But there was a time when things were different. Four centuries earlier, China made something the leading powers of Europe craved but couldn't make by themselves. This translucent, vitreous material was known at the time as 'white gold' - porcelain.
I think it is worth going back and re-telling the story of the porcelain trade because it draws our attention to some interesting parallels with contemporary debates about globalisation, trade imbalances, and the nature and proper scope of IPR.
The inspiration for this post came from an exhibition Victoria & Albert Museum earlier this year, called Jingdezhen: Porcelain City. Jingdezhen is an administrative city in Jianxi province, and for many hundreds of years it has been the centre of Chinese porcelain manufacturing. Here is a scenic image of the city today, which gives some impression of its favourable surroundings.
And here is a photograph of its famous ceramic streetlight stands.
THE ROOTS OF A VERY MODERN MANIA
Chinese porcelain production matured as a craft in the Sung dynasty, with each worker supervised by a master craftsman, but the country was too divided for much of this period for the industry to achieve real growth - and the division in politics was directly reflected in the colour of porcelain produced, as in the saying, "jade-blue in the North, snow-white in the South." In the 13th-century Marco Polo informed Europeans of "porcellana" - the name of a hard, coloured shell from which porcelain derives.
A small quantity of porcelain was being exported to Europe in the early Ming dynasty. But aside from a few lucky royals, Europeans had to settle for imitation porcelain until new routes were discovered and in the 16th-century Portugal established a commercial outpost at Macao.
The evolution of 'Changnan' into 'Jingdezhen' indicates the close but subtle relationship between politics and commerce in imperial China. The city's modern name comes from suffixing "zhen" (or "town") to Jingde, the name of the Sung Emperor (968-1022). The Emperor's court sought to promote expansion of the porcelain industry and by doing so forged a lasting bond between industrial prestige and dynastic authority.
It really got going in a big way during the 17th-century. In 16th-century Europe, good-quality porcelain was confined to the ruling nobles of a few states; by the 17th-century its ownership had spread to the 'china rooms' of the well-off; and by the 18th-century porcelain could be found in the homes of the the middle- and working-classes.
The exclusivity of imperial porcelain was thus an indicator of the extent of the ruling dynasty's power, and its ability to exercise its authority across a vast empire. This symbolic function also played a part in the traditional Chinese tributary system of managing relations with other states. From 1405-33 the eunuch admiral Zheng He visited over thirty countries on seven voyages, on which the disbursement of gifts - including porcelain - was meant to express China's sophisticated crafts, strong government, and beneficent hegemony when it came to dealing with other countries.
But herein lies a curious paradox: the more the Ming rulers tried to regulate - and segregate - the production of porcelain for domestic and foreign consumption, by dispatching officials to control the process, the more that demand for "imperial" porcelain grew by association with the aesthetic taste of the Emperor, both at home and abroad. It was almost as if the rulers, by implicating themselves so deeply in regulating porcelain output, had made themselves into popular "brands."
And the aura of exclusivity this gave to porcelain made it ever-more sought-after by the noble families of Europe - because it increased its value for conspicuous consumption, by dividing the market into 'official' (guan yau) and 'unofficial' (min yau) porcelain, and by making the former harder to obtain. In an age of continuous power struggles amongst European monarchs, aristocrats and rising commercial classes, porcelain was not merely valued for aesthetic reasons, but also functioned as a potent symbol of personal wealth and importance.
Here is an example of this highly sought-after "armorial" porcelain, bearing the coat of arms of an influential European family - initially, most such families had connections with the British East India Company.
That is why China was dubbed the "bleeding bowl of Europe", and a scramble of all-against-all to acquire the finest porcelain got under way. The Portuguese were the first to dominate this trade, but then Dutch ships intercepted Portuguese trans-shipments of porcelain and proceeded to auction them off across Europe. By the late 17th-century, the Dutch East India Company alone were exporting 3m pieces of porcelain to Europe every year.
