Shipwreck recovered off Korea reveals hidden secrets about Chinese porcelain, trade and culture

10-May-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

A 14th-century Chinese trading ship, which was wrecked carrying priceless cargoes before being discovered in 1976 off the southern coast of South Korea, provides an endless source of information about China’s porcelain manufacturing, maritime trade and high culture in East Asia.

The National Museum of Korea in Seoul marked the 40th anniversary of the discovery of the treasure boat in Sinan County with a special exhibition in 2016 and published in three volumes the results of decades of examinations of 24,000 recovered relics. Most recently, the museum opened a special display of 180 of 800 black-glazed porcelains from the wreck. The museum also has a permanent display corner dedicated to Sinan shipwreck treasures.

“This is a rare chance of seeing the highly prized black glazed porcelains manufactured at various kilns in 14th-century China that have been brought together in the same place,” curator Kim Young-mi said.

These porcelains turned out to be closely associated with China’s tea consumption, which was also enthusiastically embraced by Japanese nobles. The porcelains, now on display at a special exhibition at the museum, were made in Jiangxi province, Hebei province and more importantly Fujian province, where the famous Jian kilns produced the most prized pieces, especially in Japan.

 (South China Morning Post)

(South China Morning Post)

The exhibition includes about 60 tea bowls from Jian kilns during the Southern song period (1127-1279) which were already being traded as antiques at that time. During this period, people placed powdered tea leaves in deep bowls, added warm water and stirred it to create foam before drinking. This method was later replaced by brewing tea with warm water and tea leaves.

In 1323, a large trade ship left Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, eastbound for Japan’s Hakata port in Fukuoka. The 260-tonne vessel, 34 metres long and 11 metres wide, was carrying Chinese ceramics, wooden lacquer ware and metal crafts. At the lower part of the hull were a large tank for portable water, 8 million bronze coins weighing 28 tonnes and pieces of red sandalwood used for making furniture. these items also served as ballast.

Researchers suspect the bronze coins might have been intended to be melted in Japan to build buddha’s images or used as financial settlement, as the coins had been taken out of circulation in China. But the ship never reached its destination. It drifted north, possibly in a summer storm, and foundered in the strait between Imja island and Jeung island in Sinan county.

After sinking to the seabed and being buried in mud, the ship was lost from memory for more than 650 years until 1975 when a fisherman, Choi Pyong-ho, landed an unusual catch of an old vase and five other pieces of pottery.

Unaware of their importance, he left them in a corner of his home until his younger brother, a primary schoolteacher who visited Choi during a winter holiday, saw them and reported the discovery to local government authorities.

These were later confirmed to be grey blue porcelains and white ceramics made during the Song and Yuan periods, including a priceless large celadon vase with peony scroll design, from the Longquan kilns in Zhejiang province. There were also seven pieces of grey-blue Korean celadons beloved by Chinese aristocrats.

Reports of the treasures spread quickly, attracting undersea prospectors, including one who was caught attempting to sell 122 pieces of ceramics taken from the wreck. These episodes prompted authorities to launch an unprecedented undersea salvage operation.

This lasted until 1984, and some 24,000 pieces of relics were retrieved, including 20,000 ceramics, unglazed earthen wares and metal artefacts. Of the 20,000 ceramics, 60 per cent were blue-grey and white celadons from Longquan kilns, suggesting they were highly popular in the region.

Many pieces of cargo had wooden tags attached, which served as shipping invoices. These tags noted the date of boarding, departure port and customers who ordered the goods from China, with one tag reading “Zhi Zhi 3″, indicating the year 1323.

A bronze scale weight identified Qingyuan port, known today as Zhejing province’s Ningbo port. Other tags identified Japanese receivers’ names, including Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto and Hakozaki Shrine in Fukuoka.

“The ship’s findings are like a snapshot that shows us what kind of goods were traded through sea routes in the region, and the lifestyles and culture of the time as well,” Kim said. “Japanese used Chinese ceramics to drink tea, burn incense and arrange flowers.”

High-ranking officials, upper-class samurai and temples of the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) ordered Chinese ceramics and other luxury items for religious purposes, pastimes or simply to demonstrate their wealth, Kim said.

Researchers suspect it took 40 days for Chinese merchants to prepare and package items before sending them from the port of Ningbo, south of Shanghai, to Hakata, in the summer of 1323.

Judging from kitchen utensils and other objects found on the wreck, sailors cooked noodles, stir-fried vegetables and meat, and added spices such as pepper, ginger and cloves to their food and played board games during the long voyage that took up to two months to Hakata.

After many years of painstaking work to desalinate, solidify and assemble the ship’s 720 pieces of debris, the vessel was restored and put on a permanent display at the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage at Mokpo, the southern port city near the site where the ship was found.

The tragic accident that occurred in the 14th century has brought us a cultural bonanza

Park Ye-lee, National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage

With a V-shaped bottom and equipped with three sails and watertight bulkheads, the ship was suitable for sailing through high seas on what is called “maritime silk road” connecting Northeast Asia to Europe.

The 1976 discovery of the Sinan wreck has led South Korean authorities to engage in many other undersea excavations, retrieving 14 wrecks including two other 14th-century Chinse ships, 10 Koryo ships, one Unified Shilla ship and one Chosun era ship over the next four decades.

“Ironically, the tragic accident that occurred in the 14th century has brought us a cultural bonanza,” said Park Ye-lee from the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage.



Category: Korea

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