The visits that I have made from time to time at the Jingdezhen [King te Tching]1 for the spiritual needs of my converts, has given me in turn an opportunity to instruct myself concerning the manner in which one makes this beautiful porcelain which is so admired and which is exported to all parts of the world. Although my curiosity was never aroused to make a similar investigation, I believe that a detailed description of all that is concerned with this sort of work should be of some use in Europe.
Besides what I have seen myself, I have learned many particulars from the Christian converts, among whom there are many who work with porcelain, and from others who make a business of it. I have confirmed the truth of their responses to my questions by reading some Chinese books that cover these matters; and by these means I believe that I have acquired a fairly exact knowledge of all aspects of this fine art, so as to be able to speak with some confidence.
Among these books, I have had my hands on the History (or Annals) of Fuliang2 [Fou-liang] and I have read with care, in the fourth volume, the article that deals with porcelain. Jingdezhen, which is a dependency of Fuliang is not farther than three miles from that place and Fuliang is a city in the dependency of Raozhou3 [Jao-zhou]. It is a custom in China that each city prints the history of its district. This history covers the state, the news, the boundaries, and the nature of the country with respect to the most notable happenings, the customs of the inhabitants and the distinguished people with regard to deeds or writings, or about those who have stood above the ordinary in the community.
The women too have their place in this history. There are those, for example, who because of attachment for their dead spouses have preserved their widowhood. Often though, one buys the honor of being cited in these Annals. For this reason, the Mandarin and his counselors review the history every forty years or so and add on or strike off what they think appropriate.
Moreover, there is reported in this history all the extraordinary events and wonders that occur, such as the monsters that are born at certain times. For example, only two years ago in Fou-zhou, there occurred a case where a woman was delivered of a serpent which she later suckled. Likewise, in Jingdezhen, there was a sow that brought forth a little elephant with its trunk well formed, where there has never been an elephant in the country. These facts would probably be reported in the annals of both cities. Perhaps in the same way it will be reported in the Annals of Fuliang that one of our Christian women was delivered of a son after sixteen months of pregnancy.
Above all, one notes in these histories the merchandise, food and other commodities that leave the country or are sold there. If China in general or Fuliang in particular were not subject to all sorts of revolutions, I could no doubt discover when in its history the origin of porcelain occurred. Although one must say that these compilations are made for the benefit of the Chinese and not for Europeans and the Chinese are not very concerned about this sort of information.
The Annals of Fuliang report that during the second year of the reign of the emperor Tam-ou-te of the Tam dynasty (which is 422 A. D.), the porcelain workers were already supplying the emperor, and that one or two mandarins, who were envoys of the court, presided over this work. There is next described the magnitude and the variety of the dwellings intended for these first workers who made the Imperial porcelain, and that is all that I have found out about the antiquity of its origin. It is, however, reasonable to assume that before 442 A. D., porcelain was already made and that little by little it was brought to a point of perfection capable of pleasing the wealthiest of Europeans. One cannot say who the inventor was, nor to what attempt, nor to what accident one owes this invention.
In ancient times, the Annals say, porcelain was an exquisite white and had no defects. The works that were made there and were carried to other kingdoms were known only as the precious jewels of Raozhou. Moreover, the Annals add: "The beautiful porcelain which is a vivid and sparkling white, and of a beautiful and celestial blue, all comes from Jingdezhen. It is also made in other places, but then it is quite different in color as well as quality."
However, without considering the pottery products which are made everywhere in China, and to which the name porcelain is never given, there are several provinces such as Fujian and Guangdong where they work with porcelain, but even strangers can make no mistake; the work of Fujian is snow-white4, with no luster, and is never made with colors. Some workers of the Jingdezhen in former times left for there with their materials, in the hope of making a considerable profit, because of the large amount of commerce that Europeans do at Amoy. But it was useless and they were unable to succeed.
The reigning emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), who never misses a thing, brought porcelain workers to Beijing, along with everything that they use in their work; nothing necessary for success was neglected; nevertheless they tell me that their work failed also. It may be that other reasons, or politics played a part in the lack of success. Be that as it may, Jingdezhen along has the honour of selling porcelain to all parts of the world. Even the Japanese come to buy porcelain in China.
My Reverend Father, I cannot refrain from giving you here a description of Jingdezhen. It lacks being called a city only because it has no encircling wall, but it can be compared to some cities in China, which are large and highly populated. The places like this, called "Zhen" (meaning mart), which are few in number, but which are large in size and have a considerable trade, do not customarily have an encircling wall, perhaps because one could not then enlarge and extend them as one wished. Perhaps they lack walls also because with them one would not have the ability to load and unload merchandise readily.
There are reportedly 18,000 families in Jingdezhen. Also there are some great merchants whose factories occupy a vast area and contain a prodigious number of workers. It is said that there are more than a million souls here, who consume each day more than 10,000 loads of rice, and more than a thousand pigs5. For the rest, Jingdezhen has about three miles of frontage along a beautiful river (the Chang).
As one can imagine, Jingdezhen is not simply a mass of houses. The streets are drawn in straight lines, which cut each other and cross at certain distances. But all the space there is occupied; the houses are densely packed and the streets are too narrow; in traveling them one seems to be in the middle of a carnival. One hears on all sides the cries of the porters trying to make a passage. One sees also a large number of temples of idols that have been built with a great deal of expense. For example, a rich merchant, after having traversed vast seas in the course of business has thought that he escaped from a shipwreck because of the protection of the "queen of heaven", who, so to speak, appeared to him at the height of a tempest. In order to fulfill the vow that he made then, he has built a palace, which surpasses for magnificence all the other temples.
God would wish that what I have said to my converts is verified one day and that this temple will become an effective basilica dedicated to the true Queen of Heaven. This new temple has been build from money amassed in the Indies.
Europeans are well known for this type of money, since for its use in commerce it is not necessary to resmelt it as one has to do to other monies. Evidently the Chinese normally transacted business with bar silver which was frequently adulterated with base metals and had to be re-refined to verify the silver content.
Costs are much higher at Jingdezhen than at Raozhou, because everything that is consumed there has to come from somewhere else, even to the wood necessary for firing the kilns. But not withstanding the expense of living, Jingdezhen is the home of a mass of poor families who wouldn’t be able to subsist in the surrounding cities. One also finds here many young workers and weaker people. It is the same way for the blind and for the cripples who spend their lives grinding pigments.
In ancient times, according to the History of Fuliang, one found only 300 porcelain furnaces in Jingdezhen, while at present there are 3,000. It is not surprising therefore that one sees frequent conflagrations (large destructive fires), and because of that the spirit of fire has many temples. The current Mandarin has built a temple that he dedicated to the spirit of fire, but he has, because of me, exempted the Christians from certain forced labor for which the common people are conscripted when one builds this sort of edifice. The worship and the honors that one renders to this spirit are not paid back by rarer conflagrations though. Only a short time ago there was a fire that burned eight hundred homes. But they ought to be nearly replaced now to judge from the multitude of masons and carpenters who work in this area. The profit to be gained from renting out these shops makes people extremely active in repairing this kind of damage.
Jingdezhen is located on a plain surrounded by high mountains. Those which are to the east and against which the town is backed, form on the outside a sort of semicircular space. The mountains that are across the plain give rise to two rivers that meets here. One of them is rather small, but the other is quite large and forms a good port for nearly three miles in the vast basin where it has lost most of its swiftness.
One sometimes sees in this large port up to three rows of boats, one behind the other. Such is the spectacle that presents itself to view when one enters Jingdezhen through one of the gorges.
The whirling flames and smoke that rise in different places make the approach to Jingdezhen remarkable for its extent, depth and shape. During a night entrance, one thinks that the whole city is on fire, or that it is one large furnace with many vent holes. Perhaps these encircling mountains form a proper situation for the production of porcelain.
