3. Middle Eastern & Southeast Asian Markets
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.