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Exotic motifs on porcelain of Changsha Kiln

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :March 3, 2021

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An exhibition focusing on the export of porcelain from Guangzhou to the West in the 9th century is underway at the Archaeological Site Museum of Nanyue Palace, in Guangzhou, and will run till May 5, 2021.

On display at the exhibition are relics discovered in Guangzhou in recent years, as well as porcelain of Changsha Kiln from the famous Belitung shipwreck, an ancient Arabian dhow discovered in 1998 just off the coast of Belitung Island, Indonesia.
 Ewer inscribed with Chinese poem, Tang Dynasty

Porcelain wares of Changsha Kiln are popular export products noted for its rich and varied decoration, especially its painted decoration of figures, natural ornaments and calligraphy. To meet the demand of foreign market, the Chinese craftsmen even decorated the porcelain with exotic western motifs. Let’s explore some of them.

Date palm

It is common to see a single cluster of grapelike fruits with leaves painted symmetrically on the body of porcelain wares of Changsha Kiln. After careful examination, it can be discerned that the patterns are actually the fruits of date palm which are largely planted in West Asia.
Ewer with date palm and bird decoration, Tang Dynasty

In order to cater to the taste and demand of customers in West Asia, brilliant Chinese craftsmen made great innovations and changes by using the exotic plants as decorations for their products.

Makara

Makara (Mojieyu in Chinese pinyin) is a legendary sea-creature in Hindu mythology. In Hindu astrology, makara is equivalent to the Zodiac sign Capricorn and is considered as a guardian of gateways and thresholds, protecting throne rooms as well as entryways to temples.
Brown green-glazed dish with makara motif, Tang Dynasty

Around the end of the 4th century, the motif was introduced into China along with Buddhism. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties, makara patterns began to be applied on porcelain. During the Tang Dynasty, the makara image spread with Buddhist doctrines and became a popular decorative motif in China.
Brown green-glazed ewer with makara and cloud patterns, Tang Dynasty

Lion pattern

Lion is regarded in Buddhism as a divine beast and is naturally found in Africa and Western Asia. Characters related to lions often appear in Buddhist scriptures, and they used to be one of the main decorative themes in art works in Central Asia and West Asia.
Ewer with lion decoration, Tang Dynasty

Lion culture was introduced to China with the spread of Buddhism. In the Tang Dynasty, as foreign trade thrived and reached its peak in China, lion culture merged into the traditional Chinese culture, and lion, as a result, became one of the most representative animistic motifs in the country.

Flying bird

Among the animistic motifs on the bowls of Changsha Kiln, birds occupied a predominant position. The majority of flying birds on bowls are common ones, which were quite different from those symbolizing wealth and prosperity seen on products of other kilns in China at the same period.
Brown green-glazed bowl with flying bird motif, Tang Dynasty

But they had a lot in common with bird images in Western Asian artworks. Typically, the Egyptians had the custom of worshiping the sun god, and believed that birds could fly high in the sky to protect the sun.
Bird image on the body of the brown green-glazed ewer, Tang Dynasty

Huxuan dance

Huxuan dance was introduced to the Central Plains from the western regions during Sui and Tang dynasties and later became popular nationwide. It is well-known for its rapid spins. As described by Bai Juyi, a great poet in the Tang Dynasty, the dancers could spin left and right tirelessly and thousands of rounds without stopping.
A fresco of Huxuan dance in Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang

Take the vessel below as an example. The short-necked, flat-bottomed vessel has an upturned mouth brim, a short octagonal spout and two ears around its shoulder for carriage. Below the ears are two dancing figures with high-bridged noses and deep eyes, wearing hats and dancing gracefully on a cattail hassock. 
Brown green-glazed ewer with dancing figures, Tang Dynasty

The dancer, holding an annular tabla overhead with the right hand, and an annular drum with the left, displays the dynamic posture of Huxuan dance, which features strong western Asian characteristics.

Arabian writings

Bowls with underglaze decoration account for the largest part of Changsha Kiln ceramics recovered from the Belitung shipwreck. The underglaze decorations comprise a wide range of freely painted designs, including foliage and flowers, vapor or cloud scrolling, landscapes, poems and phrases, and foreign figures. 

Some patterns, such as free brushwork, landscape and vapor, are believed to be Arabian writings.
Bowl with Arabian writing, Tang Dynasty

Probably influenced by the preference of Abbasid Dynasty (an Arabic dynasty that initially ruled over most of the Islamic empire after assuming the caliphate in 750 AD) for using Arabic as decoration for pottery, potters in Changsha drew on ceramics the doctrine of Koran, central religious text of Islam. 
 Brown green-glazed dish with Arabian writing, Tang Dynasty

Because of the inability to read Islamic language, they sketched the Arabic instead, which, roughly and inaccurately though, reflects the natural and unrestrained style of paintings in the Tang Dynasty.

The abstract landscape motif on the porcelain of Changsha Kiln (left) looks similar to the kufi-style Arabic of the Abbasid Dynasty (right).

Porcelain wares with exotic motifs were obviously specially made to meet the needs of foreign buyers. Such kind of porcelain wares have been unearthed in domestic ports such as Yangzhou and Ningbo (used to be called Mingzhou), and foreign countries like Iran and Iraq in West Asia.

These patterns on porcelain, not only reflected the flourishing porcelain export at that time, but also offered us a glimpse in the Tang Dynasty, which is not only known for its prosperity in politics, economy and military, but also for its confidence and diversity in culture, and its openness and inclusiveness towards foreign civilizations.  

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