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date: 17 April 2024

Tea, Porcelain, and Silk: Chinese Exports to the West in the Early Modern Periodfree

Tea, Porcelain, and Silk: Chinese Exports to the West in the Early Modern Periodfree

  • Ronald C. PoRonald C. PoDepartment of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science


Tracing the social lives of tea, porcelain, and silk, it is discernible that the world had been living with commodities made in and exported from China for a fairly long period of time. Particularly, when tea slowly became more common in England during the 18th century, most Britons tended to purchase tea leaves planted in the Yangtze River Delta and the Fujian region. When Europeans first encountered Chinese porcelain, it was so fine, translucent, and superior to anything that they could possibly manufacture at the time. They thus concluded that it must be a magic substance and astonishingly called it “white gold.” The Western obsession about Chinese porcelain, in turn, encouraged Europeans to produce their own imitations in terms of both production processes and marketing strategies. When silkworm disease ruined European sericulture in the middle of the 19th century, Chinese silk, including silk textiles and spun and raw silks, fulfilled a need in a demanding Euro-American market. These examples, among many others, conceivably reveal that China has played a crucial role in the global history of the dissemination and consumption of commodities since the early modern period.


  • China
  • Economic/Business


There are various approaches to interweaving tea, porcelain, and silk in both trade and social history. One of them is to accentuate the fact that these commodities have been principally exported from China to the rest of the world since the early modern period, which is the interval between the late 16th and the early 19th centuries. Even though the precise chronological time frame of this period remains open to debate, the early modern era is nevertheless regarded as the initial, yet critical, stage of globalization.1 However, we should not simply examine early globalization as a phenomenon that supersedes political and national contexts. Cultural histories of commodities and consumption are equally helpful in understanding the connectivity and integration between countries and cultures. If we agree with Arjun Appadurai and Frank Trentmann that a commodity has a social life,2 then the life cycles of tea, porcelain, and silk were caught in a network of transregional interactions that formed the fabric of early globalization as they were transported, traded, and consumed across great distances.

Among various types of commodities, tea, porcelain, and silk were symbolic products representing a China that had both begun to take shape and was shaping the world economy. Each commodity tells a story that sheds light on the intensification and acceleration of commercial exchanges and cultural activities. The social lives of these products will expand our understanding not only of the complex pattern of economic development in China, but also the socioeconomic exchanges that continue to occur across the globe. To give a sense of these patterns, interactions, and intensifications, this paper offers an historical overview of these exports from China to the West. Despite the connections among these three products, there also exist some asymmetries and dissimilarities. As such, each of these products must be discussed individually rather than attempting to fit them into a single category.

Even though the main topic of this paper is China and the West, the former did not export the three commodities of tea, silk, and porcelain exclusively to the Euro-American market. Instead, China established a series of deep trading connections with other parts of the world—namely, the Islamic region, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Latin America—beginning in the early modern period. For instance, the blue-and-white porcelain for which China has become so wellknown was, in fact, a Chinese-Islamic coproduction.3 Due to space considerations, however, this paper will only focus solely on the interactions between China and the West.

From a long-term perspective, China’s encounter with the West has proved to be decisive in the context of global history, as it indicates the beginning of an era wherein China’s soft power extended well beyond the confines of Asia. As Louis Dermigny suggests, “China is one of the great centres (in the early modern period), perhaps the great centre, around which the modern world evolved.”4 Meanwhile, as argued by Pedro Machado, it was also the moment when Western powers began to extend their commercial and political dominion to farther reaches of the globe.5

This paper focuses primarily on the early modern period because it was considered an essential prologue to 19th century globalization. Nevertheless, the emphasis here on the early modern era does not mean that the Chinese did not conduct international trade prior to 1500 or after 1850. China has been exporting tea to Japan and Southeast Asia since the 9th century; it also kept supplying finished silk to Euro-American markets after the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1912. But because the world was evidently more interconnected after the 1500s than during the centuries that preceded this period, and the contemporary picture is more familiar to most readers, an analytical focus on the early modern period will help us explicate China’s role within the transregional market, in particular, and early globalization, more generally, in terms of the flow of commodities from medium to medium, country to country, and culture to culture.

Tea: A Drink That Changed the World

There should be no problem in locating China as the origin of tea.6 An aromatic beverage, commonly prepared by pouring boiling water over its leaves, tea has become well established as a synonym of Chinese culture and society. A report conducted by the University of Southern California shows that the average person in China consumes 400 cups of tea annually.7 This reflects two phenomena: First, tea is widely consumed in China; second, the practice and culture of tea drinking has considerably permeated the social fabric of the Chinese community. Yet, Chinese tea is not only consumed in China, but also almost everywhere else around the globe. Even though tea plants can be found in other countries and continents, Chinese tea has played a key role in the market ever since Asian and Western powers became involved in global trade.

The family of Chinese teas is broad and complex. In China, more than 800 different types of tea are grown and produced in a variety of ways.8 The top three types of exported teas between the 17th and the 20th centuries are fully fermented black tea (hongcha),9 which is favored throughout the British Empire; semifermented tea (qingcha), such as oolong, which is widely popular in North America; and unfermented green tea (lucha), which is less favored in Western Europe but preferred in the Mediterranean.10 These teas and their respective preferences, by type, across continents still remain relevant today. Even though the Portuguese are believed to have been the first to introduce Chinese tea to the external world in the 16th century, it is worth noting that Chinese tea was exported overseas such as Korea as early as the 6th century, when Korean Buddhists recognized the tea ceremony as a form of meditation.11 And in a similar vein, China exported a tea known as brick tea (tancha) to Japan in the 9th century. In 805, the Japanese Buddhist monk Saicho became the first “tea agent” to import a batch of tea seeds from China to Kyoto.12 As the demand for tea expanded in East Asia, from the 10th century onward, Chinese traders began to export tea leaves to Japan, Korea, and countries in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) governments prohibited private trading in tea. According to government decrees, those who smuggled tea from China to other countries could be heavily fined, and even sentenced to death.13 It was not until the expedition of Zheng He, from 1405 to 1433, that Chinese tea was formally and officially introduced to the world beyond East Asia. His vessels carried a significant amount of Bohea tea (a variety of black tea) and other commodities that were considered national treasures to the world across the Indian Ocean.14 His voyages also marked the first time that Chinese tea was introduced on a large scale to the external world beyond East Asia.

Entering the European Market

When and how Chinese tea first entered the European market remains debatable. One account suggests that the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigte Oost-Indische Compagnie, or simply the VOC) began to purchase Chinese tea—mainly Bohea tea—and ship it to Java in 1607.15 At that time, Java served as a transit platform for the variety of Chinese commodities that were being shipped to European markets, including tea, porcelain, and silk.16 In particular, the VOC shipped Chinese tea to Amsterdam and other large cities in Western Europe. Another account succinctly notes that in 1618, Chinese ambassadors (representing the Ming dynasty) offered a dozen crates of tea to Czar Alexis (1926–1976), who presided over Russia during some of the most eventful decades of the 17th century. The Ming officials believed that hot Chinese tea would be an ideal beverage for Russia’s cold climate, but surprisingly, the czar saw it as a useless beverage.17 It took another two hundred years for Chinese tea to become a common drink in Moscow. A third account speculates that the British East India Company (EIC) only began to export tea from Asia to England in 1657, after it was offered in a London coffeehouse that was situated on Exchange Alley. Thomas Garraway, the owner of the coffeehouse, said this about tea in one of his advertising pamphlets: “That excellent, and by all physicians approved, China drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee . . ., sold at the Sultaness-head, ye Cophee-house in Sweetings-Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.”18 According to Thomas Rugge’s diary, in 1659 Chinese tea was being sold on almost every street in London.19 In any of these versions of the story, either the Dutch or the British were the main conveyors of tea in Europe, and they introduced Chinese tea from the other side of the continent through a series of maritime trade routes.

Since the British gradually became the world’s largest consumers of Chinese tea, the following discussion pays particular attention to tea exports to Britain. And although a considerable volume of tea was consumed in other European countries (namely, France, Germany and the Netherlands), it was not comparable to that consumed in England.

During the 16th and the early 17th centuries, Chinese tea was a costly commodity. In England, it was considered an exotic and foreign good, only accessible to the upper class. Wealthy businessmen, entrepreneurs, and politicians would meet at coffeehouses, enjoy a pot of Chinese tea, and discuss the events of the day.20 This exotic beverage was considered even more luxurious after Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705), the Portuguese queen consort of Charles II, brought tea drinking to the English royal court.21 This fashion soon spread across royal circles and the middle classes. According to Philip Lawson, in the 1650s, only a few hundred pounds of tea leaves were imported to England. By 1717, however, nearly two hundred thousand pounds were shipped from Canton to London.22

Yet, nowadays, the Chinese tea consumed in 17th-century coffeehouses probably would be considered undrinkable. This is no doubt because by 1689, the tea sold in London at that time was taxed in liquid form (i.e., after it had been brewed). Owners of the coffeehouses usually would prepare a large pot of tea in the early morning, be taxed by a visiting excise officer, and then keep it in barrels and reheat the pot, if necessary, throughout the rest of the day.23 Therefore, those who visited a 17th-century coffeehouse in the late afternoon and ordered a cup of Chinese tea most likely would have drunk tea that had been sitting for hours before they had placed their order—making it strong and bitter.

Chinese tea penetrated the grass-roots level of British society fairly quickly, especially after the British government decided to slash the tax on it from 119 percent to 12.5 percent.24 The 1780s thus witnessed a domestication of tea in Great Britain, whereby a commodity that had been considered an exotic luxury and was imported over vast distances, from a culture that was different from that of Europe, gradually became a necessary everyday item. Julie E. Fromer, for instance, persuasively describes the Chinese tea that existed in England from this period onward as a product that straddled “the boundary between the ontological categories of luxury and necessity.”25 And as domesticity itself rose in importance and prominence in Victorian society, tea quickly became the “national beverage.”26

The EIC was one of the prime movers of England’s tea imports from China. Nevertheless, the company was not the only source of all tea consumed in Britain. Other European East Indian companies that were operating at the time brought in a fair amount of Britain’s Chinese tea, mainly by smuggling it into the country. The collapse of the EIC’s monopoly stimulated an even-greater impetus to Chinese tea drinking in Britain and Europe. Before 1834, despite all the smuggling and the illegal shipments, the EIC was the only legal agency operating in the tea business; later, however, individual companies entered the trade virtually unrestricted.27

The opening of the tea market also ushered in the era of the tea clippers. From the late 1840s until the 1860s, foreign merchants competed to bring home Chinese tea in order to maximize their profits. In so doing, they refined their vessels, creating sleeker designs that called for larger sails and taller masts, so their tea clippers became faster and, in turn, more competitive.28 The rivalry between the British and American merchants was the keenest throughout an era that saw the genesis of ocean-racing competitions. Their races began in China, where the clippers would leave Canton, the principal port city for tea exports; sail through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean; make a quick stop at the Cape of Good Hope; navigate up Africa’s Atlantic coast; and finally tack up the River Thames. These races only came to an end in 1869, with the completion of the Suez Canal, which opened a new trade route to China that was viable for steamships.29 During the era of clipper competition, these vessels might have seemed unimportant, in the long run, in the history of trade in Chinese tea. However, the tea clippers were a catalyst to the trade’s eventual global scale. Indeed, the commercial tea clipper races made a profound contribution to the substantial increase in Britain’s consumption of this signature Chinese beverage.


Despite its early prominence in British parlors and coffeehouses, Chinese tea did not dominate the British tea market throughout the 19th century. On December 24, 1834, the Tea Committee of British India announced a significant discovery: Camellia sinensis, a type of tea plant found in and indigenous to Upper Assam. This new plant drastically changed the patterns of tea trade, as the British soon would be independent of the relatively expensive Chinese tea and the monopolistic Canton trade. In 1858, after the British government took direct control of India away from the EIC, the new administration was even more eager to promote the tea industry in Assam.30 Since then, the Indian tea market gradually expanded and inspired optimistic imperial visions. The historian Syed H. Alatas describes how the British Empire benefited from tea cultivation and production in Assam: “[C]ommercial tea production in remote Assam might offer imperial subjects the opportunity of becoming partakers of that civilization, that innocent commerce, that knowledge and that faith with which it has pleased a gracious Providence to bless our own country.”31 By 1888, British tea imports from India were greater than those from China. By 1901, tea planted in Sri Lanka also entered the British market and surpassed imports of Chinese tea.32

Thus, tea was no longer an exotic commodity imported to Britain from the Far East. Instead, it had become a product planted in and exported from British-ruled soil. According to a 19th-century British publication, “a large quantity of tea is now imported from this island (Ceylon), and new plantations, it is reported, are being made every month; day by day more of the primeval forest goes down before the axe of the pioneer, and before another quarter of a century has passed, it is anticipated that the tea of our Indian empire will become the most valuable of its products.”33

Although China was no longer the sole provider of tea to the British, it remained one of Europe’s main sources of imported tea (particularly green tea). Yet, Europeans largely preferred black tea during the 19th century. As a result, after the British proactively introduced to the European market the black tea that was cultivated in India and Sri Lanka, Chinese tea merchants found it difficult to compete with these markets because the climate and weather conditions there were better for growing black tea. Another factor was the more advanced technology that the British were applying to tea grown in these colonies. The tea plantation industry that had been founded by the British was fundamentally different from the one that existed in late imperial China, the latter being in the hands of small plantations with local tea-leave pickers.34

In view of this growing competition, it is understandable that Chinese tea exports experienced a decline. In his book Things Chinese or Notes Connected with China, which was published at the beginning of the 20th century, J. Dyer Ball summarizes the situation, using specific figures as follows: “In 1859 there was no Indian tea trade, and China sent 70,303,664 lbs to England . . . By 1899 China had fallen to the figure of 15,677,835 lbs, and India had risen to the enormous figure—a figure never attained by China—of 219,136,185 lbs.”35

From the late 19th century onward, China was no longer the sole provider of tea leaves to the world. Yet, it was (and remains) a major contestant in the competitive tea market. For instance, today, the country accounts for close to 60 percent of the international tea trade, followed by Sri Lanka and Kenya. Facing varied forms of competition, Chinese tea manufacturers have been flexible, in that they have adapted to the market demands of the 20th century. Many companies in China develop tea bags, fruit-flavored teas, and instant tea (which is similar to instant coffee) for foreign customers. In addition, they have expanded their market significantly, from Euro-America to the Global South. Figures gathered by Wang Mingjie and Tang Yue in 2016 show that Morocco, Uzbekistan, Senegal, and Algeria were the top importers of Chinese tea, whereas Europe as a whole accounted for less than 10 percent of the total volume.36

The shifting focus from a European- to a Global South–centered one is worth noticing. On one hand, it reflects that the trading patterns between China and the rest of the world have been moving southward, if not progressing more globally, since the early modern period. On the other hand, it points to the possibility that China intends to play an increasingly substantive role as an economic giant in the Global South, where its status as a soft power confers upon it a dominant position in the regional economy, featuring, in the words of one expert, “a new paradigm of development on a global spectrum.”37

Porcelain: A Luxury Fashion

In The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain, Janet Gleason pointed out that porcelain underwent widespread production and use in China and other parts of Asia long before the arrival of European traders.38 Chinese potters had been selling their products to Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia since the 6th century—very similar to the time when Chinese tea were exported overseas.39 The question remains as to when Chinese porcelain was introduced to Europe. Jeffrey Munger and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen noted that it was not until the 14th century that Chinese porcelain was first introduced to the European continent. However, collectors and archaeologists question this date. They provide evidence showing that a large amount of Chinese pottery produced in the Song and Yuan dynasties (before the 14th century) was excavated in Europe and the Middle East. Other historians even argue that Marco Polo (1254–1324) was the first to bring Chinese porcelain to Europe,40 even though Polo’s trip to China is still a matter of dispute.41 Given these two discrepant stories, perhaps the problem here is whether those early discoveries (of objects produced during the Song and the Yuan) should be considered porcelain. In other words, is there a standardized definition of porcelain that would help with verification?

In general, an ordinary Chinese citizen may characterize as porcelain all ware that possesses great hardness and resonancy, but an expert or professional might be more specific. As Edwin Barber, a historian and collector, assessed early in 1909, “[T]hose coarse survivals of an earlier art (produced in the Song-Yuan period), composed of heterogeneous and impure materials, cannot properly be grouped with the trans-lucid white pastes that we called porcelain.”42 It is clear that there existed among the intellectual community a higher standard in measuring and evaluating authentic Chinese porcelain. As such, in order to determine the era when porcelain entered the European market, it is necessary to differentiate between the pseudoporcelain of earlier times and the refined products of later times. Yet, due to lack of space, this section does not aim to provide a comprehensive study of such a differentiation; it will simply apply the four classifications set up by the French historian Albert Jacquemart to summarize the basic criteria for ware made of porcelain. These four divisions are (a) archaic, which is chiefly white, blue, violet, and celadon, in which the colors were mixed with glaze and burned at the first firing; (b) Chrysanthemo porcelain, for which all the usual colors were used in the painting of this ware (namely, deep blue, iron red, gold, and black or blue); (c) Famille Verte, of which the decorations were usually of an historical or religious character; and (d) Famille Rose, which are chiefly pieces that were perfect in execution and of which all styles of subject and design were appropriated to the use of the ruling class.43

The Jacquemart system was based on the composition and peculiarities of the ware itself, and it has been proved that the Song–Yuan relics found in Europe were not “pure enough” to fit into any one of the four categories,44 even though the Chinese had possessed the skills to produce porcelain in a wide variety of shapes and decorative styles since the Tang dynasty. For instance, Tang Ying, a gifted potter and antiquarian in the Tang period, acquired such skill in making close copies of the famous wares of the past, with their elegant sea green hue, that he could present them to the emperor and the imperial family.45 Other potters from Jingdezhen and elsewhere in China also were capable of developing new skills and designs and replicating vessels from earlier models, this time in jade and silver. From the Song onward, they even began to “supply the market of Southwest Asia with ceramic versions of artefacts, such as brass hand warmers, rock-crystal ewers, ivory chessmen, and rose-wood prayer screens.”46

Chinese porcelain probably reached Europe during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the period considered by world antiquarians to have produced the finest ware.47 Similar to the social life history of tea, this delicate and fine pottery was first regarded as a rare and luxurious product: “white gold,” as it was labeled in the market.48 Among the most fashionable and sought-after goods in Europe, these imported wares were often mounted in gilt silver, sparkling gold, or both. Even though they were sold for extraordinarily high prices, owning Chinese porcelain soon became an aspiration among the European upper classes. For instance, between 1571 and 1690, the Medici family of Florence amassed a large collection of Chinese porcelain, while Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) had a collection of some two thousand pieces.49 In addition to the Medicis and the Spanish royal families, a significant number of European monarchs and wealthy aristocrats gradually became obsessed with this fine, translucent, and superior product.50

Of all types of Chinese porcelain, the one that was underglazed in blue and white prevailed.51 Most of these blue-and-white creations were produced in a small town called Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province, which is still one of the world’s most important centers for pottery production (the Chinese called it cidu, “the porcelain capital”).52 Arguably, the blue-and-white ware from Jingdezhen went on to triumph on the global market.53 Robert Finlay notes that this porcelain reshaped and sometimes “destroyed pottery traditions in virtually every society it touched, from the Philippines to Portugal.”54

From Jingdezhen to Amsterdam

With the rise of the tea trade and the Portuguese arrival in China in the early 16th century, Chinese potters began to manufacture porcelain specifically for export to the West. Almost a century later, when the VOC wrested much of the Asian export trade from the Portuguese, its large-scale trade from Canton to Amsterdam made it possible for an even-broader cross section of European society to acquire Chinese porcelain, mostly from Jingdezhen. Consequently, there emerged a robust porcelain export market.55

