Deke Erh's maritime discoveries of ancient Chinese ships on show

An exhibition titled “The Documenta and Historical Survey on the Ancient Ships of Shanghai” showcases the photographer’s obsession with ancient China’s maritime history.  
Ti Gong

Shanghai photographer Deke Erh has sailed to different harbors to discover ancient ships.

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Deke Erh (second from right) is pictured with fishermen.

Photographer Deke Erh loves exploring the sea.

His adventures are being exhibited in the form of a collection of more than 1,000 pieces of historical documentation of ancient boats that he has collected from different countries, as part of the “Silk Road Visual Documenta.”

The exhibition, titled “The Documenta and Historical Survey on the Ancient Ships of Shanghai,” also features blueprints of several hundred ancient boats, historical pictures and boat models. 

Visitors to Erh’s show are able to learn the history of Chinese boats.

“The historical materials, pictures and objects were collected from various harbors around the world over the past five years,” Erh says. “When I was a little boy, I always wanted to go to the Bund and watch the boats and ships on the Huangpu River.

“It is a pity that I did not follow up with my obsession.” 

In fact, Erh’s name is associated with old Shanghai, Art Deco and the vanishing buildings and artifacts of the past. He is also known for capturing breathtaking views of skyscrapers and elevated highways mushrooming across the city. The pictures were taken from a helicopter.

Erh has published more than 50 photo books, including “A Last Look ─ Western Architecture in Old Shanghai” (1990), “Frenchtown Shanghai” (2000), “Old Villas in Shanghai” (2005), “Art Deco in Shanghai” (2006) and “Shanghai, a Bird’s Eye View” (2010).

He has earned fame for documenting the city’s history and tumultuous changes through his pictures of architecture, streets and people.

However, recording the development of a city apparently can’t satisfy Erh’s boundless curiosity.

“I've devoted myself to studying old buildings and furniture,” he says. “But I had a missing link in recording, studying and promoting ancient Chinese ships.”

Deke Erh
Deke Erh

So he embarked on a journey to dig out mysterious clues of ancient Chinese ships.

“As early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), there were various boats out in the sea. There are 100 ship images painted on the mural in the 50 caves in Dunhuang,” he points out. “We are now living in a changing era, so many things are gradually fading. Some of them are only in the memories of the elderly. I just want to compete with time.”

Erh sailed on his personal boat. When he arrived at different harbors, he visited universities, academic institutions and even government organizations. With their help, he got his hands on many documents, visual images and blueprints that conjured up a glorious era of Chinese ships.

For example, Erh found a book titled “Science and Civilization in China” written by Joseph Needham (1900-95). In the book, Needham devoted one entire chapter to Chinese ships. Erh also discovered precious blueprints and documents by G.R.G. Worcester (1890-1969), an Englishman who worked with China Customs.

The highlight of this ongoing exhibition are the ship models, including the Treasure Ship that was used by Zheng He. Early in the 15th century, a huge fleet of ships set sail from Nanjing, It was the first of a series of voyages that would, for a brief period, establish China as the leading power of the age. The voyage was led by Zheng, the most important Chinese adventurer and one of the greatest sailors of the world. 

Another eye-catching model is the Dragon Baoshan Ship, which has become an icon for the festival customs in Baoshan District in northern Shanghai.

Exhibition details

Date: Through November 8, 10am-5pm

Venue: Deke Erh Art Center, Bldg 27, 345 Shilong Rd

Admission: Free


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Historical documentation of ancient boats

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