Synopsis of Talk on Swatow Ware by Sumarah Adhyatman

Synopsis of a talk by Sumarah Adhyatman given on 8 July 1999 to the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society on her recently published book - Swatow (Zhangzhou) Ceramics, Sixteenth to Seventeenth Centuries found in Indonesia

(Provided by Mrs. Adhyatman)

Swatow ware is easy to recognize because of its lively, often crowded design and sand adherence on the base. The kilns have recently been found in Pinghe and Hunan, in the Zhangzhou province, Fujian, South China. The Chinese prefer therefore to name this ware Zhangzhou ware. However, I prefer to use the popular name Swatow. The name Swatow most probably derives from Shantou, an old junk port along the southern coast of Guangdong near Fujian. Chinese antique dealers with a clientele in Southeast Asia are of the opinion that these wares were exported through Shantou and called them Shantou wares. Whether Swatow ware was actually exported from Shantou cannot be verified, but some Chinese scholars have pointed out that Shantou only became known as an export harbour in the nineteenth century.

Swatow ware was mainly produced for export, little was found in China. It was mainly exported to Japan and Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. A few museums in South Africa also have nice Swatow collections, but it is believed that the majority were brought as personal effects. Swatow was the main Chinese export ware to Indonesia in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries. 

In that period, prosperous Islamic kingdoms were appearing throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Important kingdoms were Demak and Mataram in Central Java, Aceh in North Sumatra, Banten in West Java, and Gowa in South Sulawesi. The kings of Aceh even ordered special dishes based on their royal seal Cap sikureung. The dishes were used on special occasions, heaped with food.

Important Swatow collections abroad are in the Princessehof Museum in Leewarden (ninety percent were acquired in Indonesia) and in the Municipal Art Gallery in Johannesburg. They consist mostly of dishes and jars. In Jakarta, the Museum Nasional and the Adam Malik collection in the Museum Keramik Jakarta, have very good Swatow collections. Next to dishes and jars, there are bowls, vases, boxes, jarlets and a stem cup. All these shapes have been found at the Zhangzhou kiln sites, but few have ever been published.

Swatow porcelain varies greatly in quality, and in the finest pieces, an excellent underglaze blue does justice to the decoration, but the name of ‘coarse porcelain’ is accurate in view of the heavy potting and notable lack of finish. But until today there are many admirers of Swatow ware in Indonesia, Japan and South Africa. 

Swatow ware can be divided into four categories:

  1. Blue and white ware
  2. Polychrome ware
  3. Monochrome ware
  4. Slip ware

The blue and white ware, which is the largest group, can be divided in the Conservative Family, Persistent Family and the Versatile Family (Barbara Harrisson, 1995). The typical body of Swatow is grey, buff or white, and it is dense with small impurities. Many pieces have a crackled glaze.