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Southeast Asian Ceramics

The 15th and 16th centuries were the highpoint of international trade for Southeast Asian ceramics. The kilns of Vietnam and Thailand opportunistically expanded production as China's international trade turned down in the 15th century. The potters of these two countries, however, proceeded along different paths and produced quite different wares, in spite of being neighbors.

Vietnam had become sinified, forced to endure a thousand years of Chinese colonial rule. After the northern Vietnamese gained independence in the 11th century they underwent a cultural explosion. The ceramics of the Ly and Tran dynasties (1009-1400) are considered high expressions of indigenous Vietnamese inspiration, particularly the distinctive ivory-glazed wares of the 12th-14th centuries. Starting in the 15th century, potteries in the Red River delta region near Hanoi produced cobalt blue and white stonewares for Japan, island Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Ottoman Turkey. In the 16th century as Chinese kilns regained their prowess, Vietnamese wares lost their vigor. The smaller Vietnamese kilns could not complete with the sophisticated and efficient Chinese ceramic industry.

Thai ceramics began differently. The first high-fired stonewares were made in northeast Thailand then a part of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire (802-1431). Starting in the 11th century, Khmer wares show both Indian influence and indigenous design. For example, bird-shaped pots contained mineral lime used in betel chewing rituals (See No. 24). Khmer ceramic technology showed significant Chinese influences, as did contemporary Vietnamese wares.

The Thai peoples had been gradually moving south out of China since the early part of first millennium. By the 14th century the Thai had eliminated the Khmer threat and made their capital at Ayutthaya, just up the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok. Ayutthaya evolved into a great international trading center. It exported tin, forest products and ceramics. Its elegant full-bodied green celadons and white and brownglazed stonewares have been found in Japan and through-out Southeast Asia.

Like Vietnamese wares, Thai ceramics largely disappeared from international markets after the 16th century. No one is quite sure why. Scholars, however, suggest that significant factors included the Burmese invasions of Thailand in the 1560s and the ratcheting up of Chinese porcelain trade after 1567, when the nearly two hundred year ban on private trading was lifted by Beijing.

Why these old pots are still around

Antique Asian ceramics survived intact in three ways — in sunken ships, gravesites and as heirlooms. In the last two millennia unknown numbers of Asian trading ships perished. In Southeast Asia alone one author has counted 450 wrecks starting only in the early 16th century (Wells, p. 80). Shipwrecks having ceramic cargos have been found from south China, through Southeast Asia to the remains of Dutch East Indiamen sunk off South Africa and in mid-Atlantic island harbors.

Shipwrecks are time capsules. At least a dozen Southeast Asian wrecks have been investigated and their cargoes retrieved. Nos. 2, 32, 44 and 54 were recovered from sunken trading ships. Fishermen off southern Sumatra recently discovered the oldest cargo dating to 826 A.D. The 50,000 Chinese stonewares in this Indian or Arabian dhow are to be housed in a Singapore museum.

Gravesites also sheltered fragile old pots. Many of the early ceramics in this show came from burial sites in Indonesia (No. 15), Thailand (No. 25), Philippines (No. 8) and Vietnam (No. 35). They were interred to escort the dead on their next life. Others, perhaps, were hidden underground to avoid their destruction in troubled times.

Some survived as heirlooms, especially in Japan and island Southeast Asia. Japanese have always treasured old ceramics, carefully storing them between use in the tea ceremony. In island Southeast Asia large storage jars originally from Burma, China, Thailand and Vietnam served as valued heirlooms and practical household containers. Borneo and Javanese legends attribute magical qualities to these large jars, describing them as talking and even traveling from place to place on their own.

Today's Traders and Collectors

Trade ceramics found in Southeast Asia were largely below the radar of collectors until the 1950s. Scholars focused on the great civilizations of northeast Asia and India. Yankee whalers first and later business executives and diplomats became attracted to these trade wares. Old, beautiful and widely available they became fashionable and cheap to collect, even on American Foreign Service salaries. Major collections were formed in the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia during this period.

In the 1960s during the hyper-inflation of President Sukarno's last years poor Indonesian farmers ransacked rural gravesites to make a living. They jabbed metal rods into the ground, when they heard a tinkle they dug. In Manila and Jakarta itinerant dealers offered the most affluent buyers the pick of such digs. These collectors often were Japanese, who have admired trade ceramics for centuries. Then the hawkers moved on to those of more modest collecting ambitions or flatter pocket books. The late U.S. Ambassador Jack Lydman served several tours in Indonesia where he formed a remarkable collection of Southeast Asian and Chinese export wares. Lydman mentored many Foreign Service Officers with young families who had only a little loose change for these pots. Buy the best you can afford, he told them, you'll never regret it. He was right. Some of the most interesting pieces in this show were acquired on the basis of Lydman's advice.

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