It is astonishing that a spot so populated, where there is so much wealth, where a multitude of boats abound all day long and which is not surrounded by a wall, can be governed by a single mandarin without having the least disorder. The city of Jingdezhen is only three miles from Fuliang and 54 miles from Raozhou, but one must admit that the method of policing is admirable. Each street has a chief appointed by the mandarin, and if the street is long there are several. Each chief has ten subalterns who are each responsible for ten houses. They are responsible for good order and must run out at the first disturbance, to make peace and to give a report to the mandarin under threat of the bastinado, which is applied very liberally. Although the chief of the quarter may do this best to avert trouble before it has started, and make all possible efforts to calm it, one is always disposed to judge that he is in the wrong and it is difficult for him to escape punishment. Each street has its barricades that are closed during the night and the large streets have several. One man watches at each barricade and he only opens the gate at the barrier at a certain signal. In addition to that, the mandarins of Fuliang make rounds. Moreover, strangers are not permitted to sleep in Jingdezhen. It is necessary for them to spend the night at their boats or else they can spend the night at the home of a friend who is then responsible for their conduct. This policy keeps everything in order and establishes complete safety in a place where wealth would arouse the cupidity of robbers.
After this little detail on the situation and the present state of Jingdezhen, let us go to the porcelain that has made all of these riches. The material that I have to present to you my Reverend Father, reduces itself to what porcelain is composed of and how one uses it; on the colors which make the decorations and the methods of applying them; and about the furnaces and the techniques that one takes to reach the required temperatures. And finally, I will end with some reflections on ancient porcelain, on the modern and on the certain things, which make it impractical for the Chinese to make certain designs which have been sent to them. These products, which it is impossible to execute in China, might be easily made in Europe if one could find the same kind of materials there.
Before beginning that, it would be appropriate to undeceive those who believe that the word PORCELAIN comes from a Chinese word. Certainly there are some words, albeit a small number, where the French and the Chinese are similar. For example, that which we call thé (tea) also has the name thé in the province of Fujian, although it is called chá in the Mandarin dialect. Papa and mama are also names, which are used in certain Chinese provinces and in Jingdezhen in particular, in the mouths of children to signify father, mother, and grandmother. But for the name of the material, which is called porcelain, it is so little a Chinese word that none of the syllables of which it is composed can even be pronounced or written in Chinese. Its sounds are not found in the Chinese language. It is apparently taken from the Portugues language, although for them porcellana properly signifies a cup or a bowl and in Portuguese loca is the name, which they generally give to all of the material that we call porcelain. Usage thus is the mainstay of language and it is up to each individual national to give us the idea that they attach to their words. Porcelain is generally called tzu [Tseki] in Chinese.
The material porcelain is composed of two kinds of earth, one called pe-tun-tse and the other called kaolin. The latter is sprinkled with particles that glitter (mica). The other is simply white and very fine to the touch. At the same time that a large number of big boats go up the river from Raozhou and Jingdezhen to load up porcelain, there descends from (Chi-men) [Ki-men] nearly as many small boats which are loaded with pe-tun-tse and kaolin reduced to the form of briquettes, for Jingdezhen does not produce any of the materials necessary for porcelain. The pe-tun-tse, of which the grains are so fine, are none other the pieces of rock which are mined at a quarry and which are there given this form. All rock is not appropriate otherwise it would not be necessary to go 20-30 leagues into the neighboring province. The best rock, say the Chinese, ought to border a little on the green side.
This is what is first done to the rock. An iron hammer is used to break these pieces of stone, after which the broken pieces are put in some mortars; then using lever arms, which have a head of stone armored with iron, the stone is reduced to very fine powder. This lever arms work incessantly powered either by men or by water wheels in much the same manner as the tilt hammers in our paper mills. This power is then taken and is thrown into water where it is stirred vigorously with an iron paddle. After allowing it to stand for several moments, there will be a kind of cream on the top with a depth of 4-5 fingers. This is removed and put in another container of water. The water of the first tank is agitated several times, each time collecting the supernatant cream, which is formed, until finally only the large grains remain at the bottom of the first tank. The coarse sediment of the first tank is eventually re-pulverized.
With regard to the fine slurry in the second tank, one merely waits until a kind of paste forms at the bottom. When the supernatant liquid is clear, it is decanted without disturbing the sediment and one places this paste in some large moulds appropriate for drying. Before it is completely dry, it is divided into little bricks, which are sold by the hundred. The shape, color and size of the material give it its name – petuntse – or "little white bricks".
The moulds where the paste is dried are long, wide, wooden boxes. The bottom is lined with bricks in such a way that the surface is level. On this bed of bricks a large canvas is spread out, filling the capacity of the wooden frame. The material is poured onto this, then it is covered with another canvas and finally another bed of bricks is put down. All of this, serves to express the water quickly, without losing any of the porcelain material, which by hardening in this fashion, takes on the shape of bricks. There wouldn’t be anything more to add about hits work if the Chinese were not accustomed to adulterating their merchandise. But from a people who roll little grains of paste into pepper powder to cover them and sell them with real peppercorns, there is no protection from the sale of petuntse without it being diluted with some waste material. This is why it is necessary to re-purify it again at Jingdezhen before putting it in porcelain.
The kaolin, which is used in the composition of the porcelain, takes a little less work than petuntse, since nature has done the greatest part of the work. kaolin comes from mines in the heart of certain mountains, which are covered on the outside with a reddish earth. These mines are rather deep and in them are found the material in the form of lumps. One makes kaolin into brick-shaped blocks using the same method I have noted for petuntse. I suspect that the white earth of Malta, which is called St. Paul’s earth, would have much similarity to the kaolin of which I am speaking, even though one does not notice in it the little silvery particles, which are sprinkled in kaolin (mica).
It is from kaolin that fine porcelain draws its strength, just like tendons in the body. Thus it is that a soft earth gives strength to petuntse, which is the harder rock. A rich merchant told me that several years ago some Europeans purchased petuntse, which they took back to their own country in order to make some porcelain, but not having taken any kaolin, their efforts failed (as they acknowledge later). Upon which the Chinese merchant told me, laughing, "They wanted to have a body in which the flesh would be supported without bones."8
Besides the boats loaded with petuntse and kaolin with which the banks of Jingdezhen are lined, there are also stocks of another substance which is whitish and liquid. I found out a long time ago that this material is the oil that gives porcelain its whiteness and clarity, but I was then ignorant of its composition and have only recently found what it is made of. It seems to me that the Chinese name "yeou" which is given to the different kinds of oil, is a less suitable description of this liquid than the word "tsi", which signifies glaze, and which term would probably be used for it in Europe. This oil, or this glaze is derived from the hardest kind of rock, which is not surprising, since some people consider that rocks are formed mainly from salts and oils of the earth, which mix and blend together.
While the kind of rock used to make petuntse can also be used to make oil, they usually select the whitest kind of rock, or that tinged with green. The History of Fuliang, while it doesn’t go into detail, says that the best rock for oil is that which has spots in it somewhat like the color of cypress leaves (pe-chu-ye-pan). It is first necessary to wash this stone well, and then it is taken through the same preparations as for petuntse. When it has been obtained pure in the second tank according to the standard procedure, one hundred pounds of this cream is treated with a pound of a rock or mineral like alum, called "che-kao" (it is necessary to heat this rock to redness in a fire, and afterwards to cruch it). Che-kao is like a rennet, which gives the thickness to the oil, although one always has to take care to keep it liquid.
This oil of stone is never used alone; one always mixes it with another substance like an essence. Here is the composition: Large chunks of quicklime are slaked with a little water to reduce the lumps to a powder. Next one makes a bed of dry ferns on which one puts a layer of slaked lime. This is done alternately several times, after which the ferns are set on fire. When it is all burned, the ashes are spread on a new bed of dry ferns. This is done at least five or six times, but one can do it even more and the oil is then better.
