via New Mandala, 22 October 2021: Were Chinese ceramics traded in Southeast Asia inferior cast-offs? This piece by Dr Alex Burchmore updates our view based on new shipwreck discoveries in Southeast Asia.
The most intriguing aspect of these wrecks is the discovery, in what remains of the older vessel, of the most substantial cargo of Chinese Yuan-dynasty (1271-1368) blue-and-white ceramics ever found in Southeast Asian waters. The quantity of these pieces far exceeds earlier finds, while the similarity of celadon-glazed wares carried by the same ship with examples found at Empress Place, dated to the late 14th or early 15th century, indicates that at least part of the cargo may have been intended for local circulation. It is not only the unprecedented quantity, however, but also the astounding quality of these blue-and-white wares that renders their discovery so remarkable and potentially transformative for our understanding of the China Trade in Southeast Asia.
There has long been a persistent assumption among scholars of the China Trade that the greatest reverence for Chinese ceramics in the region, and their most receptive market, could be found among the indigenous communities of the Philippines and Indonesia. Unfamiliar with the source of these goods and the methods of their manufacture, the argument goes, indigenous collectors were unanimously captivated by the translucent fragility of porcelain and the inscrutable designs with which such wares were adorned, regarding them not merely as functional commodities but powerful talismans of cosmological significance. Imported ceramics therefore became a vehicle for cementing alliances, easing the transition to ancestral realms, healing dire spiritual sicknesses, revealing prophesy, or mediating between human and other worlds. An implicit, and sometimes explicit contrast has frequently been drawn between this context of use and that which prevailed in Europe and the Middle East, where a comparable tendency toward awestruck speculation has largely been overlooked by scholars who emphasise the ornamental uses of Chinese ceramics in the domestic interiors of the wealthy.