February 14 - May 25, 2003
From the earliest evidence of international trade, ceramics and textiles have constituted a large portion of the cargo of Chinese, Arab, Indian, and Southeast Asian ships. The Chinese had been trading small numbers of ceramics from the Han period (second century B.C.E. through second century C.E.), with a marked increase in exports in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. When Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398) prohibited private trade, Southeast Asian merchants took the opportunity to increase their own production.
From this period until the end of the sixteenth century, when another Chinese emperor formally revoked the prohibition against trade, Vietnamese and Thai traders filled the gap, contending only with illegally smuggled Chinese goods. Thai production came to an end, while Chinese, and to a lesser degree, Vietnamese, wares continued to be exported.
This exhibition draws upon twelfth to eighteenth-century Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese trade ceramics from the Hiroko Hara and Shigeharu Takahashi Collection, a recent gift to the Crocker Art Museum. In the early 1970s, the Takahashis collected these wares while living in Indonesia, an important destination for ships. Hiroko Hara studied tea ceremony in Japan in her youth and loved the feel of the individual pieces, favoring the Chinese and Vietnamese blue and whites. Shigeharu preferred Thai ceramics, made from a coarser clay and glazed in a range of browns. The differences in their tastes explain the wide range of materials in the collection, which includes, in addition to those pieces chosen for this exhibition, later Chinese and Japanese wares.
The collection (of approx. 400 objects) has particular breadth in the small, variously glazed Vietnamese and Thai wares so popular in island Southeast Asia and the martaban jars, used in Southeast Asia and China. Chinese ceramics are also represented in all their diversity: blue and whites, celadons, qingbai (white- glazed wares), enameled wares, as well as small brown glazed jarlets similar to those produced in Thailand. The collection illustrates the diversity of production as well as relationships among Chinese wares and those of competitors in Southeast Asia.
Many of these works were excavated from shipwrecks and graves in Indonesia and the Philippines. Miniature jarlets and covered boxes were substituted in graves for the larger, more expensive wares that were prized and held in heirloom collections. Glazed ceramics were not produced in the islands, and hence were coveted. Even the large martaban jars—containers for honey, fermented fish, and other natural products exported from the mainland—were kept and reused for centuries. Recent archaeological excavations of shipwrecks have provided us with a wealth of information about the development of wares in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. Many of the pieces in the Takahashi collection are similar to works from these shipwrecks, and so, are among those ancient commodities that inform us of trade history, a history that in this instance ended in Indonesia, where centuries later, the Takahashis found and purchased the pieces that make up this exceptional collection.