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Fujian Trade Ceramics in Jepara Shipwreck  

In the early A.D 2000s, many celadon and white wares started to surface in the Jakarta antique market.  The sellers said they were  salvaged from a wreck located about 34 km offshore from Jepara.  There is no systematic and scientific salvage operation to survey the site and recover the artifacts.  According to the article "The Jepara Wreck" written by Mr Atma Djuana and Edmund Edwards Mckinnon, some available reports indicated that the wreck was either broken in two or there was a smaller but contemporary wreck in the same area.  The area was strangely strewn with large boulders.   Among the artifacts surfaced in the Jakarta antique market, there was a stone anchor about 2.5 m in length.  According to the authors, a similar anchor was displayed at the Maritime Museum in Quanzhou.  Hence, suggesting that the ship may be  a Chinese Junk.  It was also suggested that the Junk sank as early as  A.D 1130. The latest copper coins recovered from the wreck that the authors had seen was from Zhonghe (重和), the last year of this reign mark being A.D 1118.  However, I have seen some later coins of Jian Yian (建炎)purportedly from this wreck.  The last year of Jian Yian reign is A.D 1130.  Personally, I believe the wreck could be later than A.D 1130, probably around A.D 1150 to 1200.  The reason for my dating will be discussed below. 


Rise of Quanzhou port and Fujian Trade Ceramics

Quanzhou in Fujian Province was a cosmopolitan port known to Marco Polo as Zayton.  It was the largest seaport in Asia during the Song/Yuan period.  Many regions especially those located in the coastal areas in Fujian Province capitalised on their proximity to the Quanzhou port to produce export porcelains.   The bulk of the trade ceramics consisted of green wares (celadon), white/qingbai  and black/brown wares.

According to Song period Zhao Rugua's work "zhufanzhi" (A.D 1225) (赵汝适《诸番志),  46 countries (including Annam, Cambodia, Srivijaya, Malay peninsula, Borneo, Java, Eastern Indies, the Philippines and even Zanzibar) were listed as  China's trading partners and the Yuan period "Daoyi zhilue" by Wang Dayan ( 汪大淵 岛夷志略listed at least 58 countries.   

The map in the Quanzhou museum showing the maritime trade routes originating from Quanzhou is shown below. 


Changing Geopolitical landscape of 11th Century Southeast Asia

The location of the wreck of this Chinese Junk near Jepara provides a useful piece of physical evidence of the shift in geopolitical situation and the ensuing changing pattern of the trade network in the region during the 11th century. 

Two major developments most probably contributed to that changes in the region.  Since the 7th century, Srivijia with the centre of power in Palembang in Sumatra, controlled the flow of martime trade through the Straits of Malaca.  However, its political power was significantly weakened by the Cola naval raids of the 11th century. Polities in mainland Southeas Asia and the Indonesia Archepelago capitalised on Srivija's weakened power to assert independence and gained more from the maritime trade.  Archaeological excavations revealed the emergence of significant trading centres in Sumatra (for eg. Kota Cina in Medan), Sarawak (For eg. sites at and near the Sarawak river Delta, Brunei (site in Sungei Limau Manis)  and Philippines (site at Butuaan) during the period of 11th to 14th century.  For more information regarding some of this site, please read this.

During the 8-10th century, the Mataram Kingdom, a Hindu–Buddhist kingdom ruled central Java. Traces of its past glory could still be discerned through the magnificent ruins of Borobudur and Prambanan temples.  It was a serious rival to the hegemonic Srivijaya Empire.  Its economic power was derived mainly from agricultural and did not challenge the maritime trade monopoly of Srivija. By early 10th century, economic and population in Java shifted towards the East Java Brantas delta (Surabaya region).   Its economic strength became more diversified, drawing both from agriculture and participation in maritime trade.  Inscriptions found in Java provided evidence of the trade networks operating in the ports of the Brantas delta during the 10th-13th century.  The Kaladi inscription of 909 mentions foreigners from South Asia (Kalinga, Singhala, Dravidians) and mainland Southeast Asia (Campa, Kmir (Khmer and Rman (Mons) residing there and engaging in trading activities.  By the 11th century, new ports like Jepara, Tuban and Gresik had emerged in the Brantas River Delta. 

The second major development was the increasing direct involvement of the Chinese merchants in the Southeast Asian maritime trade since the 11th century.   In the past, the flow of maritime goods between China and West through Southeast Asia were mainly conducted by the Arabs, Indians and natives of  Southeast Asia.  However, during the Northern Song period, the state began to take pro-active measures to promote trade.  In 987 A.D Northern Song Emperor Taizong sent 8 court officials along 4 sea routes  to promote Sino-foreign trade.  A custom law was enacted in A.D 1080 which specified that (1) customs duty rates were fixed and publicly announced; (2) individual officials were forbidden to participate in trade activiities; (3) rewards were granted to those who promoted overseas trade activities. 

After the loss of the Northern China to the Jin,which effectively cut-off overland silk trade via the central Asia, this pro-maritime trade attitude became stronger during the Southen Song period.   Emperor Gao Zong was recorded as saying : " The profit from overseas trade is the greatest.  If the trade is handled in the right way, the profit can easily reach millions of coins (qian).  Isn't the revenue from trade better than that from taxing ordinary people? I should pay more attention to overseas trade to relieve the tax burden of the people."

Song tax on maritime trade was light.  For example, in the Northern Song , the tax rate on traded goods varied between 2 and 5.5%.  In the Southern Spong period, tax cut and exemption were applied to commerce.

