Established by the Federation of Chinese Associations of Malaysia (Hua Zong), the Malaysian Chinese Museum at Wisma Huazong in Seri Kembangan, Kuala Lumpur opened its doors to the public in 2018. The museum tells the story of the Chinese in Malaysia through a delightful mix of text, graphics and historical reconstruction.
In the 15th century and possibly earlier, there were diplomatic relations between China and Malacca. During the Ming Dynasty, Admiral Zheng He made no less than five grand voyages to Malacca. The Malaccan rulers also travelled to China to pay tribute in the Imperial Court.
During the late Qing Dynasty, unrest and famine in China and the promise of greener pastures abroad led the Chinese to make their way to South East Asia. However, life here after a tempestuous journey was almost always harsh (especially for those in bondage), and often migrants resorted to opium and alcohol to block out their pitiful existence.
The Chinese migrants were grouped based on their place of origin in China, and many formed triads to protect their interests. The triads fought over control of resources such as the mines, and this sometimes led to wars eg. Perang Larut, fought between the Hai San Society and Ghee Hin Society.
There were also migrants who became successful businessmen, such as Tan Kah Kee. In 1860, Tan Kah Kee travelled from Xiamen, Fujian to Singapore (then part of the Straits Settlements) to help his father with the family business (rice trading). Eventually, he built a business empire stretching across sectors such as rubber, manufacturing, canneries, real estate and rice trading. The museum has statues of Tan Kah Kee and his son-in-law, Lee Kong Chian, also a prominent businessman.
Besides that, along with the people came their culture and naturally the industries to support that culture. In the museum, there are reconstructions of several shopfronts.
During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), the Chinese here suffered grave casualties and cruel treatment. Some joined the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which fought hard against the Japanese invaders. After the war, eight MPAJA members received awards for their anti-Japanese efforts.
After World War II, many of the MPAJA members joined the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), which became embroiled in armed conflict against the British colonial government. This eventually led to the declaration of the Malayan Emergency, during which measures such as the introduction of identity cards and creation of New Villages were implemented. A diorama at the museum reconstructs the situation during the Emergency, which officially ended in 1960 with the victory of the Malayan forces.
After independence in 1957, the Chinese have gradually integrated into Malaysian society without sacrificing their cultural identity, as can be seen from the reconstructions of Chinese markers of culture such as the religion, cuisine and forms of entertainment.
Furthermore, Chinese education continues to be upheld. The museum traces the development of the Chinese education system in Malaysia. It is to be noted that outside China and Taiwan, Malaysia is the only country that provides Chinese education from primary to tertiary level. The groups of Chinese educationalists responsible for this achievement, amongst them Jiao Zong and Dong Zong, are acknowledged in the museum.
Last but not least, the museum has a breathtaking miniature display of a bustling marketplace where the different races in Malaysia can be seen working together for the betterment of the nation, in a depiction of the present and hopefully, the future as well.
All in all, while the museum occupies a mere 10,550 square feet, the space has been very cleverly used and the museum is well worth a visit.
At the conclusion of the guided tour, the museum presented our library with a book entitled “A Journey Through History: The Chinese and Nation-Building in Malaysia”. We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude for the hospitality and the special gift. We would also like to thank Mona Tan for organising this trip.
The first quarter of 2019 was very eventful for me. I made two overseas trips, the first to Guangzhou, China, in January followed by an 18-day sojourn to the North Island of New Zealand, between February and March. Taking these excellent opportunities, I visited the local museums and I would like to share my experiences with you.
1. Archaeological Site Museum of Nanyue Palace in Guangzhou
The history of Guangzhou started more than 2,000 years ago. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Empire succeeded in unifying the Lingnan Region, which comprised 3 prefectures namely Nanhai, Guilin and Xiang.
