Wednesday 30 May 2012


One of the most significant and dramatic events to occur in post-Tiananmen Chinese politics happened earlier this year. In this post I have tried to take a long view of that event.

On March 15th, the then Chinese Communist Party (CPC) chief of the "mega-city" of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, was removed from his post and disappeared from public view. This was a month after his police chief, Wang Lijun, had fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, reportedly to seek asylum. Since then, Bo has been formally stripped of all his Party posts and his wife is under investigation in connection with the suspicious death of a British businessman with whom she had had business dealings.

For those unfamiliar with the key personalities, and the various twists and turns , here is a useful report and panel discussion on Newsnight:

It is a seminal event, because it has brought to public attention the usually secret power-struggles and factional infighting within an institution that tries to project itself as being monolithic. There has been some excellent coverage and provocative commentary on the unfolding scandal (e.g. Wang Hui's controversial essay in the London Review of Books), and the best of it has tried to fit it within a broader historical context - such as this BBC comparison with three other CPC rising stars who were brought back down by factional competition.

But, in general, I think that inadequate attention has been paid to the question of what factions in the CPC are for: where did they come from?; what functions do they serve in the wider political system?; what is the difference between a "faction" and a "party"? If, as Cheng Li argues, we are witnessing the emergence of bipartisanship in China in all but name (a system he describes as "One Party, Two Coalitions"), then the need to understand the historical causes and effects of the major factions inside the CPC becomes all the more urgent.


What is a party faction? In their NBER paper, Persico, et al. (2007) provide a useful overview of how the concept has been used by political scientists. In his study of the Italian Christian Democratcs (DC) Zuckerman (1975) defines it as something more durable than a single-issue or time-limited alliance:

"A structured group within a political party which seeks, at a minimum, to control authoritarive decision-making positions of the party. It is a "structured group" in that there are established patterns of behaviour and interaction for the faction members over time. Thus, party factions are to be distinguished from groups that coalesce around a specific or temporarily limited issue and then dissolve [...]"

According to Zuckerman, two features make a given party especially vulnerable to factionalism - promotion within the party depends on other officials' support, and the power to allocate resources (incl. public goods) is broadly dispersed. The CPC certainly exhibits these characteristics; despite the centralisation of authority in the party, in practice there is a high degree of interdependency between different levels of authority, especially given the absence of strong external safeguards against the abuse of power.

As the diagram below shows, the CPC relies on a precarious system of institutionalised self-regulation; according to Pye (1981), "the prime basis for factions among cadres is the search for career security and the protection of power."

Bettcher (2005) further distinguishes between "factions of principle" (ideology-based) and "factions of interest", the latter being "hierarchical networks of patron-client relationships among party officials." Ideology matters, but the key coalitions of factions in the CPC should be understood as factions of interest.

Finally, just for the sake of conceptual clarity, here is a definition of a political party from Heywood (2007):

"A group that is organised for the purpose of winning [or securing] government power; parties typically adopt a broad issue focus and are united by shared political preferences and a general ideological identity."

This definition makes clear the essential differences between parties and party factions: parties are to some extent defined by a shared general ideology, whereas factions needn't be; the immediate goal of a party is to secure government power, whilst the immediate goal of a faction is to control how the party uses its power.

One of the more enthralling articles about the Bo Xilai affair was a piece by John Garnaut in Foreign Policy, which traced Bo's demise - and his implicit criticism by Premier Wen Jiabao - to the fateful battle between Bo's father and Wen's patron 25 years earlier.

But to really understand the function of faction in Chinese politics - the useful purpose it serves, albeit at a huge risk - you have to go back even further, to the years before and after the birth of the Republic and the end of the last Imperial dynasty, at the beginning of the last century.

And to a time when the CPC was itself a faction in another, larger party.


In 1894 Sun Yat-sen, the man remembered on both sides of the Taiwan Straits as "a pioneer of the revolution", founded the Society to Restore China's Prosperity. Like many of the other secret societies actively trying to overthrow the ailing Qing dynasty, it was small, consisting of about 100 members.

Sun Yat-sen
Sun had once been an advocate of peaceful reform, and he had even written to the Imperial court with suggestions for how they could win back national independence and modernise industry. Disillusioned with the seeming inability of the monarchy to reform itself, he had turned to organising underground networks of opposition, and attempted several unsuccessful uprisings, before and after being exiled abroad.

In 1905, Sun formed a union of many of the secret societies - it was called Tongmenghui (Alliance Society).The various secret societies that formed it (with names like 'Regeneration' and 'Revive the Light') were all united by the goal of an anti-Qing revolution; their four stated aims were "to expel the Tartar barbarians, to revive the Chinese nation, to establish a Republic, and to distribute land equally among the people." Unlike its predecessor organisations, it was very effectively organised, operating cells at home and abroad (Sun oversaw its HQ in Tokyo).

This map shows the Tongmenghui HQ, and its 18 "shadow branches" - on in Shanghai, and one for each of the 17 provinces:

Internally it became a microcosm of the modern republican government that Sun, as its Chair, hoped to build in practice - with executive, legislative and judicial branches.

In 1911, they got their chance when a military revolt against the Qing erupted in the city of Wuchang. When the court dithered, other southern provinces joined Wuchang in declaring their secession. The regent summoned the esteemed Gen. Yuan Shi-kai out of retirement to save the Qing, but once Yuan saw which way the wind was blowing he changed sides and negotiated an armistice.

The revolution caught the leaders of Tongmenghui off-guard. Sun raced back to China upon hearing the news, and he was promptly elected the first President of the Republic by the Nanjing Assembly. Yet almost immediately he realised that he lacked the authority to lead the new Republic - in effect, the revolution had removed any lingering illusions about where power really resided, but the only authority that mattered still lay in the military not the civilian sphere.

