The Maze Collection of Chinese Junks: Maritime China 3

August 2023

In the stores of the London Science Museum is a highly significant collection of ship models of Chinese junks. They were commissioned by Sir Frederick Maze who worked as the Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service from 1929-1943. Maze was a true Sinohpile and was particularly fascinated by Chinese maritime history. He lived in China at a time of rapid modernisation and could plainly see Chinese maritime traditions disappearing in front of his eyes. As a result he commissioned a series of ship models of Chinese junks and sampans, to be built in Hong Kong and Shanghai by expert Chinese shipwrights. They are an extraordinary collection and demonstrate a stunning variety of Chinese shipbuilding traditions and technology and details of daily life – down to the religious beliefs of the sailors. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Donna Brunero at the National University of Singapore, an expert on the maritime realm and port cities of Asia.

https://play.acast.com/s/the-mariners-mirror-podcast

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everybody and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror podcast. Today we are continuing our mini series on maritime China. Our first episode was on the great 15th century explore a Zeng He court eunuch in the Muslim who travelled the world and mighty treasure fleets leaving an extraordinary legacy which still lingers to this day. And it’s a story that remains unsettled in the eyes of historians. Some believe he did it, and some don’t. And it’s a story that remains unsettled in the eyes of historians to balance that in episode two, I looked for some concrete physical evidence of not concrete, more timber of Chinese trade throughout Southeast Asia, and explored the mediaeval Chinese wrecks, which had been discovered and excavated in those seas and what they tell us about Chinese trade. Today, we’re jumping forward in time and looking at something rather fabulous. In the collections of the London Science Museum is a group of ship models of Chinese junks. These were commissioned by a chap called Sir Frederick Maze, who worked as the Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service from 1929 to 1943. Maze was a true sinophile and was particularly fascinated by maritime history. And he lived at a time of rapid modernization in China when he could see Chinese maritime traditions disappearing in front of his eyes. So he decided to do something about it. And he commissioned a series of ship models of Chinese junks and sampans to be built in Hong Kong, and Shanghai by expert Chinese shipwrights. These were subsequently donated to the London Science Museum in 1938. And what a collection they are, they demonstrate the stunning variety of Chinese shipbuilding traditions and technology and the details of daily life down to religious beliefs of the sailors. To find out more I spoke with Donna Brunero at the National University of Singapore. She is an expert on the maritime realm and port cities of Asia. She has a particular interest in Britons and other Westerners who had careers in the British Empire in Asia, as ever, I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her here is the deeply knowledgeable Donna.

    Sam Willis
    Donna, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning. It’s a pleasure. I should say you’re in Singapore. So it’s actually in the afternoon for you as you’ve already you’ve already corrected me. So tell us a little bit about your work being based in Singapore. Very interesting.

    Donna Brunero
    Okay, well, I’ve been based in Singapore for quite some time now. So close to 18 years. And my work originally was really looking at the British and the Chinese maritime customs service. So very much sort of edges of empire as a way of thinking about it and thinking about British Empire in Asia. Over time, I’ve shifted my focus to be a bit more maritime history. And realising that being based in Singapore, you’re often looking at ports, port cities shipping companies, so my work keeps evolving and developing, but the maritime angle has become a lot stronger.

    Sam Willis
    That’s what we want to hear. That’s tremendous stuff. Now, you mentioned the Chinese maritime customer service, this is going to be a pretty important part of what we’re going to talk about. So why don’t you tell us about that? What was it? Why was it important?

    Donna Brunero
    So the Chinese maritime Customs Service was created in the mid 1800s. So it’s very much a cornerstone of what we could see as the Treaty Port system. So essentially, it was created by foreign powers, the British as one of those main powers at a time at which it was sort of seen that China could not manage its trade and there was upheaval, the Taiping Rebellion, for instance. So it became a modern Customs Administration to handle China’s foreign trade. In essence, the customs service, it operates from the 1850s right through to the 1940s. In essence, it’s a Chinese institution, but all the top echelons of foreigners. It’s actually quite cosmopolitan. And it’s headed by Britons essentially. So it’s it’s a really large institution that goes on to not only cover customs, but the lighthouse service, conservancy, anti smuggling. So it really covers a whole host of different tasks and roles. And this is something where we think about this institution as being one of the institutions that really modernised China.

