A Sulawesi Trade Ware Collection

Submitted by Ed Conyngham, a career Foreign Service Officer and ‘Old Asia Hand’ (updated January 2021)

The jarlets in this collection (Nos. 1-12) and a small dish (No. 20) were purchased from antique vendors (tukang antiek) on the west coast of Sulawesi in 1972, and one in Makassar,  where I had been studying Indonesian. The ceramics were displayed in glass cases, a sign that the tourist trade was well underway. The larger pieces were purchased in Jakarta from vendors (tukang) who visited our home with baskets of ceramics perched on the back of bicycles, a nostalgic memory from that time.  It seems remarkable now that pottery of such antiquity was being sold so casually. It speaks of the huge quantities that must have been available to even these humble merchants. I frequently visited the Museum Pusat after that with a copy of Van Orsoy de Fline’s (1886-1964)  Museum Pusat Djakarta: Guide to the Ceramic Collection in hand, and sent for a copy of the  Locsin’s Oriental Ceramics Discovered in the Philippines. The jarlets in my collection are similar to those on page 119 of their book. I boxed this collection up in 1976 when I left Jakarta and opened it only recently, still wrapped in old newspapers.

Seeing them brought memories of Bugis perahu in Makassar harbor, perhaps the last of the great sailing fleets, extravagant sunsets, and a jeep trip up the coast with my Indonesian teacher to the old trading ports of Pare-Pare and Menado. These memories rekindled my interest, and I immediately purchased a stack of books on Southeast Asian trade ware and poured over the pictures for weeks looking for works similar to mine. However, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of the ceramics, as well as the growth in scholarly literature. Faced with this dilemma, I decided to start with easily identifiable features of a few pieces, and then check with the literature to see what it had to say about it. In some cases, it was the other way around, and a book gave me a clue. Books were my guide as there were no other resources available.

On re-reading Van Orsoy de Fline’s Guide, I came across the line, “Annamese enameled decoration was always thinly applied and in many cases flaked off…and can only be detected by the faint stains which remain” (p. 66). That sent me back for a look at my No. 6, a carelessly made pot with multiple more or less parallel lines. The condition of the circles on the pot matched the description in the museum guidebook so closely that I immediately decided it was Vietnamese, and began looking for circular rings in other Vietnamese pieces. I found them, of course, because they are everywhere, and in the process I discovered their link to early bronze ware.

Three books informed that understanding:

  1. SEACS’ Vietnamese Ceramics has a picture of a seventh century BC Dongson bronze drum on p. 14 in which Keith Taylor notes that “The earliest of these drums are closely related in basic structural features and in decorative design to Phung-Nyugen pottery.” (p. 14)
  2. The Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music. Karl Hutterer notes on p. 23 that “around 1500 BCE Phung Nguyen culture was replaced by the Dong Dau culture, associated not only with a different type of pottery–vessels decorated with multiple parallel incised lines, rarely with impressions–but also with a great blossoming of the use of bronze.”
  3. The Freer Chinese Bronzes. John Pope (1906-1982)  says on p. 10 that early Shang bronzes were more austere than late Shang bronzes (c. 1600 BC) and that in late Shang “the spirit changed; and gradually more and more of the surface of the vessel was covered; and the elements of decoration multiplied and elaborated almost beyond recognition. As time went on, the entire surface was often covered with decoration leaving only occasional horizontal bands plain to serve as boundaries between zones with various motifs.” So, there was the source of parallel circular lines.

From the Bronze Age on, parallel circular lines, with and without decoration, became a ubiquitous design element in Southeast Asian pottery. These lines continued to mark out boundaries between motifs, but also became decorative features in themselves, some wide, some narrow, some swooping and curving, and some with no decoration other than the lines. My carelessly brushed pot (No. 6) has three sets of wobbly parallel lines that follow the latter pattern, making even this humble pot part of a design tradition going back to the beginnings of ceramic time.

Early pottery was incised by hand, but at some point, potters’ wheels came into use. An example of a 17th century potter’s wheel can be seen on p. 151 in the chapter on ceramics in Sung Ying-hsiung’s (d. 1660) Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century (Tian Gong Kai Wu). The craftsman at the wheel in the illustration, brush in hand, is said to be ‘da quan‘ or making circles, and the circles happen to be parallel circles.

Of all the jarlets in my collection, #2 and #8 have the most beautiful glazes and that is the problem. They are too beautiful; they show no weathering at all and not the slightest scratch. They were certainly never buried with their owners. They made me wonder if there is a kiln somewhere producing modern trade ware. There is a chapter on Vietnamese copies and forgeries in Dragons and Lotus Blossoms, Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art by Philippe Truong, but no jarlets are listed. They would, in any case, be of such limited value that rather than forgeries, they might be either family heirlooms cached in a safe place, or simply well made later versions in the jarlet tradition.

The edge of my celadon plate, No. 21, was an easily identifiable feature but it took me in a different direction than I expected. When I first looked at the wavy white edge, followed by wavy lines, I saw it as a series of white capped waves. However, when I looked at pictures of similar plates, I saw that others called theirs ‘foliate’, meaning leaf-like. Others called it ‘scalloped’, meaning shaped like a scallop. Another ‘barbed’, perhaps like rose thorns. Feng Xiangming, in his essay on Song ceramics, called it ‘kui hua shi‘ meaning sunflower type, turning it into a category. At first I thought ‘foliate’ was a stretch because it didn’t look like any flower I had ever seen, but I eventually realized it was stylized, and that common usage had turned it into a ceramic category. So in the interest of uniformity, I too labeled my plate as foliate. This led me eventually to the subject of ‘cognitive science’ for which categories play a key role.

Cognitive scientists view the subject from the point of view of many academic disciplines including linguistics. According to linguist George Lakoff, contemporary cognitive science, “takes the imaginative aspects of reason–metaphor, metonomy, and mental imagery–as central to reason, rather than as a peripheral and inconsequential adjunct to the literal.” Thus, those who defined their edges as ‘foliate’, ‘scalloped,’ ‘barbed’ and ‘sunflower like’ were using the imaginative aspects of reason based on the way the human brain works. They used metaphors taken from the natural world to describe edges, and used ‘foliate’ and ‘sunflower like’ as categories, or prototypes as they are now called. Taken together, these metaphors and prototypes form a conceptual system called ‘Experiential Realism.’ It differs from ‘Objectivism’ which holds that reality is objective, and external to the mind. The Experiential Realists do not dismiss the reality of the objective world, but merely state that our minds shape that reality through metaphorical expressions and visual imagery by which humans commonly express feelings.   

For another perspective on describing the ceramics in my collection, I turned to Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961) for his Buddhist-inspired The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. Buddhism was the conceptual system through which he viewed ceramics which he simply called a point of view. Shoji Hamada notes that Yanagi “…searched through the developments of Buddhist thought–Zen first, for the lone seeker, followed by Jodo Shinshu and Jishu for the many.” Yanagi distinguishes between ‘seeing’ by which he means intuiting the essence of a work through direct observation rather than merely ‘knowing’ things about it like its age, provenance or commercial value. “It is best, he says to ‘see’ first and know afterwards.” He believes that the ‘essence’ of craft work (mingei) is revealed in the underlying patterns we see in it, communally-derived patterns which have emerged over time, and he equates these patterns with beauty (pp 113-188). He says that ‘seeing’ in the Zen manner, without intellectualizing–known as mushin (‘no mind’)–is not given to all but, for the many, he offers three pieces of advice: First, put aside the desire to judge immediately; acquire the habit of just looking. Second, do not treat the object as an object for the intellect. Third, just be ready to receive, passively, without interposing yourself. If you can void your mind of all intellectualization, like a clear mirror, all the better. Yanagi is mainly concerned with our achieving a personal aesthetic awareness rather than communicating it to others. For that, I turned to chapter eleven on figures of speech in R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which opened up a new world for many post-war English readers. Blyth talks about poetry rather than ceramics in this chapter, but his insights apply equally to poetic descriptions of ceramics.