Meanwhile, the European market readily adapted to this exotic product from the Far East. Europeans soon replaced silver plate with porcelain, and more families placed orders for patterns that had the typical white background of Chinese porcelain, rather than opting for their usual coarse brown earthenware.56 They now preferred porcelain teacups of the most delicate eggshell, or cups with an open or lace-work pattern so that the outer cup would not get overheated and the fingers would not be singed but, at the same time, the tea or coffee would be kept warm.57 Owing to this expanding and valuable market, some European manufacturers attempted to figure out how to reproduce Chinese porcelain. For example, in the late 17th century, the French factories Rouen and St. Cloud experimented with making soft-paste porcelain, but their production was small and their prices were not attractive at all.58 In the early 18th century, in Dresden, the Meissen craftsman Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682–1719) successfully devised a way to produce hard-paste Chinese porcelain.59

However, only the elite could afford its price, and its quality was less delicate than that of the porcelain that was imported from a great distance. Porcelain was difficult to manufacture, even though the domestically produced product would have been cheaper and have involved less breakage. The writing of British potter and writer Edmund de Waal helps us understand that only a perfectionist, or a group of them, is capable of producing this white gold: “Pinch a walnut-sized piece between thumb and forefingers until it is as thin as paper until the whorls of your fingers emerge. Keep pinching. It feels endless. You feel it will get thinner and thinner until it is as thin as gold leaf and lifts into the air. And it feels clean. Your hands feel cleaner after you have used it. It feels white.” From the details that de Waal provides, producing porcelain was a delicate skill that took patience and traditional experience: “You can get away with unevenness with other kinds of clay, but it is chancy with porcelain. Your errors, your slapdash decisions, are revealed.”60

From the early 17th to the late 18th centuries, the VOC imported close to 43 million pieces of porcelain from China, whereas the English, French, Swedish, and Danish East India Companies imported at least 30 million pieces. But as C. J. A. Jörg stated, there is no official recording of the millions of additional pieces of porcelain ware that were imported from China.61 The Chinese porcelain exported to Europe varied in form and included large and small dishes, wine jars, salt cellars, gourd-shaped bottles, basins, platter stands, candlesticks, and massive vases.62

For several generations, Chinese potters decorated their products with their own traditional kaleidoscopic repertoires. Compositions included plant and animal forms, and potters often drew upon emblems from Buddhism and Daoism.63 These pieces of artwork had an intrinsic appeal on the global market in general, and in Europe in particular. With a population of more than 100 million, Europe offered an exceptionally receptive market for these exquisite Chinese porcelain products.

By the 18th century at the latest, chinaware had escaped its confinement to aristocratic cabinets of curiosity and was becoming commonly used by the middle class. From the monarchs of Portugal to the merchants of Russia, most of the elites purchased and collected porcelain from China. On some occasions, grand displays of Chinese porcelain even functioned as demonstrations of power and social status.64 The renowned British writer Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) had this to say about the culture of luxury and the throngs who were enthralled with the consumption of Chinese porcelain: “Queen Mary at Hampton Court introduced the English to the fatal excess of piling their china upon the tops of cabinets, sculptures, and every chimney piece, to the tops of the ceilings, and even setting up shelves for their china-ware, where they wanted such places, till it became a grievance in the expense of it, and even injurious to their families and estates.”65

Yet understandably, not all European elites and merchants were obsessed with the porcelain that was imported from China. As previously mentioned, some aspired to manufacture their own. But the ware made in China was far more popular than that produced domestically. However, it should be noted that among the sizable number of pieces shipped from China, at the time, many of those imported by different East India companies were taken as ballast and were not necessarily of high quality. As a result, pieces for the aristocracy in Europe were usually private, special commissions drawn up through the many middlemen (wholesalers, retailers, peddlers) who were largely involved in the distribution of Asian goods to European consumers; they were not acquired through a company’s general imports. For instance, in 1774, as David S. Howard indicated, “only two specified design patterns [were] ordered by the Hon. East India Company for over a thousand pieces of enamelled ware, and four specified designs among an even larger quantity of blue & white.”66 By contrast, it is evidently suggested that “apart from armorial ware—which averaged about fifty annually—there were probably hundreds of other individual pieces or designs chosen from Canton shops by servants of the East India Company.”67

George Washington

Chinese porcelain was also exported to America, in the early 17th century, but it did not become commonplace until the 1730s. Before the outbreak of the American Revolution, British and Dutch traders shipped Chinese porcelain, mainly from China, to what was then a British colony. In 1758, George Washington received his first shipment of porcelain from a British merchant from London named Richard Washington. Since porcelain was not as easy to ship as tea and silk, Washington seemed satisfied when he received his order “without any breakage.” As his secretaries recorded, the man who became America’s first president continued to acquire Chinese porcelain throughout his life. He was fond of blue-and-white china and ordered it on at least nine occasions. He probably placed his order in April 1763, as the invoice from Robert Cary & Company stated, “This shipment (to G. Washington) consisted of 1 complete set Table China fine blue & white consisting of 11 long Dishes 24 plates 12 soup plates 1 Tureen Covr & Dish 4 Sauce Boats 4 Salts.”68 Along with many other household items, the president often ordered porcelain in large sets. Similar to European princes and elites, he would entertain his guests at a display chamber full of Chinese porcelain. Washington was obsessed with this Chinese ware, and he even left his own legacy on porcelain culture. Today, we can still marvel at an unusual decorative ornament that had been commissioned in the 1820s, which includes an unusually portrayed Washington, staring at you from a gold-colored jug, whose jaw looks as if it had been melted off in a kiln.

George Washington was not the only socially and politically elite North American to be obsessed with Chinese porcelain. Thomas Jefferson’s future father-in-law, John Wayles, noted that the trend toward purchasing Chinese porcelain had become common by the 1760s.69 Yet the imperial crisis that lead to the American Revolution in the 1770s drastically disrupted trade between England and the New England colonies, preventing its colonists from importing Chinese porcelain, along with other luxury commodities. Even George Washington found it difficult to procure his favorite blue-and-white treasures—he complained in 1772, “I have been impatiently waiting for my Goods . . . having heard nothing from you [the merchant] in respect to them since the 12th of September.”70

To ensure that the American market could continue to enjoy porcelain and other desirable imports (including tea) from China, American traders established new trade routes against the backdrop of the disconnected Atlantic world that then existed between it and Britain. On February 22, 1784, the American vessel Empress of China, captained by John Green, set sail from New York City for Canton. When the ship returned to the United States on May 11, 1785, the vessel was full of tea and roughly 64 tons of porcelain.71 These voyages continued to the point that, by the turn of the 18th century, America had sent more than 28 merchant vessels to Canton to purchase Chinese porcelain.

The volume and speed of the porcelain trade between these two countries gradually increased throughout the 19th century. Chinese porcelain, together with tea and textiles, has led the list of exports from China to the United States since then. Yet the latter was interested in more than these products alone. A Philadelphia agent based in Canton recorded that numerous other items from China were shipped to the United States, including ivory, vermilion, white lead, cassia, and camphor.72 In the 20th century, the cargo from China to the United States became even more varied. However, no matter how diverse the pattern of imports became, porcelain remains a significant commodity that connects these two markets in a considerable way.

The New Century

As the 20th century progressed, the export market of this exotic Chinese ware continued to grow. Yet, similar to the global tea market, Chinese potters struggled in the face of competition from potters elsewhere, particularly Japan. As Chinese porcelain became much more popular during the 20th century, Chinese manufacturers began to produce more colorful patterns based on the Rose Medallion, which appealed to Victorian tastes. However, this porcelain was mass produced and considered of relatively poor quality. As a consequence, the European and the American markets tended toward the comparatively inexpensive, Japanese mass-produced porcelains.73 This change in demand contributed to the rapid development of the Japanese porcelain industry on the global market.

Beginning in the 20th century, in particular, the Japanese took the art of baking porcelain more seriously than before. This factor, as well as their porcelain’s attractive prices, drew the attention not only of non-Asian consumers, but also of the Chinese themselves, who purchased Japanese pottery from Arita, Imari, Karatsu, and especially Noritake. Consumers in China, Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and the United States became obsessed with its styles and patterns.

Even though porcelain originated in China, and some of its cities, such as Jingdezhen, became synonymous with porcelain production, it is no easy task for it to regain its former high ranking in the international market for this commodity. This is not only because of strong foreign competitors (such as the Japanese), but also because of the industry’s underlying structural problems. In a country where cheap labor and rapid industrialization outperform traditional craftsmanship, Chinese potters struggle to preserve the tradition of producing porcelain by hand. In fact, the process of fine porcelain production coupled with mediocre working conditions—ranging from breathing porcelain dust to being hunched over a single piece of pottery all day—makes it difficult to encourage young people to pursue careers in this industry. When interviewed on the condition of the industry, Jiang Meirong, an elderly stall owner in the Jingdezhen porcelain market, sighed deeply and said, “More and more of the future generation are moving away from the city. Three of my four children, for instance, are already in other industries. It is very tough for us to maintain the business.”74 Therefore, instead of being handmade, most of China’s exported porcelain is made by machine nowadays. Although these products can be produced more quickly and sold for a lower price, the quality is not the same as that of the quaint, authentic pieces made by hand. Some other cities also may use a lower firing temperature so as to produce more porcelain within a shorter period of time. The problem with this technique is that this pottery is not very smooth and pure and could break more easily.

In light of these challenges, the Chinese government has ordered Jingdezhen County’s Cultural Division to recruit pottery masters in order to keep this historic manner of handmade production alive. Shortly thereafter, the Cultural Division opened an Ancient Kiln Folk Exhibition for experienced potters, most of whom were retired professionals who produced porcelain according to the ancient methods.75 Meanwhile, the Chinese government sponsored the establishment of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute, presumably the only ceramics university in China that offers degrees to young talents in this traditional craft.76 The institute teaches students how to produce high-quality porcelain in both an artistic and pragmatic way via methods such as inventing new formulas of glaze for mass production, thereby stimulating the artisans to explore and define their own style in a balance between tradition and modernity.

