History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…
The M’ing Dynasty Chinese judged their export porcelain as purely 2nd rate fodder for a lower-browed European audience. And the European foreigners who gobbled up export porcelain were, to the M’ing, strange, impenetrable, exotic, dangerous aliens.
But not all M’ing Chinese looked down on export ware, or those who bought it. Before East India Trade delegations became commonplace in Canton, Macao, and elsewhere, a few officials (a very few) collected export porcelain as expressions of those foreigners who were, to them, strange, exotic, impenetrable, curious aliens.
Chinese export porcelain opened up a completely new world for 16th century Europeans. Entire industries were spawned to get more, and to make it cheaper themselves. Until that occurred, Europeans saw the foreign Chinese who made this wonderful work as strange, exotic, impenetrable, glamorous aliens.
In the years since the China Trade, many scholars have understood the wider view that export porcelain indeed expressed European culture of the time as much as it did the capabilities of M’ing potters. Take, for example, a typical export item known as the klapmut. Both Chinese and Dutch used soup bowls. The Chinese drank thin broths right from the bowl. Dutch stews needed spoons. The narrow Chinese drinking rim didn’t allow resting space for spoons, so the Dutch directed Chinese potters to include a wide spoon rest rim: voila, the awkward sounding klapmut. Today’s elegant wide rimmed bowl began life as a foreign shape for Chinese potters – strange, exotic, impenetrable, unusual, and alien.
Does any of this old history matter today? It’s nice, as a potter, to know why I make bowls with wide rims. Deeper historical analogies can be less satisfying because history never repeats itself perfectly. Witness the current fear-mongering and election year lunacy, fueled in part by masses of people fleeing violence in the Mid East and beyond. Europeans and Americans have sympathized with the refugees who bring with them only what they can carry and remember. But many now struggle with the growing vitriol swirling around these foreign, strange, exotic, impenetrable, desperate aliens.
The refugee crisis needs, among many things, large doses of human decency and is quite a large topic of itself. But as for the jingoistic xenophobia? If contemplating the history of Chinese export porcelain (or of history in general) offers any small consolation it is this one immutable guarantee: “This too shall pass.”
Vermeer’s Hat, The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. Timothy Brook. Bloomsbury Press/New York. 2008.