I am still a learner myself but with that caveat, here is an attempt to describe my feelings about three monochrome pieces of mine:

Some Metaphors and Images

  • No. 13, a flower opening to the sun
  • No. 14, a reticent pot, sings “Attention Please” when tapped, but leaves the response to us
  • No. 15, an imagined world of spiritual order

Ed Conyngham 2/3/2021

On Photographing Ceramics

The colors of the pots are subtle and difficult to describe so I was hoping my photographs would better reflect reality but in the main they do not. And, to make it worse, I had trouble photographing glossy pots like #2 and #8. The colors in some, like plate #21 and the dark brown pots, #17, #18 and #19 however are dead-on while others look alright as photographs but not true to the original. For example, #20, a small dish, appears white in the photo but is grayish-white in reality. My hat’s off to the photographers who helped create the beautiful SEACS catalogues. There is so much more to learn. I used Kodak Portra 160 film, and results with digital photographs may differ.

Additional Pot Notes: #6 See Brown, Roxanna, The Ming Gap, p. 46 for a jarlet in similar condition. #15 See Brown (above), p. 124 for similar bowl. #16 Original cover lost by owner in shipment.

Works Cited

E. W. DeFlines, Djakarta: Guide to the Ceramic Collection (Foreign Ceramics), Jakarta: Museum Pusat, 1972.

L. and C. Locsin, Oriental Ceramics Discovered in the Philippines. Rutland, VT & Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1967.

Keith Taylor, “A Brief Summary of Vietnamese History” in Vietnamese Ceramics, Singapore: SEACS, 1982.

K. Hutterer, “Southeast Asia in Prehistory” in The Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music, Routledge, NY & London, 2008.

J. Pope, The Freer Chinese Bronzes, Vol. I, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, Freer Gallery of Art, 1967.

Y. Song, E. Sun and S. Sun, T’ian-kung k’ai-wu: Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century, NY: Dover Publications, 1967.

P. Truong, “Vietnamese Ceramics, the State of the Field” in Dragons and Lotus Blossoms, Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Museum of Art, n.d.

Xian Feng, “Some Problems concerning the Development of Song Ceramics” in Song Ceramics, Singapore: SEACS, 1983.

L. Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, What Categories Reveal about the Mind, Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987.

S. Yanagi, Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, “Seeing and Knowing” in The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1972.

R. Blyth “Figures of Speech” in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1948.

Other Works Consulted

Brown, Roxanna M. The Ceramics of South East Asia: Their Dating and Identification. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977.

—–. The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia: Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade Ware. Bangkok: Siam Society, 2009.

Collis, Maurice. Into Hidden Burma: An Autobiography. London: Faber & Faber, 1953. Note: See chapter 16 for an account of pottery collecting in the Tenasserim region of Burma by Collis in the 1930s. Collis compares European and local attitudes towards old ceramics.

Frasche, D. F. Southeast Asian Ceramics. New York: Asia House Gallery, 1976.

Guy, John. Ceramic Traditions of South-East Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lammers, Cheng and Abu Ridho. Annamese Ceramics in the Museum Pusat Jakarta. Jakarta: Ceramic Society of Indonesia, 1974.

White, J. C. Ban Chiang: Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1982.

Rooney, Dawn F. Kendis in the Cultural Context of Southeast Asia, A Commentary. Available online at www.rooneyarchive.net. Accessed October 1, 2019.

End note:

Roxanna Brown noted in “The History of Ceramic Finds in Sulawesi” (SEACS Transactions pamphlet No. 5, 1974), that the amount of ceramics found in Sulawesi is staggering and suggests they might have come via wide roaming inter-island traders responding to local interest. Without contemporaneous vernacular records, we can only speculate on how the peoples of Sulawesi came to value these wares for such a long time. I hazard the guess that there was a communal passion for collecting them.