June 2001 Issue
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China's China

by James Norwood Pratt




Second only to tea, perhaps the most important contribution China made to European life was "china" itself - the hard translucent glazed pottery the Chinese had invented under the Tang dynasty and which we also know as porcelain. China had long since exported porcelain over the Silk Route to Persia and Turkey and fine examples of pre-1500 china are still in everyday use there. (An English diplomat collected almost five tons (!) of Ming pieces while serving in Iran in 1875.) In Europe before the dawn of the China trade, the highest achievement of the potter's art was a kind of earthenware which was fired, then coated with an opaque glaze and fired again, fixing the colors with which it had been painted. This was generally named for its supposed place of origin and was known as majolica in Italy, faience in France, Delft in the Low Countries, and so forth. No earthenware could stand up to boiling water without dissolving and nowhere in Europe was it understood how to heat a kiln to the fourteen hundred degrees or so required to vitrify clay and make it impervious to liquids, boiling or not. Even so wise a man as Sir Francis Bacon could only view porcelain as a kind of plaster which, after a long lapse of time buried in the earth, "congealed and glazed itself into that fine substance." Other writers speculated it was made from lobster shell or eggs pounded into dust.

Porcelain in time became the only Chinese import to rival tea in popularity. The wealthy collected it on a grand scale and even middle class people became so carried away that Daniel Defoe could complain of china "on every chimney-piece, to the tops of ceilings, tit it became a grievance." Such abundance half the world away from its place of manufacture was due to its use as ships' ballast. The China trade came to rest on two water-sensitive, high-value commodities: silk and tea. These had to be carried in the middle of the ship to prevent water damage, but to trim the ship and make her sail properly, about half the cargo's weight (not volume) was needed below the waterline in the bilges. Very roughly, a quarter of all tea imported had to be matched by ballast and from the ships' records available, it appears that about a quarter of all ballast was porcelain. Over the course of the 1700s England probably imported twenty-four thousand tons of porcelain while a roughly equal amount would have been imported into Europe and the American colonies.

To keep up with this demand, Jingdezhen, China's main porcelain-making center since the Song dynasty, as early as 1712 needed to keep three thousand kilns fired day and night. The prices fell to ridiculously low levels-seven pounds seven shillings in 1730 for a tea service for 200 people, each piece ornamented with the crest of the ambassador who ordered it; teapots, five thousand of them in 1732, imported at under twopence each. Even if we multiply these prices by one hundred to approximate today's, it is incredibly cheap cost for porcelain of this quality. Before European-made wares came into general use around 1800, the English and European middle classes enjoyed their tea and meals from the finest quality chinaware ever used by any but very wealthy people, a quality of life for which the tea trade was directly responsible.

For years before the advent of tea it had been the dream of all European potters to produce china themselves. Britain's Elers brothers mastered stoneware, but their efforts to reproduce china proved unavailing, and so did the efforts of all the other first-rate potters in Europe. The potters of St. Cloud in France developed a substitute now known as soft-paste porcelain, but nobody came near approximating the real thing until an apothecary's apprentice named Johann - Friederich Bottger bumbled onto the scene.

When he was nineteen, Bottger met the mysterious alchemist Lascaris in Berlin and received a present of some two ounces of transmutation powder from him. If you refuse to believe in alchemists and transmutation, you may as well assume that Mr. Lascaris stepped out of a UFO for the stories of his-and Bottger's-careers are entirely too well documented to dismiss. As Lascarls no doubt intended, Bottger's couldn't resist showing off the powder's powers. Unfortunately, he also claimed to have made it himself with the predictable result that he soon had all the crowned heads of Germany in his pursuit. He finally reached safety, so he thought, in Dresden, under the protection of August 11, "the Strong," Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. But with extravagant gifts and riotous living, his stock of powder was exhausted rather sooner than later and his "protector" proved not to be the disinterested well-wisher he had seemed. Poor Bottger found himself confined in the castle of Konigstein where he was given a laboratory for his researches and a clear understanding of the fate reserved for him should he fall.

He finally convinced his jailer, a certain Count Tschirnhaus, that he was not an Adept in the spagyric arts but merely a demonstrator. The count proposed that in that case he should put the laboratory to use in quest of the secret of making china, since next to gold and power, collecting Japanese and Chinese porcelains was Augustus's ruling passion. (He had filled a palace with his collection-some twenty thousand pieces and still growing-by the time of his death.) Fortunately for the prisoner-researcher, Saxony abounds with the two main ingredients for the manufacture of porcelain-china clay or kaolin and the so-called china stone, a type of rock made up mostly of silica and alumina that serves as a flux and gives the ware Its translucency. Bottger first produced stoneware and then, after numerous false starts, finally obtained a hard-paste red porcelain in 1703. The kiln had been kept burning for five days and five nights and in anticipation of success his royal patron had been invited to see it opened. It Is reported that the first product Bottger took out and presented to Augustus was a fine red teapot. The long-sought secret had been discovered at last and after a few more years Bottger managed to come up with genuine hard-paste white porcelain.

Completely restored to favor, the young man admitted he had never possessed the secret of transmutation; he was formally forgiven and promptly appointed director of Europe's first china factory. It was established near Dresden in a little village called Meissen and proved to be worth almost as much to Augustus as the Philosopher's Stone would have been. Soon after full production got underway in 1713, the export market for Meissen figurines alone ran into the millions. In a letter of 1746, Horace Walpole grumbled about the new fashion in table decoration at the banquets of the English nobility: "Jellies, biscuits, sugar, plums, and cream have long since given way to harlequins, gondoliers, Turks, Chinese, and shepherdesses of Saxon China." Teapots and teacups were also produced in ever increasing quantities.

Industrial espionage spread the secret of porcelain manufacture beyond the Germanies during the 1740s, and in 1751 fifteen English entrepreneurs Joined together to found the Worchester Royal Porcelain Works. To the chagrin of every prince and duke in France lavishing patronage on a little porcelain works of his own, the King's beloved Madame De Pompadour decided to bestow hers on a little factory located near Versailles at Sevres. Louis XV bought it to please her in 1759 and, just to make sure it would prosper, ordered the royal chinaware made there. When in need of money the king sometimes forced the courtiers at Versailles to buy quantities of Sevres at extortionate prices.

The English porcelain firms of the eighteenth century kept experimenting with the formulae filched from the Continent and it would be interesting indeed to know how Mr. J. Spode first hit upon the idea of using the ingredient that distinguishes English from all other porcelains-the ashes of burned bones. Yes, Virginia, bone china is rightly so-called. And from the beginning, the mainstay of the production at Worchester, Chelsea, Spode, Limoges, and all the other centers of china making in Europe was the tea equipage.