Song Jiaoren
After only three months Sun passed over the Presidency to Yuan and devoted his time to organising a mass party to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Tongmenghui formed the nucleus of the new Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT). At the time of his inauguration, Sun had clashed with the man leading the KMT into the election, Song Jioaren. Song wanted the new constitution to enshrine an assertive parliament and prime minister, and a mere figurehead President, to which Sun replied angrily that he would not "stand apart like some holy excrescence."

When the KMT won majorities in both chambers of the Assembly in Feb. 1913, Song rejected forming a coalition government so that the new parliament could act as a powerful check on President Yuan - who was outside of the KMT, and resented any such restraint on his authority. Two months after his victory Song was assassinated whilst waiting for a train, on his way to give a speech in defence of strong parliamentary government - evidence linked the gunman to Yuan, who proceeded to strip the National Assembly of any potential for independent action, sending armed men to surround the building and intimidate opponents into submission.

Here is a postcard featuring Yuan next to the new flag, the banner of 'Five Races Under One Union':

Horrified by this betrayal, Sun launched an unsuccessful "second revolution" against Yuan, who sent him into exile again and banned the KMT as a "secret organisation." From his swearing-in ceremony in 1913 to his death in 1916, Yuan managed to alienate even his most conservative civilian and military supporters with his attempts to rule by violence alone. His final years began a decade of chaos known as the "Warlord Era" - and made necessary an alliance between the KMT and the newly-formed CPC.


Yuan's period of misrule persuaded Sun that the task of bringing the warlords to heel could not be safely outsourced - and he set about making the KMT a body of national power, militarily and politically. Rebuffed by Britain and the United States, he turned to the USSR.

In return for arms and military/political advisors, Sun consented to the Comintern's condition that the members of the CPC be allowed to join the KMT. Both parties would work together for the greater good of defeating the warlords and reunifying the country. Below I have included a map to illustrate how fragmented the country was - red lines indicate areas ruled by different military units:

Although Sun wanted a face-saving condition that they would have to abandon Marxism and agree to follow KMT leadership, the agreement of 1922-3 - the beginning of the 'First United Front' - allowed the Communists to remain as CPC members and to keep their weapons.

The two parties shared the Leninist principle of "democratic centralism" - "under which any KMT [or CPC] decision, once reached by a majority of members of the relevant committees, would be wholly binding on all party members" (Spence 1999). Everyone was meant to know their place in the party, and whilst one could debate any issue within one's jurisdiction, one was not free to debate that issue at any time, in any place, or with just anyone.

Chiang Kai-shek

The Comintern established a military training academy on Whampoa Island, under the command of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek. There, Chiang made his name and developed a powerful following. In 1925 he took charge of the KMT, but unlike Sun he had a visceral hatred of communism and intended to eradicate the CPC as soon as he no longer needed their support.

According to Stuart Schram (1967), by the time of Sun's death "his name had become the symbol of a firm policy of collaboration with the Communists." Spence tells us: "When overseas supporters cabled Sun that he was being subtly "Sovietized", he answered that if the CPC were not allowed to cooperate with the KMT, then he himself would join the CPC." Here was one respect in which Chiang differed sharply from his mentor.

Chiang believed the Soviets were stalling him to give the CPC time to use KMT resources to build their own support base. So in 1926 he staged a coup within his own party, rounding up Communists and putting Soviet advisors under "protective custody." He then got the KMT Central Executive Committee to pass a resolution stating, "comrades of the left...should retire for a while." All instructions issued by the CPC had to be approved by the KMT first. No CPC members could head KMT or government bureaus.

To the Communists it seemed as if their plan to exploit the KMT from within had backfired - as the smaller, lesser-equipped force, they were more vulnerable to sudden shifts in the mood of the KMT leadership. But there were still dangers for the KMT: "though Chiang had asserted his supremacy, divisions between the right and left of the KMT simmered below the surface." The Communists were potential recruits that might embolden factions in the upper echelons of the KMT to challenge Chiang.

In a backlash against Chiang's seizure of power, the civilian administration, mostly from the left of the party, moved to Wuhan and "tried to rein in Chiang, cancelling the special powers granted to him at the start of the expedition, and making him answerable to a commission which included a Communist." But Chiang was now confident enough to show his true colours, and in 1927 he launched the "White Terror" to purge the KMT of Communists.

Here is a documentary clip about the Northern Expedition and the White Terror:

Chiang had responded to the growing polarisation of the KMT leadership by entrenching those divisions - there were two rival KMT governments, a left-wing one in Wuhan, and a right-wing one in Nanjing. Fenby describes how acrimonious the split was:

"Wuhan expelled Chiang from the KMT. A mass meeting in the leftist capital denounced him as the 'counter-revolutionary chief'. [...] The [Wuhan] government sought to keep the united front alive as mass organisations and trade unions sprouted."

However, when Moscow advised the CPC to start building their own army, it was too much for the KMT, even its radical wing; Wuhan responded by expelling the Communists from its administration.  For Chiang, expelling the Communists without exterminating them seemed incredibly dangerous - the rival wings of the KMT were reconciled, and there were mutterings of a new government being formed without him. Only after a failed CPC rising in Canton did the different KMT factions rally behind him as a strong leader.

Fundamentally, the country had not yet moved on from ruling by resort to violence, to political rule, and yet at the same time it was plain that the country could not be reunified by force alone. As long as various warlords remained ensconced around the Republic, the political stability necessary for political rule would be difficult to achieve - there were systemic incentives for rival factions in the KMT to escalate intra-party competition, in the hope of bringing about a new balance of power.

Denied formal channels to resolve their grievances, an anti-Chiang coalition emerged under the telling title of the Enlarged Conference of the Kuomintang. It was a broad alliance of frustrated politicians, but it too was soon brought under control, and Chiang used the opportunity to push through changes to the constitution that increased his power.