In other times, says the History of Fuliang, instead of ferns one used wood from a tree whose fruit is called se-tse. To judge by the acridness of the unripe fruit of this tree, and from its small crown, I believe that it is a species of medlar (crab apple). This wood is no longer used according to my converts, apparently because it has become quite scarce in this country. Perhaps it is because of this that the porcelain, which is made now, is not as beautiful as it was in former times. The nature of the lime and the ferns contribute to the quality of the oil and I have noticed that the oil, which comes from certain locales, is more highly esteemed than that which comes from other places.
When a certain quantity of fern ash and lime has been collected, it is thrown into a tank full of water. In a hundred pounds one adds one pound of che-kao, then one stirs it well and allows it to stand until a cloud or crust appears on the surface. This is collected and is thrown in a second vat, with the step being repeated several times. When a paste forms at the bottom fo the second vat, one pours off the water by decantation and saves the bottom liquid which is the second oil that should be mixed with the first (oil of stone).
For a proper mix, it is necessary that the two kinds of puree should be of similar consistency. In order to judge this, little blocks of petuntse are dipped into each slip, and these are checked to see if they have picked up equal amounts of solid from each puree. There are those who pay special attention to the quality of those two kinds of oil. As for the proportions, the best that one can make is a mixture of ten parts of oil of stone, with one measure of oil made of ashes of chalk and fern. Those who economize never take less than three measures of stone. The merchants who sell this oil, no matter how little their inclination to cheat, are not too embarrassed to add to the volume. They merely add water to the oil and to cover up their fraud, they adjust the che-kao proportionately to keep the material from being too fluid.
Before explaining the way in which this oil, or rather this glaze, is applied, it is appropriate to describe how porcelain is made. I shall begin first with the work that is done in the less frequented places of Jingdezhen.
There, in a surrounding of walls, one finds vast sheds where one sees in row after row, a great number of jars of earth. In these enclosures there live and work a large number of workers who each have their appointed task. One piece of porcelain, before it enters the door of the furnace, passes through the hands of more than twenty people without any confusion. No doubt the Chinese have learned that the works is done faster that way.
The first job consists in re-purifying the petuntse and the kaolin from the trash that it acquired during its sale. One breaks up the petuntse, and throws it in a tank of water; next, with a large shovel, one finishes rewetting the slurry; then it is allowed to stand for some time; after this the supernatant and the residue is collected in the same manner which was described before.
As for the briquettes of kaolin, it is not necessary to break them up; they are simply put in a light, strong basket that is sunk in a container of water; there the kaolin easily liquefies itself. But there ordinarily remains a residue in the basket, which it is necessary to discard. In about a year this refuse accumulates and makes a great heap of a white spongy sand which must be removed from the work places.
Of these two materials, petuntse and kaolin, it is necessary to make a proper mixture: one takes equal parts of kaolin and petuntse for the best porcelain; for medium quality, one takes 4 parts of kaolin to 6 of petuntse; the poorest grade that one makes is one part kaolin to three parts of petuntse.
After this first work, this mass is put into a large pit, well paved and cemented on all sides. Then it is trampled on and kneaded until it stiffens. This work is very arduous and those Christians who are employed there have difficulty in getting to church. They are only able to get permission when another substitutes in their place, because with the stoppage of work, all of the other workers would be held up.
From the mass thus prepared, one pulls off different pieces that one spreads out on a large slate. There one kneads and rolls the mass in every direction, being careful to eliminate voids and making sure that no foreign bodies are mixed in. One hair or one grain of sand could spoil all the work. For lack of attention to this procedure, the porcelain can crack, split, leak and warp. This is the first element that leads to so many of the beautiful works of porcelain, some of which are made at the wheel and some of which are made in unique moulds and then afterwards finished at the wheel.
All of the symmetrical work is made in the first manner (on the wheel). A cup for example, when it comes off the wheel is only an imperfect cap-shape, a little like the top part of a hat, which has not yet been applied to a form. This worker only gives it the height and the diameter that is desired, and it leaves his hands nearly as soon as it starts there; for he only makes three deniers (cash) per plank, and each plank contains 26 pieces. The foot of the cup is then only a piece of clay of the size and diameter that is desired, and must be hollowed out with a chisel when the cup is dry and has the proper consistency, that is to say after it has received all the ornamentation that one wishes to give it.
The cup, on leaving the wheel, is next received by a second worker who sets it on its base. A little after that it is delivered to a third who puts it on its mould and impresses the form on it. This mould is on a kind of wheel. A fourth worker polishes this cup with a chisel, especially toward the rim, and makes it as thin as is necessary to give it some transparency. He scrapes it several times, moistening it a little each time if it is too dry, for fear that it might break.
When one takes the cup off the mould, it is necessary to rotate it gently on the same mould without pressing it more on one side than on the other, for without this treatment, there would be hollows in it, or it might even collapse. It is surprising to see with what speed these vessels pass through so many hands. It is said that one piece of fired porcelain passes through the hands of seventy workers. I have no trouble in believing this after what I have seen myself, for these great laboratories have often been for me a kind of Areopagus, where I have preached of Him who made the first man out of earth, and from the hands of Whom we go out to become vessels of splendor or disgrace.
Large pieces of porcelain are made in two parts; one half is raised on the wheel by three or four workmen who support it, each on his side, in order to give it its shape; the other half when nearly dry is put on top of it; then one unites them with some of the same porcelain material which has been mixed with water, which acts like a mortar or glue. When these glued pieces are completely dry, they are polished with a knife on the inside and the outside of the joint. After it is covered with glaze, it looks just like the rest of the piece. In a similar way, handles, ears, and other related pieces are applied to vessels.
This concerns mainly porcelain that is formed in moulds or by hand, namely the fluted pieces or those bizarre figures, like animals, grotesques, idols, busts and other such things that Europeans order. These molded work are made in three or four pieces which are fitted one to the other and which are perfected afterwards with tools appropriate for carving, polishing and for correcting different lines that escape the mould. As for flowers and other ornaments that are not in relief, but which are like engraving, one applies them to the porcelain with stamps and moulds. One also applies ready-made reliefs, in the same manner that one applies gold lace to a coat.
Here is what I have recently learned concerning these moulds. When one has the model of the piece of porcelain that one desires, and which cannot be duplicated on the wheel by the potters' hands, this model is covered with some earth of the kind for mould making. This earth receives the imprint and the mould is made of several pieces, each of which is the correct size. Next it is left to harden until the whole figure is imprinted. When one wishes to use it, it is put in front of the fire for some time, after which it is filed up with porcelain clay in proportion to the thickness that is desired. Then it is pressed all over by hand and the mould is placed in front of a fire for a moment. Soon the impressed figure detaches itself from the mould through the drying action of the fire which removes a little of the moisture that sticks this material to the mould. The different pieces, all pulled separately, are reunited then, using a little porcelain slip. I have seen animal figures made in this way that are quite massive. The assembled figure then has to be hardened, shaped and trimmed with a chisel before adding additional parts. This kind of work is done with great care – everything is investigated. When the work is finished, it is glazed and fired. Then one paints it if desired, with diverse colors and applied gold. After this it is fired a second time. Some pieces of porcelain worked in this manner are extremely costly. All these pieces have to be shielded from cold since dampness makes them burst when they are not dried evenly. Sometimes, to avoid this problem, heat is provided for these laboratories.
