Enchanting Expeditions: Chinese Trade Porcelains across the Globe

Curator: Dr. Guanyu Wang (Associate Curator (Antiquities), Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

By Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The Age of Discovery in the 16th century is closely associated with adventures, wealth, travel, and exoticism. What does this fascinating age have to do with the ubiquitous porcelains in our lives? This online exhibition features over 20 exhibits from "Enchanting Expeditions: Chinese Trade Porcelains across the Globe", which takes the viewer on a time-travelling worldwide journey to see how Chinese porcelain came to charm the world.

Encountering Oriental Wonders (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Encountering Oriental Wonders

At the end of the 15th century, Portuguese explorers sailed along the newly discovered route past the Cape of Good Hope to reach the East African coast for the first time, and thereupon began the exploration of sea routes to the Orient.

The decline of tributary trade sponsored by the Ming court led to the flourishing of private trade and the export of porcelain regained prominence. Jingdezhen wares popular in Asia became the first major type of porcelain the Portuguese encountered. 

Oval covered box with floral scrolls in underglaze blue (Ming, Hongzhi to Zhengde (1488-1521))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Oval covered box with floral scrolls in underglaze blue│Ming, Hongzhi to Zhengde (1488-1521)

Portugal’s first introduction to China’s porcelain was mainly blue-and-white porcelain like this covered box.

Large dish with qilin and florals in underglaze blue (Ming, Hongzhi to Zhengde (1488–1521))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Large dish with 𝑞𝑖𝑙𝑖𝑛 and florals in underglaze blue│Ming, Hongzhi to Zhengde (1488-1521)

This underglaze blue large dish is also an early type of exported porcelain to Portugal, and similar styles can be found in the pyramidal ceiling of the Santos Palace, Lisbon, Portugal.

Yuhuchun vase with cranes and deers in underglaze blue (Ming, Jiajing (1552))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

𝑌𝑢ℎ𝑢𝑐ℎ𝑢𝑛 vase with cranes and deer in underglaze blue│Ming, Jiajing (1552)

In early- to mid- 16th century, the Portuguese royal family and other dignitaries began to commission porcelain in Jingdezhen. This initiated direct Sino-European interactions on the manufacture and consumption of porcelain.

Portuguese inscription of "ISTO MANDOU FAZER JORGE ALVRZ NA ERA DE 1552 REINA" (Jorge Alvrz had this made in year 1552 of the reign [of King John III])

Jorge Alvares was a Portuguese dignitary, a merchant who was active in the East, and a writer. 

In the late 16th century, the Medici family gifted a bottle with similar longevity motif (pine, crane, and deer) to the French court, which is now in the collection of the Louvre Museum. The Medici soft-paste piece had most probably been inspired by this exhibit.

Thriving Country of China (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The Thriving Country of China

Mid-Ming dynasty onwards, strong purchasing power of the domestic market brought porcelain production to its prime in kiln centres nationwide. With the arrival of foreign merchants from Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands etc. and the opening of trading routes, demand and potential profit for porcelain trade escalated, causing the international distribution of porcelain from various kiln sites. 

In Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, orders from the court beyond the imperial kilns’ capacity were assigned to capable private kilns since the Jiajing period (1522-1566). The boundary between imperial and private kilns was broken. High-quality porcelain with innovative design and diversified form comparable to imperial wares were supplied to the new European market and became sought-after items among the nobles and Royal families of Europe.

Dish with qilin and dragons in underglaze blue SurfaceArt Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Dish with 𝑞𝑖𝑙𝑖𝑛 and dragons in underglaze blue│Ming, Wanli (1573-1620)

A Jingdezhen production.

Dish with qilin and dragons in underglaze blue BottomArt Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The dish is painted on the back with delicate floral pattern and the “Daming Wanli nianzhi” mark.

Bowl with beaded tassels in overglaze wucai enamels outside and underglaze blue border inside the rim (Jiajing to Wanli reign (1522–1620), Ming dynasty)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Bowl with beaded tassels in overglaze 𝑤𝑢𝑐𝑎𝑖 enamels outside and underglaze blue border inside the rim│Ming, Jiajing to Wanli (1522-1620)  

This bowl was also produced in Jingdezhen. The pattern inside is in underglaze blue and its exterior is in overglaze wucai.