The traditional blue-and-white design that we associate with china today was in fact an example of the Chinese absorbing foreign influences to cater to new and growing markets. The demand for blue and white porcelain came from the Middle East especially, at a time when the Indian Ocean was under Arab control and the main land routes were via the Silk Road(s) to the East. Besides colouring, the feedback of Arab preferences inside China also fuelled demand for distinctive geometrical patterns and Islamic symbols. Over the centuries of major growth in the porcelain industry, blue and white porcelain arguably became the first example of something comparable to today's global brands.
This is a picture of a porcelain collection inside the Tokapi Museum in Istanbul, which houses over eight thousand Sung and Ming pieces.
And here is another collection inside the Ardebil Shrine in Iran.
And the Arabs in turn modified Chinese porcelain to be sold on to the Europeans. Common additions were golden frames and gilded edges. When you consider that this porcelain had usually already been encrusted with jewels by the Chinese for export to the Middle East, then perhaps the association of porcelain with Chinese "decadence" in the Western mind begins to make sense.
This is a porcelain-covered ceiling inside the Santos Palace in Lisbon.
Over the course of the Ming dynasty, porcelain exports declined in volume, whereas domestic production boomed, driven by strong demand from the imperial court (nevertheless, the majority of porcelain was made for export until the Qing period, and unofficial foreign trading tended to rise and fall). The rulers had to balance the need to increase official porcelain production for use in building alliances at home and abroad, against the imperative of upholding exclusivity. To do this, they co-opted the assistance of private kilns with imperial production by allowing private producers to sell any rejected pieces, so long as these didn't bear the mark of the reigning emperor - since only a few pieces in a hundred would receive imperial approval, this seemed like a good deal. Broken or unwanted items bearing the imperial mark were discretely buried (many such pieces were excavated at Jingdezhen in 1982).
CRACKS IN THE MOULD
As a result of this pact - increased investment and opportunities for profiteering, in return for an increasing level of bureaucratic control - the Ming era saw porcelain manufacturing in China reach new heights of scale and sophistication. Merchant investment had started to increase under the Mongols, but it was the Ming who - through the coordination of the Imperial Porcelain Factory - oversaw rapid growth in technical adaptability and outsourcing between official, domestic and export-oriented producers. By the 16th-century, Jingdezhen had over a thousand kilns, employing seventy-thousand workers.
Here is a porcelain flask from the Ming dynasty, 1403-24.
By its end, the Ming dynasty was wracked by famine, peasant revolts, Manchu incursions, and a failed war against Japan. As these tensions came to a head, the contradictions at the heart of the collaboration between the imperial state and the porcelain industry erupted into the open. The imperial court demanded ever-increasing quantities of reproductions of ancient works, which was an especially labour-intensive process. The Ming dynasty looked to the past in matters of aesthetic preference, because being seen to revere the past was thought to be a roundabout way of patronising the 'literati' scholars who administered the state.
The multiple and conflicting goals of the Ming made for a combustible society. In his book The Search for Modern China, Prof. Jonathan D. Spence describes the scene on the production-lines at Jingdezhen in 1601:
"...thousands of workers rioted over low wages and the Ming court's demand that they meet heightened production quotas of the exquisite "dragon bowls" made for palace use. One potter threw himself into a blazing kiln and perished to underline his fellows' plight." (1999, p.15)
Imperial demand suddenly went from boom to bust, as the fading dynasty deemed further deliveries to Beijing to be too risky. Official kilns were razed in peasant revolts, and those that remained were closed in 1608. Official trade was suspended in 1647.
BETWEEN MING AND QING: COMING UP FOR AIR
Despite this destruction, the "transitional period" (ca. 1620s-1680s) between the Ming and Qing dynasties was a time of hugely important creativity, experimentation and decentralisation. Even when the war against the Manchu invaders reached Jingdezhen in the 1640s, porcelain production was sustained because royal workers shifted to producing unofficial wares in private kilns (the royal kiln at Jingdezhen was destroyed in 1675, but it was rebuilt within five years). Temporarily freed from the detailed interference imposed on them by the Ming, the workers were able to transfer their high-level knowledge and skills to creating new designs to appeal to overseas markets. These innovations included the so-called 'Dutch flower-and-leaf' pattern, and 'kraak' panels.