The round moulds are made of yellow earth, fat and sort of lumpy. I believe it is quite common and mined in a place not far from Jingdezhen. This earth is kneaded and when it is thick and a little hard, one takes a quantity large enough to make a mould and then beats it strongly. Then it is given the desired shape and is allowed to dry. After this it is shaped on the wheel. The work pays very well. In order to speed up an order for work, a large number of these moulds are made so that several groups of workers can work at the same time. When one takes care of the moulds they last a very very long time. A merchant who has moulds all ready for the porcelain work that Europeans demand can make his ceramics much quicker and cheaper than another who would have to make the moulds. If it happens that these moulds peel or have the least break, they are no longer fit to use for porcelain of the same size, but they are satisfactory for a piece of smaller volume. One then puts them on the wheel and shaves them so that they can be used a second time.
Now it is time to dignify the porcelain by allowing it to pass into the hands of the painters. These Hoa-pei or painters of porcelain are little less destitute than the other workers. This is not astonishing since the abilities of one of them would not pass for a beginning apprentice in Europe. All the skill of these painters and in general for all of the Chinese painters, is not founded on any principle, and only consists in a certain routine helped by a limited turn of imagination. They don’t know any of the beautiful rules of this art. It is necessary to acknowledge however, that they paint some flowers, animals and landscapes on porcelain that are admirable. They also do the same on fans and on lanterns of very fine gauze.
The work of painting in any given laboratory is divided among a large number of workers. One makes only the first colored circle that one sees next to the edge of the porcelain; another traces flowers that a third one paints; this one does water and mountains; that one birds and other animals. Human figures are ordinarily the most mistreated. However, certain landscapes and certain illuminated city plans that are brought from Europe to China, hardly allow us to criticize the Chinese for the manner in which they portray things in their paintings.
As for the colors of porcelain, there are some of all varieties. One hardly sees any in Europe except those that are a bright blue on a white background. I believe, however, that tour merchants have also brought over some others. There are some in which the background is like burning mirrors (jet black); there are some that are entirely red, and among those some are an oil-red (yeou-li-hum), while others are a blown red (tchoui-hum) and are sown with little points nearly like our miniatures. When these two kinds of work are successful, which is not often, they are highly esteemed and extremely expensive.
Finally, there is some porcelain where the landscapes are made up of nearly all colors, heightened by the brilliance of gilding. They are very beautiful if one can get the expensive kind; otherwise ordinary porcelain of this kind is not comparable to that which is painted with blue alone. The Annals of Jingdezhen say that in times past people here only made white porcelain. This was apparently because they had not found in the neighbourhood of Raozhou a less precious blue that could be used for the beautiful porcelain, instead of that which comes from afar and is very expensive.
It is said that a porcelain merchant, having been shipwrecked on a deserted coast, found there more riches than those that he lost. As he wandered on the coast while the crew made a little ship from the debris of the vessel he found that the rock needed to make the most beautiful blue was very common there. He carried away with him a large load and never, they say, had Jingdezhen seen so beautiful a blue. It was in vain that the Chinese merchant tried to rediscover that coast where chance had led him before.
This is the way in which the blue is prepared:
Unlike other colors, this is not done on a marble slab, but in a large unglazed porcelain mortar using an unglazed porcelain pestle.
Red is made from copperas (iron sulfate) tsao-fan. (Ed: overglaze red). Perhaps the Chinese have something special in it, and because of that I am going to describe their method.
Although porcelain is naturally white and although the oil that one puts on it serves to augment its whiteness, nevertheless there are certain popular figures for which one applies another white for the porcelain which is painted in different colors.
It is also used in mixtures for colors:
The prepared green becomes the matrix of violet, which is made by adding a portion of white. One uses proportionally more green when one wishes to make a deeper violet. Yellow is made by taking seven parts of white prepared as above, to which is added some copperas red. All of these colors are applied to the porcelain after a glaze firing, and the only appear green, yellow, violet or red after the second firing has been performed. These different colors are applied, according to the Chinese book, with white lead, saltpeter and copperas. The Christians, who are in this trade, have only spoken of white lead, which is mixed with the color when one mixes it in gum water.
The in-glaze red is prepared by mixing the red called tom-lou-hum (or even the glaze of which I have spoken) with ordinary porcelain glaze, and with another glaze made of white pebbles prepared like the first kind of glaze. No one has been able to tell me the quantities of one and the other, nor how much one would mix of red in the mixture of glazes. Perhaps different experiments could uncover the secret. This is next allowed to dry and one fires it in an ordinary furnace. If after firing, the reds are pure and brilliant, without any little spots appearing, then one has attained perfection in the art. These porcelains do not ring when they are struck.
The other kind of soufflé red is made like this;
Black porcelain is also beautiful and expensive. It is called ou-mien. This black contains lead and resembles our burning mirrors. When also decorated with gold, it has a further charm. One puts the black color on the porcelain when it is dry and to do that one takes three ounces of blue with seven ounces of glaze made with ordinary earth (Ed: high in iron?). Tests are made to find just what the mixture should be so as to get the proper darkness that one wishes. When this color is dry, one fires the porcelain; after this one can apply the gold and re-fire it in a special furnace.
Another kind of porcelain is made here that I have not seen before; it is all pierced to open work like cut paper; in the middle is a cup made for holding liquid. The cup is made of one piece with the pieced work. I have also seen other porcelain where Chinese ladies and Tartar ladies are painted as in life. The clothes and colors and expressions are all elaborate. From a distance we would take this work for an enamel piece.
It is to be noted that when one puts a glaze made from white pebbles on porcelain the porcelain becomes a special kind that is called tsoui-ki here. It is all marbled and cut up by a multitude of veins; from a distance one would think that it was broken porcelain in which all the pieces were put back together; it is like a mosaic work. The color of this glaze is an ash-like white. If the porcelain is covered with blue, and then covered with this glaze, it will appear cracked and marbled when the color is dry (Ed: probably 'fired').
When one wishes to apply gold, one grinds it and one mixes it in the bottom of a porcelain vessel until one sees a little cloud of gold in the bottom of the water. One allows it to dry and then uses it by mixing it in a sufficient amount of gummed water. With thirty parts of gold one incorporates three parts of white lead, and then one applies it to porcelain just like a colored glaze.
Finally, there is a kind of porcelain which is made in the following manner: it is given an ordinary glaze, then it is fired; next it is painted with various colors and fired again. Sometimes one intentionally reserves the painting for after the first firing; sometimes, also, one uses the second firing to conceal the firing faults by using the colors to correct the defective spots. This porcelain which is loaded with color, nevertheless suits the taste of many people. However, it often happens that there is an unevenness of this kind of porcelain, which occurs because of unskilled workmen or because it was necessary to supplement the shading of the painting, or even because one wanted to cover up faults in the porcelain body. When the painting and gilding are good and dry, one stacks the porcelain, putting the small inside the large, and then one arranges them in a special furnace.
These furnaces can be made of iron when they are small; but ordinarily they are made of brick. Those that I have seen are about as tall as a man, and nearly as large as our largest barrel for wine; they are made in several pieces out of the same material as the saggers. The furnace is made of large blocks about as thick as a hand, by one foot high and a foot and a half long. Before firing they are shaped to the proper curvature, then they are placed on top of one another and are well cemented. The base of the furnace is raised off the ground by six inches and is placed on two or three rows of thick bricks (not large ones). Around the furnace is one enclosure of well-cemented bricks that have at the base 3 or 4 vents, which are like the air holes of the firebox. This enclosure gives a space around the furnace of about 6 inches, except for 3 or 4 places, which are filled and are like buttresses for the furnace. I believe that the furnace and the enclosure are built at the same time; otherwise the furnace would not be supported. The furnace is filled with porcelain that one wants to fire a second time, by putting in large pieces filled with small pieces as I described before. When this is all done, the top of the furnace is covered with pieces of ceramic like those of the furnace sidewalls; these pieces, which overlap on one another, are cemented in between by mortar or slaked clay. One only leaves one opening in the center to observe when the porcelain is fired. A quantity of charcoal is then lit under the furnace. The opening on top of the furnace is covered with a piece of broken pottery. When the fire is hot, one looks in the opening from time to time and when the porcelain appears shiny and the colored glaze is bright, one draws out the fire and then the porcelain.
