The Surge in European Luxury Porcelain Market Demand and the Renaissance of the Maritime Silk Road

Turkmen transporting porcelain via the Silk Road, 14th-15th century. Photo by Dick Osseman

This narrative delves into the transport of porcelain, a coveted wedding gift among affluent Chinese and Middle Eastern families, highlighting its role in international trade. Historically, Middle Eastern merchants were pivotal intermediaries in the East-West trade via the Silk Road. Chinese porcelain, a quintessential trade item, was chiefly transported along this overland route. However, the inefficiencies of the Silk Road in terms of cost and time gradually shifted focus to more direct and efficient maritime routes.


Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Palace Museum, Beijing, 1662-1795, Qing Dynasty

During the 14th century, the Ming Dynasty in China imposed the 'Haijin' policies, restricting foreign trade. Despite these restrictions, Western demand for porcelain steadily grew, culminating in a vibrant revival under the Qing Dynasty's Kangxi Emperor. The early years of Kangxi's reign witnessed a skepticism towards the Qing Dynasty's maritime trade prohibitions, inherited from the Ming Dynasty's tribute system. This skepticism, coupled with the burgeoning importance of sea trade, marked a turning point. In 1684, Kangxi lifted the centuries-old ban on private sea trade, allowing foreign merchants to freely visit Chinese ports and Chinese traders to venture overseas. This policy change led to a resurgence in maritime commerce.

The liberalization attracted European merchants to China in droves, seeking porcelain. Initially, Portugal led the porcelain trade, exploiting the Atlantic routes to transport large quantities of Chinese porcelain to Europe. The 17th century saw the Dutch overthrow Portuguese and Spanish dominance, becoming the new maritime superpower and leading the porcelain trade.


17th and 18th Century European Aristocracy's Tea Parties Featuring Blue and White Porcelain

In Europe, Chinese porcelain transcended its utilitarian purpose, becoming a symbol of wealth. Royalty and nobility competed to amass collections of fine Chinese porcelain, using them to adorn palaces and homes, with the extent of one's collection reflecting their wealth. Europe struggled to produce comparable quality porcelain due to the lack of suitable clay and inferior durability of European-made wares.

Porcelain designed for export differed in size, shape, and decoration from those used domestically in China, tailored to cater to the tastes of European and Middle Eastern elites. These bespoke pieces were often larger, more ornate, and incorporated patterns requested by the importing nations.

As the value of Chinese porcelain became renowned across Europe, ships of the Dutch East India Company began transporting over 100,000 pieces annually. Founded in 1602, the company played a critical role in ordering and transporting porcelain, as evidenced by excavations of shipwrecks like the Ca Mau and Vung Tau, which were carrying their orders.

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