A General Survey on Zhangzhou (Swatow) Wares


Swatow ware is a specialised group of chinese ceramics characterises by the sandy grits on the base, heavy /coarse potting but somehow attracts many collectors with its spontaneously executed decoration. It was termed swatow wares as it was erroneously believed to be exported from Swatow (shantou [汕头]) in Guangdong province.  In reality, Shantou was still a fishing village during the Ming Dynasty.  It established itself as a port only in the late Qing Xianfeng period.  

A typical swatow (Zhangzhou) blue  and white with grits adhering to the outer base 

Location of Zhangzhou (swatow) kilns


Extensive archaeological excavations and researches by the Chinese archaeologists in the 1990s have finally conclusively identified swatow wares as wares originating from Zhangzhou prefecture.  The production centres were located in several counties: Pinghe the main site and lesser ones in Huaan, Nanjing, Zhangpu, Zhaoan and Yunxiao.  Broadly speaking, those in the neighbouring Dapu and Raoping in Guangdong also produced similar wares.



Emergence of Yuegang Port and Export of Zhangzhou (swatow) wares


During Ming Hongwu reign, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang announced the imperial ban on private overseas maritime trade.  One of the main reasons for the policy was the trouble created by the Japanese pirates (wako)  along the coastal region from Zhejiang to Guangdong.  Trades with foreign countries were permitted only through the highly regulated and elaborate tributary system.  Hence, many foreign countries used the presentation of tributes as a pretext to conduct trading with China.  After the Xuande period,  several emperors with weak capability ascended the throne.  Corruption became rife and foreign countries found it too costly to conduct trade through the tribute system.  By the time of Chenghua/Hongzhi (1464 1505 A. D) , the Ming ban had become ineffective and largely ignored. The tribute system which allowed some level of trade through official channel has essentially collapsed. For the first 6 years of Hongzhi reign, the court only received two tribute missions, from Champa and Siam, through Guangzhou. During Hongzhi reign, an official Qiu Jun (丘浚)appealed to the court to lift the ban on overseas trading. This was an indication of the general sentiments on the ground. It also suggested that the court's attitude and position towards the ban has also likely softened. There was rampant illegal overseas trade controlled by large syndicates operated by the rich landlords, merchants and corrupted officials. The temporary lifting of the ban during the reign of Zhengde (1505 - 1521 A. D) further boosted trade.  Although the trade ban was re-imposed during the reign of Jiajing, it was ineffective.

Fujian province, being a mountainous region with only 20% arable land was especially badly affected by the trade ban.  Its people had since ancient time depended on foreign trade activities for livelihood. The severe economic hardship impelled them to take risk and engage in smugglings and piracy.   Yuegang was then known as a favourite port frequented by smugglers and pirates.  Chinese ceramics especially those from Jingdezhen was a highly demanded commodity.  Since the mid of 15th century, Yuegang was one of the main avenues for export of Jingdezhen blue and white wares.  Such trading activities were further boosted with the arrival of European traders.   The Ming court finally realised the futility and difficulties of imposing the ban.  By legalising and officially recognising Yuegang as a port for foreign trade in 1567 A.D, it hoped to curb corruption and smuggling activities.  The revenue generated from tax on foreign trade would also help to maintain the army to fend off the pirates, especially those from Japan.  Yuegang benefited from the new policy and became an important international port of the late Ming period.

Zhangzhou, with its bountiful supply of raw materials for ceramics production and ease of transport by rivers to Yuegang, seized the opportunity and became an important production centre.  The Pinghe County annals, which was first compiled in 1545 A.D (Jiajing period), mentioned that the kilns in Nansheng (南胜) and Guanliao (官寮) manufactured fine quality ceramics.  Excavations showed that some kilns started production since Song Dynasty but the number of kilns reached its peak during the late Ming period.  Only a few continued to produce ceramics during the Qing period.  Based on information gathered from cargoes of Zhangzhou wares recovered from several shipwrecks since the 1990s, it substantiated the general view that production commenced during the late Ming period.  There is a likelihood that production of Zhangzhou ware may have started towards the closing years of Jiajing reign.  This will be discussed in greater details later.

Zhangzhou adopted similar marketing and pricing strategy of Song/Yuan Fujian ceramics producers.   Zhangzhou ceramics  were targeted at the lower end of the overseas consumer market.  The production volume was indeed huge as evidenced by the large number excavated from ancient habitation and burial sites, salvaged from shipwrecks  and passed down as heirlooms in Southeast Asia countries and Japan.  Their physical traces could also be found all the way to Africa and America.   Professor Jane Klose of South Africa cape town university who did excavation in Cape of Good Hope noted that Jingdezhen ceramics were found in sites inhabited previously by the colonial officials.  But Fujian ceramics were found in sites inhabited by commoners. 

