Lars Tharp visits China to explore why Chinese vases are so famous and expensive, visiting the mountain where porcelain was first created and Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital.
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This little Chinese bowl once belonged to Queen Elizabeth I.
It's made of a material which was unknown in Europe
until the 1500s.
And when that material arrived, it caused a sensation.
In the 16th century, porcelain became a cult item
amongst the very wealthy.
The intelligentsia and the aristocracy
kept porcelain in their cabinets of curiosity.
By the 18th century, the fever had spread to the middle classes.
People are so mad for it that they're getting into debt.
They're going bust, wasting their families' wealth.
The making of porcelain was shrouded in mystery.
European potters tried in vain to copy it.
Chinese porcelain's probably the most misunderstood material
in ceramic history.
The insatiable demand created a global trade.
The blue-and-white imagery on the wares
changed our idea of what was beautiful.
The British dining table would never be the same again.
I've had porcelain fever for most of my life,
and the best way to tell the story
of how blue-and-white porcelain arrived in the West from China
is to go there. I'm going to the source,
to one of the world's first industrial cities.
'I'll follow the route taken by millions of cups, plates and bowls
'to try to find out why these wares were so prized then and now.'
It's a story ripe for the telling, because now
it's the Chinese who've got the fever.
The new emperors are buying back their history,
making Chinese porcelain some of the most expensive art
ever to come under the hammer.
?1 million, ladies and gentlemen. ?1,500,000.
'The Victoria and Albert Museum in London
'is home to objects that define the British.
'On the sixth floor, there's a collection about control
'and our ability to lose it.'
Between the 17th and 18th centuries,
the aristocrats and merchants of England
became increasingly hungry for Chinese porcelain.
At its height in the mid-18th century,
it's estimated that over two million pieces of porcelain
arrived in London, and that was at a time when the whole population
of these islands was no more than around six million.
It wasn't just this magical white translucent material
that interested them, but it was the images
of a far-distant, mysterious place - Cathay, China.
Over the years I've been involved with many ceramic valuations.
My job's been to look at vases, plates, dishes,
owned by people whose ancestors just had to have them,
whether they were new at the time or had become antiques.
And it's those successive waves of China-mania
which have brought us these fabulous national collections
that we have. But how did this love affair with Chinese porcelain start?
How was the trade regulated?
And just what was it that gave it its value?
Was it the nature of the porcelain itself,
or did it have something to do with the complexity
of bringing it from China to Europe?
Like any consumer craze, it started with a gap in the market.
In Europe, in the 16th or 17th century,
all you would have seen were stonewares and earthernwares,
quite rough pots.
And suddenly you see something which is thin as paper,
white, shiny, translucent,
and you wonder what on earth this magic substance is.
In fact, early Europeans didn't know what porcelain was.
They thought it was some kind of precious stone.
Porcelain was harder than our toughest stonewares.
If you hit it with a spoon, it rang like a bell.
But it didn't chip, flake or scratch.
It was resistant to heat, and the colour didn't fade.
It was very hard. It was white, and when you held it up to the light,
you could see it was translucent.
Better still, it came from far-off China,
and only the Chinese knew how to make it.
All over Europe, scientific gentlemen experimented in vain
to try to work out what made porcelain so fine.
Collectors were obsessed. There was a fortune to be made.
The swank value of porcelain was quite high.
In fact, in many cases,
porcelain even replaced precious metals like gold and silver.
A beautiful, exotic, hard-to-get product
in limited supply.
The Portuguese and Dutch had been first to the source,
so the British aristocracy had to beg, borrow or steal it.
In 1602, they did just that.
When a Portuguese boat loaded with porcelain was stolen by the Dutch
in mid-ocean, it came up for auction.
The kings of France and England bid against each other.
These are very exclusive, very high-status luxury items
for the mega-rich, and the person who kicks it all off in England
is Queen Mary II in the late 17th century.
Now, she had spent time in the Low Countries.
The Dutch were a great trading nation.
She got hold of loads of porcelain when she'd been living there,
before she came to England, and you can see in the Royal Collection,
Charles I - he has some porcelain. He has about 60 items.
Mary II, 50 years later - she's got 800.
What had begun in the 16th and 17th centuries
as the importation of occasional pieces of blue-and-white porcelain
for princes and their palaces became, in the 18th century,
the maladie de porcelaine,
the porcelain sickness,
when every self-respecting merchant and his household
filled every nook and cranny, every shelf, with Chinese porcelain.
Today we tend to eat off plain white plates.
But generations of British homemakers
have jollied up their interiors with blue-and-white china.
The idea that utilitarian objects could also be works of art was revolutionary,
and would be a profound influence on our aesthetics.
To many, however, this was just an opportunity
for conspicuous consumption.
