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The Spread of Ming Blue and white Porcelain: A Temporal and Spatial Perspective

By Wan Ming | 2013-08-01 | Hits:
(Historical Research)
Blue and white ceramic tiles at Sao Bento Train Station, Portugal
In researching the iconic blue and white porcelain which reached its heyday in the Ming Dynasty, Chinese and international scholars have traditionally focused on three aspects.
Addressing its place in art history, some scholars have examined the shape, ornamentation, and other characteristics of the porcelain, while others have taken a more archaeological perspective and worked to chart a chronology of different periods of production from analysis of the remains. Still others have explored the macro-economic impact of blue and white porcelain, studying its sale and influence abroad. While considerable academic achievements have been made in all three approaches, little attempt has been made at delineating the meta-picture of the porcelain’s spatial and temporal traversal vis-à-vis the backdrop of the tremendous material, socioeconomic and cultural changes of world civilization. With regard to its status as an international commodity, the extant literature has primarily focused on the 17th century; however, it was in the 16th century that blue and white porcelain became emblematic of Chinese earthenware. Its saturation of the global market is not only a striking cultural phenomenon, but also a representation of broader economic, social and cultural transitions.
Spatial expansion: from China to the world
Though it was first developed at the end of the Tang dynasty and came into maturity at the close of the Yuan dynasty, blue and white porcelain was by no means the leading porcelain in Chinese domestic tastes until its rise in the Ming Dynasty. Prior to that, white porcelain produced in the north and southern celadon had long been dominant. In conjunction with silver bullion becoming the legal currency during the early years of Emperor Jiajing’s reign (1522-1566), the Chinese domestic market saw unprecedented prosperity, while standardized currency enabled international trade to flourish.
Portuguese merchants who had reached China in the early 16th century became the first Europeans to trade silver for blue and white porcelain, and with the burgeoning domestic demand for the precious metal following the monetization of the silver tael, porcelain production continued to accelerate. China’s continuously expanding monetary needs both directly and indirectly fueled the development of silver mining in Japan and in North and South America. Meanwhile, blue and white porcelain production peaked under the reigns of Xuande (1426-1435), Jiajing, and Wanli (1573-1620). As it reached the apex of its popularity within China during Jiajing’s tenure on the thrown, maritime trade routes carried it to markets throughout the rest of the world. Among exported items, porcelain, the vast majority of which was blue and white porcelain, was second only to silk.
As the world’s largest economy in the 16th century, China’s use of the tael propelled the use of silver as the main vehicle for international settlement. Chinese blue and white porcelain had become a high-end global commodity, and its exchange in ports world-wide had instigated one of the fundamental steps in globalization.
Armorial porcelain and Kraak porcelain
Based on remnants overseas, two types of blue and white porcelain can be distinguished. The first type mimicked the features and ornamentation of domestic products. The second type was designed exclusively for international consumers and predominantly manufactured in Jingdezhen, in Jianxi province; this type includes both high-end armorial porcelain and the more economical Kraak porcelain.
Armorial porcelain was initially produced for trade to the Portuguese, primarily in the first half of the 16thcentury. The decorations on this porcelain were symbolic of the royal family, aristocracy and religious authorities, imbuing the pieces with political, social and cultural significance. Due to its high quality, this variant of blue and white porcelain mostly wound up in the mansions and estates of aristocrats.
Kraak porcelain first appeared around 1570s (now there is no clear evidence to show the exact time) and large quantities of Kraak porcelain were produced around the late Ming and early Qing period. This more affordable ware became very popular among the general populace in Europe, gracing tables in more European families. Pieces dating from the reign of Wanli can still be found in museums and private collections around the world.
Transmission of new technology, culture and knowledge
Blue and white porcelain is carrier of civilization and contains rich political, social and cultural connotation. For example, the bamboo and plum blossoms on Kraak porcelain are symbols of traditional Chinese ethics, values and culture.
The manufacture of imitation blue and white porcelain in Japan, Vietnam and Thailand and has been well studied, and scholars have also noted the appearance of workshops producing replicas in Italy and the Netherlands, as well as successful attempts to mold porcelain in Germany in 1710. However, it has been little known that blue and white porcelain copies were mass produced in Portugal in the early 17th century, and the exact start date of this practice is still unknown. According to Regina Krahl, a UK-based scholar of Chinese ceramics, an industry copying Chinese porcelain had already been established in Lisbon as early as 1619. The Chinese aesthetic continued to influence Portuguese taste from the end of the 16th century through the end of the 17th century.
Where authentic imports had been a luxury of aristocrats, these imitations made blue and white porcelain widely available to the general populace. Thus the Portuguese not only introduced Chinese blue and white porcelain to Europe (nearly 100 years before the Dutch), but also seemed to have taken the lead in imitation manufacture. In addition to the locales in Portugal, imitation manufacture also appeared in Spain and the American colonies. 
Given the Portuguese’ enthrallment with blue and white porcelain, it is worth considering whether there may be some link between Chinese ceramics and the simultaneous widespread use of blue and white ceramic tiles in Portugal. While Portuguese art history scholars have traced possible origins from Arabia, Spain, or the Netherlands, little consideration has been given to the possibility of Chinese influence. Certainly it seems like their concurrent popularity is more than a coincidence.
In its portrayal of world history during the 16th century, Western scholarship has long been celebrating the maritime and navigational accomplishments of western explorers and often ridicules China as backward and conservative during this time period. This is patently not true. In fact, when globalization began in the 16thcentury, China was neither in an inferior position nor marginalized; rather, her artisans were producing what would become timeless milestones in the evolution of world civilization. The temporal and spatial journey of blue and white porcelain represents one of the forerunning disseminations of culture, knowledge, and technology in the context of globalization. 
Wan Ming is from the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The full article in Chinese appeared in Historical Research. No. 339, Oct. 2012.
Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne