A Large ‘Yaozhou’ Bottle Carved with Peony Scroll

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A Large ‘Yaozhou’ Bottle Carved with Peony Scroll


of durable stoneware in elongated ovoid body with a tall waisted neck flaring widely at the mouth to a dish-shaped rim, the body exquisitely deep and freely carved and relieved with interlocking and plucked sprays of peony scroll borne on undulating leafy stems, all between overlapping lappets around the shoulder and foot, applied overall with a translucent crackled deep transparent olive-green glaze suffused with fine crackles and pooling to a darker tone in the recesses and stopping the above foot ring showing a burnt grey body.


In 22nd May 1999, the author, accompanied by the team, laboriously but successfully discovered some Chinese artifacts of Northern Song dynasty, dated to 960 – 1127-AD, in Sumatra island, the former Srivijaya kingdoms. The present Yaozhou bottle is one of the archaeological artifacts found in the scrub near Batanghari river basin, Jambi region – Sumatra, in 20th April 1987. The author also recovered some Chinese ceramics of Tang or earlier dynasties with a wide range of glaze and form that were found in different area in Batanghari river basin, Jambi region. (see fig. 1).

The Jambi region, around the basin of Batanghari River in Central Sumatra, was the site of pre-Islamic kingdom of Melayu. In ninth century and again in the eleventh century, the Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom in Jambi sent further mission to the Chinese court.2) As the longest river (800 km) in Jambi province in Sumatra island, Batanghari river was recognized as an important pepper port by Chinese and other foreign countries when Palembang served as capital of Srivijaya empire at that time. Otherwise, Chinese traders used it as a settlement area, where Chinese cargos had traded here since 7th century. The author photographed the road of maritime trade between Song dynasty of China and Srivijaya empire through Batanghari river (see fig. 2).

There are also important Chinese historical documents revealing the peak of Srivijaya kingdom and Song dynasty of China in establishing the contacts and tributary systems in 10th – 11th centuries. Song dynasty positioned Srivijaya as an important empire that was considered as China’s key trading partner in maritime Southeast Asia. Srivijaya was recognized to be highly sensitive to any administrative or political change within China. Srivijaya carefully followed the occurrences taking place in China, and its rulers appear to have kept themselves updated on the political change there.

The first presentation of tribute system between Srivijaya and Song dynasty took in the ninth month of 960 AD, where Song dynasty was established. It was the first tribute offered by a foreign empire to the Song court. The 960 tribute was followed by a rapid burst of three missions over the next two years. Over the next thirty years, Srivijaya dispatched a total of fourteen tribute missions to China. These missions occurred in three series. The first series, consisting of four missions, was dispatched by the Srivijaya king, Silihu Daxialitan and his successor, Shili Wuya (Sri Wuja atawa Çri Udayadityan) in 960, 961 (twice), and 962 AD. The next four missions were sent in 971, 972, 974, and 975. The third series, consisting of six missions, was dispatched by King Xiachi (Hia-Tche) in 980, 983, 985, 987, 988, and 990 AD. Srivijaya dispatched its tribute mission with high-value products that were in great demand in China court, especially frankincense, ivory, rhinoceroses’ horns, rosewater, coral, foreign textile, and various aromatics. Srivijaya also was highly attuned to the request of the Song court in pertaining to trade in Srivijaya port.1)

