"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.
"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.
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."
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|
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.'"
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.
|Porcelain Mao badge, early PRC|
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.
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)|