Pedi­gree of “Kraak Porce­lain”

China Scenic - - Silk Road -

Long known as the land of porce­lain—“china”— be­gan ship­ping porce­lain back in the East­ern Han (AD 25–220). Dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty, when it re­placed silk as the main item ex­ported in bulk and global mar­ket de­mand for China-made porce­lain took shape, the for­mer ocean-based silk route was rechris­tened as the “Mar­itime Ce­ramic Road.” Thanks to their ro­bust phys­i­cal prop­er­ties, porce­lain items were pre­served whole in­side the sunken junks, thereby main­tain­ing an in­deli­ble Zeit­geist that has passed down to our days.

When speak­ing about Chi­nese porce­lain for ex­port mar­kets, one can­not avoid the topic of qinghuaci (“blue-and-white ware”). This fine porce­lain orig­i­nated in the Tang, and by the reign of Em­peror Kangxi of Qing (1661–1722), fir­ing tech­nol­ogy had reached its his­tor­i­cal high point. Based on the porce­lain retrieved from ship­wrecks, it is clear that early ship­ments to over­seas buy­ers were fairly mixed, in­clud­ing qing ci (celadon), he­ici (black porce­lain) and qing­baici (green porce­lain). But dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy-

nas­ties, not only was blue-and-white ware dom­i­nant, the num­ber of wrecks con­tain­ing mainly China-made porce­lain rose markedly. It has been re­cov­ered from ship­wrecks ex­ca­vated not just along China’s coast, but also in more than 40 Euro­pean and Amer­i­can ships en­tombed in the In­dian, At­lantic and Pa­cific oceans.

In 2007, a sunken junk— dubbed “Nan’ao No. 1”—was dis­cov­ered in dense con­cealed reefs near Guang­dong’s Nan’ao Is­land. As the mys­te­ri­ous veil was lifted on this ves­sel that sank four cen­turies ago, divers were shocked at the scene that con­fronted them: tens of thou­sands of densely stacked porce­lain dishes lay in the wooden ves­sel, mainly qinghua plat­ters, plates, bowls, jars and vases. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists de­ter­mined they date from 1522 to 1620, dur­ing the reigns of Em­per­ors Ji­a­jing and Wanli, re­spec­tively.

Even more sur­pris­ing is that this haul be­longs to a mys­te­ri­ous “fam­ily” of qinghuaci , known in­ter­na­tion­ally as “Kraak” ware. It is re­port­edly known by this name after a Por­tuguese mer­chant ship in­ter­cepted by the Dutch in 1602. In Por­tuguese, this sort of gi­ant ves­sel is re­ferred to as “car­rack.” The blue­and-white ware found on board that ship was trans­ported to Am­s­ter­dam where it was auc­tioned and sub­se­quently be­came very pop­u­lar; even France’s King Henry IV and Bri­tain’s King James I were ea­ger to pur­chase it. It was re­ferred to some­what am­bigu­ously as Kraak ware, be­cause the ac­tual site of its man­u­fac­ture was not clear. In later times, this mys­te­ri­ous type of porce­lain was re­peat­edly found at ship­wreck sites world­wide. Oddly, de­spite its ori­gins in China, not only was the ex­act site of its pro­duc­tion hazy, even ex­am­ples of the porce­lain it­self were rarely dis­cov­ered there.

Ini­tially, ac­cord­ing to the man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nique and style of this qinghuaci , ar­chae­ol­o­gists spec­u­lated that it likely orig­i­nated in Jiangxi’s Jingdezhen. But a thor­ough search of China’s “porce­lain cap­i­tal” didn’t even turn up sim­i­lar frag­ments. Fur­ther­more, upon de­tailed ex­am­i­na­tion, it was ap­par­ent that this porce­lain’s pat­terns were fairly coarse, ca­sual and flow­ing, and its form bore an ex­otic style, all of which were at odds with Jingdezhen’s tra­di­tion­ally del­i­cate blue-and-white ware. Even­tu­ally, very small amounts of Kraak ware frag­ments were un­cov­ered at the an­cient kilns of Pinghe, Zhangzhou and De­hua in Fu­jian Prov­ince. Fol­low­ing the leads

peared on the qinghuaci catered to the aes­thetic tastes of for­eign buy­ers. As for the slightly “ca­sual” style of the goods, this of­fers in­sight into the past glo­ries of the porce­lain in­dus­try that thrived in the wa­ters of South­east Asia. With the con­stant growth of China’s over­seas mar­kets, a bliz­zard of over­seas or­ders de­scended upon China like snowflakes, and many “au­then­tic” porce­lain pro­duc­tion cen­ters had dif­fi­culty meet­ing de­mand. To deal with the op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­rich them­selves that came rolling their way, smart Chi­nese business peo­ple quickly built a large num­ber of kilns in the south­east coastal re­gion. Be­cause they were not renowned kilns, but the or­ders were huge—bri­tain or­dered 348 tons from Guangzhou just in 1777-78 alone—work­ers rushed day and night, so it’s un­der­stand­able that the fi­nal prod­uct was some­what coarse.

At the be­gin­ning of the 16th cen­tury, pow­ered by the strong en­cour­age­ment and sub­si­dies of Euro­pean gov­ern­ments, the West’s large, wind-pow­ered ships for long- dis­tance sail­ing de­vel­oped by leaps and bounds: ad­vanced equip­ment such as the helm and pump were added; mast and sail con­fig­u­ra­tions were greatly im­proved, which markedly in­creased sail­ing speed; charts dis­play­ing lon­gi­tude and lat­i­tude, and tele­scopes ame­lio­rated nav­i­ga­tion know-how; and in­clu­sion of ex­cel­lent ar­tillery trans­formed th­ese new play­ers into ships suited to both com­merce and bat­tle, and pro­vided them with greater and more rapid ma­neu­ver­abil­ity on the high seas.

Mean­while, in the Far East, the Chi­nese junks that once led the world were top­pled from their pin­na­cle. In the midst of his last ex­pe­di­tion to the “West­ern Seas (South­east Asia and coastal area of In­dia),” Zheng He died while sail­ing near In­dia. With the death of this great nav­i­ga­tor, the Ming em­pire’s long-dis­tance ocean ex­plo­ration stopped abruptly. The Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) ban on sea travel lasted four cen­turies. The in­creas­ingly xeno­pho­bic court treated sea-go­ing mer­chants and fish­er­men as heretics, and em­ployed ev­ery pos­si­ble means to com­bat China’s junks, re­duc­ing their size, and dis­as­sem­bling or even de­stroy­ing them. No method was con­sid­ered too ex­treme, and pun­ish­ments were se­vere for those found to have vi­o­lated the ban on boat man­u­fac­ture.

Due to wave after wave of sup­pres­sion, China’s ocean nav­i­ga­tion and ship­build­ing suf­fered heavy losses. By the mid­dle of the Ming, China’s ad­van­tage in the In­dian Ocean had al­ready been lost. Iron­i­cally, just then a brand-new “Great Global Era of Nav­i­ga­tion” was un­fold­ing, when ocean-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion routes be­tween the con­ti­nents were grow­ing as rapidly as a net­work of ar­ter­ies and veins. Faced with this once-in-a-mil­len­nium op­por­tu­nity, China’s wind-pow­ered ships were re­gret­tably side­lined.

But the un­yield­ing com­mon folk took it upon them­selves to steal a flame from China’s nau­ti­cal fire that had burned so brightly for mil­len­nia, and used it to start bush­fires of their own. De­spite the of­fi­cial ban on ocean travel, Chi­nese junks strove to ex­tend their “fi­nal days of glory” in the wa­ters of East and South­east Asia. For­merly bar­ren islets were trans­formed into in­ter­na­tional trade en­trepôts. Shuangyu Port on Li­uheng Is­land off the coast of Ningbo, Zhe­jiang Prov­ince, for in­stance, was tem­po­rar­ily home to more than 10,000 “private” traders. Among the ship­wrecks along China’s coast that date from the era when mar­itime nav­i­ga­tion was banned, along­side goods that were pro­hib­ited from ex­port, items sim­i­lar to iron pis­tols or ri­fles have also been re­cov­ered, which tes­ti­fies to the arms smug­gling that was un­der­way.