The Song government encouraged merchants to build ocean-going junks and undertake foreign trade directly with polities in Southeast Asia.  Official titles were granted to those who were able to attract imports of foreign goods while those officials who harmed foreign merchants' interests were demoted.  Those foreign merchants who made great contribution to the promotion to trade were granted Chinese official titles and oppointed to official positions.  


Ceramics in Jepara wreck

Greenware (celadon)

In the wreck, there are large and smaller bowls with carved and combed/dotted decorations on the interior and vertical combed lines on the external wall.  This was commonly termed as Tongan type or Juko (shuko seiji) greenware (name after Juko (shuko) a Japanese monk tea ceremony master).  In fact, this was a continuation of the Longquan tradition.  Longquan kilns started producing such type around Mid/late Northern Song period.  Kamei Meitoku in his article "Chronology of Longquan wares of the Song and Yuan periods" classified them into 1st half of 12th century.  In fact, besides the Minan coastal region, Northern Fujian kilns also produced similar wares.  The colour tone of such wares varies from olive green, grayish green to different degree of yellow.  In comparison with the Longquan version, the quality was less refined and for most pieces the outer lower portion of the bowls were left unglazed.  For the Longquan version, only the outer base was left unglazed. 

Although stylistically this category commenced during the Northern Song period, it continued to be produced by the Fujian kilns during the Southern Song period.  


There are also  large number of celadon bowls with carved lotus motif.  They do not have any vertical combed lines on the external wall.   Such type was also copied from the Longquan kiln.  Kamei Meitoku dates them to A.D 1150 - 1200 and hence later than the type mentioned earlier.  Both the Longquan and Fujian version were present in the wreck. Another type of celadon found in large number is those carved with abstract cloud motif.  Kiln sherds from Lianjiang Pukou kiln showed similar type being produced.

For export Fujian celadon, the centre of production was Nan an (南安) which boasted more than 47 kilns. Together with nearby kilns such as Tong an (同安), Anxi (安溪), Xiamen (厦门)and further away such Minhou (闽侯), Fuqing (福清), Putian (莆田) and Lianjiang (连江), this group of kilns produced similar  green products for overseas market. 

Another interesting type is big bowls decorated with wild goose and floral scrolls motif.  Such bowls were initially though to be product of a Fujian kiln.   However, they are most probably from Anfu kiln in Longquan and example could be found in the book on "Ceramics from the Tioman Island".  The author in the book gave the Anfu attribution based on archaeological report from China.  

Another type of Longquan celadon bowls with paneled stylised motif (see below photo) were also found.  According to Kamei, they made their appearance after A.D 1150.  In comparison to typical Longquan bowls from the central production site of Dayao and Jicun, they are of poorer quality in term of potting and glaze.  They are similar to those produced in Anfu/Anren kilns which are situated northeast of Dayao. 


White/Qingbai wares

The Jepara wreck also carried a substantial quantity of white/qingbai wares.   Large quantity of different sizes cover boxes with impressed floral/abstract motif or plain without motif were also recovered from the wreck.  Similar cover boxes were excavated from the late Northern Song Level of the oldest dehua kiln at Wanpinglun (盖德碗坪崙) and continued to be produced even into the Yuan period.  There are kendis and vases (some with floral-shaped mouth) and small quantity of vases with iron black floral motif.  There are also big shallow big bowls with flat horizontal rim.  They resemble those form Wanpinglun dated to the Late Southern Song period by Chinese ceramics experts. 


Qingbai ewers  with carved waves/floral/abstract motif were also found in the wreck.  They are most likely products from other Fujian Minan kilns.  As compared with ewers from Jingdezhen, they are more thickly and heavily potted.


Brown wares

In this category, there are dark brown glaze kendis and celadon glaze kendis with brown abstract motif.  The kendis are most likely product from the Cizao kiln in Quanzhou.  


Dating of the Ceramics wares

The presence of greenwares and Dehua white wares which based on archaeological evidence are dated to Southern Song indicates that the Jepara wreck is of that period.   The presence of the Jianyan copper coins means that the wreck is dated later than A.D 1130.  During the late Northern Song phase, the Longquan celadon bowls have vertical combed lines on the outer wall and more dense combed/curved motif on the interior.  The presence of small quantity of similar Fujian type suggested that they may continue to be produced  during the mid/late southern Song period while new products were introduced. Such new products are characterised by bowls with plain outer wall and more sparse inner decoration, the main decorative motif are lotus or partitioned stylised floral motif.  This is in line with A.D 1150 - 1200 dating in Kamei Meitoku chronology of the Longquan/Longquan-type greenwares.  This dating is also consistent with Fujian experts' dating of Dehua wares found in the Wanpinglun (盖德碗坪崙) kiln.   


Written by: NK Koh (20 Mar 2010) updated: 20 Mar 2013, updated: 19 Aug 2014



1. The Jepara Wreck by Atma Djuana and Edmund Edwards Mckinnon

2. Chronology of Longquan Wares of the Song and Yuan Period by Kamei Meitoku.  Article published in the book "New Light on Chinese Yue and Longquan wares" edited by Chumei Ho.

3. 福建陶瓷考古概论 (曾凡著)

4. 德化窑 published by Dehua Museum

5. Maritime Secotr, Institutions, and Sea poer of Premodern China (Gang Deng)

6. Offshore Asia: Martime Interactions in Eastern Asia Before  Steamships (edited by Fujita ayoko, Shiro Momoki, Anthony Reid)





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