A thought has occurred to me concerning these colors that are put on fired porcelain and are glazed by the use of white lead, to which, according to the Annals of Fuliang, one used to add saltpeter and copperas. If, in a like manner, one added white lead to the colors that are painted on glass panels (stained glass), and if following that, one gave them a second firing, wouldn’t the white lead, so employed, enable us to gain again the secret that was once used for painting glass, without taking away any of its transparency? This is something that could be proven wrong by testing.
This secret that we have lost reminds me of another secret that the Chinese complain that they no longer have. They once had the ability of painting on the side of a porcelain piece, fish or other animals, that one only saw when the porcelain vessel was full of liquid. They called this kind of porcelain kia-tsim, that is to say "blue-put-in-the-press", because of the way in which the blue is placed. Here is what is known of the secret; perhaps someone in Europe can imagine what the Chinese no longer know. The porcelain that one wants to paint in this fashion should be very thin; when it is dry, color is applied rather heavily, not on the outside as is customary, but on the inside; one commonly paints fish because it shows up when one fills the vessel with water. The color when dry, is given a light coat of a kind of dilute glue made from the same earth as the porcelain. This layer presses the blue between these two sheets of earth. When the layer is dry, one puts some glaze on the inside of the porcelain; then afterwards one puts it on the mould and turns it. As it has received some bulk on the inside one turns it down on the outside as thin as is possible without cutting through to the color; then one glaze coats the outside of the porcelain. When all is dry, the porcelain is fired in the usual furnace. This work is extremely delicate and calls for a skill that the Chinese apparently no longer have. They still try from time to time to rediscover the art of this magic painting, but in vain. One of the workers told me recently that he had made a new attempt and that it was nearly successful.
Although that technique is lost, one can still say today that the beautiful blue returns to the surface of porcelain after having disappeared. When one applies it, its color is just a pale black; when it is dry and covered with glaze, it is completely obscured, and the porcelain appears entirely white; the colors are then buried under the glaze; the fire clarifies then in all their beauty, the same as natural warmth changes a cocoon into the most beautiful of colored butterflies. I will now discuss an occurrence, which should not be omitted, it is that before applying glazes to porcelain, one must polish it and remove all the small irregularities. For this purpose a brush made of small fine feathers is used; one dampens this brush with water and then goes very lightly over the whole piece.
For the rest, there is a lot of art in the way in which porcelain is glazed, both for putting it on without any more defects than are necessary and for spreading it equally on all sides. For porcelain that is very thin and delicate, one applies two thin coats of glaze; if the coats are too thick, the thin walls of the piece are not able to support them and the sides will fold up. These two layers amount to as much as one ordinary layer of glaze, which one gives to find porcelain, which is more robust. They put one layer on by sprinkling and the other by immersion. First one takes a cup in one hand by the outside and holding it slant over the container of glaze, with the other hand one pours inside enough glaze so that it is nearly filled. This is done for a large number of cups. When the first of these is dry on the inside, one gives them a coat of glaze on the outside in the following manner: one holds one hand inside the cup and supporting it with a little stick under the middle of its foot, one plunges it in the container of glaze from which it is removed almost immediately.
I have said before that the foot of the porcelain remains massive. In fact it is only after it has received the glaze and is dry that one takes it on the wheel to hollow out the foot; after that one paints a little circle of glaze on it and often a Chinese character. When this paint is dry, one glazes the hollow that has been made under the cup, and this is the last thing that is done, because immediately afterwards it is carried to the furnace in the laboratory to be fired.
I was surprised to see that a man balances on his shoulders two long boards, on which the porcelain pieces are closely arranged and that he goes like this through many streets full of people without breaking his merchandise. Truly, people carefully avoid striking him however, for one would be obliged to make good the damage one had caused. But it is astonishing that the carrier controls himself so well, and the movements of his body, too, so that he never loses his equilibrium.
The place where the furnaces are located presents another scene. In a kind of vestibule before the furnaces, one sees piles of cases and saggers made of clay and destined to hold porcelain pieces. Each piece of porcelain, no matter how large or small, has its own sagger, the porcelain with covers as well as those without. These covers are only lightly stuck to the bottom part during firing, and are easily detached with a light tap. For smaller porcelain pieces, like tea or chocolate cups, there is one sagger for several items. This work imitates nature, which ripens fruits and brings them to a perfect maturity by enclosing them in an envelope so that the heat of the sun only penetrates little by little, and so that its action on the inside is not interrupted too much by the air during the coolness of the night.
These saggers are coated inside with a kind of down of sand. They are also covered with a coat of kaolin, so that sand does not attach itself too much to the piece that is placed on this bed. The bottom of the porcelain is pressed into the sand to give it the correct shape, but the ware must not touch the sagger wall anywhere. The top of the sagger doesn’t have a cover; a second sagger with the same shape as the first, supplied in the same way as the first with porcelain, sits on it in such a way that it covers the first without touching the porcelain in the bottom one. Thus it is that one fills the furnace with great stacks of clay saggers all filled with porcelain. By means of these thick screens, the beauty and if I may express it so, the color of the porcelain is not breathed on by the ardour of the fire.
With regard to the small porcelain pieces which are confined in large round saggers, each is placed on a saucer of clay the thickness of a two-crown piece and as large as the foot. These bases are also sprinkled with powdered kaolin.
When the unfired saggers are a little wide, one does not put porcelain in the center, because it would be too far from the sides, and the force in the middle could be enough to break the sagger and ruin the whole column. One notes that these saggers are 4 inches high, and that in part they are unfired just like the porcelain. However, one can completely fill those saggers which have already been fired and which are to be used again.
It is necessary for me to describe the manner in which the porcelain is placed in these saggers; the worker does not touch the pieces directly with his hands; he might break them, for nothing is more fragile, or distort them or fill them full of defects. Instead he picks up each piece from the board by means of a little cord. This cord is held by a stick with two branches, or a fork of wood that he takes in one hand, while with the other he holds the two ends of string, crossed or open according to the size of the porcelain piece. It is in this manner that he grasps a piece, raises it gently and then puts it in the sagger on the little saucer. All that is done with incredible swiftness.
I have said that the bottom of the furnace is covered by a half foot of large gravel; this gravel serves to seat the column of porcelain securely, for the rows of saggers which are in the middle of the furnace have at least a seven foot height. The two saggers which are at the base of each column are empty because the fire is not fierce enough at the bottom, and because the gravel covers them partially. It is for the same reason that the saggers which is placed at the top of the pile remains empty. One fills the whole furnace this way, only leaving those empty that are directly under the vent holes.
One is particular to put in the middle of the furnace only the stacks of the finest porcelain. In the bottom, those of lesser quality are arranged, and at the front one puts those which are highly colored and which are made up of a material composed of equal parts of petuntse and kaolin and on which one has put a glaze made of the stone which has some little black or russet spots, because this glaze has more body than the other. All the stacks of saggers are placed very close to one another, and are connected at the top, bottom and middle with some wads of clay that one applies to them in such a way that the flame has a free path to pass equally into all the corners of the kiln. It is here perhaps that the eye and skill of the worker serves most to ensure success in this enterprise, in order to avoid certain accidents, a little like those, which seem to cause obstructions in the body of an animal.
All clay is not suitable for making saggers, which enclose porcelain. There are three kinds that are put to use: one is yellow and is quite common; it predominates and is used as a base; another is called lao-tou and is strong clay; the third which is a plastic clay is called yeou-tou. The last two kinds of clay are obtained in the winter from certain very deep mines, where it is not possible to work in the summer. If one would mix equal parts of those clays that cost a little more, the saggers would last a long time. They are delivered, already made, from a large village at the foot of the river about three miles from Jingdezhen. Before they are fired they are a yellow color, but after firing they become a deep red.
