The China Trade Begins – Precious Cargoes from Cathay

A Chinese Pavilion and people recorded by Jesuit Priest Giuseppe Castiglione

The world Venetian adventurer Marco Polo (1254-1324) first described China to western Christendom when it was almost wholly unknown. Let us travel into Cathay, so.. you may learn something of it grandeurs’ wrote Marco Polo, inspiring the notion China was a land unlike any other.

He said of himself ‘no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or Pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.

International trade routes with Asia stretch way back into antiquity, when there is archaeological evidence of cross cultural influences from Cathay (China) with its Asian neighbours, as well as those separated by great distances, such as the Roman, Persian and Greek empires.

From the first century trade moved regularly overland between the Chinese capital and the Mediterranean a distance of 7000 kilometres. Roman ships laden with trade goods, gold bullion and coins set out from Red Sea ports each year.

The trade with Asia was continued well into the second century, a fact documented in Chinese Han dynasty records. There is also evidence of trade activities through sea voyages from China to many Eastern ports on the Atlantic Ocean rim. Goods came along the Seidenstrassen, or Silk Road (the name coined by Baron Ferdinand Von Richthofen in the nineteenth century) for ancient routes that linked Asia and the west.

During the Middle Ages in western Europe these contacts were, by and large, reduced to a mere trickle, as cities and towns defended themselves against continual threats of invasion by emigrating and marauding peoples.

The first stirring of what we now describe as the nineteenth century China Trade began when Europe was still emerging from the medieval period.  Marco Polo’s controversial ‘Description of the World’, written in 1298 described a vast exotic land filled with amenable, happy people who seemingly whiled away the hours pleasantly disporting in pavilions set in ethereal landscapes.

Marco-Polo-Page-Travels-webAfter seventeen years of living at the court of the Great Khan Kubilai where they enjoyed many privileges, Marco, his father and Uncle Matteo finally returned to Venice ‘I believe it was God’s will we should come back so that men might know the things that are in the world’.

Marco Polo’s much disputed account of the wealth of Cathay (China), the might of the Mongol empire and exotic customs of India and Africa ensured his book was a bestseller.

Its impact on contemporary Europe was tremendous, although contemporarily it became known as Il Milione the Million Lies. Marco Polo earned the nickname Marco Milione as few believed the stories were true.

However on his deathbed he was reputed to have confused the issue by saying ‘I did not tell yet half of what I saw’.


The popularity of Marco Polo’s Travels were, by the mid fourteenth century surpassed by self-styled noble author ‘Sir’ John Mandeville’s Travels.

Mandeville enhanced the view of a people who were different, but in no way inferior.

Although their source is much disputed they did provide further insight into a culture that by now many found fascinating, profound and perhaps just a little peculiar.

Detail Chinoiserie figuresInitially Europeans could not differentiate between Chinese, Indian, Japanese South East Asian, or Middle Eastern peoples.

That meant the European eastern vision was extremely vast and,  did not really reflect the geographic or cultural reality.

Ceramic traditions since ancient times have undergone many cross fertilizations by their exposure to various cultures.

In 1368 the famed poets and painters of the Chinese T’ang and Sung dynasties had already passed into the hallowed halls of antiquity. And, it was also considered by the Chinese themselves that the supreme periods of their major arts had passed.

A wonderful example of Ming dynasty Blue and White Porcelain made between 1403 – 25

By the fifteenth century select pieces of porcelain made for the Imperial Court and the more exacting home markets of China were arriving in Europe to be displayed in homes of its successful merchants and noble families.

These wares were both respected and revered for their boldness of colouring and modernity of design. They were magically translucent, resonant when struck,  impervious to liquids and considered to be refined, aesthetically pleasing with great beauty of form.

To put it into a European context Emperor Wan Li, the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty was sitting on the Throne of Heaven between 1573 and 1620 when Elizabeth 1st in England was contending with Mary Queen of Scots and other issues.

The earliest accurate records we have of pieces of Chinese porcelain in the west are those listed in Queen Elizabeth 1’s will. From this we can deduce that they were highly prized. Burghley House was the home of Elizabeth 1’s advisers the Cecil’s who became one of the most powerful families during the reign of the Tudor’s in England.

16th century Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, with Silver Gilt English Mounts

16th century Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, with Silver Gilt English Mounts

Like others they enshrined each precious object with the addition of gilded mounts a traditional practice of western Christianity for centuries.

The gilded mounts attached to Chinese porcelains in great English country house collections today reveal the mounts offered a measure of protection against their fragility and highlighted the esteem in which they were held.


Port of Macao in the nineteenth century

The trade to Europe prior to 1600 was sporadic and the Portuguese established themselves at a succession of key points including Goa on the Indian Coast before 1511 and Malacca, which they seized in that year.

It was the main junction for the Indies spice trade and the limit reached by the Chinese junks, which came south to exchange cargoes of porcelain and silk. In 1557 they were allowed to settle in Macao and from then onward pieces came to the west with seamen.

Kraak is a Dutch word thought to be a corruption of the name for Portuguese Carracks, whose goods were dubbed kraak ware when they arrived. One of the most notable “Catarina’ was taken by the Dutch off the coast of Malaya.

Kraak charger

Kraak charger, note the tulips diving the design motifs

There was much rejoicing in Amsterdam when her cargo of about 100,000 pieces was sold on the docks as the Dutch were seeking to wrestle the trade opportunities away from the Portuguese.A flexible and entrepreneurial business class developed in China during its Ming Period (1368-1644).

