Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

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February 26, 2017

“Don’t it always go to show…”

While reading Alan Caiger-Smith’s book about luster pottery a little while ago, I came across a comment he made concerning the occasional odd pairing of “cryptic sayings” with seemingly unrelated floral imagery on 13th century luster ware from Kashand, Persia (that’s me on a Friday night – a real party animal!).  I was reminded of the unusual sayings scrawled around the rims of many Pennsylvania tulip ware pie plates.  Is this just a funny little bit of irony, or is there more to the story?

It shouldn’t be surprising that these two unique pottery types, separated by a continent, an ocean, six centuries, and distinct decorative characteristics, share a bit of irony.  They both stem from same root.  So much stems from this root.

What began as a 9th century interaction of painted decoration on white glazed pottery between T’ang China and Abbasid Iraq bounced back and forth between potters on every continent – except Antarctica – who both drew inspiration from, and offered inspiration to others.  This train of thought spanned the globe – sometimes as porcelain, sometimes as tin-glazed earthenware, sometimes as lusterware, sometimes as sgraffito decorated redware.  It defined entire cultures – sometimes in the guise of luxury goods, and sometimes as “folk” pottery.  It built and destroyed fortunes.  It prompted industrialization.  It supplied the needs of those on the fringes of empires.

Anything that pervasive for that long must have had a ‘thumb on the pulse’ of essential human creativity and expression.

The standard narrative says the idea collapsed around the end of the 19th century.  Modernism swept all before it.  In reality, this family of floral decorated pottery adapted and evolved in isolated pockets of production.  Soon enough, people began showing an interest in what happened before.  A revival began to brew, stimulated by appreciation of the stories places can tell via an explosion of tourism in the early 20th century.  An Arts and Crafts Era atmosphere of interest in the hand-made equally spiced things up enough for later generations to catch on (at least in parts of Europe and America).

Today, a small band of intrepid souls delves back into this venerable train of thought by making work in these earlier styles.  Sometimes they start from scratch, sometimes they pick up where others left off.  Will they be little seedlings that keep the genus alive and moving forward?

“…You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” 

Readings:

Luster Pottery.  Alan Caiger-Smith.  New Amsterdam Books/New York.  1985.

Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

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…40 Years Later

September 25, 2016

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.

Reading:

Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.

The Story of How One Thing Leads To Another

August 28, 2016

“How far is the southern sky in the eyes of a lone wild swan?
    The chilly wind strikes terror into one’s heart.
    I miss my beloved who is traveling afar, beyond the great river,
    And my heart flies to the frontier morning and night.”

A poem was painted onto a bowl in the southern Chinese town of Changsha during the T’ang Dynasty, around 875ad.  It spoke of tragic longing for a far away loved one.  The bowl’s intended owner wouldn’t care.  The Abbasid Arab would think it was cool because it had Chinese writing on it.

That person never saw the bowl, however.  It was found in 1988 among the wreckage of a 9th century Arab trading ship off the Java Sea island of Belitung.  This wreck illuminated the evolution of several small, local trade routes into an international network connecting Zimbabwe to China.  That evolution also inspired epic pottery innovations.

Before getting into that, let’s go back earlier in T’ang times, when pottery wasn’t terribly valued.  Ornate, poly-chrome ceramics were for burials only.  Increasingly outlandish tombs prompted sumptuary laws severely limiting funeral pomp.  Ceramic funerary art quickly art died out.  So did the Silk Road, from increased instability along that fabled route.  Then came tea.  China, like Europe 500 years later, changed radically.  Pottery (tea wares) immediately caught upper class attention.  A 755 – 763ad civil war was the final spark.  Refugee potters fled to Changsha, previously a southern back-water dumping ground for exiled losers from the cosmopolitan north.

The refugee potters copied popular Yue green glazed tea wares.  Yue green looked like jade, which complimented the tea’s color.  Changsha’s potters were ignored.  They came from a ‘place of melancholy’ with ‘dense and poisonous vapors.’  Location is everything.

Changsha’s ignored, cast-away poets, like it’s potters, did whatever they wanted.  Poets like Huaisu the Wild Monk invented ‘Wild Cursive’ with free, irregular lines and fluid character links.  Changsha potters applied this new, wild brush work to their green ‘vapor cloud’ pottery.

