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Xisha (Paracel) Islands Marine Archaeological Chinese Ceramics Finds

 

In 1998 A.D, the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage instructed the formation of the South China Sea Islands Archaeology Project. The initial focus was the survey and salvage of shipwreck remains in the sea around Xisha (Paracel) Islands.  Xisha Islands is located in the ancient Maritime Silk route.   The ancient mariners had to navigate pass this region in order to reach the Southeast Asian countries.  The region consisted of mainly submerged  coral reefs.  Many of those reefs are in shallow water and pose threat to passing ships.   Many ancient ships met their tragic end in this region.  The Chinese Marine Archaeological team discovered the seabed of this region littered with numerous Chinese Ceramics sherds.   The sherds were from ships dating from 5 Dynasties to Qing period.  Basically the type of wares found mirrored what were found in ancient habitation/burial sites in Southeast Asia.

 

In Nov 2012, the China Ancient Ceramics Society (中国古陶瓷学会) held its annual conference in Hainan.  The  conference focused on the discussions on export ceramics and there was an exhibition of shipwreck sherds salvaged from the Xisha Islands.  More than 80% of the sherds were from Fujian kilns.  The rest consisted of mainly Song/Yuan Qingbai from Jingdezhen, Song/Ming celadon from Longquan and some 5 Dynasties Yue celadon, Northern Xing/Ding white wares and Northern Song qingbai/celadon/blue and white from Guangdong kilns.  It reflects the important role played by Fujian in the export of ancient ceramics from the Song to Qing period.  Over that period, various ports in Fujian served as the main point of exit to the maritime trade trade to Southeast Asia and further west to Middle East : Quanzhou during the Southern Song/Yuan period, Yuegang during the late Ming period and Xiamen during the Qing period.  The Fujian kiln operators mainly produced copies of the famous ceramics products created by other provinces, such as celadon from Zhejiang Longquan and Jiangxi Jingdezhen Qingbai/blue and white.  They were able to capture a large overseas market by leveraging on their proximity to the port to supply cheaper version of famous products.   It was a business model that withstood the test of time.  Over a span of more than 800 years since the Southern Song Dynasty, huge quantities of Fujian ceramics were exported.

Fujian celadon sherds from the Hua Guang Reef (华光礁)

Fujian celadon sherds from the Hua Guang Reef (华光礁)

Longquan/Fujian  celadon sherds from the Yuzhuo Reef (玉琢礁)

Song ceramics sherds from Bei Jiao (北礁)

Fujian Ming blue and white sherds from Yin Yu (银屿)

Yuan Dehua white glaze sherds from Shi Yu (石屿)

 Ming sherds from  Yin Yu (银屿)

Jingdezhen Ming blue and white sherds from Shi Yu (石屿)

Jingdezhen Ming blue and white sherds from Pan Shi Yu (盘石屿)

Fujian Qing blue and white sherds from Shi Yu (石屿)

Dehua Qing blue and white sherds from Nan Shazhou (南沙洲)

Fujian Celadon wares

Majority of the Southern Song celadon sherds recovered were decorated to with carved/combed motif. The outer wall usually have carved striation.  The motifs were copied from the counterpart in Longquan.  Such celadon wares were made in kilns all over Fujian.  But majority of those exported most probably originated from Minnan, region south of the Min river.  Major kiln sites include those in Nan an (南安), Tong an (同安), Fuqing (福清) and Nanping (南平) where the scale of production were large.  As the features of the products are very similar, it is difficult to identify them to a specific Fujian kiln even for Ceramics experts from Fujian.  Generally, they are characterised by more rough finishing with more crude foot and lower portion of the outer wall of bowls that are not glazed.  Similar types from Longquan and Northern Fujian (just across Zhejiang) are more finely potted, with well made foot, better glaze and glaze that fully cover the outer wall and even outer foot. 