There is a very real idea the western world economic system grew out of its  fascination with the east as she sought to fulfill her craving for luxury goods such as silks, spices, teas, porcelain, furniture, painting and silver.

Seventeenth century Dutch artists incorporated Chinese porcelains in their genre of ‘still life’ painting confronting us with a moral choice.

They reflected the Calvinistic approach at the time for that of translating choices into terms of good and evil.

Painters used the dishes to reflect the fragility and transitory nature of humankind, as well as the vanity of the collector who have been seen as vainglorious.

Fruit in paintings symbolised fertility, luxury and enjoyment of sensory pleasures and artists also depicted decorative objects to reflect their aesthetic values.

They only existed to the extent that they could be experienced by their translucency to light, which dispelled darkness; this idea had theological links to a belief in Jesus the Christ as the light, and therefore hope of the world.

This spiritual perspective was a great force in seventeenth century Holland underpinning the art of many painters of the period.

The years surrounding the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)  and founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) were uncertain and foreign trade suffered.

Vase with landscape scenes , late 17th century China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Kangxi period (1662–1722) Porcelain with raised decoration, painted with cobalt blue and copper red under a clear glaze with a celadon wash  ; H. 17 1/8 in. (43.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Mary Clark Thompson, 1923 (24.80.165) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Vase with landscape scenes , late 17th century China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Kangxi period (1662–1722) Porcelain with raised decoration, painted with cobalt blue and copper red under a clear glaze with a celadon wash ; H. 17 1/8 in. (43.5 cm) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Mary Clark Thompson, 1923 (24.80.165)

The Chinese Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) was himself an accomplished poet and calligrapher, as well as a vigorous reformer, patron of classical studies and the decorative arts.

He ordered the reconstruction of ceramic kilns at Jingdezhen that had been partly destroyed during a transitional period between dynasties.

During the reign of Emperor Kangxi painting in cobalt blue reached new heights of artistic and technical achievement and the colour and techniques attached to rendering painted decoration under the glaze were refined.

The volume of porcelain imported to Europe increased and by the second half of the seventeenth century trade with Cathay had become far more important to Europeans than to China’s rulers, who prided themselves on their nation’s self-sufficiency.


Meissen Blanc de Chine

Blanc de Chine (white porcelain) wares made near Dehua in Fujian province were first exported to England in huge quantities.

However by 1715 their popularity was waning because of the invention of European porcelain by Johann Friedrich Boettger at Meissen in 1710.

In less than five years Boettger’s moulded white wares, inspired by oriental blanc-de-chine, became available.

The beautiful prunus blossom and grape vines so admired on Chinese wares were grafted onto shapes preferred in Europe, giving the pieces a distinct flavour of the orient.

Tea had arrived in Europe in the first ten years of the seventeenth century but only a tiny stratum of society enjoyed it at first, because its cost was extremely prohibitive.

The acquisition of ‘china’ to drink tea from became a craze among the very wealthy fashionable.

This included beautiful blue and white wares, colourfully enameled wares and simple blanc de chine tea wares all of which were imported at great cost.

Tea Ceremony

Tea Ceremony

The English aristocracy began a daily ritual for the taking of tea.

Two varieties dominated the early trade Bohea, which was a black tea and the other a green tea made from the steamed and dried leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant a shrub  native to the mountainous regions of Asia.  While Black tea is also made from this plant unlike green tea, which is made from dried and fermented  leaves.

Following the beheading of his father Charles 1 England’s heir apparent and prince in waiting was in exile at the French and Dutch courts. His restoration to the throne of England in 1660 was a great impetus for change.

A new class of people emerged, one whose wealth was based on business and trade rather than inherited land as it had been since William the Conqueror in 1066.

Bottger brilliance; European white porcelain teapot by the Meissen factory, which was inspired by the influx of superb white wares of the China Trade, complete with applied leaf decoration and a silver mount on its spout.

1660 was also the year English diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the pleasures associated with the taking of  ‘this China drinke’. Catharine of Braganza the new King Charles II’s prospective bride arrived at Portsmouth on 13th May 1662 on route to her new home. She asked first for a ‘cup of tea’, thus ensuring its popularity.

There is a ‘ large four square teapot’ in the so-called ‘Devonshire Schedule’ at Chatsworth, one of England’s most famous country houses. It appears among a list of items bequeathed by Elizabeth, the Countess of Devonshire to her daughter Anne, who became the 5th Earl of Burghley’s wife. Presumably the teapot went with her to Burghley House and its silver gilt mounts date from c1650.

Example of Ducai (5) Colours on the porcelain wares of the Ming Dynasty

Plying the China trade by sea was an exceedingly risky venture for all concerned. Taxes, tributes, bribes and deceptions were rife. Storms, pirates, disease and rival traders were also a constant threat during the often two-year round trip voyage to and from Europe.

Ship’s officers and crews sailing out of England actively engaged in this exclusive and lucrative private trade, which was either commissioned, or bought for speculative purchase.

View of the Western Hongs of Canton. Oils on fine linen

View of the Western Hongs of Canton. Oils on fine linen

Demand eventually outstripped all other trade as porcelain became the largest, most desirable precious cargo from Cathay. Packed into tubs and wooden boxes it was cushioned with rice or other marketable goods such as pepper, sago and tea, all of which were used in the bottom of ships for ballast.

It would take until the turn of the eighteenth century for Chinese officials to realize the monetary potential of Europe’s interest in their wares and art forms and begin to take advantage of it.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2014

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