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Chinese - English translation: Chinese Porcelain Goes West

Updated: Jun 20

This is one of my translations for the English language edition of Chinese National Geography Magazine, one of China's most popular and respected publications. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with the National Geographic. This magazine publishes very informative, but rather heavy, articles on China's history, natural environment, geology and anthropology. I translated for this publication for several years and learned a lot. This is one of my favourite translations.



I saw a fascinating object at a porcelain exhibition held at China National Museum once – a beer pitcher, or an ewer. It was a classic Chinese blue and white porcelain vase but a gold-inlaid handle decorated with a girl's figurine made it into a charming example of a fusion of Western and Chinese styles. In China, this kind of vessel is normally used to for tea. The English, however put a golden band on the neck, a golden button on the bottom part of the lid, and then added a handle in the shape of a graceful female figure. A tea receptacle metamorphosed into a beer pitcher.


Western influence on Chinese porcelain has a long history. The earliest or rather the earliest occasion that we know of, can be traced back to 1336. That year an embassy left Dadu (also known by the Mongol name Khanbaliq, the capital of Yuan Dynasty China, located in modern – day Beijing) to deliver a letter from the Yuan Dynasty Emperor Yuan Shun to the Pope Benedict XII. When the embassy was on its way to France, they passed through Hungary, and a - yuhuchunping a pear-shaped vase with a flared lip. was given to the Hungarian king, Louis the Great, as a gift. Even though the king appeared delighted his gift in public, privately he was not that interested in something so traditionally oriental. However, keeping in mind how valuable the gift was, he ordered his craftsmen to mount a handle and a lid turning the vase into a ewer, a beer pitcher. In Europe at that time these pitchers were very popular with the royals, the aristocracy and at the weddings.


The beer pitcher of Louis the Great is now on display in the National Museum of Ireland. It is known as the Fonthill Vase and is the earliest record of Chinese porcelain appearing in Europe. Even though the import of porcelain from China can be traced to the Tang, and even earlier, it was not until the Middle Ages that it reached Europe. The amount however, was extremely small, and porcelain usually arrived in Europe through the traders from the West of Asia and North Africa. Westerners, however, had no idea of the intended use of Chinese porcelain vessels and so they would modify them, turning these exotic items into something more familiar to their own tastes and customs. Eventually they could, based on their new requirements, order such items from China itself, and gradually the need to modify the originals disappeared.


Porcelain for order

Initially the vast majority of Chinese porcelain sold in Europe was made in Jingdezhen, a village in Jiangxi Province, and was not that different from the porcelain intended for the domestic market and use. From the early 16th century however, westerners, having made a great journey to arrive to China, started to place orders according to their own requirements.

From this moment the Chinese merchants realized that, in order to trade with the westerners, the design of the porcelain products had to be adjusted to the needs of the lifestyles of foreigners. Using all the channels and means available, the Chinese merchants tried to figure out what it was that the foreigners wanted. This is the process out of which kraak - style porcelain was born.


This very non-Chinese name – “kraak”, comes from a naval battle. In 1602 a Portuguese merchant ship was surrounded and attacked by half a dozen Dutch warships in the Straight of Malucca. This ship belonged to Carrack (Carrack is the English rendering of the word, and kraak - Dutch, but the name originally comes from Arabic qaraquir) type of vessels, which sailed in the Mediterranean during the Renaissance. In this uneven battle to Portuguese ship was unable to resist for long and was quickly taken as a prize by the Dutch.


When the victorious Dutch examined their booty, they found a cargo of over one hundred thousand items of blue-and-white Ming Dynasty porcelain. The porcelain had been intricately painted by Chinese craftsmen according to the requirements of the visiting Portuguese merchants, carrying a design very different from that on traditional Chinese porcelain. This porcelain later came to be known in Europe as kraak – style porcelain, from the type of the ship on which it had been discovered by the Dutch. Later this looted porcelain was snapped up in Amsterdam by well-to do customers from every corner of Europe.


The Dutch ordered a great variety of porcelain products. In China National Museum I found a porcelain tray ordered by a Dutch sailor. A merchant ship, sailing on the azure waters was painted on the bottom of the tray. The blue white and red Dutch tricolour was raised on the stern, and the flag of the Dutch East India Company was flying on the three masts of the ship. The 17th century saw the incredible boom of the Dutch maritime trade and their influence gradually reached the shores of the Orient. After a period of fierce competition with the Portuguese and the Spanish, the Dutch eventually took the position of the leading European maritime trading nation, and seizing Taiwan and establishing permanent trading stations gave the Dutch easy access to Chinese porcelain.

