The meaning of border decorations seen on porcelain  wares in the Wanli shipwreck cargo

To view or to order the full catalogue: "The Wanli Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo," go to: Publications.
The kraak potters’ dislike for undecorated spaces is evident in The Wanli Shipwreck cargo.  Here the decorator has filled the borders with various emblems of individual significance that is related to the meanings of the centre medallion designs.  The symbolism of the border motifs comes from the imagery of traditional folklore.  While the selection of motifs never perfectly matches any specific published list of emblems in Chinese art, they do appear in collections of antique symbols such as the Eight Treasures, Eight Auspicious Signs, and Eight Buddhist Emblems.  Having an entire cargo of kraak ware allows an appreciation of the entire repertoire of border symbols in use in the 1620s.  Collectively it captures a moment in time, not available from any other source.

Exactly why the potters chose their specific repertoire of emblems and symbols is not the subject of this modest publication.  What follows is an inventory of the border motifs and their associated symbolism to show the range seen in The Wanli shipwreck.  In the search for this repertoire, one must remember the ceramics were commercial goods and various decorative patterns could be painted according to the requirements of the buyers.  Also, these motifs may well have been popular at the time in other forms of Chinese art.
Note that most emblems are set on a background of tassels and ribbons.  The primary emblems are the scroll, ‘artemisia’ leaf, conch shell, chime stone, rui head, castanet, gourd bottle, book, lantern, fungus, fan, peach and peach flowers.  Each one has a range of variations that are shown in the following samples  There are also variations in the direction of the background tassels even from one panel to the next.  The extent of the variations in use at the same time is enlightening.  Without an archaeological context, one might expect the variations to come one after the other in time.  It would appear that multiple decorators were at work, each with their personal quirks in style and with differing degrees of skill and experience. 

The serial numbers below identify individual ceramics. Letters that follow the serial numbers show the different motifs on the same piece of ceramic. The individual ceramics, and the full list of emblems, mentioned herein can be seen in the catalogue of the Wanli shipwreck project: The Wanli Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo.


Ser. No.1655a.
Panel decoration from a 280 mm diameter kraak plate where the rui lappet is the main decorative symbol.  The ‘rui’ or ‘ruyi’head, which means “may your wish be granted”, arrived as an individual motif from the head of the ‘jo-i’ sword which is derived from the fungus plant and is therefore also the symbol for longevity.  Hence it is also the symbol of Buddhism and often presented as a gift for good wishes.

Ser. No.1655b.
Another panel from the above kraak plate includes three different motifs where the lantern is drawn on top of a tassel and the ribbon.  Except for the top motif which may vary, the tussle and the ribbon is the most commonly used combination of motifs on the border in panels on kraak plates and on the cavetto on kraak dishes.  The lantern is the symbol of joy and festivities. It is often given as an auspicious gift at weddings and plays a prominent part in social and religious life.  The lantern can appear in many shapes and are often lit by candles.  While the ribbon appears as decorations on all Daoist emblems and most of the Eight Treasures and Eight Buddhist emblems, it does not seem to have its own symbolism.  It is however often seen on the flute of Han Hsiang Tzu, one of the Eight Immortals.  

Ser.No.1655c.                                                                                                                                                         Another panel decoration from the same kraak plate as the above.  Here too is the same background while the scroll with a 'rui' head is the main symbol.  The scroll is the sacred text of the scriptures and the store of truth.  It is also the emblem of Han Shan, a Chinese poet of the 7th century.  A common form of ornamentation in every household, the scroll when made from red paper and pasted on house doors as it is believed to provide continual happiness and prosperity to the household.  The scroll and the lantern can appear in the centre medallion of kraak plates as well as in panels.

Ser. No.1655d.
Panel in the same plate as the above but including the ‘artemisia’ leaf as the main symbol.  One interesting difference to other leaves seen in the shipwreck cargo is that it includes a handle and it is only partly filled with the nerves of the leave.  The ‘artemisia’ leave is the symbol of healing and health and considered a good omen to the Chinese.  When placed over the house door it is thought to dispel sickness and to celebrate the anniversary of the rebel Huang Chao.  In ancient times, the Chinese also used the nerves of the ‘artemisia’ leave for prophecy.  It is interesting to note how the angle of the tassel changes in many panels on the same plate.

Ser. No. 1440.
This single peach fruit, Amygdalus persica, also known as the fairy fruit is drawn in a large panel on a 280 mm diameter kraak plate.  The fruit is thought to have originated in China and comes in many varieties and is said to be good against lung diseases, coughs and rheumatism.  The peony and the peach motif; ‘Tao zi’ both represents immortality, long life and are the emblem of marriage and spring. The God of longevity; ‘Shou Lao’ or, Shouxing is often depicted in Chinese art and porcelain decorations holding the peach of immortality.  Chung Li Chuan, or, Zhongli Quan, the leading Immortal is sometimes seen holding a peach in his hand while always shown with his fan to revive the souls of the dead.  The peach is sacred to the Daoists believing that the Holy peach tree grew near the palace of Hi Wang Mu, the Queen of Xian. 

Ser. No. 4580.
This panel decoration from a 310 mm diameter kraak plate is similar to 1655c including the scroll, tassel and ribbon but an with an overlaying meander pattern.  The meander in its primitive form, as on Shang dynasty bronzes, is an archaic pictographic representation of cloud and thunder and for that reason referred to the Chinese as ‘thunder pattern’. In Buddhism the scroll is the sacred text of the scriptures, and the store of truth. It is also the emblem of  Han Shan, a Chinese poet of the 7th century, and implies the underwritten book of nature.

Ser. No.5095
This 280 mm diameter kraak plate panel is similar to 1655b except that the lantern and the tassel are rendered in different directions.  Note the different pattern on the lantern and the direction of the tassel when compared with 1655b above.

Ser. No. 5640.
The main motif in this panel from 210 mm diameter kraak plate is the chime stone which is painted over a tassel and ribbons.  

Ser. No. 5097a.
Panel decoration from a 280 mm diameter kraak plate where the gourd bottle is the main symbol.  The gourd bottle is the symbol of mystery and longevity with its shape suitable as a receptacle for medicine.  The gourd bottle is also the emblem of Li Tieh Kuai, one of the Eight Daoist Immortals, who holds the bottle in his hand denoting his power of setting his spirit free from his body.

Ser. No. 5097b.
This panel decoration is from the same kraak plate as above and includes the lantern as the main motif.  Note the different pattern on the lantern when comparing with 1655b and 5095 above.  For description of the lantern as a decorative motif, refer to 1655b above.

Ser. No.5097c.
Another panel from the same kraak plate as above with the ‘artemisia’ leave as the main decorative symbol.  Note the different style of rendering the leaf and the inclusion of the wheel of law when compared with that seen in 1655d above.  For description of the symbolic meaning of the ‘artemisia’ leaf, refer to 1655d above.

Ser. No.5097d.
With this last panel of the same kraak plate as above, it is interesting to note that the plate, in addition to the four peach fruits, included four other independent motifs; the gourd bottle, lantern, the ‘artemisia’ leave and now in this panel; the scroll.  Compare with kraak plate 1655 above which also shows four different independent motifs.  For a description of the scroll as a decorative motif, refer to 1655d above.

Ser. No.5706a.
This panel from a 210 mm diameter kraak plate includes the same motifs as in the larger kraak plate number 5097d shown above except that tassel is drawn in different angle and the scroll here features the arabesque pattern.  The arabesque pattern is a favourite Islamic decorative theme called islimi in Persian carpets.  The pattern is most fascinating and fully developed when it includes an interlaced lattice system and spiralling stems or tendrils.  For a full description of the scroll refer to 1655c above.

Ser. No.5663.
This panel from a 210 mm kraak plate includes the only example of its kind - an indefinable motif on top of a ribbon.  The rendering of this motif only goes to show how different decorators, with varying skills and backgrounds could depict traditional motifs in a diverse manner, thus upsetting any stylistic evaluation of the motif.   In addition, this decorator also excluded the tassel which is otherwise the most commonly used background. 

Ser. No. 4584.
This panel is from a 320 mm diameter kraak plate and shows a leaf from the palm tree: Livistonia Chinensis.  This leaf is often used as a fan and commonly depicted together with Chung Li Chuan, the leader of the Eight Immortals.  In Chinese mythology, Chung Li Chuan received the fan from a widow who tried to use it to dry her deceased husband‘s grave -as she was not allowed to remarry until it was dry.  He then struck the tomb with the fan and it become dry.  The fan is also used by Chinese scholars and alchemists.  Tassel and ribbon is, as on most emblems, used in the background.

Ser. No. 4072.
On this 320 mm diameter kraak plate, the panel shows a fungus, the emblem of longevity and immortality, on top of a tassel and ribbon.  The fungus or the Lingzhi is often seen in the twin deer plates and medium sized bowls in The Wanli Shipwreck cargo.

Ser. No. 5096a.
This panel from a 280 mm diameter kraak plate shows a lantern on top of tassel and ribbon.  This lantern is similar to 5097b above but it is depicted differently from the lantern shown in 1655b.

Ser. No. 5096b.
This panel is from the same plate as the above including the castanet as the main motif.  The background is, as usual, tassel and ribbons and parts of the wheel of Buddha.  The castanet is attributed to Cao Guojin, one of the Eight Immortals and represents his patronage of musicians and theatre actors.

Ser. 4542b
This panel from a 320 mm diameter large kraak plate features a single peach without any emblems in the background.  As said above, the peach, Amygdalus persica, is also known as the fairy fruit and is thought to have originated in China and comes in many varieties.  It is also believed that peach is good against lung diseases, coughs and rheumatism.

