More Acquainted With China

18th century Jesuits made great travel writers.  18th century China made great fodder for European imaginations.  Together, they made Voltaire say “We are perhaps more acquainted with China than with many provinces of Europe.”  Sadly, Voltaire’s comment might well have been true (to this day some parts of France are unrecognizable to others).  By the mid 1700’s, Chinese blue and white porcelain was already an intimate part of Europe’s Decorative Arts landscape.  Combined with a major tea craze, a touch of arm-chair exoticism, and the growing power of various East India Companies, you can almost see the logic…

If honesty mattered, Angola in southern Africa could have received top billing.  Angola’s “acquaintance” with Europe and it’s American colonies, in the form of huge numbers of people kidnapped into slavery, was immense.  Generations of forced labor living alongside their slaving masters made Europe’s plantation economy possible.  Voltaire knew this.  He also knew how much his contemporaries valued honesty.

Which brings us back to that porcelain.  Especially those wildly popular “Willow Pattern” plates.  The various elements of this pattern told an oriental tale of love and redemption.  To wit:

A mandarin’s daughter, Koong-se, fell in love with his willow_plateaccountant,  Chang.  A fence was built in the apple orchard near the willow to keep Chang out.  A nobleman came by boat to marry the daughter.  During the wedding party in the temple Koong-se escaped with her beloved Chang.  The mandarin, the noble, and others ran across a bridge chasing them. The couple stayed in various safe houses until they were discovered and killed.  The gods, feeling sorry for them, allowed them to live on as two doves flying around in the sky.

Today, nobody cares (or even knows) about the star crossed lovers.  Still the willow, the boat, the temple, the birds, etc., doggedly remain – even on cheap printed pottery from WalMart.  A garbled tribute to the staying power of a quintessential blue and white pattern that once inspired poetry.

…But any blather about “acquaintance” falls apart.  What could be learned of China by looking at imagery invented by a guy named by Thomas Minton in Shropshire, England, in 1780 to sell his new line of porcelain?  The sorry fact is that the Willow Pattern, like so many ingrained memories of commercials in our own youth, was basically a jingle that never went away.

China Trade Porcelain. John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA. 1956.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain. Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850. Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh Ed.  Academic Press/New York. 1985.

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

The Discovery of France.  A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. Graham Robb.  Norton & Co./New York.  2007.

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7 Responses to “More Acquainted With China”

  1. Steve Earp Says:

    ‘Two birds flying high,
    A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
    A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
    A willow tree, hanging o’er.
    A Chinese temple, there it stands,
    Built upon the river sands.
    An apple tree, with apples on,
    A crooked fence to end my song.’

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  4. Penny Gabriel Says:

    If only more people would read this.

  5. Tracy Mays Says:

    You have done it once more! Incredible post!

    • Nikki B Says:

      I have just picked up a plate at a church fete for 10p. To many it was a willow pattern at a glance, but looking more closely, and reading the inscription on the back, a 1985 Gladstone potteries Museum piece by Peter Brears Commemorating Stoke on trent’s 60 years as a City, 75 years as a Federation of six towns & 10 years of the Gladstone Museum. The Chinese Pergoda is now Pottery Kilns, The Junk is a Canal Barge, The Lovers Hideaway are pit windings, The Rickety fence is a Steam Train and The Doves are now Spitfires. GENIUS! Take a look if you can, it’s a wonderful piece!!! x

      • Steve Earp Says:

        Sounds like a fabulous plate. I can’t seem to find it on the Gladstone Museum’s web site. But you were quite lucky to come across it! Thanks for the note.

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