One of the best descriptions of China-mania comes in Daniel Defoe.
He's writing in the early 18th century.
You need to put it on your tables, your writing table,
your cabinet. It's right up to the top of the ceiling.
It's being displayed in people's houses,
and people are so mad for it, they're getting into debt,
going bust, wasting their families' wealth. The world had gone mad for china.
So how did this rare product, available only to the few,
become a craze amongst the emerging middle class?
It was thanks to the business savvy
of the most powerful corporation the world has ever seen -
the East India Company.
The East India Company can be seen as the mother of the modern corporation.
It existed in the import-export business,
exporting bullion to Asia to bring in luxury goods,
spices, textiles and tea and porcelain from China.
From Leadenhall Street in the City of London,
the company controlled the supply and fed the demand for porcelain
because they had a monopoly on all British trade with the East.
Today there isn't so much as a brass plaque to mark the place
where their mansion offices stood.
Another monument to global trade now occupies the plot -
Lloyd's of London.
At its height, it had a very grand, classical headquarters,
perhaps something like the British Museum
in terms of its style, with a classical frontage -
a very big building with its own museum inside,
and also its auction house, where every quarter
there'd be the sale of all the goods,
which was supposed to be so loud and noisy
that people could hear them outside, shouting and yelling
as people tried to get their price for the goods.
The corporation docks were at Blackwall.
They had chandleries, sail lofts, mast houses, careening beds,
and an army of stevedores toting bales of cotton,
silks, spices, tea, and, of course, porcelain by the hundredweight.
It was from here that the company's ships,
known as East Indiamen, sailed out to find the trade winds.
These breezes are a meteorological conveyor belt.
They took the ships down the coast of Africa,
around the Horn, out across the Indian Ocean,
through the Malacca Straits, and into the South China Seas,
where hordes of pirates lay in wait.
For the china trade, these were the biggest ships.
These were the 1,000, 1,200-ton ships,
both having a commercial purpose
but also able to fight off marauders and pirates.
There were huge dangers of dying.
About a half, two thirds of people never came back.
For those who made it, the port of entry was Guangzhou, or Canton,
and it's where my Chinese journey begins.
Today, China is a holiday destination.
Then, it was as alien as the moon -
except we knew what the moon looked like.
Welcome to China!
If you'd come here in the 18th century,
the scene up there in the dusk
would have been one of a flotilla of European ships,
all bobbing at anchor,
their lights twinkling, occasional sounds of sailors singing.
These were the sailors who'd come halfway across the world -
in their minds, the celestial empire
as portrayed in blue-and-white china,
a land of romance. And what happened?
They got to here, known to the European sailors
as the Whampoa Anchorage, and this was where they had to stop.
'The emperor, in faraway Beijing, was not minded to allow traders
'to penetrate further than his southern doorstep.'
They were confined to Canton, and even then,
only the port area.
There was a view that many of the Europeans and so on
were little more than pirates, and were to be discouraged
because of the disruption they could cause.
There were two very good reasons for keeping the foreigners here
in Canton. The first was to prevent the barbarian influence
on the Chinese empire, and the second, more importantly,
was to prevent China's own secrets from leaking out into the West.
And one of these secrets, of course, was the method of making porcelain.
The Europeans were confined to port,
and their orders for tea sets and dinner services
were taken up country by Chinese middle men
known to Europeans as hoppos.
Even in modern times, it's been difficult for foreigners
to get permits to visit certain areas.
But today I can go to the place where all porcelain came from -
the fabled town of Jingdezhen.
18th-century accounts tell of a warren of streets and alleyways,
and a population that consumed 10,000 loads of rice
and 1,000 hogs every day.
It's in the middle of nowhere, and very difficult to get to.
The reason the town makes all this porcelain
is because of its fantastic natural resources.
The materials at Jingdezhen are particularly rich,
and so that's why it was given an imperial decree
in the year 1004.
Remote and inaccessible,
the town was literally built on the secret ingredients
that made porcelain.
What happened in Jingdezhen
is that, until the early tenth century,
it was making a stoneware material that had a grey-green ash glaze,
and this had really been made in South China since the Bronze Age.
What seems to have happened in the tenth century AD
is that Chinese potters discovered that there was another local rock,
and if they processed this in exactly the same way,
they could produce a white material
rather than this old grey-green stoneware.
'The rock they discovered was mined in the hills above the town.
'Every day for a thousand years,
'these paths were trodden by labourers
'ferrying basketfuls down the slopes.'
And the product they were carrying,
an essential ingredient in 99 percent of the pieces of porcelain
in European country houses,
is named after this mountain, Mount Gaolin.
And the material we call kaolin.
Gosh! From subtropical to sub-zero!
It's very cold in here.
