Review Essay Of “Jacques de Coutre’s And Matelieff’s Singapore and Johor”: Exploring Sources On Pre-Modern History of Singapore, pp. 8 of 11

The ceramics trade undertaken by the Dutch from China in the 17th century could be divided into three periods: 1. 1602-44. This period marked the beginning of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) up until the disruption of trade associated with the fall of the Ming Dynasty. 2. 1645-83. The disruption and prohibition of trade by the Qing government in its struggle with the Zheng regime in Taiwan led to a stoppage of ceramics trade. 3. 1684-1700.  This period marked the resumption of ceramics trade as well as the Dutch experimentation of trade via various ports in China. Although the Dutch continued to hold their own at the end of 17th and the beginning of 18th century, three defeats in Europe against the English in 1652, 1665 and 1672 set the limits of the Dutch colonial expansion and consequently commerce overseas (Deng, 1997, pp. 112-121; Lambert, 2000, p. 56). Dutch trade in ceramics was not only carried for the European but also for the Southeast Asian markets. In the 18th century, the Dutch was not only facing competition from the English East India Company (EIC) but other powers like France and Denmark. The VOC also did not always maintain direct trade relations with China but transacted through the middleman junk traders who called at Batavia. The competition was keen despite the fact that the Dutch were the first to export porcelain on a large scale in the course of the 17-18th centuries. In terms of the proportion of ceramics and the other commodities traded, tea, coffee and cocoa competed for freight space with ceramics as their demand and price in Europe rose (Deng, 1997, pp. 112-121). Although the 18th century was often dubbed as the ‘Chinese century’, increasing tariffs were being levied along ports of the coast of China and this culminated in the one-port policy in 1757. Specifically in terms of the network from China, while the Canton junks generally “carried large cargoes of tea, [it was the] Xiamen [ships which] “served settlements overseas by furnishing all sorts of ceramics and utensils, and more importantly, brought to the Batavian labor market large numbers of itinerant workers and settlers” (Blussé, 2011, p. 227).[ii]

This essay will not belabor to detail the developments and characteristics associated with each type of porcelain but make some overall observations on these. The Chinese ceramics could be named by their design characteristics or place-of-make. Most of the ‘export’ ware of China were produced from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi. A small number of the more exquisite wares came from Dehua in Fujian. Those produced during the Ming Dynasty were characteristically blue-white (qinghua). The period between the change of dynasties from Ming to Qing saw the appearance of a series of wares which experimented with a more diverse colour scheme. Collectively known as ‘transitional wares’, this series consisted of the ‘famille rose’, the ‘famille verte’ as well as the ‘Canton enamel ware’(or wucai, also known as Guangcai because it was produced in Guangdong) which was “typified by strong, contrasting colours of scarlet, pink and green as its main pigments” (Ganse, 2008, p. 122). During periods of upheaval in China, production centres in Japan and Vietnam sometimes stepped up to meet the demand. Japanese substitutes came in two forms which resonated a nuanced Chinese style of porcelain. Vietnam, which technically speaking was not a country yet produced a coarse and characteristic blue-white which served the China export and Southeast Asian markets. The evolution of European tastes resulted in the blue-white kraak ware with “specific designs (decorated panels) and a thinly molded ceramic body” (Ganse, 2008, p. 50).[iii] Over the course of the 17th to 18th century, the Dutch also began to produce their own ceramics in Delft in the Netherlands. Other imitators of blue-white ceramics in different places made use of some type of local clay to make slightly differentiated wares that was able to attract enough demand. By the 18th century, Chinese suppliers adapted a kind of Imari style during periods of their re-bounce in porcelain production and keenly copied European imageries and functional designs (for example, dinner sets that included accessory items such as tureen, salt cellar and sugar caster) in order to sell their wares better in a highly competitive market (Ganse, 2008, p. 111). Whether a particular ceramics served a more functional or aesthetic use depended on the social strata of the person using it. During the period of the ‘China mania’ in the 17th and 18th century, a middle class person in Europe could purchase a mass-produced porcelain and used it as a decorative item in the house. Whether a particular ware was meant for the domestic use or export was a function of time period in question. While the Chinese still preferred monochromes and other Song-styled porcelain in the 14th century, much of the blue-white were made for the export market (Ganse, 2008, p. 18). The most exquisite blue-white “at the height of imperial porcelain quality” was designated for court use and display in the 15th century.

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