A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks (18 page)

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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The stories of Sinbad the Sailor contain several names that can
be placed in the Malay Archipelago close to Srivijaya. On his third voyage, before returning to India and Persia, he stopped at an island called Al-Salahitah, a name similar to the Malay word
selat
for ‘strait' and probably referring to the Malacca Strait; on his fifth voyage he came to a mountain south of the equator named Sarandib, a word similar to the Sanskrit for Sumatra. Another collection of sailors' tales of the same period,
The Wonders of India
by Buzurg ibn Shahriyar al-Ramhormuzi, a Persian who wrote in Arabic, includes an account of a sea-captain called Abhara who ‘scoured the sea in its length and breadth and seven times made the voyage to China', on the way being the sole survivor of a wreck near a ‘promontory jutting into the Chinese Ocean' that may have been the Malay Peninsula.

Shipwreck was an ever-present risk in these waters – Sinbad was famously wrecked on all seven of his voyages – and al-Ramhormuzi emphasises the danger in his account of Abhara's voyages:

Before his time, no one had ever accomplished this journey without accident. To reach China and not perish on the way, that, in itself, was regarded as a considerable feat; but to come back again, safe and sound, was a thing unheard of; and I have heard tell that no one else, except only him, has made the two journeys, going and coming, entirely without mischance.

This high degree of risk probably dissuaded shippers in the early period from routinely undertaking the voyage from Persia to China in one go; the round trip would have taken two years, whereas the trip to and from Malaysia could have been done in a year. Persian and Arab merchants arriving in Indonesia may often have been transported further east with their cargoes on local vessels, crewed by sailors more familiar with the hazards of the South China Sea. This would help to account for the success of Srivijaya as an intermediary, not only through the transshipment of goods from east and west but also taking advantage of the opportunity to export their own products in the same ships – from gold and spices to camphor and pearls. Whether or not the sailors who provided the snippets of geographical information that found their way into the tales of Sinbad ever went as far as China themselves, many of them would probably have been to the glittering ‘Island of Gold' on the river Musi, including the men on the Belitung ship itself.

The most tantalising passage in the first-century
AD
Periplus Maris Erythraei
is at the very end, where from the limits of his personal experience – somewhere in south-east India – the author looks as far east as his knowledge will allow, to regions that ‘are either difficult of access because of their excessive winters and great cold, or because of some divine influence of the gods'. He describes ‘A great inland city called Thina … from which raw silk and silk yarn and silk cloth are brought,' in a land ‘not easy of access; few men come from there, and seldom. The country lies under Ursa Minor, and is said to border on the farthest parts of Pontus and the Caspian Sea, next to which lies Lake Maeotis; all of which empty into the ocean.' This knowledge would have helped the second-century
AD
Greek geographer Ptolemy to imagine the world to the east, dividing China into Serikon, the ‘Land of Silk', at the north-east end of the overland Silk Route, and Qin to the south at the end of the maritime route. In the sixth century
AD
, Cosmas Indicopleustes, ‘Cosmas who sailed to India', an Egyptian monk who had once been a merchant, described a far-off land that he called Tzinista – but his vantage point was the same as that of the author of the
Periplus
, having reached the trade interface in southern India and not sailed beyond. Emissaries from Rome are thought to have gone to China in the late second century
AD
, and an emissary from the Byzantine emperor Constans II arrived at the court of the Tang emperor Taizong in
AD
643, but these were isolated events and did not reflect sustained diplomacy. Some merchants and adventurers undoubtedly travelled the full distance, but much trade along the land and maritime routes had been in the hands of intermediaries, and first-hand knowledge of the worlds at either end remained correspondingly limited.

That was to change by the time of the Belitung shipwreck in the early ninth century, as a result of more frequent direct contact by sea between China and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Just as the Abbasid period is considered a ‘Golden Age' of Islamic culture, so the Tang Dynasty that ruled China at the time of the shipwreck represents a high point in Chinese art, literature and technological achievement. Sea merchants for the first time were making the entire voyage between Persia and the Chinese port of Guanghzou as a matter of routine, meaning that ideas as well as goods could flow in a way that had not been possible under the earlier, indirect trade. Guanghzou had an
Arab enclave similar to those of the European East India companies in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Ships waiting out the monsoon both in China and in the intermediary ports of Indonesia would have added further to cultural exchange, not only between the kingdoms and empires from which the traders had come, but also within the increasingly homogenous maritime societies of the region, incorporating many different nationalities, religions and lifestyles.