Porcelain with overglaze designs (in particular wucai five-colour enamels and gold decorations) radiant with opulence and glory conquered first the Asian market and later, won the admiration of royals and nobilities in Europe.

Apart from Jingdezhen, kilns of Zhangzhou and Dehua, which located closely to Yuegang (Moon Harbour) in Zhangzhou, Fujian, rapidly rose to prominence.

Pomegranate-shaped covered box surmounted by a monkey-shaped knob in susancai glaze (Late Ming (ca. 1550–1644))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Pomegranate-shaped covered box surmounted by a monkey-shaped knob in 𝑠𝑢𝑠𝑎𝑛𝑐𝑎𝑖 glaze│Late Ming (ca. 1550-1644)

This type of susancai (“plain three colours” with no red enamel) covered box was mainly exported to the Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, which is one of the target markets for Zhangzhou kiln porcelain.

Large bowl with birds and flowers in overglaze wucai enamels (Late Ming (ca. 1550–1644))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Large bowl with birds and flowers in overglaze 𝑤𝑢𝑐𝑎𝑖 enamels│Late Ming (ca. 1550-1644)

Zhangzhou kilns also manufactured wucai (“five colours”) porcelain like this piece for the Asian market, which were popular primarily in Japan, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

At the transition of the 16th to 17th centuries, a specific type of blue-and-white porcelain quickly took the lead. Featuring panelled decorations, this Kraak porcelain, as we now know it, became ubiquitous. It was produced in both Jingdezhen and Zhangzhou.

Large dish with phoenix and the sun in underglaze blue Surface, From the collection of: Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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Large dish with phoenix and the sun in underglaze blue Bottom, From the collection of: Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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Large dish with peony and geese in underglaze blue, From the collection of: Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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Large dish with peony and geese in underglaze blue, From the collection of: Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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Kraak type porcelain from Jingdezhen and Zhangzhou is similar in decorative style and visual effect but the product of Jingdezhen (below) is of significantly higher quality than the one from Zhangzhou (top).

Guanyin in transparent glaze (Late Ming to early Qing (17th century))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

𝐺𝑢𝑎𝑛𝑦𝑖𝑛 in transparent glaze│Late Ming to early Qing (17th century)

This piece is the production of the Dehua kilns in Fujian, which is best known for its monochrome milky white glaze (commonly known as “Blanc de Chine”).

Lion in transparent glaze (Late Ming to early Qing (17th century))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Lion in transparent glaze│Late Ming to early Qing (17th century)

The Dehua wares were popular in both domestic and overseas markets, including in Europe and America. Similar examples have been unearthed at Spanish onshore sites.

Zisha teapot (Qing (1644–1911))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

𝑍𝑖𝑠ℎ𝑎 teapot│Qing (1644-1911)

Zisha teaware produced in Yixing, Jiangsu province gained popularity in Asia and Europe since the 17th century.

Manufacture and Transport of Porcelain (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Manufacture and Transport of Porcelain

The raw material and production technology of Chinese porcelain had remained a secret to foreigners for a long period of time, even when great efforts had been made to make secret enquires or records about porcelain manufacture. The French Jesuit Père Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles sent the information to Europe with material samples in early 18th century. This section will introduce the manufacture and transport of porcelain by export paintings on loan from the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Raozhou Prefecture (which supervises porcelain affairs) - Loan from The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Raozhou Prefecture (which supervises porcelain affairs)

An official has just arrived with his retinue at Raozhou Prefecture, in which one could find Fuliang County, where the porcelain town of Jingdezhen was located. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, orders of porcelain for use at the Royal Court and domestic and overseas market were all sent to Jingdezhen through Raozhou Prefecture.

Shooting the rapids - Loan from The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Shooting the rapids

A porcelain laden ship is shooting the rapids. A storm is raging, and two boatmen are needed to hold the rudder while two others are steering the ship away from the rocks with long poles. The merchant watches anxiously from inside the cabin. These ships would sail along the Chang River to enter Poyang Lake, and then sail southward along Gan River until arriving at Nan’an Prefecture (today’s Dayu county) in southern Jiangxi.

Surmounting the mountain pass - Loan from The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Surmounting the mountain pass

Jiangxi province borders Guangdong along Dayu Mountains. After sailing to Nan’an Prefecture in Jiangxi, the porcelain is collected from the ships and carried by porters over the mountain pass to reach Nanxiong Prefecture in Guangdong, where it is reloaded into boats and shipped along Pearl River System to arrive at Guangzhou (then known as Canton).