There is however a type of big shallow bowl with impressed character Da Ji or Ji (大吉/吉) that has been positively identified as product of Nan an kiln.  Songxi (松溪) and Pucheng (浦城) in Northern Fujian also made similar bowls but the outer wall of the bowl and foot is fully glazed.

 

Two examples Song Fujian celadon with carved/combed motif

Example showing the rough foot and partially unglaze lower wall and carved striations

 

Example with carved/combed and impressed Ji character from Nan an kiln

During the Yuan period, many of the Fujian celadon exported have been identified as from Putian kilns.  Many are decorated with impressed motif. They are characterised by a grayish green glaze and unglaze ring on inner base.

Yuan Putian celadon with unglaze ring on inner base and impressed floral motif

 

Qingbai/white glaze wares

Majority of the exported Song Fujian Qingbai/white glaze wares originated from Minnan region of  Dehua, Nan an, Tong an and Quangzhou kilns. 

Examples of Fujian Qingbai wares

Within the usual classification of Fujian Qingbai, there is an interesting group of thinly potted bowls with more elaborate carved/combed floral or waves motif. They usually have a straw colour or grayish white glaze and characterised by pooling of glaze near the inner and outer rim and sometime even the inner and outer wall.  I believe their classification as qingbai is mainly based on the reason that similar motifs were found in Jingdezhen Qingbai bowls.  But it is puzzling why the glaze is different from the more even pale greenish colour found on other types of Fujian Qingbai wares.  Personally, I think the glaze is intended to imitate the ivory Ding glaze with the typical pooling of teardrop- like glaze effect.  It is more like a hybrid of Qingbai and Ding ware.  Minqing Yi kiln (闽清义窑) has been identified as one of the major kiln that produced such bowls. 

 

Examples demonstrating the bowls with teardrop-like pooling of glaze

During the Yuan period, Dehua emerged as the key production site for white wares.  During the Late Ming period, Dehua finally developed the unique ivory white Blanc de Chine that were much treasured by the European consumers.

Putian, a major site for Yuan Fujian celadon, also produced similar white wares but the quality is more rough.  It also produced a grayish blue Qingbai bowls with unglazed rim and impressed motif.

Yuan Dehua white wares

Brown/black and lead green/brown glaze wares

Quanzhou Cizhao (磁灶) kiln has been identified as the major production sites for export of Song Fujian brown/black glaze wares. 

Brown glaze jars from Cizao kiln

During Yuan Dynasty, Cizao kiln also supplied lead green/yellow glaze wares to the overseas market.

Ming/Qing Fujian blue and white wares

During Ming Jiajing period, Zhangzhou emerged as the region that supply Fujian blue and white to the overseas market.  Zhangzhou blue and white is characterised by the thick potting, uneven thick glaze and sandy grits on the outer lower base.

Examples of Ming Zhangzhou blue and white

For more on Zhangzhou blue and white, please read this article.

During Qing Qianlong period, Dehua emerged as a major producer of Qing blue and white wares.  Instead of the Jingdezhen outline and wash method for the motif, Dehua opted for the early Ming style calligraphic strokes for the execution of the motif.  Dehua blue and white was highly demanded overseas as attested by the more than 350,000 pieces in the Tek Sing wreck dated 1822 A.D.  Due to its popularity, Dehua style blue and white were also produced in neighbouring Yongchun (永春), Anxi (安溪) and further south in Raoping (饶平) in Guangdong. 

For more on Dehua Blue and white, please read this article.

Examples of Qing Dehua blue and white

 

For a more detail overview of Fujian trade ceramics, please read this article.

 

Xisha Ceramics finds - Reflection of Ancient Ceramics Trade Pattern

To a significant degree, the wide varieties of Xisha Ceramics finds is physical evidence which reflects the role played by the various Chinese kilns in the ancient export ceramics trade over the period of more than 1000 years from Tang to late Qing period.  We can discern the following:

 

 

 

  

 

 

Written by : NK Koh (5 Nov 2013)

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