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Resonance and translucence

True pottery towns have a luminous niche in the history of art (not shared by those grim places Arnold Bennett described); many of them have endured for centuries, always devoted to one glorious goal. There clay was and is transmuted into beautiful forms and colors through the magic of the potter's wheel, the kiln, the glaze, till at last a myriad of objects appear to delight us. The very names of these places -- Meissen, Sevres, Augarten, Nymphenburg, Ching Te-Chen -- evoke bright images. Here artisans and master potters alike dreamed of symmetry, shape, balance, of the skill needed to catch the glaze as it rolled down toward the foot, of the creation of vessels "light as the soul of snow."

That meant porcelain, but it was not till the turn of the 10th century in China that "the culminating achievement of ceramic invention" was made. It was the result of the perfect fusion of kaolin (china-clay) and peituntze (china-stone, the glassy flux) and high firing techniques which had taken centuries to acquire. Chinese potters, without instruments as we understand the term, had flair, intuition and experience -- sometimes genius. There were many disappointments in their work, but the successes remain unsurpassed, even unrivaled. Even the failures did not mean total loss; at Ching Te- Chen, the greatest pottery town of all the world, houses were built of the debris of fused kilns, and the river is still as though lined with brilliant shards which sparkle in the sun.

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Unlike its humbler relations, porcelain has two characteristics that lift it to its eminence: translucency and resonance. It must ring.m Generally fine and delicate, it is very brittle.

Chinese ceramics went even to the Middle East, itself a marvelous producer of this material. Saladin the Magnificent wanted Sung celadon (hence, possibly, its name), as these lovely bowls were reputed to change color when holding poison. The wares, carefully packed in rice straw, were sent from the interior of China by canal and river to the sea, where junk and Arab dhow would convey them westward, threatened by storms, pirates and a legion of other contretemps.m Equal difficulties beset them if they went on land by caravan, on ponies, camels , porters, menaced by bandits and the fierce winds of Central Asia. But there remained always a compelling market. Always, too, the Chinese kept their best pieces at home, well knowing that no barbarian could really appreciate them.

It was the Chinese that first held Europe in fee in this regard. When their first dishes reached that continent in the 16th century they were a revelation: people were accustomed only to faience from Delft, to pewter, to the wooden trencher, the common bowl. To be sure, the nobility had its plate, but that had obvious disadvantages. Now the life of the table, and with it much else, was transformed.

Ching TE-chen had been making pots since the Han (206 BC-AD 220), but it was not till the early 11th century that the result was granted its proud name by the Emperor Ching Te himself. Everything essential was at hand; in the Ma-ch'ang Hills were kaolin, peituntze and wood for the kilns. There was the river with its pure water. The finished dishes were shipped away across the Po Yang Lake, or by canal, to Nanking, where they had only to cross the Yangtze to enter the grand Canal and go north to Peking, or they could go downriver to the sea.

The Jesuit Pere d'Entrecolles visited Ching Te-chen early in the 18th century , leaving detailed accounts of its activities, which he enormously admired. There were then more than a million people living there and over 3,000 kilns in the city. At night the whole sky was lit up for miles around by the glow of the furnaces. He spoke of the glittering tiles lining the river. He was awed by the total organization of the place, the meticulous attention given every piece, the tremendous output: 40,000 fish bowls might be ordered in one year from Peking alone!

The amount of dishes eventually sent to Europe beggars belief. Under the Ming the field expanded to include the Spanish territories and later it was extended to the United States. All this was to "the detriment of quality." The barbarians had at best only a hybrid taste and even demanded terrible innovations like handles on cups. But no one could resist the profits these commanded.

In the end the cost became more than Europe could bear. Its princes had become porcelain addicts particularly in Germany -- there is a story of a regiment of dragoons being exchanged for 48 Ming vases. Obviously porcelain must be made at home, but of course the Chinese would not tell them how. Finally the young alchemist Bottger hit upon the secret in 1708. Meissen was created, and from it followed the great porcelain factories of Europe, flourishing to this day.

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We are still porcelain addicts. We need to hear it ring, we need that luminous, colorful, exquisite fantasy in our rooms, whether we live in Kishmayu, Zanzibar or Chicago."These are the porcelain makers!/Round as the moon shining on earth,/And light as the soul of snow/Are their wares. . . ."

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