Painting porcelain for export in a variety of colours - Loan from The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Painting porcelain for export in a variety of colours

Cantonese artisans are decorating plain white porcelain from Jingdezhen with overglaze enamels. During the middle Qing period, these “Canton enamelled ware” (“Guang cai”) featuring a colourful palette and often decorated with gold became popular. Foreign merchants active in Guangzhou were able to directly commission special decorations for their European customers.

European merchants at a porcelain shop - Loan from The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

European merchants at a porcelain shop

Here, European traders are approaching a porcelain shop in Guangzhou, probably to purchase porcelain. Two attendants are each holding a large sack which we can surmise, might be filled with silver coins.

Braving the Ocean Waves (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Braving the Ocean Waves

Porcelain products arrived at southeast coastal ports from various kiln centres overland and by waterways and embarked on their global journey. Less fortunate ships wrecked and consigned to the bottom of the ocean, until discovery and salvage opened the “time-capsule” to reveal the primary porcelain types traded to different markets at different periods. This section features recovered porcelains from 7 shipwrecks, 3 of them will be introduced in this online exhibition.

Ca Mau Shipwreck

A Chinese merchant’s junk that sank off the coast of Cau Mau province, Vietnam, during the Yongzheng  reign (1723-1735). It was probably on her way from Guangzhou to Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia), the centre of the Dutch East India Company's trading network in Asia.  Around 130,000 pieces of porcelain were recovered,

Saucer with scene from Romance of the Western Chamber in underglaze blue - Ca Mau shipwreckArt Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Saucer with scene from 𝑅𝑜𝑚𝑎𝑛𝑐𝑒 𝑜𝑓 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑊𝑒𝑠𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑛 𝐶ℎ𝑎𝑚𝑏𝑒𝑟 in underglaze blue│Qing, Yongzheng (1723-1735)

mostly Jingdezhen products such as blue-and-white porcelain, porcelain with underglaze-blue painting and brown glaze (Batavia ware) , porcelain with brown glaze and colourful enamels, and white porcelain with wucai (“five colours”) or susancai (“plain three colours”) enamels. Also represented are porcelain figurines.

Geldermalsen (Nanking Cargo)

The trading ship of Dutch East India Company struck a reef and sank in the South China Sea in 1752 when she was carrying a cargo of Chinese ceramics, tea, and gold ingots from Guangzhou to Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. About 150,000 pieces ceramics were uncovered,

Set of cup and saucer with wild geese and landscape in underglaze blue - Geldermalsen shipwreckArt Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Set of cup and saucer with wild geese and landscape in underglaze blue│Qing, Qianlong (1736-1795)

mostly products from Jingdezhen, which include blue-and-white porcelain, Batavia ware, and Chinese Imari porcelain. The cargo also includes near a thousand pieces of coarse quality porcelainware from other kilns in south China, which were probably intended for the Dutch bases in the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

Tek Sing Shipwreck

The Chinese junk ran aground in 1822 on a reef off Bangka Island near Sumatra, on her way from Xiamen (aka Amoy) in Fujian, China to Batavia. Over 190 passengers and crew were rescued by the English East Indiaman Indiana, and the wreck was thus documented in Western records, which is exceptional for Asian vessels. 

Zisha teapot - Tek Sing shipwreck (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

𝑍𝑖𝑠ℎ𝑎 teapot│Qing, Daoguang (ca. 1822)

About 350,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain were raised, mostly blue-and-white porcelain from the Dehua kilns in Fujian, for the Asian market. But there were also large zisha wares like the present piece. 

International Fashions (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

International Fashions

Chinese porcelain became a global commodity from the 17th century onwards, including in the New World of the Americas and contributed to the development of Chinoiserie, which, to varying degrees, altered the way of life and aesthetic tastes of the world.

Dish with hawk and hare in underglaze blue and overglaze wucai enamels (Tianqi reign (1621–1627), Ming dynasty)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Dish with hawk and hare in underglaze blue and overglaze 𝑤𝑢𝑐𝑎𝑖 enamels│Ming, Tianqi (1621-1627)

This dish was designated for the Japanese market.

