A Longquan celadon porcelain
As one of the most powerful nations in the East throughout its history, China long dominated the maritime Silk Road with its extraordinary manufacturing capabilities, especially when it came to porcelain. During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), ports throughout the eastern part of China boomed as overseas merchants obsessed with Chinese porcelain came to trade.
Based on evidence in historic documents, many experts over the years have theorized that Taicang, in what is today East China's Jiangsu Province, was one of the most important sites for commercial activities. Now it seems this theory is becoming fact, as an archeological excavation in Taicang has provided hard evidence that support historical records.
"This is a landmark discovery which reveals the starting port for the export of Chinese porcelains for the first time as well as the connections between the Maritime Silk Road and the Chinese mainland," Wang Guangyao, deputy director of the Archaeological Institute of the Palace Museum, said of the discovery of an ancient buried village and numerous porcelain fragments.
According to Wang, 95 percent of the unearthed porcelain found in the village has been identified as Longquan celadon dating from the Yuan Dynasty, while the remaining fragments belong to various types of porcelain from the same period, including greenish-white glazed porcelain from Jingdezhen, East China's Jiangxi Province and white porcelain with black decorations from Cizhou, North China's Hebei Province.
"The variety of the porcelain is evidence that shows Taicang was a major distribution center for Chinese porcelain," said Wang.
The story of Taicang
"Amazingly we found celadon porcelains here that were very similar to those found at previous discoveries scattered all over the world, including Japan, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa," Wang explained.
"Taicang was once the site of the branch office of the Mingzhou (now Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province) Administration Agency for Commerce Ships. It mainly sold products to East Asian countries of the time, including [ancient] Japan and Korea."
According to historical records, Taicang was once "the greatest port in the world" during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was also the starting point from which Zheng He, a court eunuch and famous Chinese mariner, decided to depart from when he led expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433.
The remains of the ancient village was first discovered by a construction crew in January 2016. After the crew notified the authorities, archeologists soon began their own excavation.
So far, in addition to numerous porcelain fragments, the excavation has revealed a number of buildings and walls and what archeologists believe are the remains of a large storage area.
The excavation has provided a window into the commercial activities that were taking place during the Yuan Dynasty.
Wang emphasized that the porcelain discovered at the village is very close to the porcelains discovered in sunken commercial ships found off the coast of South Korea in 1970s.
"The two discoveries are very similar when it comes to the types of porcelains found,"Wang said.
To bring this discovery closer to the public, an exhibition showing off the results of archeologists' hard work will kick off on Friday at the Zhejiang Provincial Museum.
"We are looking forward to the studies that will be produced based on our discoveries, especially comparisons with other unearthed porcelains found overseas. This will provide a panoramic view of the history of commercial trade in East Asia at the end of the 14th century," Wang said.