By Li Huibing
Chinese porcelain-making techniques have had a long history and tradition. Porcelain productions have undergone many changes, improvements and development. The development of porcelain was considered a grand contribution to the international world, and to the advancement of human civilization. China was recognized as the "Nation of Porcelain."
Since the establishment of the Tang dynasty in 618 A.D., following the reigns of Emperor Taizong and Emperor Xuanzong, China strived to advance themselves through new innovations. China became a strong power with a developed economy and a prosperous foreign trade. The porcelain production during this period not only met local needs, but was also able to provide for oversea markets.
Celadon of Yue kiln in Zhejiang province and white porcelain of Xing kiln in Hebei province were two major types of porcelain in the Tang dynasty. Porcelain became more popular in the Tang dynasty although upper class people still used commodities made of gold, silver and jade. Tang porcelain not only resembled the gold and silver commodities in shape, but also had jade-like and silver-like appearances. Lu Yu wrote in Cha Jing, the Tea Bible that "Xing porcelain looks like silver and the Yue porcelain looks like jade."
Porcelain production became more important as demands increased. Both celadon in the south and white porcelain in the north developed new varieties. From those varieties. Another noted white porcelain kiln called the Ding kiln came into being. In the Tang dynasty, Celadon of Yue kiln, white porcelain of Xing kiln and Ding kiln together with Changsha kiln in Hunan province became the major exported porcelain products. Among the different kinds of porcelain, porcelain of Changsha kiln was most influenced by exotic cultures, and therefore more rich and colorful. Although it had a shorter export history, the shape and decoration style were made to suit foreign taste, thus popular to the imported country.
In the beginning, the Tang dynasty did not intend to export porcelain for economic profits. The court gave out porcelain as gifts, however foreign countries admired Chinese porcelain and demanded for it. Later porcelain was exported through trades due to foreign demand. Before the opening of sea routes, porcelain export mainly relied on land transportation. However, in the Tang dynasty, it became easier to transport by sea, and advanced sailing techniques allowed large amount of porcelain to be exported. The sea route starting from Canton via Vietnam, Malay Peninsular to India, Ceylon and then Arabia was named "Hai Yi Dao, the Foreign Sea Route," through which the Chinese porcelain went to everywhere around the world.
In the Tang dynasty, the court appointed the Sea Trade Official (Shi Bo Shi) to manage tariffs. Foreign merchants could trade freely as long as they obeyed the Tang laws. During that time, many Chinese merchants began to do businesses abroad. Porcelain became the second largest export in all exported products, following silk. Many foreigners, especially those who had close trade relations with China, envied the Chinese for their porcelain. Sulaimain, an Arabian businessman wrote in his travel notes that "The Chinese can make a kind of utensil with clay, which is as transparent as glass. If wine is poured inside, it can be seen from the outside." These businessmen were connoisseurs of Chinese porcelain who would publicize the fine quality of Chinese porcelain, and therefore attract more foreign interest.
In the Tang dynasty, some countries were forbidden to use gold, silver and copper to make daily use items, and purchased porcelain from China instead, thus increasing the export of Chinese porcelain greatly. In the ancient site of Siras of the Abbasids dynasty, located near the Persian coast, many pieces of Chinese porcelain were excavated, especially Changsha kiln from Hunan province, but other types such as celadon and white porcelain were also found. They were probably brought to the Abbasids dynasty by Islamic businessmen after it was forbidden to use gold, silver and copper to produce daily wares. According to archeological documents, Tang celadon, white porcelain and Changsha porcelain were found in many sites along the sea route, including Kedah in Malaysia, Madras and Mysore in India,Siras in Iran, Samarra and Baghdad in Iraq. If we draw a line connecting all the cities on a map, we would find this route to be the same as the Foreign Sea Route that connected Canton and Persia. In addition, there was another sea route to the East that went from Mingzhou (now Ningbo) to Xinluo (now North Korea) and Japan. The Yue celadon excavated in North Korea,Kyoto, Nara and Fukuoka of Japan all proved the existence of this sea route.
