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Chinese Export Porcelain’s Long Journey from Early China

by Lisa Marion (01/24/09).

By Lisa Marion
WorthPoint Worthologist

Many moons ago as a novice collector of porcelain, I thought that the phrase “Chinese Export Porcelain” meant to include all items imported from China and primarily copies or imitations of European and American pottery. After reading several articles and books on the subject, and having visited numerous decorative-arts museums and private collections, I came to realize that this term is reserved for a much older line of porcelain wares, made in China, that actually were once the envy and basis of European porcelain makers to imitate, not the other way around.

19th-20th century blue-and-white Canton

19th-20th century blue-and-white Canton

Chinese Export Porcelain has attracted the interest of a growing number of collectors on a worldwide basis. Nowadays, auction houses in major cities regularly schedule sales devoted exclusively to Chinese Export Porcelain. Prices vary, depending on age and decorative appeal, provenance and of course, condition, and seem to keep escalating. A notable example: In 1786, George Washington purchased a 302-piece set of Chinese Export Porcelain for $150. In the early-20th century, Chinese export pieces of good quality could still be easily purchased at very reasonable prices.

Chinese exports drop

While Chinese porcelain exporting dates back to the early part of the 16th century, interest went down drastically between the 1850s and the 1900s, a period when imports to various Western countries virtually came to a halt. So much so that a major English authority on porcelain marks, William Chaffers, in his first edition of “Marks and Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain” (1863), erroneously identified this porcelain as having been made at a small factory in Lowestoft, UK. This attribution was made despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of pieces, still existing at the time, had been imported into England for many years prior to 1756 when the little Lowestoft works were established. The factory ceased to exist in 1802.

Chaffers’ erroneous attribution had one unfortunate effect: It was accepted as the gospel truth. Consequently, this pure Chinese porcelain was called Oriental Lowestoft or Chinese Lowestoft for almost 100 years, causing considerable confusion to antiques dealers and collectors alike. Today the term Chinese Export Porcelain is considered an accurate one since the porcelain was made in China, it was made for export, and it is true hard paste. This term has now been adopted by practically all leading international auction houses and galleries.

We have also taken extra steps in our attributions of related marks and items on our Marks4Antiques.com databases. It is important to note that at no time did this porcelain have a generic name in the manner of Bow, Chelsea, Spode or Meissen, which took the name of the factory or town where made. Before Chaffers, Chinese export china was referred to as India Company china in England.

The origins of Chinese porcelain

The manufacture of Chinese porcelain goes back a number of centuries, some experts say as early as 100 B.C. According to most historians, porcelain was made at different locations in China. But it was Emperor Woeng Wu (Ming Dynasty, circa 1368–1398) who selected the town of Ching-te Chen, on the P’oyang River in the province of Kiangsi, to build kilns for the organized manufacture of porcelain, initially destined for the royal palace. Soon afterward, other private factories were established near or around the area, and the town was to become known as “The Porcelain City.”

Ching-te Chen was surrounded with all the necessary elements for making fine porcelain. In the riverbed was an excellent quality of white clay (kaolin); in the hills a good quality of feldspar (petuntse) for the glaze, abundant ferns, the ashes of which were mixed with the petuntse to harden the glaze, and pigments for the porcelain. Also in the hills were coal and wood to fire the kilns. In addition, the location on the P’oyang river gave the town access through a series of waterways and overland trails to major seaports, including Canton, about 400 miles to the southeast.

18th-century vases with famille-rose decoration

18th-century vases with famille-rose decoration

Over the years the importance of Ching-te Chen grew substantially. In the 18th century, it is said to have had around 3,000 kilns and a population of a million people. In some ways, the city can be compared with the modern-day auto-manufacturing center of Detroit, Mich. Practically everyone was engaged in some aspect of the porcelain industry. A type of production line was developed in which each individual had one specific task to perform in the manufacture of a single piece, a method first used in the U.S. much later, in the late-19th century.