In this panel, from the same plate as above, the fungus or the Lingzhi is rendered in the same manner as in 4072.

Shard 1.
This panel from a 510 mm diameter kraak plate shows three peaches without any background motifs.  It was only on large and very large kraak plates that the peach was depicted in multiple numbers within one panel.

Shard 2.
This panel from another 510 mm kraak plate also shows three peaches whilst the stem is rendered in a different manner.

Shard 3.
Another panel from a 510 mm large kraak plate shows a different which could represent the Lychee although the leaves resemble those in other peach fruit motifs.

Shard 5.
Another panel from a 510 mm diameter large kraak plate showing the gourd bottle up-side down in the same manner as in 5097a above.  The background, including a double tassel a ribbon does however feature the wheel of Buddha. 

Shard 6.
In this panel from a 510 mm diameter kraak plate, the decorator included two ‘artemisia’ leaves as the main motif.  An interesting difference is the vacant spot, seen in Shard 7, which in this instance is filled in.  The background is again the commonly used tassel and ribbons.

Shard 7.
Another panel from a 510 mm diameter kraak plate showing the ‘artemisia’ leave with white recesses along the edges of the leave with another vacant spot in the centre of the leave.  In contrast to other panels, this background includes the gourd bottle and two tassels over ribbons.

Shard 8.
This panel from a 510 mm diameter kraak plate shows a palm leave of the Livistonia Chinensis species.  This motif is similar to 4584 above but is shown here on top of double tassels, wheel of Buddha and knotted ribbons.

Shard 9.
In this interior panel on a large wash basin the decorator included what might be prunus flowers (Prunus persicus) as the main motif while excluding any background motifs.  Note the similarities in 7922a and the peach shown in 7922c.  The prunus flower is the symbol of life because it blossoms in the springtime

Another interior panel from a large wash basin with the same prunus flower as in Shard 9.  Note the difference in selection of motifs in these large wash basins and those used for kraak plates.

This panel from the same large wash basin as above and shows the same high stem although the flowers have been replaced with peaches.

1152a, 1152b and 1152c.
These interior panels from a large wash basin feature camellia, the profile of a peony and a stem with two peaches.  As on all other interior panels on large wash basins, the decorator excluded the otherwise common background motifs of tassel and ribbons.  The special rendering of the peony flower seen in 1152b was also frequently used in smaller kraak plates and dishes but never in 210 mm kraak flatware.

Shard 1
Shard 2
Shard 3
Shard 5
Shard 6
Shard 7
Shard 8
Shard 9

With these different renderings of well-known emblems, from one time in history, it becomes pretty clear that there were large variation in depicting common motifs. Even if art-historians over decades have tried to device standard type of motifs and placed them into narrow time zones, it is time to recognize that there were  decorators of different skills at all time. There surely must also have been apprentices and those whom had different idea and techniques how to express even the most common symbols. As such, as the above have shown, we can only broadly place this type of symbols into different times

For more border decorations, view and order the full catalogue: "The Wanli Shipwreck and its Ceramic Cargo" here
1152a, b & c

Ser. No. 4679a, 4679b and 4679c.
In this 220 mm diameter kraak dish, every alternate panel shows a single peach without background. The remaining four panels show ‘artemisia’ leaves and scrolls drawn on top of tassels and ribbons. 
4679a, b & c
4020a, b, c & d
Ser. No. 4420a, 4420b, 4420c and 4420d.
The arrangement of these 280 mm diameter kraak dish panels are the same as in 4679 above.  Three of the panels motifs are drawn on top of the tassel and ribbons.  Note the different style of rendering the conch shell in 4420c when compared with 4136c above.
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14th - 16th century celadon wares
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Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. was incorporated on the recommendation of the Malaysian authorities. This was done in order to formalize and to expand on the founder’s extensive knowledge of Asia’s ceramic developments and maritime trade.

The company’s researchers have been engaged in the search for historical shipwrecks for more than two decades and another decade researching maritime trade. Most of this work is concentrated to the South China Sea, a virtual highway for ancient shipping linking China to India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia in an extensive maritime trade system. This ancient trade started sometime around the 4th century and lasted well into the 19th century.

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As such we have precisely located a kiln sites in Sisatchanalai, northern Thailand in which our Royal Nanhai and the Nanyang shipwreck celadon ware was made around AD. 1380-1460. (See videos on: ) Other kilns was located in Sukhothai where production wasters matched the fish and flower plates found on the Turiang and the  Longquan shipwreck. These unique underglaze decorated wares was made at those exact kilns 600 years before we found them on the shipwrecks in Malaysia!  Our latest shipwreck cargo; The Wanli Shipwreck, of Chinese blue and white porcelain, was likewise pinpointed to the Guangyinge kiln site in Jingdezhen, China. (See video on: )

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10th June 2010

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Chinese marks and decorations in the Wanli Shipwreck