And to think that, every day, these men from the village below
came a thousand feet up the hill, into holes like this,
quarrying for kaolin...
..buckled under the weight as they carried it back down again,
and the fact that these workmen probably didn't live that long.
I guess they probably were finished by the time they were 40.
And all for the sake of this material, this magic material.
I wonder how many people,
looking at their precious 18th-century porcelain today,
realise the effort
and the human sacrifice...
..that went into getting this material out of here...
..and back down the mountain.
Kaolin is simply clay.
'It occurs all over the world,
'but the variety here is particularly fine.
'The hard part is extracting it from the rock.'
This is kaolinised granite. Granite is an extremely hard, dense rock,
but when it's attacked by superheated steam
below the surface of the Earth,
some of the minerals turn to clay,
and the white, dusty material is the kaolin,
and a good kaolinised granite
will contain about ten or 15 percent of that material.
So a lot of the hard work is really separating that from the rock
and using it for porcelain.
That's what was happening in the mines above Jingdezhen.
Down below, at the foot of the mountain,
the second and most magical ingredient was prepared.
'When the porcelain fever was at its height in Europe,
'ceramicists were desperate to discover what was added to kaolin
'to make it so covetably lustrous.'
Welcome to the world-famous trip-hammer mill at Yaoli.
Arguably one of oldest industrial machines in the world,
hammers like this have been operating in China
for over 2,000 years, and as you can see,
the way this works, the water drives the wheel,
the wheel turns an axle, and the pins in the axle
engage these levered mallets,
which rise and drop, rise and drop. You've got a sequence of them.
And into these pits we place china stone.
It was china stone that made porcelain light and tough
and in demand the world over.
But what was it?
The Chinese guarded their secret jealously.
'When Europeans eventually managed to make porcelain
'in the 18th century, they used a material called feldspar.
'But they still hadn't discovered what china stone really was.'
Chinese porcelain is probably the most misunderstood material
in ceramic history. The general misunderstanding
is that it's a feldspathic material.
But feldspar was not an ingredient
in the first Chinese porcelain.
Its place, really, was taken by another mineral
called potash mica,
and this is actually the main flux
that's in this early porcelain.
Mica melts at high temperature and gives you translucency,
but its other great advantage is that it gives you plasticity,
because the crystal structure is what is known as platy,
and almost all ceramics need this kind of platy mineral
to produce plasticity.
Plasticity meant that you could shape ceramics
into a myriad of new forms,
and mica provided a bright surface.
The use of cobalt blue under the glaze
eventually led to the recognisable Chinese blue-and-white style.
From the 16th century onwards, the Portuguese and then the Dutch
demanded highly formal, compartmentalised designs
crammed with Chinese scenes.
From the 17th century, we begin to see enamelled wares reaching Europe.
Meanwhile, in Beijing,
the emperors indulged their own tastes for wares so fine,
so exquisitely potted,
that they could make the most delicate export wares look lumpen.
The court had their own colour palette, too.
Yellow glaze was reserved for imperial eyes only.
But all this beauty emerged from ugliness.
Porcelain made Jingdezhen one of the world's first industrial cities.
It also made it a seething, stinking hellhole.
It was dirty, it was dark.
The quality of people's lives there was extremely poor.
It was very polluted because of all the kilns burning into the sky.
The town itself was a warren of narrow alleys,
with kilns and workshops opening off the alleys.
It would have been like going back to one of the worst cities
in Victorian Britain in the Industrial Revolution.
Today it's been cleaned up...a bit.
But Jingdezhen is still the spiritual home
of the world's porcelain industry.
The town is one of many locations
the imperial rulers wanted to keep from prying eyes.
But a few outsiders did get in.
One such was Jesuit priest Father d'Entrecolles,
who came here in the 18th century to spread the Gospel
and indulge in some industrial espionage.
Here he is writing back to H-quarters in Rome
about the ceramics industry in Jingdezhen.
"When the cup leaves the wheel, it is taken by a second workman,
who puts it straight upon its base."
"Shortly afterwards it is handed over to a third man,
who puts it on its mould and gives it its shape."
"A fourth workman pares it down as much as is necessary
for its transparency."
"It is surprising to see the rapidity
with which these vessels pass through so many different hands,
and I am told that a piece of fired porcelain
has passed through the hands of 70 workmen."
"I can easily believe this by what I myself have seen."
Today, the secret of porcelain is an open one,
openly displayed at the town's open-air museum.
He's got a hump of clay, and he can make several bowls
out of one hump.
It's an inertia wheel. It's just human-powered.
There's no electricity here at all.
And for as long as that wheel is going round,
he's producing a bowl, and he can probably do it
in one winding-up of the wheel.
