Two puzzling terms newbies in the study of Southeast Asian trade ceramics often come across, are ‘Marco Polo ware’ and ‘Shūfu’. Both fall into the broader category of ‘white wares’ but what are they specifically and how can we identify them?

Qingbai stoneware ceramics were first produced in the Jingdezhen kilns in Jiangxi province around the tenth century, described by Sherman E. Lee in Chinese Art under the Mongols as having “a rather flimsy, sugary body” with a “rather glassy, very translucent greenish-tinged glaze.” (p. 19). For the next three centuries, they were popular exports as can be attested by the numbers found throughout Southeast Asian sites. Over time, due to their popularity, local kilns in other provinces (notably Fujian and Guangdong) also began producing their own white wares. By the 13th to 14th centuries, the dehua kilns in Fujian had become mass producers of moulded and slip-trailed ceramics, known for their semi-transparent whitish glazes. Two of the most famous varieties found throughout the world are those known as ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘Shūfu‘.

‘Marco Polo’ wares

Marco Polo left Europe in 1271 accompanied by his father and an uncle, and is one of the earliest European travellers who claimed to have visited China. Interestingly, his name has come to be associated with a Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) ceramic that has long resided in the Treasury of San Marco in Venice.

A recent analysis of the piece published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press confirms that the ceramic does appear to date to the 13th century. It was Oscar Raphael who visited the Basilica of San Marco in Venice in 1932 who suggested that the jar housed in its Treasury could have been brought to Europe by Marco Polo from China, as he rightly identified it as qingbai.

Such wares from the Dehua and other Fujian provincial kilns were widely exported during this period, and it is possible that Marco Polo or another traveller found, bought or was gifted the vase.

But it’s just as likely it came to end up in the Venice treasury as part of the spoils of the Fourth Crusade of 1204, which was the origin of a significant number of other items that form the basilica’s collection. “Following the conquest of the Byzantine capital, crusaders brought many ornate objects back to Venice, including incense holders, chalices, bowls, ewers, cruets, and reliquary caskets” [reference]…and perhaps even the qingbai vase that today carries Marco Polo’s name.

Large embossed Shufu jar

The jar identified with Marco Polo in the Treasury of San Marco, Venice.

A pair of qingbai vases with 4 tiny loops on the collar, bosses on the shoulder, and a softly lobed body with impressed fern design. Early Yuan 13C. Fujian Ware found in the Philippines, ed. by Rita C. Tan (Makati City: OCS Phlippines, 2017), plate 29.

SEACS founder William Willetts referred to Marco Polo wares in the catalogue that accompanied the society’s first exhibition in 1971, describing them as “early dehua‘” (p. 6).

And when the OCS of the Philippines published Fujian Ware found in the Phillippines (2017), they included a piece identified as ‘Marco Polo ware’, noting that “When Marco Polo left China through Quanzhou, he brought with him a similar piece,” referring to the San Marco Collection. “Hence this type of vessel is known to Chinese ceramic archaeologists as the ‘Marco Polo vase.’ (p. 59).

Glazes used on moulded pieces from this period “varied considerably; from a very thin transparent glaze … to a thick, opaque, bluish glaze similar to that on shufu wares … and was associated particularly with vases that are ornate in shape and seamed up the sides.” noted Song expert Mary Tregear, concluding that when “the body is white and light in weight, and the potting and finishing poor, this ware [is known] as ‘Marco Polo’ ware, and it undoubtedly was a trade article.” [Mary Tregear, Song Ceramics, London: Thames & Hudson, 1982, p. 158]

Shūfǔ [ 樞府 ]

A shufu plate, courtesy of the British Museum collection.

Small shufu bowl with characters shu-fu

Shufu white porcelain bowl with pale whitish blue glaze. Molded relief decoration of peony scroll on the inside, surrounding a double vajra. You can just make out the character 'shu' to the left of the peony. Photo: Sherman Lee, Chinese Art Under the Mongols, plate 117.

Shufu wares are a subset of qingbai, which first appeared, according to Tregear, “at the Jingdezhen kilns, probably in the later part of the Song” (960-1279), although most references refer to them as Yuan (1279-1368). Tregear noted that both qingbai and shufu were made “at the same kilns in the Hutian area [with] shufu ….continuing into the Yuan period.”

The early pieces were porcelain, made of a dense white paste, but were not smooth to the touch. Whereas qingbai often had impressed designs, shufu ceramics have a distinctive running trail of white slip that was “piped onto the leather-hard surface … resulting in a line that was soft and even.”The piped design was often floral, and eventually featured chrysanthemums, which became very fashionable in the 14th century. Both Sherman Lee and Mary Tregear confirm that its unglazed foot ring was square-cut and had a flat, unglazed base.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the bodies became thicker and harder with a more milky opaque glaze with a very faint bluish cast. Tregear notes that it was an “important development for the Jingdezhen kiln complex, since later it [became] the basic glaze on the early overglaze decoration of the Ming.”

Shufu‘s name comes from the two characters shū (樞) and (府) that are discernible in the raised slip under the glaze, usually facing one another just below the rims on the opposite sides of the interior walls. Their name (sometimes translated as the ‘Privy Council’) may refer to the ministry (the Shumiyuan) concerned with military and civil affairs and may have designated they had either approved their production, or were official pieces made for their members’ use.

Over time, mass-produced wares of a coarser quality were mass-produced and exported extensively throughout Southeast Asia. Many do not bear the distinctive Chinese characters and are often identified as shufu-like.

Ceramics and shards identified as shufu continue to surface in Asian waters from Korea (the Sinan wreck, dated to ~1325) to the more recent find off the coast of Singapore (the Temasek wreck, dated to ~1330+) as marine archaeologists bring more and more shipwrecks to light.

Contributed by Patricia Bjaaland Welch (July 2022), comments and feedback/corrections welcome