The above mentioned porcelain of Changsha kiln is just an example of the ubiquitousness of Chinese porcelain. Siras in the Persian Gulf was a trade port in the Islamic time and experienced its most glorious time in the 9th century and mid 10th century. The excavated Chinese porcelain in Siras should have belonged to the Late Tang dynasty and Five Dynasties period. The pottery decaled pitcher from Changsha kiln and double eared jar represented the best features of Changsha kiln. Porcelain of this kind was also found in ancient sites of Southern Iran.
We also found the pottery decaled pitchers and double eared jars in the Chinese porcelain excavated from the Samarra site. The Samarra site, constucted in 836 A.D. used to be the capital of Abbasids dynasty in the 9th century, but was abandoned in 883 A.D.
The yellow glazed and brown colored decaled pitchers excavated in Yakushiji temple and Kyoto were also of great importance. The Yakushiji temple in Nara was burned down in 950 A.D., therefore the age of the excavated porcelain should have been dated before that time. The type of objects found in Kyoto was the same as that in Yakushiji, therefore it is assumed that they belonged to the same period.
The decaled pitcher excavated in Yong mae Isaland and Geongju in Korea represented most of the Changsha ware style. They can be dated back to the mid 9th century.
In 1970, the same type of Changsha ware was discovered in a tomb in Hanjiang county of Jangsu province. The dates of these ceramics were very similar to those of the above mentioned excavation.
Through many large scale excavations of Changsha kiln, archaeologists found many remains with hallmarks. For example, there is an inscription of "Yuan He San Nian," from 808 A.D. on a jar excavated in Dusipo site of Changsha kiln in 1978. At Lan'anzui site, a painted vase of fortune and luck with the inscription of "Da Zhong Jiu Nian" from 855 A.D. and a drum stand with the inscription "Da Zhong Shi Nian" from 856 A.D. were found. These hallmarks not only provided scientific proof for the production and export history of Changsha kiln, but also act as a reference to other excavated Changsha wares. They were all made in the same period.
In the Sung dynasty, China was once again united. The porcelain industry developed quite fast in conjunction to China's economic and commercial development and success. In order to meet the large demands for porcelain, kilns were built close to ports. People built many new kilns one after another in Guangdong province, Fujian province and other coastal areas. This shift of kilns from inner land to coastal cities shortened transportation time, thus reduced damage risk caused by long journeys. China was able to export porcelain in large quantity.
Chinese exported porcelain changed in designs and styles to suit foreign taste. Celadon of Longquan kiln was produced in large quantity, and it gradually replaced the old Yue celadon, becoming the primary exported porcelain. At the same time, the Bluish White porcelain of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province became an exported porcelain as well. Since then, the White porcelain of Ding kiln and Changsha Kiln of inner land gradually became non-exported items.
According to the book of Ling Wai Dai Da and Zhu Fan Zhi, during Southern Sung dynasty, there was another prospect for oversea trades and porcelain production. New kiln sites were established in Badu and Zhukou of Longquan county in addition to the original Longquan celadon site in Jincun. The most developed and busy sites were in Xikou and Dayao. Demands for porcelain increased as China gained reputation for its fine porcelain. The output of Longquan kiln alone could no longer meet the needs for celadon. New kilns were built near the three port cities-Canton, Quanzhou and Mingzhou. From Pucheng, Songxi and Zhenghe in Northern Fujian province to Fuqing, Xianyou, Nan'an, Putian near Quanzhou port, many kilns were built to produce celadon and bluish white porcelain. In Guangdong province, kilns were established in Canton, Nanxiong, Chao'an, Xunyang, Nanhai, Fushan, Sanshui, Gaohe, Xinhui, Fanyu, Zhongshan, Yangjiang, Dongxing, and Chengmai. In addition to bluish white porcelain, the main production of these sites was celadon imitating the Longquan celandon and Jingdezhen bluish white porcelain in style, decoration and glaze coloring. Many of Sung celadon and bluish white porcelain found in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea and Japan were made in Fujian and Guangdong provinces.