Nevertheless, despite the government’s proactive stance in keeping China’s unique handmade porcelain culture alive, its porcelain industry remains at the crossroads of uncertainty. It is quite clear that the market has been under pressure lately, largely due to external competition and the industry’s decline, as well as the reduced demand from a younger generation of consumers. In the long term, we might see an epoch of revival, but for now, both individual potters and larger factories in China will continue to face a challenging market until the aforementioned problems are mitigated and ultimately resolved.

Silk: Weaving the World Together

Silk actually was not the main product transported on the Silk Road that traversed Central Asia and linked China proper with the European heartland.77 Nevertheless, as Shelagh J. Vainker notes, this fine material is “one of China’s major contributions to world civilization.”78 Likewise, Ma Debin commented that “silk was among the early products which broke the tyranny of distance, reduced barriers to human exchange, promoted the spread of ideas, and ultimately led to the division of labour and expansion of the market—the so-called Smithian growth.”79 The silk trade includes raw and spun silk, as well as silk textiles.

In the mid-19th century in Europe, Chinese finished silk textiles were a cheaper and less fashionable alternative to European products. Raw and spun silk, by contrast, were exported from China and the Levant to Europe, and also made in Europe itself, albeit of inferior quality. These differences are examined more thoroughly in the upcoming discussion.

China’s silk trade with the rest of the world can be traced as far back as antiquity. In ancient times, the Qin (221–206 bce) and Han (206 bc220 ad) empires conducted the silk trade, transporting the fabric along the fabled Silk Road and to Central Asian markets, where it was sold to points farther west.80 Yet this overland corridor was not the only avenue that Chinese traders used to export silk; from at least the 16th century onward, China’s silk exports to the West were carried along various maritime routes by Portuguese, Spanish, and other European trading vessels. Although Italy had long been Europe’s major silk producer, from the 15th century onward, Chinese silk exports to the West continued at a steady pace, from year to year, along with tea and porcelain.

In the middle and later years of the 19th century, the consumption of Chinese silk textiles experienced a remarkable expansion in Europe and the United States. One of the watersheds of the industry was the silkworm disease that broke out in France in the 1850s. It struck the French industrial landscape, decimated its silk-weaving industry, and stimulated the modern European demand for Oriental silk, mostly from China.81 Even after the disease was brought under control, the French continued to import a large quantity of raw silk and silk textiles from China. This was because the raw and spun silk manufactured in Europe could not match Chinese silk for its quality, quantity, and low cost–the latter had been long prized for its softness and its ability to hold brilliant dyes. To find out why the quality of Chinese raw and spun silk was so much better than its European counterpart, it is necessary to explore the history of Chinese silk production.

The Long Tradition

Silk manufacturing in China has deep roots as a traditional handicraft. As Lillian M. Li argues, “[I]f agriculture was the root of Chinese civilization, sericulture was one of the branches.”82 Sericulture is known to have existed in the southern area of the Yangtze River Delta since prehistoric times. Cities such as Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Shaoxing are all well known for their silk production.

The manufacture of silk fabric involves four key procedures: cultivating mulberry trees, raising silkworms, reeling silk from cocoons, and weaving the raw material into fabric. Silk production is a lengthy process that requires close monitoring. Whereas the third and fourth steps are the most complicated, the first two involve several intermediate processes that are necessary to the production of even a single strand of silk. Compared to the European method of silk weaving, the Chinese tradition is longer, and intensive training is required for carrying out the aforementioned procedures. For instance, in Yangzhou, early in the Song dynasty, young girls (i.e., before marriageable age) were required to learn the art of silkworm breeding, which is considered a key element of silk textile production. Following this, they received more intensive training from older generations of silk producers, so that they could become skilful silk weavers.83 As Lynda S. Bell reminds us, the traditional production of silk in the Yangzi Delta dates to a period even earlier than the Song—from the Northern and Southern dynasties, with Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai becoming centers of either silk production or the relevant industrial knowledge.84

By the mid-16th century, the Chinese had established a silk trade with Spain, and the Philippines had become the key transit point. Manila was a thriving Spanish colonial metropolis, both consuming and trading in Chinese commodities.85 Most of the silk goods produced in China were transported from Canton to Manila in Chinese junks and sampans, taking about 15 days to arrive. Next, Spanish traders would transport these smooth and delicate silks to the Americas. The Chinese traded in raw and finished silk with the Spanish in exchange for Mexican minerals, Bolivian silver, and Peruvian gold dust.86 The imported silver was recirculated in China, gradually superseding copper cash as both the medium of exchange and the land-tax payment.

William S. Atwell has argued that, by the late 16th century, China had been “drawn into the world economy through this exchange of Spanish-American silver for Chinese silk: the influx of silver stimulated the whole economy and encouraged regional specialization and the expansion of interregional trade.”87 Throughout this period, Chinese traders enjoyed a monopoly in the Sino-Spanish market and were able to maintain the reciprocal flow of silver and silk in a balanced way. However, when competition arrived in the 17th century in the form of the English East India Company, as a result of the price rigging that took place, the Chinese monopoly collapsed. Not only did the English East India Company undermine the Sino-Spanish silk trade, it also interrupted the supply of silver, thereby leading to the decline in the production of Chinese silk in centers such as Huzhuo, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. This decline also caused severe deflationary pressure on the Chinese economy, and thus was a key factor contributing to the fall of the Ming dynasty.88

Rise and Fall

In the 1640s, with the decline of the Spanish Empire as a maritime power, the Dutch, and later the British, grew in prominence in maritime trade. Although Amsterdam was a major European entrepôt for Chinese silk, the Dutch were more involved in trading spices and other commodities than were the British.89 In London, by contrast, silk held greater importance than tea and porcelain until the mid-18th century.90 However, with the pronouncement of the Commutation Act of 1784, the British Parliament greatly cut its import duties on tea. Consequently, in Britain, tea now overshadowed the silk trade. Nevertheless, unlike the Spanish, the British still preferred to import their raw silk from China.

In 1684, after the Kangxi Emperor opened four southern seaports to foreign trade, exports of silk piece goods to England and Europe, though still substantial, significantly declined from their levels of the previous century, whereas exports of raw silk increased as this product saw a gain in relative importance. According to statistical research conducted by Chen Zhen and Shi Minxiong, the consequent rapid increase in the price of raw silk reflected this shift in demand. By 1747, the price of raw silk at Wujiang had risen by 86 percent, while the price of damask had increased by only 30 percent over the same period.91 The growing demand for raw silk and the declining demand for finished silk products in the 18th century were due to the maturing of Britain’s silk-weaving industry.

Anning, the Qing commissioner of imperial silk manufacturing at Suzhou, was perhaps the first official to comment on the changing patterns in raw silk exports. In 1759, in a memorandum to the Qianlong Emperor, he petitioned for a ban on the export of raw silk. He argued that the huge purchases of silk charged by the Cantonese and Fujianese merchants in Jiangnan resulted in its increased price and the consequent bankruptcy of many weavers. Taking up Anning’s suggestion, the emperor forbade the export of raw silk and, a year later, issued an imperial edict that confined all foreign trade to the port of Canton (i.e., the infamous Canton system).92 Nonetheless, in 1761, only two years later, the ban on silk exports was lifted, although limitations remained on the type and amount of silk that each merchant could export.

Data on annual exports of Chinese raw silk show that under these restrictive regulations, exports remained static throughout the last half of the 18th century, rarely exceeding 4,000 piculs a year. Between 1775 and 1785, silk represented only about 10 percent of the East India Company’s exports from China, dropping from the 31 percent of earlier times.93

After 1825, raw silk experienced a dramatic increase in the proportion of exports as the EIC stopped shipping silk altogether, thereby leaving the silk trade to private traders. After the abolition of the company’s monopoly in 1833, silk exports, principally to England, increased at an erratic rate, reaching nearly 10,000 piculs by the 1840s. However, with the outbreak of the First Opium War (1839–1842), exports again fell to an annual average of 2,500 piculs, between 1824 and 1838.94

It was not until the opening of the five treaty ports (Shanghai, Canton, Ningbo, Fuzhou, and Xiamen) that Chinese silk exports began to surge. This more open treaty system in China, which the British had found so restrictive, initiated a structural change in the silk trade. The major port for silk exports shifted from Canton to Shanghai because the latter was situated closer to the silk-growing districts of the Lower Yangtze Valley, particularly the northern prefectures of the part of Zhejiang province that bordered Lake Tai. Instead of dealing with the Hong merchants of Canton, British traders now could deal with native compradors, mostly from Zhejiang, and so they placed their orders for silk via these middlemen. Even though the British still depended on intermediaries to contact the silk producers, the latter were no longer licensed and supervised by the central government. And except for interruptions caused by the Taiping Uprising (1850–1864), silk exports from Shanghai to the West expanded steadily.95

Shanghai and Canton

Canton remained the second-most-important region in the silk export trade, even after the locus of this trade had shifted to Shanghai. With the expanded opportunities for foreign trade that followed the Opium War, sericulture rapidly spread across the Canton delta. Compared to the Lower Yangtze Valley, Canton was more oriented toward the foreign market. Further, its silk industry adapted the steam filature to the production of silk before the Jiangnan region did. During the 1880s, after the adaptation of this new technology from the West, machine-reeled silk came to dominate exports. For instance, in 1882, filature silk accounted for only 13.1 percent of all silk exports, but by 1895, it had grown to 90 percent.96

In addition to the British and European markets, demand in the United States meant that it was becoming a major market for Chinese silk. Before 1864, the tariff on silk goods coming into the United States was about 60 percent. Yet, beginning in 1865, silk was admitted duty free.97 The abolition of the tariff barrier against silk products subsequently stimulated the growth of the silk-weaving industry in the United States. Yet it clearly could not develop a silk industry of its own, in the absence of a secure supply of raw silk. Unlike most of the European countries where raw silk was available (even though they still relied on exports from China), the United States had to import virtually all the raw silk that it required.98 This rise in American demand for raw silk led to an upsurge in Chinese exports. By the end of 1869, imports from China amounted to 102,000 pounds, whereas a decade later, this figure increased tenfold.99

Advances in transportation and communications between the East and the West also fostered the expansion of Chinese exports to Europe and the United States. In 1867, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company opened a direct service from San Francisco to China.100 The completion of the Suez Canal was another significant breakthrough, allowing a more direct naval route between Europe, the India Ocean, and East Asia. All these advancements meant that the nautical distance between China and the rest of the world was shortened by at least 25 percent. Also, the displacement of clippers by steamboats, which traveled at twice the speed, accelerated the transport and dissemination of silk across the globe (naturally, this included tea and porcelain as well). Added to this was the completion of the Far Eastern section of the submarine telegraph in 1871, linking Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. This also put Shanghai in direct telegraphic communication with London, which, at the time, remained the distribution center for Chinese silk products in Europe. London’s leading status was only supplanted by Lyon, France, in the 1880s.

