History of Collecting Chinese Arts: Collecting Ancient Chinese Ceramics as “Pusaka”, Ethnographic and Historical Value for Asian Collectors

Chinese ceramic was considered as a primary source of inspiration, artists express attitudes, feelings, and sentiments about environment through personal experience, social interaction, and relationships with the natural world. More importantly, since Neolithic period, Chinese ceramic has played an extraordinary role in China, especially with regard to utilitarian use and primary religious.  It was produced between 6000 and 1000 B.C that comprises from bowls, jars, vases and beakers of low-fires earthenware. In the later reigns, China became the greatest and most widespread empire in the world. The earthenware was developed in more complex technique, and the materials structures of ceramic were improved to be more perfect. The ceramic style pertaining to shape, color, glaze, and technique was more dynamic and high-fired temperature in the form what is commonly called as Chinese porcelain.

Since several centuries ago, Chinese ceramic has been considered an important commodity and a valuable medium to export abroad.

Fig. 3: Batavia Port in early 17th century

Southeast Asian countries, especially Java, Srivijaya or Malay, Vietnam and Thailand kingdoms, had been targeted as China’s main destination for trade and diplomatic affairs since the early century. With their posteriority and as the main stripe of trade between China and abroad, Chinese ceramics were considered as valuable collections and heirloom. Sumatra became the heart of a global trading network in the 9th century, and Tang dynasty of China junks carried Chinese ceramics for the Abbasid Callips through Silk Road in Sumatra. It was showcased a ninth-century Belitung shipwreck featuring the precious cargo that was found in 1998. (see fig. 1: Belitung Wreck’s Cargo Under the Sea).

In early fifteenth centuries, Chinese ceramic was a lucid and noteworthy mark of medium to build relationship between China and Southeast Asia countries. For example, in 1403, Yongle emperor (1403 – 1424) of early Ming dynasty sent diplomatic missions overseas for trade and power politic proclaiming a new Ming dynasty throne in China. These were described by Feixian and Ma Huan, the latter translator to Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Muslim eunuch who commanded the naval expedition for the emperor. Ma Huan (馬歡) wrote a book entitled “Yin Ya Shen Lan” (瀛涯勝覽) listing that ‘blue porcelain’ as one of the products traded and reported that it was popular in Dai Viet (Now Vietnam), Java and Sumatra (Now Indonesia), Sri Lanka, and Dovar (now the province of Zufar, Oman). He also included comments on Jingdezhen blue and white wares as highly valued in these countries. Yongle Porcelains were distributed via both land and sea to overseas traders and patrons, often in exchange for species, precious stones and gold. Java, Palembang, Malacca and north Sumatran ports were visited. In Java, Ma Huan recorded the concrete evidence of Chinese trade with Java on ceramics and coins. He also said, “The people of the country are very fond of the blue-and-white decoration porcelains of the Central Country, also of such things as musk, gold flecked hemp-silks, and beads.” The imported blue pigment was used to paint the dark blue designs.1)

In later periods, from the history of collecting perspective, the rapid rise of European economic power in the world system did produce significant effects. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, when Western Europe began taking command of the global circulation of goods, the Eurocentric colonial discernment that was simultaneously being developed began to redefine the politico-cultural definition of Asia, and consequently, imbued it with the sense of cultural otherness. Imported materials from China, for example, were not longer considered to be products of the global trade, as they had been in earlier centuries. Rather, they were categorized as exotic objects and treated with the essentialized differences between East and West.2) In archipelago, from the history of collecting, collecting Chinese artifacts emerged in response to the challenge of locating a history of collecting in the global context from early seventeenth to eighteenth century.

The VOC traded throughout Asia, and it ships coming to Batavia from Netherlands carried supplies for VOC settlement in Batavia (see fig. 2: VOC Trading Territories to China and Europe). Silver and copper from Japan were also used to trade with India and China for silk, cotton, porcelain, and textile. Under Dutch colony consisting of what is now Indonesia since early 17th century, the Chinese porcelains deriving from Ming to Ching dynasties became very interesting issue to learn about. Chinese ceramic has many beliefs, traditions and customs that made it more unique and appealing. As a highly glorious value to people, Chinese ceramic was a way to express or symbolize emotions that displays many different forms, glaze, styles and techniques. It clearly conveyed the essence of skill, symbolism, discipline, beauty, and tradition for China and abroad. It was traded and exchanged by China dynasties and Dutch East Indies government under VOC for hundreds of years in Batavia (now Jakarta). VOC Archive records that in 1690s there were 30 large shops and 200 street vendors selling Chinese porcelains art in Batavia, now is called Jakarta. Through VOC’s ships, those merchants obtained over 2,000,000 Chinese porcelains per year. Of 2,000,000 porcelains, 1,200,000 porcelains were for local and regional demand (Batavia and its adjacent areas). Meanwhile, the total 400,000 porcelains were for VOC officials and the remainders were for Netherlands, although the fact was that they were for VOC personnel’s account. Nevertheless, since the sale tax was calculated on the weight of porcelain, traders protested because they had to pay high tax and transportation expenses to VOC.3) (See fig. 3: Batavia Port in early 17th century).

Its repercussions, the Chinese ceramic fragments could be found all over the archipelago, as Chinese – Indonesian contact had established for at least two millennia, in the context of inter-Asian trade and migration. For scholars, it was an innovation to use prospection to gain insight into the history of these Chinese-Indonesian contacts.4) The tradition of collecting Chinese ceramics in Indonesia is not new. The collectors preserved them in many places that were used for many reasons. Under Oudheidkundige Dienst (English: Archaeological Service), now National Archaeological Research Center – Jakarta, a team of trained researchers executed a large project of excavation in Cilebes (Sulawesi) in 1938. The excavation was under the leadership of the Dutch collector and self-taught expert on Chinese ceramic, Egbert van Orsoy de Flines (1886 – 1964).5) (see fig. 4: Egbert van Orsoy de Flines in 1935).

