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Chinese Ceramics & the Early Modern World

3. Middle Eastern & Southeast Asian Markets

Chinese ceramic wares exported to Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian markets were dominated by large serving dishes, objects for which the Chinese themselves had no need, as their eating practices required smaller bowls. Middle Eastern sultans were said to have held Chinese greenwares from the Longquan kilns in high regard, as it was believed that these dishes would discolour if exposed to poison. Potters in Iran tried to create greenwares themselves, but with only limited success, for they did not yet have the technology to produce high-fired stoneware. The production of blue-and-white tin-glazed ceramics at various kilns in Iran and Iznik (Turkey) was inspired by the import of Chinese blue-and-whites to the Middle East, which dates back to the early fourteenth century.

By around the turn of the fifteenth century, the popularity of greenwares had been surpassed by that of blue-and-white. The Mongol emperors were fond of designs on textiles and ceramics that included dragons and phoenixes, and reserved the dragon with five claws for the exclusive use of the court. The presence of some fourteenth-century blue-and-white dishes decorated with five-clawed dragons in the two most prominent porcelain collections of the Middle East, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Ardabil Shrine in Iran, suggests that these were gifts from Yuan or early-Ming emperors. Precious gifts such as these created diplomatic connections and political ties, as Marco Polo observed when he described the silk brocade robes being given to vassals of the Mongol Khan.

The shapes and styles of the decorations reveal the extent to which the production of porcelains had become part of cross-cultural borrowing and exchange. Potters in Jingdezhen made porcelain versions of various kinds of implements: the leather water bags favoured by horsemen on the steppe, the bronze ritual vessels used on altars and in shrines, the silver and gold wine cups used in opulent banquets, and the pilgrim flasks used throughout the Middle East. The kendi displayed here was produced especially for Southeast Asian markets. Decorative designs were also adapted: the peony scroll associated with Chinese porcelains and seen here may well have its origins in Buddhist motifs, transmitted to China via Islamic textiles and paintings. The practice of filling an entire surface with symmetrical flower and animal shapes is also most likely of Islamic provenance.


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 Longquan bowl BATEA 762

BATEA 762. © MEAA.


Peony bowl BATEA 636

BATEA 636. © MEAA.

Kendi BATEA 917

Kendi. BATEA 917.