Concluding Remarks

Today, the term “made in China” might bring to mind poor-quality merchandise. Nonetheless, this was not always the case, at least in previous centuries. Tracing the social lives of tea, porcelain, and silk, it is discernible that the world in fact had been living with commodities made in and exported from China for a long period of time. Particularly, when tea slowly became more common in England during the 18th century, most Britons tended to purchase tea leaves planted in the Yangtze River Delta and the Fujian region. When Europeans first encountered Chinese porcelain, it was so fine, translucent, and superior to anything that they could possibly manufacture at the time. They thus concluded that it must be a magic substance and astonishingly called it “white gold.” When the silkworm disease ruined European sericulture in the middle of the 19th century, Chinese silk, including silk textiles and raw and spun silks, fulfilled a need in a demanding Euro-American market. All these examples reflect the fact that China had been playing a crucial role in the global history of the dissemination and consumption of commodities since the early modern period.

Upon reflection, however, China has failed to take full advantage of the global market, so as to enrich its government and economy through its export businesses. In fact, tea, porcelain, and silk production comprised all of China’s traditional and most significant industries, both in terms of the state’s interests and the peasants’ livelihoods. For centuries, these industries had been so superior that they greatly advanced China’s economy. This is because the skills and technologies used were well developed for the time, and, in many ways, the forms of production used were more complex than those of their overseas counterparts. However, during (and even before) the early modern period, the development of these industries seemed to be too steadfast, if not stagnate. Later, in the 19th century, the stimulus of Western trade did not result in a quick or nationwide technological response, although the export figures continued to increase year by year. As a consequence, most of these traditional industries failed to expand and compared unfavorably with their foreign competitors.

It is not an easy task to compile a comprehensive history of these three significant commodities within the confines of one single paper. This discussion has provided an overview of how these traditional industries, which spanned the continuum from agriculture, earthenware, and textiles, changed over time through the various stages of processing and marketing, and in particular, the specific ways in which they reacted to the global changes and challenges that developed throughout the early modern period. However, a series of related topics remain that would help recast our understanding of the subject against imperialistic, colonial, medical, anthropological, gender, environmental, and material-cultural perspectives. For instance, it would be intellectually compelling to know whether the export trade of these commodities became a driver for the empire and cultural imperialism, and to what extent a study of these commodities would open new directions in the history of China’s global connections. Other inquiries might investigate the environmental costs brought about by the development of these industries, or ask whether social and cultural practices also were transferred, along with these commodities, from warehouses to vessels, and then to cupboards and bodies, or whether the real issues of this export consumption were about taste, aesthetics, quality, and value. Perhaps China had already become a world factory in the early modern period; this question would be interesting to explore. Interested readers may consult the list of further readings at the end of this article. This would enable them to navigate several stimulating pathways into the subject and to look ahead at some questions that may well be addressed in further research.

Discussion of the Literature

Even though China has exported tea, porcelain, and silk for a long time, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the topic began to receive significant scholarly attention. Upon consuming these commodities, economic and global historians of the 16th to 18th centuries were the first to recognize their potential virtues. In part, these scholars were more aware than most of the ways in which the world has been, and continues to be, connected by the circulation of goods and commodities. Most of them believe that interregional trade and transcultural interactions abounded in the early modern world, and that as a result, it thronged with diversity and hybridity.

Among the pioneering studies conducted by many global historians, the works of John E. Wills, Jr., Kenneth Pomeranz, Timothy Brook, and Leonard Blussé play a significant role in this research area. Wills’s book, Pepper, Guns, and Parleys: The Dutch East India Company and China, 1662–1681, and his subsequent monographs, such as 1688: A Global History and China and Maritime Europe, 1600–1800, all pioneered the integration of Chinese history into broader regional and global trading patterns and intercultural communication. Kenneth Pomeranz’s The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present (coauthored with Steven Topikand) and The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy provide a lively account of the history and creation of the world economy. In these volumes, the circulation and importance of Chinese commodities in the global market are masterfully discussed from various perspectives (namely political, economic, and cultural), with a variety of facts and analyses that make reading these texts a genuine pleasure.

Timothy Brook, in his book Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, takes a fascinating approach to the topic of the pattern of early modern global trade. Using the details of five paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and other illustrative evidence, Brook broadens his readers’ horizon by presenting a complex and gigantic network that connects China and Europe through global exchange. In turn, Leonard Blussé’s Visible Cities: Canton, Nagasaki, and Batavia and the Coming of the Americans captures the nature of the cultural and social interaction within these three port cities. Handsomely produced and featuring an excellent bibliography, Blussé’s work demonstrates the historical role of each of these places in the economic life of its respective maritime sphere during the years when the global economy was in its early stage of formation. The two books are both informative and vivifying and should cater to a wide-ranging audience that is interested in situating Chinese tea, porcelain, and silk exports within a global context.

The production, consumption, and internationalization of Chinese tea have been intensively studied since the 1970s. Ch’en Tsu-yu’s research on the structure and conduct of the Sino-western tea trade (The Development of the Chinese Tea Trade in the Modern World Market, written in Chinese and published in 1982) was perhaps one of the most comprehensive histories of the subject to be published at that time. This book provides an impressive reference list of numerous local gazetteers, Chinese and non-Chinese secondary materials, and customs and consular reports. It also paints a solid introductory picture of how Chinese tea planters and sellers incorporate themselves into a wider market through regional collaboration and international competition. In addition, Hoh-Cheung Mui and Lorna Mui’s The Management of Monopoly: A Study of the East Indian Company’s Conduct of Its Tea Trade, 1784–1833 features an excellent description of the methods of tea production, the varieties of tea produced, and the market for each type of tea in Britain and other Western European countries at that time. This is an excellent example of economic history that takes into account the importance of the Chinese tea trade through the use of a variety of statistical and nonadministrative materials.

Readers who are interested in how Chinese tea was produced and consumed also should pay attention to the following studies: John C. Evans’s Tea in China: The History of China’s National Drink; Robert P. Gardella’s Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757–1937; and Dan M. Etherington and Keith Forster’s Green Gold: The Political Economy of China’s Post-1949 Tea Industry. The first two monographs present an impressive tale of the production and consumption of Chinese tea. Both scholars provide path-breaking research on Chinese tea from an economic perspective and well-documented conclusions. In particular, Gardella makes a significant contribution to the subject of Chinese tea exports by examining the impact on China of the expanded foreign trade that took place after the First Opium War. He emphasizes the crucial role played by a dependable administration, modest taxation, and the protection of the property interests of those engaged in the trade in determining the failure of the Chinese style “market-based production” of the time. Etherington and Forster explore the complexities of China’s tea production in contemporary China. These authors investigated both the significances and challenges Chinese tea traders have faced since the early 1950s. They also attempted to figure out why Chinese tea producers still lag behind their Sri Lankan and Indian competitors in the world market. Similar to the aforementioned studies, Etherington and Forster’s work is equally informative and discursive, even though each of these books is different in approach and style.

Furthermore, Erika Rappaport recently published A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (2017). In this remarkable study, the author considers tea to have been a global commodity in the 17th century and traces the connections between the tea plantation, consumption, and taste, and the commerce that grew up around them. As Rappaport succinctly noted, the history of tea is intertwined with the history of capitalism and of modernity itself. As a global product, tea also links diverse peoples across vast swaths of space and time. If we try to situate the history of the tea that was exported from China to the West within the theoretical framework suggested by Rappaport, we will be better able to complicate the extent to which the tea trade can be labeled as a projection of soft power throughout the early modern era.

In addition to those impressive monographs, there are a series of journal articles that deserve special attention. Some of them insightfully direct our focus from a strictly business approach to trading to a cultural-historical one. For instance, Woodruff D. Smith’s study examines the interaction between Chinese tea and the British tea-drinking habit from a cultural-imperialistic perspective.101 The core question of his article is, “Why did the Chinese not use sugar in their tea, whereas the Europeans did?” In an academic discussion, the question itself sounds insignificant, but Smith portrays a brilliant picture that makes his inquiry imperative. His analysis is that Chinese tea, not just as a commodity but as a cultural object, embodies its unique meaning within the context of respectability, which is primarily associated with a cultural phenomenon that transcends distinctions of class and race.

Beyond a cultural-imperialistic angle, Peter Perdue argues that the history of Chinese tea can be positioned on an environmental-historical spectrum. In “Nature and Power: China and the Wider World,” Perdue eloquently discusses both the strategic and environmental roles of the trades in fur, tea, and fish from the 17th to the 20th centuries.102 Even though the tea bush is a more renewable natural resource than are fish and fur-bearing animals, the tea industry also went through a bust cycle, wherein the destroying and restoring of hill lands took place in response to local and global economic forces. These two papers are exceptional and inspiring not only because they venture to look at the story of Chinese tea from a nonbusiness assembly line perspective, but also because their importance lies in their ambitious and convincing attempts to reshape the landscape of the history of these commodities in promising and interdisciplinary ways.

