REVIEWS OF BOOKS ON ASIAN ART
Mantai. City by the Sea
John Carswell, Siran Deraniyagala and Alan Graham, editors
Linden Soft Verlag, Aichwald 2013, 552 pp, 350 illustrations, 1 CD, ISBN 978-3929290394, hardback, €65
This massive tome, edited by three experienced archaeologists who excavated at Mantai and with contributions by over a dozen other specialists, has been long in the making and eagerly awaited. The port city of Mantai, at the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, half-way between the Mediterranean and China, close to the Indian subcontinent and to the capital Anuradhapura, was a magnet for people, boats and goods from China, India, the Middle and Near East and East Africa and became a centre of trade of silks, ceramics, wood, spices and more. A first urban settlement can be traced to the mid-first millennium BC, by the 8th century it had developed into a well-planned city and in the early 11th the Chola invasions brought on its demise.
Five excavations had taken place between 1887 and the 1970s, so the large site was not undisturbed, but in 1980 a large-scale archaeological exploration was initiated through grants from various international institutions, planned for several years, but abruptly brought to a halt – not unlike the city itself – through Civil War in 1984, after only one full season of excavations.
The present report covers the historical background of the city, explains the site and its excavations; comments on the development of the settlement from the Mesolithic period to its abandonment and use as stone quarry; documents the objects recovered, which include Islamic, Indian, Southeast Asian and Chinese ceramics, metalwork, Mantai glass and shell objects, as well as architectural and organic remains; and reports on an accompanying educational programme teaching local students via the excavations.
As the heyday of Mantai occurred between the 8th and 10th centuries, it superbly reflects China’s ceramic development at the time, where stonewares had just started to be produced on a massive (exportable) scale. Chinese ceramics, due to their material superiority, became globally desired luxury goods distributed all over Asia through maritime trade. The Mantai finds contain sherds of all the important wares of the day, many of them reminiscent of the early 9th century Belitung wreck, for which, as John Carswell speculates, pp 233f, Mantai as destination cannot be ruled out. Prominent are Changsha underglaze-painted bowls and sprig-moulded ewers; Yue and Guangdong green wares including bowls with bi-disc footring but also with fine incising that post- dates Belitung; Xing and probably Ding white wares; and green-splashed white wares from north China.
The book is illustrated throughout with photographs and drawings, and the accompanying CD contains a ‘complete photo record’ of some 3,000 images. The folder labelled ‘Chinese’ is a treasure trove for the ceramic lover and includes Islamic earthenwares and Southeast Asian storage jars, as well as some Song sherds of Yaozhou, Longquan, qingbai and Cizhou type, which are particularly intriguing given the abandonment of the site in the early 11th century.
This thoroughly produced and modestly priced excavation report supplies an important building block for the reconstruction of Asia’s past and China’s connection with the world in the first millennium.
From Object to Concept – Global Consumption and the Transformation of Ming Porcelain
Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong 2013, 260 pp, ISBN 978-988813983, hardback, £34.50
When, why and how did ‘Ming vase’ become short-hand for all that is precious, priceless and even magical? Stacey Pierson, Senior Lecturer in the History of Chinese Ceramics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, successfully tackles these questions in this new book.
This entertaining and informative work examines the multiple meanings of Ming ceramics in a range of scenarios, from their first production in the late 14th century to their contemporary status in the early 21st century. The first chapter describes the multiple roles that ceramics played within Ming China from dinner table to tomb, from temple to market. The second chapter examines Ming ceramics that were exported at that time, focusing on how the global distribution of ceramics led to a worldwide dissemination of a view of Ming culture. In particular, it examines how the reception and use of these pots outside China altered ideas about their value. The third chapter moves away from an examination of the physical objects — the ceramics themselves — to an examination of how the concept of ‘the Ming vase’ developed in literature and popular culture. The final section of the book is devoted to global collecting of Ming ceramics from the 1800s to the present, and includes a fascinating history of the display of Ming ceramics in museums in Britain and the USA.
The book succeeds because it does not seek to come up with a single answer about why the ‘Ming vase’ became so universally valued, but instead presents multiple case studies of the use of Ming ceramics over a broad period of time and across huge geographical and cultural space. It is well written, imaginatively structured and includes some wonderful new research. For example, it shows how ‘Ming vase’ was a codename used during nuclear testing by the Defence Atomic Support Agency in the Nevada Desert in 1968, and that in a row about the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ single prudish MPs were criticised for having ‘Ming vase sensibilities.’ ‘The Ming vase’ even became associated with magic through a short story published in the New York Times of 1888, in which it was described as being ‘instinct with magic.’
