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How was porcelain first created in China? Click here: When Thousands of Hands Held a Secret for a Thousand Years – Porcelain, Part 1
In 1271, seventeen-year-old Marco Polo began a five-thousand-mile journey from his home in Venice to the court of the powerful Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in China.
He returned to home twenty-four years later with tales and treasures – rubies, sapphires, garnets, diamonds, emeralds, silks, spices, musk oil – and a small vase covered with a blueish-white (qingbai) glaze. Nothing like it existed in the West, where porous earthenware had been the only type of ceramic made since the fall of the Roman empire.
Several years later, Marco Polo collaborated with a fellow prisoner in jail (that’s a whole other story) to write a manuscript about his travels. The book contained descriptions of innovations that were unknown in Europe at that time, such as a type of ceramic that had the luster and color of cowrie shells, or porcellana in Italian. Polo’s co-author had written the word porcelain instead of porcellana: “Of this place [the city of Tinju], they make bowls of porcelain, large and small, of incomparable beauty. They are made nowhere else except in this city, and from here they are exported all over the world. Nothing lovelier could be imagined.”
Over the centuries, international trade expanded. In 1557, the Imperial court in Beijing granted a trading license to the Portuguese, who were soon followed by the Spanish, Dutch, French, English, and later, the Americans. Merchant ships arrived in Canton at the end of the monsoon season and stayed for several months to conduct business. When the winds shifted direction, they sailed back to India and eventually to ports in Europe.
A typical merchant ship stowed one-hundred-and-fifty chests filled with thousands of pieces of porcelain in layers as ballast to protect the valuable chests of tea and spices from water damage. From the beginning of the 1600s to the end of the 1700s, the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or Dutch East India Company) imported forty-three million pieces of porcelain; the English, French, Swedish and Danish East India Companies shipped at least another thirty million.
‘Blue-and-white’ from Jingdezhen became the first porcelain from China to reach Europe in any significant quantity.
The finest examples of Chinese export ‘blue and white’ porcelain (left) were made during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722).
European buyers sometimes enhanced their purchase by having silver or gold decoration added (right) to emphasize its treasured status.
The desire for Chinese export porcelain became insatiable. European traders arrived in Canton with orders that specified the exact quantities and specific information about the size and decoration of vases, ewers, figurines, animals, salt cellars, butter dishes, mustard pots, beer mugs, pitchers, bottles, covered pots, candelabra, fruit platters, fish plates, cream pots, saucers, coffee, tea and chocolate services, sugar bowls, spittoons, chamber pots, shaving dishes, candle holders, soup tureens and other serving pieces that were unknown in China at the time.
Huge returns were made just on teacups. Chinese tea bowls did not have handles, and so neither did the first tea cups in Europe. Without handles, teacups could be tightly packed; one ship could easily carry over 100,000.
To fill these enormous orders, some factories in Jingdezhen specialized in mass producing items for the West. Factories (hongs) sent items to Canton that were unglazed and undecorated to be painted with western elements and fired again in kilns.
Canton with the Foreign Factories, ca. 1800; unknown Chinese artist; Peabody Essex Museum.
Non-Chinese traders were confined to several acres of land along the banks of the river, as indicated by flags in the foreground. Thousands of boats anchored in port during the trading season.
By 1750, the VOC employed around 25,000 people and was doing business in ten countries in Asia. To fill custom orders (Chine de commande), European merchants brought wooden models, paintings, earthenware, silverware, and written descriptions of popular wares with them to China. Prototypes were sent back to Europe to ensure that the order was made according to sample. The final product was delivered with the next trading season.
The decoration on the beaker at left (from which its owner probably drank beer) is Chinese, but its shape was ordered to resemble those made of glass in Europe. (Left: Beaker, c. 1710; made in China for export; Hard-paste porcelain with underglaze blue and enamel decoration. Right: Still Life with a Roemer, a Covered Flagon, and a Beaker, 1600s; Willem Claesz. Heda, Dutch; Made in Haarlem, Netherlands)
Families ordered dinner services with designs that incorporated their coat-of-arms.