Such looseness defied conventional T’ang aesthetic uniformity.  But Arabs loved it.  Trade with the Abbasid Caliphate via new maritime routes exploded.  Changsha became southern China’s major trading and pottery center.

This story has many spin-offs.  We’ll settle for now with an observation of possible interest to Pennsylvania ‘Tulip Ware’ devotees.

The most common Changsha floral design was a petaled flower with a central dot.  These ‘rosettes’ appeared here before anywhere else in China.  One could follow this pattern to Abbasid Baghdad, then to Fatimid Egypt, then to Umayyad Spain, then Renaissance Italy, then Anabaptist Moravia, then North Carolina and Pennsylvania…

Imagine your world turning on the central dot of a mad monk’s petaled flower.

To be continued…

Readings
Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.

Everybody’s Day in the Sun

September 27, 2015

Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
    – a Swahili poet, 1815

Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean.  This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.

By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each.  The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel.  Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors.  Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though.  The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.

China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD.  Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply.  Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy.  How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.

What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade?  In a word, nothing.  A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods.  Somalia and Yemen never recovered.

Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain.  Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain.  But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe.  M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous.  Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…

Why the different reactions?  Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague.  During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit.  Some might call this a fool’s paradise.  Others call it sophistication.

Readings:

The Lost Cities of Africa.  Basil Davidson.  Little Brown Book Co./New York.  1970.

Yemeni Pottery.  Sarah Posey.  British Museum Press/London.  1994.

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

Bastard China

June 29, 2014

OK, that title might get some attention.  Perhaps a little context is in order.

Its ironic how many American foods are named after other countries – French toast, English muffins, German chocolate, Spanish rice, Irish stew, Mexican food, Chinese food, etc – yet most nationals of those countries have no idea what these strange American foods are.

A similar phenomenon exists in pottery.  We call many things we make by either their form: plate, bowl, cup, or by their use: colander, teapot, luminary.  But some of our most common glazes carry names of far away people and places: rockingham, bristol, albany (in the 18th/19th centuries), and tenmuku, celadon, shino, oribe, etc (today).

Then there’s tin-glazed white earthenware.  Italians originally called it ‘majolica‘ after the Spanish island of Majorca through which 14th century Italy imported Hispano-Moresque pottery – and Iberian potters.  The French called it ‘faience‘ after Faenza, Italy from which 15th/16th century France imported much early majolica – and Italian potters.  Skipping Holland for the moment, where 15th/16th century faience traveled next – along with French (and Italian) potters – the English called it ‘delft‘ after the eponymous Dutch town – and still more 16th/17th century immigrant Dutch potters.

So what did Dutch potters call this ware?  Trade with China via the Dutch East India Company was hitting its stride just when Delft, Holland became a major pottery center.  Keeping in mind Holland’s fabled marketing sensibilities, the Dutch called tin-glazed earthenware majolica they learned from Italian faience potters ‘porcelain,’ of course.

Customers seeking the cultural trappings associated with high-fired, translucent Chinese porcelain (the real stuff) but who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay it’s high price, soon learned the difference.  Early Dutch ‘porcelain’ was certainly cheap.  It also had a tendency to crack from thermal shock when contacted with boiling hot water for tea.  And why own porcelain if not for drinking tea?  Another name for this peculiar Dutch ‘porcelain’ soon became common: ‘bastard China.’

Reading:

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York.

Keep Me Swimming

December 19, 2010

It came from India.  The name did, anyway.  And the recipe.  The Hindustani word which entered England as “Punch” meant “five,”indicating the number of ingredients for this wildly popular drink.  The five ingredients were alcohol (usually rum), fruit juice (usually lemons), spice (usually nutmeg), sugar and water.  Sailors in the East India trade brought punch home during the 17th century.  Punch soon joined posset, (milk with mulled wine), sack (sherry), and bishop (mulled wine) in the pantheon of English drinks.

The array of ingredients allowed for a broad variety of punch recipes.  Water was a major variable.  Less meant more, well, punch.  Drinking punch was not a ‘sedate’ activity.  It could be drank at home, but was standard fare in any tavern.  Punch’s popularity rivaled that other paradigm-shifting drink from the east, tea.  But tea was enjoyed in small individual bowls.  “A dish of tea,” as the saying went (the annoying, teeny handle was added later).  Punch, however, was passed around in a communal bowl.

The variety of punch bowls was huge.  From 6 inches in diameter to larger than one person alone could lift.  They were made in almost every type of ceramic available at the time from earthenware and delft to stoneware and porcelain.  The prowess of Chinese potters who made 20 plus inch diameter porcelain punch bowls astounded European potters.  Reputations were built on both the quantity of bowls collected and the quality of punch served.  Lord Fairfax of present day Fairfax County, Maryland kept a collection of over 20 Chinese porcelain punch bowls.

Punch bowl decoration followed the tastes of the day.  Although the image of a fish on the inside bottom of a bowl was a sure indication of it’s purpose.  The fish was often accompanied by such sayings as “Keep me swimming,” or “The longer I swim, the happier I’ll be.”

Toward the end of the 18th century, a set of individual cups became standard accessories.  The introduction of such refinements seems to have taken the fun out of punch.  It’s hard to shout “another bowl then!” in a room full of cup sipping gentlemen in powdered wigs without sounding a touch barbaric.  Punch had begun it’s long decent into the tame world of art receptions and high school dances.

So those renegade teenagers who spike the punch with vodka as an act of rebellion against the stuffy world of outdated respectability are actually keeping tradition alive.

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

Ceramics in America (1972).  Quimby, Ian, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.

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

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

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence. Exhibition Catalogue.  Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA. 1984.

 

Satan

November 21, 2010

They say the devil takes many disguises.  After initial contact with 16th century European merchants, many Ming Dynasty Chinese would have agreed.

They called all foreign merchants “Fan Kwae,” or Foreign Devil.  The Portuguese were “Se-yang Kwae,” or Devils of the Western Ocean.  The Dutch were “Po-ssu-hu,” or Red Haired devils.  The English were also “Red Haired” devils.  Merchants from India were “White Haired” devils.  The devilish French were “Fat-lan-sy.”  Swedish devils were “Suy.”  The Danes were “Yellow Flag” devils.  Americans were “Flowery Flag” devils…

It’s understandable that the Chinese would use these terms.  In 1517 the first Portuguese ship arrived in Canton, China.  After dropping anchor without permission the ship’s captain ordered a broadside to be fired thinking it would impress the locals.  The Chinese had no idea who these people were, but the crude display of violence was most unsettling.  In 1637 the English arrived.  Tired of waiting to met by Chinese officials, the English captain also decided to get everyone’s attention with a broadside.

These foreign devils courted the Celestial Kingdom for tea, mostly.  And porcelain.  And money.  A lot of money.  Today of course the tea and porcelain are no longer relevant.  But to get an idea what the original union meant to both parties, consider how they described each other.

From a 1627 English East India Company memo:

“Concerning the trade of China, three things are especially made known unto the world.
The One is, the abundant trade it affordeth.
The Second is, that they admit no stranger into their country.
The Third is, that Trade is as Life unto the Vulgar, which in remote parts they will seek and accommodate, with Hazard of all they have.”

And from the T’ai-wan Fu-chih, an 18th century Chinese text:

“The people which we call Red-hair or Po-ssu-hu …live in the extreme west of the Ocean extending from Formosa…  They are covetous and cunning and have good knowledge of valuable commodities and are clever in seeking profits.  They spare not even their lives in looking for gain and go to the most distant regions to trade…  If one meets them on the high seas, one is often robbed by them…wherever they go, they covet rare commodities, and contrive by all means to take possession of the land.”

Not exactly a marriage made in heaven.

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

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain. CJA Jörg.  Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands. 1986.

 

How to Survive a Shipwreck

September 26, 2010

Despite Hollywood’s glamorization of sunken treasure ships, few galleons sank during the lucrative China Trade era.  But on January 3, 1752, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Geldermalsen went down near the straights of Malacca en route from Macao, China to its home in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

At sunset a reef tore the Geldermalsen’s keel apart.  The surrounding waters were shark infested.  Most sailors then couldn’t swim.  Miraculously, several crew members made it to shore.  But piracy was rampant in those waters, and the survivors were strangers in a strange land.  So even more miraculously, they evaded capture and returned home.