Very good. Hen hao, hen hao. HE LAUGHS
The production-line process that Father d'Entrecolles described
was in use in Jingdezhen long before the division of labour
became the foundation of the Western Industrial Revolution.
In Europe, we knew that porcelain came from a mysterious place,
but also that it was forged in a hellish inferno.
The dangers of the kiln, the risks faced by the brave workers,
just added to the romance and the price.
The Jingdezhen museum is constructed around an ancient kiln
so large, it takes months of production
to fill its egg-shaped chamber, and forests of timber to fuel it.
Right. I'm taking you to one of the great, great sites in the world.
This is the only remaining chicken's-egg kiln.
It is the biggest functioning kiln in the world.
It still works. It was created in the Ming Dynasty.
It's been working for over 400, 500 years maybe.
And it was in kilns like this that every single piece
of Chinese export porcelain from Jingdezhen were created.
Just look at the size of this thing. It's 20 metres long,
and it has a chimney stack at the other end 20 metres high.
Those cylindrical boxes, those are called saggars,
and inside those boxes are the wares that are to be fired.
It takes days to fill this thing up,
and when full, this entry is bricked up with mortar and brick,
and leaving a hole here, the whole kiln is fired for two days,
feeding through that hole 50 tons of firewood -
pinewood, seasoned outside the door here.
The flames are shooting out of the chimney at the other end
and lighting up the sky. Now, multiply that by 200,
and you get some idea of people talked about the fabled city
of Jingdezhen being lit up. It was never dark.
In recent years, Jingdezhen has become sweeter and fresher.
'Porcelain is still being made, but not on the same scale.'
When I first came to the city in the late 1990s,
I looked across the horizon and I counted, on one occasion,
at least 50, or 60, maybe, chimney stacks
all belching greasy black smoke across the city.
'Looking round the shops in Jingdezhen today,
'what we see is a change. The market's moved.'
Huge quantities of domestic wares,
mass production, things made for the everyday kitchen table,
made for us in the West, and things we are familiar with
in the high-street stores, in discount shops,
and a market which we now see moving over
to places like Poland and Taiwan.
It's no longer just made in China.
They're beginning to feel the competition.
'But the potters of Jingdezhen are adept at adapting to survive.'
As porcelain fever gripped the West,
the Chinese were shown objects and images
that we liked, and they were happy to have a stab at them.
Artists switched from traditional motifs
to depictions of people and places they'd never seen -
biblical scenes, images from Old Master paintings,
Special works were commissioned to celebrate great European events
like the Jacobite Rebellion,
which was over by the time the goods reached home.
This was real enterprise, but it wasn't without problems.
Since the Middle Ages, European artists had striven
to give the illusion of depth and distance in painting.
In the Chinese tradition, symbolism was more important.
Chinese decorators didn't have a sense of perspective,
and in one dish, we find that the landscape design
is repeated in the foreground,
instead of putting it into a perspective
that would have been used in Europe.
They were not familiar with the original source.
They didn't know how to depict a European face properly.
Sometimes they have Oriental features.
We also have inscriptions in Latin
that very often contain mistakes
because it was not a language known in China.
Anyone can make a mistake.
Dutch potters, disabled by their own understanding of perspective,
saw images of pagodas that seemed to be the same size as men,
and guessed that they were some sort of vase.
They began producing huge, Chinese-inspired tulip holders.
The potters of Jingdezhen were happy to incorporate artistic traditions,
Can I interest you in a Henri Matisse,
or maybe in a Modigliani?
Or would you prefer...
or a Juan Gris,
or a Claude Monet?
Or we've got irises
and we've got sunflowers.
This is, yes, a garden of Van Gogh.
Each and every one of these vases
has been commissioned by the museum or the art gallery
in Europe or America that has the original artworks
and wants them rendered into three dimensions.
I had no idea this was going on,
and it just shows you that the 18th-century export-ware trade
is alive and well in the 21st century.
Adaptability kept the kilns of Jingdezhen alight.
But my mission is to explore what made porcelain so sought-after
and so expensive in Europe.
It was, in part, the ability to make something nobody else could.
Today, porcelain is made everywhere.
But here again, Chinese potters still have a unique selling point.
'At the Xiang factory, they make crisp porcelain
'on a monumental scale. It's something so specialised
'that English artist and ceramics professor Felicity Aylieff
'has relocated here, making Jingdezhen the easternmost outpost
'of the Royal College of Art.'
These will come out blue and quite strong. Yeah.
This will come out dry white porcelain. Yeah.
This will be brown, and then the colour under it,
the glaze will bring out the blue.
So from one colour, cobalt,
you've managed to make three tones,
and with the biscuit and the glaze,
you've got at least seven or eight depths of colour.
If you come to Jingdezhen, which is the world's capital -
it's the Porcelain City of China -
there is only that one clay.