As one wants to economize, the yellow clay is the dominant one, and it is for this reason that the saggers last for only 2 or 3 firings, after which they break up completely. If they are only slightly broken or cracked, one ties them up with a circle of willow reed, although the circle of reed burns off and the sagger is still cracked, nevertheless without the reed the porcelain would suffer. A furnace should not be completely filled with new saggers that have not been used before. There should always be half that have already been fired. The previously fired ones are placed at the top and the bottom, and the newly made saggers are put in the middle of the stacks. At one time, according to the History of Fuliang, all of the saggers were fired separately in the furnace before being used for the firing of porcelain; without doubt because then one had less regard for the expense than for the perfection of the work. It is not at all like that at present, apparently because the number of porcelain workers has multiplied greatly.
Let us come now to the construction of the furnaces. One puts them at the foot of a long vestibule which serves as an airchamber and which acts as the vent. It serves the same purpose as the arch of a glass furnace. The furnaces are presently larger than they used to be. Then, according to the Chinese book, they were only six feet high and six feet wide; now they are twelve feet high and are nearly twenty-four feet long. The arch as well as the body of the furnace is thick enough so that one can walk on it without being bothered by the fire. Inside, this vault is neither flat nor pointed; it stretches out and shrinks a little as it approaches the large air hole that is at the end and through which the turbulent flames and smoke make their exit9.
Outside this throat, the furnace has on its top five little openings that are like eyes; one covers them with pieces of broken pots, of a kind however that can relieve the air and the fire of the furnace. It is through these eyes that one judges if the porcelain is fired. One uncovers the eye that is a little in front of the chimney and with iron pinches one opens one of the saggers. The porcelain is ready when one sees a clear fire in the furnace, when all of the saggers are hot, and above all when the colors stand out with all of their brilliance. Then one discontinues firing and one blocks up the door of the furnace for some time. This furnace has at its largest part a large firebox, of one or two foot depth; one goes over it on a plank in order to enter the furnace and place the porcelain inside. When the fire in the firebox is lit, one at once walls up the door, only leaving an opening large enough to throw in pieces of wood a foot long but rather thin. One first warms the furnace for a day and a night, following which two men (who alternate) never stop throwing in wood; one commonly burns one hundred and eighty loads in a furnace.
To judge from what it says in the Chinese book, this quantity should not be sufficient. The Annals assert that formerly one burned two hundred and forty loads of wood, and twenty more if the weather was rainy, besides which the furnaces were then only half as large as these. One would first start a small fire for a week; on the eighth day one built a strong fire; in addition they said that the saggers for the small porcelain pieces would already be fired separately before being put in the furnace; also the ancient porcelain had much thicker bodies than the modern.
One thing that is neglected today is the fact that when there was no longer any fire in the furnace, one only opened the door to the furnace after ten days for the large porcelain pieces and after five days for the small. Now one still delays several days in opening a furnace containing large pieces of porcelain, for without this precaution they crack. But for the small pieces, if the fire has been extinguished in the evening, one takes them out the next day. The design apparently is to save wood for a second firing. As the porcelain is very hot, the workers who take it out are helped to grasp it by long scarves which hang around their necks.
I was surprised to learn that after having fired a hundred and eighty loads of wood in the furnace in one day, that on the next day one finds no ash in the firebox. It is necessary that those who work at the furnaces become well accustomed to the heat. One says that they put some salt in their tea, in order to drink as much as they wish without being indisposed. I find it difficult to understand how it is possible to use this salted liquid to quench their thirst.
After what I have reported, one should not be surprised to find that porcelain is so expensive in Europe. One would still be less surprised, if one knew the size of the profits of the European merchants and the gain made on it by the Chinese commissioners. It is also rare for a furnace firing to be entirely successful, as often it is entirely lost. Sometimes when one opens the furnace one finds that the porcelain and the saggers are reduced to a single mass, as hard as a rock, because of too fierce a fire; or some badly conditioned saggers can ruin it all; or it may not be easy to regulate the fire the way that it should be; or it may be that the nature of the weather instantly changes the nature of the fire and the quality of the subject on which it works. The quality of the wood too, affects the firing. Thus for one workman who becomes rich, there are a hundred others who are ruined yet who do not stop trying for their fortune, because of the hope which they have of making enough to buy a merchant shop.
Moreover, the porcelain that is taken to Europe is nearly all made from new models, often bizarre and difficult to be successful with; for if it has only a little fault it is rejected by the Europeans who do not wish anything that is not perfect, and then it remains in the hands of the manufacturer who cannot sell it to the Chinese because it does not suit their taste. It is consequently necessary that the pieces that are taken carry the cost of those that are rejected.
According to the history of Jingdezhen, the profits that were once made were greater than those which are made now. That is difficult to believe, because the porcelain for Europe was not made at that time on so large a scale. I personally believe that all expenses are now higher; for example, wood is not brought from nearby mountains as it once was, since they are now exhausted; thus one is obliged to bring wood from a great distance and at a great expense; also there is the fact that the profit is divided among too many people; and lastly the workers are less skilful than they were in the distant past and because of that they are less sure of prospering. Expenses can also come from the avarice of the Mandarins who keep many workers busy at the sort of work which is given as presents to their protectors at Court, paying the workers poorly, which causes high prices for the other merchandise and poverty for the merchants.
I have said that the difficulty of making certain models sold in Europe is one of the things which raises the price of porcelain, inasmuch as it is not possible that the workmen can make all of the models which come to them from foreign lands. There are some pieces that are impractical for the Chinese just as there are some made that would surprise foreigners, and which they wouldn’t believe possible.
Here are some examples, I have seen a signal light or lantern of porcelain made in a single piece through which a single flame can light up a whole room. This piece was a command operation for the crown prince 7 or 8 years ago. The same prince also demanded several musical instruments, among other things a kind of little organ called "tsem" which is nearly a foot tall and which is made up to fourteen pipes, of which the harmony is very agreeable; but this could not be made. One succeeded best at making sweet flutes, flageolets, and another instrument is called "yum-lo", which is composed of diverse little round plates (slightly concave) each one of which gives a particular sound; one hangs nine of these in a frame in different rows that one plays with mallets like a dulcimer; it makes a little carillon which accompanies the sound of other instruments and the voices of musicians.
It was necessary to make many attempts before finding the thickness and amount of firing necessary to get all of the tones needed for a chord. I would have imagined that there was a secret way of inserting a little metal in the body of this porcelain in order to vary the sound; but they set me straight on that; metals are so little able to accommodate themselves to porceclain that if one puts a copper coin on top of a pile of porcelain placed in a furnace, then after firing it would be found to have pierced all of the saggers and all of the porcelain in the column, all of which would be found to have a hole in the middle. Nothing is better able to show what movement the fire gives to all that is closed in the furnace, also assuring one that everything in there is fluid and flowing.
Returning to the work of the Chinese that is a little rare, they succeed principally in grotesques and the representation of animals; the workers make some ducks and turtles that float on water. I have seen a cat painted naturally, where one had put in its head a candle of which flame would form two eyes and they assured me that during the night the rats were frightened by it. They also make here statues of Guanyin [Kouan-in] who is represented with a baby in her arms, and she is appealed to by sterile women who want to have babies. She can be compared to ancient statues that we have of Venus and Diana, with the difference that the statues of Guanyin are more modest.
There is another type of porcelain which is difficult to make and which therefore is very rare. The body of this porcelain is extremely thin and the surface both inside and out is very smooth, nevertheless one can see on it molded decorations, a scroll of flowers for example, and other similar ornaments. This is the way that one does it: after making the for on the wheel, one presses it over a mould where the engraving is imprinted on the inside; on the outside, one makes it as thin as possible by turning it down with a chisel; after this one gives it a coat of glaze and fires it in an ordinary furnace.