Their trial began two months later.  It was VOC policy to charge any crew who abandoned their ship with “gross treason.”  A guilty verdict meant death.  Fortunately for the hapless crew, they were let off.

Fortunately for us, their ship was discovered 233 years later with most of the 150,000 pieces of porcelain on board intact.  Buried under a blanket of tea.  When combined with the VOC’s scrupulous archive of invoices, this find offers a priceless record of 17th and 18th century China Trade porcelain.

The VOC was one of the first international trade cartels.  As such, they cared only for profit (ie: volume vs. fancy, difficult to pack items).  Huge returns were made on teacups alone.  Ships could carry over 100,000 teacups in a single load, with room to spare for other orders.  Teacups could be densely packed because they didn’t have handles.  Only chocolate cups did until around 1750.

To fill these massive orders, some factories in Jingdezhen were entirely geared toward European designs.  Enameling workshops popped up around European trading posts in Canton and Macao to quickly decorate plain porcelain – a Chinese version of cheap Chinese knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.

East Indiaman sailors were allowed small personal purchases of more elaborate work on the side, in quantities corresponding to rank, as compensation for relatively poor wages.

During the Trade’s heyday, porcelain generally functioned as the ship’s ballast.  Above that went bales of tea.  The best tea went in lead-sealed crates to preserve freshness.   (During America’s China craze, “tea chest lead” was a prized source of glaze material for redware potters.)

The Geldermalsen’s load was typical: simple teacups, bowls, plates, etc.  But hardly any teapots.  The salvage crew didn’t mind, though.  After sifting through tons of decayed tea to get to the porcelain, most said they’d never drink tea again.

Geldermalsen cargo Recovered cargo from the Geldermalsen.

Reading:

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain. CJA Jörg. Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.

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

Kublai Khan

May 23, 2010

In 1271 Kublai Khan, grandson of the legendary Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan, invaded China, ended the Northern Sung Dynasty, and set up his own Yuan Dynasty.  And if you look on your kitchen shelves today, you might well see cans of soups, beans and other food items.

Admittedly, the ubiquitous modern tin can would probably have been invented regardless of the activities of rampaging Medieval horsemen from the Asian Steppes.  But seen through the lens of pottery history, the tin can embodies a curious echo of that far distant past.

Here’s how it went (pared down to four easy paragraphs):
1)  Apart from conquering and pillaging, the Mongols excelled in organizing vast stretches of territory.  Among other things, they exported Chinese pharmacological lore to the far reaches of their empire, in this case Arabia.  These medicinal herbs were stored in ceramic cylinders, often ‘wasp waisted’ for easy withdrawal from shelves (the Chinese originally used bamboo containers) and indented near the rim to facilitate a fabric tied around the top.

2)  The Arabs knew a good thing when they saw one, or two; the medicine and the jars.  They made their own versions of both, which in turn became popular in Renaissance Italy.  Once again, various Italian cities formed an entire industry around these “Albarelos.”  The Victoria Albert Museum in London has a fabulous collection of Italian tin glazed, enameled drug jars.

3)  Albarelos spread throughout Europe.  They spawned the Delftware industry in Holland.  And they eventually arrived in England as “gallipots,” named, some believe, after the manner of their transport – on large Venetian Galleys, or perhaps as containers commonly found in ships’ galleys.  (Others used the term to denote Delftware, others still just took it to mean anything made out of clay…)  Anyway, the English took gallipots to their new colonies in North America, where they were made well into the 19th century.

American Gallipot by Stephen Earp Redware4)  Being such a generic, therefore useful, shape, the American gallipot took on many roles, from storing drugs, to cooking, to preserving.  Ultimately, the mid 19th century expansion of the glass jar industry replaced the gallipot, or “corker” as it was called by then.  And from the glass jar, it was a short walk to the nearest dry goods grocer for the late century tin can revolution…

…I suppose you could say that the modern re-useable yogurt container is the latest incarnation of this journey begun by Kublai Khan.

But that would be ridiculous.

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

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Press/Boston.  1968.

A Descriptive Dictionary for 500 Years of Spanish-Tradition Ceramics. 13th through 19th Cenuries.  Florence and Robert Lister ed.s.  Special Publication Series, Number 1/The Society for Historical Archeology.  1980.

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