In June, local fishermen discovered the wreckage of a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) ship in the "Bowl Reef" or Wan Jiao in Pingtan County, Fujian Province.
Archaeologists identified the wreck as having been manufactured during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1723) and named it "Bowl Reef No. 1", Wan Jiao Yi Hao.
To their surprise, the archaeological team also found rare pieces of blue and white porcelain among the wreckage, loot that could hold the key to an ancient maritime trading route.
Excavation works began on September 17, conducted by research staff from the National Museum's Underwater Archaeological Research Center. Blue and white porcelain bowls and plates, and pieces of ceramics were found. Experts identified them as everyday products most likely made in the middle of the Qing Dynasty. Preliminary studies also revealed that these products were bound for export, destination as yet unknown.
Excitement and puzzlement grew on Tuesday as more porcelain products were added to the haul.
One small plate decorated with plum blossoms especially caught the attention of the researchers. On its underside is inscribed the words Shuang Long, or "double dragons", in simplified Chinese characters. As simplified Chinese characters were adopted in printing and writing only after 1949 and the two simplified Chinese were unlikely to be any discernible pattern, experts regard this as a mystery. They can only be sure of the fact that the plate was produced more than 300 years ago during the reign of Emperor Kangxi.
Experts also found the pattern on another porcelain product difficult to explain. The pattern, which depicts a hunting scene, includes a man riding a horse. Experts were able to say the man is a Chitan because of his distinctive hairstyle. The Chitan people are an ethnic group that dominated much of Manchuria during the Chitan or Liao Dynasty (916 - 1125). According to Chen Huasha, a researcher of the Palace Museum, this is the first time that a Chitan figure has been found on blue and white porcelain.
The scene also has as a woman dressed in ethnic Han costume and holding a falcon on a calico horse. Experts say it is possible that the woman riding on the horse could be Wang Zhaojun, one of the Four Beauties in Chinese history. Wang, an insignificant member of Emperor Yuan's imperial harem, was given to the Hun Chanyu Huhanye who visited the Han Dynasty ruler in 33 BC to pay homage and to ask for a Han princess to take as his wife. Chanyu Huhanye was the ruler of the Hun, a nomadic tribe that was constantly at war with Han rulers during China's Warring States Period.
The site where the wreck was found is also of particular interest to researchers. They have yet to decide what the relation is between Bowl Reef and the ancient maritime "Silk Road", if at all.
There are other experts who hope to draw a clear maritime trading route in reference to other wreckage sites that have been found in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces.
The maritime trading route experts talk about first came about during the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD220) dynasties. In its heyday during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, merchant ships set off from Guangdong and Fujian provinces carrying Chinese silk, tea, porcelain and lacquer products via the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, across Southeast Asia and even traversing past Africa en route to Europe. Recorded shipwrecks along this route exceed 100.
But details of the route remain a mystery. All experts know is that Quanzhou and Fuzhou in Fujian Province were important ports of call for merchant ships plying the route.
Experts hope that the porcelain found on Bowl Reef No.1 and other relics will help them to solve this mystery.
(China.org.cn September 23, 2005)