From 10th century to 13th centuries, Srivijaya kingdom reached its zenith, and it was marked when Srivijaya destroyed the hostile of Medang Kingdom in eastern Java, and Srivijayan influence reached as far as Manila. Srivijaya created a tributary system to its vassals, and the Khmer empire in Vietnam reputedly paid tribute. Relationship with Chinese dynasties was also particularly sugary in the era of Tang and Song dynasties. It also maintained the contact with the court of the Arab Caliphs in Persia (Baghdad). An Arab report states the Srivijaya’s territory was so vast that the expeditious vessel would not be able to sail around in under two years. Ancient Chinese script ‘Lingwai Daida’ written by Zhou Qufei 周去非 (1135–1189) AD, a foremost Chinese scholar and author in Song dynasty, states that Sanfoqi or Srivijaya kingdom was the third wealthiest land, after Persia and Java. It was access on the sea-routes of the foreigners from the countries of Java in the east and from the countries of Arabs and Quilon in the west. They all passed through on their way to China. In 1157 AD, twenty-one years before writing his text, Zhou Qufei 周去非 also affirmed that a mission envoy from Sanfoqi or Srivijaya had arrived in China of Song dynasty. Srivijaya’s ruler had a title “Sri Maharaja” who had been designated as a “Chief” by the Chinese court of Song dynasty.2) The ancient Chinese texts on Srivijaya represent the increasing of intensity of commercial contact the Chinese traders had developed with Srivijaya empire. The Chinese relics, such as Chinese ceramics, are frequently found in the classic-period sites of Srivijaya, like: Batang Hari river in Jambi, Buddhist temples in Dusuntuo Sumai and Sungai Alai Villages.

Therefore, historic art pieces that are found in this archipelago site and collections have (at times) been elusive by mostly amateurs’ eyes because they do not examine or research them at a first-hand in the archaeological sites. Many unique and rare Chinese pieces found in Southeast Asia are guessed subjectively, which has left the contexts of art history and physical attribution of artifacts based on archaeology perspective and scholarly references. Asian art has its unique features and characteristics that delivers its specific history and culture. So, how do we ascertain that the current Yaozhou bottle was produced in Song dynasty? How do we evaluate it compared to other artifacts in the reputable museum and market? How much is its worth in the Asian art market? The author attempts to reach the answers through the following research.

Among the ceramic wares of the Northern Song dynasty’s wares reaching its zenith is a Yaozhou ware that was extensively studied and developed at ceramic school of Yaozhou in the reign of Jinkang (1126-1127) in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) before it gradually declined. Located in Tongchuan, Shaanxi province, north of Xi’an, the kilns enjoyed great prosperity during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the celadon glaze showing olive-green color in different tones that is the result of oxidization during the firing process. With a deep carved technique and impressive fretwork of peony design that is coated with deep olive-green glaze, this splendor bottle is classified to a very large group of Yaozhou bottles of the Northern song dynasty. With sturdily and durable potted and a light blackish grey body with strongly carved design layouts, the present bottle probably was produced in the early stage of Northern Song period (960 – 1127 AD) or Jin dynasty (936 – 946 AD).

The shape of the current vessel was modelled after the preceding reign’s vessel form, Tang dynasty (617 – 907 AD). A related shape of the present bottle is white glazed ‘Ding’ bottle of Xiguan kiln, Xinmi City, Henan Province in Tang dynasty period excavated from Cirebon shipwreck in West Java – Indonesia (see fig. 3).3) The demand of the bottle-shaped wares from Srivijaya heightened during Tang dynasty to Song dynasty. When Tang dynasty collapsed, the Chinese ceramics export was replaced by the later reigns, Five Dynasties and then Song dynasty. The Ding ware of Song dynasty is featured with a wide range of form, glaze and design compared to that of the earlier reign, but the demand of Ding wares began to decline soon. The author concludes that the appearance of Yaozhou ware of Song dynasty to Srivijaya, like the present bottle, is not irrespectively with historical links of the disappearance of Ding and Ru wares. S.J. Vainker notes that in the period 1078 to 1106 there are records of Yaozhou presenting wares to the Northern Song court, perhaps filling in a gap in imperial wares of choice as Ding ware began to decline and Ru ware had not been developed.4)