    Sam Willis
    Hmm, that’s interesting. Let’s just go back a little bit and talk about the treaty port system because you’ve mentioned that and that’s fundamental to understanding the maritime history of China in this period. Tell us about the treaty port system.

    Donna Brunero
    Okay, if we want to think about the treaty port system, one way we could think about it is very much that it is an unequal series of treaties. And this comes out of the era of gunboat diplomacy. And Opium is one way we can think about this, the Opium Wars. And basically, China is forced to agree to have foreigners both residing and able to operate business at a number of ports on the China coast, and these become the treaty ports. So there’s about five ports that are initially opened. But over time, this expands to become a whole network of ports. So along the coast of Shanghai being one of the main ports over time, you have riverine ports as well. So it becomes a massive network, which is basically forcibly open to foreign trade and residents.

    Sam Willis
    And did the Europeans have much impact on the development of those cities? I mean, ask this it is an obvious question. But then I was recently in Shanghai, and one of the things that I loved were the French plane trees, and they’ve been planted all the way through the French concession. And so you have a very green, surprisingly green city for a modern Chinese city. And tell us a little about how these ports developed with European influence.

    Donna Brunero
    Okay, I think one of the ways that we think about these ports is quite often that they do become these meeting places of East and West, and quite often they’re really romanticised as you know, bringing out you know, sort of the, the best and worst of these two elements. Architecturally, you see quite a dramatic imprint, actually. So the waterfront, the Bund, if we think about it becomes the most prestigious place for a business or something, you know, like a bank, like Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, to have their main premises. So the waterfront becomes really significant. And this is where you see the Western architecture. You’ll also see it through residential enclaves. And you mentioned the French. So the French concessions, particularly in Shanghai were like the place that are all the foreigners would want to live. The British, there was an International Settlement, essentially, the British Americans and others actually sort of combined their settlement area. And this became known as the International concessions. But again, the architecture was quite Western. And this is where you have the first department stores, you have the clubs, the bars, the cabarets that the treaty port well becomes known for. And we sort of see that if you think about popular culture, there’s a lot of film that captures that whole idea of old Shanghai. This idea of the sort of glamorous, East Meets West type of world which residents would inhabit.

    Sam Willis
    So let’s move on to Sir Frederick Maze, because he’s an important character in this and it’s where we’re going to get to his collection of junks tell us about Sir Frederick Maze.

    So Frederick Maze is, I would say a really interesting character. And I spent a long time trying to understand the way that he operates and his administration of the customs service. So he he’s born in Belfast, his uncle was Sir Robert Hart, who is the famed IG in Peking, who was basically the famed figure of the customs service. So Maze is very much following his uncle into service in China. And so by the 1890s, he’s already working within the customs service. He tends to be accelerated through the service fairly quickly, and then taking on assistant commissioner and then Commissioner rolls. Maze comes to lead the customs service at a really important juncture for the Customs Administration, because this is when the Chinese Nationalists have unified or nominally unified China. So in the late 1920s, and Maze is seen as a very political figure in some ways, because he aligns the customs service in such a way that would allow the customs service to continue to operate. But for many British observers, they felt that he was sort of selling out the British interests within this administration, that he was being too pro-Chinese or too pro-nationalist with his approach. So he wasn’t an incredibly popular figure. When he came into his role as Inspector General. There was some discussion you find it in the customs documents that he’d actually been shunned within social circles or turned down for invites and you know, that he was someone that people saw as just far too political and thinking about his own interests rather than what we’re perceived as British interests within the service itself. So that’s that’s a bit about Maze. He’s he’s a bit of a difficult personality or the way that he comes across in a lot of his documents,

    Sam Willis
    yeah, he’s certainly someone who is interested in maritime history. Now, that’s not necessarily the assumption, you do get lots of people working in the maritime world, whether it’s in the Navy or the merchant navy, or the customs like this. You suspect they might have been interested in maritime history but often aren’t. But he definitely was. And that’s why we’re interested in him today. And he’s particularly interested in traditional Chinese, seafaring, how does he go about exploring that interest?

