Posts Tagged ‘East India trade’

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.

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.