Monday, 4 June 2012


This is the last instalment in a three-part series of posts about how Europe came to desire Chinese porcelain, and the ability to make it. Here are parts one and two.


"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."

~ Henry Longfellow, imagining "King-ke-tching" in 'Keramos'.

For centuries, the Imperial Porcelain Factory at Jingdezhen - and the many private workshops, large and small, subcontracted to it - had made it the "Porcelain City" of the world by means of an extraordinarily sophisticated and elaborate division of labour.

The production process was broken down into many highly specific stages, and each stage was assigned to a different labourer or department. This specialisation had two principal benefits: first, it kept insider knowledge relatively concentrated and thus the manufacture of imperial wares secure, and second, it allowed for pre-industrial mass production without compromising on quality. Jessica Rawson observes:

"China's most remarkable contribution was the creation of the first large-scale factories in which bronzes, lacquers, textiles, and ceramics were mass-produced, not using machines as in modern factories, but using workers among whom the required processes were subdivided."

One side-effect of this highly efficient system was that individual pieces were not generally regarded as being the work of any one particular individual. Even in the case of small family-run kilns, makers of porcelain were traditionally seen by the Chinese literati as artisans, not artists, even though the production process relied on human labour long after rival producers in the West had begun adopting substitute technologies.

Ceramics that were rarely attributed to their individual producer make for easier reproductions. The restrictive apprenticeship and guild system in Jingdezhen meant that producers honed their skills by learning to painstakingly reproduce the forms and designs of their master elders. This was described in 1743 by Tang Ying, an imperial supervisor at Jingdezhen who was ordered by the Qianlong Emperor to travel to Beijing and provide an account of his work:

"In copies from antiquity artistic models must be followed; in novelty of invention there is a deep spring to draw from. In the decoration of porcelain correct canons of art should be followed; the design should be taken from the patterns of old brocades and embroidery. . . and the artistic skill of the color-brush perpetuates on porcelain clever works of genius."

Successive Emperors promoted imitation from a desire to emulate - and surpass - their predecessors. Some of the finest "Ming"-style wares were made in the later Yongzheng period, whilst some of the best "Yongzheng" porcelain was actually made in the 1920s; this tradition of learning by mimesis has continued up to the present.

It has also been a boon for fraudsters selling fake porcelain 'antiques' - but before we get to that, we need to understand how a system that ensured Chinese pre-eminence at one time consigned it to relative decline in later years. 



The eighteenth-century is of critical importance to the story of the porcelain trade, because it saw European producers finally catch-up with, and eclipse, their Chinese counterparts. This shift occurred because important changes in European thought, related to the Enlightenment, were reflected in dramatic changes in European aesthetic tastes, and European factories - which utilised machines instead of people - could more quickly adapt to these trends than the Chinese production system previously described.

One such trend was the move in the early eighteenth-century away from the rigidity and proportionality of the Baroque style towards 'rococo', which, with its greater emphasis on free creativity, was in some sense more attuned to an age in which the boundaries of thought and expression were being challenged from new directions. To some extent, the rococo style drew on traditional features of Chinese art including its naturalism and asymmetry, and in doing so it fostered a kind of sub-genre of design known as "chinoiserie."

Chinoiserie, a European genre that borrowed Chinese designs and motifs and "re-interpreted" them according to European concepts and standards, reached its high-point as a style of porcelain produced in Europe. Here is a definition from the Seattle Art Museum:

"An eighteenth-century style that was a wholly European concept of exoticism. Innovative decorative motifs depicting imaginary and whimsical interpretations of life in Asia, they were inspired by a blend of factual accounts and fantasy. Chinoiseries typically present exotic figures clothed in flowing robes and elaborate headdresses, and situated in fanciful landscape settings. Whether these figures represent people of China, India, the Middle East, or Japan is often difficult to determine; they are a mélange of Asian and Middle Eastern peoples referring not to geographical boundaries so much as to a general concept of Asia."

To illustrate, here is a chinoiserie frescoe (ca. 1757) in a "Chinese room" of the Villa Valmarana: 


And the 'porcelain salon' in the Portici Palace of the King and Queen of Naples: 

A defining characteristic of chinoiserie is its use of exotic motifs that combine Eastern costumes and accoutrements with European faces. European artists used Chinese symbols in specifically European allegories (such as the seven liberal arts, the five senses and the cardinal virtues). Put another way, European producers utilised especially salient Chinese icons - the revered scholar, the attempt to live in rational harmony with nature - to make porcelain that spoke to European curiosities and concerns.

Although designs would sometimes travel from Europe to China and back again - such as Thomas Minton's famous 'Willow Tree' pattern, which was designed in Staffordshire, manufactured in Jingdezhen, and then exported -  once the Industrial Revolution was underway, Europe acquired a leading edge in porcelain manufacturing that was hard to beat. In addition to mechanised production, European producers faced a greater degree of commercial competition, which stimulated diversity and experimentation.

Therefore, European producers were in a more advantageous position to continue adapting to changing fashions, such as the rise of Neoclassicism in the first half of the nineteenth-century, and Art Nouveau at the turn of the twentieth. The famous porcelain factory at Sevres was more flexible than the Jingdezhen system; it could afford to expand overall production in response to consumer tastes without having to halt old product lines first.

Here is an example of gilded Sevres porcelain embodying Renaissance harmony and proportion:

One symptom of the change of attitudes towards Chinese society in the West was an accusation that the Chinese were deliberately producing shoddier porcelain for export because of their alleged hostility towards foreign "barbarians." But the facts do not bear this out - experts now believe the quality of export porcelain was at least equal to that of domestically consumed wares, and was sometimes even comparable to the porcelain produced exclusively for the imperial court. If there was a slip in standards, it was more likely the result of technology and production methods not keeping pace with surging demand.


In 'To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense', William P. Alford traces the differences between the history of IP law in China and in the West. The Chinese imperial state exercised its authority through a hierarchy of administrative means with public, positive law reserved for use as a last resort; the overall structure was designed to decentralise the enforcement of rules and edicts as far as possible. The most important intermediary between the imperial court and the village was the district magistrate, who would actually be penalised by administrative regulations if his active intervention was required to resolve more than a few different disputes further down the system. 


Qing Dynasty Mandarins
Thus the system incentivised officials at each level to prevent conflicts of interest occurring under their jurisdiction. There was a detailed penal code, but it tended to function by relatively informal bargaining, mediation and compromise rather than by the automatic and impartial application of legal rules. For certain items, the system could be effective at protecting copyright and trademark , but these were limited to a relatively narrow set of objects deemed important by the state.

The laws of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) punished the unauthorised reproduction of the "classics", but they turned a blind eye to the pirating of "mundane" works - protection also extended to the five-clawed dragon mark that signified porcelain made exclusively for imperial use. Under the pressures of commercialisation in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), this traditional system of light-touch and selectively-enforced IP law began to malfunction - it encouraged people to pursue lucrative profits through illicit dealing in "exclusive" objects rather than investing in building up commercial brands that anyone could then steal and use for themselves. This was increasingly the case as civil unrest in the late Qing publicly revealed imperial treasures for the first time, such as the burning and looting of the Summer Palace in 1860.

The weakening authority of the court had predictable effects on the porcelain industry, so closely had the fates of the two been linked from the start. Although the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen were kept active by royal patronage through this period,  quality control was inevitably weakened, widening the growing gap between the industry at home and overseas. Increasingly, producers went from acknowledging that they were copying painted designs from older works - which was simply the way the trade functioned - to copying ancient works and selling them on as originals.


 In 1910 the Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen was closed down and replaced with the trimmed-down Jiangxi Porcelain Company (Jiangxi ciye gongsi). Five years later, Gen. Yuan Shikai, the President of the infant Republic, abandoned the Presidency and proclaimed himself a new Emperor. One of his first decisions upon assuming the purple robes was to place a large order of Jingdezhen porcelain to mark his ascension, modelled on the Yongzheng period (he chose 'Hongxian', or 'Constitutional Abundance', to signify his reign - a curious choice for a man who suspended the constitution and abolished limits on his term in office).

The new dynasty was very short-lived, but the porcelain remains. Below are some specimens of Honxian-reign porcelain: 


Hongxian reign mark

Yuan's reflex action shows how Jingdezhen porcelain was still indelibly associated with claims to national power, even as export porcelain was being squeezed. In The Penguin History of Modern China, Jonathan Fenby tells us the need for new imperial porcelain was duly noted: "He [Yuan] received visitors in a reception room of the Forbidden City, oil cloth on the floor, a gaudy Western chandelier hanging from the ceiling - an American described the vases as 'straight from a give-and-ten cent store.'"

And porcelain was still being used as a political simile. Fenby quotes the imperial general Zhang Xun: "He compared the republic to a new porcelain shop selling bright, cheap ware. 'In time', he went on, 'it is all broken, and the people go back to the old shop.'"

But the industry's deep ties to politics came at a price. In 1920 a correspondent for National Geographic visited Jingdezhen. In his report, Frank B. Lentz describes a city trapped inside a bubble, scarcely affected by the epochal changes going on around it.

Change is happening elsewhere, in other places and industries, but in Jingdezhen too much commodification could spell death as much as too little modernisation. Modernisation was shaking things up throughout China, and destabilising political institutions and structures, old and new. In a world of more volatile political power relations, there was always a niche market for historical reference-points as means of asserting authority and re-imposing order - and that included the exclusive, traditional imperial kilns.

This is how Lentz opens his dispatch:

"It is the country made famous by the printing-press, mariners' compass, gunpowder, the Great Wall, tea, silk, jade, paper, and ancient porcelain; it is the home of plague, famine, intrigue, flood, graft and corruption. Conservative of the conservatives, it is also a radical amongst radicals... Change, change; nothing is permanent in China but change."

Below is a photograph of Jingdezhen from the time. From a distance, it could easily be mistaken for any of the "dark Satanic mills" of Blake's England. It also reminds me of how Mao said his goal was to replace religious temples with smokestacks as the first thing you would see on the horizon when approaching a city in China. 


He goes on to lament the backward state of industrialisation:

"In cities like Canton, Shanghai, Hankow, Changsha and Tientsin the most modern machinery of the twentieth-century is seen in operation in everyday. This is not China. The real China has yet to learn the value of the machine." 


There was another chronic weakness in the Jingdezhen model - the distribution of skills throughout the workforce was regulated by organising producers into numerous guilds according to their trade or subdivision and place of origin. But the guilds were sanctioned by longstanding tradition and customary law in lieu of official recognition (in keeping with the 'subsidiarity state' previously described). And by the 1930s they inhabited a precarious semi-legal position, permanently at risk of being labeled as subversive "secret societies" by the organs of the equally precarious young Republic.

Having long enjoyed a state-backed monopoly, the workers at Jingdezhen organised their guilds in order to secure their share of the labour market against rival common-origin groups of migrants, rather than prioritising the maximisation of their share of consumers. In the Republican period, state patronage declined and commercial competition increased, but there was no corresponding improvement in the enforcement of IP law, and corruption among officials became endemic.

Against this backdrop, the perverse logic of the guild system ran its course; ceramists fought one another in increasingly bitter scraps to maintain their position, and there were particularly violent conflicts between migrant workers in Jingdezhen in the 1930s. In the early twentieth-century, self-regulation of the guilds - such as limits on the number of apprentices a master could have at any one time - was only weakly enforced.



Overall, it could be said that the Republican period was a false dawn for Chinese porcelain. But the legacy of the People's Republic is every bit as complicated.