The Qin dynasty ended when military captains staged
revolts causing great upheavals in the Central Plains of China. Zhao Tuo took
over and established the Nanyue Kingdom with Panyu (original name of Guangzhou)
as its capital. The Nanyue Kingdom was ruled successively by 5 kings and
endured 93 years until it was obliterated by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty in 111
BC. Since then, Guangzhou was further developed by another 10 cultural strata,
right up to the Republic of China.
The museum sits between shops fronting the Beijing Road and dwellings on the other side, with the main entrance located at Zhongshan 4th Road. As the name suggests, the focus is on the historic site of the palace and garden of the Nanyue Kingdom. The royal garden consists of a large stone pond and a crooked stone brook. The latter was discovered in 1997 and it meanders from the north to south, a distance of 160 metres. It is the earliest and the best-preserved royal garden discovered so far in China.
During the excavation of the
pond, a large quantity of the remains of turtles was found at the bottom,
implying the animals might have been kept as pets in the royal garden. Chinese
authorities also found that stone structures used in the construction of the
royal garden were built with materials similar to those of Western stone
structures, thus testifying to the meeting of East and West in Guangzhou in
Besides the site of the palace
and garden of the Nanyue Kingdom, there is also the palace site of the Nanhan
Kingdom, which includes the Nanhan courtyard paved with fabulous butterfly
peony square bricks. At the exhibition building for Guangzhou’s ancient wells,
visitors can see over 500 wells built during the different dynasties. During
excavations at this site, many valuable artefacts were found. Over 100 pottery
jars were unearthed from the wells constructed by the Eastern Han Dynasty
Towards the end of 2004, hundreds
of inscribed wooden slips were excavated from the wells built during the Nanyue
Kingdom. These are the very first of such artefacts ever discovered in the
region that provide great value for academic research.
There is no admission fee to visit the museum but visitors must get tickets at the main entrance by showing personal ID cards or, in the case of foreigners, by showing passports.
2. Auckland War Memorial Museum in Auckland
The Auckland Domain is Auckland’s oldest park and it is located just
outside Auckland’s CBD. This spacious 75 hectares park is also one of the
largest parks in the city and it has been developed around the cone of the
extinct Pukekawa volcano. Sitting proudly atop it is the Auckland War Memorial
museum is housed in a large neo-classical styled building and is considered as
one of the finest heritage buildings. It was opened in 1929 to commemorate the
loss of 18,166 New Zealanders who died in the First World War. Today, AWMM
is one of the top tourist attractions. The museum is divided into 3 levels:
Ground Level – This level examines the diversity of Maori and Pacific Island cultures. It also talks about the movement of people from South East Asia to the islands in “Near Oceania” 5,000 years ago, then progressing further to the distant island groups in “Remote Oceania” such as New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa between 3,500 – 3,000 years ago. By then, these people were known as the Lapita people, the immediate ancestors of the Polynesians. Then after “The Long Pause”, a period of over 1,000 years, they started sailing again after the development of larger ocean-going canoes reaching as far North as the Hawaiian islands and as far South as Aotearoa New Zealand 800 years ago. It was believed that the Polynesians have sailed as far as South America and brought back kumara and gourd.
Level One – Talks about the Natural History of New Zealand, from geological origins to its ancient flora and fauna. The Moa was the tallest bird known and the female grew as tall as 3 metres, measured in an upright standing position. This level also highlights the uniqueness of many New Zealand birds, which are flightless, large, dull or dark in colour and slow breeders. Of course, there is mention of the Kiwi, national pride of New Zealand.
Level Two – This gallery is named Scars on the Heart. It is a war memorial centered mainly on the First and Second World Wars. There is also a section that talks about Kiwis being called into action in Asia, namely in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam.
New Zealanders that fought in Asia were based at the Changi Air Base in
Singapore from 1949 to 1951, during the time of the Malayan Emergency, and they
remained in the country until 1989. Their engagement grew larger during the
time of the Confrontation over Borneo in 1964. In the 1960’s, pressured by the
American government, New Zealand committed resources to the Vietnam War.
