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From Ming Porcelain to the Ming Vase

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reviewed by Hang Lin, University of Hamburg,


The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) marks a pivotal era in the history of Chinese porcelain, as it witnessed not only an extraordinary period of innovation in ceramic manufacture but also an unprecedented scale of porcelains exported to the world. By the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Ming porcelains were imported into Southeast Asia, Middle East, and Europe, spurring an energetic exchange of technology, shapes, and designs that remains unparalleled in world history. In their new homes, many Ming porcelains were physically transformed into different objects or even imagery. More remarkably, there was also a conceptual transformation of Ming porcelain; from objects, into the literary and colloquial realm, such as labelling an object of antiquity or high value as ‘the Ming vase’.

Many excellent studies of Ming porcelains have treated them as individual objects and recently there is also a trend to use these ceramics as data for examining worldwide commodity exchanges, yet little has been said about what how these ceramics were consumed outside China and how this movement across cultures has “an impact on their reception, appropriation, and most importantly, interpretation” (p. 3). Moving away from the conventional hierarchies and methodologies of art history and archaeology, Stacey Pierson delves into cultural anthropology and sociology to explore the impact of other cultures and human agency on Ming porcelain, trying to identify their different identities across time and place. The various concepts and identities associated with Ming porcelain, as Pierson persuasively demonstrates, are combined results of the consumption and reception of porcelain objects and they are closely related with geographical and cultural location.

In his effort to unveil the processes of object identity transformation of the Ming porcelain, Pierson builds his narrative in a broadly chronological but categorical structure. Chapter one situates porcelain in the wider context of Ming economics and culture to discuss various characteristics of manufacture and technology of Ming ceramics. Instead of focusing exclusively on individual porcelains, he offers a brief yet succinct overview of the general themes related to porcelain production in the culture of Ming China. Through an extensive analysis of producing techniques as well as decorative designs and forms of surviving Ming porcelains, Pierson cogently argues that in terms of use value porcelain “had greater value than more precious materials in the Ming” because it was a material that “defined, reflected and supported multiple aspects of life and death in Ming China” (p. 20). Although Ming ceramics are highly valued today and are categorized as works of fine art, porcelains were “not widely admired but were desired and used for multiple functions, including ceremonial ones” during the Ming period itself (p. 30). The following chapter turns to the so-called “Chinese export porcelain” - ceramics designed and produced for export trade - to illustrate how the movement of Ming ceramics around the world led to their forms of consumptions and conceptions different from those inside China. Based on an examination of the mechanics and consequences of the porcelain trade in a selection of foreign consumer cultures during the Ming, Pierson concentrates on the impact that foreign consumers have casted on the Ming porcelain itself. He reveals that not only the patterns of consumption of Ming porcelain but also their receptions and interpretations differ significantly between cultures and locations. Ming ceramics, as the characteristics of the large body of such “export wares” show, were “both Chinese material culture and objects of foreign cultures at the same time” (p. 31).


After a short discussion of the physical form of transfer consumption between cultures, chapter three focuses on the conceptual form to explicate how the extensive global consumption of Ming porcelain transcended materiality in the subsequent Qing period (1644-1911) to become a figure of speech in the English language. Offering a comprehensive study of the origin of the phrase “the Ming vase,” now standing for delicacy, preciousness, and antique, Pierson takes it as evidence of “the continuing objectification of China in English cultural discourse” (p. 58) and believes that the transformation of such a foreign object into an English-language device is “a stage in the revolution of a type of pre-modern Chinese object from physical, tangible thing to an intangible but meaningful concept” (p. 59). In the second half of the twentieth century, “the Ming vase” also become a popular visual and design motif, appearing often in comic fictions, films scenes, and interior design and art magazines. “The Ming vase,” now both a visual cliché and a popular figure in speech, exists alongside actual vases which have been handed down from the Ming and have “an impact on the cultures of both China and foreign consumer nations” (p. 80). The final chapter is devoted to the process of how Ming porcelain transformed into a category of art through the mechanism of collecting. By recounting the conceptional transformation of Ming porcelain and its development as a category of Chinese art in Britain and the USA since the 19th century, Pierson displays that collectors, exhibitions and scholarly publications, and a commercial art market together shaped Ming porcelain as an important category of expensive and non-functional objects.


Written by an established art historian, the book will not disappoint readers interested in detailed object studies and 41 full color illustrations invigorate the joy of reading this meticulously studied and elegantly written book. The main aim of the book, however, goes beyond that as it strives to explore the “social lives” and “cultural lives” of actual objects. The author forcefully argues that “an object can be transformed physically as well as conceptually” and the processes of this transformation can “reveal much about the societies in which the changes take place” (p. 3). The trajectory of how Ming porcelain has been transformed from a simple Chinese object into a global symbol and cultural icon of the present day is both heuristic and inspiring, and one may expect more future studies on other objects such as jade, lacquer wares, and textiles. All of them are conceived as objects of traditional Chinese art and global consumption has exerted vast impact on them in shaping and transforming their identities.


Although the book is quite recent, some updates of information shall still be made. For instance, the vase from the early Ming sold by Christies Hong Kong no longer holds the record for the most expensive Ming ceramic (p. 82), as a plum vase from mid-Ming was sold for 21.7 million USD by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2011 and the bar was raised again to 30.6 million USD when a chicken cup from the Chenghua period (1465-1487) was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014. But this should by no means diminish the exceptional virtue of this book as being comprehensive in scope and illuminating in many aspects. It is without doubt that From Object to Concept: Global Consumption and the Transformation of Ming Porcelain is bound to appeal to readers from diverse fields of not only art history and archaeology, but also cultural anthropology, sociology, as well as ethnography and cross-cultural studies.




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