One of the more striking revelations from the ship is that trade between the two cultures was a two-way street. The cobalt that appears in the three blue-and-white porcelain chargers, for instance, was brought to China from the Middle East as a raw material, used by Chinese artisans, and then sent back to Arab consumers. It’s clear, says Tan, that the wares were not just purchased from China, but ordered by Arab consumers. The objects reflect West Asian taste rather than Chinese, although they are undoubtedly hybrids of the cultures, combining Chinese techniques with Islamic patterns and forms.
“There is a lot of customization in the products we found,” says Tan. “While they wanted Chinese greenware or whiteware, they wanted it to their taste.” The animal head on a large glazed stoneware ewer (ca. 825–850), for instance, is typical of Islamic metalwork, he says, as are some of the foliate patterns on the plates. Curiously, the gold objects are the most Chinese in terms of style, indicating, says Tan, that they were likely not made for export.
While a more elite consumer would likely have commissioned items like the rare large ewer, the majority of the items, says Tan, were probably destined for a more middle class customer. Among those more common items are the many examples of Changsha ceramics, a type of Tang Dynasty earthenware with an iron-brown underglaze, made in mass quantities in Hunan Province.
“But all of these items would only have been for a certain strata of society,” Tan points out. “You had to have the means to order them and then wait a year to receive them, since the ship had to go there and come back. And it was also accepted that not everything would make it back.”