We were again given the
spotlight, this time on the stained glass ceiling above the main foyer, which depicts
the Coat of Arms of all British Dominions and Colonies during the First World
War. The Coat of Arms of Malaya and Straits Settlements are proudly displayed
on this glass ceiling.
A portrait of Sir Edmund Hillary, who was born in Auckland, is also on display. On 29 May 1953, Sir Edmund and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, became the first climbers to reach the peak of Mount Everest.
The general admission fee to this museum is NZ $25.00 and the highlights guided tour is an additional NZ $15.00.
3. Navy Museum in Devonport
Still in Auckland, I also visited the Navy Museum in the village of Devonport. Here, visitors can learn about New Zealand’s contribution at sea in the major conflicts of the 20th century and as well as during peace-time. Again, the Malayan Emergency and Confrontation are highlighted. The museum is open seven days a week, 10.00 am to 5.00 pm and admission is free.
The exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia (IAMM) titled ‘Al-Tibb: Healing Traditions in Islamic Medical Manuscripts’ has been extended until end of January this year. If you were planning a visit to IAMM, this month would be a good time to go.
‘Tibb’ is the Arabic word for medicine and this exhibition displays IAMM’s collections of manuscripts and objects related to the science of medicine in the Islamic world. The collections are from across the Islamic world and cover a number of areas including prophetic medicine, pharmacy and dietetics, bimaristan (hospital), anatomy, Malay medicine, and traditional medicine.
Knowledge of healing from around the Malay Archipelago is encapsulated in a number Kitab Tibb Melayu, the first of which was written in 1638 CE by Sheik Nuruddin al-Raniri, an ulama in the Aceh Sultanate. IAMM has a number of Kitab Tibb in its collection; samples from a few pieces are shown below.
Harun Mat Piah (2018) ‘The Malay Knowledge of Healing’, in Lucien de Guise (editor) Al-Tibb: Healing Traditions in Islamic Medical Manuscripts, Kuala Lumpur: IAMM.
After a lovely tour of the permanent galleries by volunteer docent Marjon de Winter and visiting the various other parts of the museum, I just had enough time for a whirlwind walk through the Amek Gambar exhibition. According to the write up, it “presents over a century of photographs, tracing the emergence, adoption and evolution of photography in Southeast Asia.”
I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of a private, informal tour and this experience truly drove home the point that museum docents play an important role in helping visitors on their journey of discovery. For me, having the dots connected, deepened my appreciation of the images on display and the insight they afforded into the world of the Peranakans. More so, when the guide has first-hand knowledge on the subjects of the photographs and shares a bit a local gossip here and there!
The photographs range from the earliest photo of Singapore to crowd sourced digital images – capturing people, places and events to tell a story of the scene captured. A majority of photographs were donated by Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee. The tools of the trade – cameras, negatives, photo albums – are also given prominence. Visitors are given the opportunity to see the photographs as they would have been kept, used or displayed in their time – framed for hanging or displayed on table tops, in albums, within official documents as well as with their negatives, transparencies or slides.
Walking through the exhibition, you can also see the evolution from sepia to black and white; from colour prints to colour painted photographs. The change in photography techniques is paralleled by the variety of ways the Peranakans were captured by Western and Asian photographers as well as how they chose to depict/capture themselves.
With the portraits, you get to see the poses evolve from the formal pose to the more casual; locations shift from the studio to a formal setting in the subject’s home and later to a more casual outdoor setting. In some of the early photos, the costumes range from formal Peranakan wear to western costume to fashion of the day.
The use of camera “tricks” or creative development of the print from more than one negative appeared to be popular innovations. I rather enjoyed these photos that were in the exhibition. The gentleman in the photograph below, taken in Java in the 1930s, decided to portray himself in 3 poses.
The following photo that was taken in Ipoh in the 1920s features a woman in both traditional women’s wear as well as in the male colonial costume complete with cane and pith helmet! What were they trying to portray of themselves?