In the Northern Sung dynasty, the Sea Trade Department (Shi Bo Si) was established in main port cities including Canton, Hangzhou and Mingzhou to supervise overseas business. From the book Pingzhou Ke Tan, one can imagine the grand scene at that time:
There are several hundred people on the big ships and more than 100 on the small ships. The products are mainly ceramics with sets beside sets, almost no gaps in between.
Oversea trades in Yuan dynasty was based on the Sung exportation and expanded in size and destinations. The number of excavated Yuan porcelain from ancient sites of Southeast Asia exceeded far more than that of the Sung porcelain.
Quanzhou was the main port that handled with foreign businesses during both Sung and Yuan dynasties. A sea trade organization was established there in the Yuan dynasty. Quanzhou port became the center of oversea trade. The exported porcelain in Yuan dynasty was mainly made in the kilns Southeastern coastal areas, particularly in Longquan, Zhejiang province and Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. The development in transportation enabled many new kilns to be established near ports. These kilns made copies of the celadon of Longquan kiln and the bluish white porcelain of Jingdezhen. According to an incomplete statistics, there were over 150 Longquan kilns in the Yuan dynasty located along the Wa River and in Zhejiang district. It was the unprecedented glory in the history of Longquan kiln. Blue and white porcelain of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province soon became mature and began to be exported abroad.
The porcelain export of Yuan dynasty was recorded in Dao Yi Zhi Lue. (Wang Dayuan, Yuan dynasty) The porcelain was traded to dozens of countries and regions including Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Southern Iran, and even Mekka in Arabia. The exported porcelain of that time cam in different varieties and could be classified into celadon objects, bluish white decorated ware, bluish white porcelain objects and bowls and bluish white Chuzhou porcelain.
Wang Dayuan sailed to the countries along the southern sea in the Zhizheng period of Yuan dynasty and wrote Dao Yi Zhi Lue in 11 year span, starting from 1341 (the 1st year of Zhizheng period). Blue and white porcelain began to develop in Zhizheng period. The export of the blue and white porcelain was hardly possible before Wang Dayuan finished the book Dao Yi Zhi Lue. Only when the production of blue and white porcelain became mature in Jingdezhen, that export in large quantity was possible.. Some blue and white porcelain were excavated in the remains of above-mentioned countries and regions along Longquan celadon, bluish white porcelain of Jingdezhen and porcelain of costal areas. Late 14th century blue and white porcelain was also discovered in Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Turkey and some coastal countries along Eastern coast of Africa.
Since the 14th century, the center of China's porcelain production gradually moved to Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. In a way, the Blue and white porcelain replaced celadon of Longquan kiln. Blue and white porcelain became the exported porcelain. In Ming dynasty, Chinese porcelain was not only popular in Asia and Africa, but European countries also became importers of Chinese porcelain.
Practice of oversea trades was forbidden in early Ming dynasty. A well-established foreign sea trade began to deteriorate in the Yuan dynasty, however, the export of Chinese porcelain never stopped. Zheng He traveled seven times to more than 30 countries and districts in early Ming dynasty for political needs, and to strengthen trade relations with Asia and Africa. Although there was no official documentation of the total number of the porcelain on board, we can tell from the books written by Fei Xin and Ma Huan, who traveled with Zheng He that celadon, and blue and white porcelain were popular abroad. Ma Huan wrote in Yun Ya Sheng Lan that Java people loved Chinese blue and white porcelain the most. Vietnam, Sri Lanka bought blue and white plates and bowls from China. Porcelain trading venues were recorded in Xing Jie Sheng Lan.