Porcelain is another important academic topic in relation to Chinese exports and global trade. Historians, archaeologists, and collectors have cultivated an interest in Chinese porcelain as an exported good, as well as tea. In early 1956, John Goldsmith Phillips published China-Trade Porcelain. This book presents a comprehensive account of the conditions under which the export of porcelain was carried out within a historical context. Phillips uses 109 fine examples from the Helena Woolworth McCann collection to illustrate this topic.

Six years later, Michel Beurdeley published a book entitled Chinese Trade Porcelain, which substantially contributed to the existing literature on the subject in the 1960s. He exclusively focuses on and discusses a wide variety of unique Chinese porcelain found in private and public collections in Europe, many of which had not been seen before the release of this book. In addition, the author provides a valuable description of the interplay between Chinese and Western art by tracing the adaptation of metal forms to ceramic wares. These two studies are wonderful contributions that recount important narratives through the lens of particular objects.

These books could be studied alongside a more recent publication, Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe, by Jeffrey Collins. Also, Jean McClure Mudge published Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785–1835, almost at the same time that Beurdeley released Chinese Trade Porcelain. McClure Mudge’s study is scholarly and remarkable in its documentation, as she uses rich sources of privately owned material as well as those found in museums and library collections. By tracing the story of U.S. trade with China, she demonstrates that Chinese porcelain exports contributed to a major part of the picture of Chinese exports overall. She also carefully and effectively gives a detailed and brilliant account of the trading relationship between American merchants and the Chinese in an era when the former fancied goods from the other side of the Spanish Lake (i.e., the Pacific Ocean).

In the new century, economic historians tend to consider porcelain a specific luxury export emanating from southern China during the early modern period. They have come to see Chinese porcelain imports as fundamental to the transformation of British industry during the 18th century. Maxine Berg, in her book In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century, made it clear that porcelain was in fact one of the Asian imports that laid the critical foundation for what would become known as the Industrial Revolution.103 By contrast, cultural historians have focused much attention on the uses and meanings of porcelain exports within European societies. For instance, Anne Gerritsen and Stephen McDowall explored the link between Chinese porcelain, as a luxury good, and the perceptions of producers in the early modern world. Using porcelain as a case study, these researchers show that the material culture of a commodity has the full potential not only to provide a more nuanced understanding of the period, but also to specify the ways in which the relevant connections could break down into specific patterns.104

In a similar vein, Robert Finlay, in The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History, suggests that the cultural impact of Chinese porcelain can provide an illuminating theme for the study of world history. He insightfully argues that porcelain vessels are particularly revealing because they were often functional wares, treasured possessions, and bearers of cultural significance. As a result, he suggests that the history of porcelain must be linked not only to changes in commerce, but also to changes in expressions of art and social values, thereby relating this commodity to the central developments that took place during the span of world history, at least since early modern times.

Similar to porcelain, the subject of Chinese silk exports has consistently been heated among historians. Lillian M. Li’s China’s Silk Trade: Traditional Industry in the Modern World, 1842–1937 remains one of the classic, standard studies. In this detailed account, Li beautifully documents how silk exports from China had long been developed free from the influence of Western imperialism. This sharply focused and informative study expands our understanding of the industrial organization of silk production and consumption in the early modern era.

Robert Y. Eng’s Economic Imperialism in China: Silk Production and Exports, 1861–1932 and Alvin Y. So’s The South China Silk District: Local Historical Transformation and World-System Theory also deserve our attention. Both books significantly contribute to our knowledge of the prewar Chinese economy through their studies of the silk industry within theoretical contexts. While Eng is more interested in the impact of imperialism, So is more focused on an analysis of the geopolitical system. Their theoretical insights into the silk industry demonstrate both the positive and negative effects of foreign economic presence on development, as well as the inhibiting influence of the Chinese silk market on China’s exports. Both books are detailed and analytical and should be considered successful microeconomic analyses of an export industry in China.

First published in Chinese, The Silk Industry in Ch’ing China, by Shi Minxiong (translated by E-tu Zen Sun) also greatly contributes to our understanding of how foreign trade and technological change during the late 19th century affected a significant and traditional rural and urban industry. Shi’s study is compelling; it makes imaginative use of primary materials from sources, such as local gazetteers, official memorials, Japanese survey reports, and Chinese customs documents. His work is better than many other studies written in Chinese on this topic. He carefully explains why China’s share of the world silk market was reduced gradually by intensive competition from Japanese silk manufacturers, thereby accounting for China’s failure to ease the difficulties that arose from the industry’s rapid transformation on a global scale.

Last but not least, readers interested in an engaging survey of the historical and cultural development of sericulture in China are encouraged to look at Shelagh Vainker’s Chinese Silk: A Cultural History; R. K. Datta and Mahesh Nanavaty’s Global Silk Industry: A Complete Source Book; and Claudio Zanier’s Where the Roads Met: East and West in the Silk Production Processes.

Primary Sources

This final, short section seeks to provide pointers for further research on the subject. However, this is by no means an exhaustive account of all the relevant primary materials available nowadays. The attempt here is to indicate the variety of sources that have been produced and published, as well as those that are largely untouched and need to be explored in much greater depth than has been done so far. Generally, when scholarship applies a significant body of work, three major types of primary sources are used: (a) governmental documents and dynastic histories;105 (b) gazetteers;106 and (c) private writings.107 However, these are only the main categories; be aware that the life histories of commodities can be discovered, framed, and constructed by other type of sources as well, such as poems, epitaphs, travel writings, biographies, and religious canons. An imaginative historian of commodities will want to look at anything that could provide useful and constructive clues.

Other than textual materials, which most historians have viewed, images are an important primary source; these include maps, illustrations found in ancient texts and modern journals, and contemporary photographs. These types of evidence are invaluable because they reveal goods and commodities visually (particularly for porcelain and silk product); and they also considerably corroborates and deepens the existing historiography on the circulations and patterns of goods throughout the long course of Chinese and Asian history.. Some illustrations could be found in the following websites: “Merchant; “Anita Gray”; “Catherine Hunt: Oriental Antiques”; “Silk, Silk Worms: Their History and Production”; and “Formental”.

Archives should not be limited to collecting only the written and illustrative artifacts of the past. Archival collections also consist of tangible material objects (material culture). Repositories may even contain archives within a larger archive, such as those housed in the British Museum, the Victorian and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guimet Museum of Asian Art in Paris, the National Museum in Cardiff, the Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics in Leeuwarden, the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza, the Insulator Museum in Japan, The Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul, and the Museum of Ceramics in Kuskovo, where we can find examples of porcelain produced in Jingdezhen and silk woven in Suzhou. By looking at these objects as materials from the past, we can interpret, suggest, reconstruct, and theorize how they embody the life of the individual or community that consumed them. As James Deetz eloquently argued, “Material culture is useful in emphasizing how profoundly our world is the product of our thoughts, as the sector of our physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behaviour. This definition includes all artefacts, from the simplest, such as a common pin, to the most complex, such as an interplanetary space vehicle.”108

Finally, much can be learned from the generation of artisans, planters, and traders who are now in the later stages of their lives. Perhaps there is a need for further collaboration among scholars from various disciplines (particularly historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and database experts) to uncover stories that are transmitted only through the spoken word. The best way to accomplish this is to mobilize scholars and students to build digital archives based on these voices and memories so as to contextualize these stories in their own locality and temporality before they all disappear. If we engage more in the gathering of oral histories from this generation, then we will be able to expose a rich storehouse of information that links the culture of local production to the wider global network of commodity exchange, and even better, the multiple facets of globalization and glocalization within an interdisciplinary context.

Further Reading

  • Berg, Maxine, Felicia Gottman, Hanna Hodacs, and Chris Nierstrasz, eds. Goods from the East, 1600–1800: Trading Eurasia. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
  • Dolin, Eric Jay. When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. New York: Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012.
  • Ellis, Markman, Richard Coulton, and Matthew Mauger. Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World. London: Reaktion Books, 2015.
  • Emerson, Julie, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates. Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2000.
  • Eng, Robert Y. Economic Imperialism in China: Silk Production and Exports, 1861–1932. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1986.
  • Finlay, Robert. The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
  • Frank, Caroline. Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  • Fuchs, Ronald W. Made in China: Export Porcelain from the Leo and Doris Hodroff Collection at Winterthur. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2005.
  • Gardella, Robert P. Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757–1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Hildebrandt, Berit, with Carole Gillis, eds. Silk: Trade and Exchange Along the Silk Roads Between Rome and China in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017.
  • Jörg, Christiaan Jan Adriaan. Porcelain and the Dutch China Trade. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1982.
  • Kroes, Jochem. Chinese Armorial Porcelain for the Dutch Market. Woodbridge, UK: ACC Distribution. 2007.
  • Li, Lillian M. China’s Silk Trade: Traditional Industry in the Modern World, 1842–1937. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1981.
  • Lim, Jason. Linking an Asian Transregional Commerce in Tea: Overseas Chinese Merchants in the Fujian-Singapore Trade, 1920–1960. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
  • Liu, Yong. The Dutch East India Company’s Tea Trade with China, 1757–1781. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2007.
  • Macgregor, David R. The Tea Clippers: An Account of the China Tea Trade and of Some of the British Sailing Ships Engaged in It from 1849 to 1869. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1972.
  • May, Ernest R., and John K. Fairbank, eds. America’s China Trade in Historical Perspective: The Chinese and American Performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Mudge, Jean McClure. Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785–1835. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1962.
  • Parmentier, Jan. Tea Time in Flanders: The Maritime Trade Between the Southern Netherlands and China in the Eighteenth Century. Ghent, Belgium: Ludion Press, 1996.
  • Rose, Sarah. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. New York: Viking, 2010.
  • Schiffer, Herbert. China for America: Export Porcelain of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1980.
  • So, Alvin Y. The South China Silk District: Local Historical Transformation and World-System Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.
  • Van Dyke, Paul. The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700–1845. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007.
  • Vainker, Shelagh. Chinese Silk: A Cultural History. London: British Museum Press, 2004.
  • Vinhais, Luísa, and Jorge Welsh. Kraak Porcelain: The Rise of Global Trade in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. London: Jorge Welsh, 2008.
  • Wills, John E., Jr., ed. China and Maritime Europe, 1500–1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.