We can get a glimpse of the history of Chinese porcelain made for foreign customers from “Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company” published in 1954. In October that year a Chinese porcelain merchant travelled to Taiwan to do business with the Dutch. The Dutch provided a list of the items they wanted, in hope that the kilns of Chinese craftsmen would be able to produce Dutch – style porcelain wares. The book shows which porcelain items the Dutch wanted -trays, large bowls, vases, jars, utensils, etc. The Dutch promised that, if Chinese craftsmen could produce quality copies of the samples they provided, they would offer a price several times above the going market rate.


This is how this Western-influenced Chinese porcelain first appeared. Later this industry, making porcelain to western specifications and for foreign markets, reached an enormous scale.


Jingdezhen – the Pottery Capital

The porcelain trade with Europe depended entirely on Chinese intermediary traders. Such traders from Jingdezhen, in Jiangsu Province, signed an agreement with foreign merchants. Jingdezhen businessmen would then pick what they wanted from the kilns in Jingdezhen and Guangzhou.


The porcelain orders would be negotiated between porcelain makers and professional porcelain brokers. A successful negotiation would result in signing of a ci piao, or Porcelain Invoice, which recorded the amount of porcelain involved in the deal, and the buyer would then arrive at the appointed time to choose the product. If some items had faults, or the colour was not up to standard, there was no need for the buyer to worry. The porcelain maker would replace any such items, in order to honour the amount written on the Porcelain Invoice. During the end of the Ming Dynasty era, foreign navigators opened up new maritime routes, and Jingdezhen’s foreign trade developed and grew – according to the statistics of that time, Jingdezhen exported, on average, over a million items of porcelain, undoubtedly becoming the world’s capital of porcelain making.


The period of the dynastic change from Ming to Qing Dynasty was marked by social unrest and general instability. The Manchurian conquerors, the Qing, in order to weaken the Ming’s ability to resist, cut off their revenue by banning the overseas trade. The 1656 Qing decree banning sea trade also announced the forced exile of coastal residents inland.

Porcelain exports from Jingdezhen were severely affected by these two measures – between 1644 and 1662 the volume of porcelain exported from China fell to 30% of pre-1644 (the first year of the Qing rule) levels, and further to 25% between 1662 and 1682.


Western hunger for porcelain, however, did not wane and the foreign traders turned their attention to neighbouring Japan. Having studies samples of Chinese porcelain, in 1616 the Japanese craftsmen succeeded in making their own. Soon afterwards large-scale production followed, and, as Japanese porcelain was based on Chinese prototypes, both the models and the painting on the porcelain were similar to those made in Jingdezhen. This forced retreat of Jingdezhen from the world porcelain market gave Japanese porcelain industry a crucial window of opportunity for expansion – in 1650 the Dutch East India Company ordered just 145 items of porcelain from the Japanese, but nine years later it was almost sixty thousand. Japanese porcelain, known in Europe as Imari porcelain, named after Japanese port from which it was exported, became extremely popular, and succeeded in replacing Jingdezhen porcelain in Europe.


Jingdezhen’s misfortune, however, was short-lived. In 1685 the Qing reversed their ban on maritime trade, removing the barriers to porcelain export from China. The Chinese discovered the Europeans’ new love of densely patterned, colourful Imari porcelain. The Chinese craftsmen adapted to this new trend and soon learned to reproduce the Imari style.

Interestingly, the Europeans, in order to save time, would place the same order in both China and Japan. Yet the same specifications for form and design, put through the hands of Chinese and Japanese craftsmen, yielded very different results. Compared to Chinese kilns, their Japanese counterparts, used to fire Imari porcelain, were more expensive, less durable, and when firing under high temperature conditions, the kilns could not support high stacking of wares (usually stacking of just three or four layers was possible). Compared to Chinese kilns, made from refractory clay, the cost of porcelain made in Japan was several times higher. Moreover, the sources of fuel for the kilns started to run out in Japan. From the middle of the 18th century onwards, the competition with resurgent Chinese porcelain gradually put an end to the industry of Japanese Imari porcelain.


The decline

There is another very interesting exhibit in the National Museum of China – a so-called hong punch bowl. “Punch” here refers to the alcoholic drink, but what is a “hong”?

Hong bowls are porcelain bowls lavishly decorated with scenes of European trade in China. The patterns depict the so-called hongs, flying the flags of six European nations – Great Britain, France, Holland, Sweden, Austria and Denmark. “Hong” means trading house, also known as “factories” (not to be confused with the tradition use of the word “factory”) which were the premises rented out to foreign merchants in Canton (now Guangzhou). Foreigners were still banned by the Qing government from entering Canton itself, and so their lives and trade were confined to these hongs during the trading season (June to December). During this period, foreign vessels would come to Canton, disarm, and then Chinese junks would transport both the foreign traders and the gods from the factories to the ships.