Export of Chinese porcelain made at Ching-te Chen began fairly early. A steady flow of exports, however, did not begin until the arrival of Portuguese merchants at Canton in 1517. When barred from the ports of Ningho and Chuan, the Portuguese established a trade post at Macao. Since 1557, this coastal city has been their private possession. In 1596 the Dutch reached Bantam, and in 1598 a Dutch fleet of eight ships sailed to trade with the Far East. The British East India Co. was set up in 1599 and established at Bantam in 1620. In 1698 the first French ship traded with the Far East.

In come the Europeans

In 1699, the Emperor Kang Hsi finally opened the port of Canton to foreign trade, and the English established the first hong, or factory, on the banks of Pearl River. The largest number of hongs at any one time was 13. They were two or three stories high with the first floor reserved for business and the storing of merchandise while the second and third floors were used for living quarters for the staff. No women were allowed at the hongs, and this restriction lasted until after the Opium Wars in 1841.

At first, with the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch merchants, all porcelain exported was of the blue-and-white variety, and the forms were largely of Chinese origin. It wasn’t long, however, before the trading nations began to order forms and shapes that were more appealing to the European taste. The merchants supplied the Chinese potters with wooden models as well as actual European items in silver, pewter, faience, etc., to be copied in porcelain. As early as 1639, records of the Dutch East India Co. show an order for 25,000 items was to be made from wood models supplied by the Dutch.

18th-cenury Fitzhugh tureen

18th-cenury Fitzhugh tureen

Much Chinese export porcelain survives today in near-perfect condition largely because of the extraordinary number of pieces shipped to the major European countries and, after 1784, directly to America. These literally run into the millions. In America, imports increased sharply after the Revolutionary War and again after the War of 1812. In Europe, however, the volume of trade steadily declined during the 19th century, and virtually came to an end when the town of Ching-te Chen was destroyed and most of the inhabitants slaughtered during the T’aip’ing rebellion in 1853. The town and the kilns were later rebuilt, but it never again attained its prominent position in the manufacture of porcelain.

Porcelain made closer to home

However, the principal cause of the decline in trade is due to the gradual takeover of the porcelain business by English and continental factories. The secrets of Chinese production were mastered, primarily by German and Dutch craftsmen. They were in a good position to satisfy the European and North American customers for two reasons: that of taste and promptness of delivery. Orders taken by the East India companies would generally be two years or longer to fill. English and continental manufacturers either carried the items in stock or could supply them on short notice at competitive prices.

At first, it was not easy for the Europeans to copy the glazes and the colors so expertly developed by the Chinese. Until late-17th century, almost all export porcelain was of the blue-and-white variety. After the kilns at Ching-te Chen were burned down by warring factions in 1675, they were rebuilt by the Emperor K’ang-his, and new colors were developed for decoration, most notably famille verte (green), and porcelain making reached a very high quality. Soon after, other colors such as rouge-de-fer and gold were developed, and the quality of the porcelain reached an even higher level. Later, between the 1730s and the 1750s, the beautiful famille rose colors and decoration were perfected.

19th-century Mandarin export porcelain bowls

19th-century Mandarin export porcelain bowls

At the same time, however, during the height of the trade, ship captains and managers (or super cargoes) were instructed to purchase pieces of heavier quality to reduce breakage in shipping. Concurrent with this change to heavier (and poorer) porcelain, the quality of decoration began its decline. The coarse, heavy porcelain, often with crudely decorated designs, bore little resemblance to that of fine eggshell quality and detailed decoration.

New designs were introduced at the end of this period and during the early part of the 19th century. Among them was the so-called Fitzhugh design in blue, green, orange, brown, mulberry, gold, black, yellow and combinations of colors, and the Rose Medallion design in which a piece is largely covered with large floral medallions in rose, greens and blues.

Mid-19th century, Rose Medallion detail

Mid-19th century, Rose Medallion detail

Other designs introduced at this time include the Mandarin, in which the floral medallions enclose Chinoiserie designs in colors similar to those of Rose Medallion, and a design of overall flowers, birds, and butterflies in shades of orange and brown which today is referred to as the Sacred Bird and Butterfly.

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One Response to “Chinese Export Porcelain’s Long Journey from Early China”

  1. jun zhang says:

    Lisa:

    It is pleasure reading your articles about China export porcelain. I am interested in studying this subjects, would like to talk to you in this regard.

    I look forward to your advise and reply.

    Thank you,

    Jun Zhang

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