Of the four great inventions for which China is traditionally celebrated – the navigational compass, gunpowder, paper and printing – two of them, paper and printing, may first have reached the west as a result of increased maritime trade at the time of the Belitung wreck. Made by pulping and pounding wood and textile fibres, paper had been invented in China by the time of the
Periplus
, replacing silk and slips of bamboo as a writing medium; later in the west it was to replace papyrus – made by laminating fibre rather than pulping it – and animal-skin parchment. The technique had reached India by the late seventh century
AD
, Baghdad a century later and Europe by the twelfth century, by way of Islamic North Africa and Spain. In China, woodblock printing took place by
AD
600, more than eight centuries before the first printing presses in Europe. Even before the printing press, the use of paper meant that books could be made more quickly, either as scrolls or as codices, and were less cumbersome, increasing the rate of production and the ease with which they could be moved around. One feature shared by Abbasid Baghdad and Tang China was the number and size of libraries, both public and private, larger than any seen in Europe until the later Middle Ages. Although the process of disseminating papermaking to Europe from China was a long one, constrained by secrecy, politics and religion, its utility for conveying the written word meant that it was instrumental in the spread of ideas globally, and in that respect the discovery of an inkstone in the wreck – suggesting that paper was there as well – is of supreme cultural and intellectual significance.

The gold and silver from the Belitung wreck constitute one of the greatest treasures of the Tang period ever discovered archaeologically, and the only one to be found outside China itself. Among the outstanding artefacts were four cups and three bowls of solid gold, including an octagonal cup decorated with images of singers and a dancer, two oval bowls incised on the interior with pairs of ducks, and one bowl
with a swastika. The silver included a gilt wine-flask, four bowls, two platters and fourteen small boxes, several of them leaf-shaped and decorated in repousée with pairs of mandarin ducks and parrots in floral scenes. In addition, the cargo included eighteen silver ingots of very high purity – the earliest evidence for silver bullion being exported from China.

Gold cups and bowls were especially associated with wine-drinking. In ‘Song of Past Feelings Unforgotten', dated to about 840 – nearly contemporary with the wreck – the Chinese poet Bai Juyi wrote:

Su, oh Su! Sing once again the Song of the Willow Branch!

And I will pour you wine in that golden cup

And take you with me to the Land of Drunkenness.

Gold drinking vessels were made for use as gifts, with provincial governors for example providing them for the court at Chang'an where they would have been given to members of the Imperial family, officials, priests and others, often in a highly ritualised fashion during ceremonies and feasts. This social function, which cemented loyalties and kinship ties, is reflected in their decoration, with paired birds representing bonding or marital bliss and the swastika symbolising the footprints of the Buddha in an eternal cycle. In addition to their role within Tang society, high-value items such as this could form gifts taken on embassies abroad or used by merchants to smooth transactions. Diplomatic gift-giving at the time of the wreck is revealed in a list of six embassies to Chang'an in 813–39 from Shepo – probably Java, just to the south of Belitung – with gifts including slaves, parrots, incense, tortoise shells and a live rhinoceros. Gold and silver vessels as gifts are mentioned by the Chinese historian Zhao Rugua in the late twelfth to early thirteenth century, writing about the kingdom of Boni on Borneo:

Three days after a foreign ship has arrived at these shores, the king and his family, along with the high court attendants, go on board to enquire about the hardships of the journey. The crew cover the gang plank with silk brocade and welcome them respectfully. They treat them to all kinds of wine, and distribute among them according to rank, presents of gold and silver vessels …

Bronze mirrors were also prestige items used for gift-giving by the Imperial court, but they were also highly desired abroad and traded commercially throughout Asia. Their durability meant that they could last for generations; amazingly, one of the twenty-nine mirrors from the wreck dates from the Han Dynasty (206
BC
–
AD
220), a discovery paralleled by finds of ‘antique' mirrors in tombs in China showing that they could be treasured heirlooms. As with the gold and silver vessels, the decoration on the mirrors had symbolic meaning, in several cases reflecting the contemplative act of their use. The reverse of one mirror shows a man playing a stringed instrument with a phoenix dancing to the music, and the inscription ‘true gentleman, flying frost', a reference to the musician and the name of his song and suggesting a harmony with nature through music and movement.

The balance between yin and yang in Chinese philosophical tradition is explicitly symbolised in the most remarkable of the mirrors, a rare example of a Yangxin or ‘Heart of the Yangzi' mirror. The inscription around the edge states ‘made on the twenty-ninth day of the eleventh month of the Wuxu year of the Qianyuan reign of Tang in Yangzhou at the heart of the Yangzi River [from metal that was] smelted a hundred times', the date corresponding to 3 January 759. Eight trigrams around the mirror represent yin and yang, the former shown by broken lines and the latter solid, and the four cardinal points are represented by cosmological symbols – a white tiger for the west, a black turtle for the north, an azure dragon for the east and a vermilion bird for the south – that gave the mirror an apotropaic function, providing protection against evil spirits and other dangers.

Analysis of the bronze in Yangxin mirrors shows that the alloy had a high tin content, up to 25 per cent, making the mirrors more silvery and reflective. The poet Bai Juyi wrote how they ‘are cast in boats on the waves at the river's heart, at noon on the fifth day of the fifth month. Their lustre, polished from jade dust and gold paste, glistens like the clear water of an autumn pool.' The fifth day of the fifth lunar month is close to the summer solstice and therefore loaded with yang – brightness, light and fire – meaning a very clear reflection in the mirrors; the mirror from the wreck, by contrast, was cast shortly after the winter solstice, when yin had reached its maximum and was replaced by yang, so representing the reborn cycle. In a world where Buddhist and Taoist traditions had spread widely over the area of South-east Asia visited by the ship, it is fascinating to think that those on board
who handled this mirror would have understood the symbols and their power – that of two opposing cosmic forces whose fusion brought matter into being, an idea that shaped the way many saw their world and lived their lives.

In
The Classic of Tea
– the earliest known treatise on tea drinking, written about
AD
770 – the poet and tea connoisseur Lu Yu asserted that the lustrous green bowls of the Yue kilns were the finest for tea drinking, as they brought out the greenness of the tea; white bowls, by contrast, made the tea appear red. Tea drinking greatly increased in popularity in the Tang period, and like much else in Chinese society it had differing meanings according to the context of its use – it was linked with Buddhist meditation, it was medicinal and it was a popular drink in the home, often flavoured with salt and spices. Tea was made by grinding the leaves into a powder and then stirring it into hot water, and the various ceramic vessels associated with its use included jugs, boxes for holding the powder, and bowls. The Changsha bowls that formed the largest constituent of the Belitung cargo were not mentioned by Lu Yu, as large-scale production at those kilns only began in the early ninth century, but there can be no doubt that they were designed primarily for tea drinking – one was painted in the interior with the word
chazhanzi
, meaning ‘tea bowl'.

The thousands of Changsha bowls from the wreck provide fascinating evidence of Chinese pottery at this period as well as the interplay between Chinese taste and foreign markets, in particular Abbasid Persia. The kilns were located on the eastern banks of the Xiang River, a tributary of the Yangzi, and so within ready access of the sea. The bowls are near-identical, some 15 centimetres across and 5 centimetres deep, with a set repertoire of decoration, but painted in a free style by many different hands, and each one unique. After being coated in a layer of slip, the rim was dipped into a brown wash four times on opposing sides to create a frame for the design within; once that design had been completed, the bowl was glazed and fired. The colour was mostly copper green and manganese-iron brown, with the glaze giving the bowls a greenish tinge. The designs are what give these bowls their beauty, with open brushwork tending to the abstract, but most often being representational – including flowers, birds, mountain landscapes, patterns of clouds and vapours and sea-monsters. The relatively small number of calligraphic inscriptions is consistent
with this assemblage having been produced for the export market, as Chinese writing would have had limited meaning to the west of the Java Sea.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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