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Chinese Commodities

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Chinese Commodities

In the sixteenth century, Europeans considered the Chinese a very civilized people with fascinating customs and commodities. Aside from exquisite porcelains (the best of which nobody in Europe ever saw), what attracted the most attention by Europeans were the curiosities of daily life, such as chopsticks luxuriously made of ebony or ivory and tipped with silver, bamboo ear pickers (the first Q-tip), and the daily use of a potent and delicious health tonic called cha or “tea.”


Cultivation of ornamental carp was another curious custom, in practice since the Tang dynasty (618-907) by selective breeding for red, gold, and yellow colors. In 1162, under the reign of the Southern Song emperor Gaozong, the prestige of goldfish was increased when an official
Jinyu chi 金魚池   (Goldfish Pond) was established within the imperial palace. Yellowish gold varieties were strictly forbidden outside the palace since yellow was the color reserved for the imperial family, but other varieties could be bred by anyone.


By the time Europeans arrived, the appreciation of goldfish had been elevated to an art of leisure and conspicuous consumption enjoyed by the class of prosperous and learned scholar-officials.

Royal Society. Philosophical Transactions. London, 1698

Chopsticks, or “bonesticks” were a great curiosity to Europeans, and were described in many texts. Matteo Ricci wrote: “In eating they have neither Forkes, nor Spoones, nor Knives; but use small smooth stickes, a palme and a halfe long, where-with they put all meats to their mouthes, without touching them with their fingers. . . . [They] usually are of Ebonie, or Ivorie tipped with Gold or Silver, where they touch the meate.” Fine chopsticks were often tipped with silver as it was believed that silver would indicate the presence of poison in the food.


John Ovington wrote a treatise on the varieties of tea in Asia, crediting it for the lack of such diseases there as gout and stones. He also praises its power to “rowze the cloudy Vapors that benight the Brain, and drive away all Mists from the Eyes,” and quotes a short poem by Edmund Waller (1606–87) calling it the “Muse’s friend.” But he admits, “although these Virtues which I have mention’d may be fairly attributed to this China Liquor, yet are they sometimes obstructed by the Use of that Sugar which is commonly mix’d with it.”


Europeans were equally enchanted by the fine porcelains produced in China, but they were puzzled about their manufacture.  Extravagant theories continued in circulation well into the eighteenth century despite the insistence of eye-witnesses that it was merely a very fine clay from a particular region mixed and fired into a hard, vitreous substance.   In various accounts, “China dishes” were made of ground up eggshells, lobster shells, bones, gypsum, or chalk, combined with a special water from a single source, allowed to dry in the wind and sun for a generation, or fired and buried in the earth for up to one hundred years as a gift to one’s grandchildren.  Several accounts describe the famous imperial kilns at Jingdezhen 景德镇, and the restrictions against the exportation of the highest quality porcelain.  Yet manufacturers responded to the foreign demand for porcelain in this period, launching an industry for specially made export items that would grow to a massive scale in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


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Bernard Picart. Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde. English. London, 1733-39

Nahum Tate. Panacea. 1702. London, 1702

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

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