual fact, those provincial products are distinctive with local features and characteristics especially in terms of the glaze, paste, quality of the finishing and variations to the decorations. The rise and demise of those coastal kilns was significantly linked to the emergence and shift of port of exit for the trade ceramics.  During the Tang/Northern Song period, Guangzhou was the main port of exit.  Numerous coastal kilns along the coast of Guangdong capitalized on this location advantage to produce  porcelain products to feed the overseas market.  In fact, many were poorer quality  imitations of the branded product of the period but were able to fill a market niche due to their cheaper price.   Similar strategy was adopted by coastal kilns of Fujian when Quanzhou was designated as the main port of exit during the Southern Song and Yuan period, Yuegang during the late Ming period and Xiamen during the Qing period. 

Tang/5 Dynasties Trade Ceramics

Proto-porcelain was first produced during the Shang Dynasty in Zhejiang province.  It took a long span of time for proto-porcelain to evolve into true mature porcelain during the Eastern Han period.    By the Tang Dynasty, two major category of porcelain products emerged, Xing white wares in the North and Yue greenware in the South.  The Chinese referred to it as Nan Qing Bei Bai (南青北白).  In fact, another major category that was less mentioned was high-fired polychrome decorated wares from Changsha in Hunan.  This was a milestone development which marked the mass production of painted underglaze/overglaze pigments decoration.  It served as the inspiration for subsequent types of painted decorations.

Tang Dynasty was a golden period in the Chinese history.  There was great prosperity and the inclusive nature of the Court encouraged a cosmopolitan outlook which attracted many foreign merchants to China.  There were large foreign community, among whom Arabs, Persians and Indian which formed the majority,  in Capital Changan and also coastal ports such a Guangzhou and Yangzhou.

During this period, the Arabs played the major role in the transportation of Chinese ceramics along the ancient maritime trade route.  The freign traders who utilised the sea route would need to pass through the Strait of Malacca or the Sunda.  The Srivijiya Kingdom, with the seat of central government in Palembang of Sumatra was strategically located to partake in the foreign trade.  Besides serving as the ideal harbour for the foreign traders to await the change of monsoon winds, it offered logistic services such as storage and refurbishing and accommodation facilities.  The region also supplied forestry products such as pine resin, benzoin and camphor for the China trade.

So far, archaeological evidience indicates that it was only around the 9th century that Chinese ceramics were exported in significant quantity from the port of Guangzhou to Southeast Asia, India and Middle East.  Belitung wreck which is a Dhow,  provides first physical evidence and proof of the Arab participation in the martime trade.  The cargo provides a good glimpse of the type and quality of 9th century Chinese porcelains that were exported. The Belitung shipwreck is dated to A.D. 826 based on a Changsha bowl with an inscription which mentioned 2nd year of Baoli.  Changsha polychrome decorated, Yue greenware and Xing white wares constitued the 3 major types of porcelain found.  There were also some vessels with lead glaze green splashes which are seldom seen in this region but fragments found in the Middle East ancient sites. Guangdong greenwares, especially green glazed jars of varying sizes is also an important component of the cargo. Kilns in Chaozhou and Guangdong benefited from their proximity to Guangzhou to produce greenwares for the export market.   Kilns in the Zhujiang Delta near Guangzhou were the main producer of large green glazed jars, commonly termed Dusun jar in Southeast Asia.  An important site that has been identified and excavated is Guanchong kiln (官冲) in Xinghui (新会).

Tang/5 Dynasties Changsha wares in Exhibition organised by Singapore Yinliuzhai Ceramics Society & Rao Bao Tang

A recently discovered wreck in Central Vietnam showed that Changsha, Yue and Xing wares continued to be exported during the 5 Dynasties period. Cirebon wreck dated to the transition from 5 Dynasties to Northern Song showed that Yue wares were still exported in large quantity.  In the cargo, there is a Yue  bowl with an inscribed cyclical date 'wu chen' which Chinese experts confirmed a dating of 968 A.D. The number of Yue wares found in the Cirebon wreck is huge, amounting to over 300,000 pieces.  Many are thinly and elegantly potted and decorated with incised decoration.  By then, Changsha and Xing wares were no longer exported. Guangdong greenwares continued to be produced and exported.

5 Dynasties/Song Yue wares in Exhibition organised by Singapore Yinliuzhai Ceramics Society & Rao Bao Tang

Yue Green wares

Kilns in Zhejiang has a history of greenware production which could be traced to as early as the Shang/Zhou period.  Production suffered during the chaotic and turbulant transition to the Tang Dynasty.  However, by early 9th century, the production started to pick up again and the quality improved markedly. By the late Tang period, Yue wares was a major brand with an international reputation.   The production centre was at Shanglin Lake  (上林湖), Cixi city (慈溪) in Zhejiang province and with many kilns in the vicinity producing similar type.  Yue ware is famous for its beautiful green glaze which was praised by scholars and poets.  The finest were termed as mise porcelain.  The form is elegant and thinly potted which clearly shows they were inspired by gold/silver wares. Motifs executed by carving is the most common mode of decoration for the vessels during the Tang Period.    

After the fall of the Tang Dynasty in A.D 907, the state of Wu-yue (吴越) of the Five Dynasties controlled 14 prefectures covering eastern and western Zhejiang.  It was founded by Qian Liu, a native of Linan in  Zhejiang.    His regime was one of stability and benign policies which promoted the development of the local economy.  The scale of production of Yue wares reached its peak. Making use of the mature Yue potting techniques in existence since the late Tang, tribute kilns were set up at Shanglin Lake in Yuyao.    Large amount of mi se porcelains were produced and sent as tribute by him and his successors to the powerful states.

