On the Silk Road and the High Seas: Chinese Ceramics, Culture and Commerce

Exhibition open from Sat Sep 01 2012 to Mon Jan 28 2013

Tomb figure of a woman playing polo. Tang dynasty (618–906). Earthenware, traces of polychrome decoration, 15 1/8 by 12 ½ by 5 3/16 inches (38.4 by 31.8 by 13.2 cm). Norton Museum of Art, Purchase, the R.H. Norton Trust, 62.14. © Norton Museum of Art

Tomb figure of a woman playing polo. Tang dynasty (618–906). Earthenware, traces of polychrome decoration, 15 1/8 x 12 ½  x 5 3/16 inches (38.4 x 31.8 x 13.2 cm). Norton Museum of Art, Purchase, the R.H. Norton Trust, 62.14. © Norton Museum of Art

On the Silk Road and the High Seas: Chinese Ceramics, Culture and Commerce examines why Chinese ceramics were such prized commodities, both at home and abroad. Examples of proto-porcelain appeared in China about 3,000 years ago and hard-paste porcelain began to be made around 1,800 years ago. This precious product was sometimes called “white gold,” especially in the West. Foreign trade and changing domestic markets played a role in stimulating Chinese potters to continually reinvent their repertoire of shapes and decorative techniques. These exchanges also illuminate important episodes in cultural history.

Before there was a Silk Road, Chinese records refer to a Jade Road where traders from the East and West met at the oasis of Khotan in Central Asia.  There the Chinese acquired the type of gemstone they valued most.

The earliest era of Chinese trade with lands to the west began over 2,000 years ago. Before there was a Silk Road, Chinese records refer to a Jade Road where traders from the East and West met at the oasis of Khotan in Central Asia.  There the Chinese acquired the type of gemstone they valued most. From the 1st through the 14th century overland and maritime exchanges of ideas and goods between China, the Mediterranean world, Japan, and Central and Southeast Asia were never controlled by a single political power. The overland road for much of its length was a fragile chain stretched across inhospitable desert and mountain terrain. Ships sailed unpredictable seas from one small city-state to another. Many were swept off course and sank, such as two recently discovered cargos of 9th- and 14th-century Chinese ceramics.

During the 18th century a flourishing shipping business, known as the “China Trade,” developed between Western nations and the Chinese port of Canton in the upper reaches of the Pearl River Delta. Trade concentrated on tea, silk, and inexpensive porcelain. “Fancy” goods and special orders, like the armorial porcelain and large decorative pieces—particularly punch bowls—were privately traded by ships’ officers. At this time, the European porcelain industry was in its infancy and production of large pieces of porcelain was problematic there.

Throughout history, the exchange of goods and ideas was never one-sided. Novel ideas from the West fascinated the emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) inspiring the creation of imperial wares, such as the pattern known in the West as mille-fleur and in China as wanhuajin. Jesuits working in Chinese imperial workshops were a conduit for European imagery and thoughts, such as the mille-fleur design often depicted in easily transportable 18th-century European engravings. The Chinese version of the mille-fleur motif found favor as a pattern on Yongzheng imperial porcelain (1723–1735) and continues to be admired in China to this day.  On such wares, flowers of the four seasons miraculously bloom at the same time. One reason for the appeal of this design is its association with a pre-existing Chinese proverb foretelling prosperity: “May one hundred flowers bloom.” Comprised of over 60 objects, On the Silk Road and the High Seas: Chinese Ceramics, Culture and Commerce explores these and other tales, revealing why Chinese ceramics were so desirable at home and abroad.

On the Silk Road and the High Seas: Chinese Ceramics, Culture and Commerce was organized by the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida.