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Porcelain was first made in China about 850 CE. The essential ingredient is kaolin, white clay that when fired at an extremely high temperature acquires a glassy surface. Porcelain wares were first exported to Europe during the twelfth century. By 1700 trade in Chinese porcelain was immense, with Ming dynasty wares (characterized by cobalt-blue-painted motifs) highly prized.
Porcelain is a type of ceramic that is white, rock hard, translucent when thin, and resonant when struck. Made from quartz and either kaolin (china clay) or porcelain stone (and later from all three) it is fired at around 1,350°C. The ingredients for porcelain are found in abundance in China but do not exist in West Asia and occur only in isolated deposits in Europe. West Asian potters produced earthenware—made from various clays and fired at 600–1,100°C, while Europeans turned out earthenware and, from the fourteenth century, limited amounts of stoneware, a ceramic produced at 1,100–1,250°C. In contrast, China produced stoneware as early as the Shang period (1766–1045 BCE) and porcelain by the Tang (618–907 CE). During the Song dynasty (960–1279), artisans at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province created a superior form of porcelain, made by combining kaolin and porcelain stone.
China had a monopoly on porcelain for a thousand years, until the Meissen manufactory of Augustus II (1670–1733), elector of Saxony and king of Poland, turned out a close facsimile in 1708. Indeed, the success of Chinese porcelain closely tracks that of China’s economy and China’s international reputation. Triumphant for a millennium, porcelain, Chinese industry, and Chinese prestige all went into steep decline in the last half of the eighteenth century, giving way to British pottery (which came to overshadow mainland European pottery) and Western imperialism.
Before that historic turnabout, China dominated the international ceramic trade, exporting untold numbers of ceramic vessels to Japan, Southeast Asia, India, western Asia, and eastern Africa. After the Portuguese opened trade with China in the sixteenth century, Europe also became a premier market for porcelain, with perhaps 250 million pieces being imported by 1800. Jingdezhen used mass production techniques to manufacture wares for wide-ranging markets, with a single piece of porcelain passing through the hands of over seventy workers during its manufacture and decoration. Other regions could not compete with the massive Chinese economy, nor could their potters create vessels as lustrous as porcelain. Porcelain surpassed all ceramic ware before it, whether monochromatic white-ware in the Song, or blue-decorated pieces from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). In Borneo and Java, local ceramic traditions died out when huge quantities of porcelain were imported. Peoples in the hills of Sumatra and the islands of the Philippines incorporated porcelain into their fertility, divination, and headhunting rituals; they adopted Chinese “dragon jars,” each seen to possess a personality and embody supernatural power, into lineages and passed them down through generations. On the coast of eastern Africa and the littoral of North Africa, porcelain adorned mosques and religious shrines.
In Iran, Iraq, and Egypt in the eleventh century, potters imitated gleaming white porcelain by applying a tin glaze surface to their earthenware. Discontent with the dull result, they used cobalt oxide pigment to paint blue designs on the earthenware. By the fourteenth century, under the influence of Muslim merchants in China and Mongol rulers in Beijing, potters in Jingdezhen also began producing vessels in blue and white, the ceramic style destined to conquer the world, imprinting them with images of elegance and refinement.
Rulers of Mughal India (1526–1857), Safavid Iran (1501–1722/1736), Mamluk Egypt (1250–1517), and Ottoman Turkey (c. 1300–1922) collected blue-andwhite porcelain, while potters in those kingdoms replicated and transformed Chinese designs on their own blue-and-white earthenware. When porcelain reached the West in large quantities after 1600, the same thing happened: the elite amassed blue-andwhite porcelain, and potters in Holland, Germany, France, and Italy copied the Chinese ceramics, combining their own traditional motifs with imaginative versions of Chinese pagodas, Buddhist symbols, and urbane mandarins. At the same time, European princes, influenced by mercantilist doctrine, aimed to staunch the flow of silver bullion to Asia to pay for exotic commodities, including porcelain. In the end, the race to find a formula for porcelain was won by Augustus II, although within a few years, absconding artisans carried the secret to other manufactories.
Still, neither Meissen nor its great competitor, the Sevres manufactory outside Paris, could compete internationally with Chinese porcelain. That was the achievement of Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795), the pottery baron of Great Britain. He produced an innovative glazed earthenware, christened “cream-ware,” that was as durable and thin as porcelain. Equipping his manufactory with steam power and employing mass production methods (modeled on Jingdezhen’s), and being attentive to the latest fashion styles and promotion techniques, Wedgwood aggressively sold his pottery, driving Chinese porcelain from markets around the world. Just as veneration for China in Western intellectual and ruling circles began declining precipitously after 1750, so too Chinese porcelain fell from its age-old pedestal.
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- Carswell, J. (1985). Blue and white Chinese porcelain and its impact on the Western world. Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Gallery.
- Emerson, J., Chen, J., & Gardner-Gates, M. (2000). Porcelain stories: From China to Europe. Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum.
- Finlay, R. (2010). The pilgrim art: Cultures of porcelain in world history. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Finlay, R. (1998). The pilgrim art: The culture of porcelain in world history. Journal of World History, 9(2), 141–187.
- Vainker, S. J. (1991). Chinese pottery and porcelain. London: British Museum Press.
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