'And porcelain has that mystique.'
For me it's very beautiful, it's very pure,
and it's like having a large piece of paper, a large canvas,
for me to express myself with.
To start with, some of the things I was asking them to help me with
were quite alien to their practice.
I thought it was going to be impossible to make anything.
But then you start seeing that they are real masters
of their craft,
and they can do absolutely anything with it at any scale.
There isn't the expertise in England,
and the teamwork, the can-do attitude.
Now there's a new wealth coming in all over China.
People are willing to spend a lot of money on beautiful objects,
and fortunately I love making beautiful objects.
'Every piece of porcelain that left Jingdezhen for Europe
'followed the same route, and I'm going to follow that route too.'
The Acropolis, on a Chinese vase. I've not seen that before.
'The journey itself is, in part,
'what made Chinese porcelain so special.
'Before I set off, I've got to select my own piece to export.'
So you've got underglaze blue, very traditional, very nice,
very pretty. Now, that is Ming...
SHE SPEAKS CHINESE Means "replica". OK.
So that goes back. Let's put that back carefully.
Not wildly keen on that. I think the shape of the mouth
is very weak. I'm going to avoid all this very colourful stuff.
SHE SPEAKS CHINESE Great colour.
The mark says Daoguang, 1821 to 1850.
I thought I was going to come in here for a piece of blue-and-white,
but this is rather good. I didn't realise I was going to go pink.
That's approximately ?70.
How about 480?
SHE REPLIES IN CHINESE
I'll say 500, and that really is my last...
SHE TRANSLATES OK. OK.
OK. OK. We'll call that a deal.
'Pot in box. Time to hit the road -
'which was really a waterway.
'Canton is over 700 miles south of here.
'How did millions of pieces of china make the journey?'
The first leg takes us west by river
down to a vast inland freshwater sea, Lake Boyang.
At least, it's a lake for most of the year.
In the dry season in winter, it dries right back to marshland.
The porters, who, of course, were a specialised guild,
and passed their trade down from father to son,
they knew the weather intimately,
so they would wait for the right weather conditions
for maximum length of journey each day.
So, the porcelain has been made. The order has been delivered
to the merchant in Jingdezhen. It's safely stowed,
and the porter has brought it to the shores of Lake Boyang Hu,
our first major obstacle. We have to cross this lake
and find another river, and head for Canton.
Today, motorboat men make the going easy,
but their ancestors had to use great poles
to push the porcelain barges across.
"Lake Boyang, 30 leagues in compass" -
that's the size of Leicestershire -
"formed by the confluence of four rivers,
each as large as the Loire. It is also subject to hurricanes,
like the seas of China, for in less than a quarter of an hour,
the wind will veer round all the points of the compass,
and sometimes sink the largest of boats."
"In approaching the most dangerous part of the lake,
the temple appears, built on a steep rock,
on the site of which the Chinese mariners burn incense
and sacrifice a cock."
This was not an easy crossing,
and I suspect that, on the bottom of this lake,
there are plenty of barks which have come down over hundreds of years.
There's a whole ceramic history lying on the seabed of Boyang.
It's a shallow lake, easily whipped up.
I think we're lucky, but we've just got to watch out for the pirates.
'In mid-lake, some boatmen would pivot on their poles
'and change course.'
The porcelain wares going up to court
had to be poled across the Boyang lake
down the Yangtze River, and then up the Grand Canal
to Beijing to the capital.
These porcelain masterpieces were never intended to be seen,
let alone touched, by anyone outside the Celestial Empire.
Porcelain that was going overseas had to go south.
The second leg of the journey to the coast
meant a 260-mile haul
through the valley of the River Gan.
The boats were wide, but with a very shallow draft,
river punts designed not for speed but for stability.
They were poled from the rear, or dragged by men with hawsers
on the banks. The cargo weighed tons.
TRAIN WHISTLE HOOTS
'I lay me down by the waters of the Gan
'inside a sleeper train,
'mindful of what the boatmen had had to endure.'
The Gan river is quite shallow, and it does have rapids.
The barges used for the porcelain barrels,
they're weighed down by the porcelain,
so they're fairly stable, but they were difficult and heavy
to pole along, and for long passages of the river,
they were dependent on the power of the human body
to make them move along, and that was very hard work
at points on the river.
The work was sought-after
by men who were able-bodied,
fairly young, because the life of a bargee,
or a boatman, was not very extended.
When your strength gave out, you stopped being able to work
in that profession.
The train makes the journey to Ganzhou by night,
delivering the traveller refreshed
to this creeky, tree-shaded river town
which all through the year
would have been filled with exhausted boatmen.
At this point, the mighty Gan river, rising over in the east
and looping its way round, heads north,
another 200 miles up to Lake Boyang.