It appears cross dressing does not seem to be an issue with the Peranakans. The guide mentioned that these pictures were mainly for the promotion of a theatre show but who knows if they also are a manifestion of the baba’s interest in cross dressing! The photo of the baba in a kebaya shows him in impeccable form – reminding me of my grandmother who always said that it is important to ensure that one must always be properly turned out and present one’s best angle in pictures.
Given a chance, I would revisit Amek Gambar and spend more time going through the photos. They presented a people and culture that were familiar to me yet offered a refreshing at look the Peranakans.
Amek Gambar – Taking Pictures: Peranakans and Photography runs until 3 February 2019.
After a chatty and delicious lunch at Equilibrium Restaurant Capitol Plaza, a group of us museum volunteers made our way in the rain to the National Museum of Singapore. The gloomy weather could not dampen our excitement of the special tour organized for us, courtesy of the Friends of Museums. After being warmly greeted by two volunteer guides we were split into two groups; group was led by Sally McHale and she proceeded to guide us to the Singapore History Gallery at Level 1. This gallery narrated the development of our neighbouring country through 4 distinct eras: Singapura, Crown Colony, Shonan-to, and Post-War Singapore including the struggles in the road to self-government and independence, challenges of the future and the successful development of the country.
Before we entered the gallery, Sally, our guide, gave us a brief account of the building. Opened in 1887, the National Museum of Singapore, originally known as the Raffle’s Library and Museum, is the nation’s oldest museum and it celebrated its 130th anniversary in 2017.
First, we stood in front of a huge digital map the original of which was compiled by a Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, in 1570. Singapore was already on this map and known as “the land below the winds”. It was strategically located on the trade routes and was part of the Maritime Silk Road from before the British colonisers. Ships from China sailed here, traded and returned home blown by the monsoon winds. Right on cue, the image and sound effect of the seasonal monsoons came on to highlight the significance of the trade winds that were so vital for bringing the merchants to trade in the region.
It is believed the island was already a substantially inhabited trading post even earlier than the 16th century as evidenced by the 3 metres wide and 3 metres high Singapore Stone. This is part of a sandstone boulder, dated between the 10th and 14th centuries, which once stood at the mouth of the Singapore River, near where the present day Fullerton and Merlion are located. Inscription on the boulder is written in Kawi script with some Sanskrit words but it has never been fully deciphered. Even Sir Stamford Raffles made rubbings of the inscription to decode its meaning but to no avail!
The earliest written record said Singapore was called Tamasik or Temasek in the late 14th century before it was called Singapura (City of the Lion in Sanskrit). Tales from Sejarah Melayu told of the first ruler Sang Nila Utama who landed on shores white as a sheet of cloth, spotted a strange lion-like animal, took it as an auspicious sign and named the island Singapura. Exhibits of Chinese coins and fishing hooks placed on the white sands of the 14th century (dug out from the Padang in front of the National Gallery where the first settlement was believed to be) brought to life the legend of Sang Nila Utama stepping on the fine white sand.
Five kings ruled here for 100 years and the last king, Iskandar Shah, fled from Singapura to Melaka and founded the Kingdom of Melaka. Exhibits uncovered on the forbidden hills where royalties resided included gold armlet and earrings, uncovered during the building of a reservoir in the 1920s. On the clasp of the amulet is the head of Kala, a protective deity. Alas, it did not offer much protection to the last king of Singapura as Iskandar Shah had to flee the island. Other trading exhibits displayed show that even after the disappearance of the royal families, trades still flourished along the Singapore River with the existence of Temenggong of Johor Sultanate.
