“How far is the southern sky in the eyes of a lone wild swan?
The chilly wind strikes terror into one’s heart.
I miss my beloved who is traveling afar, beyond the great river,
And my heart flies to the frontier morning and night.”
A poem was painted onto a bowl in the southern Chinese town of Changsha during the T’ang Dynasty, around 875ad. It spoke of tragic longing for a far away loved one. The bowl’s intended owner wouldn’t care. The Abbasid Arab would think it was cool because it had Chinese writing on it.
That person never saw the bowl, however. It was found in 1988 among the wreckage of a 9th century Arab trading ship off the Java Sea island of Belitung. This wreck illuminated the evolution of several small, local trade routes into an international network connecting Zimbabwe to China. That evolution also inspired epic pottery innovations.
Before getting into that, let’s go back earlier in T’ang times, when pottery wasn’t terribly valued. Ornate, poly-chrome ceramics were for burials only. Increasingly outlandish tombs prompted sumptuary laws severely limiting funeral pomp. Ceramic funerary art quickly art died out. So did the Silk Road, from increased instability along that fabled route. Then came tea. China, like Europe 500 years later, changed radically. Pottery (tea wares) immediately caught upper class attention. A 755 – 763ad civil war was the final spark. Refugee potters fled to Changsha, previously a southern back-water dumping ground for exiled losers from the cosmopolitan north.
The refugee potters copied popular Yue green glazed tea wares. Yue green looked like jade, which complimented the tea’s color. Changsha’s potters were ignored. They came from a ‘place of melancholy’ with ‘dense and poisonous vapors.’ Location is everything.
Changsha’s ignored, cast-away poets, like it’s potters, did whatever they wanted. Poets like Huaisu the Wild Monk invented ‘Wild Cursive’ with free, irregular lines and fluid character links. Changsha potters applied this new, wild brush work to their green ‘vapor cloud’ pottery.
Such looseness defied conventional T’ang aesthetic uniformity. But Arabs loved it. Trade with the Abbasid Caliphate via new maritime routes exploded. Changsha became southern China’s major trading and pottery center.
This story has many spin-offs. We’ll settle for now with an observation of possible interest to Pennsylvania ‘Tulip Ware’ devotees.
The most common Changsha floral design was a petaled flower with a central dot. These ‘rosettes’ appeared here before anywhere else in China. One could follow this pattern to Abbasid Baghdad, then to Fatimid Egypt, then to Umayyad Spain, then Renaissance Italy, then Anabaptist Moravia, then North Carolina and Pennsylvania…
Imagine your world turning on the central dot of a mad monk’s petaled flower.
To be continued…
Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC. 2010.