Vessels of Chinese Culture


Ming-Qing Export Porcelain from Shanghai Museum and the Palace Museum exhibition is ongoing in the Palace Museum.

An exhibition at the Palace Museum reveals rare artifacts from ancient China's international porcelain trade. Wang Kaihao looks at how they connect the country to the world.

Ancient Chinese porcelain bearing European families' emblems are a rare sight - especially those created in styles otherwise not found in the country. The ongoing exhibition, Treasure of the Trade: Ming-Qing Export Porcelain from Shanghai Museum and the Palace Museum, offers visitors to Beijing's Palace Museum a glimpse into ancient China's international porcelain trade - a massive historical industry about which little is known.

On show are 106 pieces from the two museums, 81 of which are from the Shanghai Museum. The show will run until March 15 and later go to Shanghai.


Most exhibits from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were exported to Japan, and southeastern and southwestern Asia, and are diverse in appearance, Ancient Chinese Porcelain Society chairman and Palace Museum researcher Geng Baochang says.

Most from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) were customized for European buyers, who then dominated the East India Company.

China has traded porcelain since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and has continued to influence production, Geng says.

The rise of Guangdong, Fujian and Jiangxi provinces as porcelain hubs has largely relied on international business, he explains.

Ancient China's cultural expression's global influence should be remembered, Shanghai Museum deputy director Chen Kelun says.

Porcelain was a major pillar of the ancient Maritime Silk Road connecting East and West. But domestic museums lack relevant collections. These pieces' adornments and forms are rare or even absent in China. More collections will enable research.


One of the pieces on show, for instance - a double-tube oil-and-vinegar bottle from the reign of Kangxi (1662-1722) that resembles European glass vessels of the time - is the only piece of its kind in Chinese public museums, he says.

Most of the Shanghai Museums' trade porcelain was donated by overseas private collectors. One of the biggest donors is Dutch financier Henk Nieuwenhuys, who gave 36 of the ongoing exhibition's pieces.

Nieuwenhuys, who's a third-generation collector in his family, says: Over 12 million pieces of Chinese porcelain were transported to the Netherlands via Indonesia in the 18th century, which left an abundant reserve of culture there. Although these pieces were exported under the Qing emperors' consent, who ordered their quality not to outstrip royal collections, their unique historical information remains attractive.

His favorite displayed piece is a small blue-and-white incense burner made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, during Kangxi's reign. The four-piece structure is rarely found in China.

My grandfather bought it in 1937, he recalls.

Some people recently offered 5 million yuan ($800,000) to buy it, but I donated it to the museum. Collection is a matter of heart - not to make money. When the time is right, it's better to give it back to its birthplace.

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