Last week, it was reported that a small porcelain bowl purchased for $35US in a Connecticut yard sale is in fact one of only seven early 15th-century Ming bowls of its type, and valued around half a million dollars. It’s unclear how the pottery ended up there, but it may be that the bowl may have been inherited over several generations without the family realising its rarity and value. Let us survey the early modern European encounter with Chinese porcelain, including bowls and the remarkable 16th-century wine jar pictured above, leading to trade and even duplication–such that there was, between early modern China and the west, pottery in motion.
Mention of Chinese porcelain in European accounts includes the famed (and some would say, fictional) voyages of Marco Polo in the 13th century, which were in turn eagerly read in the early modern period. Christopher Columbus, for example, emphasised Polo’s descriptions of silk, gems, spices, and other goods in China in the margins of his copy. Polo remarks on the cheapness and quality of Chinese porcelain ‘bowls of such beauty that nothing lovelier could be imagined.’ Clearly, Polo and his readers were bowled over by the beauty and craftsmanship of Chinese porcelain.
By the time of the Jesuit mission to China at the end of the 16th century and into the next, Chinese porcelains were already being exported to different parts of Europe. China Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) remarked on their uniqueness compared to European pottery, not to mention their practicality in holding hot foods without breaks or leaks. Other missionaries praised the ingenuity of the porcelain and of the artisans in their descriptions of China, which would have served to whet the appetite of European consumers further. The ability of Chinese porcelains to withstand high temperatures without cracking meant that there were no divisions or splits in European opinion on such imports.
Over the course of the 17th century, attitudes to Chinese porcelain shifted from intense admiration to the acquisition of technical knowledge. The Jesuit missionary Alvaro Semedo (1585-1685) surveyed the prodigious merchandise throughout the middle kingdom, and praised in particular the quality and quantity of porcelain produced in the Chinese province of Jiangxi. He judged that in terms of material culture and invention, China was in fact superior to Europe. Dutch travellers were similarly impressed, even relative to their own flourishing trade and manufacture in the 17th century. But by the late 17th century, commentators on Chinese porcelain had moved from earlier astonishment at Chinese ingenuity and focused on the techniques of production. In other words, as European knowledge of dyeing and manufacture increased, as learned from China and abroad, so authors focused on how the characteristic blue colour, composition of clay, and processes of baking and glazing in making Chinese pottery could be adopted by European manufacturers. No longer was the quality of Chinese pottery simply attributed to cultural ingenuity. In other words, while Chinese porcelain ‘blue’ away earlier Europeans, expressions of dumbfounded astonishment were met with glazed eyes by crafty men seeking to make a buck.
By the 18th century, descriptions of Chinese manufacturing were increasingly negative. For example, in 1712, the French Jesuit François Xavier d’Entrecolles (1664-1741) heaped scorn on what he saw as the inefficiency and inhumanity of Chinese industry: the materials and kilns produced mostly poor-quality porcelain for the European market, while the artisans were not ingenious craftsman but oppressed labourers subjected to appalling work conditions and thus high mortality rates. Beginning in 1710 in the German town of Meissen, European artisans produced porcelain of comparable quality to that manufactured in China. By the mid-18th century, British Commodore George Anson (1697-1762) decried the inferiority of Chinese arts and manufactures to those of Europeans and Japanese. By the end of the century, Lord Macartney (1737-1806)–who led an unsuccessful mission seeking trade concessions between Britain and China–would complain of the lack of Chinese appreciation for European manufactures, including Wedgwood China. The excellence of European manufacturing, which was built upon its encounter with China, was eventually a pretext for anti-Chinese sentiment. In the context of modern-day complaints about Chinese counterfeits of western goods, it is worth considering how Europeans shifted, from kowtows to Chinese know-how, to making a kiln on western knock-offs of Chinese technology.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Chinoiserio-comic Studies Program