Mean­while, dur­ing this pe­riod the West’s steam-pow­ered ships had al­ready achieved full dom­i­na­tion of the global mar­itime stage. Like a lit match that flashes brightly but fleet­ingly in the dark­ness, the Chi­nese junk left be­hind just a few pale traces of its for­mer glory.

At Bei­jing’s Na­tional Museum of China, a bronze mir­ror lies qui­etly on dis­play in the hall de­voted to the Song and Yuan dy­nas­ties. En­graved upon it are four Chi­nese char­ac­ters, “煌丕昌天” huang­pichang­tian, that sig­nify a prayer for pro­tec­tion from dis­as­ter. Their mean­ing, if fully ex­pressed in ver­nac­u­lar: “Ô peer­less Master, bless your sub­jects and let us flour­ish for­ever!” The main graphic el­e­ment is a ves­sel with tow­er­ing masts nav­i­gat­ing the tur­bu­lent seas. Com­pris­ing a few sim­ple strokes, the sketch—known as the hang­hai wen, or the “sea-pas­sage pat­tern”— none­the­less cap­tures the scene’s slightly tense am­bi­ence. In the Song (960–1279) and Jin (1115–1234) dy­nas­ties, this pat­tern fre­quently ap­peared on bronze mir­rors, high­light­ing the Grand Era of Mar­itime Nav­i­ga­tion under the Song.

Long- dis­tance ocean nav­i­ga­tion is an ac­tiv­ity fea­tur­ing a high “dan­ger co­ef­fi­cient.” Peo­ple in the Song era rec­og­nized its chal­lenges, but they did not spare them­selves, in­stead en­gag­ing en­er­get­i­cally in sea travel. Al­though the sea­far­ers were mo­ti­vated by profit, the need to firmly es­tab­lish the Song Dy­nasty was also an un­de­ni­able driver as well. Fol­low­ing the chaos of the An Lushan Re­bel­lion (the re­bel­lion against the Tang court led by gen­er­als An Lushan and Shi Sim­ing from AD 755 to 763), sev­eral dozens of pre­fec­tures in the West­ern Re­gions were lost to the Tang. Dur­ing the Song, the Khi­tans and Jurchens won a foothold in north­ern Xin­jiang dur­ing the Liao (907–1125) and Jin dy­nas­ties, and the Tanguts be­came en­trenched in the north­west dur­ing the West­ern Xia (1038–1227). Thus the Song peo­ple, who were based in the Cen­tral Plain, lost their tra­di­tional con­nec­tions to the land-based Silk Road, and were forced to turn to the south­east coast in or­der to con­tinue trad­ing with the West.

The Song es­tab­lished gov­ern­ment-run shi­bosi at ports such as Guangzhou, Mingzhou (modern-day Ningbo in Zhe­jiang), Hangzhou, Quanzhou and Mizhou (modern-day Zhucheng in Shan­dong). The shibo si — known to schol­ars as a Mar­itime Trade Su­per­vi­so­rate—was tasked with managing for­eign trade, and con­sti­tutes the fore­run­ner of China’s “Cus­toms” to­day. Mar­itime trade could turn not in sub­stan­tial prof­its, but could also re­sult in death and fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter. Both sail­ing the deep blue sea or of­fi­cially clos­ing the na­tion’s ports to for­eign trade were gam­bles of a sort. For cen­turies, junks plied the flour­ish­ing Mar­itime Silk Route, tak­ing China—and its renowned “china”—through­out the world. Mean­while, the image of a ship brav­ing the winds on the high seas, trans­formed into the “sea-pas­sage pat­tern” en­graved on many a bronze mir­ror, be­came the over­seas trade mark of the Song Dy­nasty.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.