The skilful transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful objects has captivated the imagination of people throughout history and across the globe. The Chinese use the word ci to mean either porcelain or stoneware, not distinguishing between the two.
Chinese porcelain has never come in just one form; indeed, throughout the history of their manufacture, they have been fashioned in dishes, bowls, taper-sticks, standing covered cups, bottles, ewers etc. It must be noted, however, that several forms were fashioned into the forms especially for Western trade.
Examples of early Chinese porcelain can be found in Zhejiang Province during the Han Dynasty. Archaeological excavations have unearthed shards as well as painted vases dating from 202 BCE. These were decorated with dragons and phoenixes; themes that would become popular throughout Chinese history.
An immense quantity of Chinese pottery dating from the Tang to the early Qing Dynasty has come to light from archaeological sites in the Philippines within the recent years. This is the best evidence of the trade between China and the Philippines which flourished for centuries. The majority of this pottery is of the Sung, Yuan and Ming periods, but the Ming porcelain wares outweigh the rest.
The real story of decorated porcelains only begins with the Song Dynasty in the late tenth century. The industrial expansion of ceramics commenced somewhere between the end of the tenth century and the middle of the thirteenth, but was limited to a few kilns in widely separated locations. It was not until the Mongol period in the fourteenth century that merchant organizations began to supply finance on a large scale, and appears to have been restricted mostly to Jao-chou in the south, in the locality of which administrative city the centralized manufacture of high grade porcelain at Ching-te Chen began.
For a long period in Chinese history colour was not an important aspect in Chinese art. However, during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the affluent areas of south-eastern China, colourful objects became popular. This development can be seen in textiles and in poly-chrome lacquer, as well as in porcelain which were decorated with over-glaze enamels. The taste for colour and intricate decoration was continued through the Qing dynasty. Enamels, including a rosy pink, were first presented to China in the eighteenth century, which was fashioned by adding colloidal gold to the enamel. The novelty of this colour led to growth of the delicate Qing-dynasty famille rose porcelains.
The Ming blue-and-white wares were decorated in cobalt blue painted on a white porcelain body under a transparent glaze. The decoration is portrayed expertly in cobalt varying from a pale blue to a deep violet or purple-blue, depending upon the thickness of the pigment, and greenish black flecks frequently reveals where the paint is thick. Landscapes with birds or animals were one of the most popular designs used in the decoration of the blue-and-white ware. This was the most popular ware in China itself and was exported in large quantities to the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, and to the Middle and Near East,
Chinese porcelain, in all their different forms, began to alter Western taste at the onset of the seventeenth century, when the West became fascinated with these objects that were equally exotic and ordinary, decorative and functional.
Made for a sophisticated clientele, commercial trade with the West was made possible by the Portuguese opening of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, and the first porcelains decorated exclusively for the Western market resulted from Portugal’s dealings with Beijing between 1517 and 1521. The West’s appetite for spices and luxuries encouraged Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and American sea trade with Asia.
With the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 and the onset of the Qing (1644-1911), the export trade could have come to an end. Political turbulence, which included the destruction of the Jingdezhen kilns in 1675, where the blue-and-white ware were manufactured – which were rebuilt within five years – caused a suspension of official trade after 1647.
But the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Ostindische Compagnie, henceforth VOC), were resolute in sustaining their toehold and to maintain supplying an established market, turned to Japan to fill the need. Trade was resumed with China after 1680 with considerable differences for both East and West. Support by the Kangxi emperor (1661-1722) brought about a reformation of the Jingdezhen kilns. This lead to improvements in materials and production methods; his receptiveness to Western artistic techniques and styles resulted in an entirely new aesthetic of porcelain decoration.
By the late nineteenth century Chinese export porcelains, in particular blue and white wares, had attained a prominence above the simply functional. Today, Chinese porcelain has become one of the most popular items for art collectors. This is testament to the quality, the design and the artistic influence that captivates both Western and Eastern audiences.
Carswell, John (2005) Blue and White – Chinese Porcelain Around The World, British Museum press, London.
Lee, Jean Gordon (1956) Chinese Porcelain, Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Schiffer, Herbert (1998) Chinese Export Porcelain, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, Atglen.
Vainker, S. J. (2005) Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, British Museum Press, London.