Imagine grabbing a couple of bottles of France off the shelves in a fine foods emporium, reading a recipe that called for two tablespoons of Greece, or admiring a shiny new Germany parked on the street. It may seem ludicrous to synonymize wine, olive oil, or automobiles with the countries of their origin, but there is one export so strongly associated with its source that the country does indeed lend its name to the product. Porcelain ceramics, often simply referred to as china, immediately conjure up notions of a Chinese aesthetic and artisanal tradition, and nothing seems more quintessentially Chinese than the blue and white patterns that decorate so many porcelain wares’ surfaces. Surprisingly, the origins of the blue and white aesthetic are not so endemic to China as one might think, and an extraordinary pair of vases at the British Museum helps tell why.
These vases, known as the David Vases after a former owner who reunited them in 1935, are among the very earliest known blue and white porcelain wares. They date to the Yuan Dynasty and were dedicated in 1351—Tuesday, May 13th, 1351, to be exact. Detailed inscriptions, painted among plantain leaves on the vases’ necks, tell that they were votaries to a newly deified general and make them arguably the most important blue and white porcelain to exist. Many people automatically associate blue and white with the Ming Dynasty, 1368—1644, but the David Vases defy our expectations and lead us to the origins of the pattern’s production.
Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, founded the Yuan Dynasty and established a “Pax Mongolica” that created an environment for flourishing trade after the chaos of the Mongolian invasions. Chinese potters, taking advantage of destroyed local pottery industries in the Middle East, sought to appeal to their new markets. The blue and white aesthetic was already entrenched in present-day Iran and Iraq, and a production of blue and white porcelain sprang up in China that made use of Iranian cobalt pigment. In fact, although we so connect blue and white porcelain with China, the Chinese called cobalt hui hui qing, or “Muslim blue,” testifying to the external roots of the aesthetic.
What is undisputedly Chinese is the origin of porcelain itself. It is created by firing clay at extremely high temperatures, between 1200—1400 degrees Celsius. This process creates an exceptionally hard and shiny ceramic ware that is able to hold water, unlike other porous clay wares. When Marco Polo visited China, the best way he could describe this foreign and utterly new ceramic was by comparing it to cowrie shells, or porcellane in Italian slang (porcellana literally means “little piglet,” an apt description for the shell’s shape), and this is the derivation of our “porcelain.”
Sources and Image Citation:
MacGregor, Neil. A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.