The European merchants sometimes demand from the Chinese workers plates of porcelain, one piece of which would make the top of a table or a chair or a framed picture. These works are impossible. The largest and longest possible are about a foot long; if one goes beyond that, however thick one makes them, they warp; the thickness similarly doesn’t make it easy to form this kind of work, and this is why, instead of making the plaques thick, one makes them of two surfaces that one unites, leaving the interior hollow; one joins them only with a cross piece and one makes two holes in the sides to insert in a work of carpentry, or in the back of a chair; whatever is agreeable.
The History of Jingdezhen speaks of different work ordered by emperors that they struggled vainly to make. The father of the current emperor ordered some boxes just about the size of the crates that we put oranges in; it was apparently for raising little red, gold and silver fish. This was meant to be an ornament for the palace; perhaps he also wanted it to serve as a bath tub, for, it was to be 6 inches thick with 4 inches thick sides. They worked for three continuous years on this project and made two hundred bowls, without one being usable. The same emperor ordered some slabs to be put in front of an open gallery; each slab was to be 3 feet high, 2.5 feet wide and 6 inches thick. None of this could be done says the Annals of Jingdezhen and the mandarins of the province presented a request to the emperor asking him for permission to stop this work.
Nevertheless, the mandarins, who know of the ability of Europeans to make inventions, have asked me to get from Europe new and original designs, that could be presented to the emperor as something unique. On the other hand, the Christians press me strongly not to furnish such samples, for the mandarins are not so understanding as our merchants when the workers tell them that something is impractical. And the bastinado is often applied liberally before the mandarin abandons a design which promises great advantages.
As each profession has its own particular idol, and as divinity is produced as easily here as the title of Count or Marquis is given in certain countries of Europe, it is not surprising that there is a god of porcelain. The "Pou-sa" (for such is the name of the idol) owes its origin to the kind of designs that it is impossible to make.
It is told that once an emperor wanted them to make him porcelain like a given model; they told him many times that it was impossible; but all these remonstrances only served to excite his desire more and more. During their life the emperors are considered a divinity to be feared by the Chinese and they believe that no on should oppose their desires. His officers therefore redoubled their efforts and used all kinds of pressure on their workers. The wretches would spend their money, go to all kinds of trouble and only receive punishment for it. One of the workers, in a moment of despair, threw himself in a lighted furnace and was instantly consumed. The porcelain that was fired in this lot was perfectly beautiful and to the liking of the Emperor, who then didn’t ask for anything better.
Since that time this poor fellow has been a hero, and became as a result the idol who rules over the works of porcelain. I do not know that his elevation has brought other Chinese to take the same route in hope of a similar honour.
Porcelain having been held in such high esteem for so many centuries, one would naturally like to know how that of former times differs from that of our day, and what the judgement of the Chinese is on that subject. There is no doubt that the Chinese are naturally brought up to respect antiquities; nevertheless one finds that there are some defenders of modern work. Unfortunately it is not the same for porcelain as for antique metal medallions; where inscriptions give knowledge of their date of manufacture.
Old porcelain may be adorned with some Chinese characters, but these do not mark any point in the history; thus the curious can only find a style and colors, which they prefer to those of our time. I believe that I have heard it said in Europe that porcelain, in order to have perfection, ought to have been buried in the ground for a long time; this is a false opinion that the Chinese ridicule. The History of Jingdezhen, speaking of the most beautiful porcelain of early times, says that it was so desired, that as soon as the furnace was opened, the merchants would fight over who has the first pick. From that comment it is not to be supposed that these had been buried.
It is true that in digging in the ruins of old buildings and especially in clearing old wells, one finds there, sometimes, beautiful pieces of porcelain which were hidden in times of revolution. This porcelain is beautiful because one would only bury that which was precious in order to recover it after the end of the trouble. If it is esteemed, it is not because it acquired some new degree of beauty in the earth, but because its original beauty was conserved. That alone has its value to the Chinese who gives large sums for the smallest utensils of simple pottery which were used by the emperors Yao and Chun, who reigned many centuries before the dynasty of Tam, at which time porcelain began to be used by the emperors.
The only thing that porcelain acquires after aging in the earth is some changed color or hue, which makes it seem old. The same thing happens to marble and ivory, only sooner, because the glaze prevents humidity from entering into the porcelain so easily. What I can say is: that I have found some pieces of porcelain in old ruins, which should probably be very ancient, and I have noted nothing in them that was remarkable; if it is true that in growing old they become perfect, it is necessary that on leaving the hands of the workers they were not equal to the porcelain which is made now. But I believe, it was then as it is now, that there were all kinds of porcelain of all kinds of quality. According to the Annals of Jingdezhen there were once some urns made which would sell for 58 and 59 taels apiece, that is to say about 400 francs. Can you imagine how much they would sell for in Europe? Also the book says that then there was a furnace made for each urn of this value, and expense was not spared.
The mandarin of Jingdezhen, who has honoured me with his friendship, makes for his protectors at the court some presents of old-style porcelain that he has the talent for making himself. I can say that he has found the technique of imitating ancient porcelain, or at least that of recent antiques. For this project he uses a number of workers. The material of these imitation Kou-tom, that is to say, of these counterfeit antiques, is a yellowish clay which is mined from a place near Jingdezhen called Maanshan [Ma-gnan-chan] (Saddleback Hill). They are very thick.
The mandarin showed me a plate of this type which weighed ten times as much as an ordinary plate. There is nothing in particular to the making of this kind of porcelain, except that one gives them a glaze made of yellow stone that one mixes with ordinary glaze, so that the latter is in excess. This mixture gives the porcelain a sea-green color. After it is fired, one puts it in a very thick soup made of all sorts of meats, it is then cooked a second time, after which one puts it in a sewer of the muddiest kind that one can find where one leaves it for a month or longer. After taking it out of the sewer it passes for being 300 or 400 years old, or at least for the previous dynasty, the Ming, at which time porcelain of this color and thickness was esteemed at court. These fake antiques are just like the old ones in that when on strikes them, they do not ring and if one holds them to his ear after that, they do not vibrate.
Someone brought me, from the debris of a large shop, a small plate that I value more than the finest porcelain made in a thousand years. On the base of this plate a crucifix is painted between the Virgin and St. John. They tell me that once they sent such porcelain to Japan, but not in the last 16 or 17 years. Apparently the Christians in Japan who worked in this industry suffer persecution for having images of our mysteries; these porcelains, mixed in cases of unmarked ware, escaped notice from the enemies of religion; but finally these holy works had to be discovered and be eliminated by more careful searching; and it is this no doubt that hassled to the discontinuance of this kind of work at Jingdezhen.
They are almost always curious in China concerning glass and crystal that comes from Europe, just as people in Europe are curious about the porcelain from China. Not withstanding such esteem as the Chinese have for it, they still haven’t come to search the seas to look for glass from Europe. They find that their porcelain is more useful than glass; for example, it can stand hot liquids better; also one can hold a cup of boiling tea without burning oneself, even if one holds it as the Chinese do (i.e. by the sides) which one cannot do with a cup of silver of the same thickness and of the same shape. Porcelain also has a clarity just like glass and if it is a little less transparent, it is also less fragile. Many properties of glass are also shared by porcelain; good porcelain has a good tone like glass; and if glass can be cut by a diamond, one also uses diamonds to re-unite and re-assemble pieces of broken porcelain; for there is a trade in China, where one sees workers specially occupied in putting broken pieces of porcelain together; they use a diamond like a needle to make little holes in porcelain bodies, where they interweave a very delicate thread of leton; and in this way they put porcelain into a serviceable condition without one being able to tell the place where it has been broken.
I should, before finishing this letter, which may already appear too long to you, clear up a doubt that I have undoubtedly raised. I have said that there is a never-ending line of boats coming to Jingdezhen loaded with petuntse and kaolin, and that after having purified these materials, the residue that remains accumulates in time and forms great heaps. I have added that there are three thousand furnaces at Jingdezhen and that these furnaces are filled up with saggers and porcelain, that the saggers can only last for 3 or 4 firings, and that often a furnace-full is completely lost. It is natural that one should ask me after that, where is the abyss where for 300 years one has discarded all the porcelain and furnace debris without it becoming full.
The situation of Jingdezhen itself and the way it is built will clarify that question. Jingdezhen was not a very long site at its beginning, but it has grown greatly with a large number of buildings that one has built there and that one still builds there every day. Each house is surrounded by a wall; the bricks of which these walls are constructed are not bedded flat, one on another nor are they cemented like masonry work in Europe; Chinese walls have more grace and less solidity.
That is to say: the walls are encrusted with long and large bricks; each of these bricks has one by its side, it is only finished on the end surface of the brick and the two others are like two buttresses for that brick. One small bed of lime put around the center brick ties all the bricks together; the bricks are arranged the same way on the backside of the wall; these walls become narrower as they rise, so that they are scarcely higher than the longest and largest brick; the buttresses where the bricks are that are crosswise are not tied-in in anyway to those on the opposite side. Because of that, the body on the wall is like the space in an empty box. When one has made tow or three rows of empty bricks placed on the slightly deep foundations, one fills up the body of the wall with broken pots on which one pours some tempered earth in the form of a viscous mortar. This mortar ties everything together and makes a single mass, which locks together all the parts of the transverse bricks; and those secure the ones in the middle, which only carry support on the thickness of the bricks which are underneath.
From a distance these walls first appeared to me to be made of beautiful grey stone quarried and finished with a chisel; what is surprising is that if one took care to cover the top with good tiles, they would last for a hundred years. Actually they do not even support the weight of the frame, which is supported by large column of wood; these walls merely serve to surround buildings and gardens. If one tried to make Chinese type walls in Europe, one would not save very much, especially in certain places.
One can see already what has become of part of the porcelain and furnace debris. It is necessary to add that one ordinarily also throws it on the blans of the river which passes through Jingdezhen. It happens that because of this that in time, one gains some land along the river; this rubbish, wet by the rain and pounded by traffic became at first a place to hold a market and following that one has made some streets there. Besides that, during great rises of the water, level the river carries away much of the broken porcelain one could say that its bed is completely paved; and because of that one never tires of enjoying the view. Of all this that I have described, it is easy to judge what the abyss is where for all the centuries one has thrown the debris from the furnaces and from the porcelain manufacturing operations.
But, however little zeal a missionary has, there is presented to his spirit a very distressing though; and that is; what is the abyss where there are buried all the millions of people, who lived during the centuries that Jingdezhen has been peopled. One sees all the nearby mountains covered by sepulchers; and at the foot of one of these mountains there is a great pit surrounded by high walls. It is there that one throws the bodies of the poor who do not have enough money for a coffin, which is considered here as the greatest of misfortunes. This place is called Ouan-min-kem, that is to say pit to infinity, pit for all the world. In the time of the plague, which raves this place nearly every year because of the great population, this pit swallows up the bodies, on which one throws quick lime in order to consume the flesh. Towards the end of the year, in winter, the Buddhist priests by an interesting act of charity, come to take out the bones to make room for others, and they burn these during a special service that they have for the unfortunate deceased.
In this manner the mountains which surround Jingdezhen present to view the land where are returned all the bodies of all the millions of people who have undergone the fate of all mortals. But, what is the abyss where their souls are buried, and what is more capable of animating the zeal of a missionary for working for the salvation of these infidels, than the irreparable loss of all the souls during so long a period of centuries. Jingdezhen is indebted to the liberality of M. le Marquis de Bronissia for a church which has a numerous flock and which is augmented considerably each year. May the Saviour pour more and more of his benedictions on these new Faithful. I recommend them to your prayers; if they are sustained by some help, to increase the number of catechists, one would be edified, in China, to see that it is not only the cupidity and greed of Europeans which makes them send their money to Jingdezhen, but that there are zealous people who have much nobler designs than those who come for such fragile jewels (porcelain). I am most respectfully,
My Reverend Father,
Your very humble and very obedient servant in our Saviour.
d’Entrecolles, Missionary of the Company of Jesus.
Notes to the current text, by Jan-Erik Nilsson, 2007
1 When this could be safely done all names on places and minerals etc., all spelling is modernized. The first time a name occurs the original spelling is put within [ square brackets ] next to its replaced term. From then on, the replaced term is used in place of the original term. Plese refer to the original source text for full cerntainty.
2 Fuliang is a former Tang dynasty district in which Jingdezhen is situated. (He Li (1996), p. 138)
3 Raozhou, an area within Jiangxi province that includes Jingdezhen etc. "In Jiangxi province, kilns were dispersed over an area that included R." (He Li (1996), p. 138)
4 For an on-line account that details wares from the Fujian Province; see Yuan Bingling, Dehua White Ceramics and their Cultural Significance, 2002 http://www.xiguan.net/yuanbingling/index.asp
5 If we for the sake of calculation assume that one pig translates into 40 kg (80 lbs) of pork, shared equally over 1 million person, each will have (40,000 kg/ 1,000,000 persons) = 40 gram.
6 Throughout the entire letter of 1712 the word porcelain furnaces is used. Not before the second letter, of 1722, d'Entrecolles have found the name for kiln.
7 Petuntse and kaolin being the two recognized names for the fundamental ingrediences that makes up the Chinese porcelain paste has been explained and perpetually misunderstood why, now I am going to give it my best shot. First, originally Kaolin is a place. It is actually Gao Ling and means High Ridge and is a name of a place slightly north east of Jingdezhen from which a special clay with very high melting (refractory) point, was mined. So high, that in fact it does not melt at all at the temperatures where porcelain is fired. Thus it stays a stiff part inside the porcelain paste, when it is mixed with the crushed local Chinese porcelain stone, which when shaped into bricks, was called bai-tun-tze = "small white brick". Kaolin is thus called "the bones inside the porcelain body". Imagine the confusion this has created, especially since both Kaolin and other crushed stones used for glaze, also was shaped into "small white bricks" for transportation purposes.
8 In N. J. G. Pounds article in The Economic History Review, NS V1, N1 (1948), pp 20-33 an incident is mentioned, while referring to G Vogt, La Porcelain (Paris 1835), pp 12-14, that in 1682 over a hundred tons of 'terre de porcelain' were brought from Rome where they had probably been delivered by traders with Egypt and the Far East. "We do not know what was made from this material, but may be sure that it was not true porcelain".
9 From this description it does not sounds like the kiln has a chimney. This actually fits with information I got at the Shiwan kiln in Foshan outside Canton, that the kiln chimney was a late invention and just added to improve living and working conditions in the 1940s.
10 This has usually been assumed to be referring to Celadon. Since this could of cource be true, it does not specifically say so. Old Ming dynasty porcelain glazes was also sometimes of a darker hue than good porcelain of the Kangxi period so would like to keep this question open and not pretend it is obvious.
The two letters by Peré d'Entrecolle were translated from the French and published in William Burton's Porcelain, It's Art and Manufacture, B.T. Batsford, London, 1906. The text here is from the original and double-checked towards the version of the same text occuring in Brieven van pater d'Entrecolles by D. F. Lunsing Scheurleer, Caneletto, Alphen aan den Rijn, 1982. The errors and omissions occuring in other versions of this text are so grave that I would like to advice against using any other transcriptions than the original or this version, published here only.
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