Oriental Porcelain and Its Hold on Western Civilization

April 7, 2015 Updated: April 17, 2015

It was in the 18th century that Europeans began to make true porcelain, in imitation of the famed Chinese ware. Although there had been prior attempts to produce the beautiful Chinese product using mixtures of glass and pottery, there wasn’t much success.

Around 900 A.D., during the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese had started to mix the ingredients they used to make stoneware with greater precision than before. The result was porcelain, which is made with kaolin (called kao ling by the Chinese), pure white clay, and a type of feldspar called petuntse. When fired at a high temperature, these ingredients fuse to produce a hard, translucent white body, which, because of its strength and resistance, allowed potters to make thinner and thinner objects.

Because there was quite a gap between the beginnings of porcelain-making in China and its evolution in the West, porcelain was given its second name—china—in the 17th century by its admirers in the West.

The Chinese were interested in beautiful forms, which gave off a resonant sound when struck with the fingertips. They did not always differentiate between stoneware and porcelain because both give off a “ting” and both can be shaped into handsome forms. Porcelain, however, has a very special quality of translucence.

A storage jar and cover with babao motifs. (Robert Murray Bell/Ann Walker Bell Collection)
A storage jar and cover with babao motifs. (Robert Murray Bell/Ann Walker Bell Collection)

When trying to date Oriental porcelain, late 19th-century porcelain from China is usually thinner than the blue and white ware that had such a strong hold on the Western market. Equally true is that objects found today of extreme delicacy are quite possibly 19th century, for the Western market influenced the Chinese production centres as early as the late 1800s. Reproductions are also on the market.

What we are most likely to find now in antique shops and flea markets is the ware made especially for the European and North American markets. Such china has been called everything from Chinese Export and Compagnie des Indes to Trade Porcelain and Lowestoft. Lowestoft was so named because of a mistake made in an early book, whose author presumed that because one piece of Chinese porcelain had been decorated in Lowestoft, England, all similar ware had been made there.

Patterns were seldom used as mere decoration in China; there is almost always some underlying theme or message. The Flowers of the Four Seasons—plum blossom symbolizing winter; peony (spring); lotus (summer), and chrysanthemum (autumn)—are often used to decorate porcelain.

A pilgrim flask made with hard-paste porcelains. (Gardiner Museum)
A pilgrim flask made with hard-paste porcelains. (Gardiner Museum)

Flowers are also associated with beautiful women. The pine tree is another symbol used. Because the tree retains its green foliage it represents endurance and longevity. The pine also represents pure life and constancy in the face of adversity.

Other symbols used to decorate Chinese porcelain include the bamboo, with its slender stems and delicate leaves representing vigour and durability. These plants also symbolize resilience and integrity because they bend in the wind yet return to an upright position.

The pomegranate, because of its many seeds, is associated with fertility and prosperity. It is interesting to note that the Chinese character for “seed” also means “sons.” This fruit therefore represents the wish for many sons.

One of the best places in North America to view Chinese porcelain is at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum. For more information, visit: www.gardinermuseum.com

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings and Doctor’s Review, among others. Email: hallett_susan@hotmail.com