Pedigree of “Kraak Porcelain”
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.