by Mary Murphy-Gnatz

Juan de Mendoza of Spain described the Chinese porcelain found in many of China’s shops in 1586:

There be also shops full of earthen vessels of divers making: redde, greene, yellow, and gilt … they made them of very strong earth … they put them into their kilns and burne them … and … [they are] brought into Portugal and carried into Peru and Nova Espana, and into other parts of the world. 1

By the time Mendoza observed these wares, the Chinese had been exporting pottery for at least thirteen hundred years and had been making it for at least 5500 years. Estimates are that painted pottery was first made in China in approximately 4000 B.C.2 Specimens of Chinese pottery were found in the Malay Archipelago dating back to the third century A.D., T’ang Dynasty (621-907 A.D.) pottery, of the white ware, high-fired, porcelain type, was found at an archaeological dig in Samarra, (836-883 A.D.) Mesopotamia.3 Speculations are that this high-fired ware originated in China around 500 B.C.4

In China high-fired ware is known as T’zu as opposed to low-fired ware known as T’ao. 5 The type of clays used in pottery determines the temperature at which it can be fired. The finest T’zu or porcelain as we know it is a composite of kaolin clay, which fires white, and a feldspathic stone called pe-tun-tse; both these materials are found in abundance throughout China. When mixed at specific proportions, and fired at a minimum of 1300 C, a vitreous, translucent porcelain is produced. Some other advantages of this ware are that it can be shaped thin, into very intricate designs, and it “rings well” (similar to crystal).6 Fired, unglazed, pottery is known as “biscuit,”and is not considered as aesthetically pleasing as glazed porcelain. The glaze is usually made from some combination of limestone, quartz, feldspar, clay or woodash.7

T’zu seems to have been first produced during the T’ang dynasty in Kiangsi province either at Ching te Chen, Jao-chou, or Chi-chou on the Kan river.8 China kept the secret of making fine porcelain for at least a thousand years. During that time, Chinese porcelains traveled via ship along China’s eastern coast to the Malay Archipelago, and overland via the Silk Road. During the Middle Ages, it was shipped to Japan, India, Arabia, and Africa via the Philippines.9 However, the very finest pieces were reserved for the Emperor’s private use, for his own household or for redistribution to worthy subjects and important visitors.

The Portuguese were the first to carry Chinese porcelain directly to Europe, in the sixteenth century, after they entered Asia via the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. The first Portuguese ship arrived in Canton, China in 1513. 10 The Dutch later expanded the export in porcelain in the seventeenth century. As a result of the capture of two Portuguese ships carrying large consignments, the European wo/man on the street was to see Chinese porcelain for the first time. For example, in 1604 when the Catherina was captured, she was carrying 100,000 pieces of porcelain. These goods were sold to buyers from all over western Europe at a public sale in Holland. Some of the buyers represented Henry IV of France and James I of England. This sale presumably started the European craze for Chinese porcelain.11 Between 1604 and 1657 over 3 million pieces of Chinese porcelain reached Europe.12 In 1700 “East Indiamen” ships unloaded 146,748 pieces in a European port in one day alone as the market for porcelain grew insatiable.13

The growing demand for porcelain spawned a desire for Europeans to produce their own “china.”A French Jesuit missionary, Pere D’Entrecolles, as a result of a little industrial espionage inside the Chinese porcelain factories at Ching-te-chen, sent a report back to Europe. His report of the process and needed materials was accurate, but he inadvertently mixed up the names of the clays.14 Fortunately, prior to the circulation of D’Entrecolles’ letters in Europe, Johann Friedrich Bottger and Walther Von Tschirnhaus had produced the formula in Germany on their own. Shortly after, a large source of kaolin was found near Meissen in Saxony. Porcelain was being produced in Europe by 1710 under the patronage of Augustus of Saxony that was so hard it could be “cut and polished like a jewel.”15

Despite Europe’s success at producing its own porcelain, trade in Chinese porcelain continued to thrive. Orders for 305,000 pieces to be carried by two ships, the Essex and the Townsend were placed in 1717. Four British ships delivered over 800,000 pieces in 1721. In the year 1741 French, British, Swedish, and Danish ships brought approximately 1,200,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain to Europe.16

Chinese porcelain did find a European rival in Louis XV’s France. Through a series of royal decrees and restrictions in France and the employment of master artists including goldsmiths, Vincennes or Sevres porcelain started to be produced in 1750. The color quality could not be equaled by any porcelain producer including those of China and Japan, and many pieces were lavishly decorated with gold. Early Sevres made of “soft paste,”a glass composite and not true porcelain, and fired at lower temperatures, absorbed colors better, produced dazzling whites and more brilliant glazes. This was the Sevres porcelain that was in such great demand by kings, emperors and princes. Catherine the Great’s service cost an equivalent of £375,000 (value in pounds in 1971).17 To produce such exquisite beauty, there was much wastage of materials (soft paste is much harder to handle and the King wanted perfection). Even after the Sevres works turned to production of “true” porcelain, the production process was a heavy consumer of human life. Many workmen died of silicosis and lead poisoning in Louis XV’s porcelain factories. 18 Little thought was given to such “hidden” costs, then or now.

Works of art disentangle themselves from their age and live serenely for other times and other men.19

Ancient and modern porcelain from China, Japan, and Europe is still sold worldwide, still commands exorbitant prices — hopefully not as exorbitant as Sevres under Louis XV — and is still found as prized possessions in museums (including that found in the historic home of George Washington), fine restaurants, and in the homes of “commoners” as well as royalty.


1. Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza, The Historie of the Great and Mightie Kingdome of China, and the Situation Thereof: Together With the Great Riches, Huge Citties, Politike Government and Rare Inventions in the Same, trans. R. Parke (London: Edward White, 1588), 22, 23.
2. Ping-Ti Ho, The Cradle of the East: An Inquiry Into the Indigenous Origins of Techniques and Ideas of Neolithic and Early Historic China, 5000-1000 B.C., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 131.
3. T. Volker, Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company: as Recorded in the Dagh-Registers of Batavia Castle, Those of Hirado and Deshima and Other Contemporary Papers, 1602-l682,(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971), 4, 5.
4. Daniel Rhodes, Stoneware and Porcelain: The Art of High-Fired Pottery, (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co., 1959), 3.
5. Wade Giles and the Pinyin system of Chinese translation are used, depending on the system used in the source.
6. Margaret Medley, The Chinese Potter: A Practical History of Chinese Ceramics, (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1976), 13, 101, 102.
7.Suzanne G. Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975), 12.
8. Medley, The Chinese Potter, 100, 101.
9. Volker, Porcelain and the Dutch East India Co., 5.
10. Parry, J. H., The Establishment of the European Hegemony 1415-1715: Trade and Exploration in the Age of the Renaissance, (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 42.
11. Volker, Porcelain and the Dutch East India Co., 22.
12. Ibid., 227.
13. J. H. Plumb, In the Light of History, (New York: Delta, 1971), 59.
14. Rhodes, Stoneware and Porcelain, 30.
15. Ibid., 60.
16. Walter A. Staehlein, ed., The Book of Porcelain: The Manufacture, Transport and Sale of Export Porcelain in China During the Eighteenth Century, trans., Michael Bullock, (London: Lund Humphries, 1965), 10.
17. Plumb, In Light of History, 64, 65.
18. Ibid., 63.
19. Ibid., 69.