Tracing the ceramic route from China
By Reema Narendran | ENS - KOCHI
28th January 2013 10:06 AM
In China, ‘West’ means not Europe, nor America, but India, says Chinese archaeology student Ran Zhang, who is in the capital city to study the Chinese ceramic sherds that were excavated at Pattanam.
“We have this ancient book titled ‘Xi You Ji’ or the ‘Journey to the West’ that is regarded as one of the four great classical novels in Chinese literature. It is about a Buddhist monk Xuanzang who came to India to obtain the ‘sutras’ or the sacred texts. Any Chinese who has read this book always want to travel to India,” explained Ran Zhang, quite comfortable in a small room set apart for research on Pattanam at the Kerala Council for Historical Research.
Ran, who was influenced by ‘Xi You Ji’, was also interested in coming to the supposedly native land of the Buddhist monk Bodhidharama. “He lived in the sixth century and is said to have come from South India. He is the founder of Shaolin Kung-Fu and is said to have trained all the Shaolin monks,” said Ran Zhang.
But apart from the two above-said reasons, what actually brought this student at Durham University in the UK to Kerala was his thesis topic - Chinese ceramics trade in the Indian Ocean.
“My professor at Durham, who is an expert on West Asian ceramics - Derek Kenet, had been here to look at European pottery sherds from Pattanam. That was how I knew about the Chinese pottery collection here,” he said.
Ran Zhang believes in fate. Wherever he went, people before him had already collected ceramic sherds for him to examine. In Britain, there was his professor who collected Chinese ceramic bits for him, in India it was the research team under Professor P J Cherian. “It is so pre-destined. It is so wonderful to be able to handle such pieces from history. And I have been fortunate that people everywhere have been good to me,” said Ran.
And what did he find at Pattanam? “Most of the sherds were from 17th century. The earliest that I could find was from 14th century,” said Ran Zhang.
“But I saw a lot of imitations from China itself. In Central China, there are some good kilns that bring out exquisite ceramics. But in South China, especially the Port cities, the kilns are not so good and they make imitations. Ancient travellers visiting the ports would have just bought what was easily available and never checked if those were imitations,” he explained.
The most valuable of Chinese ceramics is the Yuan Blue and White, the sherds of which was found elsewhere in South India but not from Pattanam. “But probably when they reach greater depths, they would find the Yuan Blue and White,” said Ran. A native of Beijing, Ran is also interested in music, painting and art design. “In Europe, the paintings are all mostly realistic. In China too, there is realism, but a large area of the canvas is empty,” he said.
Ran Zhang left Ananthapuri on Saturday, but had hopes to return to this quiet, green city in a few months’ time when the Pattanam researchers would finally reach that zone when they discover the Yuan Blue and White.
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