    Donna Brunero
    Yes, you’re right, he does have a real interest in maritime history and maritime studies. And you’re right, he has this interest in Chinese shipping what he sees as traditional shipping. And it’s at the point that he becomes inspector general that he then launches what is a fairly large project to document traditional Chinese junks. And part of his reason for doing this was his belief that this type of shipping, so whether it was riverine craft, or whether it was ocean, going or coastal vessels, he believed that they were being that these vessels were being phased out by the steamship. And his, when you read his correspondence about this, his feeling is that the Chinese authorities aren’t interested, and that he had this mission. And there’s almost a romance attached to it, this whole idea of saving Chinese shipping and documenting it. And so what he does is he sends out directives to a number of his staff, and he basically commission’s them to undertake what would be a privately funded project. So he funds these projects, to research particular ships, and to try and ascertain if models could be built. And he is really quite obsessive about the models must be accurate, piece by piece, plank by plank, and he wants them to scale and with blueprints prepared, and so a lot of his subordinates are running around different ports, speaking to shipbuilders and seeing can it be made? But can it be accurate, because otherwise Maze simply doesn’t want to support these projects? So his idea is to build a collection of models that would help preserve and document traditional ships.

    Sam Willis
    It’s fascinating, Isn’t he supposed to be doing his actual job? And all of these other people? I mean, where are they doing it in their spare time? Do we think

    They’re pretty much doing it in their spare time? You’re right, they are pretty much doing it in their spare time. So you see, this is how I sort of came into this topic. I was really looking at Maze and his role as a leader. And I found when I was reading his documents, there was a lot of discussion about these ships models. And he had staff who were on leave. So they’re meant to be in China, they’re on home leave. So they’re back in London, and he has them going to check how his models you know, do have they arrived at the Science Museum, because this is where he was gifting these models. What is the state of the cabinet? Are you satisfied with the the way it’s being displayed and getting them to report back in their spare time. So this sort of comes up and it also comes up in some of his correspondence where his subordinates are saying, but you’ll be very pleased with the progress of this model. And then they make a comment about where they’ve been posted to. And he basically just ignores that. So there is no chance of any leverage, you’re doing this. And it’s acknowledged that it is over and above your normal duties. But certainly it wasn’t anything that you could then leverage for a better posting, for instance,

    Sam Willis
    We should talk about the models themselves. I should say that I’ve I’ve seen some of them sort of. They are in the collections area of the Science Museum, which is in a disused airfield outside Swindon. And all of the models that are on display in the Science Museum in London are brought back to this extraordinary extraordinary place an enormous warehouse full of the most wonderful things I saw all of Stephen Hawking’s wheelchairs, I saw the nose cone of Concord and next to it, were these models and they’re in kind of a timber frame case with a sort of milky white plastic covering them. So you can you get a kind of ghostly sense of what’s behind them. But you can’t unless you organise to have them removed from the cases see them in detail. The first thing that struck me is that some of them are absolutely enormous.

    Oh, yes, I think that was something that Maze was actually quite proud of. I mean, because these models that had to literally be shipped, and then the cabinets, the cabinets were made, I think many of the cabinets were actually made in China and then brought and assembled for the ships as well. But he was quite proud of the size because these are also some of the largest models because I think some are about the six foot others are a little bit bigger again, I did actually see the models when they were still on display in the Science Museum. So it tells you how long ago I was working on this. But I was fortunate to be able to walk around and look at them and some of them were actually mounted sort of up almost above your head so visitors were almost walking underneath them. And I agree with you the cabinets, I felt were pretty unremarkable and that if you didn’t have any sense of this collection, you would just walk past it because I felt there was no real sort of exposition. There’s just a mention of say, for instance, some Suzhou fishing junk, and there’s nothing else. And it’s like, so what, what is this custom service? Why is it gifted by Sir Frederick Maze? How does this fit and there’s nothing about the people, there’s nothing about the shipbuilders, really, they felt like they didn’t have a lot of context. But this was Maze’s big project, and it took close to a decade. And it’s the late 1930s That he gifts. And it’s 10 models. So he gifts 10 models to the Science Museum. And then there’s big fanfare there is newspaper article and think its The Illustrated London News has has a two page spread talking about these models as a picturesque and ancient craft something something like this, the phrasing is actually and they talking about, you know, the way that they’re doomed to extinction. And yet they’ve been gifted to Britain to preserve within the museum.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. Tell us do we know anything about the people who made the models?

