Ceramic jars: From practical storage to treasured heirlooms

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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Camelia Yeung

The word ‘heritage’ has been making the news these past few months: the implementation of the Sarawak Heritage Ordinance 2019 on March 1st, 2022, and the discovery of artefacts at the Brooke Dockyard in November last year and at Kuching’s Central police station in March.

But when we talk about heritage, what exactly are we referring to?

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, “heritage is property that is or may be inherited; an inheritance, valued things such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations, and relating to things of historic or cultural value that are worthy of preservation”.

Have you been to the new Borneo Cultures Museum (BCM)? On the fifth floor, you will find a gallery called ‘Objects of Desire’, filled with objects that are of historic or cultural value that have been preserved for visitors to view, learn from and appreciate.

It tells the story of trade between China, Japan, India and the Middle East. According to Lucas Chin in his book Ceramics in the Sarawak Museum, direct trade with China began at around 10th century CE which brought Chinese ceramics to Borneo, traded for hornbill casques, bird’s nests, turtle eggs, cowrie shells, and kingfisher feathers among other precious objects, wood and spices.

According to Chin, “the people of Sarawak have always regarded jars as precious and valuable heirlooms (pesaka)”.

Why did storage jars become heirlooms, heritage worth passing down the generations? For one, storage jars had very practical uses. As the name indicates, they were used for storing things. Large storage jars were used to keep drinking water cool and fresh. They were also used to keep food like sago and rice—very important for agricultural communities—safe from insects and rodents.

One of the most important functions was their use in brewing the fermented rice wine called tuak. Tuak which was drunk for its cleansing properties, is an essential part of many local festivals as well ceremonies including weddings and at harvests.

It is perhaps not surprising that the first object you see right in front of you as you enter the gallery is a striking Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) Tz’u-chu wine jar (Fig 1). This jar with its beautiful decoration of two fèng huáng (an immortal bird in Chinese mythology) was according to Chin once kept as an heirloom by a Melanau family in Mukah.

Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) Tz’u-chu Wine Jar, Borneo Cultures Museum. Photo credit: Camelia Yeung

There are other storage jars on display. Wander further into the gallery and you stand in front of a wall of displays housing no less than ten large storage jars of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese origin. The largest in the group is the 17th century Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) jar with the coffee-black over off-white wavy decorated glaze (Fig 2) treasured by an Iban family in Betong, Sri Aman Division; the large blue and white jar with lid (Fig 3) dating also from the late 17th century (late Ming Dynasty) decorated with floral and scenic motifs which the museum acquired from a Lun Bawang family in Lawas, Limbang Division, and the 18th-19th century Japanese Satsuma jar (Fig 4) with its wide flaring mouth and decorated with raised figures and floral motifs in red and light yellow enamels.

From left: 17th century Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) jar with the coffee-black over off-white wavy decorated glaze; late 17th century (late Ming Dynasty) large blue and white jar with lid; and 18th-19th century Japanese Satsuma jar. Photo credit: Camelia Yeung

Jars were used as dowry in marriages, as fines for adultery and as settlement in divorces. They were also used as containers for burials. Per Chin, the Kelabit traditionally used jars for the secondary burial of their aristocrats.

Over time, jars became symbols of wealth and social status, with each jar attaining value for their shape and colour, inspiring customs and beliefs, myths and legends.

Some jars are believed to have special powers: to foretell the future, to summon spirits, heal the sick. As such, these special jars were highly valued and carefully taken care of, for fear that if anything were to happen to these jars, something terrible would befall the owner.

There is a Lun Bawang belief that if you mocked animals, it would cause the wrath of spirits who would seek revenge by turning the longhouses of the guilty parties into stone during hail storms. The only way to avoid being turned into stone would be to place large Chinese jars (rubih) at longhouse doors. Rubih are regarded as being impervious to these spells. During hail storms, occupants would break through the rubih to escape while their longhouse was being turned into stone.

Did you hear the story about the jar that was originally a snake? An old man paddling his boat during a rainstorm saw a python swimming across the mouth of a river. He shot and killed the snake. That night, the snake appeared to him in a dream telling him that it had turned into a jar. The next morning, the old man went out to find the jar and bring the jar home. From then on, the jar had a special function within the old man’s family whenever a new child was born.

The next time you see your mother wear a necklace given to her by her mother, or sit on a chair inherited from your grandparents, find out more about these pieces. Who was the original owner? What’s the story behind the object? How was it used within the family? These heirlooms are your families’ heritage, providing insight into the lives of your ancestors, giving you a richer understanding of your family’s history. Should you not take good care of them and preserve them for future generations to enjoy?

Camelia Yeung, a member of FOSM, is an Arts Administrator and Art Marketer from Hong Kong, with over a decade of experience curating and producing outreach programmes for both visual and performing arts introducing the arts to a wider audience. Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of arts and culture, she is the author of a series of children’s books on Chinese festivals. She currently resides in Kuching.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily