China’s ‘China’: Porcelain’s Contribution to World History and Culture

All Grades, Arts & Literature, Economics, History, Resource Collection
  • Chinese porcelain

  • A painting about Chinese porcelain

  • Drawing on porcelain

A simple and clear-cut way of demonstrating the significant impact that Chinese porcelain has had on global material culture over many centuries is to consider the very word ‘China’ in the English language: the word refers not only to the country but is also synonymous with the porcelain pottery ware that began to circulate in Europe almost as soon as European ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope and increasingly established direct trade relations with China and other Asian countries. Ceramic pottery is, of course, as old as human civilization and found around the globe; but the unique quality and properties of porcelain—its considerable strength, translucency, and high resistance to thermal shock—make it one of the great contributions Chinese civilization has made to world cultures.

The resources provided here on China Institute’s dedicated website for educators and students,, are designed to help frame important ways of contextualizing individual porcelain pieces as part of a larger historic story of increased economic interconnectedness and diffusion of aesthetic traditions in the formation of the modern world. These resources are developed in part to complement the Fall 2012 exhibition at the China Institute galleries, New ‘China’: Porcelain Art from Jingdezhen, 1910-2012, which features twentieth and twenty-first century ceramic works of art influenced by the estimable porcelain tradition discussed in this featured resource. Scrolling through the various sections of this featured resource collection, users will be able to explore important issues that will help them better appreciate ‘China’ (both the country/culture and porcelain pieces), including:

  • Where was a good majority of porcelain chinaware made and how widely was it traded?
  • When did trade in porcelain begin; when was it at its height; and when did it taper off?
  • What do we know about the people who made these porcelains and also who used them?
  • What is so special about Chinese porcelains as a subset of ceramics?
  • How can we better appreciate certain motifs on Chinese ceramics from a Chinese perspective?

After reading through these resources, we hope you will have a fuller understanding and appreciation of Chinese porcelain’s rich legacy that continues to inspire new ceramicists and artists into the twenty-first century, as attested to by the beautiful “new China” featured in China Institute Galleries’ Fall 2012 exhibition.


Most Westerners probably cannot readily place where Jingdezhen is or why it is significant in understanding and appreciating porcelain, but for most Chinese and ardent porcelain connoisseurs Jingdezhen is practically synonymous with Chinese porcelain—in fact, Jingdezhen is informally known as the “porcelain capital.” Located on the Chang River in the northeastern part of Jiangxi Province, the town is blessed with three critical materials for large-scale production of porcelains: kaolin clay that is mined from the Gaolin Mountain, a modest hill just northeast of the city; timber and coal to use as fuel during the firing process; and ample waterways for use in the production process and subsequent shipping and distribution. (The traditional Chinese depiction and contemporary photo on the left show the hills and rivers that surround Jingdezhen and its environs.) This abundance of natural resources set the conditions for Jingdezhen to become the most concentrated site for large-scale porcelain production in China (and the world) for many centuries.

A geographic overview of Chinese porcelain that focused solely on the major production center of porcelain ware would be far from complete—we must also take into account the varied destinations these products reached from the tenth century to the early nineteenth century. Major collections of Chinese porcelains can be found in different corners of the world such as the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, where the Ottomans collected thousands of blue-and-white ware; in various European capitals of colonial empires, including Lisbon and London; along the east coast of Africa; and in port cities throughout the Americas, including Salem, MA; Santiago, Chile; and Lima, Peru. A map of global markets that Chinese porcelains reached (see left) shows just how “global” early modern world trade was, predating the current wave of globalization that we live in. And trade in porcelain ware was not merely an exchange of raw goods—it was just as much a cultural, aesthetic, and technological exchange that eventually impacted homes and kitchens from the grandest castles to the humblest homesteads. In other words, throughout the 10th to the 19th centuries, you can increasingly find “China” almost anywhere on the world map!


Archeological evidence has shown that Jingdezhen has been a site of ceramic production from at least the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), but its reputation as a dominant production site for porcelain really begins during the Song dynasty when the imperial court under Emperor Jingde (1004-1007 CE) began to patronize the town’s kilns to produce porcelain for the court and for tributary trade. (Indeed, the name Jingdezhen derives from this emperor’s reign name and the word for “town,” zhen, since the porcelain ware he commissioned was marked with his reign name on the base of the pieces.) With the introduction of cobalt from Persia during the Yuan Dynasty, blue-and-white ware—the color combination which greatly appealed to the Muslim world—quickly became Jingdezhen’s major product for export. It is probably this blue-and-white Ming Dynasty porcelain that first comes to mind when people think of ‘china.’ But even before maritime trade with East Asia began in full swing during the seventeenth century, European aristocrats acquired what were then very rare porcelain pieces and had them richly mounted to showcase their extreme value and adapting them to court culture of the times. (The famous Fonthill vase on the left is the earliest recorded porcelain in Europe dating from the fourteenth century, appearing at top as it is today with mounts removed and on display in the National Museum of Ireland and at bottom drawn with mounts and the coat-of-arms from its earliest owner, Louis the Great of Hungary).

During the Ming Dynasty, imperial kilns were established and reign marks were more regularly fired on to the underside of many porcelain pieces. These marks are important ways to accurately date individual pieces and this can help put a particular piece in a historical context. Other trade and production documents such as shipping records, custom reports, and ship logs give us an even fuller picture of the scale of production and trade of porcelain and its importance as a commodity during the early modern era. From these detailed production and trade records historians have been able to quantify the volume of porcelain trade at its height during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries; these records have led one scholar to estimate that “…at least 300 million pieces of chinaware arriv[ed] on European docks in the three centuries after the Portuguese reached China. Huge amounts also were shipped throughout East Asia and to Southwest Asia, bringing the export of porcelains during those centuries to an average of some three million pieces every year.” Porcelain was not China’s main export product (tea and textiles were more heavily traded) nor was China the only supplier of ceramic ware to various markets (Japan and Vietnam, for example, also traded porcelains); but there is no doubt that China was the largest player in producing porcelains for a voracious world market that helped shape the modern trade networks.

Europeans had been eager to learn the technology of porcelain production ever since they first encountered it and performed a number of experiments to create porcelain so as to end their dependence upon trade with China for this highly desirable product. Finally in the early eighteenth century, a German alchemist (Johann Friedrich Bottger) and a physicist (Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus) succeeded in devising a formula to make porcelain ware. In 1710, the famous Meissen manufacture—which would dominate European porcelain for decades afterward and is still in operation today—was established. Eventually, English, Swedish, French, and other manufacturers entered the market as well and Europeans began to fill the domestic European demand for porcelain ware for which Jingdezhen had previously been the sole provider for. While Jingdezhen continued to produce copious amounts of porcelain after this, it never regained the global dominance it had held for many centuries.


Both Chinese and European records tell us quite a bit about the otherwise anonymous (and most likely illiterate) artisans who were involved in the production of Jingdezhen porcelains. The men and women who worked at the many kilns throughout Jingdezhen were not regarded as “artists” but rather as laborers, or artisans at best. A Jingdezhen kiln was less an artist’s studio than it was a carefully managed assembly line where individual workers were responsible for only one dedicated part in the whole process of creating chinaware. These dedicated responsibilities included everything from clay miners to clay kneaders to throwers, wheel spinners, kiln operators, trimmers, glaze mixers, painters, and packers among other jobs. These workers performed repetitious tasks that probably weren’t regarded as art-making. The artisans came from poor villages around Jingdezhen and earned little more than they could from farming (and if orders were low, they would return to farming). While they could certainly take pride in the quality of the work they did, the working conditions were undeniably harsh and their social status was not high.

In contrast, we can see from both Chinese and European paintings that the porcelain these artisans produced in austere working environments ended up as valued items that decorated the luxurious homes and opulent lifestyles of both wealthy Chinese literati and an emerging European middle-class. In the famous hanging scroll by the Song Dynasty artist-emperor Hui-tsung, Literary Gathering, we can see porcelain pieces adding elegance to this leisurely gathering: tea pots, cups, plates, a serving platter, flower vases, and even the stools that each gentleman is seated on. The imperial court, literati officials, wealthy businessmen, and various temples were all domestic consumers of porcelain made in China as attested to in countless Chinese paintings and in funerary art.

A cursory look at a very different painting tradition such as seventeenth century Dutch still-life painting demonstrates that Chinese porcelain similarly lent an air of elegance and affluence to the homes of the Dutch as both physical objects and also as subjects in paintings to be hung on their walls. Jan Jansz. Treck frequently highlighted porcelain as a luxury trade item to represent the emerging middle class prosperity in what came to be known as the Dutch Golden Age, as can be seen in the example on the left, Still Life with a Pewter Jug and Two Porcelain Plates (1649). The next time you tour a gallery of early modern European painting, don’t be surprised to see more than a little ‘China’ making a cameo appearance.


