Chinese ceramics: everything you ever wanted to know in one show – including the reason for so many foreign knock-offs

Hong Kong exhibition underscores the flow of ideas about Chinese porcelain between East and West along the ‘maritime Silk Road’, from early counterfeits to Western commissions of tableware and even Christian figures

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 7:08pm

At a time when the inviolability of trade secrets is threatened by a global, collaborative model of business operation and frequent cyberattacks, it is fascinating to look back at a time when the Chinese managed to keep the secrets of making porcelain to themselves – for centuries.

It drove the Europeans crazy, and there were as many imitations as there are shanzhai (counterfeit) iPhones in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei market today. (A snappier title for a new exhibition in Hong Kong, “Objectifying China: Ming and Qing Dynasty Ceramics and Their Stylistic Influences Abroad”, might be “Shanzhai China”.)

The delightful exhibition at the University Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong highlights little-known aspects of the history of ceramics, such as the first appearance of Chinese blue-and-whites during the Tang dynasty.

One of the exhibits is a 9th century water pot just over 7cm tall. Acquired by the museum in 1953, the comically rotund, short-legged vessel is decorated in blue cobalt imported from the Abbasid empire (in present-day Iraq).

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Back in 1953, the museum probably had doubts about the age of the pot, according to curator Ben Chiesa. The fact that blue-and-whites were made as early as that was only confirmed when shards were unearthed from Yangzhou in China’s Jiangsu province in 1975, and later, when three complete saucers were salvaged from the Belitung shipwreck of a 9th century Arabian dhow in Indonesian waters, he said. Those were early exports sold to the Middle East along the so-called Maritime Silk Road.

One of the earliest copies of Chinese ceramic ware in the show came from Korea, where local kilns during the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) replicated the celadon (greenware) pottery imported from China.

As was the case with later celadons from Vietnam, Burma and Thailand, the Koreans developed their own techniques and styles, such as sanggam cheongja. This involved etching motifs onto a dry clay body and filling the spaces with black or white slip (an inlaid slurry of clay and other materials), as shown by one of the exhibits – a bowl decorated with cranes and clouds.

Other production centres emerged in Southeast Asia and Japan, especially when Chinese production was disrupted, such as during the tumultuous period between the Ming and Qing dynasties.

By then, the Europeans had become hooked on Chinese white porcelain for its delicacy and durability.

The secret to its manufacture was the extremely high temperature in the kilns and the kaolin clay that is so plentiful near Jingdezhen in present-day Jiangxi province, the Chinese capital of ceramics.

Until two Germans reverse engineered porcelain in the town of Meissen in the 18th century, literally tonnes of porcelain was being shipped from Chinese kilns to satisfy Western demand for this “white gold”.

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Chinese craftsmen moulded new shapes and adapted Western motifs to satisfy their Western customers. Similarly, Japanese kilns churned out tumblers for their beer-drinking clients. In ceramics as in so much else, innovation was mere servant to fashion and function.

Customers included Italian aristocrats, who would send exact designs of their dinner service to China, and the Dutch, who commissioned Kraak ware – bowls and dishes made in the style of Ming dynasty blue-and-white ceramics that have unique variations for the Western market: wide rims more amenable to the use of, say, soup spoons, and decorations that were divided into individual panels. Kraak became so common in Dutch households that blue-and-white bowls can be spotted in still-life paintings of the time.

Before the Meissen breakthrough, European courts even imported Christian sculptures from China. The exhibition includes a porcelain Virgin and Child that is similar to figures collected by Augustus II the Strong of Poland and William III of England.

Made in Dehua during the Qing Emperor Kangxi’s rule, the virgin is standing on a pedestal covered with a Chinese-style cloud motif and her face is decidedly Eastern, resembling figures of goddess of mercy Guanyin made during the same period.

The exhibition features pieces on loan from Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and is presented with the support of HKU’s Robert Black College. The detailed captions will tell you everything you want to know about ceramics and also, how ideas flowed both ways between East and West in the open spirit of the original maritime silk route.

Objectifying China: Ming and Qing Dynasty Ceramics and Their Stylistic Influences Abroad, The University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG) of the University of Hong Kong, 90 Bonham Rd, Pok Fu Lam, Mon-Sat, 9:30am-6pm, Sun, 1-6pm. Until Feb. 27, 2018