In 1757 the Emperor Qianglong banned westerners from all ports in China except for Canton, channelling all foreign trade, including Jingdezhen porcelain, through this port. The Qing government then allowed just thirteen factories (hongs) to operate just outside Canton, ran by Qing officials. Foreign merchants coming to China for porcelain would have to go through one of these thirteen hongs, which would transmit the westerners’ requirements for porcelain wares, including the design, the style, and the patterns, to Jingdezhen. In other words, westerners could no longer communicate with Jingdezhen directly.


The designs that the Europeans requested included traditional Chinese ones, but also those popular in Europe at that time, including paintings, engravings and sketches that the customers then wanted to be reproduced on the porcelain. Chinese craftsmen would then painstakingly follow the specifications given – the size, the position, and the minutiae of the image. However, despite all their skill, these Chinese craftsmen themselves had no interaction with Western culture, so and experienced great difficulty understanding these European designs, so different from anything they were used to. Some patterns and motives they were able to reproduce faithfully, but others unintentionally came out somewhat “modified”.


Especially difficult were the blueprints which involved complex heraldry – brought to Jingdezhen by Guangdong merchants, these puzzled the craftsmen, making their precise reproduction very difficult, and leading to many imperfections in detail. The porcelain makers had no knowledge of European languages, and so designs involving text and words were often full off errors. An example is a porcelain tray which proudly says ENGLANDT (instead of ENGLAND), an error which must have mightily displeased the royal or aristocratic customer, who often ordered such wares.


Another problem were the distance and the difficulty of the travel from Canton to Jingdezhen at that time, and porcelain wares would often arrive damaged or broken.

Therefore, in order to better satisfy the demands of the foreign traders and reduce the losses suffered during transportation, Chinese merchants set up porcelain processing workshops in Canton were painting could be applied to white porcelain. Great quantities of unpainted porcelain were transported from Jingdezhen to Canton, were they were then painted and elaborated, simplifying the work of the Chinese intermediary traders and reducing the transaction time. This porcelain became known as guangcai – wares produced in Jingdezhen, but painted in Guangzhou.


At first guangcai did not differ much from Jingdezhen porcelain, but eventually it acquired its own unique style. By around 1821 guangcai industry reached its peak, and guangcai now combined both Chinese artistic tradition and the essence of European art. Canton traders learnt European style and tradition and started to depict European designs on Chinese porcelain, in some cases even fusing European military heraldry with Chinese traditional painting as a background.


Workshops were located mostly on the southern bank of the Pearl River, and so the people came to call the porcelain produced there henancai, or “south bank porcelain”. There were up to a hundred craftsmen labouring in each workshop, including both old men and children as young as six or seven. Each workshop included a studio, a drafting room and a packaging room, but the conditions were extremely basic, some such workshops were no more than a long shack with nothing but a roof for shelter. Craftsmen toiled there with their brushes, faithfully reproducing the images which had travelled across the world from far-away Europe. All kinds of adornments were also added to the wares, as well as golden inlays. In the middle a large white space would be left, reserved for the European masters to add their own touch later, when the porcelain arrived in Europe.


After almost four centuries of booming trade, the export of porcelain from China, both completed wares and those left unpainted for the European masters to complete, started to wane, as Europe grew less and less reliant on Chinese producers. By the end of the 18th century Europe acquired its own porcelain making capability which then quickly developed into a successful industry. Moreover, the import of Chinese porcelain, formerly a welcome, exotic treasure, was now subject to heavy import duty, making trade unprofitable.


China’s days of porcelain superpower were gone forever, it kept losing its share of the world market, and when the Republican Era started it was the Chinese market that was now flooded with Western porcelain. According to the Records of Jingdezhen Porcelain Trade, Western porcelain was greatly sought after by the Chinese at that time. The warehouses of the treaty ports of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuhan were full off porcelain imported from abroad, which became part of the life of common citizens in China.


China and the West are different. So different, in fact, that they have been called different civilizations. On the surface of porcelain, however, the artistic expressions of these different civilizations not just seamlessly fused together, but enhanced and complemented each other, leaving both Chinese and Westerners not only a beautiful art form to enjoy and a great history to explore, but also creating a powerful example that seemingly insurmountable differences in culture and language are actually not that insurmountable after all.

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