One of the major attractions of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore is the Tang Shipwreck Gallery.
To fully appreciate what this gallery represents, close your eyes and picture this:
It's a sunny September morning in 1998. You're an Indonesian sea cucumber diver.
Like any other day, you set out to search for the slimy, squishy creature. Only on this day, you discover one of the most important shipwrecks to have ever been found in Southeast Asia.
An Arab dhow, a type of sailing vessel, made by small wood planks fastened together with plant fiber and sealed with animal fat. No nails or metal were used in the construction of traditional dhows. This type of vessel was what was discovered in the shipwreck and a model of it can be seen at the gallery.
The story of the sea cucumber diver is a true story and it's the story of how this shipwreck and its incredible cargo of over seventy thousand pieces of artefacts emerged from under the waters and into a museum.
This ground floor gallery displays a rare and important collection of salvaged artefacts from an Arab merchant ship that sunk in the ninth century, on its return voyage to Arabia, after having loaded up on Tang Dynasty export goods. It met its demise off the shore of an Indonesian island named Belitung about fifty kilometers from Singapore.
The artefacts are remarkably well preserved, after having been submerged for twelve hundred years in salty seawater, thanks to a special ninth century pack and ship solution:
Large ceramic containers used as storage jars for some 50,000 Changsha bowls and other items that were on board the Arab dhow which sunk 50km from Singapore off Belitung Island.
These large ceramic jars were manufactured in Guangdong, Southern China. They were purposely made for the transport and storage of goods for domestic and international transport, traveling on internal waterways and canals, and loaded onto foreign ships at various ports for export. The existence of this industry tells us that even during the ninth century, China had a system of logistics in place for transporting goods.
Changsha bowls stacked in a spiral inside large ceramic storage jars. This method of packing enabled some 50,000 bowls to be loaded onto the hull of a sailing vessel that was only approx. 18 meters long by 5 meters wide. Materials such as straw was used as padding between bowls. Un-sprouted beans would be thrown in and their sprouting would provide more padding on the journey. An eco shipping solution from ninth century China!
If you read my last post about the Guo Pei exhibition, I mentioned that the Tang Shipwreck Gallery would be its opposite - subdued colors, very little embellishment, and not very ornate.
This simplicity reflects the taste of the ninth century Chinese elite and literati class.
Yue pitcher. Yue Ware is an early form of celadon. Yue Ware is a prized stoneware ceramic favored by Tang Dynasty elites for enhancing the luxurious experience of tea drinking, a new past time, which will become a cultural institution in China and else where in Asia in the centuries to follow.
Stoneware ceramics coming from the most revered kilns and makers of the time, the Xing and Ding Ware and Yue Ware, were tucked away from the throngs of Changsha bowls - a type of mass produced and utilitarian ceramic. The merchant or captain of the ship knew what precious cargo he had.
The Xing and Ding Ware and Yue Ware would have been made for the crème de la crème of Tang society, or even for the imperial court itself, which makes scholars scratch their heads and wonder why they were on this ship at all.
Xing and Ding Ware, or 'white ware', made in kilns located in Northern China, where the preference was for a pure white body color as the pinnacle of beauty in ceramics. In Southern China, a green jade-like color was preferred.
Who were these high end pieces made for? Why were these über luxurious tea-related objects being taken out of China when the rest of the world had not developed a tea culture yet? Where were they going?
At this time, the jade-like Yue Ware were revered for tea drinking. It was lauded as the best ceramic to use to partake in the beverage in the first book ever written on tea; its author a worker in a Buddhist monastery who was serving the drink to monks. Monks loved tea because it could keep them awake during countless hours of meditation. These fine pieces of pottery, the predecessor to porcelain, was exalted as an art form and written about by poets.
If Yue Ware were used by the poet in his revelry, the Changsha bowls may have been the crockery of choice for the journalist, the textbook writer, a person of prose. By that, I mean they are the more prosaic:
Changsha bowls depicting a plethora of designs made for export to the Arab world. These bowls demonstrate the emergence of painting decorative motifs on ceramics where previously pots would be dipped, dripped or splashed with glazes. Photo credit: Asian Civilisations Museum.
Some fifty thousand pieces of Changsha bowls were on board which were made expressly for the Arab market. The Xing and Ding Ware and the Yue Ware number only in the hundreds. One cannot discuss this gallery without pointing out the significance of the Changsha bowls. The sheer number of them tells us that mass production for export was already happening in China twelve hundred years ago.
Trade imbalance is, and was, a thing.
The Chinese had many items that the rest of the world wanted. Conversely, there was not much it wanted from the world. Too much gold and silver were being diverted to China to purchase luxury goods; like silk, porcelain, and tea; and concerns over this imbalance began even in Roman times. The pressure cooker atmosphere came to a violent head resulting in the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.
Another enigmatic object to have been salvaged that puzzles the experts is an octagonal gold cup of Central Asian design:
Seven musicians and one dancer depicted on this octagonal gold cup of Central Asian design. The thumb plate is of a curly-bearded man (the preferred trope used to depict foreigners by Chinese artists at this time.) The dancer may be doing the 'Sogdian Whirl' - a popular dance move in Tang China - where the dancer stands on a small circular carpet and launches into a full-bodied spin. I wonder if it's a predecessor to the Whirling Dervishes of Anatolia?
It weighs almost half a kilo in gold. Of course, it cannot be valued that way, since it is of immeasurable historical value. The gold cup tells a story of what the world and life was like at this time. It tells us how much exchange there was between East and West Asia. It tells us how open Tang society was to foreigners. It tells us how important Central Asians were in the roles they played in the exchange of ideas and culture into China from the outside world.
We know where the cup is from, what it's made of, who and what are depicted on it, and approximately when it was made so what's puzzling about it?
It is enigmatic because this gleaming gold cup of court-worthy workmanship was in no way a simple trade item. This was an important object - even for its time - and would have been meant as a sovereign gift, a diplomatic gesture, perhaps to open relations between two states.
How did it end up on this ship, in the hands of an Arab merchant? Which king or sovereign leader was it meant for? Was it looted? So many questions! So little answers.
Illustration of the expedition led by Ibn Fadhlan to Northern Europe in a Russian museum in Norod, Russia. This shows an expedition to North Europe but the depiction could, in my mind, be similar when the Arabs arrived on the shores of China. In the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), there were approx. 100,000 people, mostly merchants, of Middle Eastern origins living in Guangzhou in Southern China.
Visiting the Tang Shipwreck Gallery opens up a curiosity you didn't know you had.
It leaves you with a thirst for more research to be done, for more shipwrecks and archaeological sites to be found, for other objects to be unearthed to give further insights into those that are now behind glass at the museum.
What if there are documents out there waiting to be uncovered that tells us exactly who the captain or merchant was? What if there is an itinerary, a chart for his voyage, that tells us exactly where he was headed, what he planned to do there, and which important dignitary he was meant to meet?
And, alas, what was his name?