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Relics from Belitung shipwreck exhibited in China

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :September 27, 2020


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A total of 248 pieces of cultural relics, mostly from the Belitung shipwreck from the Tang Dynasty, made their public debut at the Shanghai Museum on September 14. Titled The Baoli Era: Treasures from the Tang Shipwreck Collection, the exhibition marked the first public appearances of these treasures in China.
A poster of the exhibition

Of these exhibits, 168 objects were salvaged from the shipwreck and carefully selected from a Singapore m ofuseum, including rarities such as blue-and-white dishes, the legendary Jiangxin mirror, green splashed white wares, as well as gold and silver wares. The rest were from the collection of Shanghai Museum and 9 other museums in China, allowing visitors to see various objects unearthed or passed down across generations. 

The exhibition is designed to offer a panoramic insight into Tang lifestyles and maritime trade in the 9th century.
A Corner of the exhibition hall

Jointly presented by the Shanghai Museum and the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore, the exhibition is part of the events to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Singapore and the People’s Republic of China. The exhibition is open to visitors free of charge and will last through January 10, 2021.

The Belitung shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Belitung Island of Indonesia in 1998. It was an Arabian dhow which sank on its journey back from China, with a full load of exquisite  porcelain, silver, gold and glass items as well as a variety of spices.
A corner of the exhibition hall

The ship is believed to have sunk around 830 A.D. and its discovery paints a picture of the seaborne trade, the lifestyles as well as the craftsmanship during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Porcelain wares from Changsha Kiln

Most of the wares salvaged from the shipwreck are porcelain and ceramic pieces from the Tang Dynasty, including some 50,000 wares made in Tongguan Kiln from Changsha City of Hunan Province.

One ceramic item has inscriptions that indicate it was made in 826 A.D. Some of the porcelain pieces have ancient Chinese poems and proverbs, Buddhist paintings and monsters from Indian myths inscribed or carved at the bottom.
A bowl from Changsha Kiln with inscriptions indicating it was made in 826 A.D, housed in the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore

There are also celadon pieces from Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces, white wares from Hebei and Henan provinces, and some 200 pieces of green splashed white wares.
Green splashed white wares, housed in the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore
 Blue and white porcelain plate of Gongyi Kiln, housed in the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore

Three intact blue and white porcelain plates discovered in the wreckage are one of the highlights of the exhibition, which brings forward the history of the export of this kind of porcelain by at least 500 years.
Blue and white porcelain plate of Gongyi Kiln, housed in the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore
 Blue and white porcelain plate of Gongyi Kiln, housed in Yangzhou Museum, Jiangsu province

Similar plates, but with simpler patterns and softer lines, were also found in China’s Yangzhou city in 1983. They could be made for local use, while those with bold patterns salvaged from the  Belitung shipwreck were likely customized based on the need of buyers in the Middle East. Now these two types of blue and white porcelain plates are greeting visitors in the exhibition at the same time.

Highlights of the exhibition also include an octagonal gold cup from the shipwreck, carved with the picture of musicians and a dancer. Octagonal gold and silver cups once were popular in the northern China in the Tang Dynasty. 

 Gold, silver, bronze and glass items found in the Belitung shipwreck

The cups often featured a strong characteristic of Sogdiana, an ancient country of Central Asia situated on the fertile valley of the Zeravshan River, in modern Uzbekistan.

 Octagonal gold cups found in the Belitung shipwreck

To show visitors the close ties between China and the Belitung shipwreck, another two gold cups with similar styles unearthed in Shannxi and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region respectively are on display along with the salvaged cup.

Octagonal gold cups found in Shannxi province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

The legendary "Yangtze Jiangxin Mirror" is a must-see at the exhibition. The mirror bears Chinese characters indicating that it was made in the middle of the Yangtze River in 758 in Yangzhou, the confluence of Yangtze River and Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, in today's Jiangsu Province. The mirror showed that the Arabian merchant ship might have stopped at Yangzhou to purchase mirrors and ceramics on its journey.

Yangtze Jiangxin Mirror, housed in the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore
Yangzhou was then an important manufacturing center for cast mirrors and gold and silver wares. It was also a cargo collection and distribution center and an important port for maritime trade. Whether heading north to China's capital or south for ocean voyage, merchants must pass by Yangzhou on their way. 
Thus archaeologists believed that the ship might have started its journey from Yangzhou after being loaded with large amount of porcelain and local products before heading south to Guangzhou and then overseas.

The exhibition is the first event of international cultural cooperation in China since the COVID-19 outbreak, and both museums said they are willing to further cultural exchanges in the future.
Editor: Yuan

Source: Shanghai Museum, China Daily, CGTN