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Asian Trade and Ceramics

Ceramics have long been traded for their utility and their beauty. The displays in this gallery show ceramics whose ages stretch from the 12th to the late 19th century and which came from a half dozen Asian trading nations. These Glorious Pots were trade goods. They were not made for royal courts or emperors. Rather they were a valuable commodity that could be traded internationally for rice, cloth, pearls, spices, exotic foods, gold and silver. Asian trade ceramics have a robust vitality that makes them as attractive today as when they were new.

Some of the ceramics look similar. China was first to perfect high-fired ceramics. Chinese wares became the standard and were often imitated. For example, look at the three strong green celadon dishes from China, Thailand and Japan (exhibition numbers 59, 10, and 64). Thai and Japanese kilns adapted the Chinese design to compete in Southeast Asian markets.

Long before today's globalized economy trade extended from Rome to southern Vietnam. Few contemporary accounts about this early trade remain. A handful reports by Middle Easterners and Chinese, several hundred stone inscriptions in Southeast Asia, Marco Polo's and the journals of a handful of other early travelers are the written record. Only in the 16th century with the coming of the Europeans do we have extensive written records. The Chinese silks and Indonesian pepper, which the Romans and later traders so passionately sought, have long since decayed. There remain, however, hardier material artifacts such as metal and stone statues, beads, coins — and ceramics.


Ceramics have always been important trade goods in Southeast Asia. The oldest known were recovered from the cargo of an early 9th century shipwreck found off the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. High fired ceramics were the cellphones and iPods of their day, that is, highly sought-after, high technology products.

China developed high fired ceramics—porcelain and stoneware—in the seventh century. Chinese domination of the ceramic trade was a result of their early development of large capacity high-temperature kilns, heated to above 1200 degrees Celsius. Porcelain and stoneware are composed of special types of clay that when fired at high temperatures become non-porous often with a smooth glassy (glazed) surface. Stonewares have an opaque body while porcelain has a translucent white body that can be thinner and more delicate than stoneware. Southeast Asian kilns produced stonewares. The only exception is Vietnam which created a fine white porcelain, perhaps in a royal kiln in old Hanoi.

For a villager in Southeast Asia, a prosperous merchant in Iraq or an Ottoman Turk, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics were durable, beautiful and exotic. They represented an extraordinary improvement over the low-fired pottery available locally. Kings and princes collected them as prestigious objects to impress rivals and subjects. Borneo headmen used them to hold water, wine and the bones of ancestors. Nothing else was so practical.

Some History

The international trade in ceramics, silk, spices and all manner of agricultural and forest products that has criss-crossed Southeast Asia for over a millennium was largely waterborne. When the north Asian land Silk Route became impassible in the ninth century, Southeast Asian waters became the trading passage from China to India, the Middle East and beyond. The motors of this sea trade were the great seasonal winds called monsoons, which for six months blow steadily and predictably in one direction and other half year in the other direction. In the cosmopolitan Chinese Tang dynasty (618- 906) port of Canton (Guangzhou) a large community of Arab, Persian, and Southeast Asian traders set up shop. Cham rulers of central Vietnam traded elephant tusks and even elephants for Chinese silk and ceramics. Middle Easterners sought Tang dynasty ceramics, believed to contain magical qualities. Indeed, it was through this Arab trading connection that the Chinese developed their famous cobalt blue and white porcelain.

By the 10th century Chinese and Southeast Asians were the key international traders in Southeast Asia. Song and Yuan dynasty (960-1368) kilns in southeast China poured out millions of bowls, dishes, vases and jars for export. In the burst of enthusiasm at the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the imperial court sent massive armed fleets on seven voyages that reached the Middle East and Africa. The first expedition set sail in 1405 included 317 ships and over 27,000 men. By comparison, Christopher Columbus's fleet of three ships that visited America in 1492 had a crew of 90. After the seventh voyage in 1433 the Ming emperor dismantled this great fleet, largely because of court intrigue -- just as the Europeans were getting ready to set sail for Asia seeking spices.

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