Ming porcelain refers to high-fired ceramics made during the Ming dynasty (1368- 1644), a period of nearly 300 years; the same period in English history covers the time from The Canterbury Tales to the English Civil War. Stacey Pierson gives many reasons why it is the Ming that has such resonance for an English-reading audience, as opposed to the Song, the Qing or any other Chinese dynasty. One of the most powerful of these explanations is that the Ming dynasty was the moment when China came into the European consciousness through publishing, purchasing and proselytising, in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Before then, little was known of China, and especially of its earlier history. Stacey Pierson’s great skills as a lecturer and researcher are evident in the clear text and well-presented ideas, which will delight any reader hungry for more than ‘picture books’ on Chinese art. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the remarkable social and conceptual life of things.
Persian Pottery in the First Global Age: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Lisa Golombek, Robert B. Mason, Patricia Proctor and Eileen Reilly
Arts and Archaeology of the Islamic World series 1. Brill, Leiden December 2013, 502 pp, ISBN 978-9004260856, hardback, €155
During the Timurid and Safavid periods (15th-17th centuries) the ceramics industry in Iran underwent a significant transformation as a result of the impact of blue-and-white porcelains imported from China. The first blue-and-white wares made in Jingdezhen were shipped to Egypt and Syria in the 14th century and started arriving in Iran as diplomatic gifts and trade goods from the 15th century onwards. In 1604 Shah ‘Abbas donated the royal collection (mostly blue and white and celadon examples) to the family shrine at Ardabil: according to an account by the royal astronomer his gift consisted of 1,162 pieces. Persian potters in centres such as Isfahan, Mashhad and Kirman were swift to imitate the imported styles.
While a wealth of ceramic material has survived from this 300 year period, understanding of the circumstances and chronology of its production has been obfuscated by the lack of internal and documentary evidence. Since 1989 the authors of this volume, working under the auspices of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, have been carrying out multi-disciplinary research to unravel this state of confusion, using petrographic analysis of the quartz body material to establish the workshop sites as well as a study of shapes and diagnostic motifs to build up a clear and convincing chronological narrative. Tamerlane’s Tableware, published in 1996, looked at the Timurid period and the long-awaited present volume deals with the subsequent Safavid period.
The first five chapters set the historical context and assess the relationship between locally produced wares and those imported from China. The main factors affecting the Safavid ceramics industry were external rather than local, closely governed by political events in China. After the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 for instance, the reduction in exports encouraged Safavid potters to fill the vacuum: production of Chinese copies which had previously been confined to a few specialist ateliers was now expanded into mass-production to satisfy both domestic and foreign markets. In the third chapter Patricia Proctor looks closely at the Chinese models most favoured for copying and introduces a helpful system and terminology for discussing these borrowed motifs.
The provenance of Safavid wares has long been an intractable question. Several 17th century European travellers to Iran mention Kirman and Mashhad as leading manufacturing centres. The materials scientist Robert Mason is able to confirm and identify petrofabrics from both these cities and adds a third centre: Isfahan, or rather Qumisheh, a suburb of the city still producing stonepaste ceramics in the late 20th century. The identification of Isfahan solves the puzzle of one group of dishes, bough in large quantities by Russian, Armenian and European travellers who found them hanging in the houses of the inhabitants of Kubachi in the North Caucasus; these were henceforth described as ‘Kubachi’ wares although scholars understood from the outset that they were not manufactured there. In fact, the petrographic and stylistic analysis undertaken for this study indicates that the objects were made at multiple centres and over a period of 250 years, with the best-known group painted with polychrome slips attributable to Isfahan in the first half of the 17th century.
This book was conceived as a focused academic study but also as a handbook and guide to assist with the provenancing and dating of the substantial, but hitherto much- misunderstood, corpus of Safavid wares. To this end the text is lavishly illustrated with colour photographs and includes useful sections devoted to diagnostic motifs, shapes and their evolution and potters marks, as well as a comprehensive catalogue of the Safavid pieces in the Royal Ontario Museum, which serves to illustrate in detail the categories introduced in the text.