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Last modified:
26 Mar 2014

Hongzhi-type and Zhengde-type shipwreck cargoes

In her 2007 lecture on 'Shipwreck ceramics and the fall of Melaka', Roxanna Brown discussed an apparent sudden change in trade patterns in the early sixteenth century, based on the evidence from shipwrecks and their cargoes. She grouped them into 'Hongzhi-type' and 'Zhengde-type'; her explanation of the differences in their ceramics is set out on this page. For her discussion of the historical context, and possible causes of the disruption, please return to the overview of the lecture. This web version contains links to individual slides from the original presentation, which are in a single 2.5MB Acrobat file; readers may prefer to download the slides and scroll through them in parallel. If any errors or omissions are noticed, or additional information / references can be added, please e-mail

To recap, there is a marked difference between Hongzhi-type cargoes, from the reign of the Emperor Hongzhi (1488-1505) and a little afterwards, and a later group characterised as Zhengde-type and associated with the reign of Emperor Zhengde (1506-1521).

The Hongzhi-type cargoes contain:

1. the first bulk exports of Ming blue-and-white
2. a great variety of types of ware -
  a. from China, (i) blue-and-white, (ii) celadon & other monochrome ware, (iii) the first polychrome ware found on ships
  b. from Burma, celadon (& Burmese lead-glazed?)
  c. from Vietnam, (i) blue-and-white, (ii) monochrome (& polychrome?)
  d. rare heirloom Champa ware
  e. Sawankhalok post-classic celadon (1 single underglaze jarlet known)
  f. Sukhothai underglaze (1 single jarlet known)

The Hongzhi-type cargoes ended the Ming gap. Chinese ceramics make up 75% of the total, and the ships were relatively large (a 30 metre keel was typical). [slide 26: blue-and-white ceramics from Hongzhi-type cargoes]. The Zhengde-type cargoes are smaller - hundreds of ceramics recovered, rather than thousands - and the percentage of Chinese ceramics drops back to perhaps 50-60%. There is almost no Chinese celadon, and absolutely no Burmese ware or Vietnamese ware. There is more Sukothai ware. Although it is difficult to be precise about the numbers of ceramics and of different types of ceramics on most of these shipwrecks, this is the overall impression. Cargo sizes are down, the range of goods is diminished, and the quality is not what it was before.

Hongzhi-type ships include the Lena Shoal wreck [slide 27] and the Santa Cruz wreck [slide 28] in the Philippines, and the Brunei wreck [slide 29]. The Hoi An wreck in Vietnam in my view [Dr Brown's] belongs in the Hongzhi group, although some consider it earlier. [slide 30].

Zhengde-type wrecks include the Gujangan (Jolo) wreck in the Philippines [slide 31], the 'Xuande' wreck in Malaysia [slide 32], the Klang Aow II wreck in the Gulf of Thailand [slide 34], and the Australia Tide or Klang Aow I wreck [slide 35].1 2

Let's discuss the differences between the ceramics in the two groups.

In Hongzhi-type wrecks, base marks are rare. There are at this stage no earlier examples of base marks. From four known shipwrecks of the Hongzhi-type, there are only two pieces with base marks, on the Brunei wreck [slide 36]. (Unfortunately, the catalogue shows one mark or part of a mark without the piece to which it relates, and one piece without the mark.) In Zhengde-type wrecks, base marks are more common, but refer to earlier reigns, as we saw here in Malaysia on the 'Xuande' wreck. The ceramics on this ship are dated c.1530-1540, but carry the reign mark of the Xuande Emperor who ruled from 1426-1435 - a hundred years earlier.3 Some pieces have stylized reign marks, which are illegible. [slide 37].

Hongzhi-type wrecks have Burmese celadon and Vietnamese ware. Zhengde-type wrecks have neither - except for some Vietnamese found on the Australia Tide wreck, and this may have been old stock. [slide 38]

Hongzhi-type wrecks have Sawankhalok post-classic celadon. Zhengde-type wrecks have Sawankhalok post-classic celadon too, but mainly large bowls (no other shape so far); they also have opaque white ware and underglaze black ware. [slide 39]

In the Hongzhi-type wrecks, about 25% of the Chinese ceramics are celadon, and 75% blue-and-white. In the Zhengde-type wrecks, there is no more Chinese celadon. [slide 40]

Hongzhi-type wrecks have hole-bottom wide dishes. Zhengde-type wrecks have hole-bottom saucers. Both types were short-lived. [slide 41: examples from the Lena Shoal and 'Xuande' wrecks]

To review the differences so far:

Hongzhi-type cargoZhengde-type cargo
Sawankhalok post-classic celadonSawankhalok post-classic celadon + monochrome white + underglaze black
Sukothai very rarefair quantity Sukhothai bowls (cakra, pikul)
Chinese celadonno Chinese celadon (or rare?)
Burmese celadonno Burmese celadon
Vietnamese wareno Vietnamese

- and Chinese blue-and-white styles also change, between the two groups:

In Hongzhi-type wrecks, the rock and peonies motif is rare, but the examples are beautiful [slide 43, pieces from the Lena Shoal wreck]. In Zhengde-type wrecks, the motif is common, but the quality is low [slide 44]. The differences in quality are very striking [slide 46].

In Hongzhi-type wrecks, the conch motif is depicted with an ershu (a long eared mouse, peeping out). This example is from a Topkapi catalogue. In Zhengde-type wrecks, there is no mouse, just the conch shell. [slide 45]

In Hongzhi-type wrecks, the makara motif has three elements. In Zhengde-type wrecks, the makara motif is very stylized. [slide 47]

Ribs on the exterior of dishes appear only on Zhengde-type wrecks. This is something new. [slide 48]

Two types of bowl very common on Zhengde-type wrecks have not been found on the earlier ships. The first has four horsemen on the exterior, a sage under a tree on the interior, and the mouth rim everted. The second has a conch on the interior, a plantain pattern on the exterior, and the mouth rim straight. [slide 49]

So the two types of cargo are easy to differentiate, knowing only a few basic Chinese blue-and-white designs.

Weaving together many small pieces of evidence, I have a hypothesis to explain the marked difference between the Hongzhi-type and Zhengde-type cargoes. It relates to the arrival of the Portuguese in Melaka in 1511, and the loss of many large ships in the counterattack of January 1512. Look out for ceramics featuring a conch and a long-eared mouse: these date to the years immediately before the fall of Melaka.

  1. Dr Brown also referred in her talk to a Zhengde-type wreck at Phu Quoc island in Vietnam, for which she said that her 1988 book (The Ceramics of Southeast Asia, 2nd edition) was likely to remain the only reference [slide 33]. Dr Michael Flecker, who investigated the significantly earlier wrecks referred to on this site and elsewhere as Phu Quoc I in 1994 and Phu Quoc II in 2004, has noted that the ceramics shown here are from neither of these sites; there appear to be several wrecks of historic interest at Phu Quoc, and further information on the others would be welcome.
  2. References and weblinks may be found on the chronology page of this site: Pandanan wreck, Lena Shoal wreck, Santa Cruz wreck, Brunei wreck, Hoi An wreck, Gujangan wreck, Xuande wreck, Klang Aow I wreck. Further information on the Gujangan wreck, and the East Moluccas finds such as the IHS plate in slide 23, would be welcome.
  3. The reign of the notoriously sleazy Zhengde Emperor was marked by banditry and rebellion, and his subjects may well have looked back with nostalgia to the prosperous and peaceful reign of the Xuande Emperor, an able administrator and patron of the arts.

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