The later part of  5 Dynasties and Early Northern Song period is characterized by the usage of rich variety of  finely incised motifs that includes human subject, paired parrots or parrots, dragon, flowers and etc.  Best examples could be found in the Cirebon shipwreck.  The ship carried a large quantity of more than 300,000 Yue vessels and many are decorated with incised motif.  It has a bowl with a "戊辰徐记烧" Wuchen Xuji Shao " mark, i.e. 968 A.D.


Xing/Ding White Wares

Xing white wares were much sought after during the Tang Dynasty.  This was recorded in the ancient historical text  (国史补) by Li Zhao (李肇) who commented that Xing white wares from Neiqiu (内丘) were used by the rich and poor (内丘白瓷瓯, 端溪紫石砚, 天下无贵贱通用之).  The characteristic silver-like whiteness of fine Xing ware (若邢瓷类银, 越瓷类冰) was noted by Lu Yu (陆羽) in his treatise on tea (茶经)

Xing kiln started production during the late Northern Dynasty (北朝) period.  It reached peak production during the Mid Tang period and declined from the late Tang period.  During the Tang Dynasty, it produced the best white wares with elegant form and snow/silver white glaze.  There were also large amount of poorer quality white wares to cater to the demand of the common folks. It has now been established that Xing kilns were located in present day Lincheng (临城), Neiqiu (内丘) and Xingtai (邢台). 

In the Belitung shipwreck, some quantity of Xing dishes and bowls recovered. In 2013 some Xing plates and ewers also surfaced in the Vietnamese antique market.  They came together with some Changsha and Yue bowls.  They came from an unknown wreck in Central Vietnam.  There was a piece of fragment of the Yue bowl with incised character Qian () and very likely a part of the character Heng ().  It is very likely the reign mark  Qian Heng (used form A.D 917 to 925) used by the first king of the Nanhan (南汉) of the 5 Dynasties period. 

Xing Sherds samples from Wreck in  Central Vietnam 

Some quantity of Ding white wares of this period were also found in this region.  Essentially, the products were similar to those produced in the Xing kilns.  Ding ware only evolved and emerged as a major brand with its distinct carved and molded motif during the Song/Jin period.  Products of this period  were hardly found in ancient habitation sites or shipwrecks in Southeast Asia.

Changsha polychrome wares

Hunan Changsha kiln, also termed Tongguan kiln (铜官窑), was a famous Southern China Tang Dynasty kiln.   The Belitung shipwreck was the first Tang wreck to be discovered and its cargo consisted of mainly Changsha wares.  Ceramics from the Changsha kilns were able to capture a substantial overseas market because of the comparatively cheap price and interesting colorful decorations.  Many of the motifs show Buddhist and Islamic influences and ymbolic significance.  Such decorations satisfied the aesthetics of Buddhist and Islamic consumers of Southeast/West Asia and the Middle East.

Changsha wares are usually associated with the painted brown and green and/or applique motifs on vessels covered with transparent glaze.  The colour of the glaze actually varies from a light greyish green to a creamy yellowish white.  The glaze could appear transparent or  translucent and milky.   A white slip is usually applied to conceal the coarse body before the glaze is applied on the vessel.  The glaze has a tendency to peel off, especially in those areas glazed or painted brown. The glaze has characteristic fine crazing. 

The paste is usually grayish but examples with buff or varying brick colour tones are aslo found in Changsha bowls from the Belitung wreck.

The earliest examples of painted decoration on ceramics are Zhejiang iron-brown decorated celadon vessels  dated to the 3 Kingdom period.  But it was the Changsha potters who inherited and further explored and developed the painted decorative techniques. They were the ones who unlocked the potential of polychrome decorations.  Besides continuing the use of iron brown, they introduced copper green/red for decoration.   These new color glazes  were splashed, trailed, brushed and painted on the vessels.  By firing the wares under oxidizing atmosphere, copper oxide glaze turns green, and iron oxide amber-brown or purple-brown with a manganese-iron pigment. There were some rare successful examples of copper red which could only be produced in reduction firing atmosphere.  Indeed, the Changsha potters were the pioneers who successfully introduced high fired polychrome decorations.  Hence, Changsha wares held an important place in the history of Chinese ceramics.    

Besides transparent lime glaze, Changsha wares also used a milky-white lime glaze.

During the present millennium, large number of Changsha ceramics fragments were recovered from building construction sites and also the site of an ancient 5 dynasties jetty in Changsha. Many of the fragments with milky white glaze and green or green/brown decorations were among the finds.  The fragments have very good glossy glaze.  The large number of fragments from the 5 dynasties jetty provides physical evidence that Changsha wares continued to be produced in large quantity during the period.  Hunan was part of the Chu state  () established by Ma Yin (马殷).  During this period, great emphasis was placed on economic development to ensure the stability of the state.  The Changsha ceramics industry benefited from the ensuing peace and prosperity.

Interestingly, in 2013 some Changsha, Yue and Xing wares surfaced in the Vietnamese antique market.  They came from an unknown wreck in Central Vietnam which is likely dated to early 5 Dynasties period. There Changsha wares with have white glaze and decorated with abstract green/brown splashes.

5 Dynasties Changsha examples  found in Wreck in Central Vietnam

Guangdong Greenware

Guangdong kilns, which capitalised on its proximity to Guangzhou port, also produced greenware for the export market.  An important product was large jars used as containers 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.  One important kiln site excavated was the Guanchong kiln () in Xinhui (新会). The glaze has a characteristically  snake skin-like uneven and runny appearance .  Many such jars were found in the Belitung shipwreck.

The typical uneven and runny glaze on Guangdong celadon jar

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

Chaozhou green wares from the Belitung wreck. The typical Chaozhou bowl has 3 unglazed patches on the foot 


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