Posts Tagged ‘China Trade Porcelain’

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.

Dinner with George Washington

June 30, 2013

Being George Washington meant dealing with a constant stream of visitors.  Some were invited, many were not.  Some stayed an hour, others stayed several days.  A true gentleman required sufficient accouterments to properly entertain such hoards.  Washington kept up appearances with the latest fashions from England – except during those years when imports from London dropped off dramatically.

Washington bought hefty batches of fashionable English salt glazed white stoneware through his purchasing agent Thomas Knox in Bristol long before an independent America took top spot in the Chinese porcelain trade.  One order alone was for 6 dozen “finest white stone plates,” 1 dozen “finest dishes in 6 different sizes,” 48 “patty pans” in 4 sizes, 12 butter dishes and 12 mustard pots, plus mugs, teapots, slop basins, etc.

Salt glazed white stoneware appeared during the 1730’s, once the necessary materials were available.  Specifically, rock salt from Cheshire (after 1670), white ball clays from Devon and Dorset (after 1720) and calcined flint.  Just as this fine grained clay body came into use, so too did plaster molds.  By 1740 press molded salt white stoneware was all the rage.  It was cheaper than porcelain and sturdier than delft.  Salt white soon toppled delftware’s predominance – and was just as quickly supplanted by creamware

Thus marked the inception of the “dinnerware set” and the quantum leap from craft pottery to factory production.  Once cracks appeared in porcelain’s allure, China’s fortunes also waned.

Back at Mt. Vernon Washington’s order arrived, leading him to fire off a note to Knox on January 8, 1758:  “The Crate of Stone ware don’t contain a third of the pieces I am charg’d with, and only two things broke, and every thing very high charg’d.”  Despite this, another order followed:  “½ doz’n dep white stone Dishes sort’d” and “3 doz’n Plates deep and Shallow.”  (Deep = soup bowl, shallow = dinner plate.)

The January 8 note hints at another, more practical, reason for such large orders.   Pots jammed into wooden crates and tossed into ships’ holds for transatlantic shipment could suffer considerable breakage.  Buyers needed plenty of ‘spare parts.’

Salt white’s history is interesting, but that last comment gives pause for thought.  If potters today didn’t go bubble wrap crazy when packing for UPS, how would that affect our average order size?

  Salt White Plate

Readings:
Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

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

Salt Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  Janine Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2009.

 

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.