A photographic introduction to items from the collection

The splendor of East Asia

- in conjunction with the Special Exhibition "Sea Routes of East Asia During the Middle Ages - Maritime Commerce,
Ports and Sunken Ships"

Figure 1:Celadon " hakamagoshi" incense burner Figure 2: Celadon alcohol jar with a peony pattern Figure 3:Iron-glazed tenmoku tea bowl

The words " Middle Ages" might have a mysterious ring to them, if you take a sweeping glance around Asia you will find that that time was a world of brilliance and splendor.

From the 12th century through the 16th century a world in which different regions were linked in diverse ways expanded centered around the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties of China. This world is most clearly illustrated by Chinese celadon, dyed and tri-colored ceramics from southern China. The celadon " hakamagoshi" incense burner shown in Figure 1 is a bold blue piece of pottery covered with a thick coating of a not very transparent glaze. The celadon alcohol jar with a peony pattern in Figure 2 is covered by a thick, bold green glaze, but its high transparency and the peony pattern and pattern of lotus petals carved into the unglazed clay make this a prized article.

Figure 4:
Blue and white plum jar with swirling pattern

Figure 5:
Tri-colored water holders from southern China

Figure 6: Tri-color plate from southern China

Figure 7: Tri-color jar from southern China

These were made some time between the 13th and 14th centuries around the time of the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties in China and the Kamakura and Muromachi periods in Japan, in the Longquan kiln in Zhejiang Province or other kilns that were influenced by their style. Other examples include an iron-glazed tenmoku tea bowl (Figure 3) that was made in the Junyao kiln in Fujian Province and a blue and white plum jar with a swirling pattern (Figure 4) that was made in the Jingdezhen kiln in Jiangxi Province.

These kinds of items appear to have left China by ship from the port of present-day Ningbo City in Zhejiang Province in the 14th century and to have been part of the cargo of a ship called the Sinan that sunk off the southwest coast of Korea while making its way to Japan. They have also been excavated from archaeological sites such as the Imakoji Nishi site in Kamakura, which was a large city and the location of the political center at that time. Tri-colored ceramic ware from southern China with their fresh green and yellow glaze also remind us of the links that existed between the various regions of East Asia. The tri-colored examples of southern Chinese pottery in Figures 5, 6, and 7 were made some time between the 15th and 16th centuries during the Ming dynasty in China and the Muromachi through to the Sengoku periods in Japan, but mainly spread among areas of Southeast Asia. At that time there was a clear distinction between a product and its destination, and while this meant that in the beginning very little tri-colored ceramic ware from southern China found its way to Japan, by the 16th century when Japan began to form links with the world of Southeast Asia large quantities of this ceramic ware began to enter the country with the assistance of Europeans. From around this time there was an increase in tri-colored ceramic ware from southern China and other types of ceramic ware from Southeast Asia in Bungo Funai, the castle town of the Otomo clan, as well as in Sakai, an international port city. The spread of these types of ceramic wares provide us with a glimpse of the links that Japan had with various regions in East Asia.

Ceramic ware and other articles that were brought to Japan by ship from China were prestigious articles that were accorded much importance in the lives of the ruling class, made up of warriors, court nobles and priests. In warrior society a new value was given to objects imported from China and a new tradition was forged. There were not only items with different uses such as those for tea ceremonies, decoration and banquets, but items were ranked according to the materials used, their form and their manufacture. The " Kundaikansouchoki" shown in Figure 8 describes methods for using such items in a display in a parlor. Materials such as this journal and illustrations tell us how such items were used in days gone by.

The fascination with such imports had a great impact on trade in East Asia. And the actions of maritime merchants who sought wealth from this rich source also spurred on trade. This appetite saw not only objects cross the seas of East Asia, but extended to an exchange of information and knowledge. Written documents in Figure 9 such as the " Books of Late Han" made during the Southern Song dynasty and which are not to be found in present-day China, are also legacies of the interaction that took place during this period.

Figure 8:"Kundaikansouchoki"

Figure 10:Lion catching a ball (Bizen pottery)

Figure 9: Late Han books (published by Keigen)

Even today we can get a sense of the splendor of East Asia close at hand. The Chinese lion is a traditional design that exists in all areas in East Asia, and Chinese symbols such as the dragon and lion spread to various regions over the sea routes of East Asia during the Middle Ages and were then transformed locally into their present forms (Figure 10). This too gives us a glimpse of the East Asian world where diverse links were formed between one region and another, with China playing a central role.

The " Sea Routes of East Asia During the Middle Ages"exhibition contains not only items from the Museum's collection that have been introduced here, but also has on display related items such as those from the Sinan wreck mentioned in this article. Through this exhibit, we hope that you will be able to feel the splendor of East Asia during the Middle Ages from a wide range of perspectives.

Yoshifumi Ueno (Museum Research Department)