Archive for the ‘Ming Dynasty’ Category

Test of Time

January 31, 2016

History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…

700AThe 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.”

Readings:

Vermeer’s Hat, The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

Advertisements

The Used To Be Highway

November 29, 2015

The modern redware potter drives home from a show pondering crazy thoughts like “why am I doing all this,” and “does everything I do look backward?” (stylistically to earlier eras, financially to better shows, etc.)  The redware potter is traveling the Used To Be Highway.

Such a highway exists, of course, but not necessarily in the depressing way described above.  Interpreting historical styles, like redware, falls solidly along a venerable continuum of reproductions, copies, and revivals (and fakes and forgeries) made since ancient times.

Romans, fascinated by earlier Etruscan pottery, commissioned Etruscan style work for many of their lavish pavilions.  Chinese potters copied older work to honor past masters.  Medieval European artisans made historical reproductions for holy pilgrimage tourists.  Copies of 16th century Siegburg stoneware, often from original 16th century molds, were popular during the late 19th century German Gothic revival.  The nascent 19th century American tourist industry considered historical work a patriotic act.  And maintaining traditional cultural expressions in the face of changing times has motivated artists throughout time.

Blue and white pottery gets complicated.  This idea went back and forth in so many ways across the globe that it almost resembles light.  Is light (for example) a wave or a particle?  Is Delft (for example) a copy or an original style?

Then there’s fakes and forgeries. What appears to be simple malfeasance (and often is) can also be a complex issue.  Was early Delftware a forgery?  Are fakes worse than pilfered archeological sites?  What of desperate families peddling fake artifacts in impoverished but historically significant areas, or the work of Ai Wei?

Copying masterpieces was for centuries a principle method of arts instruction.  Intense observational and technical skills are required, and honed, when studying historical artifacts in this way.  A simple test illustrates this point: make two mugs, one which you thought up in your head, the other as an exact replica of someone else’s mug.  Ask yourself afterwards which effort stretched your skills more?

It’s tempting to draw some meaningful conclusion about why potters today might work within historical styles, given the array of available paths.  (Or are these stylistic options just interpretations of a different sort?).  But regardless of the route they took to get there, or the bumps along the way, many potters (and other artisans) who make historically based work will tell you – it’s just tremendously fun to do.

Readings:

Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America.  Donald Webster.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain.  Pitcairn Knowles.  Scribner’s/New York.  1940.

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

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

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.   John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

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

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.

The Hit Parade #3: Mexican Majolica

April 12, 2015

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th Century The “global village” is a messy place.  It began messy, and it will always be messy.

In Puebla, Mexico City, and on presidio’s across Mexico during the early 1500’s, Humanist Italian trained Christian Spanish potters working in the Islamic Arabian style of copying Taoist Chinese porcelains incorporated Aztec Mexican flora and fauna imagery onto their pottery.  Before then, no body of work combined so much direct influence from such a wide geographic and cultural web.

Mexican majolica  is beautiful in its own right.  This ware also manifested the onset of what we now might consider the ‘global village.’

It gets messy, though.  How much does knowing the whole story behind a work of art influence our appreciation for it?  To make this pottery the Muslims had to be evicted, the Aztecs wiped out, the Chinese pulled apart, the Spanish bankrupted, and the Italians sidelined.  Few pottery types illustrate such messy but important questions well as Mexican majolica does.

Can (should) these sorts of questions be carried over to today?  For example, how do we reconcile the final product we produce with the strip mining and horrendous labor exploitation involved in bringing us many of our raw materials?  These aren’t the kinds of things most people think of when considering ceramics, but they exist just the same.

The western hemisphere’s first glazed, blue and white pottery was an impressive achievement, and an important milestone.  Fascinating, but messy.

A Treatise on Superfluous Things

December 15, 2013

We owe it all to Wen Zhenheng.  Everything we were taught in college about old Chinese porcelain being the pinnacle of the ceramic art.  Maybe it’s even true.

But Wen didn’t direct his lesson to modern European and American art students.  Wen sought to enlighten his own late Ming Dynasty’s growing ‘middle class.’  His task was tricky.  Wealth from trade with European devils had trickled down to mid-level functionaries.  It was an era of uncomfortable accommodation between the newly well off and the long-time well bred.

Of course the newcomers had no idea what they were doing.  Like their European trading partners, they desired the cultured trappings associated with porcelain.  Unlike Europeans, they knew enough not to settle for gaudy export stuff.  But without access Imperial wares, what were they to do?

Wen’s early 17th century “Treatise on Superfluous Things” showed them the way.  This “Do’s and Don’ts” compilation claimed to be the definitive arbiter of taste for the gentlemanly art of porcelain collecting (amongst other gentlemanly artistic pursuits).

True gentlemen only collected the finest porcelain, according to Wen – ie; porcelain made no later than 200 years before his time (early Ming or before).  The ideal piece should be “as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a chime.”   Wen and his peers emphatically believed in China’s past cultural superiority.  Anyone who owned old porcelain could feel connected to those days of yore.

But just owning fine porcelain wasn’t enough.  One had to show it off in the right way at the right time.  Certain vases could only be shown on tables “in the Japanese style.”  Nothing else would do.   One must “avoid vases with rings, and never arrange them in pairs.”  If flowers were included, “any more than 2 stems and your room will end up looking like a tavern.”

Wen’s dictums were strict.  They had to be.  Then as now, ostentatious wealth bred, more often than it suppressed, vulgarity.  Wen sought to protect cultural ‘insiders’ – that is, anyone who bought his book.

Centuries later Dale Carnegie, Martha Stewart, and even Bernard Leach bought in, each in their own unique way.  Yes, we owe it all to Wen Zenheng.

Early Ming

Readings:

Vermeers Hat. The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.