Cantonese Porcelain: A Multicultural Marvel

Thumbing through the tome of human history, the centuries spilling across fingertips, we alight on a scene in Ancient China from 8000 years ago: artisans hand-shaping clay into pottery.

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Not long after, the invention of the pottery wheel in the Neolithic age will revolutionize their craft. Early experimentation will churn out countless vessels of different shapes and properties that prefigure the emergence of a variety– thin, pristine white, gleams when touched by light– that eventually branches into a class of Chinese ceramics known as “Cantonese Porcelain”.

Polychrome Cantonese porcelain was produced at kilns in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province. Throughout the 18th century, Guangzhou was the only port city in the Chinese empire open to foreign trade. Where ships laden with Chinese commodities set sail for European shores, kilns were opened for the large-scale production of export porcelain in the late Ming dynasty era. In 1740, the major trading hub of Guangzhou became the primary source of porcelain for the international porcelain market.

Crafting Guangzhou porcelain is a more complex process than other porcelain varieties.

Designs in pink, yellow and green overglaze effloresced from the tips of artisan’s brushes, creating exquisitely detailed, colorful and stylistically unique wares that illuminate the culture and traditions of ancient China. Notably, Guangzhou porcelain exhibits a fusion of Eastern aesthetics and Western influences that attests to the openness of the Chinese populace to the incursions of Western culture in that period of history. Guangzhou’s multiculturalism is evident in the morphological diversity of porcelain produced at its kilns, which ranged from the typical plates, soup plates, bowls and vases to pieces of Western dining table accoutrement rarely used in Eastern cultures, such as large fruit bowls, punch bowls and sugar bowls.

In the early years of the export porcelain trade, Chinese porcelain bound for international markets did not have any identifying symbols or chop marks. Only after the introduction of the Mckinley tariff in 1890– which mandated an indication of the country of origin on all imports into America– was Chinese export porcelain marked with an inscription of “CHINA” in red lettering on the base in 1981, which was changed to “Made in China” after 1919. For historians, Guangzhou porcelain is an important historical artifact that encodes a chapter in the history of cultural exchange between China and the West. The marks, for instance, testify to China’s economic relations with the United States, in addition to other European nations.

The beautiful designs skillfully painted and gilded on Guangzhou porcelain customarily portray local customs and scenes from everyday life, such as noblemen and women depicted in panels, children playing in a garden and cockfighting matches, with additional festooning of birds, flowers, foliage and a family or dynasty seal. To appeal to European and American tastes, the themes and colors of the designs were also Westernized– a source of the singular charm of Guangzhou porcelain that sets it apart from porcelain produced in other provinces. Guangzhou porcelain is divided into three categories:

Rose Canton: a design typically composed of flowers, birds, fruits and insects; distinguished by the absence of human figures.

Rose Mandarin: human figures are the central to the design, and are usually depicted in gardens, homes and terraces. Each scene is enclosed in a frame composed of flowering vines, birds, insects, fruits and fish.

Rose Medallion: The borders between the scenes, which are called “panels”, is the unique feature of this design. The scenes typically depict human figures and are ornamented with patterns inspired by nature.

Pictured above is a polychrome, Cantonese porcelain vase with painted panels depicting noblemen and ladies, bordered with decorations composed of birds, butterflies and flowers. On the neck of the vase, two legendary beasts meet: the gold lions, known as '师 Shi' (a homophone of the words for "mother" and "teacher"), are a symbol of prosperity and honor; beneath them glides the Zhulong, or the mythical “torch dragon”, a symbol of the Emperor and Chinese culture.

Since the Han and Tang dynasties, smoke has billowed from the furnaces of Guangzhou’s kilns, firing porcelain not only fashioned out of the dovetailing currents at the economic and cultural confluence between the Chinese empire and the world beyond its borders, but that is itself a formative influence on traditions, cultures and lifestyles across the world. Flush with fascinating histories and prized by collectors, Guangzhou porcelain makes for a superlative find.


Lot 699: A polychrome porcelain cantonese vase painted with noblemen and ladies in panels alternating birds and butterflies among flowers (1 pc.)

Style: Chinese
Dimensions: W 19 cm H 46 cm
Circa: 19th Century
Estimated Price: 9,000 - 10,000 THB
Starting Price: 9,000 THB