And it's against that north-going current
that the boats are coming upstream,
helped by tracker men carrying hawsers on their shoulders
and wading through the shoals,
sometimes in very, very rough water.
And here the river splits, and it's up this second river,
a faster-flowing river, that the barges have to continue
for another 80 kilometres, before finding yet another challenge.
'From here, it would have been an easier voyage downstream
'to Canton, if there hadn't been a mountain in the way.'
The boatmen of the Gan carried their loads to the town of Dayu,
the place where the most hazardous stage of the journey began.
'What was once a pivotal junction is now literally a backwater.
'The river is sluggish, the current switched off higher upstream
'by dams generating electricity.
'Quays that once thronged with stevedores and boatmen
'are now a park. But even that's been abandoned by the gardeners.'
Here it is - a tablet commemorating the trade.
This marks the point of a really important trade route.
And when we're talking important trade route, we're talking not M1.
We're talking Heathrow Airport. In fact you can just see here
the characters for Ming and Qing.
'The trade was private, not state run,
'and there are no figures for the value of the business
'that passed through Dayu, but it lasted for centuries,
'and must, in today's terms, have been worth billions.'
The porcelain's been offloaded from the barges.
It's come up the wharf, and we've been greeted by an army of men
with their sticks who are going to carry this huge burden,
several barge-loads of porcelain,
like ants over the mountain before us.
And men like these, who have been responsible
for building all of China for over 2,000 years -
the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and even apartment blocks today...
We see men running through the streets with these...
..an elegant sliver of bamboo,
beautifully sprung, like light steel.
And if you get the rhythm right, you can walk with a jaunty step,
which is what I'm going to attempt to do, over the mountain,
the mountain being in that direction.
This for balance,
and my cameraman has very kindly given me some camera kit
to balance my precious vase,
and let's... HE GRUNTS
..see whether we can go.
The porters were headed for a gap in the Nan mountain range.
The Meiling Pass was cut out of the rock
during the Sung Dynasty, a remarkable feat of engineering
by thousands of nameless labourers.
It made the passage just a bit easier - for the porcelain.
You needed brute strength and endurance.
Some men were employed on a full-time basis,
but many men were employed from a large labour force,
and they were picked by the gang-masters
to carry the porcelain up and over.
These guys were fit.
They ate pretty much a very carbohydrate-rich diet,
with a minimum of protein.
Nearly there...or not.
They didn't eat a lot of sugar,
so the Chinese peasant would eat a lot of things like fat,
which we find very distasteful,
but of course it gives you a lot of energy.
The summit in view!
And the great problem always is in eating enough calories
each day to keep you going.
'Paid by the day, most porters were carrying
'more than twice their own bodyweight.
'Years of hill-climbing with loads balanced on one shoulder
'led to appalling physiological trauma.'
I think her plums were lighter than these!
..at the top of the Meiling Pass.
I don't believe it. What a climb!
And to think that 99.9 percent of the Chinese porcelain
that we see in the great stately homes of England and of Europe
made this journey, up these very steps,
through this very gateway and on.
A tremendous human effort.
And these men were fit. They were even more wiry than me.
Some of the porters were carrying half a ton
in a case slung between poles,
four men carrying one case up there.
I'm full of admiration,
and even now, I know I shall look differently at Chinese porcelain
in stately homes.
There's the inscription of the emperor Kangxi,
And the inscription above the gateway itself,
saying "the Pass of Heroes".
So, here goes one aspirant hero!
Bye-bye, Jiangxi! Hello, Guangdong.
It was a dangerous route. The cobbles were worn smooth
by millions of footsteps. You would almost rather break your own bones
than break the porcelain. Penalties for dropping or breaking pieces
could be quite high.
'On the other side of the mountain, the stick-stick men could relax,
'their work done.
'The porcelain now moved back onto the waters of the Pearl River.'
This scene of industry has changed very little
in the intervening centuries.
It would have been familiar to traders from the Port of London,
except they were prohibited from coming up-country
to see it for themselves.
With Canton the final port of call in China,
a mere 240 miles downstream,
the boatmen might have been able to take things easier.
These waters are slower moving.
'But there are still dangerous bends,
'and dire penalties for anyone losing a load.'
Let's see whether it's still in one piece.
I have to admit, I did stumble on a couple of occasions on that pass.
Moment of truth...
Great. I'm really pleased. And why pink?
Well, the fact is, I've always liked monochromes,
quite unlike the 18th-century taste, which was for blue-and-white.
And it's not just the colour.
They were interested in seeing a new world,
a faraway world, a world that is exotic -
the Cathay, the mysterious Orient.
And for the first 50 years of the 18th century,
these images, portrayed largely on porcelain
but on fans, silks, and all the other merchandise
that were coming through Canton -
these were the first images that gave Europe en masse
some intimation of what life was like in the Orient.