In 1684 the Kanxi Emperor officially re-opened access to the coast for trade. When the royal kilns reopened under the auspices of the Qing, the artists and producers struggled to reach a new settlement with the authorities. A notable characteristic of early Qing articles is that they do not bear their artist's name, a feature that would ease the way in making reproductions for sale, and that continues to this day to make Chinese ceramic art particularly susceptible to fraud (few pieces possess an ownership trail of recorded sales and attributed artists). In sum, the old imperial controls were re-asserted, but producers who had tasted the fruits of their free creativity - artistic and commercial - were more inclined to bend the rules, especially since overseas demand was still strong.
But even before the Qing dynasty confronted serious challenges to its authority, illegal trading and piracy became common occurrences in Chinese port-cities. This was increasingly so after European traders developed new technologies to overcome nautical constraints that had previously set limits on the regularity and size of trading missions. Demand was as strong as ever - arriving after the Portuguese had taken the first pick, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) complained about the undersupply of official porcelain.
The map below shows the main trading routes by which porcelain was shipped from Jingdezhen to the ports of Canton and Macao. It was a trade that involved taking enormous risks - European traders paid upfront for deliveries from trusted inland middlemen.
From subverting imperial prohibitions on maritime trade, it was just one step further for Chinese merchants to collude in the supply of reproductions to be sold in Europe as fake 'antique' wares - sometimes intentionally, but often in good faith. They also supplied a steady stream of low-quality unrefined (or 'provincial') porcelain, geared towards the mass market of low-earners, in an early example of price-discrimination, which helped to prepare the ground for mass-market porcelain production in 18th-century Europe.
Jingdezhen was industrially booming and experienced a large in-migration. But these developments also brought challenges to the political economy of the mid-Qing. According to Prof. Spence, "the area developed a population of "sojourners" with divided loyalties to their new base and their old ancestral homes, and of disaffected local minorities pushed off their former lands."
The point about adapting to niche markets (for instance, producing porcelain coffee and beer mugs long before these became popular in China), or even actively creating them, is important because all too often the history of Ming/Qing-era China's role in the emerging world economy is told in terms of "the West acts and China reacts." The story goes that China's rulers were complacent about their civilisational superiority and had no interest in what the rest of the world had to offer; consequently all the West could sell China in return for porcelain, tea, silk, etc. was silver, which they would use as currency to trade amongst themselves (though, as Kenneth Pomeranz has shown, it was actually utilised in a greater variety of ways than previously realised). The silver was mined in the Spanish Americas, sparking a transatlantic silver trade in the 1620s that lasted for two centuries.
Here is an illustration of a South American silver mine that represents the intensity of the enterprise.
But this account does not adequately recognise the ways in which the Chinese producers took the initiative in their trading relations with Europe, as they had incorporated Asian and Byzantine influences in an earlier period - for example, by pioneering the use of polychrome enamel decoration above and below the glaze in the late 17th-century, in order that the details on the European coats-of-arms were clear and precise, so as not to confuse two very similar designs.
At an even more basic level, the Eurocentric argument is a circular one: the Chinese emperors sought New World silver to facilitate an industrial-scale porcelain workforce, yet they were being driven by their state-systemic need to restrict the booming international porcelain trade - a trade which was booming because it had been proactively cultivated by both parties.
I will finish with this tantalising quote from the website of the Media Center for Art History at Columbia University:
"The manufacture of porcelain in China evolved over time into a highly specialized set of related crafts that together formed an entire industry...As demand continued to increase, porcelain production in China began to resemble a highly specialized, mass-production-style industry. A common view of the industrial revolution as it occurred in England in the 1750s is that the burgeoning textile industry was a key contributor to the complex interaction of various socioeconomic developments that led to that phenomenon; mentioned less often is the possibility that the porcelain industry, as it evolved in China, may have also contributed to this development."
In the second instalment, I tell the story of how the Europeans used alchemy, espionage and imprisonment to access the secrets of making porcelain, and its importance in the context of the waning influence of the aristocracy.