  • 1. Jan De Vries, “The Limits of Globalization in the Early Modern World,” Economic History Review 63, no. 3(2010): 710–733.

  • 2. Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 3; and Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 119–173.

  • 3. Qingzheng Wang, Rosemary E. Scott, Jennifer Chen, Serene Pleasure: The Jinglexuan Collection of Chinese Ceramics (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2001), 13.

  • 4. Louis Dermigny, La Chine et I’Occident: Le commerce a Canton au xviii siècle, 1719–1833 (Paris: Sevpen, 1964), vol. 1, 11.

  • 5. Pedro Machado, Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa and the Indian Ocean, c. 1750–1850 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 150.

  • 6. Although some scholars would argue that the origin of tea is lost in history and legend, most historians, such as Robert Gardella, Tong Liu, Wang Ling, and John C. Evans, have asserted that tea originated in southwest China. See, for instance, Robert Gardella, Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 10–14; Tong Liu, Chinese Tea (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 2; Wang Ling, Chinese Tea Culture: The Origin of Tea Drinking (Subang Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk, 2001); and John C. Evans, Tea in China: The History of China’s National Drink (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 1.

  • 7. “Infographic: Tea in China,” published in US-China Today,USC US-China Institute.

  • 8. China has sixteen provinces and regions (including Taiwan) that produce tea. See also Kit Boey Chow and Ione Kramer, All the Tea in China (San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, Inc., 1990), 79–80; and Yong-Su Zhen, ed., Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential (London: Taylor & Francis, 2002), 8.

  • 9. Black tea in the West is known as red tea (hongcha) in China because of the reddish color of the brew.

  • 10. V. D. Wickizer, Coffee, Tea, and Cocoa: An Economic and Political Analysis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1951), 204–207; and Alexander Nützenadel and Frank Trentmann, eds., Food and Globalization: Consumption, Markets, and Politics in the Modern World (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 38–39.

  • 11. Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, eds., The Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1189.

  • 12. James A. Benn, Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 145–171.

  • 13. Zhengyuan Fu, Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 95.

  • 14. Ling Wang, Tea and Chinese Culture (San Francisco: Long River Press, 2005), 170–171.

  • 15. William Ulkers, All About Tea (New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935), 28; Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Anne Walthall, eds., Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, vol. 1 (Boston: Wandsworth, 2014), 268; and Martha Avery, The Tea Road: China and Russia Meet Across the Steppe (Beijing: China International Press, 2003), 150 (endnote no. 18).

  • 16. For details, see O. W. Wolters, Early Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of Srivijaya (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).

  • 17. Christopher Cumo, Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia (Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2013), vol. 1, 1045; Jim Harran and Susan Harran, Cups & Saucers: Identification and Values (Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2004), 12; and Mark Galeotti, “Sino-Russian Border Resolution,” in Beijing’s Power and China’s Borders: Twenty Neighbors in Asia, eds. Bruce Elleman, Stephen Kotkin, and Clive Schofield (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 253.

  • 18. Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 11.

  • 19. William Lewis Sachse, ed., The Diurnal of Thomas Rugg, 1659–1661 (London: Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1961); the original diary of Rugg is preserved in the British Library.

  • 20. See Maxine Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 47.

  • 21. Piya Chatterjee, A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 33; and Chi-ming Yang, Performing China: Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660–1760 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 5.

  • 22. Cited from P. M. Guerty and Kevin Switaj, “Tea, Porcelain, and Sugar in the British Atlantic World,” OAH Magazine of History (April 2004), 56.

  • 23. Hoh-Cheung and Lorna H. Hui, “The Commutation Act and the Tea Trade in Britain, 1784–1793,” Economic History Review 16 (1963), 244–245.

  • 24. Leonard Blussé, Visible Cities: Canton, Nagasaki, and Batavia and the Coming of the Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 55.

  • 25. Julie E. Fromer, A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008), 60.

  • 26. George Gabriel Sigmond, Tea: Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1839), 2–3.

  • 27. Jane T. Merritt, The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 54–55.

  • 28. Unknown author, “East Indiamen and Clipper Ships,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 2, no. 3 (May 1928): 3–9.

  • 29. See, for instance, Glenn A. Knoblock, The American Clipper Ship, 1845–1920: A Comprehensive History, with a Listing of Builders and Their Ships (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2014), 1–5. Andrew Shewan, captain of one of the tea clippers, also wrote down his personal experiences in The Great Days of Sail: Reminiscences of a Tea-clipper Captain (London and New York: Conway Publishing, reprinted in 1996).

  • 30. Jayeeta Sharma, “‘Lazy’ Natives. Coolie Labour, and the Assam Tea Industry,” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 6 (November 2009): 1288.

  • 31. Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native (London: Frank Cass, 1977).

  • 32. Carrie Gleason, The Biography of Tea (New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2007), 17; and Roland Wenzlhuemer, From Coffee to Tea Cultivation in Ceylon, 1880–1900: An Economic and Social History (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 75–91.

  • 33. Cited from Fromer, A Necessary Luxury, 54.

  • 34. K. C. Willson and M. N. Clifford, eds., Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (North Yorkshire, UK: Springer, 1992), 650.

  • 35. J. Dyer Ball, Things Chinese or Notes Connected with China (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama, Japan, and Singapore: Kelly & Walsh, Limited, 1903), 693.

  • 36. Wang Mingjie and Tang Yue, “Why Tea Is Chinese to a Tee,” The Telegraph (May 31, 2016), retrieved from

  • 37. Arif Dirlik, “Global South: Predicament and Promise,” The Global South 1, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 15.

  • 38. Janet Gleeson, The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain (Berkshire, UK: Bantam, 1998), 85–96.

  • 39. Nogami Takenori, “Hizen Porcelain Exported to Asia, Africa, and America,” in The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration, ed. Angela Schottenhammer (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008), 203.

  • 40. “The dishes are made of a crumbly earth or clay, which is dug as though from a mine and stacked in huge mounds and then left for thirty or forty years exposed to wind, rain, and sun,” Polo wrote. “By this time the earth is so refined that dishes made of it are of an azure tint with a very brilliant sheen.” See Marco Polo, Ronald Latham (trans.), The Travels (London: Penguin, 1958), 238. See also Howard Davis, Chinoiserie: Polychrome Decoration on Staffordshire Porcelain, 1790–1850 (London: Rubicon Press, 1991), 11.

  • 41. See discussions in Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo Go to China? (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996); and Hans Ulrich Vogel, Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts, and Revenues (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013).

  • 42. Edwin Barber, “Chinese Porcelains,” in Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 7, no. 28 (October 1909): 61.

  • 43. Cited in Maude Haywood, “Oriental Porcelain: China,” The Decorator and Furnisher 16, no. 3 (June 1890): 80.

  • 44. Edwin AtLee Barber, “Chinese Porcelains,” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 7, no. 28 (October, 1909): 62–63.

  • 45. Geoffrey Sayer (trans.), The Potteries of China (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1951), 49.

  • 46. Robert Finlay, The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010), 25.

  • 47. J. H. Lawrence-Archer, “Chinese Porcelain, Particularly That of the Ta Ming Dynasty,” The Art Journal: New Series 1 (1875): 251–254.

  • 48. Finlay, The Pilgrim Art, 62; and Shirley Ganse, Chinese Porcelain: An Export to the World (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co. Ltd., 2008), 84.

  • 49. Gillian Wilson, Mounted Oriental Porcelain in the J. Paul Getty Museum: Revised Edition (Los Angeles, Christopher Hudson, 1999), 3, 18 (endnote 23).

  • 50. Li Li, China’s Cultural Relics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 64.

  • 51. For discussion on the blue-and-white kin, see John Carswell, Blue & White: Chinese Porcelain Around the World (London: British Museum Press, 2007).

  • 52. John Brown, China, Japan, Korea: Culture and Customs (North Charleston, SC: BookSurge, LLC, 2006), 115.

  • 53. Michael Dillon, “Transport and Marketing in the Development of the Jingdezhen Porcelain Industry During the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 35, no. 3 (1992): 278–290.

  • 54. See Robert Finlay, The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010), 140.

  • 55. Sarah Richards, Eighteenth-Century Ceramics: Products for a Civilised Society (Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999), 58.

  • 56. Maxine Berg, “Luxury, the Luxury Trade, and the Roots of Industrial Growth: A Global Perspective,” in Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption, ed. Frank Trentmann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 182.

  • 57. Maude Haywood, “Oriental Porcelain: China,” The Decorator and Furnisher 16, no. 3 (June 1890): 81.

  • 58. William Chaffers, Marks and Monograms on Pottery and Porcelain (London: J. Davy & Sons, 1866), 476–477.

  • 59. Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 31; and Christopher Corti and Richard Holliday, eds., Gold: Science and Applications (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2010), 322–323.

  • 60. Edmund de Waal, The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts (London: Penguin, 2015), 5.

  • 61. C. J. A. Jörg, Porcelain and the Dutch China Trade (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1982), 93, 149.

  • 62. John Ayers, “Some Characteristic Wares of the Yuan Dynasty,” TOCS 29 (1954–1955): 69–83; and Feng Xianming, “Yongle and Xuande: Blue-and-White Porcelain in the Palace Museum,” Orientations 18 (1987): 56–71.

  • 63. Margaret Medley, The Chinese Potter (London: Phaidon Press, 1999), 180–182.