And they even inspired philosophers such as Voltaire
to imagine that China was this spectacularly well ruled,
well ordered empire, in which everything was just so.
The imagery that one day would spawn the Willow pattern in the West
must have seemed fanciful to our ancestors,
as they sipped their Oolong.
And, of course, it was.
But in the absence of anything else, scenes of rustic activity
amid riverside pagodas were, for those with imagination,
an invitation to dream.
What's so magic about the China trade, really,
is it presents a picture of Asia that nothing else did.
There were no photographs. There were few realistic representations
of what China was really like.
Beneath the glaze there were subtle messages,
if only they'd known how to decode them.
It was completely unfamiliar to a European purchaser.
The depiction of a Chinese landscape is very common in ceramics
in China, and it is really associated with a Taoist concept of life
in an idyllic environment.
Deer with pine trees is associated in China
with longevity, immortality and old age.
Another very popular motif, the rooster amongst peonies,
is associated with success in scholarly achievements.
It was very much an exotic idea
that was informing the knowledge of the East at the time.
These images had meaning
in a culture where ceramics were as well regarded
as paintings or sculpture were in the West.
It was high-concept art,
from which you ate and drank.
the offices of the East India Company had been waiting months
for the porcelain to arrive from somewhere out there.
The porcelain is on its final leg down the great Pearl River,
and one can only imagine what were the thoughts of the merchants,
the supercargoes and captains and the ordinary ratings.
They'd been bottled up here in Canton for the best part of a year.
The barbarians from across the sea
weren't allowed out of the port area,
but mariners of all nations had been permitted
to establish offices, building a waterfront village of sheds
called hongs - warehouses to live in.
This is where the imperial agents, middle men on a percentage,
came to do business with them.
It was very highly regulated.
Not only the company could only trade through one port,
but there were a series of eight regulations.
They weren't supposed to learn the language,
so all the terms of trade were weighted against the foreigners.
They had to trade through intermediaries.
Everything was weighed so that the terms of trade for the company would be as weak as possible.
They didn't see Europeans in any way as equal trading partners,
and really Europeans, and in particular the English,
never understood that.
But the Chinese just saw them as humble petitioners to the empire.
'Today, flower beds in a very pedestrian precinct
'mark the spot where the hongs once stood -
'blooms that are a monument to these early global traders.
'Life in the sheds was basic.'
But these were men used to a wooden world,
and at least this one wouldn't sink.
They'd spend their time amassing the cargo they'd sail home with,
smelling spices and lacquer,
chasing rats and listening to the rain.
What did we have that the Chinese didn't have?
What could we trade with? Well, there was broadcloth,
there was copper, there was tin -
raw materials, not manufactured goods.
And it was the manufactured goods of southern China
that interested the Englishmen.
We wanted those great rich brocades, the silks, the wallpapers,
furniture, silver - but of course, maybe above all, porcelain.
So that early trade was very unequal -
we, the Western barbarians,
and the Chinese, the civilised empire.
A love affair it certainly was,
but with time it would become even more than that,
because this was the beginning of two great empires
coming together, the collision of world powers,
over the chink of china.
Customers in Britain didn't mind waiting for their boat to come in.
They knew that porcelain came from a long way away,
and owning it told people you valued things of quality
that were not easily won.
Of course, you had to get the neighbours into your parlour
for them to discover this.
Porcelain was very suitable for drinking hot liquids,
and you could pour almost-boiling, or even boiling liquids
into your porcelain teapot without it cracking,
and you could then pour those red-hot liquids
into little porcelain cups.
These are rare and valuable items
that have travelled halfway around the world.
They are expensive, and so they're very highly desirable
as a means of expressing your wealth.
But they do something else as well. They show refinement
and discernment, because to appreciate something like this,
you've got to understand this. It comes from a different world,
outside western Europe.
This shows you're aware there are other countries,
there are other value systems, which are different from your own.
The 18th century saw the emergence of a merchant class,
new money wanting old-money luxuries.
But there was a problem.
By 1720, Chinese porcelain had become widely available.
Bespoke porcelain dinner services bearing the family coat of arms
became all the rage - so the new luxury became exclusivity.
The East India Company took orders for around 5,000 sets,
and every one tells a tale.
One of the best stories concerns the service
still preserved at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire,
seat of the Anson family, earls of Lichfield.
'This one wasn't commissioned. It was earned.'
In 1743, Commodore Anson of His Majesty's Navy
was approaching the coast of China. On board his vessel,
the Centurion, was a load of red-fruit trees.
He arrived in Canton with his crew, only to find that there was a fire.
