Precious porcelain

Precious porcelain
The more than 180 artefacts comprise porcelain from China and replicas made in other countries.

Meet the original It item from many centuries ago - Chinese porcelain.

Dewy, delicate and oh-so- difficult to duplicate, the precious white ceramic was coveted around the world as early as the 9th century.

Royalty, nobility and the socially aspirational all yearned to own a piece, or more, of china.

It found its way into foreign imperial courts as opulent ornaments, onto banquet tables of the rich overseas as luxurious crockery and into the personal histories of families in Europe as bearers of coats of arms.

It is the star of a new show, China Mania! The Global Passion For Porcelain, 800-1900, at the Asian Civilisations Museum here.

Porcelain was first made in kilns in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907) but its early history and rise to domestic popularity is not the focus of this exhibition.

Instead, the more than 180 sumptuous artefacts on display tell the story of the international trade spurred by made-in-China porcelain and how it, in turn, fired up creativity in ceramic art and crafts.

To suit the taste of clients from different cultures, diverse forms and styles of porcelain were made, fusing Chinese motifs and designs with foreign aesthetic elements such as complex geometric patterns from the Middle East.

The popularity of china also sparked competition overseas, inspiring lookalikes and innovative copies. When exports of porcelain fell during periods of political instability in China, rival kilns such as those in South-east Asia seized the chance and filled the gap in supply.

For a long time, however, few imitations came close to the real thing.

Asian Civilisations Museum director Alan Chong, 52, says potters in Europe were among those who tried, but failed, for many centuries to replicate Chinese porcelain.

"There are stories that spies were sent to kilns in China to discover the secret," he says.

Early attempts to produce Chinese porcelain overseas were unsuccessful because potters lacked the right material - kaolin - a special mix of clay rich in silicates that resulted in the durable, translucent ceramic. It was not until the 18th century that German potters outside Dresden came up with the right mix of clay to make china.

In Vietnam, potters turned their attention to making copies.

They coated stoneware, usually grey or brown, with white slip to achieve the look and colour of Chinese porcelain.

The influence also went the other way.

Chinese potters looked to ceramics made overseas for ideas to improve china. An example is seen in the blue glaze used to make blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.

Dr Chong says: "The blue glaze is not something that is native to China, it actually came from Iran. In the 9th century, potters in Iran were making their ceramics with blue glaze.

These made their way to China and China then bought the ore that would be processed into blue glaze."

A showcase in the exhibition illustrates this exchange of ideas by juxtaposing porcelain from China and other countries.

There are pieces of porcelain made in China that inspired replicas in Europe and equally, creations from Japan that sparked Chinese imitations. Without looking at the labels, it would be hard to tell the original apart from the knock-off.

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