    Donna Brunero
    We know very little, actually. And this is one thing that really surprised me Maze is far more concerned about the accuracy. So there are some details, the details are more where the the shipyards that made the models not so much the craftsmen. And there’s nothing really about the communities who would have used these types of vessels in their daily lives. For instance. I did I did ask some sort of former customs people about this. And part of the response I got was that well, actually given Fredrik Maze and that he was Inspector General of the customs, he would have seen it as a bit beneath himself to be onboard the ships. So he would have sent his staff and particularly the staff and the outdoor service who were boarding ships and inspecting ships, for instance, he would send them to do this. Generally, the response was that Oh, Frederick maze, just simply wouldn’t have done that type of direct sort of research himself. It was very much about directing, sending invoices, but very little about speaking to craftsmen, or even the communities that actually had an interest in these vessels.

    Sam Willis
    But we know they were built by Chinese workmen in Chinese shipyards, and Hong Kong and Shanghai and in that respect, they are that they are authentic.

    Donna Brunero
    Definitely, they are authentic. And I think this is where Maze’s demanding and exacting attention to detail really comes in because he really is looking for the shipbuilders that were building the actual ships. And he’s saying now can you make a model? And you know, part of his frustration was that there is nothing documented about these shipbuilding practices. And he said, you know, a lot of it is passed almost, you know, from father to son, or it’s passed generationally within a shipyard. It’s not documented, but he was using the same craftsmen, essentially, His concern was making sure it was accurate and the scientific accuracy in terms of how these models are being replicated. So definitely, they’re being constructed in China with some supervision from customs staff who are doing this as a sideline, basically, because they’ve been instructed to by their by their boss.

    Sam Willis
    The colouring of them, I think is fascinating. We should talk a little bit about this, I think because I tell you what, let’s talk about more broadly about the evidence that there other evidence that exists for junks because I’ve seen some wonderful black and white photos which were taken maybe towards the end of the 19th century of junks in, in major Chinese harbours. And you can just make out that they are decorated, but because they’re black and white, you have no sense of the colour. So can you just tell me a talk a little about about the painting of these junks?

    Donna Brunero
    The Maze models are, in particular, really colourful, some of them are really colourful. And when you look at the bow, the decorations are actually quite ornate. This again, was Maze’s insistence on replicating what he’d observed or what his subordinates had observed, but I’m not sure in terms of if there is actually if we can compare it to say black and white photos. I think we can in terms of some of the design. But Maze was very exacting in terms of wanting to replicate as closely as possible, the ships.

    Sam Willis
    I suppose the problem there is that there because they were built using oral tradition and ideas passed down from word of mouth that we don’t have very much idea about how these vessels were built, do we unless we find wrecks is that right?

    Donna Brunero
    I would say that’s a fair way of putting it unless you’re in the shipyard and you’re observing and I think this is partly what Maze was trying to ask his subordinates to do so he did have his staff trying to observe certain aspects of how ships were being made and then looking at how they’re being made in terms of the model, but again, there’s no interviews, what would be great would would be having interviews with the shipbuilders, or having documents, which really tell you the stories of these shipyards, and those documents may exist in an archive somewhere in China, I’m not sure. But certainly within the documents that are held in the UK relating to the Maze collection, there are blueprints, there are some photographs or sketches. There are reports from staff, but there’s the Chinese voices is pretty much absent.

    Sam Willis
    It’s a fascinating collection, because it allows us to do two things. One, of course, is to look at the history of Chinese maritime technology that was that that was the purpose of what why they were created. But in doing so I think Frederick Maze maybe didn’t notice that he was putting himself in a kind of a historical bubble as well, because it also tells us about colonial perspectives on preserving traditional foreign cultures. Tell us a little about that.