On the one hand, the industry received long-overdue government investment in upgrading machinery and equipment - indeed, it was only in the 1950s that gas-, oil-, and coal-fired kilns began to dominate production in Jingdezhen, thereby allowing us to talk about an "industry" in the modern sense, at all.

On the other hand - to state the obvious - a government that was officially Communist did not give much shrift to notions of legally-enforceable private property rights, intellectual or otherwise. Similarly, decades of nullified competition and limits on international trade did not do much to spur innovation or inculcate greater flexibility and dynamism. And that is before discussing the damage wrought by the Party's imposition of "socialist realism" on the arts. 

A strange and unintended consequence of the Communists' policies was that, by alleviating pressure on the Chinese porcelain industry to change, they helped keep alive many of the traditional skills, practices and work-relations - which they were then able to revive during the post-Mao 'reform era' to facilitate the privatisation of the state workshops.

Porcelain Mao badge, early PRC

After 1949 the old apprenticeship system had been abandoned in Jingdezhen, but in the 1980s the government began quietly re-introducing it. In imperial times, masters in the workshops took on a set number of apprentices from their same region of origin, for an average of three to four years. In 1983, master elders in the city were paid a bonus if they took on personal apprentices again inside their state factories, as a precursor to privatisation. The theory was that giving experienced producers control over the transmission of their skills - i.e. the training of their soon-to-be competitors - would reduce opposition to the politically-sensitive task of dismantling state-ownership, which was completed in the 1990s.

One consequence of privatisation was that uncompetitive porcelain factories were downsized or shut down. At the start of the twenty-first century, only two of the thirty-two state porcelain factories in Jingdezhen were still in operation. 

Nonetheless, the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen still employs about 80,000 workers, with four major porcelain markets, and countless smaller stores. Whilst Guangdong to the South produces cheaper mass-market wares, Jingdezhen specialises in higher-end art ceramics (retired masters of the trade are still subsidised by the government to transmit their working knowledge to the next generation)...and fakes.
It is estimated that 80% of the fake emperors' mark porcelain in circulation today originated in Jingdezhen.

Essentially, the traditional system for making Chinese porcelain has proved to be a huge boon for fraudsters dealing in fake antiques. Thanks to the traditions of mimetic learning and anonymity, there is an ample supply of convincing reproductions for fraudsters to buy and then "age" with various chemical processes before re-selling as genuine antiques. (
Here is a good documentary about the techniques of the fakers, and the extraordinary successes they have achieved, thanks to unreliable scientific tests - including getting a fake put on display in the Palace Museum, in the Forbidden City.)

The market for fakes grows alongside the boom in demand for authentic porcelain antiques. In 2010, a Qianlong-era vase broke records when it was sold at auction for £43m. This is how Channel 4 News reported the sale:

These headline-grabbing sales relate to a fascinating fact about Jingdezhen today: its traditional method of making porcelain is only being kept alive by the thriving market for fake antiques. Reproductions of antique wares are only convincing if they are made using the same techniques that were used to make the original; absent the potential for lucrative profits from selling fakes, many of the ceramists working in the city could not eke out a decent living producing by traditional methods rather than using modern machinery.

This also relates to a recurring theme in the work of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei - that our commonsense notions of "authenticity" are not as straightforward as they might seem.

Porcelain has traditionally been categorised in China according to its style, rather than the period in which it was produced - so "Kangxi" porcelain would refer to porcelain made in the most distinctive style of the period, rather than any porcelain made during the period. In which case, the difference between a "fake" and a reproduction often lies in the intent of the seller.

But if IP rights were rigorously enforced in Jingdezhen, the supply of "authentic" imperial porcelain would likely dry up along with the vast quantities of "fake" antique wares. Which might be an indication that we need to rethink how globalisation and the free market impacts upon our shared global cultural heritage - and possibly re-evaluate our priorities.

Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases (2006)

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