One last event of the 'Nanjing Decade' (1928-37) is noteworthy. Four years after it was founded, the CPC recruited a student activist named Bo Yibo - Bo Xilai's father. Here is a picture of the young Bo taken after the 1949 revolution that brought the CPC to power:

After Chiang had declared war on the communists in 1927, Bo had gone underground. But he was captured by the KMT in Tianjin in 1931. Like many of his captured comrades, Bo wrote a confession condemning the communists in order to get out of jail.

Nearly four decades later, when China was in the grip of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Mao began mobilising - and arming - groups outside of the formal CPC organisation to confront sections of the Party that had dared to oppose him.

Mao had not always been so intolerant of opposition - in the 1920s he had enthusiastically supported the CPC joining the KMT and was at one point labelled a "right-wing opportunist" for his forgiving attitude towards the right-wing of the KMT. 

Perhaps the repeated setbacks and near-defeats of the next two decades taught him that this kind of 'soft-Leninism' was not a sustainable strategy. Either way, by the mid-1960s Mao was throwing "democratic centralism" out of the window in order to purge the CPC of officials who had criticised his more utopian schemes. These included Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping - and Bo Yibo, who had risen to chairman of the State Economic Commission. Mao's ringleaders in the Cultural Revolution jumped on his confession as 'proof' of his guilt as a "counter-revolutionary." Red Guards declared: "He is a dog, crawling out of the KMT den." Here is a photograph of Bo defending himself against these accusations:

Bo and his family suffered vicious persecution; three of his four children were detained and his wife died from the beatings she received in prison. (In a grim piece of irony, Bo Xilai was active at the time as a student Red Guard.)

After Mao died, Bo was rehabilitated along with other conservatives in the Party. As they set about restoring authority and discipline to the formal organs of the Party, the scars of the period remained. By publicising private disagreements, the Cultural Revolution had given ammunition to organised opponents of the Party's rule, and the result had been anarchy. The overriding priority was to rebuild an outward appearance of unity to prevent any resurgence of opposition.


The first phase of strengthening the centre was to cut off the left and the right. Mao's successor Hua Guofeng was at first opposed to the rehabilitation of economic reformers like Deng, but his primary focus was on defeating the radical left, which he achieved by purging Mao's inner circle, the "Gang of Four."

Below is a picture of Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, standing trial in 1981:

And here is an infamous photograph of mourners at Mao's funeral, with the Gang of Four expunged:

Hua lacked a power base of his own, and he was quickly sidelined by the moderate Party grandees. Bo, as one of the so-called 'Eight Immortals' (survivors of the Long March from the KMT in the 1930s), returned to prominence.

Through the 1980s, tensions between economic reform and political stasis rumbled just beneath the surface. The CPC anxiously shifted between reform and reaction, launching short-lived campaigns against "spiritual pollution." But some rising stars in the next generation of leaders wanted to accomodate social trends by democratising the Party from within, and allowing greater civil liberties. Their figurehead was Hu Yaobang, secretary-general of the CPC.

Here is Hu Yaobang, with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao on the right:

The conservatives were nervous; they feared that by undermining restrictions on the freedom to disagree in public, Hu risked unleashing the chaos of the Cultural Revolution all over again. In Dec. 1986, Bo went to visit Deng to demand Hu's dismissal for his alleged sympathy towards students protesting about their living standards; after Hu stepped down, Bo wrote the official Party verdict on Hu, a lengthy report called Document No. 3, which accused him of supporting "bourgeois liberalisation" - i.e. multiparty democracy.

This clip shows how the same elders' fears led Deng to order the crackdown against the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989:


The prospects for meaningful Party reform seemed bleak. Nevertheless, as the grandees have faded from view the Party has been moving in the direction of greater institutionalisation and regularisation.

Just as important is the emergence and consolidation of two factional coalitions in the CPC in recent years, a development that, according to Cheng Li, "reflects the trend in the Chinese political establishment to maintain a balance of power."

The "elitist" faction is dominated by "princelings" (those who rose to leadership via family connections to revolutionary veterans, mostly via positions in the prosperous "blue states"); the "populists" are centred around the "tuanpai" (those who rose up from the Communist Youth League in the 1980s, and who are more likely to have worked in the poorer interior "yellow states").

The history of factionalism in Chinese politics is one of ruling parties facing a recurring choice between tolerating autonomous, and potentially oppositional, external forces in society, dominating them by force, or attempting to absorb and co-opt them.

The first mass political party in China was formed out of an alliance of secret societies that operated on the basis of strictly controlling the flow of information among its members. The KMT chose to co-opt the CPC and discovered that this did them more harm than good - a Leninist party within a Leninist party was a source of factional conflict in the host organisation. Remembering how Chiang's party had torn itself apart from within, Mao rallied external opponents to 'purify' the Party machine through struggle. Those who were struggled against devoted themselves to restoring a stable balance of power in the Party - and, in the process, they contributed to the rise and fall of Bo Xilai two decades later.

The leaders of both Leninist-style parties repeatedly sought to strike a balance between internal unity and inclusivity, bringing just enough outsiders inside the ring to keep any potential opposition divided. The most famous recent example of this was Jiang Zemin's decision to allow entrepreneurs to become CPC members.

The "function of faction", therefore, is to check and balance the excessive accumulation of power by informal and internal means, without the need for robust external institutions like an independent judiciary. Equilibrium is maintained so long as the two factions recognise their relationship as one of mutual interdependence, based on respect for the different knowledge and experience each contributes. As Cheng argues: "The two coalitions tend to fix each other's problems, thus avoiding a single-minded approach. [...] Factional politics is no longer a vicious power struggle and zero-sum game in which a winner takes all. Neither coalition is willing to, or capable of, defeating the other."

