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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.  The system essentially broke down and coupled with the continued ban on private foreign trade, people living in the coastal region bore the brunt of economic hardship.  Fujian province, being a mountainous region with only 20% arable land was especially badly affected.  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.  

Those illegal maritime activities were controlled by the influential gentry/merchant syndicates.  Through bribery of the corrupt officials, illegal private trade flourished.  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 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. To reap the benefit of tribute trade, the Portuguese even resorted to bribery of court officials. In 1521, they posed as tribute mission from Malacca and was granted an an audience with Zhengde emperor.  In the meantime, emperor Zhengde he died and Jiajing ascended to the throne.  The scam was discovered when the real  Malacca sultan ambassador arrived at the court.   [The Malacca sultan had retreated to Johore in Southern part of Malaysia after the capture of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511. From his base at Johore, the old Sultan of Malacca repeatedly attacked Malacca in 1517, 1520, 1521 and in 1525.  At last, in 1583 A.D, a peace treaty was signed with the Portuguese.). That angered the emperor and he ordered the Portuguese to be banished.  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 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.  

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.

The arrival of the European (first the Portuguese, followed by the Spaniard and dutch) created additional overseas markets.  The Jingdezhen potters could no longer meet the ever increasing and insatiable demand.  Zhangzhou, with its bountiful supply of raw materials for ceramics production and ease of transport by rivers, seized the opportunity and became an important production centre.  The Pinghe County annals, which was first compiled in 1545 (Jiajing period), mentioned that the kilns in Nansheng and Guanliao manufactured fine 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.

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 major blue and white ceramics production centre. 

Shipwrecks provide wealth of information on the types of Zhangzhou wares being produced.   The known wrecks include:

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, a confirmation of the decline of Zhangzhou kilns.

Binh Thuan Shipwreck plate with human motif.  A typical type of Wanli and later period which used the outline and wash method Late Ming Overglaze enamelled ship/fishes motif

Wanli Kraak style Blue and white charger from Pinghe kiln


Binh Thuan Shipwreck plate with scholar motif

Binh Thuan Shipwreck bowl with ducks in ltus pond


Types of Zhangzhou (swatow) wares

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.

Generally speaking, there are the following 6 types of Zhangzhou wares: blue and white, blue and white with overglaze enameled motif, overglaze enameled motif, monochrome with underglaze white slip motif, monochrome with incised motif and lead glaze sancai.

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 earliest dated wreck which carried the conservative type is the San Felipe which sank in 1576, ie 4th year of Ming Wanli period. 

Example from the San Felipe wreck

The early swatow plates shared features of Jingdezhen Ming Jiajing blue and white wares in term of the form and decorations.  However, Jingdezhen used the outline and wash method while swatow potters adopted the calligraphic style of execution of motif which was popular in Jingdezhen early Ming wares.

Jingdezhen Ming Jiajing decoration using the outline and wash method.

The discovery of the San Isidro, Belanakan wreck and Nan Ao wrecks provide further evidence to support her view.  The Zhangzhou wares in the two wrecks suggest that at least during the transition from Ming Late Jiajing/early Wanli period, such wares were already in production.

Examples with the calligraphic style floral decoration from the Belanakan wreck

Two examples similar to those found in the San Isidro Wreck

Another earlier Swatow plate

The excavation report on Zhangzhou kiln in 1997 showed that erlong (二壠窑) kiln in Pinghe Wuzhai (平和五寨) produced many of the calligraphic style blue and white. Examples similar to that from the San Isidro wreck were also excavated from this site.  It was very likely one of the earliest sites for Zhangzhou wares.   Its production period was long and subsequently it also produced the outline and wash decoration.  Other sites in wuzhai also also produced the calligraphic style type but not as large scale as that from Erlong kiln.  The other important kiln site Pinghe Nansheng Huazailou (平和南胜花仔楼) produced mainly the kraak style outline and wash decoration of Wanli period. It is very likely a later site which also indicates that the scale of production had expanded to cater for increasing demand for Zhangzhou wares.

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

Generally the earlier Zhangzhou plates, besides the calligraphic style of execution of the decoration, also have a cleaner outer base with less sign of grits adhesion.  Some of the blue and white plates with calligraphic style persisted till the late Wanli period, but interestingly the outer base  has the typical grits adhesion and short foot.

Zhangzhou blue and white from the Nan Ao shipwreck with motif executed in calligraphic strokes


Three examples with motif executed in calligraphic strokes

The Binh Thuan  shipwreck carried the later period persistent type characterises by the outline and wash method.  There are also more variety of decorations portrayed on the vessels.  Another 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.


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

This period also saw Zhangzhou kiln producing blue and white decorated with the Jingdezhen kraak panelled style motif.  As mentioned earlier, Pinghe Nansheng Huazailou kiln was one of the most important source of such products.

Binh Thuan wreck Zhangzhou kraak style large charger

Two Examples  of big plates with kraak style decoration

Besides blue and white which constituted the bulk of Swatow wares, Zhangzhou kilns also produced overglaze enamelled wares, monchrome wares decorated with slip painted decorations.  These are not new innovation but medium of decorations found in Jingdezhen wares.


Overglaze enamelled big platee with landscape motif

White glaze plate with white slip floral decoraiton on inner base
Celadon glaze big plate with incised fish leaping over wave motif

Another interesting category is lead glaze susancai wares.  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 lidded cover boxes from Japanese collection


Lead glaze lidded box from Binh Thuan wreck

Late Ming Zhangzhou lead glaze sancai cover boxes

Two examples of susancai with incised floral motif


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:


Some examples of Zhangzhou wares 

Binh Thuan shipwreck Single phoenix plate. Dia. 26 cm Binh Thuan shipwreck Basin 
Binh Thuan shipwreck plate with scholar fishing scene . Dia. 26.5 cm Transitional period Dish with leaf and poetic inscription.  Dia. 20 cm
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 overglaze enamelled scene of ship, fishes and compass at the centre.  Dia. 34 cm
Late Ming overglaze enamelled floral and chilin motif.  Dia. 38 cm Late Ming bowl with Dragon motif.  Dia. 17 cm
Late Ming Vase with galloping horses


Late Ming kendi with floral motif


For more information on Zhangzhou wares, please view below:


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



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Written by: Koh Nai King Oct 07,  updated 29 Nov 2010, updated 21 Sep 2015