Posts Tagged ‘Indian Ocean Trade’

…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.