In mid Ming dynasty, during Chenghua, Zhengde and Jiajing periods, unofficial trades were common and on the contrary, porcelain exports increased. Foreigners came to buy porcelain in China and Chinese merchants went abroad to sell porcelain. In the early 16th century, Portuguese was the main Western power in Far East Asia, which greatly influenced the export of Chinese porcelain to Europe. It was from that period that China began to produce porcelain according to the demands of foreign markets. In the Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company by T. Volker, Chinese porcelain was sent to Europe in large numbers and many consisted of custom made tableware. The Istanbul Museum in Turkey and the Ardebil Shrine in Iran were noted for their collection of valuable Chinese porcelain. The Ming porcelain collected in the Ardebil Shrine are dated from the early Ming dynasty starting from the Hongwu period to late Ming dynsasty in the Yongle period. Among the collections, the blue and white porcelain remained the most popular.
The earliest Ming porcelain in Europe with a reliable year mark is the celadon bowl in the Museum of Cassel. On the metalwork is the armorial pattern for a Count(1435-1455).The blue and white pitcher with armor belonged to King of Portugul, Manuel I (1469-1521). It is now collected in Lisbon and is the earliest custom made exported porcelain ever discovered.
Exported Ming porcelains found in Asia, specifically in Southeast Asia were not only Blue and white porcelain but also three colored porcelain with red, green and black upper glaze. These porcelain from Jingdezhen were daily used items made in Canton and coastal Fujian districts. There were also many pieces of exported Ming porcelain found in Japan. Both celadon of Longquan kiln and blue and white porcelain were found in the Philippines.
Ming porcelain was found in many African countries. Celadon and blue and white porcelain were excavated in Al-Fustat Site in Egypt, Somali, Ethiopian ancient city sites, and an ancient site near Kenya. Blue and white porcelain of Jingdezhen were found in Tanganyika site and Dehua kiln of Jingdezhen.
In the early Qing dynasty, Chinese porcelain was in great need from the international market. However, Emperor Kangxi adopted the strict policy of No Sea Business in his early reign because China at that time was politically unstable. The strict policy did not stop the porcelain trade, but encourage illegal smuggling instead. In the book Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company, it is said that many smuggling ships that came from Jakarta, Malacca and Johor took with them large quantity of porcelain. Since 1684 (23rd reign of Emperor Kangxi), porcelain export came back to its normal track with the reopening of sea transport. America, Africa and Australia all purchased Chinese porcelain that were carried through various channels. Borneo, Java, Sumatera and Malaysia became important markets for the export of Chinese porcelain. Not only was porcelain from Jingdezhen exported to Southeast Asia, but also those from Canton and Fujian province were exported too.
The increase in the European market is worth mentioning in the export history of Qing porcelain. At the end of Ming dynasty, Chinese porcelain began to be popular in Europe and reached a climax in early Qing dynasty, like the late 17th century. According to the statistics of the Dutch East India Company, it alone exported about 3,000,000 pieces of porcelain to Europe per year.
In the early 18th century, many European countries were allowed to establish companies in Canton. The first to open a company was the British East India Company in 1715, followed by France in 1728, Netherlands in 1729, Denmark in 1731 and Sweden in 1731. These countries all established their own East Indian Companies, and helped increase Chinese porcelain export. In the second half of the 18th century, countries like France, Germany, Italy, Britain and Austria began to imitate Chinese porcelain, but at an expensive cost. The comparatively low price, the custom made shape and decoration still enabled Chinese porcelain to predominate European markets in the early Qing dynasty. The Dutch East India Company in Canton would order products from China every year according to local demands. In 1759, the Swedish company asked the agent in Canton to buy heavy and durable porcelain. Dish sets and coffee sets were most popular. The shape, dimension and pattern of the porcelain were all stipulated in the contract. Sometimes, a wood porcelain model or a paper decoration pattern was provided to have the porcelain made accordingly.
The flourishing period of Chinese porcelain export did not last long. Since the first half of 19th century, especially after the Opium War, the Chinese porcelain industry began to decline. However, exchanges made through this porcelain trade should not be forgotten because it allowed people to connect with other and understand another through cultural exchanges.