The only problem is that some officials, like Bo Xilai, try to have the best of both worlds, using the fragility and interdependency of factionalism to engage in high-stakes brinkmanship. Bo tried to use his "Chongqing model" to put himself centre-stage, gambling that the leadership would not dare to stop him for fear of upsetting the delicate balance.

Unfortunately for him, he miscalculated. And when damaging rumours of a military coup flew around the internet after his dismissal, we saw the downside to using factions as a power-balancing mechanism - the lack of transparency that breeds mistrust of officialdom and risks making every unanticipated reshuffle seem a portend of general chaos.

But then, "One Party, Two Coalitions" with transparency wouldn't be "One Party" anymore.

Saturday 26 May 2012


This is the second instalment of a three-part feature. I am telling the story of how Europe came to desire Chinese porcelain, and the ability to make their own. Here is part one.



After the opening of sea routes to China allowed large quantities of porcelain to be safely transported across long distances, European elites - those who could afford it - became obsessed. As I mentioned previously, it was at first a predominantly royal fixation - according to a disapproving Daniel Defoe, the craze for luxurious 'china rooms' in England was started by Queen Mary (1689-94):

"The custom or humour, as I may call it, of furnishing houses with chinaware, which increased to a strange degree afterwards, piling their china upon the tops of cabinets, scrutores, and every chimney-piece, to the tops of the ceilings...became a grievance in the expense of it, and even injurious to their families and estates." 

In the seventeenth-century, there was even a moralising backlash in Europe against what Samuel Johnson termed "a contagion of china-fancy." This was partly just another manifestation of exasperation at wanton decadence. 

But in an age of growing Puritan influence the hostility was sharper towards collecting porcelain, which, because of its rarity and exoticism, was used by the playwright William Wycherley to symbolise sexual intercourse.

In The Country Wife (1650), Wycherley has a female admirer entreat the libertine Mr. Horner, "...don't think to give other people china, and me none; come in with me too." The married Lady Fiddler interjects, "What, d'ye think if he had any left, I would not have had it too? For we women of quality never think we have china enough." Mr. Horner seems to be exhausted when he replies, "I cannot make china for you all." Anyway, you get the idea.

Europe's insatiable appetite for porcelain was first and foremost about conspicuous consumption, and the desire to signal one's elevated social status, particularly as the pressures of social change kept pressing - firstly the centralisation of absolute monarchs seeking to curb the autonomy of their aristocrats, secondly the ascendant merchant classes of the Industrial Revolution. In the midst of material change, traditional landed elites grew anxious about status-distinctions in society becoming blurred by the purchasing power of the nouveau riche.

This need was acutely felt in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, when mercantilist doctrines - the belief that a nation's wealth was a function of its store of precious metals, and the protectionist measures that flowed from that belief - determined economic policies over much of the continent. Mercantilist monarchs asserted centralised control over industries with potential for growth, offering advantageous terms to entice new commercial ventures to set-up in capitals and major cities, where they would be more easily regulated. Urban populations grew as aristocrats and merchants alike congregated to ply for royal patronage. As Janet Gleeson observes in her magnificent 'The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain': "In such refined, moneyed surroundings there was clearly a ready market for new luxury products... Here was a golden opportunity. Porcelain was the white gold for which all of Europe cried out."

Oriental porcelain - and the cult of refined "taste" that went with it - seemed at first to serve this purpose of maintaining a visible hierarchy in a society that was being shifted about and shaken up. But for the European elites to have to depend for such a valuable prop on workshops in inland cities on the other side of the world was intolerable. In the bumpy transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty in the first half of the seventeenth-century, the flow of export porcelain was temporarily suspended, and European consumers had to switch to inferior imitation porcelain from Japan and the Netherlands. 

Here is a pair of Kakiemon-style porcelain elephants (featured in Radio 4's A History of the World in 100 Objects) that would have been exported from Japan via the Dutch East India Company as a seventeenth-century substitute for Chinese exports:

On the one hand, constraints on supply served their purpose, by preserving its aura of exclusivity, but on the other hand it meant that monarchs and aristocrats competed against each other ever more fiercely to differentiate themselves.

More to the point, as time went on the porcelain trade became a one-way haemmorage of currency from Europe to China, and the source of a disconcerting balance of trade deficit. It was as if the trade was expanding to treat the symptoms of mercantilist economics whilst exacerbating the underlying condition.

What was needed was to get the means to produce porcelain for oneself. But only the Chinese knew how it was made, and - given its important function in their domestic politics - they had kept it a closely-guarded secret. Solving the mystery would require cunning, imagination - and espionage.


There were many efforts to relieve this "maladie" before the first porcelain was successfully made in Europe. To begin with, all they had to guide their experiments were the vague and inaccurate reports from Western visitors to China. Marco Polo, who visited the court of Kublai Khan (1215-94) provided an early and misleading description:

"They collect a certain kind of earth, as it were from a mine, and laying it in a great heap, suffer it to be exposed to the wind, the rain and the sun, for thirty or forty years, during which time it is never disturbed. By this it became refined and fit for being wrought into the vessels." 

Even this was probably of more practical use than contemporaries who, by leaps of imagination, proposed that it was made from powdered eggshells, lobster shells, or ordinary clay buried for over a hundred years.

Commercial centres in Italy were amongst the first Europeans to attempt reproduction, in the sixteenth-century. The guiding hypothesis was that the hard and translucent properties of porcelain indicates compositional similarities with glass. Following this lead, Venetian traders in the sixteenth-century only managed to make a kind of cloudy glass. Their Florentine rivals managed to produce something more akin to a distant imitation by adding glass and sand to imported kaolin clay, but it would still have fooled no-one, and was unsustainably expensive to make.

