Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Guangdong province kilns

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The venerable port city of Guangzhou in central Guangdong province became an official port in the tenth century, under the Northern Song government, although Arab traders had long visited it as part of their circulation through the Indian Ocean. Ceramics from Guangdong kilns were part of the early group of wares that entered international trade in the ninth century (Xue 1990).

Among the early products were the many large jars with four to six horizontal lugs on the shoulder, glazed with yellow-green ash glaze, that served as containers for smaller Changsha and Yue ware vessels on the Belitung shipwreck in Indonesia (Scott 2002–2003). The Guangdong kilns provided the prototype of the "Chinese jar" form that would affect the design of jars at kilns in Mainland Southeast Asia, especially those closely associated with trade managed by Chinese merchants, such as Sawankhalok and Maenam Noi.

From the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, the principal kilns in Guangdong that exported products to Southeast Asia were Xicun near Guangzhou, Huizhou to the east, and Chaozhou further east near the Fujian border. These and other enterprising kilns replicated the full panoply of ceramics popularized by kilns in the north (Yaozhou celadon, Cizhou iron-decorated ware, Ding porcelain) and southeast (Yue celadon, Jingdezhen qingbai, Jianyang black glaze, and Jizhou decorated ware) and exported them widely (Lam 1985, 1989; Tang 1990; Ho 1992). They were found in the royal palace site in Angkor (Dupoizat 1999), and Henri Maspero collected many fragments of the wares in Hanoi in the early twentieth century (Dupoizat 1997).

Kilns were active at Foshan, southwest of Guangzhou, from at least the tenth century. They are known to have produced brown-glazed storage jars with motifs and commercial brands stamped on the shoulders between horizontal lugs. Associated kilns at Shiwan (Shekwan) have continued remarkably to the present day, after shifting production in the sixteenth century to heavy stoneware jars and roof ornaments with thick, opaque glazes brightly tinted in shades of cobalt blue or copper green.

Shiwan and other kilns in coastal Guangdong became important sources of technology and skilled labor, as many potters migrated to overseas Chinese merchant communities throughout Southeast Asia to replicate their industry. The Guangdong diaspora was the source of potters for kilns in Borneo (Harrisson 1986, 3–13), central and southern Vietnam (Luong and Diep 1990, 1991; Nguyen-Long 2003), Singapore (Sullivan 1990), and Ratchaburi in central Thailand (Bekker 1969), to name just a few.

Shiwan jar makers brought with them the technique of forming large jars by throwing the upper and lower halves (and possibly the neck) separately, then joining them (Harrisson 1986, 9–11). It is perhaps significant that this technique is found in the later phase of Maenam Noi jar production (Mukai 2003).