Posts Tagged ‘export ware’

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.

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.