The fortune of the Zhangzhou kilns took a downward turn after the fall of the Ming Dynasty.  Taiwan, which Zheng Cheng Gong captured from the Dutch, was the last  base of Ming loyalists' resistance against the Qing rule.  The final blow was dealt when Emperor Kangxi ordered the evacuation of all residents from the coastal region of Fujian and Guangdong in 1662 .  The strategy was to cut off any coastal support for the resistant force in Taiwan.  When the ban was lifted in 1682, Yuegang failed to recover its previous glory.  It's role as a major port was replaced by Xiamen.  Majority of the kilns in Zhangzhou also did not resume production.  Dehua and the kilns in its vicinity replaced Zhangzhou as the major blue and white ceramics production centre. 

Changes in the trading Networks - Arrival of the European traders


From the Song period, the Chinese emerged as an active and dominant participant both in the production and distribution of Chinese ceramics. Since then, many Chinese had settled down in Southeast Asia and developed an extensive trading networks and web of connections.  The Hongwu ban on foreign trade forced more Chinese to migrate to Southeast Asia and we see a further widening of the existing trading networks.  Maritime archaeology discovery of a hybrid 'South China Sea' tradition vessel offers further corroborative evidence of the new development. Prior to imposition of the Ming Ban in 1371 A.D, such ship construction was unknown.  Displaced Chinese merchants who moved to Southeast Asia at that stage may have been the first to order ships built in this manner.  These vessels are built from tropical hardwood joined by wooden dowels, but with supplementary use of iron nails to fasten the transverse bulkheads to frames at the hull.  Four ships of the South China Sea type have been found around Malaysia: the Nanyang (c.1380), Longquan (c.1400), Royal Nanhai (c.1460) and Singtai (c.1550).

But from the beginning of the 16th century, there was a seismic shift which increasingly weakened the Chinese control over the export trade in the Southeast Asia region. The lure of great profits to be made from trade in Chinese goods especially silk and ceramics attracted European adventurers to China. The Portuguese first arrived at Tunmen (near the mouth of the pearl river) in Guangdong in 1513.  They had some initial success and made lucrative profits from the trading.  Subsequently, the Portuguese and the Chinese navy had some crashes at sea in Guangdong and suffered defeats.  The Portuguese had reached Yuegang in 1517 A.D but then their main trading base was Tunmen in Guangdong.  When they could no longer conduct any business through Tunmen, they diverted there activities to Yuegang in 1522 where the imposition of trade ban was less stringent and effective.  They even penetrated Ningbo in Zhejiang in 1539 with the assistance of the gentry/merchant syndicates.  Through those syndicates, the Portuguese was able to engage in private trades successfully. In 1548, Zhu Wan was appointed as the governor for Zhejiang and Fujian.  He was a staunch proponent of maritime prohibition policy and he succeeded in driving the Portuguese out of  Zhejiang and Fujian.  However, from archaeological and historical records, we know that the Portuguese was still able to conduct significant trade through Guangdong Shangchuan Island (上川岛), located west of Macao, from around Zhengde/Jiajing period.  It was abandoned after the persistent Portuguese finally succeeded in securing Macao as base for trading in 1557.  Zhu Wan's action adversely affected the commercial interest of the gentry/merchant syndicates.  His subsequent suspension and suicide showed how the invisible hand of the gentry/merchant syndicates was able to manipulate corrupt officials to influence court decisions. Although the Portuguese now operated from Macao, their connection with the gentry/merchant syndicates was relatively intact and they were still able to trade successfully.  

The Spaniards arrived in Philippines via America in 1521.  Using Manila as a transhipment point, goods from China, India and Southeast Asia were assembled and loaded on the galleons which made regular voyages to Acapulco in Mexico, another Colony of Spain.  The Spaniards paid for the goods and taxes with silver from Mexico and Peru. The peak period of trade was between late 16th century to mid 17th century.  

The Dutch was a relative late participant in the spices and ceramics trade.  They started out looking for the riches of the East in 1602.   In the ceramics trade, they lost out to the Portuguese and Spaniards who already established  good connections  and networks.  They only managed to gain official permission to trade through Farmosa (Taiwan) in 1624.  In order to dominate the maritime trade, they repeatedly attacked and looted the ships of the Portuguese/Spaniards and junks of the Chinese.  They were feared and notorious for their atrocities.  The destructive ravages  and the disruptions to trade of the Dutch was one of the factors which subsequently contributed to the decline of Yuegang.  The Dutch finally dominated the maritime trade in  the first half of the 17th century.  


