Smithsonian Institution
Search
Festival Dates
Festival Blog
Free Festival App
Festival Radio
Join Our Email Mailing List
Support the Festival

Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Blue-and-White

by Robert McCormick Adams

It is commonly assumed that worldwide technology rivalries and the interdependence of trade are modern developments. But the history of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain and its Middle Eastern, Japanese, European, and New World derivatives challenges this view.

Blue-and-white was traded southward and then westward late in the 14th century (about a hundred years after it was first introduced), although by that time other Chinese export wares were centuries old. They had long moved in both directions between China and the Islamic world (and its antecedents), along the ancient overland Silk Road through Central Asia and in the cargoes of Arab and Persian seafarers. Indirect though it was, this distribution system efficiently communicated back to the Chinese information on the tastes of their Muslim customers.

Meantime, there also developed in the Middle East a wave of cheaper local copies. When they began appealing to customers in their own right, these products no longer needed to be so strictly imitative.

Soon the West got into the act. After a resolute process of exploration at least as consequential in the eyes of contemporaries as the voyages of Columbus, the Portuguese finally rounded the Cape of Good Hope late in the 15th century, opening the Orient to sea trade. Quantities of blue-and-white were being shipped to Lisbon as early as 1530, becoming no less prized in European markets than they were elsewhere.

Once again the Chinese producers were quickly responsive to the changing demands, helped along in this case by painted wooden models that the Dutch sent along with their huge orders.

The Japanese part in all this is equally fascinating. Their taste for blue-and-white did not develop until they had begun to master the technology themselves, which they succeeded in doing about 1600. Not long afterward they made their own entry into world markets. Splendid Dutch records tell a story of massive shipments of Chinese blue-and-white into Japan at first, followed by a Japanese invasion of Southeast Asian and European markets when Chinese production was temporarily interrupted by a civil war. Only in the later part of the 17th century did the Chinese reemerge as competitors. By then the producers of Japanese Imari wares, originally crude and derivative, had developed their own vigorous, indigenous styles for which there was a secure niche in the upper tiers of European and Middle Eastern markets.

Then there is a New World element. Spain came comparatively late to the Pacific by way of the Philippines. Annual shipments of Mexican silver from Acapulco quickly followed, eventually reaching China in quantities sufficient to drive out Manchu paper currency and greatly disrupt the internal economy. The return trade was in silks - and, of course, blue-and-white. Dispersed across Mexico, pieces found their way even to the rude northern frontiers of New Spain. Sherds still turn up from time to time in historic Indian villages along the upper Río Grande, just as they do more frequently along the Arabian coasts.

Initially imitative industries sprang up in northwestern Europe, in Italy, even in Mexico. Out of these, in time, came the splendid tradition of Delftwares and the English porcelains that still grace our tables. But what is most interesting is the antiquity as well as the worldwide range of the shifting patterns of supply and demand, stimulus and response. An ebb and flow of technological and trading leadership long antedates the modern era.

Robert McCormick Adams, an archaeologist, was Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1984 to 1994. This article originally appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, March 1986.