The excavation report was also agreed by his assistant, Abu Ridho. When the author interviewed Abu Ridho, he affirmed that in 1951 he was assigned by his supervisor, Egbert van Orsoy de Flines, to research hundreds of Chinese ceramics of different periods found in the archipelago.6) One of examples of artifacts was a fifteenth-century Chinese blue-and-white moon flask found in Moluccan (Maluku). It was probably had been carried by Chinese trader or official via trade to the North Moluccan island of Halmahera, where it had been considered as a family’s ‘pusaka’ or heirloom until the Batavian Museum acquired it in 1937. (see fig. 5: Vases of Early Ming, found in Halmahera (Molucca)). Another is a blue-and-white incense burner, dated to early Ming dynasty of Xuande reign (1426 – 1435 AD) found in Palembang – Sumatera island. The piece, with Dutch colonial postage letter signed and dated to 28th May 1935, was considered as a family’s ‘pusaka’ or heirloom from a Chinese captain in 19th century before the later owner and Abu Ridho acquired it in 1999. (see fig. 6: Blue and White Vase of Ming dynasty).

In Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Chinese ceramics were not only considered as the decorative collections. Both Indonesian and Peranakan Chinese (Indisch-Chinese) collectors believed them as Chinese “pusaka” or heirloom that have the protective powers. They are frequently kept inside homes: ‘below the bed’, ‘hanging under roof,’ ‘on the roof,’ ‘in bamboo crate,’ or ‘stored away in a clothing box.7) In 1930s, Batavian society actively collected, studied and exhibited Chinese ceramics as one of their new activities. The heritage regulation Year 1931 covered archaeological Chinese sites.8) They also opened a specific department in its museum, which previously the museum had preserved a small Chinese artifact. The department then preserved and exhibited more Chinese artifacts, ceramics, found in the archipelago. The Dutch elites and foreign collectors, including indigenous visitors, highly appreciated the existence of the museum preserving more Chinese ceramics. They showed much interest in the collections.9)

As a pioneer of Chinese ceramic collectors in Indonesia in early 20th century, Orsoy de Flines developed a clear collection plan in the museum, which the art value was not the first point of interest, but to bring together a collection that as much as possible. The collections contained all those types and shapes that from earliest periods until the seventeenth century. They comprised plain pottery for daily use as well as finer pieces that all are imported into the archipelago. When judging the collection, it not the first place the artistic value, but the ethnographic and the historical value that counts.10)

Until today, many descents in Asia countries continued collecting Chinese ceramics tradition in a wide range of quality, and unique shape, colors and design. Some people with minimal knowledge of history will assume that imperial and fine Chinese ceramics were impossible found or collected here. However, for knowledgeable scholars or historians, the existence of imperial and fine Chinese art is now question when people set back to its history in Asia countries. The Chinese traders and officials travelled across the silk road to Asia countries, especially in archipelago, for extravagance commodities that they were unable to find in their native lands. Their junks loaded thousands of Chinese ceramics to be exchanged with valuable resources in archipelago. In a special case, Chinese ceramics were used as a tribute exchange. The archipelago people valued and treated Chinese ceramics as precious objects and “pusaka” or heirloom, either for decorative purposes or protective powers. China greatly benefited from archipelago people interest in ceramic. This commodity enabled China to gain notoriety and allies throughout the world, a long-time goal of China. The trading and tribute of porcelain also produced a large economic benefit for the Chinese. Along with this historical contact, both China and Indonesia became intertwined due to the mixture of their two cultures.

Bibliography

  1. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lain, translated by Mill J.V.G “The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores”, (1433), Cambridge, 1970, pp. 3 and 97.

  2. Vimalin Rujivacharakul, Collecting China: The World, China, and a History of Collecting, University of Delaware Press, Newark, United Kingdom, 2011, pp. 24 – 25.

  3. J.A Jorg, Chinese Porcelain for the Dutch in the Seventeenth Century: Trading Networks and Private Enterprise’, in The Porcelains of Jingdezhen: Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia, London: University of London, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1993, pp. 194 – 197.

  4. Eickhoff, Van hat land naar de markt, p. 13, briefly discussed for the research in Trowulan (Majapahit), Chapter 4, known as Landesaufnahme, 1920s.

  5. Egbert van Orsoy de Flines, Onderzoek naar en van keramische scherven in de bodem in Noordelijk Midden-Java, 1940 – 1942, OV 1941 – 1947 (1949), pp. 66 – 84.

  6. Aminuddin, A Key Note of Chinese – Indonesia History: Chinese Ceramics, Interview with Abu Ridho, 23rd April 1997.

  7. W van Orsoy de Flines, ‘Vroeg Ming en pre-Ming blauw-wit chineesch porselein in Netherlandsch-Indie,’ Maandblad voor Beeldande Kunsten 15 (1938), pp. 342 – 344.

  8. Bernet Kempers, Herstel in eigen waarde – Monumentenzorg in Indonesië, 1906, Walburg Pers, 1978, pp. 223 – 227.

  9. De Keramische Verzameling, Jaarboek I Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, 1933, p. 225.

  10. Marieke Bloembergen, Martijn Eickhoff, The Politics of Heritage in Indonesia: A Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 227

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