Re-visting The Dating For the Earliest Zhangzhou (Swatow) Blue and white

The earliest production date of Zhangzhou ware remains uncertain and a topic still much debated.  Some of the known wrecks such as San Isidro, Nanao 1 and Blanakan, are believed to carry some of the earliest known Zhangzhou ware.  However the dating is much debated with conclusion of dating varying from Late Jiajing to early Wanli.  

Recently I read the excavation report of the Ko Kradat wreck, located near Southeastern Thailand, salvaged in 1978/80.  The cargo consisted of mainly Thai iron-black painted wares, brown glaze jars/jarlets and some Chinese blue and white fragments.  However, what is of particular interest to me was the presence of two fragments of Zhangzhou blue and white fragments with floral motif painted with calligraphic strokes in this wreck. The other known wreck with cargo of Zhangzhou and Thai Sawankhalok iron-black painted ware is San Isidro from the water of Philippines.  However, only two jarlets with iron-black painted decoration were found.  In view of the small number, it is hard to know whether they were some older items belonging to the sailors and hence not contemporaneous to the cargo of Zhangzhou wares.


The production date of those Thai Sawankhalok iron-black painted wares could offer useful clue and leads to confirm the dating of earliest Zhangzhou blue and white.  It was given a late Ming Wanli dating. But subsequent discovery and  research studies done on Xuande, Phu Quoc 1 and Singtai wrecks narrowed down the production of the Sawankhalok iron- brown wares to possibly 1530 - 1560 A.D time- frame. 

The production of such wares was likely in response to declining demand for its celadon wares  in the face of commanding popularity of Chinese and Vietnamese blue and white.  It would appear the Thai potters for some reasons were unable to find cobalt or choose to use iron oxide as colorant for its decorated wares.  But the composition and motifs clearly shown influence from Chinese and Vietnam sources.


Among the fragments, there is one with the Jiajing mark on the base.  Hence, the wreck is either Jiajing or later.

Fragment with the Made in Ming Jiajing Mark
Some Ming blue and white fragments
Also there is one bowl fragment with the grapes and vine decoration on the interior and pine tree on the exterior. In the Ko Kradat report, it was erroneously identified as of Sawankhalok origin. Interestingly, such bowls were salvaged from the Indonesia Blanakan and Nanao 1 wrecks. 

Left bottom Zhangzhou fragment stylistically similar to that on the bowl on right

Stylistically, those from Ko Kradat and Blanakan are very similar whereas that from Nanao 1 more sketchily and poorly drawn.


If we compare the Zhangzhou wares from the Kradat, Blanakan, Philippines San Isidro and Nanao wreck 1 wreck, stylistically the calligraphic strokes of the blue and white motifs from Nanao 1 wreck are more free but not as controlled and elegantly executed as that from the other 3 wrecks. 

More examples from the Nanao 1 wreck

If we examine the blue and white from the San Isidro wreck, some examples have motifs and composition which are more similar to the Jingdezhen examples of Hongzhi/Zhengde period. In contrast, those from Nanao 1 wreck have evolved and shown increasingly more distinct features in motifs and composition.

Comparison of Jingdezhen and Zhangzhou examples

In 2019 Shanghai Museum did TL testings on two of the Jingdezhen samples from the Nanao 1 wreck. The results showed a dating range of 490±40 and 498±50 respectively. Hence the terminus ante quem date range is 1569 - 1571 A.D equivalent to  3rd to 5th year of Longqing reign (1567 - 1572 A.D).

Two samples from Nanao 1 wreck TL tested

In conclusion, based on information on the dating of the Thai Sawankhalok iron-black painted wares and the stylistic comparison with Nanao 1 examples, I am more incline to push the dating for the Zhangzhou wares from the San Isidro, Blanakan and Ko Kradat wrecks to at least the late Jiajing period.

Written by: NK Koh (10 Jun 2022)