Some scholars also believe that Youzhou wares do not seem to have been exported in great quantities. In archaeological perspective, the Yaozhou ware is rarely found the sites in other countries, but the fragments were found in Indonesia and Vietnam.5) Since durability of vessel with an exquisitely carved design, the kinds of vessels with elongated body surmounted with long neck and dish-shaped mouth, like the present piece, was closer to the wine bottle shapes for containing the wine drinking exclusively for an official ceremonial party in 10th – 11th century. Some archaeological Yaozhou fragments in bottle shape are found. A related shape and carved design to the present bottle is a fragmentary ‘Kundika’ bottle in high relief peony design excavated from the Five Dynasties’ remains of the kiln site in China (see fig. 4).6) The Yaozhou bottle in relation with the present piece shape is also preserved in the renowned museum. For example, a carved ‘Yaozhou’ Kundika, Northern Song Dynasty from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (see fig. 5).7)

The predominant decoration of Yaozhou ware commonly is executed with the impressive hand-carved designs covering around the surface of the vessel. Yaozhou was the largest of the six major schools of ceramics in the Northern China during the Northern Song dynasty. The decorative art and form of Yaozhou was very influential and giving the valuable inspiration in the development of Song art and craft. This Yaozhou well-carved ware technique was then widespread to Cizhou-school kilns in Hebei, Henan and Shaanxi Provinces to the east beyond Shaanxi Province. Cizhou school was one of the prominent schools in the Northern enjoyed the Yaozhou wares’ techniques and designs tradition as its inspiration, where the current shape and incised peony design elements are commonly found on the Cizhou bottle-shaped ware like the present piece. For examples, one of similar ovoid-shape with floral design, in the Indianapolis Museum of Art (See fig. 6);8) and a second example is from the Minneapolis Museum of Art, Minneapolis.9) Another is a vase formerly in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, sold in Christie’s New York, 12th December 1989, lot 81, from the British Rail Pension Fund, and again in Christie’s Hong Kong, 5th November 1997, lot 1360.

The prices realized at auction for the “Yaozhou” bottle of Northern Song (960-1127 AD) category vary and are determined by certain factors. However, the auction hummer price of Yaozhou wares carved with peony scroll like the present bottle are eagerly sought by collectors in the market, though the Yaozhou bottle in smaller size compared to that of the current great bottle. For example, compare with a small carved ‘Yaozhou’ kundika (21.9 cm), sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 6th April 2016, lot. 5 (see fig. 7). The present large ‘Yaozhou’ bottle designed with complexity of the carved-scrolling peony provides rich aesthetic pleasure for viewers. Although there are many of the world’s greatest museum collections preserving Yaozhou wares, but they are lack an exactly similar example to the current archaeological artifact.


  1. Derek Heng, Sino–Malay Trade and Diplomacy from the Tenth through the Fourteenth Century, Ohio University Research in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series No. 121, Ohio University Press, Athens, USA, 2009, pp. 77 – 78.

  2. Chau Ju-kua, his work on the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, entitled Chu-fan-chï, translated from the Chinese and annotated by Friedrich Hirth and W. W. Rockhill, St. Petersburg: Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1911, p. 23, note. 2.

  3. Dashu Qin et Kunpeng Xiang, Sri Vijaya as the Entrepôt for Circum-Indian Ocean Trade: Evidence from Documentary Records and Materials from Shipwrecks of the 9th-10th Centuries, 2013, p. 6, fig. 5.

  4. S.J Vainker, in ‘Chinese Pottery and Porcelain’, 1991, British Museum Press, p. 112.

  5. Gompertz, G.St.G.M, Chinese Celadon Wares, 1980 (2nd edn.), Faber & Faber, p. 125.

  6. Wudai Huangpu yaozhi/Excavations of the Five Dynasties Period Kiln-site at Huangpu in Tongchuan, Shaanxi, Beijing, 1997, col. pl. 6, fig. 2.

  7. Tseng Hsien-ch’i and Robert Paul Dart, The Charles B. Hoyt Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 1964-72, vol. II: Chinese Art: Liao, Sung, and Yüan Dynasties, pl. 49.

  8. The Museum’s exhibition, Beauty and Tranquility: The Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese Art, Indianapolis, 1983, pl. 67, and in color, p. 28.

  9. Toki zenshu, vol. 13, Tokyo, 1966, pl. 4.