The magical jars of Mindanao and Northern Luzon

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Our love affair with Chinese porcelain is ancient. We love both the priceless antiques such as those collected by the Locsin family, and the pretty fakes the rest of us buy from Ermita and Quiapo. We have sought out Chinese ceramics since, well, forever. In fact, records show that our passion dates from at least the 10th century, when an Asian economic boom brought great prosperity to parts of the Philippines. During this time, the archipelago was linked to an international trading system that involved Borneo, Java, the Maluku islands, Champa (the area that today spans central and southern Vietnam), and China. We supplied gold ore, forest and marine products such as honey, gum and resin from trees, and tripang or sea slug from the sea, in exchange for Chinese ceramics and silk. Evidently, a culture of conspicuous consumption prevailed even in our ancient societies.

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Potteries that were manufactured for trade in ancient Southeast Asia have long intrigued ceramic specialists. Archaeologists working in northeast Mindanao have recovered a diverse and plentiful range of high-fired ceramics that included Thai, Vietnamese and even Middle Eastern objects dating back as far as the 9th century. But the majority of the finds have been predominantly Chinese ceramics, most abundantly Guangdong and Fujian Song ware, with the oldest being Yue and Yue-type wares dating from the Five Dynasties period (907-960). Excavated mainly in and around the remains of a group of wooden boats known as balangay found in Butuan, Mindanao, the finds strongly indicate the participation of northeast Mindanao within a Philippine-Borneo-Celebes trading network and, more broadly, in Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern circuits.

Imported ceramics in this period did not just have commercial value. They were profoundly important to local ideas of status and prestige systems. In Mindanao,where the Agusan river branches into the Masago creek, archaeologists have uncovered what appears to be a burial of a warrior. The man had died violently, perhaps in battle, and had been buried with great ceremony. Gold foil cut-outs had been placed over his mouth and eyes, beneath which lay an iron arrow head embedded in one of his eye sockets and another just below his jaw, in the neck. To honor the fallen warrior, a necklace of gold beads wreathed the skull and a small jar from Guangdong had been placed beside it. By the femur lay a heap of ceramics, Northern Song ware, including a plate. The presence of porcelain items in graves means that they were more than just valuable trading commodities. They had become part of the cultural fabric of Mindanaon society and culture.

Chinese jars were central to trade-exchange relationships conducted by Mindanao’s mountain, forest and coastal communities. They also had a place in local belief systems as recalled in the oral literatures of the Maranaws and Manobos. Pre-Islamic Maranaw epic, Darangan, describes the hero as a fearsome warrior with tightly coiled hair, gold teeth, betel-stained red lips and garments and his bamboo armour endowed with magical powers. In these Maranaw stories, Chinese porcelain jars were referred to as bandi and filled with rice wine from which heroes drank through straw reeds.These men were expected to drink copious amounts, with the number of jars they emptied being a measure of their heroic prowess.

Magical jars could turn into animals and vice-versa. Epic of the Manobo, Ulanghingan,emphasised the value of trade and exchange. Powerful spirits were thought to protect plants and animals of particular economic value.The spirits had to be propitiated with offerings before the plants could be gathered or the animals hunted.

Sixteenth century Spanish accounts describe tensions between coastal and interior communities that may have had something to do with trading rivalries. There were tales of tribes who devoured human hearts and Recollect friars reported on forest monsters with backward turning feet and whose extreme ugliness could turn a man cross-eyed.

Both lowland and upland communities were most interested in the acquisition of Chinese porcelain jars. Along with rice fields, livestock, copper gongs, precious beads, and gold ornaments, Chi nese jars were a key component of ceremonial wealth and prestige. In 19th century northern Luzon, it was reported that mountain groups of the Cagayan and northern Ilocos areas had grown wealthy by trading in wax, cacao and tobacco. They decorated their homes with vases and jars from China and used them to serve liquor at important ceremonies and rituals. Food offerings to spirits were presented on porcelain plates and bowls that were also pressed into service in shamanistic rituals.

The Isneg of northwest Cagayan obtained Chinese jars and ceramics from coastal traders, treating ceramic ware as precious heirlooms and burying them alongside their important dead. The early 20th century North American ethnographer, Fay Cooper-Cole, observed how porcelain jars, probably Ming dated, passed down from generation to generation amongst the Tinguians, were offered as bride dowry payment, made by the groom and his family to his bride’s family. The value and social status attached to Chinese porcelain jars were such that they were even accepted in lieu of a head in head-hunting raids.

Tinguian folk tales are replete with stories of the magical abilities, adventures, and supernatural ancestry of porcelain jars. In these tales, Chinese jars could speak. They could mate. They could have children. A very special few, which belonged to spirits, roamed wildly about in forests and caused mischief. People attempted to capture these jars, which were highly prized. The folk hero Aponitolau was said to have pacified a group of naughty jars that insolently stuck out their tongues and rode on the backs of carabao.They would behave only once they had been fed betel-nut and salt.

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