By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, blue-and-white porcelain had become a global brand. Most of the ceramics that were exported worldwide were produced in private manufactories in South China, with the largest concentration located in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. In these porcelain manufactories, labor was divided and specialized, with master potters, painters, assistants, enamel specialists, and more. This regimented organization allowed for high efficiency, with large kilns firing hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of pieces a year. Key to this streamlined production process was the modularity of the designs. For instance, one painter was responsible for painting borders, while another painted only flowers, or landscapes. This organization enabled not only the easy production of sets of porcelain dishes suited to European dining, but also introduced variety in the decoration by multiplying possible combinations of design elements.5
The motifs were not only adaptable to different surfaces, but also to different tastes. Those chosen for export porcelain often would also have had literary or auspicious meanings in China. For instance, the butter tub’s peony decoration indicated a wish for prosperity and prestige, while the soup dish’s chrysanthemums were associated with the grit of the scholar, pomegranates with fertility, and lotuses with Buddhism. These associations would not readily have been understood by European consumers, but imagery drawn from nature also had universal appeal, thus contributing to the success of Chinese porcelain abroad. In Europe, where most middle-class households were accustomed to wooden plates, porcelain tableware was aspirational, but not unattainable. VOC documents and inventories show that the Company was mainly interested in purchasing ordinary wares such as plates, bowls, tea and coffee sets—these were easy to pack, benefitted from a stable demand, and yielded greater profits at scale than small first-rate consignments.6 This butter tub and soup dish perfectly illustrate the practical considerations of Chinese designers and Dutch traders, as they strove to export functional yet aesthetically appealing objects.
These two shipwrecked porcelain wares therefore tell us a great deal about the demand for blue-and-white porcelain in Europe, as well as the organization of production that enabled China to meet that demand. Produced in Jingdezhen, traded in Canton, lost at sea, and finally recovered by divers, these objects encapsulate multiple encounters—between cultures, eras, as well as between materials and their environments.