Almost a century passed before the next serious attempts. In the 1660s, separate efforts by John Dwight of Fulham and the Duke of Buckingham yielded partial successes but were not followed-up with adequate financial backing. At the St. Cloud factory near Paris, attempts to imitate the Florentine formula yielded the surprising invention of "soft-paste" porcelain. According to Gleeson, "it was far finer than anything else that had so far been made" but was "still lacking the perfection of true porcelain."

In the seventeenth-century, potters in the Netherlands were mass-producing tin-glazed earthenware to take advantage of the political unrest in China that had halted their porcelain export. This 'Delftware' was a good surface imitation, but lacked the translucence that made real porcelain so desirable.

Here is an example of a blue-and-white Delft vase from the seventeenth-century:

Europeans would have to settle for making tin-glazed earthenware, stoneware and soft-paste porcelain - all somewhat lacklustre substitutes - until a twist of fate would bring together in their hands both the scientific knowledge and the practical know-how.


The first detailed description to reach the West of how the Chinese made their porcelain was contained in the letters of a French Jesuit priest called Pere Francis Xavier d'Entrecolles.

The role of the Jesuits in Chinese society is a curious anomaly. Amongst foreign visitors, they were granted unparalleled access to the hidden sanctums of state power. They won their special treatment by providing scientific and mathematical knowledge that was highly valued by the imperial court, such as astrological advice. But they also attained their status by conforming to Chinese cultural norms and downplaying features of Christianity that had no clear Chinese reference-points - so much so that they stood accused of heresy by rival orders, and were officially disbanded by the Pope.

Thanks to his status, Father d'Entrecolles was able to observe the porcelain production-lines at work during his travels around central China in 1698, and he inscribed what he saw in two letters, in 1712 and 1722. 

He denied that he was motivated by financial considerations: "Nothing but my curiosity could ever have prompted me to such researches, but it appears to me that a minute description of all that concerns this kind of work might, somehow, be useful in Europe." The second part of that sentence is something of an understatement.

I especially like the way that Father d'Entrecolles describes learning the secrets of porcelain-making whilst trying (and, like most Jesuits, probably failing) to convert the potters, painters and sculptors: "These great workshops have been for me a kind of Areopagus, where I have preached Him who fashioned the first man out of clay." He portrays a rationalised and restless industry, with over eight thousand kilns blazing day and night to meet the desired production: "The heavens are alight with the glare from the fires, so that one cannot sleep at night." Centuries before "Asian values" would be used to explain the competitive edge of East Asia, Father d'Entrecolles tells us that Christians are disadvantaged by the highly specialised division of labour:

"Within these walls live and work an infinite number of workpeople, who each have their allotted task, and a piece of porcelain, before it is ready to go into the oven, passes through the hands of twenty persons, and that without any confusion... This is very laborious work; those Christians who are employed at it find it difficult to attend Church; they are only allowed to go if they can find substitutes, because as soon as this work is interrupted all the other workmen are stopped."

He make some rather telling remarks about the international dimension of all this, noting that many European consumers who appreciated the porcelain but were disparaging about the painted designs were unaware that these designs had been sent over to China from Europe, perhaps because some particularly savvy merchants realised there was a market for unflattering comparisons: "Certain landscapes and plans of towns that are brought over from Europe to China will hardly allow us, however, to mock at the Chinese for the manner in which they represent themselves in their paintings."

The letters are also proof that the secrets of making porcelain were fought over as fiercely amongst the Chinese themselves, as they were between China and foreigners. We are told that the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722) ordered the imperial porcelain manufactory to be transported to Beijing so that he could learn the secrets from firsthand observation.

The attempt failed, most likely because the producers chose to subvert the authority of the court. As I mentioned in the previous instalment, porcelain had an important function as a symbol of the Emperor's standing.  Although the Emperor had annotated diagrams, withholding from him the infinite subtleties and contextualised knowledge of production was in effect denying him the means to exert increased power across his territories from the centre.

This was taking place in the context of the Qing dynasty re-imposing Ming-era demands and controls on the industry after a brief, more experimental "transition period". The dynamics are reminiscent of the more unrealistic, utopian schemes attempted in China during the twentieth-century - social actors withheld information from the state as a way of resisting centralisation, but the resulting information-deficit only exacerbated the discconect:

"The history of Jingdezhen speaks of different pieces, ordered by the Emperors, that the potters have tried in vain to make. The father of the reigning Emperor ordered some boxes... They worked at these pieces for three consecutive years, and made nearly two hundred examples, not one of which was successful... These, said the old people of Jingdezhen, cannot be done, and the Mandarins of this province presented a petition to the Emperor supplicating him to stop his work."

As it happened, the earliest production of European porcelain would follow a strikingly similar pattern...


There was one crucial problem with Father d'Entrecolles's letters - he got the days mixed up.  A court official of Dutch origin named Claudius Innocentius du Paquier had tried to recreate the Chinese process by following the letters, "but even after careful scrutiny of d'Entrecolles's descriptions and numerous painstaking trials, all his early attempts to make porcelain were dismally unsuccessful."

Despite these false starts, at about the same time, another European stumbled upon "white gold" whilst trying to make real gold. 

The story of the first real porcelain production in Europe is fascinating, and Janet Gleeson's book really brings the episode to life with a sense for historical drama.

Several years before d'Entrecolles's first letter, a brilliant and ambitious alchemist named Johann Frederick Bottger had persuaded Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, that he could use his knowledge of the 'arcanum' - the mythical formula for transmuting base metal into gold - to replenish the royal coffers. Augustus needed to find a way to fund Prussia's costly war with Sweden, but when Bottger failed to deliver the goods on time Augustus had him imprisoned indefinitely.

In 1705, he was transferred to Albrechtsburg, a royal castle overlooking Meissen, where he was allowed to experiment in a laboratory-cum-prison. Here is Albrechtsburg, otherwise known as the 'Saxon Acropolis':

At Albrechtsburg, Bottger collaborated with one of the king's councillors, a nobleman called Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnaus. Tschirnaus was an expert in glass manufacturing, and he was convinced that glass held the secrets to making porcelain. Together, they began to focus on unlocking the secret.

