Chinese ceramics in Southeast Asia

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Incalculable quantities of earthenware pots from South Asia certainly reached Mainland Southeast Asia in the early first millennium and left their imprint on earthenware forms made in the region (including Pyu, Dvaravati, and the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian realms) and on later stoneware vessels, especially unglazed wares.

From the other direction, Chinese stoneware ceramics (and ceramic technology) reached northern Vietnam by the Han period (2nd c BCE–2nd c CE), as that region was drawn into the sphere of early imperial China. Trade played a primary role in introducing Chinese ceramics of later dates. In the ninth century, the standard early "Chinese export package"—Changsha ware from Hunan province, Xing ware from Hebei province (or similar white porcelain from southern kilns), and Yue ware from Zhejiang province, as exemplified in the Belitung shipwreck in Indonesia (Scott 2002–2003)—was broadly dispersed in the region. These wares have been found in the citadel of the Tang governor in Hanoi (Tong Trung Tin 2006, 78), the Roluos area of Angkor (Christophe Pottier, pers. comm., 28 Aug 2007), and port sites along the Vietnamese coast (Aoyagi et al 1995) and on the peninsula of southern Thailand (Ho et al 1989; Pisit et al 1990; Ho 1991; Ho et al 1998–99). They were often accompanied by early Islamic turquoise-glazed earthenware jars from Basra, Iraq (Aoyagi et al 1995).

The Sackler and Freer collections represent the varieties of Chinese ceramic wares that flooded into mainland and insular Southeast Asia in the following centuries and—unlike the early wares from kilns in the interior—were produced mainly at kilns located along the southeast coast in convenient proximity to the major port cities in Fujian and Guangdong provinces. This dispersal of technology from centers of origination to provincial kilns (for example, the dispersal of qingbai technology from Jingdezhen to kilns in Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian, and elsewhere) followed upon government policy to encourage export of ceramics and other replenishable goods instead of copper, silver, and gold (Scott and Kerr 1993; Kerr and Wood 2004, 556–7, 716).

A 1225 document by a Chinese official of Fujian province indicates intense interest in which countries were incapable of producing their own high-temperature glazed ceramics and thus were receptive to Chinese imports. These included Champa (Zhancheng) and Cambodia (Zhenla) (Kerr and Wood 2004, 723–4).

Detailed studies of production at provincial kilns are clarifying the sources of wares sent to Southeast Asia (Ho 1990, 1994; Scott 1995). Careful studies of Chinese ceramics found at locations within the region are throwing light on which ceramics were in the market in a particular place at a given time (Ho 1994; Dupoizat 1997, 1999; Natthaphatra 1986).

Despite the importance of the port cities, landlocked Yunnan must also be considered with regard to the introduction of Chinese ceramics to the region. Communities in the region speaking languages of the Tai family had cultural links to Tai speakers in Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna) in southern Yunnan. Two trade routes connected Yunnan to the port cities of Burma, one via Bhamo on the Irrawaddy River and south to Martaban, the other via Ayutthaya across the isthmus to Mergui (Gutman 2001, 122).

Chinese government policy made nongovernmental trade illegal for much of the Ming period (1368–1664), although unofficial trade continued to some degree. The shortfall in Chinese ceramic wares in regional trade networks opened a door for ceramics from northern and central Vietnam (Dai Viet and Champa), Thailand (Ayutthaya), and Burma to participate aggressively in international trade during the fifteenth through early eighteenth centuries (Brown 2004). The scale of what was at stake is suggested by the nearly 150,000 intact pieces, plus another 100,000 incomplete pieces, mainly from the Chu Dau kilns in northern Vietnam, recovered from the Cu Lao Cham (or Hoi An) shipwreck off Hoi An, central Vietnam, excavated in 1996–99 (Bound 2000).

Chinese private trade revived in the early eighteenth century, and communities of overseas Chinese in cities and towns throughout the region continued to facilitate trade communication between Chinese ports and local hinterlands. The Chinese population in Rangoon in the nineteenth century, for example, had roots mostly in Fujian, Guangdong, and the Straits Settlements (Chen 1964, 107). As Roland Mourer commented (of Cambodia), "No village was too far from a Chinese merchant" (pers. comm., 7 Sept 1998). It is uncertain to what extent earlier merchant connections had facilitated the occasional visit of a potter to offer technical assistance. Such activity clearly took place from the eighteenth century onward in central and southern Vietnam (Hy and Diep 1991; Nguyen-Long 2003) and central Thailand.

From the ninth century onward, Chinese ceramics traded into Mainland Southeast Asia introduced ideas about shapes, glazes, and decoration that triggered production at local kilns. The Chinese "idea of a jar" coexisted with a contrasting idea introduced from South Asia, and in many cases, the same kilns made both jar forms. The curvaceous shape introduced from South Asia was associated mainly with ceremony and ritual, including burial of cremated remains. The stable Chinese-inspired jar form sits on a broad base and bears a thick rolled rim and a set of loop handles or lugs (typically four) on the shoulder. Many Chinese-style containers, like their prototypes, were used in international trade.

The concept of a glazed ceramic dish form circulated in mainland Southeast Asia after Chinese celadon-glazed dishes were imported from Longquan and related kilns, such as Putian. In local contexts dishes chiefly served ceremonial uses. Many Putian-ware dishes have been excavated from grave sites in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and along the Thai-Burmese border. Chinese iron- or cobalt-adorned porcelain dishes inspired the addition of painted decoration, substituting iron pigment where cobalt was not available. The arrival of Chinese celadon bowls stimulated production of green-glazed bowls at kilns throughout the region. Imported Chinese cobalt-decorated porcelain bowls led Thai potters to apply a coating of white slip over stoneware to approximate the light color of porcelain and to use iron pigment, in the absence of cobalt, to paint the decoration.

The same sorts of small Chinese jars and bottles that were exported to Mainland Southeast Asia also reached the markets of island Southeast Asia. When kilns in Vietnam and Thailand began supplying ceramics to traders for international markets, they also made bottles to send to those destinations. The uses for these little ceramic containers, whether traded locally or many hundreds of miles away, must have been as varied as the many cultures they reached.

Lidded stoneware boxes served as protective containers for jewelry or such precious substances as perfumed wax, cosmetics, and medicine. They could also preserve cremated remains. Potters in China, Vietnam, and Thailand made covered jars with removable interior trays for the international market. Such jars possibly held the ingredients for making betel quids (lime paste, spices, and areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves) that were chewed as a stimulant and breath freshener, offered to guests, and used in weddings and other ritual transactions (Diem 1996).

Chinese kilns also replicated forms used in Southeast Asia. The Indian form of the spouted water bottle, which reached Southeast Asia nearly two thousand years ago, was used to direct water into the drinker's mouth, to dispense water over another person's hands as a sign of respect or agreement, or to pour water in Buddhist rituals. The form is widely known by the Malay term kendi. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai potters all made porcelain and stoneware kendi for the international ceramic market, while locally the form was made in earthenware.

The long-necked stoneware bottle for drinking water, resembling gourds used for that same purpose, was an indigenous shape and was offered to guests as a sign of hospitality. The court of King Rama V (ruled 1868–1910) of Thailand ordered porcelain versions of the form, bearing the king's monogram, from the Chinese kilns at Jingdezhen.