Crown Colony (1819-1941)
Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, was already familiar with this region before he arrived in Singapore in 1819 through his previous postings to Penang and Java. He signed a treaty with his handpicked Sultan of Johor to allow the British East India Company to establish a trade base here and, subsequently, Major William Farquhar opened the port to all nations free of duty thus making the island a springboard to be developed by 1850 into the centre of trade in South East Asia. We were also briefed on how Raffles managed to eliminate the Dutch influence from Singapore and helped to form the new Johor Sultanate in 1819. The first immigrants arrived in Singapore in 1850’s landing near today’s Lau Pa Sat Food Court (we dined there!), where many temples and mosques were built next to each other, giving diversity to the country’s culture. Many immigrants of various ethnicities (the Chinese, Indians and Malays) arrived here particularly after Singapore became a Crown Colony in 1867. Schools, churches and residential areas were built and segregated in accordance with the Jackson Plan promulgated by Raffles to bring order to the city of Singapore. Much of the Jackson Plan still exists today.
The population grew from 1,000 in the 1820’s to 60,000 in the 1850’s. The ratio of men to women was 14 to 1. Most men came alone, resulting in marriage with local women. One community arising from the interracial marriage was the Peranakan. From India, many Sepoy soldiers came in as the workforce of the British government and from 1826 onwards when it became the Straits Settlement, even convicts from the jails of Calcutta were brought in. Today Singapore’s population is composed of 70% Chinese, 15% Indians, and 15% Malays.
Stopping in front of a painting of Abu Bakar, the descendent of Temenggong–derived Sultan of Johor who made his fortune from rubber products, we were told of his interesting life. In England he was known as Albert Baker and was even a good friend of Queen Victoria!
During the 1860’s, huge changes took place with the opening of the Suez Canal and the appearance of steam ships which docked in Singapore. Changes included the increase in the number of Chinese opium addicts who sought temporary comfort to escape from daily hardships and backbreaking jobs. Even newspapers warned and illustrated how even industrious men fell victims to opium addiction. The British government was appealed to make the opium trade illegal, but to no avail, as it was the major source of income for them. It was not until the Japanese occupation that opium was outlawed completely.
Education also became a forefront of the country’s development. Locals began to influence the social and economic development of the country. A major benefactor of education was Tan Kah Kee, a billionaire who made his fortunes from rubber and pineapple trading. Eunos Abdullah, one of the few Malays educated at the Raffles Institution and the only Malay representative on the Straits Settlements Legislative Council, was an editor of Utusan Melayu, an influential Malay Paper.
A sense of nationalism was beginning to rise in the 1920s/30’s.The Malays started to question the right of the British rule as did the Chinese. The “Singapore Mutiny” led by Bengali-Muslim regiments showed that cracks were beginning to appear in the British Administration. The all-Muslim unit feared being sent to fight against their fellow Muslim Turks during World War I. 39 mutineers were executed in public, watched by 15,000 residents. However no one knew that an even worse “winter was coming”.
Shonan-to (“Island of the Light of the South” 1942-945)
In December 1941, Singapore was bombed by the Japanese and that was the start of World War II in Asia Pacific. After landing on the Peninsular of Malaya on 8th December 1941, they came down to Singapore by bicycles and defeated the British capturing Singapore and the Peninsular within 70 days. The British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill called the stunning defeat “the biggest calamity the British Empire has ever seen”. Japan is a country with scarce important resources such as oil, gold and coal, all of which however were abundant in Malaysia and Indonesia. The main purpose of their invasion was to take over the huge British naval base in Singapore and get access to these natural resources.
The chart comparing the might of the Japanese armed forces and artillery and that of the British brought home how well prepared and equipped the Japanese were. In terms of army planes, tank regiments and soldiers, the British were outnumbered completely. The pride of the British navy battle ships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, were sunk at early stage of the war. The British resources were stretched due to the war in Europe. Airplanes were obsolete and not suitable to tropical conditions. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival was forced to surrender in February 1942 faced with the fact that 1 million people, soldiers and civilians were crammed in the heart of the island with the Japanese having taken control of the water and food supply.
