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Shipwrecks, Ceramics, and the History of Chinese and Southeast Asian Trade
Roxanna Brown with some of the ceramics recovered from sunken ships in Southeast Asia.

Shipwrecks, Ceramics, and the History of Chinese and Southeast Asian Trade

Museum curator Roxanna Brown traces changes in trade policies of China and Vietnam through the long-lost cargoes of sunken ships.

Deep water has its secrets, and Roxanna Brown has spent years probing them as a kind of forensic detective of trade patterns in Southeast Asia. Dr. Brown is the director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum on the Rangsit campus of Bangkok University. She is one of the world experts on Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics. She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA in Art History, and returned to her alma mater October 7 to share what she has learned with faculty and students. Her visit was sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Roxanna Brown was introduced by UCLA art historian Robert Brown (no relative), who described her as "one of the two or three people who created the field of Southeast Asian ceramics." Roxanna Brown's special interest is the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, high points of Asian plate and vase making arts. Already well-known for her 1977 book The Ceramics of South-East Asia, Their Dating and Identification, she described how she became interested in the cargoes of ship wrecks.

For a long time, she said, the principal source of surviving ceramics was archaeological digs at land sites. These were often difficult to date accurately because little of the ceramic ware remained intact and sites were often in use for hundreds of years so that it was hard to pinpoint what kind of ceramics were current at a particular time.

There was a particular question that began to interest specialists as early as the 1950s: whether or not the antiforeign Ming dynasty in China (1368 to 1644) had succeeded in its efforts to curtail Chinese trade with the outside world. The first evidence that this might be the case, Brown said, came in a report by Tom Harrisson, curator of the Sarawak Museum in Borneo, in 1958 noting the absence of Chinese blue and white ceramics at 11 archaeological excavations in Borneo in the 1950s. Harrisson called this omission the "Ming Gap." Harrisson meant the term only as a comparison with the more plentiful Chinese ceramic ware from sites in Brunei at the north end of the same island shared with Borneo. Later studies, Roxanna Brown said, have established that even in Brunei almost all of the samples of Chinese ceramics were produced during the short-lived Hongzhi reign in China (1488-1505), leaving open the question of whether other Ming emperors had successfully clamped down on exports.

At the Manila Trade Pottery Seminar in 1968 archaeologists generally agreed that there was probably a sharp cutback in Chinese exports to Southeast Asia from the 14th to the 16th century, but that this could not be proved because land sites overlapped too much in time and space. "The problem could not be solved by land archaeology," Brown said.

The Solution Is in Shipwrecks

The breakthrough in the end was to be found not on land but under water. "There are some 120 known shipwrecks, off the coast of Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines, mostly found in the last 25 to 30 years," Brown recounted. "It was mainly off-shore oil drillers, who had the equipment and the skills." Divers are locating about 6 new shipwrecks every year, she said. And many of these wrecks contain not shards as in land sites but thousands of entirely undamaged plates and bowls.

Some 40 years after Tom Harrisson coined the phrase Ming Gap, during which the term came to mean many things and was actually little used, "Finally, there is enough data from shipwrecks to begin tackling the idea of market cycles in trade ceramics."

Roxanna Brown has spent the last several years examining the recovered cargoes of many of the recently discovered wrecks, looking at many items to establish the rough date when each ship went down. Since ceramics were a major trade item throughout this period she has then been able to review each cargo to see whether the traditional dominance of Chinese wares held or if the Chinese plates were absent, replaced by native Southeast Asian manufactures from Thailand, Vietnam, or Malaysia.

Fifteen Ships and Their Cargoes

Not every decade is documented by a useful cargo, but fifteen of the ships fill in much of the first 140 years of Ming reign. Below are the names by which the wrecks are known and the approximate dates their cargoes were manufactured:

Rang Kwien/Song Doc (1380-1400)
Turiang/Ko Si Chang II (1400-1420)
Nanyang/Longquan (1430-1450)
Ko Khram (c. 1450)
Royal Nanhai (c. 1460)
Pandanan (c. 1470)
Lena Shoal/Santa Cruz/Brunei (1488-1505)
Ko Samui/Xuande/Gujangan (1506-1521)

Roxanna Brown's Conclusions

The Ming Gap was real, Roxanna Brown said. It reflected a period when the Chinese government succeeded in clamping down on traders and exporters and closing China off from the outside world, ending the Chinese monopoly on the ceramic trade in East Asia. It went in several stages, however, and was not always completely effective.

"There is not good evidence for the period just before the beginning of the Ming," she said. "For now, there is an archaeological gap in shipwreck evidence for c. 1325-1380." But it is known that China had almost a 100% monopoly of the ceramic trade throughout Southeast Asia for the century and a quarter before 1325. "There is a fall in Chinese market share to only 30-50% when the shipwreck record picks up again for the years 1368 to 1424-30, that is from the beginning of the Ming ban to the end of treasure ship voyages of Zheng He."

Thai celadon wares recovered from Royal Nanhai wreck, circa 1460

The Chinese exports fall still lower in the finds that cover the years from 1424-30 to 1487, accounting for only 5% of the ceramic cargoes. "Then comes the Hongzhi 'bubble,' c. 1488-1505," when restrictions on exports are relaxed. The 60 years after that show mild shortages of Chinese products, but by 1573 the Chinese have reestablished their old monopoly of the ceramic trade in the region.

During the period when the Chinese were not exporting, "Thai and Vietnamese wares comprise 50-70% of cargo on 5 shipwrecks from c. 1380-1424/30." This was followed by what Roxanna Brown called the "golden age of Thai classic celadon, c. 1424-30-1487." Celadon is a distinctive green glaze first invented by the Chinese but the technique spread to other nearby countries.

The Vietnamese Also Withdraw from International Trade

There is a similar pattern of withdrawal from interstate commerce in Vietnam during the inward-looking Mac dynasty (1528-1592), Brown said. "There were significant cargoes of northern Vietnamese wares circa 1470-1510, for example on the Pandanan, Hoi An I, and Hoi An II wrecks." In contrast, "there is not a single Vietnamese pot so far documented on Zhengde and later 16th century shipwrecks."