So good they called it China
Mentions of ‘Made in China’ still prompt the occasional grimace. The situation was the polar opposite for pottery five hundred years ago, when a Chinese origin was a mark of quality, not a cause for alarm.
Like silk before it, porcelain enjoyed stellar standing as one of China’s luxury exports, with a tougher texture than its stone and earthenware predecessors and a translucency that allowed for more refined designs.
Such was its association with the country in which it was produced (no one else knew how to make it) that buyers from English-speaking countries were soon simply calling it ‘china’. By the 1600s, demand from European polite society was so frenetic, noted Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, that anyone who could afford it was “piling china up on the tops of cabinets, escritoires and every chimney-piece, to the tops of the ceilings…”
When did the Chinese start making porcelain?
The legend is that someone stumbled on the secret after earthenware left on a fireside hearth was heated to high temperatures. Artisans then spent years working on ways to purify a small group of clays and mix them together in the right proportions, before scorching them in a kiln.
Petuntse, one of the key ingredients, binds the clay together so it’s hard and translucent, while kaolin lends the plasticity that allows the clay body to hold its shape.
First deployed regularly as a firing style under the Han, the Tang added artistic touches of their own, although porcelain didn’t appear in its more refined white-ware form until the Song, who made it at the ‘Five Great Kilns’ around China. Later the Ming would introduce the blue-and-white style that became so famous worldwide, mostly from the town of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi, where the porcelain was celebrated as being “as thin as paper, as white as jade, as bright as a mirror, and as sound as a bell”.
At the emperor’s behest
Jingdezhen had pine forests that provided fuel for the kilns and nearby mountains that were one of the few areas known to have pure kaolin. Initially most of the focus was on supplying the imperial court: in 1433 alone the town’s kilns were tasked with fulfilling an order of 433,500 pieces.
But the emperors realised the profit-making potential and they were soon keeping a close eye on production by protecting Jingdezhen’s monopoly rights. “They make it nowhere but in that town, and thence it is exported all over the world,” wrote Marco Polo.
Such was the control of the imperial court that it has drawn comparisons with state capitalism today, with the ‘Jingdezhen model’ used to describe how private sector firms are being squeezed out by state-owned rivals.
However, producing for the emperors also helped to keep standards high, with chipped or imperfect pottery soon piled up high around the city’s kilns. This unforgiving focus on quality means that Jingdezhen’s work is some of the most sought-after by collectors, including pieces like the Meiyintang ‘Chicken Cup’ (a small bowl for drinking wine, so-called because of the hen and cockerel in its design), which sold for $36 million in 2014.
There are just 17 of these cups surviving, which is why netizens were scandalised when a Chinese multimillionaire who had bought one at auction (paying for it with 24 swipes of his credit card) put it to immediate use to sip a little tea. “Emperor Qianlong has used it, now I’ve used it. I just wanted to see how it felt,” he explained at the time.
Porcelain pilfered: China’s stolen secrets
Jingdezhen still employs hundreds of thousands of people in its ceramics sector although it lost some of its allure when the Europeans purloined the secrets of porcelain making in the 1700s, helped by a French priest who spent a decade in the city spying on its production.
Back in Europe, efforts to replicate porcelain were led by Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony, who was so infatuated with Chinese pottery that he diagnosed himself with porzellankrankheit (porcelain sickness). Artisans fired the first porcelain in the town of Meissen in about 1710, drawing on a local source of kaolin, and factories soon began to undercut the prices of exports from Jingdezhen and rival it in terms of design and quality. The Chinese monopoly on the trade was lost.
Porcelain is just one of many Chinese inventions lost to subterfuge. More than a thousand years before, two Byzantine monks were said to have smuggled out the first silkworm eggs, hastening the demise of the silk monopoly. Shortly afterwards the secrets of papermaking would be surrendered by Chinese prisoners in the Middle East. Much later it was the techniques of tea-making that were pilfered by a Scottish botanist sent on a spying mission by the East India Company in the 1850s.
Of course, in recent decades it is the Chinese who have been accused – mostly by governments and companies from Europe, the US and Japan – of rampant intellectual property (IP) theft involving prized commercial secrets. History teaches us that over the centuries IP theft has gone in both geographical directions, though the techniques have clearly advanced, with sophisticated hacking of computer networks now preferred to sending botanists like Robert Fortune to China to spy (for a history of his exploits, read For All the Tea in China).
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