After capturing the island, the Japanese immediately started the Sook Ching (Cleansing) Massacre. Chinese aged between 18-50 suspected of being involved in anti-Japanese activities, boycotting Japanese goods, sabotaging Japanese companies and sending money to the Chinese in China to support their fight against the Japanese were all screened. Once they were identified to be involved, confirmed or otherwise, they were sent to remote areas such as Changi Beach where they were never seen again. It was poignant seeing one of the blue doors of Changi prison behind where soldiers were held, rail man’s whistle, watches, doctor’s stethoscope, eye glasses, pens of the victims of Sook Ching which were uncovered during the 1960s when there were lots of building works in the city outskirts. The belongings suggested women were victims as well as men. The Japanese admitted to 5,000 deaths but excavations suggest 25,000 victims.
Post-war Singapore (1946-Present)
The British returned in 1945 after the war. The 1940’s and the early 1950’s were tough days because of shortage of food, necessities, jobs, schools, etc. There were also natural disasters such as floods. Many were left homeless. Trade unions were formed and riots occurred all of which were threats to the British government. To deal with these problems, David Marshall, the first Chief Minister and a lawyer, sought for more freedom and subsequently self-government for the people of Singapore. Although his goal was not successful in early stages, Singapore gradually attained full self-government, which was finally granted in 1958. In the 1959 election, the Peoples’ Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew won the polls in a landslide victory and he became the first prime minister. In 1963, Singapore joined Malaysia to form the Federation of Malaysia. However, the merger was an uneasy one. We watched a video of an emotional Lee in tears when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia in 1965 due to the conflict of policies adopted by two countries. Singapore became independent on 9 August of the same year, now celebrated as National Day.
Many things such as new bank notes, national anthem and national service had to be created for the new nation to establish the identity of the Singaporeans. Economic and educational plans were also implemented, from establishing the Jurong Industrial Estate where multinational companies could invest in, to sending Singaporeans abroad for higher education. Our attention was drawn to an old Setron television set which stood as a symbol of success in transforming old industries to modern ones. The factory manufacturing the TV set was originally processing coffee beans from Indonesia. Supply was cut short due to Indonesia’s “unhappiness” with Singapore joining the Federation, thus forcing the factory to take a gamble to switch to manufacturing of electrical goods. An impressive feat was the social welfare systems such as house ownership scheme by the Housing Development Board, which built 10,000 units for the population within 5 years and improvement of infrastructures. Today Singapore is known as the City in a Garden with strong green policies of planting trees within specified distances contributing to the creation of images of a green city. Assisted by many capable men, Lee brought great success to the Singapore we see today.
We expressed our sincere gratitude to the two guides after the one and a half hour tour, which ended all too soon. The visit to the museum indeed gave us an insight to our neighbour country, Singapore.
National Museum of
The Encyclopedia of
Malaysia, Vol 16, The Rulers of Malaysia
History of Singapore https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Singapore
Level 2 has five galleries: Ancient Religion housed in two separate areas, Christian Art Gallery, Scholar Gallery, Islamic Art Gallery and Ancestors & Rituals Gallery. Both the Islamic Art and Ancestors & Rituals Galleries are under renovation, opening in December and early 2019 respectively. In addition, there are two galleries on Level 2 for event space and as a special exhibition gallery.
The Ancient Religion Galleries hold a large collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures from Asia. The displays found are from the second century up until the early twentieth century. It also features art objects from Jainism, the third great religion of India.
Hinduism and Buddhism from India spread widely outside India including to Southeast Asia. The development of Hinduism and Buddhism then evolved combining localized features and animistic beliefs. The concepts of the original religions took many forms. – some human, some divine with supernatural powers and some abstract. By the 7th century, the form of the images moved away from those found in India as sculptors started reflecting local characteristics. Hinduism and Buddhism were widely practiced at the royal courts. Kingships even took the form of Vishnu, adding merits to their power. The Srivijayan era in the 7th century saw beautiful objects created depicting kings and their gods. At the height of the Majapahit Empire, Java (13-15th century) developed its own traditions in art, merging two religions into one.
Buddhism became popular between the 8th to 15th century in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This influence lasts until today.
In China, Buddhism grew out of Indian beliefs and was practised alongside Confucius and Taoism. Here, the famous male Avalokitesvara was personified in the form of Goddess of Mercy or Guan Yin, and became a female. The virtue of a compassionate Guan Yin was more suited to a female than a male.
The Christian Art Gallery features collections of art from China, Japan, Middle East, Southeast Asia and other countries. Christianity was introduced by Catholic missionaries from Portugal and Spain, and later Dutch Protestants. The art objects took a different form merging western ideologies with Asian techniques and materials.
The Scholars Gallery showcases Chinese beliefs and philosophy, strongly depicting Confucius teachings and Taoism practiced by scholastic officials. Here are collections of paintings, furniture and objects used by Chinese scholars depicting their lifestyles and their education.
This Gallery, on the First Level of ACM (Asian Civilisations Museum), tells the story of trade through the Tang shipwreck. The story begins in the 9th century when it was already a part of an earlier era of globalization. So let’s learn more about this shipwreck.
The Tang Shipwreck, discovered off Belitung Island in Indonesia in 1998 has revolutionized the way we see the world in the 9th century. It provides an early evidence for the bulk trade between China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East during that period.
Trade was over land and sea, linking diverse parts of Asia. As ships could carry a much greater load than camels could, the maritime route from East Asia through Southeast Asia to South and West Asia became more important, with the Gulf serving as an important hub.
The sea trade made mass exports of heavy, fragile Chinese ceramics possible for the first time.
The ship itself was Arab by construction – an Arab dhow. It consisted of wooden planks sewn together with rope. The construction technique indicated that the ship may have been built on the Arabian Peninsula, in a Gulf port, or perhaps on the coast of Oman, where similar vessels were still being built in the twentieth century. It had sailed all the way from the Middle East to China and was on its way home when it sank in the Java Sea.
What was traded ?
Glass was brought from the Middle East, cotton from India, spices and wood from Southeast Asia, and ceramics and silk from China.
In the shipwreck, more than 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers, and other ceramic items were discovered – most from Changsha, as well as luxury objects made of gold and silver, bronze mirrors and ordinary objects belonging to the crew. Its contents were protected from erosion as they were packed in jars.
So let’s see some of these wares:
The ewer below was made in China, probably in the Gongxian kilns, around the 830s. It is, perhaps, the grandest ceramic piece found in the Tang Shipwreck. The lozenge with flowers is a design developed in the Abbasid Empire. Chinese artists adopted the pattern, probably to export to Middle East customers. The overall form of the ewer is based on objects made in metal, as is evident from the upturned rim of the base, and the thinness of the handle.
The vast majority of the Tang ship’s ceramic wares came from the kilns of Changsha, in the central southern province of Hunan: 55,000 Changsha bowls and 2,500 other wares.
These wares seem to have been popular in markets overseas as well as in China itself. The motifs were painted in brown, green, using iron and copper oxide based pigments. One of the bowls had an inscription mentioning a summer’s day in 826. Drinking tea was very popular during the Tang dynasty and, instead of cups, these bowls were used to drink tea.
Three white dishes with a blue design were found in the shipwreck. These are among the earliest known Chinese blue-and-white ware. The cobalt used was most likely an import from Arabia-Persia and the motifs – one or two lozenges surrounded by foliage – were of Abbasid design.
Thirty-nine Chinese bronze mirrors, designed for trade, were found in the shipwreck. Many of them had blackened but were originally silvery. One side was polished smooth to provide a reflective surface, the other side was decorated with different motifs, such as flowers or auspicious animals.
An interesting piece among the mirrors was one that was almost a thousand years old by the time the ship sailed; it dates from the Han era (206 BCE – 220 CE). Another antique piece dates from the Six Dynasties period (220–589 CE).