Plate, c. 1740; made in China for export to the Swedish market; Hard-paste porcelain with enamel and gilt decoration. This plate is part of a dinner service for Anders Bachmansson (1697-1772), a trade councilor and factory owner. Decorative elements in the border – rods, anvils, waterwheels, and furnaces – make reference to his profession. The shell and bees are taken from his coat of arms, and the bear is from his crest.
In the mid-1700s, it became chic to order porcelains that were decorated with scenes from prints, engravings, and book illustrations (encre de chine or en grisaille porcelain). The most popular scenes had romantic, mythological, or religious themes.
Dish, c. 1740; made in China for the export market; Hard-paste porcelain with enamel and gilt decoration. Juno, a mythological Roman goddess, sits beside her symbol, the peacock.
Wares with images that came from illustrated bibles carried to China by visiting Jesuit missionaries are known as Jesuit china.
Europeans wanted the painted figures to look European. Most painters in China had never met anyone from Europe.
Sometimes the results were lovely.
Charger, c. 1730; made in China for the export market; Hard-paste porcelain.
Sometimes you wish you could’ve been there to watch the customer unpack their order.
Saucer, c. 1750; made in China for the export market; Hard-paste porcelain with enamel and gilt decoration
Most Europeans had never met anyone from China. What did they look like? What did they do? Porcelain offered answers.
Tea Cannister, 1750 – 1760; made in China for export; Hard-paste porcelain with enamel and gilt decoration
Chinese export porcelain became one of the most expensive luxury commodities in the world. During the golden age of Chinese porcelain, the sixty-year reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722), three-thousand workshops produced wares for the imperial court and for China’s domestic and export markets. Artists, which included a number of Jesuit missionaries, experimented with brighter glazes and enamel paints in new shades to form three-dimensional effects in multiple layers on opulent surfaces.
Black (famille noire), nicknamed “millionaire’s porcelain”, was the rarest and most desired Kangxi-era porcelain. To create the dark color, an unglazed object was fired (heated in a kiln). Once cooled, it was covered with a dry black coating of cobalt enamel and then a translucent copper-green lead-based enamel was applied on top of that. The object was fired again to fuse the enamels. The result is a mottled deep black color with hint of green.
Yen Yen Vase, 1800s; made in China; Porcelain, Famille Noire
One of the first plants to bloom in the early spring, plum blossoms have been a subject in Chinese art for almost one-thousand years.
Illuminated by a full moon, a gnarled, aged, flowering plum tree twists and wraps around the contours of the vase. Pairs of small, yellow birds flit around delicate white plum blossoms with yellow centers, irises, and bamboo.
The motif of new blossoms emerging from an ancient tree suggests the Chinese idea of yin yang, the interconnectedness of opposites in the natural world.
Yen yen indicates the shape the vase.
Among the most difficult techniques to deduce was Rice Grain, a decorating process that originated in Turkey in the 1300s. No rice is involved, although the Chinese enjoyed hearing stories about European potters who tried to duplicate the effect by adding grains of rice to the clay. (The rice would have absorbed moisture from the clay and grown in size.)
Tiny, perfectly uniform holes are delicately hand-cut through the walls of rough and unfired porcelain. Next, it’s painted or dipped with up to thirty applications of translucent glaze until all the holes are filled. Once solidified, the walls are made thinner with a fine instrument until they are unimaginably sheer. If held up to the light, the illuminated tightly-spaced pattern, which often radiates around the bowl like flower petals, can be seen through walls of the bowl on the other side.
Bowl, 1796 – 1830; made in China; Porcelain with rice grain pattern and underglaze decoration, blue-and-white
Working with and firing clay where the holes are left unfilled is even more difficult; it’s called linglung, the devil’s work.
This delicate lantern, pierced with lattice-patterned designs to emit candlelight, would have been placed on a tall wooden stand. Its borders and central medallions are decorated with plum blossoms, bamboo, lotuses, roses, and other auspicious plants and flowers that convey wishes of peace, unity, and longevity.
Hexagonal Lantern, 1730 – 1750; made in China; Porcelain with overglaze enamel (fencai) decoration
Due to the unique components of the clay found in Dehua, China, its porcelain factories produced wares that were legendary for their white or pale ivory color that were a perfect medium for devotional objects. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), porcelain factories in Dehua made innumerable statues of Mao Zedong.