Here is a short feature about Albrechtsburg, and Augustus's royal collection:

Although he learned a lot from his colleague, Bottger pursued a different strategy. As Gleeson describes it, his approach was both more 'modern' and more 'medieval' than Tschirnaus - he treated the problem of turning rock into porcelain as equivalent to that of turning lead into gold; the solution, as he saw it, was not to discover how porcelain was like glass, but to identify the precise ratios of the various ingredients that would yield the desired substance - and he "embarked on a series of carefully conducted experiments" to methodically ascertain the truth.

Here is a portrait of Bottger:

The crucial discovery was made in 1708, but it was not reported to the King for another year, by which time Tschirnaus had died, so history has tended to downplay his contribution.

Augustus was ecstatic - he was no different to his contemporaries in succumbing to "china-fancy." In his youth he had witnessed the extravagance of Versailles, and "under his rule Dresden metamorphosed into his own version of Louis XIV's splendid court." To showcase his achievement, in 1710 he transferred production to a factory in Meissen. But there were deep-seated contradictions between the King's desire to make the industry a commercial success, and to keep his monopoly on the "arcanum" of porcelain.

Arriving at the arcanum by a mixture of scientific method and imagination, it took time to get to grips with large-scale production. To begin with the factory was notoriously inefficient (Tschirnaus had called the Dresden kilns "bowls of chance").  More problematically, the entire organisation was conceived so as to minimise the amount of valuable knowledge accessible to any individual worker at any particular stage of production. As word of the 'miracle' at Meissen spread, the town became filled with spies hired by rival industrialists and foreign princes, and the factory became a virtual prison for its underpaid employees:

"Non-payment of wages caused obvious hardship and unrest among the hard-driven staff, who were still kept as virtual prisoners in the Meissen precincts and officially forbidden to come and go as they pleased. Forced to work for weeks, sometimes months, on end for no pay, they became audacious and lawless. On one occasion they ignored the usual restrictions and abandoned their jobs, marched to Dresden and confronted the King during his leisurely morning ride. On this occasion their wages were paid but they were not always so lucky."
Gleeson cites 'An Historical account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea' (1752):

"In order to preserve this art as much as possible a secret, the fabric at rendered impenetrable to any but those who are immediately employed about the work, and the secret of mixing and preparing the metal is known to very few of them. They are all confined as prisoners, and subject to be arrested if they go without the walls; and consequently a chapel and everything necessary is provided within." 
Whereas d'Entrecolles had compared the factories at Jingdezhen to chapels, at Meissen the factory had really become a chapel...inside a giant prison.

This is the exterior of the factory (it even looks like a prison):

The segmented production meant that the workers often worked for years to acquire such specialised, context-specific skills that, even if they were free to leave, they would have few other options. But in case he had left them in any doubt, "Augustus inculcated the workmen with the fear that if they were discovered to have discussed what they knew with any outsiders they would suffer the severest punishments. Talking about porcelain-making was in Augustus's eyes tantamount to treason."

A more dangerous side-effect of fragmentation in the long-run was that the factory was riddled with corruption, top-to-bottom. Feeding the air of paranoia, it bred toxic rivalries between different sections of the factory. Workers supplemented their meagre incomes by smuggling out blank pieces, painting them in their homes, and flogging them on the black market. In response, Augustus ordered that all Meissen wares be stamped with an iconic pair of crossed swords, as a guarantee of quality (he did not live long enough to see it become one of the most faked logos in history).

On his deathbed Bottger was confronted with the dilemma of choosing a new "arcanist" to inherit his secrets: "The safest way to ensure that these secrets were secure was by sharing them among several trusted employees. Each would be taught part of the formula and no-one would fully understand, or be able to replicate, the entire process." So strong was the prevalent atmosphere of mistrust that, in the end,  his secrets only survived him because he had disclosed them whilst very drunk: "Bottger's porcelain-making genius had, in effect, died along with him. It was, ironically, largely thanks to his indiscretions that the secrets of his later discoveries were passed on at all."

Those "later discoveries" pertained to the most important stage of refining the process - producing porcelain that was equal to, or better than, that which was made in China. Unfortunately for Augustus, the recipient of this information was one of the several workers at Meissen who escaped and defected to his rivals. In his case, the rival in question was none other than du Paquier, the court official who had earlier tried to recreate d'Entrecolles's Areopagus, and whose factory in Vienna produced "the first piece of true European porcelain made outside Meissen" in 1719.

Augustus's ambitions only snowballed in the last remaining years of his life, even as the foundations of his pre-eminence were being eroded from within. Deciding that 'china rooms' did not befit a man of his stature, he called for the construction of an enormous "porcelain palace", to be made entirely - or to the greatest degree physically possible - of porcelain. A visitor in 1730 described his astonishment at the plans, which included a 'porcelain zoo', "of a hundred and seventy feet in length."

Here are some porcelain herons built for the zoo in 1732:

The King never lived to see the palace being built, and his son and heir Augustus III abandoned the project. But if he had survived into the late eighteenth-century, he would have seen the pre-eminence of Saxon porcelain pass, first to Vienna, then to France, and spread across the continent.

And this process of diffusion unleashed waves of innovation that would soon re-orient the pre-eminence of porcelain on a global level. 


In the third and final part, I will explore how European porcelain came to outshine that of the Chinese. The focus will then return to China, examining how the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen preserved their political importance in the post-imperial era, and why traditional porcelain-making in China today is kept alive by the thriving market for fakes.

Tuesday 22 May 2012


'Sightings': the term used by Prof. Jonathan D. Spence to describe formative encounters of China by Westerners.

