Chinese Porcelain - Introduction

“And bird-like poise on balanced wing

Above the town of — King-te-tching,

A burning town or seeming so,

Three thousand furnaces that glow

Incessantly, and fill the air

With smoke uprising, gyre on gyre,

And painted by the lurid glare

Of jets and flashes of red fire.

“” Keramos.” Longfellow,

The manufacture of porcelain in China is said to have commenced during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 25 A.D.), but forall practical purpose, except in the celadon class, it is needless for us to concern ourselves with anything earlier than the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) ; and probably it is to the reign of the Tsing emperor, Kang-he (1661-1722), the second of the Tartar dynasty, that we must date most of the old specimens of Chinese porcelain now to be met with. There can be no doubt that China exported porcelain from very early dates ; and in 1280 Marco Polo saw it being made, and states it was sent all over the world. We find traces of this early trade in India, Persia, Egypt, the Malay Archipelago, and Zanzibar, while pieces may have reached Europe in this indirect way, but it was through the Portuguese in the sixteenth century that Europe first received consignments of china-ware via the Cape. The celadon cup, given to the New College, Oxford, about 1504-1532, is probably the oldest historical piece in England. In 1640, by the taking of Malacca from the Portuguese, the Dutch obtained supremacy in the far East, and for a time became the chief importers into Europe of Chinese products, to be followed later by our own East India Company. Sir A. W. Franks ” All we know the fabrics says, respecting of the former country [China] is derived from the valuable history of the manufactory of King-te-chin(Jingdezhen), prepared by a local magistrate in 1815, from older native documents, and which has been most ably translated and commented upon by  Stanislas Julien . . . but it will be seen that from want ;of specimens to refer to, and from the inherent obscurity of technical terms when translated into another language, little information is to be derived from it.”There can be no doubt that the Chinese themselves consider the manufacture of porcelain to have been at its best during the Ming dynasty, and to have reached its height in the Seuen-tik period from 1426 to 1436, but it is just a question how far their veneration for the past, and their love for anything ancient, may have biased them in arriving at this conclusion.
The Ming dynasty commenced in1368. It is,however,not till the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) that we can lay our hands on anything that will enable us to form a judgment of the Ming productions, and the few authentic pieces we possess of this period are certainly not equal to the productions of the Tsing dynasty. Peter the Great’s ambassador wrote in 1692, ” The finest china is not exported, or at least very and as this probably was the case in earlier times also, rarely ;we may perhaps have to make some allowance on this score, but the fact remains that we have no tangible proof of the superiority of the Ming wares. The Dresden collection was formed between 1694 and 1702, but as the Ming dynasty came to an end in 1644, the majority of the pieces probably belong to the Kang-he period (1661-1722) ; and, in the absence of any collection formed prior to 1644, we have no sure guide to what really was produced during the Ming period. The history of King-te-chin, already referred to, is divided into seven books, the third of which is devoted to the ” ancient porcelain imitated at King-te-chin,” while Pere d’Entrecolles says the mandarin in charge had reproductions made from yellow earth to imitate the heavy sea-green porcelain (celadon ?) of the Ming period, to send as presents to his friends at Court. There is no doub tthat during the Kang-he and later periods, very beautiful reproductions of what are known both here and in China as the Ming-styles were manufactured, while there is reason to believe that the date marks may at least be taken as some guide to what the Chinese considered to be the decoration of such pieces at the given period, although not to be depended upon as evidence of the age of the piece itself. This, of course, does not apply to pieces ordered by European traders to be made with ” marks regardless of decoration.

A glance at the chronological table will show that the state of affairs existing prior to the middle of the seventeenth century in Europe and the East would make the importation of chinaware in any large quantities into Europe a matter of impossibility. The Ming dynasty ended previous to 1644, so that before anything like a regular trade of any dimensions had been established with China, the Tsing dynasty was in power, and it was too late to obtain Ming pieces, except second-hand, when private owners parted with their household possessions. We must also remember that a large amount of Ming porcelain must have been destroyed with other property during the disturbed times at the end of the Ming dynasty. With the accession of the Tsing dynasty in 1644, we arrive at the half-way house in the history of Chinese porcelain, as known to us, although as far as the china we possess is concerned, it may probably be almost the starting-point. Kang-he, the second emperor, reigned for sixty-one years (1661-1722). He seems to have been a very able man,fond of art and science, willing moreover to avail himself of the assistance of the Jesuit missionaries; and it was probably their aid that porcelain manufacture, and to the introduction of several new colors.” It is said that two Jesuit lay brothers were at this time employed at the royal factories of King-te-chin. The fourth emperor, Keen-lung, reigned for sixty years (1736-1795), and a large quantity of fine china was made during this period, exhibiting ” rich and minute decoration.” The fifth emperor, Kea-king, reigned from 1786 to 1821, and although, as a rule, the production of this and the later reigns show diminished excellence, yet they were still capable of turning out line pieces, as proved by those taken from the Summer Palace. When porcelain was first introduced into Europe, the only thing they could compare it to was the polished surface of the cowrie shell, or porcellaiia, so called from its curved upper surface being supposed to resemble the rounded back of a porcella, or little hog, hence the name ” pigs.”