Phases of Production of Zhangzhou wares


The first major report on archaeological surveys of Zhangzhou ware was published in 1997.  From the report, we are now certain that the centre of production was in Zhangzhou Pinghe County (漳州平和县).  Two important and major production sites are Da Long (大垅) and Er Long (二垅) in Wuzhai (五寨) and Nansheng Huazai Lou (南胜花仔楼)。

Archaeological excavations revealed that swatow wares were fired in saggars.  To prevent the vessel from adhering to the saggar due to overflow of glaze, the potters spread a layer of sands, which could be as thick as 2 cm,  on the base of the saggar.  Big plates tend to warp during firing. The thick layer of sands to a certain extent helps to limit warping of the big plates during firing.  However,  warping do still occur and resulted in the outer wall covered with sand patches.  Without the sand buffer, the plate would have stuck to the saggar and rendered the plate unusable. Some small items such as bowls were fired using the stacking method, evidenced by the unglaze ring on the inner base.

As all the sites were badly disturbed, a chronology of production based on stratigrahic examination was infeasible and impossible to draw any meaningful information.   Although the characteristics of Zhangzhou blue and white from Nansheng Huazai lou and Wuzhai Er Long are different, there was insufficient information to decide whether it represented different phases in production or contemporaneous with specialisation of production.

Mrs Sumarah Adhyatman in her book "Zhangzhou (Swatow Ceramics)" chronologically classified Zhangzhou blue and white based on the stylistic execution of the decoration.  She identified those executed using calligraphic strokes as Conservative type and the later kraak style type using the outline and wash method as the persistent type.  She is of the view that the conservative type were introduced earlier that the persistent type.   The archaeological surveys revealed that those characterise by calligraphic strokes were mainly produced at the Wuzhai Er Long kiln and the outline and wash type were produced at the Nansheng Huazai Lou kiln. Er Long Kiln also produced the later type but in term of quantity much lesser than the calligraphic type.  But as there was continuity in production, it would be useful to study the products of this kiln more closely to identify the transitional products, ie. the early outline and wash type.


Excavated example from Wuzai Erlong Kiln (五寨二壠窑)

Outline and Wash type from Nansheng Huazai Lou kiln


Mrs Sumarah Adhyatman's observation is substantiated by the findings from some of the known shipwrecks with Zhangzhou wares salvaged since the 1990s.  The cargoes are essentially time capsules which preserved complete physical evidence on the products exported at a particular point of time.  Chronologically, the wrecks can be separated into two distinct phases:


From +/-1550/1580s (Late Jiajing to early Wanli period):


From 1590s - 1680s (Mid Wanli to Early Kangxi Period):

Although I have conservatively date some above early wrecks as Jiajing/Longqing, there is reason to believe that they are more specifically as early as late Jiajing period.  Please read this article for the reasoning.

It should however be noted that small number with calligraphic decoration continued to be produced at the later phase of production cycle as confirmed by their presence in the Binh Thuan wreck. But the change of product range is clear, the outline and wash type predominated.

Those Zhangzhou type wares found in Hatcher cargo and Wanli cargo are small in quantity.  The Zhangzhou type wares found in Vung Tau were even fewer and limited variety, an indication of the imminent demise of Zhangzhou kilns.

Binh Thuan Shipwreck plates with human motif.  A typical type of Wanli and later period which used the outline and wash method

Wanli Kraak style Blue and white charger from Pinghe kiln

Binh Thuan Shipwreck bowl with ducks in ltus pond


The Zhangzhou ware cargo from San Isidro probably represented the earliest production of Zhangzhou kilns that were exported.  Two Thai Sawankhalok jarlets with iron-black painted decoration were useful in determining the terminus post quem.  Two other wrecks, Xuande and Singtai,found in the sea off the east coast of West Malaysia with some of those Thai wares suggested a dating of +/- 1540. 

In 2019 Shanghai Museum did TL testings on two of the Jingdezhen samples from the Nanao 1 wreck. The results yielded a dating range of 49040 and 49850 respectively. Hence the terminus ante quem date range is 1569 - 1571 A.D equivalent to 2nd to 5th year of Longqing reign (1567 A.D - 1572 A.D).

The Jingdezhen blue and white wares found in wreck such as Blanankan and Nanao wreck clearly possess late Jiajing to Longqing features. 

There were some swatow calligraphic style blue and white decorated wares from an unknown wreck found near the shore of Ensendada in Baja California of Mexico.   The wreck was initially identitifed as that of  San Felipe, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1576 A.D.   However, more recently uncovered documents revealed that San Felipe sank near near Urado on the Japanese Island of Shikoko enroute from Manila to Accuplco.  It is now suggested that the wreck could be San Juanillo (sank in 1578 A.D) instead.


Thai Sawankhalok jarlet from San Isidro Wreck

Examples with calligrahic decoration from San Isidro Wreck

Examples with the calligraphic style floral decoration from the Belanakan wreck

Zhangzhou blue and white from the Nan Ao shipwreck with motif executed in calligraphic strokes
Examples from unknown wrecks  in the Sea near Indonesia


From the few known wrecks with Zhangzhou wares,  we can be certain that production is unlikely to be later than Lonqing period (1567 - 1573 A.D). But an even earlier late Jiajing commencement date is a tenable proposition.  From historical records, the Pinghe county annals first published in 1545 A.D  mentioned that the region produced porcelains.  Analysis of the cargo of  San Isidro, Nanao 1 and Belanakan wrecks also offered convincing arguments for the conclusion.  There was huge overseas demand for ceramics and Zhouzhou with its proximity to Yuegang port was well placed to play a role then.


Examples from the San Juanillo  wreck


From extant collections such as those from Philippines, we noted that there are many excellent blue and white wares from the first phase.  They are elaborately decorated and very well drawn, representing the highest quality achieved by the potters.  Comparable examples could be found in the Wuzhai Er Long kiln excavation.  An interesting observation made was that on the plate, the external base of those from Er Long kiln tend to have an even layer of glaze.  In comparison, those from the latter phase Nansheng Huazai Lou kiln, the layer of glaze tend to be patchy and missing from some area in many instances.

Two beautiful examples from the Philippines Bautista collection
Comparable example from the Er Long kiln excavation

Plate with ladies in garden from the Ching Ban Lee Gallery

Example with human motif from Er Long Kiln

Example with elaborate floral decoration from Er Long Kiln

An example with Chilin motif and it shows the even layer of glaze on outer base
Example with lotus decoration from my collection

In the later phase, 2 important developments took place.  The adoption of outline and wash painting technique and composition essentially based on the kraak style composition introduced by the Jingdezhen potters. We also see the introduction of more varieties of products:overglaze enameled motif, monochrome with underglaze white slip motif, monochrome with incised motif and lead glaze sancai.  All these types were found in Nansheng Hua Zailou kiln but not Wuzhai Er Long kiln. 


From the San Diego wreck.  Left Jingdezhen kraak plate and right Zhangzhou kraak inspired type


There is a distinctive difference in the composition of the later phase blue and white product of Er Long kiln.  The potters mainly used circular bands to partition the groups of decoration.  Vertical partitioning into panels was sparingly used.  The arrangement of decoration is typically more sparse compared to those from the Nasheng Hua Zailou kiln. 

The typical more sparse compostion of Er Long later phase blue and white
Typically more crowded decoration and complex partitioning adopted by the Nansheng Hua Zailou potters 
This example from my collection could be from the Er Long kiln. It has the more sparse composition and the characteristic relatively even glaze on outer base

Zhangzhou blue and white (the persistent type) using the outline and wash method

Two Examples  of big plates with kraak style decoration

Besides the San Diego wreck, the Binh Thuan cargo is a good reference source for later phase Zhangzhou blue and white.  Another unknown wreck with mainly Swatow wares was also discovered in 2014 near Batam of Indonesia.  Based on the characteristics of the decorations, it can be dated to about 1600-1620 A.D.  Please click here for more on the Batam wreck.

Later Phase Diversification of Product range


As mentioned earlier, Zhangzhou potters widened their range of products during the later phase.  In reality, those were not innovations as the source of inspiration could clearly be traced to Jingdezhen. 

  • Overglaze enamelled ware : Jingdezhen potters were known to produce such ware since the Yuan Dynasty.  Quite a substantial amount of Jingdezhen overglaze enamelled wares were exported during the Jiajing/Wanli period.  Some were recovered from the Nanao 1 wreck. From shipwreck sources, so far I have only seen some from the Bintan and Batam wreck.  From archaeological sources, some examples were found during the Nansheng Hua Zailou kiln excavation. From the extant pieces found in various overseas collections, both private and museums, we are impressed by the repertoire of patterns which is definitely more rich, wide ranging and interesting as compared to those compared by their Jingdezhen counterparts.

