The Cirebon Cargo of Yue Ceramic Vessels
by Yvonne Tan (1 May 2007)
In February 2003, some 100 km off Cirebon on the north Java coast, local fishermen caught ceramic objects in their dragnets. They were part of wreckage found at a depth of 56 m. in the Java Sea subsequently named the Cirebon cargo. The first of these wares surfaced in April 2004. Providing evidence of a vigorous export trade was the largest amount of Yue wares or yue yao, found, forming 75 per cent of the cargo. Ten per cent of the 200,000 pieces was intact, including Yue ewers with bulging bellies, bowls, platters and incense burners as well as figurines of birds, deer and unicorns.
A ceramic bowl inscribed with the date 968 and a company seal Xu Ji Shao, suggesting its manufacture, provide clues to the cargo’s provenance. They suggest the cargo sank around 968 or after, in the late 10th century. China then witnessed the coexistence broadly, of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (906-960) with the Liao dynasty (916-1125) in the north. The Five Dynasties centring on the Yellow River were successive short-lived dynasties following one another.
After the late Tang (618-906) uprisings of the 870s, regional divisions gave way to independent local regimes known as the Ten Kingdoms. The situation among the southern kingdoms was more stable, and less conflict enabled porcelain production and shipbuilding to advance along the coastal areas.
The Yue ceramics found aboard might be attributed to the prosperous Wu Yue kingdom (907-978) on present-day southern Jiangsu and Zhejiang. These wares were believed to be the precursors to Chinese greenwares, associated with the Yue kilncomplex active in Zhejiang from the Tang onwards. Controlled by the Wu Yue rulers who were the Qian family, the Yue kilns produced the ‘first official ware’ for the court. Of these the mise or ‘secret colour’ ware was of prime significance. In the Cha Jing, ‘Tea Classic’, the tea connoisseur Lu Yu ranked yue wares as the top choice for tea.
The Wu Yue ceramics in the cargo were distinguished by carved or incised ornamental features such as lotus petals, from the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon. One platter has the distinct shape of a lotus leaf inscribed with a turtle, identified with the universe, in the centre. In Buddhist terms, it symbolised the turtle’s attainment of immortality, chen xian. The sea creature, makara and the three-clawed dragon were other motifs.
Hieroglyphics or ideograms inscribed on ceramic objects also have a strong Buddhist flavour, including the inscription gongyang, ‘paying homage’ to Buddha. These objects at the service of Buddhism reflected the Wu Yue rulers’ religious zeal, since its founder, Qian Liu was a staunch Buddhist. As the richest kingdom, the Wu Yue undertook large-scale temple building and cast Buddha images for distribution.
Also in the cargo were Northern white wares, comprising 2,500 dishes, bowls and jars that are subject to interpretation. It has yet to be established if they were Ding or Xing wares, which were heirs to Tang white stoneware. Many were lightly incised with ornament such as confronting birds (parrots and phoenixes), tortoises, deer, lotus petals and pods, and makaras. Symbolically, Chinese motifs include boys among floral scrolls for fertility and male progeny, and cicadas, chan, for purity and longevity. The white glaze formed a basis for the development of porcelain in later dynasties.
Following the collapse of Tang control, overland routes to central Asia and the Arab world were increasingly insecure. China was forced turn to the South China Sea. Its Nanhai or ‘Southern Seas’ trade route might be considered a second Silk Road linking it with Southeast Asia and beyond. The Malay archipelago had been receptive already a few centuries before to cultural influences via maritime trade from both India and China.
The transmission of Indic culture and the Hindu-Buddhist religion from the Indian subcontinent was most evident in Java and south Sumatra. Culturally Hindu-Buddhist, they also enjoyed trade and welcomed tribute missions from China.
From the 7th to the 11th centuries, the Srivijayan kingdom in southeast Sumatra controlled maritime trade passing through the Malacca and the Sunda Straits.
Known as Sanfoqi in Chinese, Srivijaya around present-day Palembang was a centre of Buddhist learning and an intermediary landing port for Chinese and other pilgrims travelling to India. Between 671 and 695, the Tang Chinese monk Yi Jing (635-713) journeyed to Nalanda in India and later visited Srivijaya from where he wrote a book entitled Records of Buddhist Practices from the South Seas.
Buddhism in China was growing in importance and trade in Buddhist religious objects had already commenced by this time. In maritime southeast Asia, Srivijaya became a significant Chinese trading partner and a recipient of tribute.
The Cirebon cargo was marked by its diversity. While dominated by Chinese ceramics, coinage, glass, gold, metalwork and lacquerware formed a small but significant part of it. Found in the wreck was Chinese copper coinage from the Nan Han kingdom (917-971) providing evidence of contact with the area of present-day Guangdong and Guangxi on the southern Chinese coast. The main currency zones of the Nan Han and the Min kingdom (909-945) in present-day Fujian were copper and lead based. During this period the Chinese monetary system had undergone a revolution as increased agricultural production and commerce encouraged the minting of various kinds of coinage.