According to Per—e d’Entrecolles, porcelain was made of kaolin and pe-tun-tse the former being decomposed felspar of which took its ” from the hill granite, name, lofty ridge,” where it was found ; while the other was white, hard, fusible quartz that had to be pounded in mortars worked by waterpower. Both substances had to be washed and reduced by suspension and settlement in water to a paste, which was moulded into cakes or bricks for conveyance to the potteries. The kaolin is said to have been worked by four different families, whose names were stamped on their respective cakes.

On arrival at the manufactory, these cakes had again to be ground up with water, so that the kaolin and pe-tun-tse might be mixed in proportions according tothepasterequired. Soap- stone and other substitutes are said to have been used at times, probably with a view to reducing cost more than anything else. The glaze, we are told, was obtained by mixing the ashes of a fern that grew in the neighborhood with pounded pe-tun-tse, thus forming a silicate of flint and alkali. The Emperor Keen- lung sent an artist from Peking to make drawings of the whole process of the manufacture of porcelain as conducted at King- te-chin. These, twenty in number, commenced with the procuring of kaolin and pe-tun-tse, as also the preparing of the fern-ash and other ingredients for making the glaze. Forming the ware by lathe or mould was shown, as also the examination of the paste before firing, all inequalities being removed by hand, and the pieces so taken off being pounded and worked into a milky consistence, to be mixed by the painters with their enamel colors. Then came the painting of the pieces in all its details. The earthen cases for baking the ware in, as also the furnaces, open and closed, were illustrated, and finally, binding the ware with straw and packing it in tubs ready for sale, the series ending with the ceremony of the feast of the god of the furnaces, whose legend is as follows : Several models were sent from Peking to be copied at King-te-chin, but the shapes and sizes were such that they defied all the efforts of the workmen to reproduce them. The more the failures the greater was the desire of the then emperor to possess the pieces ordered, so rewards were promised and punishments freely administered, but all to no purpose. Reduced to despair, one of the workmen threw himself into the furnace and was consumed therein, but the ware then in course of baking came out perfect as required by the palace, so the unfortunate workman became the god of the furnaces. He is said to be depicted as a stout man, but does not seem to be portrayed upon the ceramics of his country as might be expected.

In addition to King-te-chin, there were many more manufactories of porcelain, the history of that name, already referred to, giving the names of fifty-six others, of which thirteen were in the province of Ho-nan, eight in Che-keang, and eight in Keang-see, King-te-chin itself being in the last-named province, and its shipping port, Nanking, which has thus given its name to the blue and white shipped therefrom, while the various other manufactories in the south exported their wares through Canton, which in like manner gave its name thereto. It may be well here to give some account of King-te-chin, which for hundreds of years was the chief centre of the porcelain trade, and the following is an epitome of the description given of it by Pere d’Entrecolles in 1717 : King-te-chin was situated one league from Feou-liang and eighteen from Iao-tchcou, in a large plain surrounded by high mountains, at the junction of two rivers, which formed a port or harbor, about a league in length, filled with boats. Like all places ending in te-clriu, it was not a walled city, but in other respects might well rank the largest and most populous in China, being said at that time to contain above a million inhabitants. It stretched along the above-named harbor, the houses being crowded into narrow streets, which, however, were laid out with some regularity,and the place had a very busy appearance. Although expensive to live in, as most articles had to be brought from a distance, still the poor flocked to it in search of employment ; children, the feeble, and even the blind found employment by grinding colors and in other ways, three thousand furnaces being at that time at work, which at night gave the town the appearance of being on fire.’ Fires were frequent, but the demand for houses and shops was so great that they were speedily rebuilt. The city seems to have been governed by one mandarin. Each street,or,if long,section thereof,had a chief with ten assistants, one for every ten houses, who were responsible to the head mandarin, their business being to maintain order and report all breaches thereof to the mandarin, who, for any neglect on their part, had the bastinado administered

Each of the streets or districts were barricaded at night, and no one allowed to pass without a given signal. The mandarin in charge of the city frequently went round, as also others from Feou-liang, to see that order was kept. Strangers were rarely allowed to pass the night in the city, and then had to stay with friends, who became answerable for their good conduct. As a rule, all strangers had to sleep in their boats.

This strict police supervision is said to have been on account of the wealth contained in the houses. King-te-chin was destroyed by the Tai-pings, but its prosperity seems to have been on the decline before that. Lord Macartney (1792-1794) passed near King-te-chin, and says there were three thousand porcelain furnaces there, but of course he may merely have been quoting from the above named author. However, it seems, at all events, even at that time to have been a very large manufactory. Writingin1837,GutzlafTtellsus: “Five hundred ovens are constantly burning, and emit during the night a flame which gives the region surrounding the appearance of a lake of fire. No place in China is thought to manufacture porcelain of equal excellence with that of King-te-chin, though several cities in Fokeen and Kuan-tung have endeavored to rival it in this production. . . . The wood has to be brought from a distance of three hundred miles. Provisions are extremely dear, and labour in equal proportion, so that several other places, situated more advantageously, have become successful rerivals in the manufacture of the article by supplying it at a cheaper rate.

Visit modern Jingdezhen, China and the Ancient Kiln Folk Customs Museumjingdezhen.