Jingdezhen Overglaze enamelled examples from Nanao wreck


Fragments from Nansheng Hua Zailoug kiln 


Fragments were from the Nansheng Hua Zailou kiln

Overglaze enamelled big plate with landscape motif

3 overglaze enamelled big plates from my collection

2 examples from Xiamen Museum

Example with degraded enamels from the Binh Thuan wreck


  • Monochrome with white slip decoration: Again this is not a new innovation and the pro-type can be traced to Jingdezhen.  From the extant pieces, we notice that Zhangzhou potters had further developed its artistic expression and potential through introduction of imaginative range of decorations.

Jingdezhen Wanli examples of white slip decoration

Two brown glaze plates with slip painted decoration from Ming Chongzhen Hatcher Cargo
Brown glaze kendi with white slip abstract floral decoration found in Indonesia Sumatra 

White glaze plate with white slip floral decoration on inner base
  • Monochrome with incised decoration: This is a also a relatively popular type of decorative technique.  Also likely Jingdezhen inspired but so far the range of motifs appear to be quite limited.  The most popular decoration is the fish leaping wave. 

    Celadon glaze big plate with incised fish leaping over wave motif
  • Lead glaze Susancai ware:  Lead glaze were known to potters since the Han Dynasty.  In Fujian, it was also widely used by potters since the Song/Yuan period.  But considering the decorative style, it is clear that Zhangzhou products were modeled after those produced in Jingdezhen.  This is the most misunderstood category and for a long time thought to be produced in Vietnam.   In Japan it is termed Jiaozhi shao (交趾烧), ie Jiaozhi fired.  During  late Ming 17th cent. Edo period, many susancai lidded boxes with elaborate molded motif on the cover were exported to Japan. Those lidded boxes (termed kogu in Japanese) were utensils used to keep kneaded incense (termed neriko in Japanese), an essential implement for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  Jiaozhi was an ancient name referring to a region in Northeastern Vietnam near present day Hanoi. That region constituted a prefecture of the Han empire. In the past, those susancai vessels were believed to have been manufactured in that region of Vietnam. This is a myth and a case of mistaken identity. The Dutch trading company VOC most probably may have contributed to the wrong identification of origin. During the 17th cent. Dutch VOC was the most powerful European trading power in the East and Southeast Asia region. The port near Hanoi was an important gathering base for products from China and Vietnam. A large portion was shipped to Japan through the port of Hirado and later Deshima, both in Nagasaki of Kyushu Island. Those susancai vessels were among the imports and the fact that they were shipped from Vietnam may have contributed to the wrong impression and identification.

Two cover boxes from Japanese collection

Lead glaze lidded boxes from Binh Thuan wreck

Some interesting examples of susancai cover boxes box found in Sumatra

Late Ming Zhangzhou lead glaze sancai cover boxes. Some quantity of such boxes were from salvaged from the Hatcher wreck

Two examples of susancai with incised floral motif

Susancai jarlet with incised abstract decoration 

Samples of Zhangzhou (swatow) wares from kiln sites


The kilns in Pinghe county produced all the various types including big chargers which are only produced in small quantities in other kilns.  Those produced in Zhaoan kilns are generally better in quality , more highly fired and usually glazed on the outer base.  So far it is still difficult to identify those ceramics that may have been produced during the Jiajing Period as very similar types were produced over the late Ming period.  

For views of some some of the shards found in the various kilns, please click below links:


More examples of Zhangzhou wares 


Late Ming bowl with landscape and poetic inscription.  Dia. 16.5 cm Late Ming bowl with chi dragon motif  Dia. 16 cm
Late Ming bowl with kraak style floral motif.  Dia. 20 cm Late Ming bowl with kraak style motif on interior.  Dia. 20 cm 
Vung Tau cargo dish with landscape.  Dia. 12 cm Late Ming bowl with Dragon motif.  Dia. 17 cm
Late Ming Vase with galloping horses


Late Ming kendi with floral motif




Zhangzhou kilns 漳州窑 -福建漳州地区明清窑址调查发掘报告之一

Zhangzhou (Swatow) Ceramics - Sumarah Adhyatman



For more information on Zhangzhou wares, please view below video clips:


Video clip on the extensive Swatow Blue and white in National Museum of Indonesia

Video clip on Swatow wares in Asian Civilisation Museum of Singapore


Written by: Koh Nai King Oct 07,  updated 29 Nov 2010, updated 21 Sep 2015, updated 2 Apr 2020, updated 3 Jun 2022