Seated Twins of Union and Harmony, Hanshan and Shide, 1600s; made in Dehua, China; Porcelain with Ivory Glaze. This laughing pair are the immortal, celestial beings, the He He Twins; in Chinese, he is a homonym (words that sound alike but have different meanings) for union. One twin is barefoot and the other holds a covered basket from which a bat emerges. The word for blessing is fu and the word for bat is pronounced fu; thus, the bat symbolizes the good fortune is coming.
There are many legendary associations connected to the twins, including tales of two Chan Buddhist monks from the 700s, Hanshan and Shide. Hanshan (whose name means Cold Mountain, a place in Tiantia Mountain) and Shine (whose name means foundling) were best friends and poets who left their Buddhist- and Daoist-themed poetry on stones, trees, farmhouses, and monastery walls, beckoning readers to come to Cold Mountain. After Hanshan died, so the story goes, someone copied his poems from the rocks and temple walls and assembled them into an anthology. Their poems were popularized in the 1950s in America by Beat poet Gary Snyder and author Jack Kerouac.
There was so much money to be made if only the Europeans could figure out the formula for porcelain and how to make it locally (the formula was known in Korea and Japan by the early 1600s). Factories throughout Europe and in America tried to replicate Chinese hard-paste porcelain. Their failed attempts led to the creation of soft-paste (artificial) porcelain. The recipe for soft-paste porcelain varied from country to country and factory to factory; potters and chemists experimented by adding glass, soapstone, seashells, lobster shells, gypsum, mother-of-pearl, gems, horns, eggshell, and talc.
The Bow Porcelain Factory (active c. 1747–64, closed in 1776) incorporated bone ash (the white, porous residue from crushed, baked cattle bones) to strengthen the clay they hoped would replicate porcelain. It became the precursor of bone china.
Pair of Sphinxes, c. 1750; Bow Porcelain Factory, London, England; Soft-paste porcelain. These sphinxes, for the mantel-top or table, are fashionably attired in mid-1700s English dress and jewelry.
Marco Polo’s guess about how porcelain was made – the Chinese “collect a certain kind of earth that is dug from a mine and stacked in huge mounds and then left for thirty or forty years exposed to wind, sun, and rain. By this time, the earth is so refined that dishes made from it are of an azure tint with a very brilliant sheen. You must understand that when a man makes a mound of this earth, he does it for children and grandchildren; the time of maturing is so long that he cannot hope to draw any profit from it or out it to use for himself.”
An account from 1550 was sure that “porcelain is made of a certain juice which coalesces underground and is brought from the East.”
Another was certain that “eggshells and the shells of umbilical fish are pounded into dust which is then mingled with water and shaped into vases. These are then hidden underground. A hundred years later they are dug up, being considered finished, are put up for sale.”
A 1617 publication reported that “a large mass of material composed of plaster, eggshells, oyster shells, sea-locusts and similar creatures is well mixed until it is of one consistency. It is then buried by the head of the family, who reveals the hiding place to one of his sons. It must remain in the ground for eighty years without seeing the light of day. After this time has elapsed, the heirs take it from the ground and use it to make the beautiful translucent vases of such perfect form and color that no critic could find fault with them.”
How did a Jesuit priest-turned spy and a kidnapped alchemist discover the secret? And what is a Chicken Cup? Find out by clicking here: Follow the Money – Porcelain, Part 3.
My true home is Cold Mountain
perched among cliffs beyond the reach of trouble …
The Tiantia Mountains are my home
mist-shrouded cloud paths keep guests away
thousand-meter cliffs make hiding easy
above a rocky ledge among ten thousand streams
with bark hat and wooden clogs I walk along the banks
with hemp robe and pigweed staff I walk around the peaks
once you see through transience and illusion
the joys of roaming free are wonderful indeed. – Hanshan
With the exception of Marco Polo’s vase, all of the porcelain and the two paintings in this post are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
Top Image; Winepot, detail of spout, 1700s; China; Glazed porcelain with relief decoration (Dehua ware)
– Meighan Maley
Philadelphia Museum of Art website: http://www.philamuseum.org
Finlay Robert. The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History Journal of World History; Vol. 9, No. 2 (Fall, 1998), pp. 141-187
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Winter 2003; Chinese Export Porcelain
Edmund de Waal. The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. Knoft Canada, 2015.