Treasures of Tek Sing shipwreck on display

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :September 13, 2021


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About 200 years ago, a large three-masted Chinese ocean-going vessel named Tek Sing set sail from the port of Amoy (now Xiamen, southeast China's Fujian province) for Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), carrying some 2,000 passengers and invaluable cargo including spice, silk, tea and porcelain.

Sadly, the journey ended in tragedy when Tek Sing hit a reef and sank in waters of Indonesia.

Only 190 people survived the fatal disaster. They were saved by a passing British merchant ship called Indiana.

The sinking of Tek Sing claimed more lives than that of Titanic which happened nearly a century later and Tek Sing is often referred to in modern days as Titanic of the East.

The wreck of Tek Sing was eventually discovered in 1999 and more than 350,000 pieces of porcelain were salvaged, which made headlines around the world.

Enormous quantities of porcelain onboard the Tek Sing was brought to the surface.

The story of Tek Sing is full of mysteries and has an enduring appeal to people at home and abroad.

China recently kicked off a large exhibition which unfolds the forgotten history of Tek Sing to the public for the first time, featuring more than 400 pieces of beautiful porcelain salvaged from the shipwreck.  

The exhibition is being held at the China Maritime Museum at Shanghai from August 24 to January 3, 2022. It covers the doomed voyage of Tek Sing, how it was discovered and salvaged by foreign rescue teams, how some of the precious relics of the wreck returned to China from overseas, and the current research into the shipwreck itself.

Tek Sing is considered the last key witness to the prosperity of the ancient Maritime Silk Road. Eighteen years after it sank in 1822, the First Opium War broke out and ancient Chinese wooden seagoing ships were nowhere to be seen.

A model of a Chinese wooden sailing ship developed for ocean voyages in the 19th century

Unlike many other famous sunken treasure ships in history, whose details have remained obscure, Tek Sing's story was well documented in some foreign newspapers and books at the time, providing clear information about the course of the ship, the name of its captain and the exact date of the accident.

A book written by James Horsburgh, an employee of the British East India Company, in 1843 recorded some information about the Tek Sing shipwreck.
London-based newspaper The Morning Chronicle published an article about the sinking of Tek Sing reported by Indian news outlet The Calculla Gazelle, on December 3, 1822.

In 2000, a considerable amount of porcelain salvaged from the Tek Sing shipwreck was auctioned off in Germany and the treasures were then scattered to different parts of the world.

It was not until 2018 that some of the cultural relics finally came back to their motherland. A private Chinese firm, Waterside Culture Group, purchased 120,000 relics from a British company and later donated a hundred pieces of priceless porcelain to the China Maritime Museum, which paved the way for the successful launch of the exhibition.

Blue-and-white porcelain plates with flower patterns recovered from the Tek Sing shipwreck

Mao Min, director of the museum's Display Department, said that Tek Sing was the largest Chinese wooden sailing ship ever discovered in the history of maritime archaeology and contained the greatest number of relics ever recovered from a shipwreck.

Blue-and-white porcelain takes up a majority of all the antique wares salvaged. They were produced in the Dehua Kiln of Fujian province for export to Asian markets between the 18th and 19th century, often decorated with flower, human figure and animal patterns.

Other relics from the shipwreck include white, greenish-brown and wucai (five-color) glazed porcelain as well as Zisha (purple clay) wares produced in Yixing County of East China's Jiangsu province.

Wucai or five-color glazed porcelain plates recovered from the wreck of Tek Sing

Flower patterns on the blue-and-white porcelain wares are diverse and carry different connotations. In traditional Chinese culture, ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi) was a symbol for longevity; a basket of flowers was associated with celebration and considered an auspicious sign; and rocks and flowers together expressed people's yearnings for a better life.
A blue-and-white porcelain plate painted with chrysanthemum from Dehua Kiln is displayed at the exhibition. Chrysanthemum usually represents virtuous traits in Chinese culture.

Dehua County in Quanzhou is one of the three ancient porcelain capitals of China, along with Jingdezhen of Jiangxi and Liling of Hunan. The history of porcelain making in Dehua spans thousands of years, and more than 180 ancient kiln sites of Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (960-1912) have been found in the county.

With the rise of Quanzhou Port during the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368), Dehua porcelain became the major export commodity of China along the ancient Maritime Silk Road. In the Ming Dynasty, Dehua earned international fame for producing ivory white porcelain which was as smooth and translucent as jade. The French named such porcelain Blanc de Chine (literally white from China), a title that is still used today, and people in the West deemed Dehua white porcelain as the top grade of Chinese porcelain.

In 2015, Dehua was named the World Ceramics Capital by the World Crafts Council.

This exhibition is of great significance to China as huge efforts have been made over the past years to bring home these beautiful porcelain wares and other cultural relics salvaged from the Tek Sing shipwreck. These treasures are strong proof of the prosperity of the ancient Maritime Silk Road and porcelain production and export in Dehua.