    Donna Brunero
    Sam, I think you’re right. But I would say that I think Frederick Maze maybe had a sense of what he was doing. If nothing else, he wanted to create a sense of legacy for himself. And there are disputes that go on with, he tends to write to the museums and this way, I found it quite fascinating. He’s writing to the museum, basically, checking where his models would be displayed, and whether he was satisfied with that or not, and the quality of the cabinets, for instance, and their positioning. So I think he did have a sense of wanting to preserve something, and preserving a legacy. But it’s also at a point at which he believed the Chinese customer service was being somewhat sidelined, or his role was perhaps not being appreciated as much as he felt it should be. So it’s really serves the dual purpose. You’re right. But it speaks to you right, that it speaks to the idea of this knowledge gathering maritime ethnography if we want to see it in that way. All of the discussion of the idea of junks as a vanishing craft is something that emerges over and over again in documents of the time. And I think Maze is very much captivated by this idea that he’s preserving something that the Chinese under or aren’t aware of, or aren’t interested in preserving themselves, which is a very colonial attitude, actually, even though technically, the Customs is not an Imperial, you know, as part is not part of empire, it is very similar. When it comes to Imperial sort of attitudes, and even the hierarchy within the customs service, it takes a long time for any Chinese to make it to senior positions within the customs, for instance. So it’s quite similar to say the British Raj in some of the attitudes, not all, but certainly you see elements of that.

    Sam Willis
    Does it fit into a broader picture of maritime ethnography in the 1930s, were other projects happening in Southeast Asia or elsewhere.

    Donna Brunero
    There were other projects. And some of these projects are actually again sponsored by the customs service. So the Maritime Customs Service is actually producing a lot of knowledge on China but with a maritime tilt. So the customs itself it is it has a statistical department. So it’s publishing a lot of material, a lot of which is not being used within the customs service, but it’s to generate knowledge on China. So there is a there is a figure Wooster, George Wooster, who actually goes on to be a one of the editors of the Mariner’s Mirror for many years. He actually does a lot of work. One, he’s deployed by Maze, but he actually writes on fishing, what he observes in terms of and he actually sails on vessels up and down rivers and actually writes a bit about the lives of people on the water. So he would be one example. The other would be Hormel, James Hornell, who is who is a naturalist biologist, marine biologist, but finds work in Ceylon and elsewhere in Britain in the British Empire and tends to report on shipbuilding, maritime ethnography, and tends to write a lot on ancient shipping and shipbuilding techniques.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, well, it’s a fascinating picture and a fascinating period. I think we should come back and find out a little bit more about it. Tell us about your before we go tell us about your recent work. What are you doing at the moment?

    Donna Brunero
    Well, that’s that is a good question. Well two projects that interests me that have a link to the maritime one would be a project with colleagues at the National University of Singapore where I’m working, which is we’re calling the project friction and order. And it’s looking at the Western obsession with trying to control contain and order China in the 19th century, so instead of returning to some sort of classic works in the field, but for me, I’m looking at the journalists and advisors who felt that they were, you know, giving advice and or direction on how Western powers could manage China as a newly emerging power. So this is one project, we’re all still coming together with this. So it’s early days with this project. I think other other projects, there’s another project that I’m looking at, which is more to do with trade. So again, it links to the customs somewhat. And that is a collaboration with scholars from throughout East Asia and scholars based in the UK as well. And we’re exploring trade and tariffs. And we know that trade wars are very much in the, in the minds of many people in contemporary times. But we’re looking at historical precedents for this and saying, Well, it’s all well and good to impose a tariff or a trade restriction, but what does it look like on the ground? And just how messy and complex does it get for local officials when they’re trying to deal with particular commodities? So we’re bringing together a lot of scholars and trying to unpack some of that complexity.

    Sam Willis
    Brilliant stuff. Well, I wish you the best of luck and I would love to come back and talk to you more. I think you’re doing some really interesting work. Donna thank you very much indeed. Thank you. Thanks Sam.

    Sam Willis
    Many thanks for listening. Now, as always, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you’re listening on an iPhone, it makes all the difference to our mission to help more people learn about maritime history. Please also find us on YouTube what all of the videos subscribe, I’d like all of them. In the light of the recent tragedy of the submarine exploring the Titanic wreck we made an animation looking specifically at the safety equipment on board the Titanic and fantastic it is to this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation in particular, please check out maritime innovation in miniature because google it maritime innovation in miniature. It’s the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s brilliant new project filming the world’s best ship models with the latest camera equipment. And they’ve literally just published some wonderful footage of some ships filmed at the Stockholm Maritime Museum, the Society for Nautical Research, you can find that SNR.org.uk Where you must join up it’s a brilliant way not only to find out about maritime history from the very best in the business, but also to meet new people.

Category: | | | |