Chinese Export Porcelain

Canton Port

Sick and wounded boarding the steamer “Canton”, China. Wood engraving, 1850. From the Wellcome Collection.

Chinese export porcelain is a form of ceramic made in China for Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Americas. China’s porcelain technology was far superior to the ceramic abilities abroad, so its beauty was instantly admired and prized globally. The beauty porcelain transformed how other cultures decorated their homes and their dining spaces, functioning as luxury art pieces and unitarian vessels. Early export took the form of official gifts and via private traders. China had already established land and maritime trade with Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. But, in the 17th to 19th century with the entry of the Europeans demand for commercial trade shifted considerably. The majority of the export pieces were blue and white painted to Chinese designs and symbols. Later pieces were made to order in different art styles from the native Ming or Qing wares. The main areas of production were in the town of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. Ceramic workshops have long been established in Jingdezhen and the surrounding area, but it was not until the late Ming Dynasty that Jingdezhen was transformed into an industrial center for producing pottery and porcelain for large-scale trade. In 1740, about 400 miles away from Jingdezhen, Guangzhou (Canton) kilns emerged. The established Canton kilns helped advance orders from the international market as its location was also near key trading ports.

Southeast Asian Market

Export porcelain accounted for most of the trade goods for Southeast Asia. Chinese export ceramics have dominated the markets in Southeast Asia since the 9th century long before the invention of porcelain. A great amount of export porcelain was in Chinese designs and forms. Although some modifications were made to the taste of the local markets, Chinese styles were popular, and have generally remained a rooted influence in many Southeast Asian cultures.  It was not until the 19th century that there was an increase for made to order ware. For instance, in the second half of the 19th century affluent Peranakan, a group of Straits Chinese who immigrated to Southeast Asia started ordering porcelain to their tastes.  Peranakan or Nyonya ware are influenced by the ‘Famille rose’ palette and often applied with tones of pinks, yellows, and greens. Chinese iconography like peonies and phoenixes remained the most popular design for Nyonya ware.

Nyonya ware

A Nyonya cylindrical teapot painted over all on a green ground of peonies with borders of the eight Buddhist emblems. 19th Century. Sold at RCB Auctions for THB 170,000 on December 7th, 2010.

Middle Eastern Market

Cobalt blue was used on Middle Eastern glass since the 9th century and it was likely that they introduced and supplied cobalt to Chinese potters during the Yuan (1280-1368).  When blue and white porcelain export first appeared in the region in the mid 14th century, they were instantly popular and designs were copied on other forms of Islamic ceramics. Nearly all exports to the Middle East were made specifically to their tastes. This includes Islamic decorations, Arabic calligraphy, geometric and floral scrolls.  Bigger shapes unfamiliar to Chinese potters were a popular demand as well as Islamic prototypes of silverware like ewers or writing cases.


Western Market

By the early 16th century, Portugal was the first to enter commercial trade with China. Routine trade was soon followed by the Dutch and English East India Company.  Among the first batches of porcelain to sail to Holland were made in the late Ming, called Kraak wares. As trade expanded, European ships would transship through ports in Southeast Asia, and some goods would be sold or traded to local markets. The majorly of Chinese export porcelain to the west was produced in the 18th century. During this time western export porcelain branched into several styles and classifications among collectors. Polychrome porcelain such as ‘Famille rose’ ‘Famille Verte ‘Famille Jaune palettes and colored monochrome palettes were quickly replacing the popularity of the blue and white palette. Consumers also started requesting porcelain in western silverware shapes to suit their domestic usage.  While there was still an appeal for Chinese iconography on wares, made to order European subjects and armorial porcelain with western icons and coats of arms were also circulating.  At the same time, the rise of European porcelain factories in the 18th century facilitated competition and reproductions, and by the end of the 18th century, there was less demand to import from China.

With the market in Europe dying down, demand came from additional markets. Before their independence, porcelain brought by the American colonials had to be dealt with through the English, but America eventually entered direct trade with China after their liberation in 1776. Made to order examples include motifs like the American eagle, the founding fathers, and existing variations in the European market.   Furthermore, the Chinese were still exporting to the Middle East, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Nyonya straits of Chinese that were settling in Malaysia and Singapore.


Markings on Export Porcelain

In the early years of trade, Chinese export porcelain had reign markings. This was because a portion of porcelain made for the Chinese market was simply exported (except for the Middle Eastern market). But as popularity grew in the 17th to 19th century, potters started specifically painting designs to the taste of other markets. Consequently, manufacturers cut back on using standard reign marks to the export markets, so rarely do we see export porcelain with markings. Although a factory, maker mark, or in some cases commissioned marks can be identified.


Chinese Export Porcelain with Thai Mark 'Jor Por Ror'

A commissioned blue and white export for the Thai court, marked ‘จปร สยาม ๑๒๕๐’ or ‘Jor Por Ror Siam 1250’. Which is the royal insignia for King Rama V and dated with Thai Minor Era ‘1250’. Format and designs influenced by classic Chinese tastes.

Further Reading

The British Museum (2017) ‘Chinese porcelain: production and export’.  In Smarthistory.

Corbeiller C. and Frelinghuysen A. (2003) ‘Chinese Export Porcelain’. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Vol. 60, No. 3, pp. 1+5-60.

Davison G. (2021) Marks on Chinese Ceramics. Pureprint Group.

Dillon M. (1992) ‘Transport and Marketing in the Development of the Jingdezhen Porcelain Industry during the Ming and Qing Dynasties’. In Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 278-290.

Kerr R. (1991) ‘The Reception of Chinese and Japanese Porcelain in Europe’. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Link 

Krahl R. (1986) ‘Export Porcelain Fit for the Chinese Emperor. Early Chinese Blue-and-White in the Topkapǐ Saray Museum, Istanbul’ in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. No. 1, pp. 68-92.

Lim T. S. (2018) ‘Chinese Ceramics in Southeast Asia’ in Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. P 1-16.

Medley M. (1975) ‘Islam, Chinese Porcelain and Ardabīl’ in Iran. Vol. 13, pp. 31-37. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Munger J. and Frelinghuysen A. C. (2003) ‘East and West: Chinese Export Porcelain.’ In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Link

Witkowski, T. H. (2016) ‘Early history and distribution of trade ceramics in Southeast Asia’. in Journal of Historical Research in Marketing.

Woodward H. (2013) ‘Seventeen-Century Chinese Porcelain in Various Worlds’.  In The Journal of the Walters Art Museum. Vol. 70/71, pp. 25-38.