  • 64. Ting Chang even argued that through collecting Chinese porcelain, some intellectuals in Europe “elaborated [their] personal, familial, and national identities[, insofar as] fantasy, in psychoanalytic theory, is the accomplishment of a wish, the rectification of an unsatisfying reality.” See Ting Chang, “Goncourt’s China Cabinet: China Fantasy and a Nineteenth-Century French Collector,” in Collecting China: The World, China, and a History of Collecting, ed. Vimalin Rujivacharakul (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2011), 31.

  • 65. Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 65.

  • 66. David S. Howard, The Choice of the Private Trader: The Private Market in Chinese Export Porcelain illustrated from the Hodroff Collection (London: Zwemmer, 1994), p. 11.

  • 67. Howard, The Choice of the Private Trader.

  • 68. “Invoice from Robert Cary & Company, 23 April 1763,” Founders Online, National Archives. Cited in The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, eds. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, vol. 7 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 198–199.

  • 69. T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 52.

  • 70. “From George Washington to Robert Cary & Company,” Founders Online, National Archives. Cited in The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, eds. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, vol. 9, 15–16.

  • 71. Clare Le Corbeiller, China Trade Porcelain: Patterns of Exchange (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974), 117.

  • 72. Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785–1835 (Plainsboro, NJ: Associated University Press, 1981), 43.

  • 73. Guenther Stein, Made in Japan (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 9–11.

  • 74. Laura Imkamp, “The Future of China: Jingdezhen Struggles to Maintain Its Porcelain Fame,” CNN Travel (July 20, 2011), retrieved from

  • 75. Edward Wong, “Ancient Porcelain Arts Thrive Again in a Chinese River Town,” The New York Times (January 31, 2017), retrieved from

  • 76. Li Ruohan, “China’s Porcelain Capital Jingdezhen Establishes Art Zone for Young Artists,” Global Times (December 11, 2016), retrieved from; see also the institute’s official website:

  • 77. Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 5.

  • 78. Shelagh Vainker, Chinese Silk: A Cultural History (London: British Museum Press, 2004), 1.

  • 79. Debin Ma, “The Great Silk Exchange: How the World Was Connected and Developed,” in Textiles in the Pacific, 1500–1900, ed. Debin Ma (New York: Routledge, 2005), 26.

  • 80. Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 143.

  • 81. Rajat. K. Datta and Mahesh Nanavaty, eds., Global Silk Industry: A Complete Source Book (New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation, 2007), 20.

  • 82. Lillian M. Li, China’s Silk Trade: Traditional Industry in the Modern World, 1842–1937 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 1.

  • 83. Zhu Xi, Chu His’s Family Rituals: A Twelfth-Century Chinese Manual for the Performance of Cappings, Weddings, Funerals, and Ancestral Rites, trans. and ed. Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 33.

  • 84. See Lynda S. Bell, One Industry, Two Chinas: Silk Filatures and Peasant-Family Production in Wuxi County, 1865–1937 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999). To know more about the clothing culture in Yangzhou, particularly in the Qing period, see Antonia Finnane, “The Fashionable City? Glimpses of Clothing Culture in Qing Yangzhou,” in Lifestyle and Entertainment in Yangzhou, eds. Lucie B. Olivová and Vibeke Bordahl (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2009), 62–74.

  • 85. Dennis O. Flynn and Arturio Giraldez have this to say about the city: “Manila was the crucial entrepôt linking substantial, direct, and continuous trade between the Americas and Asia for the first time in history.” See their “Born with a Silver Spoon: The Origins of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History 6 (1995), 201.

  • 86. Birgit M. Tremml, “The Global and the Local: Problematic Dynamics of the Triangular Trade in Early Modern Manila,” Journal of World History 23, no. 3 (September 2012): 555–586.

  • 87. William S. Atwell, “Notes on Silver, Foreign Trade, and the Late Ming Economy,” Ch’ing-shih wen-ti III 8 (December 1977): 1–33; see also his more recent paper, “Another Look at Silver Imports into China, ca. 1635–1644,” Journal of World History 16, no. 4 (December, 2005): 467–489.

  • 88. Robert Y. Eng, Economic Imperialism in China: Silk Production and Exports, 1861–1932 (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1986), 21.

  • 89. Merle Calvin Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1300 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 29.

  • 90. Royal Entomological Society of London, Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London (London: Royal Entomological Society of London, 1836), 50.

  • 91. Chen Zhen and Shi Minxiong, Zhongguo jindai gongyeshi ziliao, vol. 4 (Beijing: Beijing sanlian shudian, 1957–1961), 117–118.

  • 92. Nishimura Takao, “Chugoku yu shutsu kinu no seisan kozo,” reprinted in Chugoku kankei ronsetsu shiryo 10, no. 3 (December, 1968): 626. For information on the Canton system, see Paul Van Dyke, The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700–1845 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007).

  • 93. Li, China’s Silk Trade, 65–67.

  • 94. Li, China’s Silk Trade.

  • 95. See Imperial Maritime Customs, Decennial Reports on the Trade, Navigation, Industries, etc., of Ports Open to Foreign Commerce, and on the Condition and Development of the Treaty Port Provinces, 1922–31, vol. 1 (Shanghai: Imperial Maritime Customs, 1933), 91.

  • 96. Shih Min-hsiung, The Silk Industry in Ch’ing China (Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies, 1976), 17.

  • 97. Matsui Shichiro, The History of the Silk Industry in the United States (New York: Silk Publishing Co., 1927–1929), 30–31.

  • 98. The United States made numerous unsuccessful attempts during the 19th century to raise silkworms. This was not only because of the unsuitability of the soil and climate for the cultivation of mulberries and silkworms, but also because of the prohibitively high labor costs in a labor-scarce economy. See William Ferguson Leggett, The Story of Silk (New York: Lifetime Editions, 1949), 337.

  • 99. Eng, Economic Imperialism in China, 29.

  • 100. “The London and China Telegraph: 1874,” “February 17, 1874,” 131. “The London and China Telegraph” was a newspaper published between 1859 and 1904 in London. Most of them were digitalized by Hathi Trust Digital Library. See

  • 101. Woodruff D. Smith, “Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 2 (Autumn 1992): 259–278.

  • 102. Peter Perdue, “Nature and Power: China and the Wider World,” Social Science History 37, no. 3, Special Issue: Global Environmental History (Fall 2013): 373–391.

  • 103. Maxine Berg, “In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present no. 182 (February 2004): 85–142.

  • 104. Anne Gerritsen and Stephen McDowall, “Material Culture and the Other: European Encounters with Chinese Porcelain, ca. 1650–1800,” Journal of World History 23, no. 1 (March 2012): 87–113.

  • 105. For governmental documents written in Chinese, the following are essential: Junjichu dang zouzhe lufu 軍機處檔奏摺錄副‎ (Archive of the Grand Council); Gongzhongdang zouzhe (宫中檔奏摺康熙朝‎, 雍正朝‎, 乾隆朝‎) (Archives in the imperial court: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong eras); Ming Qing neige daku dang’an 明清內閣大庫檔案‎ (The archives of the Grand Secretariat); Qingchao dang’an shiliao huibian 清朝檔案史料彙編‎ (Selected archival materials in the Qing dynasty); Qingshi gao 清史稿‎ (The draft history of the Qing); Zhongguo Hanghai shi jichu wenxian huibian 中國航海史基礎文獻彙編‎ (Basic primary materials of Chinese maritime history), Zhongguo jindai duiwai maoyishi ziliao (Archives on Sino-foreign sea trade); and Haiguan yamen xuzhi shiyi ce 海關衙門須知事宜册‎ (Essential manual for customs officials). Some of the primary documents, such as “The Archives of the Grand Secretariat,” have been digitalized. As for governmental documents written in other languages, interested readers may look at G. L. Balk, F. van Dijk, and D. J. Kortland, eds., The Archives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Local Institutions in Batavia (Jakarta) (Leiden: Brill, 2007); Algemeen Rijksarchief and Eerste Afdeling, eds., De archieven van de Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (1602–1795); and W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, and the archives preserved in the Public Record Office in Kew, London.

  • 106. Gazetteers (fuzhi/xianzhi) in the Kangxi-Yong-Qian period were published exhaustively, including, to name just a few, Yangzhou fuzhi (揚州府志‎), Changzhou fuzhi (常州府志‎), Taiwan fuzhi (臺灣府志‎), Guangzhou fuzhi (廣州府志‎), Ningbo fuzhi (寧波府志‎), Anhuifu xianzhi (安徽府縣志‎), Liuyang xianzhi (瀏陽縣志‎), and Jiangpu xianzhi (江浦縣志‎). Most of the gazetteers are collected in a large tome called Zhongguo defangzhi jicheng (中國地方志集成‎) [A collection of gazetteers in China] (Shanghai; Chengdu; Nanjing; Fenghuang chubanshe, Shanghai shudian, Bashu shushe, 1991–2004).

  • 107. Private writings written in Chinese, include Lan Dingyuan 藍鼎元‎’s Luzhou quanji 鹿洲全集‎ (Xiamen: Xiamen daxue chubanshe, 1995); Qu Dajun 屈大均‎’s Guangdong xinyu廣東新語 (Beijing: Chunghua shuju, 1985); Chen Lunjiong 陳倫炯‎’s Haiguo wenjianlu 海國聞見錄‎ (Zhengzhou: Henan jiaoyu chubanshe, 1995); Xie Qinggao 謝清高‎’s Hailu 海錄‎ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985); and Wang Dahai 王大海‎’s 海島逸志Haidao yizhi (Hong Kong: Xuejin shudian, 1992). See also the Qing Jingshi wenbian 清經世文編‎ (Collected essays about statecraft of the Qing). Private writings in other languages include Alexandre de Rhodes, Rhodes of Vietnam: The Travels and Mission of Father Alexander de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient; William H. Ukers, All About Tea: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company; and J. Dyer Ball, Things Chinese.

  • 108. James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early North American Life (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 24–25.