He dispatched his crew. They helped to put out the fire,
and the eternally grateful merchants of Canton
decided to give him a very special gift.
And there it is.
This coat of arms, rather an extraordinary one -
not quite the correct Anson coat of arms,
because he's anticipating becoming ennobled.
That happens only five years later, after taking the French fleet
at Finistere. So somewhat eccentric,
and the crest at the top...
But best of all, the views on the side.
This is Plymouth Sound,
Edison Lighthouse, various European ships
bobbing along on the horizon.
And then, little bit of a surprise, a junk.
And opposite Plymouth Sound,
a place that all the European sailors sailing to China
would know very well, the Whampoa Anchorage.
So this plate is exceptional.
Multiply this dish up with all of the pieces you see here,
over 200 pieces made in Jingdezhen,
and then to be carried right the way through China,
across the Meiling Pass, down into Canton,
and then multiply all of that by the thousands of services
commissioned for England alone,
and you begin to get some idea of the physical labour involved
in getting this to the other side of the world.
'Dragged from the earth, born in fire,
'and carried across the waters of the deep,
'armorial porcelain ended up as an instrument of one-upmanship,
'trumpeting your lineage and infuriating rivals.'
The greed and ambition have evaporated,
but the porcelain remains unchanged by the passing of the years.
On one hand it's now just antique china -
on the other, a unique historical artefact.
'Porcelain makes time travel possible.'
So, you're walking through a country house on a Sunday afternoon,
and you see a lovely blue-and-white bowl on the table,
and you think, "That's pretty." When somebody tells you
that this belonged to Queen Elizabeth I,
and maybe to Sir Francis Drake before then,
I guarantee that you see this piece differently.
Its value changes in your mind,
because somebody has given you a story,
an authentic story, with provenance.
Today, the most expensive porcelain you can buy at auction
happens to be Chinese - not Chinese for the West,
but the Chinese for themselves, for the emperor.
If you're a Chinese billionaire,
you want to own something that has that story.
You want to be in touch with the Qianlong emperor, perhaps.
And if somebody can convince you that the vase that you're looking at
really did belong to the Qianlong emperor,
then we have authenticity, and once we have that,
we're talking not of hundreds of pounds,
not of tens of thousands of pounds,
but of millions.
Of course, if you don't know its story, its provenance,
even an important piece is just an old pot
covered in mysterious imagery.
All those little pictures on the yellow bit mean things,
like those two fish at the top.
They're paper fish, and they turn to dragons when you pass exams.
In November 2010,
this pot turned up among some mid-20th-century items
in a house-clearance sale in Middlesex.
No-one in the family could remember where it had come from,
and they'd used it for storing umbrellas.
It had been valued by a local antiques dealer at ?800.
But the auction house had a feeling about it.
And so did the bidders, who'd come from near and very far.
Lot 800 now, the vase.
?1 million, ladies and gentlemen. Putting it in, 200,000.
Four million. Five million. ?10 million.
15 million is bid.
Prices may have changed in line with inflation...
20 million now. 30 million is bid.
..but the lure of porcelain is eternal.
40 million, ladies and gentlemen. 41 million.
The fever is as virulent as it ever was.
The Bainbridge vase is the most expensive Chinese artwork
ever to come to auction - for the moment, at least.
At ?43 million...
..sold! CHEERING / APPLAUSE
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
CAR HORN BLARES
In November 2010, a Chinese vase unearthed in a suburban semi in Pinner sold at auction for £43 million - a new record for a Chinese work of art. Why are Chinese vases so famous and so expensive? The answer lies in the European obsession with Chinese porcelain that began in the 16th century.
In this documentary Lars Tharp, the Antiques Roadshow expert and Chinese ceramics specialist, sets out to explore why Chinese porcelain was so valuable then - and still is now. He goes on a journey to parts of China closed to western eyes until relatively recently. Lars travels to the mountainside from which virtually every single Chinese export vase, plate and cup began life in the 18th century - a mountain known as Mount Gaolin, from whose name we get the word kaolin, or china clay. He sees how the china clay was fused with another substance, mica, that would turn it into porcelain.
Carrying his own newly acquired vase, Lars uncovers the secrets of China's porcelain capital, Jingdezhen. He sees how the trade between China and Europe not only changed our idea of what was beautiful - by introducing us to the idea of works of art we could eat off - but also began to affect the whole tradition of Chinese aesthetics too, as the ceramicists of Jingdezhen sought to meet the European demand for porcelain decorated with family coats of arms, battle scenes or even erotica.
The porcelain fever that gripped Britain drove conspicuous consumption and fuelled the Georgian craze for tea parties. Today the new emperors - China's rising millionaire class - are buying back the export wares once shipped to Europe. The vase sold in Pinner shows that the lure of Chinese porcelain is as compelling as ever.