Chinese ceramics in SE Asia: Methodological considerations (Translation)

by Bernard Philippe Groslier & Aedeen Cremin

Publication: Self-publication

Language : English

March 2016 - 11 pages

Note: We are often to lament the lack of translations of reference studies initially written and published in French. The Gallic language is no longer an international lingua franca used by researchers, yet French institutions tend to deny that fact and to neglect comprehensive translation programs. Thus, we have to commend individual initiatives like this one, from a well-known researcher in Southeast Asian history.

In her Translator's note, the author remarks that Bernard-Philippe Groslier [the last Conservator of Angkor] wrote this paper [La céramique chinoise en Asie du Sud-est: quelques points de méthode, Archipel 21 (1981) : 93–121] 'while he was in France, unable to return to Democratic Kampuchea. He died in France, in 1986, aged 60. Although parts of the paper are now out of date, as China was at that time difficult of access and fewer shipwrecks were available for study, the main points are still useful. The author particularly cautions against using Chinese ceramics as a precise dating tool, given the various factors of trade, usage, imitation and diffusion that he discusses. The text is long and discursive, with occasional digressions. Accordingly I have abbreviated, by numbering paragraphs and synopsising their content.'

Amongst the many methodological clarifications brought by the original paper and its translation, we shall retain:

  • 'Another problem with using strictly Chinese dates is that from the 10th and 11th centuries, wares were being made especially for export to Southeast Asia, e.g. the containers found all along South Seas coasts; these are not found within China itself. For China we really know only about imperial production, or grave-goods. And we know too little about kilns, except that they were in the southeast.'
  • 'A famous inscribed and dated ‘Chinese’ vase [in Istanbul] could very well be Vietnamese. We know from European documents that Dutch and other ships loaded up in the Gulf of Tonkin and Hainan with Annamese ceramics, but also with smuggled South Chinese wares. Some-brown-surface wares, long identified as ‘Khmer’ are more likely Vietnamese or even South Chinese.'


ADB Input: Since the publication of Groslier's essay and even this translation, new finds in the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom area have shown sizeable local pottery production, for instance with the kiln site near Nokor Krao village, north of Angkor Thom.

In 2020, several pottery pieces from the 12th century have been recovered, such as this ewer, glazed stoneware:

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(Photo Khmer Times)

Main Photo: Chinese ceramics from Fujian recently unearthed the Philippines give us new indications on the Maritime Silk Road in early times (source: China Daily, 23 Oct. 2017)

About the Authors

Bernard Philippe Groslier

Son of Cambodia National Museum's founder George Groslier, Bernard Philippe Groslier (10 May 1926, Phnom Penh - 29 May 1986, Paris) was the last French Curator of Angkor Monuments from 1960 until 1975. Archeologist and explorer, he has led the excavations and mapping process at Angkor Thom.

His book Angkor, Hommes et Pierres (Paris, 1968) remains a major reference for Angkor researchers. He also contributed several monographies on Khmer inscriptions, sculptures and architectural vestiges. Bernard Philippe Groslier was also a pioneer in developing the approach of Angkor as "hydraulic city", studying the irrigation and water management.

A childhood friend of H.M. King Norodom Sihanouk, Groslier developed the archaelogical work in the temples surrounding Angkor, obtaining funds from General de Gaulle, whom he guided through the Angkorean ruins during the French leader's historic visit to Cambodia in 1967. He protected as much as possible the archaelogical sites, and the families of Cambodian workers at Angkor, during the 1970-1974 civil war. At that time, some 3,000 refugees lived in Angkor and other temples, while 200 took refuge at the Conservation d'Angkor. Groslier himself suffered a severe knife wound.

He strongly believed that the future of Angkor preservation and research was to become a mission of the Cambodian people. In a lecture given at Sorbonne University in 1984, he expressed what he had thought for a long time: "Il est clair que nous avons d'une certaine manière, non pas délibérement mais concrètement, dépouillé les Khmers de leur passé. Ils n'en étaient plus les maitres (...) J´ai quand même passé vingt ans de ma vie à Angkor et (...) mes sentiments ont toujours été très ambigus (...) Il est clair que pendant 75 ans un pouvoir étranger, un pouvoir intellectuel étranger, des étrangers, ont trôné à Angkor, moi ayant été le dernier. Il est évident que cela a provoqué une sorte de dichotomie dans la pensée des Khmers vis-à-vis de leur passé." [It is obvious that we have somehow -- not deliberately but factually -- stripped the Khmer people of their past. They were not the masters of this past anymore...After all, I spent 20 years of my life in Angkor and...my feelings have always been quite ambiguous...Clearly, for some 75 years, a foreign power, a foreign intellectual power, some foreigners, reigned at Angkor, and I was the last one of them. Obviously, this has triggered some sort of chiasm in the way Khmer people consider their past.]

See Bernard Philippe Groslier's obituary in The Washington Post here.

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B.P. Groslier as a young Cupid photographed in Phnom Penh (EFE0)

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With H.M. King Norodom Sihanouk (and H.R.H. Sisowath Pongsanmony?) at Angkor in 1967 (EFEO)

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At Henri Marchal's funerals in Siem Reap, 1974 (EFEO)

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At Angkor during the civil war, when he was allowed to go around the site only by bicycle (EFEO)

Aedeen Cremin

Born in Ireland, active in Celtic studies, Aedeen Cremin moved to Australia in the 1970s where she lectured in architecture at University of Sydney and Canberra.

With degrees from Universities of Ireland, Strasbourg and Sydney, she specialized in landscape archaeology, especially in North Portugal (The Vinhais Survey) and in Australia's industrial heritage (mining and metallurgy). Since retiring to Canberra she has taught archaeology at the ANU and world history at the University of Canberra.

She is currently an associate researcher with the Greater Angkor Project in Cambodia.