The Belitung Shipwreck: Medieval Chinese Treasures and Modern Culture Politics

François Louis
“The Belitung Shipwreck: Medieval Chinese Treasures and Modern Culture Politics”
Innovation/Adaptation: 5,000 Years of Making Art in China Series
October 13
5:30-7:00 PM
List 110

Salvaged in 1998 in Indonesia, the Belitung shipwreck contained the oldest known Chinese ceramic cargo – over 60,000 ceramic bowls and jars from the ninth century. The wreck documents the earliest known large-scale export of ceramics from China and for the first time provides substantial data to study medieval maritime trade in Southeast Asia. Beside the ceramics, the site also yielded extraordinary Chinese gold, silver, and bronze artifacts, and enough remains of the ship’s hull to allow for a reconstruction of the vessel and for its identification as Arab. What can this spectacular find tell us about medieval maritime trade between China, Southeast Asia, and Iraq? Prof. Louis proposed to examine it alongside historical records, which paint a picture of diplomat-merchants and a good number of self-serving officials who acted within a system of severe political factionalism, widespread corruption, and feeble imperial control. Today, after its commercial salvage and subsequent sale, the cargo continues to engender notions of profiteering and political expediency.  Please visit for more readings and videos.

François Louis is an Associate Professor of Chinese Art and Material Culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. From 2002 to 2008 he has been the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Artibus Asiae. Dr. Louis has published widely on ancient and medieval Chinese design history, metalwork, and workshop practices. He is currently working on a book with the working title, “Dynastic Possessions: the Material Culture of the Early Kitan Elite”, which evaluates the arts and recent archaeological finds from the tenth century in northern China. He also is co-editing the conference volumes Perspectives on the Liao and Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, 1500-1800.

Sponsored by the Woods Lectureship, The Margerie Cutler Endowments and The Kenneth List Endowment

Poster for François Louis Lecture