Zhangzhou Ware: Found In The Philippines

TWO DEER, diam. 30 cm

FOR A LONG time the term, ‘Swatow’ has been applied to a variety of Chinese export ceramics, including those from the 16th and 17th centuries. They were widely believed to come from Shantou, the Guangdong port after which they were named. However, Shantou only began operating in the 19th century. Archaeological excavations conducted at the Zhangzhou kilns in Fujian since the 1990s, have confirmed that a ware similar to Swatow, but with distinct characteristics of its own, was being produced around the same time. Zhangszhou ware has been redefined.

Zhangzhou Kilns

In China, the discovery of the Zhangzhou kiln complex has been hailed as one of the major archaeological breakthroughs of that decade, earning it a much-coveted place as a key Chinese Cultural Heritage Site. Zhangzhou ware was identified with the southeastern seaboard, as a product typical of Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) non-official kilns, called minyao.

Situated practically between Shantou and Xiamen, formerly Amoy, in Fujian, Zhangzhou is now known to have played a significant part in the Chinese ceramic export trade. After the 200 year-old ban on private maritime trade imposed by the Ming emperor Hongwu (r.1368-98) was lifted in 1567, Yuegang, 50 km away, was designated Zhangzhou’s port.

Blue and White Chinese Ceramics

Its produce would proceed to Xiamen and across the South China Sea to Luzon island in the northern Philippines. Subsequent Yuegang tax records reveal the volume of trade between Zhangzhou and the Philippines as increasing almost tenfold in the decade after 1567. Intimately linked with trade was migration. Indeed Zhangzhou in Fujian later became one of the principal sources of Chinese migrants to the Philippines.

Zhangzhou ware is basically blue and white ware, featuring underglaze blue from cobalt, which appeared in China as early as the 10th century. During the Ming, although Jingdezhen in Jiangxi had a monopoly on blue and white production, the Fujian kilns at Dehua, Anxi, Zhangzhou and Minnan were also making complementary wares after 1500. According to the Jiangxi tongzhi, ‘General Records of Jiangxi’, during the Wanli period (r. 573-1619), Jingdezhen attracted ‘thousands of temporary workers’ from elsewhere to study ceramic production.

The Spanish Philippines and Zhangzhou Ware

It has been speculated that some came from Zhangzhou since Jingdezhen-type motifs surfaced on their later products. In fact overall Chinese ceramic production was being redesigned at the time to meet the demands set by a new and growing market, Europe. While Jingdezhen ware was targeted at European destinations, Zhangzhou ware, which supplemented it, was aimed at China’s established southeast Asian clientele. The chief repository seems to have been the Spanish Philippines whose administrative capital Manila, linked the archipelago with Acapulco via the Pacific through the ‘Galleon trade’ (1685-1815).

Zhangzhou Ware found in The Philippines: ‘Swatow’ Export Ceramics from Fujian 16th – 17th Century, is a special exhibition jointly organised by The Oriental Ceramic Society of the Philippines and the Yuchengco Museum in Manila to document Zhangzhou ware and give it its due recognition. The term, ‘Zhangzhou ware’ is usually taken to mean dishes or platters measuring anywhere from around 17 cm to 40 cm in diameter.

Also an intrinsic part of the ceramic style is bowls, jars, vases, beakers, jarlets and boxes of all shapes and sizes, which are of secondary emphasis. Some 125 objects have been selected from public and private collections as well as shipwreck cargoes, to affirm the Philippine archipelago’s place as a prominent market for late Ming ceramic wares. They illustrate the sheer variety and quantity of Zhangzhou ware, surpassing other types found in the archipelago, to support the case for a thriving export trade linking China with the Spanish Philippines.

Ceramic Trade Between the Philippine Islands

Offering important evidence of the ceramic trade between the Philippine islands and elsewhere are shipwrecks. They are valuable time capsules, ‘freezing’ a particular period – at the instance of their submergence – of the existing material culture. In general, terrestrial sites are more likely to be disturbed by stratification and continuous human activity.

Maritime archaeology, however, is able to establish more accurate ceramic typology when accompanied by terrestrial recovery. Two shipwrecks found off Luzon in the 1990s provide critical benchmarks for establishing such chronologies. The San Diego, a Spanish galleon sunk by a Dutch vessel, Mauritius, on 14 December 1600, was found near Fortune Island off Batangas province in 1992. Its excavation was a seminal undertaking, shedding much light on the then maritime and material culture of the Spanish insular possessions.

Among the 34,000 objects found were Chinese blue and white porcelain, including the ‘Kraak’ variety (derived from the Portuguese ‘carrack’ for galleons transporting the wares) made in Jingdezhen and the so-called ‘Swatow’ wares. In 1994, the San Isidro, a southeast Asian cargo vessel also loaded with blue and white ware of Chinese provenance, particularly the ‘Swatow’ type, was accidentally discovered along the Zambales coast.

A ‘retailer’ type of vessel, unloading cargo from larger ships, it functioned as a middleman around the islands, and was limited to small-scale activity. While both cargoes provide invaluable evidence of the Philippines’ own maritime past, the ceramic wares are particularly important indicators of trade and exchange. They also provide useful tools for dating.

Indian Ocean Spice Trade

Until the 16th century, the Indian Ocean spice trade was dominated by the Arab, Persian, Indian and Malay worlds. The advent of the first Europeans – the Portuguese – in the equation had far-reaching consequences. They were followed by the Spanish who arrived via the Americas and the Pacific to colonise the Philippines in 1565. The entry of the Dutch East India Company, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), in the 17th century stretched the spice trade from the Malay Archipelago to Moluccas, Amboina and the Banda islands further east.

Establishing a spice monopoly, the VOC, based in Batavia, Java, went on to pioneer a direct route via the Cape to the Dutch East Indies in 1652. From the 1600s onwards, enormous quantities of Chinese wares were exported to southeast Asia along maritime routes used by the Dutch. They were also privy to the lucrative ceramic trade. Chinese archives record Zhangzhou ceramics being purchased by the VOC in 1621, 1626 and 1632, to be used as barter in the spice trade. The sole European entity privileged to trade via Nagasaki – the only port allowed open during the Kan’ei period (1624-43) – the VOC was credited with finds of Zhangzhou ware in Edo Japan (1615-1868). Similar wares were also found in Fort Zeelandia, the Dutch factory operating from 1624 to 1683 in the then Formosa.

Zhangzhou Clay Body Relatively Dense

Although the nature of Zhangzhou ware is rustic and slightly coarse, it has been confused with both Swatow and Jingdezhen samples because of its outer appearance. Zhangzhou varieties include blue and white wares, and monochrome wares with lightly incised designs or slip decoration. Polychrome wares with overglaze enamels are another variant. The Zhangzhou clay body is relatively dense, usually greyish or milky white and the glaze is opaque. Fired for a shorter period, it has a higher iron and titanium content and usually sports a sand-coated footring.

Zhangzhou Dishes and Motifs

Zhangzhou dishes have everted or straight rims. Surface decoration on everted rims tends to be simple, with blue lines encircling the rim or near the footring. Straight-rimmed dishes are smaller, ranging from 13 cm to 26 cm in diameter. Two principal styles of blue and white surface decoration have been identified. One, a ‘free and spontaneous’ style, applied in swift brushwork from which floral prototypes have evolved. The peony, identified with wealth, the lotus from the Buddhist pantheon and the regal chrysanthemum surface as central motifs, in single, double, triple or in multiple configurations.

These were dominant Jingdezhen motifs, and it is possible that Zhangzhou potters copied them from Hongzhi (r.1488-1505) specimens descended from Yongle (r.1403-24) or Xuande (r.1426-35) conventions. Unique to the Philippines however is the ‘spiralled’ blossom, characteristic of Jingdezhen ware of the Interregnum period (1436-64). ‘Spirals’ developed as flowers, appearing in cloud scrollery and on boulders. Vegetal motifs include profusions of leafy branches suggesting the Indian mythological ‘tree of life’.

Figural representations of birds, fish, dragons and the mythological qilin, animal, often surround the principal design, as lone or double motifs. Also peculiar to Philippine samples are figural narratives from the Chinese classics and literature found in woodblock prints. ‘Long Elizas’, linear figures of Chinese ladies dressed in tunics and usually in pairs, make frequent appearances.

A Second Style of ‘Outline and Wash’

The other style, an ‘outline and wash’ method first outlined motifs in cobalt blue, and then filled them with a lighter shade. Seven variants have been identified from surface decoration on dishes, allowing a broad classification. Motifs such as duck in a pond, deer with peaches, and chrysanthemum surrounded by lingzhi fungus, on small dishes with undecorated rims, have given way to one type.

A second variety has a continuous design of landscape and floral patterns on the everted rim. A third has on the same rim, four to eight oval cartouches of peaches or floral designs executed against a diaper ground. This is a Jiajing period (r.1522-66) style repeated in the 17th century, and found in the San Diego cargo. Four equally spaced motifs alternating with different elements on the rim are a fourth feature. The latter include the keyfret and floral sprays juxtaposed against central motifs of say, standing phoenixes and qi dragons. Fifth, five equally spaced ogival cartouches of twin blossoms against a diaper ground, usually with twin phoenixes beneath a central peony medallion. Sixth, large panelled dishes imitating Kraak style surrounded by modified panels, both broad and narrow, of flowers and fruit. And lastly, those with one principal motif on the surface, such as three flying phoenixes.

The two styles often complement each other and were featured on Zhangzhou bowls. A type of deep bowl called klapmuts was Dutch-inspired, part of the Kraak repertoire designed in Jingdezhen for the European market. Zhangzhou bowls often support four ogival cartouches of varied symbols, the spiralled blossom being prominent again. Vases in yuhuchun forms, are painted freestyle with floral motifs. Purely utilitarian, jars were often conjoined with four grooved handles, the dragon in serpentine form being popular. Jarlets were used for medicines and cosmetics and for storing oil.

Some Zhangzhou Ware Special to the Philippines

Although Zhangzhou ware with such ornament is special to the Philippines, its influence was not confined to the archipelago. Less common polychrome wares of overglaze red and green with black outlines were perceived elsewhere to have a rustic appeal. They have apparently inspired Imari-type wares from 17th-century Japan, and gosu akae, ‘cobalt red’ dishes, are said to be an imitation of Zhangzhou prototypes that arrived by courtesy of the Dutch. Moreover in the first decades of the 20th century, the ‘free and spontaneous’ style described above, was deemed consonant with the principles of the fledgling mingei or folkcraft movement, also of Japan. By advocating freedom of expression, the style, and by extension Zhangzhou ware, were inadvertently celebrating the achievements of the ‘unknown potter’ in Fujian.


Zhangzhou Ware found in The Philippines: ‘Swatow’ Export Ceramics from Fujian 16th – 17th Century is at the Yuchengco Museum, RCBC Plaza, Corner Ayala & Sen. Gil Puyat Avenues, Makati City, Metro Manila, until 5 April. www.yuchengcomuseum.org