History writ in ceramics

A model of a typical fishing village in Minnan, south Fujian province

Little was written in ancient Chinese books about the Philippines and Philippine-Chinese ties during the Song (960-1279)and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. Most often quoted were the following: Zhu Fan Zhi (諸蕃誌 Record of Foreigners) and Dao Yi Zhi Lue (島夷志略 Record of Foreign Islands), both describing places in the Philippines; Wen Xian Tong Kao (文獻通考 Review of Literature and Documents), mentioning people from the Philippines visiting Guangzhou in 982 to trade; and Song Shi (宋史 History of the Song Dynasty), recording people from Butuan who journeyed to the mainland to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in 1003.
In reality, trade and ties between the Philippines and China flourished during the two dynasties. This can be seen from the rich collection of Song and Yuan ceramics unearthed in the Philippines that represent wares produced throughout the different regions of Fujian.
Samples of these wares are painstakingly assembled into an exquisite book by ceramics expert Rita Ching Tan and The Oriental Ceramic Society of the Philippines.
During the Tang (618-907) and Song dynasties, imperial China’s economic center started to shift towards the south. When the Song court moved southwards, members of the royal family and the elite moved to Fujian, increasing Quanzhou’s demand for foreign luxury goods and that port city’s foreign trade.
The port of Quanzhou was naturally endowed with qualities of an ideal port and was popularly known as “Three Bays and Twelve Harbors (三灣十二支港).” Moreover, Fujian had a long history of shipbuilding and, by the Song and Yuan dynasties, it had the most advance shipbuilding technology in all of China. The ships constructed in Fujian were highly suitable for long voyages: they had pointed bottoms, were stable, and could withstand strong winds and waves. These two factors led to the rapid development of Fujian’s maritime trade.
The Quanzhou Maritime Bureau was established in 1087, in the second year of the reign of Song Emperor Yuanyou. Instead of waiting for foreign ships to trade, the bureau set in place a system that encouraged merchants to embark on long voyages to conduct overseas trade. This subsequently broke the trade monopoly of Arab merchants with states in Southeast Asia.

Bureau for Foreign Shipping Relics

The establishment of the Quanzhou Maritime Bureau was an important event in China’s communication with other countries and presented the start of China’s understanding of the outside world, markedly differently from the way the Tang Dynasty knew the world. Fujian’s foreign commerce likewise entered a new phase of systematic development.
From the Southern Song (1127-1279) to early years of the Yuan Dynasty (after 1271), Quanzhou quickly evolved into China’s biggest and most internationally known sea port, while Fujian became the Yuan Dynasty’s center of maritime travel.
After the Yuan Dynasty subdued the Southern Song Dynasty and pacified the Jiangnan (江南) region, Yuan authorities used the port of Quanzhou as base for its overseas expansion.
When the Yuan Dynasty sent punitive expeditions to Japan, Champa and Java, Quanzhou provided the ships and served as a launch pad for this maritime commercial force. Consequently, Quanzhou became the Yuan Dynasty’s most valuable sea port.
The Quanzhou Maritime Bureau set up a system to attract, welcome, and send off foreign vessels, making these its most important functions. The bureau sent envoys overseas to encourage foreign merchants to journey to China and trade.
The bureau also rewarded and promoted officials who actively brought in overseas merchants to China. At the same time, the imperial court set aside a generous budget to host lavish banquets for foreign merchants. When foreign ships left China, not only did the local government host banquets, the imperial court even deployed envoys to send them off.
Under such historical conditions, it is not surprising that the trade between Quanzhou and the Philippines developed rapidly and flourished during the Song and Yuan dynasties. It is also little wonder that a large number of Fujian ceramics from these two dynasties had been unearthed in the Philippines.

Tan shows her most recent coffee table book, Fujian Ware Found in the Philippines.

In 2004, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines) published the beautifully designed book, Ginto: History Wrought in Gold. The publication introduced Philippine gold jewelry dating to about 1,000 to 1,500 years ago.
The book’s message was that the gold jewelry unearthed in 1981 in Surigao, northeastern Mindanao, filled up a void in Philippine prehistory and provided evidence that before the Spaniards arrived, a highly developed civilization that mastered the crafting of exquisite gold adornment existed in these lands.
With the publication of Ms. Tan’s book, a history has been written of the rich trade between Quanzhou and the Philippines during the Song and Yuan dynasties gleaned from the Song and Yuan wares unearthed in the Philippines.
With her work, Ms. Tan has addressed the shortage of records in ancient Chinese books by using tangible objects as basis to write this history.

Reprinted from Rita Ching Tan’s Fujian Ware Found in the Philippines: Song-Yuan Period, 11th-14th Century, published by The Oriental Ceramic Society of the Philippines, 2017.