Many cultures have a rich history of ceramic production but the development of porcelain is a unique Chinese contribution to material culture history. What is so special about porcelain in comparison to stoneware or earthenware? The critical ingredient is kaolin clay (pictured at the left) which has a low plasticity and is essential for the production of porcelain. When mixed with china stone and fired at high temperatures, the resultant ceramic produced has a vitreous (or glass-like) appearance that is white, translucent (unless thickly constructed), tough, resonant, and impermeable (i.e. doesn’t leak liquids). Its durability and jade-like quality in color and texture made it highly prized and valuable. Decorative pigments and glazes added to the appeal of porcelains both within China and throughout the world.

When Marco Polo traveled through China during the Yuan Dynasty, he witnessed firsthand the beauty of porcelain ware in the port city of Quanzhou and it is to him that we owe the name ‘porcelain.’ As Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and author of the BBC series and accompanying book A History of the World in 100 Objects, entertainingly tells it:

“The very word ‘porcelain’ comes to us from Marco Polo’s description of his travel in Qubilai Khan’s [aka Kubla Khan] China. The Italian ‘porcellana’, ‘little piglet’, is a slang word for cowrie shells. They do indeed look a little like curled-up piglets. And the only thing that Marco Polo could think of to give his readers an idea of the shell-like sheen of the hard, fine ceramics that he saw in China, was a cowrie shell, a ‘porcellana’. And so ‘little piglets’, porcelain, we’ve called it ever since – that’s if we’re not just calling it china.” [Compare the texture of a qingbai porcelain and the cowrie shell on the left.]

Eventually, European chemists and ceramicists were able to work out the composition and process of creating porcelain and East Asian cultures no longer had a monopoly on porcelain production.

When you look at a particular Chinese porcelain piece, the colorful patterns of plants and animals might seem delicate and pleasing but is the choice of the plant or animal in any way significant? From a Chinese cultural perspective, the choice of what adorns a plate or vase might make a difference in who you give that item to and why.

The Chinese language has many homophones (or homonyms). A homophone is a word that sounds like another word but has a different meaning (an English example would be “would” and “wood,” or a “yew” and “you”). In Chinese art (including porcelain ware), what is often depicted is a symbol for something else precisely because it is a homophone. These symbolic depictions of one thing for another because it sounds like the word for another thing can create recurring motifs in Chinese porcelain art. Examples include a bat (蝙蝠,bianfu) which is a homonym with “become prosperous” (變福,bianfu). In the porcelain bowl on the upper left, you see five bats (五蝠,wufu) which symbolizes “five blessings” (五福,wufu): health, wealth, virtue, long life, and a peaceful death. A Fish (魚, yu) is a homonym with “abundance” (餘, yu). You will find this motif on many porcelain bowls and jars, especially those that contain liquids.

Besides homonyms, Chinese make frequent use of rebuses. A rebus is a visual puzzle that represents words and phrases through pictures (an English example would be an eye representing “I”). These can be quite complicated and ingenious in Chinese art.

On the porcelain vase to the left, the entire vase and what is depicted on it is a rebus that reads: “祝奉平餘鴻福 Zhu fèng ping yu hongfu” (“wishing to bestow upon you harmony, abundance and enormous happiness”). The body of the vase has an ancient and popular motif of children playing in a courtyard just outside a house where an iron-red colored curtain is drawn to reveal furniture, a tea set and a stool. The father of the boys brings a fish out of the house getting one of his son’s attention. Set inside the diaper pattern below the neck of the vase are two pairs of butterflies and fruit. The neck of the vase itself has bamboo painted on it and a bat on the reverse side.

The rebus comes from: (1) the bamboo “竹,zhu” representing “to wish”; (2) the maple tree in the garden “楓feng” representing “to bestow”); (3) the vase as a whole “瓶píng” representing “harmony”; (4) the fish carried by the father “魚yu” representing “abundance”; and (5) the bat in iron red is “虹副hung fu” (enormous happiness).

Now that you start to get a feel for what a rebus is, can you figure this out:

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Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.