The Khoo Teck Puat Gallery
In 1998, a shipwreck was discovered just off Belitung Island on the edge of the Java Sea. It contained a remarkable cargo of more than 60,000 ceramics produced in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907), as well as luxurious objects of gold and silver. Bound for Iran and Iraq, the ship provides early proof for strong commercial links between China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
Discovered some 600 kilometres southeast of Singapore, the Tang Shipwreck is also known as the Belitung Shipwreck or Batu Hitam (meaning “black rock”) Shipwreck, from which the Chinese name of the wreck 黑石号 derives. Batu Hitam was the name of the reef at which the wreck was discovered. The ship, measuring about 18 metres long, was made of timber sewn together, a typical construction method of vessels from the Persian Gulf. The ship must have sailed from the Middle East to southern China, where it loaded its immense cargo.
The wreck demonstrates that the region has been a centre of global trade as early as the 9th century. Singapore lies between two oceans, along a busy sea route running from the Middle East to India, Southeast Asia, and China – what has been more popularly known recently as the “Maritime Silk Route”. This network rivalled the more famous overland Silk Route through Central Asia. Glass was brought from the Middle East, cotton from India, spices and wood from Southeast Asia, and ceramics and silk from China. These economic ties led to the exchange of technologies and artistic ideas, and to contacts between peoples of different cultures.
Southeast Asia lay at the heart of a global trading network in the ninth century. Singapore’s success as an exchange point of global shipping is thus rooted in ancient history. The objects recovered from the shipwreck – some of exceptional rarity – testify to the ingenuity of artists and merchants, and show the lengths to which the world’s consumers would go to obtain such commodities.
The variety of ceramics on this ship also underscores the vitality and the competitiveness of the Chinese ceramics industry, as well as how merchants shrewdly targeted different clients. In addition to the bulk of Changsha wares for the wider market, the ship carried finer ceramics such as Yue celadons and white wares from the Xing and Ding kilns in northern China.
The Tang Shipwreck begins the ACM’s ground floor theme of “Trade and the Maritime Silk Routes”, which features masterpieces of Asian export art (ceramics, furniture, paintings, gold, silver and other materials made in China, India, Japan and Southeast Asia for export to the rest of the world) from the 9th century to the early 20th century.
The Tang Shipwreck was acquired through a generous donation from the Estate of Khoo Teck Puat in honour of the late Khoo Teck Puat.
Octagonal cup with musicians and a dancer
China, Yangzhou, ca 830s
Gold, height 9 cm
The long curly hair and billowing clothing of the musicians and dancer identify them as Central Asian. The bearded faces on the handle are also evidently foreign. As the theme of the design is revelry and entertainment, the cup would probably have been used for wine drinking on such an occasion. This cup is the largest of the type known.
China, Hunan province, ca 830s
Stoneware, each approx diameter 15cm
More than 50,000 hand-painted bowls were found in the wreckage of the ship and are now in the museum's collection. The bowls were made in Changsha, a city deep in Hunan province. Common designs are fish, flowers, birds and mountains, but there are also more unusual designs, to be viewed in the gallery.
China, probably Gongxian kilns, ca 830s
Stoneware, diameter 23cm
There were a few dishes in the cargo painted with brilliant blue decoration. Although produced in China, they used cobalt, which was possibly mined in Iran. And the lozenge motif on them is a design favoured in the Middle East. These blue-and-white plates are Chinese responses to Middle Eastern design, using a pigment that could have been brought from Iran.