A layer of brown glaze was added to its rim to fix the poor bonding of the body and the glaze.

Covered box with deity figure in overglaze famille rose enamels (Qing, Qianlong (1736–1795))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Covered box with deity figure in overglaze 𝑓𝑎𝑚𝑖𝑙𝑙𝑒 𝑟𝑜𝑠𝑒 enamels│18th to 19th century

This covered box was primarily for the Thai market.

It is brightly coloured with the iconography of a deity.

Dinner service with willow pattern in underglaze blue (Qianlong reign (1736–1795), Qing dynasty)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Dinner service with willow pattern in underglaze blue│Qing, Qianlong (1736-1795)

Blue-and-white porcelain dinner service became a must-have item in royal and noble families in Europe.

Western designers designed their own "Chinese patterns" with reference to Chinese goods they have access to, such as export paintings. 

Cup and saucer with crucifixion of Jesus (Qing, Qianlong (1736–1795))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Cup and saucer with crucifixion of Jesus│Qing, Qianlong (1736-1795)

Biblical stories and Greek mythology were popular decorative patterns in Europe.

This set of cup and saucer adopted the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the theme.

Tea service with the arms of the Sichterman family in overglaze black enamel and gilt (Qianlong reign, Qing dynasty, dated 1740–1745)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Tea service with the arms of the Sichterman family in overglaze black enamel and gilt│Qing, Qianlong (1740-1745)

This set of exhibits shows an example of tea service sold to Europe.

The squirrel pattern on the tea service is the coat of arms of Jan Albert Sichterman from Groningen, Netherlands.

Tea culture in Europe is different from China, and many condiments will be added to tea. This kind of "drinking afternoon tea" culture later spread to China.

Cup with united coat of arms and florals design in overglaze famille rose enamels (Qing, Qianlong (1736–1795))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Cup with united coat of arms and florals design in overglaze 𝑓𝑎𝑚𝑖𝑙𝑙𝑒 𝑟𝑜𝑠𝑒 enamels│Qing, Qianlong (1736-1795)

The coat of arms originated on the European battlefield during the Middle Ages, around the mid-12th century, which also symbolized the honour of the family and became a prevalent Chinese export porcelain style during the 17-19th centuries.

The decorative pattern on this cup is the coat of arms of Hale from United Kingdom impaling Dissert from Scotland.

Profound Impact of Chinaware (2022)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Profound Impact of Chinaware

Early 18th century, after the first European hard-paste porcelain was created in Meissen, Germany, ceramic factories across Europe enthusiastically engaged in the imitation of various Chinese porcelain products such as zisha tea-ware from Yixing, porcelain with underglaze blue or overglaze polychrome enamels from Jingdezhen, and white porcelain from Dehua.

Pair of quatrefoil dishes with flowers in overglaze wucai enamels of Kakiemon style Pair of quatrefoil dishes with flowers in overglaze wucai enamels of Kakiemon style (18th century)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Pair of quatrefoil dishes with flowers in overglaze 𝑤𝑢𝑐𝑎𝑖 enamels of Kakiemon style│18th century

This pair of dishes was made in China, painted in Germany, and adopted the Japanese Kakiemon style.

Pair of quatrefoil dishes with flowers in overglaze wucai enamels of Kakiemon style BottomArt Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The overglaze blue double swords on the back was the mark of the Meissen porcelain factory in Germany. The Meissen porcelain factory was the first porcelain factory in Europe to produce high-temperature porcelain.

Bowl with western figures in overglaze wucai enamels (Qing, Qianlong (1736–1795))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Bowl with western figures in overglaze 𝑤𝑢𝑐𝑎𝑖 enamels│Qing, Qianlong (1736-1795)

This bowl was painted in the Netherlands and decorated with western figures.

Although China’s trade porcelain industry faded out of the historical stage with the rise of European porcelain industry, the former had left a critical and lasting impact on the latter in terms of raw materials, formulae, production technology, division of labour and operation model.

Credits: Story

The content is developed based on the exhibition catalogue Enchanting Expeditions: Chinese Trade Porcelains across the Globe written by Dr. Guanyu Wang, Associate Curator (Antiquities) of Art Museum, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and organized by Online Exhibition Assistant Mr. Lincoln Lam, Ms. Georgia Chu and Ms. Lucia Chan.
Click Here for the Description of the Exhibition

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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