By the 10th century, Chinese maritime trade had extended beyond southeast Asia, linking it via the Indian Ocean to the Arab littoral and the ports of Siraf and Basra on the Persian Gulf and Suhar on the Gulf of Oman.
Ten per cent of the cargo was devoted to glassware, gold and gemstones. Forty intact glass vessels among 2,000 glass shards, had constituents appearing very similar to glass from Syria or Persia under the Abbasid caliphate (circa 750-1258) of the Arab-Islamic empire. Blown in green, blue and turquoise, these light opaque glass vessels indicate possible Arab or Persian provenance. Syrian green glass of the same period has been described as imitating the colour of emeralds. Were these glass vessels used for religious rituals?
Some objects in the Cirebon cargo bore obvious Arabic inscriptions. One stone mould was inscribed with Allahi Akbar, ‘The One and Only God is Great’ and Allah Malik Wahid Qahhar, ‘The One and Only Dominator’. While the advent of Islam in the Arab world after the mid-7th century favoured the use of the Arabic script in Koranic inscriptions, the 8th-century Arab conquest of Sind brought the faith closer to India. By the 10th century, Arabic had become the principal vernacular used in the Arab-Islamic empire but it was seafaring Muslim traders who brought Islam to the Malay archipelago.
Gold objects in the Cirebon cargo include two gold-plated daggers embellished with Arabic or Sunni-type inscriptions indicating possible Arab or Indian provenance. Gold items of jewellery include a chain belt, earrings and rings with Indian and Hindu-Buddhist motifs, embedded with semi-precious stones. A gold plated object with Javanese inscriptions has been described as an ancient Javanese amulet with mantras from Buddhist scriptures. Gemstones include rubies, probably from Ceylon, lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones.
The salvage operation was completed in October 2005. The shipwreck vessel had a keel length of 24 m and an overall length of 30 m; a width of 12 m; and the load was 200 – 300 metric tons of cargo. A third of the hull was in a condition, which enabled its construction technique to be examined.
The vessel seems to have been constructed from dowelled planks and frames of the Southeast Asian or Austronesian-Srivijayan ‘lashed lug’ variety, supporting the case for local shipping power in the Malay archipelago. Lashed-lug vessels were constructed from lugs or projections in wooden planks, which had holes allowing the planks to be threaded together by coir fibre, rattan cords or cable. The planks were fastened by wooden dowels.
Tenth-century Arab, Indian and Chinese sources have described Srivijaya as a major maritime centre in the Malay archipelago frequented by kunlun merchant ships. Kunlun was a term given to the peoples of the Nanhai, including Cham, Khmer, Malay, Srivijayan or Indian traders, some of whom sailed in lashed-lug vessels.
The position of the hull in the Java Sea suggests the vessel was veering towards the area of present-day Semarang in north Java.
Several assumptions have been made concerning its itinerary. One possible origin was the western Indian Ocean with an intermediary port, believed to be Srivijaya, where some of the cargo might have been loaded. Kendi, or water jars, of perhaps Thai or Sumatran provenance were part of the cargo, indicating a Southeast Asian component. The substantial amount of Chinese ceramics in the cargo however suggests the vessel might have been to China, whose largest ports were then Quanzhou, Minzhou (present-day Ningbo) and Guangzhou.
Fine harbours along Quanzhou on present-day Fujian’s seaboard enjoyed active overseas trade and commercial exchanges with southeast, south and west Asia. Alternatively Guangzhou might have been the starting point of a route via the South China Sea to Champa, Tumasek (present-day Singapore) and Srivijaya.
The vessel sank in the Java Sea while heading towards Java. Metal, which comprised the remaining cargo, was dominated by bronze religious objects. Apart from Chinese bronze mirrors with I Ching trigram and astrological features, a bronze tripod for holding a water pot, a bronze lamp with an elephant rider, several candleholders, Indian Buddhist bells and figurines suggest Indian, Srivijayan or Javanese origins. Were these bronze objects destined for Southeast Asian temples? The significant amount of religious objects with Hindu-Buddhist motifs prompts speculation of possible tribute or exchange between the Wu Yue Kingdom, whose founding rulers were practising Buddhists, and Java. One chicken-shaped ewer with a handle representing the Hindu naga or serpent, bears the inscription, tianxia taiping, ‘peace under heaven’. In the Javanese context, the Hindu-Buddhist complexes Prambanan and Borobudur had been constructed around 850 and circa 732-928, respectively, during the Central Javanese period, and were possible destinations for some of the religious paraphernalia. Remains of kitchen utensils and ceremonial objects bearing Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic features suggest the vessel carried crew of various nationalities and many faiths.