Here is a real gem. At the start of the 1970s, China was tentatively opening itself up to the rest of the world (with the exception of the Soviet Union). Mao and his inner circle recognised that they needed to try and carefully manage the process of opening in order the shore-up the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

Alongside openness would be an effort to control which of its many faces China presented to the world - and in 1972, the Party invited the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni to visit China and assist with the construction of cultural "soft" power in a new phase of triangular diplomacy.


Antonioni was a distinguished art house director, famous for works such as L'avventura (1960) and Blowup (1966), and as a leading light in the development of neo-realist film-making earlier in his career. But in a China still reeling from the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution - in which being "red" was more important than being an "expert" for a person's career prospects - it was Antonioni's left-leaning politics that made him the candidate of choice.

Here is Antonioni:

Maoism had been an influential force amongst the radical left in the student movements in the late 1960s, across Western Europe and North America. This was especially so at the time of the Cultural Revolution, which seemed to be in sync with the same frustrations of the younger generation - and the subsequent 'counter-culture' movements - against the bureaucratic restrictions of the elders of the First World.

In his book, 'The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s', Richard Wolin gives a fascinating account of how the various Maoist sects and factions across Europe wielded a degree of power and influence in public life that vastly outweighed their actual numbers.

Initially, the Maoists in Western Europe were dogmatic 'true-believers' who saw in Communist China what they wanted to see. As Wolin puts it:

"Cultural Revolutionary China became a projection screen, a Rorschach test, for their innermost radical political hopes and fantasies...China became the embodiment of a "radiant utopian future." By "becoming Chinese"...they would rid themselves of their guilt both as the progeny of colonialists and, more generally, as bourgeois."

These 'Maoists' tended to be de facto disillusioned Stalinists who found abandoning their belief in "actually existing socialism" too painful to bear. Wolin describes this mindset: "the "successes" of Chinese communism - or its imagined successes - would magically compensate for the abysmal failures of the Communist experience elsewhere."

But this all changed when the Maoists found themselves utterly sidelined in the dramatic revolts of May 1968. They found themselves forced by the libertarian spirit and 'new issues' agenda of the moment to broaden their appeal, or sink into irrelevance. As usual, they split into two such camps, with one group continuing to centre their political platform around venerating whatever Mao was doing at that moment, and the other group embracing the more open-minded, grassroots spirit of the times.

"The idea of 'cultural revolution' was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habits, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability."
Here are Black Panther supporters brandishing Mao's 'Little Red Book' in Oakland, 1969:

It is hard to miss the irony of using the rhetoric of the Red Guard movement to promote this new 'post-power' politics, when the Cultural Revolution inaugurated by Mao was precisely concerned with restoring his power inside the Party machine - the "rebellion" against established authority that he encouraged amongst the young was a means to the end of strengthening, not transcending, the power of the Party.

Here is a clip from a documentary about the period, which gives some idea of what it was really about:

The key moment for these neo-Maoists in the West came in the aftermath of 1968. Wolin presents a crucial argument that one of the legacies of the upheavals of 1968 was that it instilled a deep sense of humility in Western European public intellectuals, particularly in France and Italy. This was in part because some intellectuals had failed to predict the momentous events using their elaborate theories (Lucien Goldmann aptly observed that "structures don't go out into the streets to make a revolution"), but also because the bottom-up, anti-paternalistic ethic was so integral to the movements themselves.

And writers, artists and intellectuals had a new sense of themselves as being somehow "above" the masses, telling them what they ought to read, look at, and think - which was something they had a duty to resist.

The Maoist sects played an important role in this, largely because they were merely in the right place at the right time, armed with the right (and suitably ambiguous) slogans. The police in Paris chose to target the Maoist groups, and their publishing outlets, to send a signal to other radicals, because they were small enough to be manageable. But heavy-handed intervention only made a public martyr of them and rallied intellectuals to their cause, most notably Sartre and Foucault. Wolin describes how all these processes interacted to undermine an older model of the engaged French public intellectual as a member of an elite 'vanguard' class:

"They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalised the virtues of democratic humility...insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truths."



Maoism in the West had helped to destroy the belief that an artist has a right to decide what an audience should be exposed to, and what meanings they ought to take away. Maoism in China had instituted extremely restrictive censorship across all arts and entertainment. Here were two superficially similar political discourses with a great deal getting lost in translation.

Ever since Edgar Snow wrote Red Star Over China Western leftists had visited the People's Republic and painted it in a positive light. The Party had the same expectation of Antonioni, who had a reputation for using his films to criticise the exploitation he saw in his own society. Like many of his generation, he was haunted by the living memory of fascism under Mussolini. Like the radical left in post-war West Germany, he felt burdened by a sense of duty to guard against the ever-present danger that fascism might resurface in a disguised form.

His earliest feature films addressed the social alienation that afflicted the working- and middle-classes alike under capitalism. The alienating effects of modernity was a theme that ran through his career - at their best, his films force his audience to honestly confront the restlessness and anomie of modern life, and to abandon the self-deception of thinking that there exists a 'strong man' ruler who could restore a long-lost semblance of permanence, order and meaning.

In 1997 the BBC dedicated an edition of Arena to Antonioni. Here is the start - it is worth watching in its entirety to get a feel for the man less as an individual and more as a representative of a restless post-war generation. (Further down the page I have included the section that deals directly with Chung Kuo.)

During the programme, he describes how his philosophy of being an artist changed over time. His comments from the 1960s foreshadow the difficulty the Chinese government would have in trying to use him as their mouthpiece several years later. He describes losing confidence in his judgment about which features of the world around him are worth observing, which aspects of daily life carry some greater significance.

It is not something that ought to be overly rational - you should freely range the camera over anything and everything that might be of interest.


