Everybody knows the story of how Chinese blue and white porcelain thoroughly influenced world ceramic history. But we look at this story backwards, from its results. How did it look from the other direction, from it’s beginning?
Mid 9th century Tang Dynasty grandees were repulsed by isolated southern Chinese potters’ gaudy color and decoration experiments. Anything other than green (replicating jade) or white (replicating silver) belonged in tombs.
Far away Arabs instantly recognized that new work’s value. Shiploads of southern Chinese stoneware, mostly bowls, were sent to the Abbasid Caliphate in large re-useable ceramic jars. These jars had auspicious inscriptions, often in Arabic, scrawled along their outside. Arabic was the ‘official language’ of the entire trade network connecting southern China to the Persian Gulf and beyond.
Arab potters noticed Chinese stoneware encroaching into their home market. They responded by inventing a smooth white tin glaze for their own earthenware. A world of color beyond somber Chinese greens and whites was now possible. Cobalt blue was the first new hue, followed by many others. Then someone in Basra invented lusterware, truly replicating copper and silver.
The Arabs began signing their work. They also sent it back to China, along with Mesopotamian cobalt, to try this new look on white Chinese stoneware glazes. The first Chinese blue and white was probably painted by resident Persians.
The Tang attitude seemed to be “fine, take the foreigners’ money- they actually like that vulgar stuff!” But so much money was made that people criticized the volume of trees wasted by this work, and all the new ‘art pottery’ for elite tea ceremonies. Whole mountainsides were deforested to feed the kilns.
The growing impact of ‘aliens’ led to a vicious reaction, with widespread looting and killing of resident foreign traders. Colorful, decorated ceramics dried up. The incoming Song Dynasty reverted to safe, comfortable celadons and whites.
The world had to wait another five hundred years for Persian traders to (again) ask Yuan Dynasty potters to put Mesopotamian cobalt on their new porcelain. ‘Blue and white’ as we now know it exploded onto the world stage, blossoming over the next three hundred years into pottery history’s single most recognized chapter.
Back in the 9th century, Arab potters saw this tidal wave coming. Their response – tin glazes, cobalt blue, polychrome, and luster ware – set the whole story in motion. And they did all that in only 40 years.
Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC. 2010.