In 1972 Antonioni was invited to China to record a documentary of everyday life. His visit lasted five weeks, and the result was Chung Kuo China, a three-part film that was subsequently shown on Italian TV. The first part was filmed in Beijing, the second in rural Linxian and the southern cities of Suzhou and Nanjing, and the final part focuses on Shanghai. Below are some screen-shots from the film.

Here is Part 1 of the first episode (the entire film can be found on there):

It is a strangely hypnotic film, meditative and never intimate yet offering a glimpse of a China that has since disappeared. Everyone is wearing drab 'Mao suits', there are no tourists, and the old parts of cities like Beijing are untouched by high-rise urbanisation - in the third episode there is a shot of the Pudong area of Shanghai consisting of a shipyard, an oil refinery and expansive fields.

This is what the Pudong financial district looks like today:

From the outset, Antonioni as the narrator declares that he is "not pretending to understand China", but is merely providing an objective portrait - though the narration is not always consistent in its value-neutrality. He is frank about the restrictions placed on him by his political supervisors during filming, such as when he describes being instructed not to film the entrance to Mao's residence - but films it anyway.

Other politically-sensitive sections were filmed in secret using hidden cameras, including what he describes as "free markets", which were officially prohibited. Even more galling for the authorities, he speculates that it is these "gaps" in the collectivist economy that are responsible for diminishing "the tragedy of Asian malnutrition." There is an interesting parallel between the Party's boasts that it has opened up previously hidden areas of the Forbidden Palace to commoners, whilst it has erected new barriers of secrecy around the most routine features of daily life.

I think a very interesting section of the film is the recording of a discussion amongst factory workers in the first episode. Antonioni tells us the workers have met after work to discuss a new art exhibition, under the supervision of a Party cadre. But, he says, "there are no real debates" in the group - each takes their turn to recite monotonous slogans. One worker proclaims their need to spin enough cotton for the coming World Revolution. When the sole purpose of art is to glorify the workers, that becomes the sole criterion for evaluating art, and even the discussion of art becomes a dull and dry task - which in turn makes the real-life workers seem ever-more distant from these heroic is a kind of vicious cycle. The clip comes early on in the segment below.

The generally balanced and open-minded tone of the film was anathema to the Party authorities who insisted that the primary purpose of the arts was to promote the Party line. In the seminal 'Yenan Talks', Mao expressed this bluntly:

"Writers and artists who cling to their individualist petty-bourgeois standpoint cannot truly serve the revolutionary mass of workers, peasants and soldiers."
This policy towards the arts was known as the "Two Servings" - serving the people and serving socialism.
Another slogan was "from the masses, to the masses." This slogan is perhaps the most useful in understanding how Antonioni and the Chinese government came to misunderstand eachother so completely. At the doctrinal level, Maoist theory rejected what might be called 'naive realism' - the notion that unmediated, universal "truth" exists in a directly-accessible form out there in the world - in the same way that the Italian neo-realists rejected it as a basis for making films.

But the crucial difference was that Mao believed that a 'vanguard' party could restore order and meaning in the world if it kept in touch with the masses, listened to their views, and then used the tools of philosophy and Marxism-Leninism to fashion a kind of rational, unified whole out of the assembled fragments of opinions and interpretations. The job of the Party was then to transmit this coherent construct back to the masses, and if necessary to impose it by force - the masses would recognise their thoughts and feelings as expressed in the Party policy, in a higher, more refined form.

It was not a cultural policy that allowed for ambiguity - a piece of work was either pro-China or anti-China. Chung Kuo China was condemned as the latter in a series of critiques in the Peking Review.

The most prominent criticism was that the film did not give sufficient coverage of the achievements of 'New China'. In an extreme instance, the soldiers guarding Tienanmen Square are reported as complaining that Antonioni distorted the sunlight over Beijing:
"When one looks up at Tienanmen Gate, one sees a portrait of Chairman Mao radiant with a kind and warm expression and the state emblem of the People’s Republic of China shining bright. But in Antonioni’s film neither the panorama of the Square nor the magnificence of Tienanmen Gate is seen. The film was taken on a bright sunny day in May. Nevertheless, the Square is shown in dim and dreary colours. The grand Square is presented in a disorderly fashion as if it were a market place of noisy confusion. Is this a result of Antonioni’s neglect or unique interest? Of course not. It is the result of a despicable technique with vicious intention."
Yet in the same newspaper, the film is also attacked by an official from Linxian for supposedly depicting the Chinese as glorying in their exceptionalism and self-importance (a sensitive topic at a time when Mao was trying to present China as a more co-operative player in the international system):

"This out-and-out anti-China imperialist agent Antonioni says that "for the Chinese, this great silent space is the centre of the world" and "China is the country at the centre." This is a vicious slander, intended to drive a wedge between the Chinese and other peoples. The Chinese people have all along adhered to Chairman Mao’s teachings that we Chinese people should "get rid of great-power chauvinism resolutely, thoroughly, wholly and completely". We never regard China as "the centre of the world." In imposing this allegation on the Chinese people, Antonioni’s criminal purpose is to create doubt and distrust between the Chinese and other peoples and undermine their solidarity and friendship."

Mao hated the film and it was not screened inside China until 2004.

But from another point of view, Antonioni achieved a more immediate victory - as the producer in the Arena programme says, Chung Kuo showcases the deep similarities between Antonioni's style and traditional bedrock themes in Chinese art - panoramic landscapes, the emptiness of the void, non-linear storytelling. The first wave of filmmakers to emerge after Mao died in 1976 - the so-called "Fourth Generation" - sparked a short-lived renaissance in Chinese cinema by fusing the arthouse stylings of Italian neo-realism with the more populist themes of conventional Chinese movies. And nothing quite like that brief burst of creativity has been seen since (but that is a subject for a future post).


Sighting No. 2 is in the works. Here is a clue as to who the subject will be - like China, this visitor is also famous for a teapot, but one rather far-removed...