China gradually became a major political and economic power, starting from the second half of the 20th century. Today, it is an export factory that manufactures almost every imaginable product, from brass buttons and footware to computer chips and motor vehicles. While one could argue that the label “Made in China” seems to be visible and recognizable everywhere in the 21st century, this is not a recent phenomenon. A few centuries prior to the 1970s, China was already tightly connected to the global market. During the early modern era, the ideas, customs, and habits of Chinese culture were already steadily spreading across the globe through the consumption of a series of highly desirable Chinese items. Although historians have studied the global impact of a wide range of goods exported from China since the Ming dynasty, if not earlier, it remains necessary to obtain a more conceptual definition of the term “Chinese commodity” in studies of consumption and material culture. According to one definition, a “Chinese commodity” is a good that originated in and/or was manufactured in China. Yet at the same time, the idea of Chinese commodities has occasionally said more about how the non-Chinese in a foreign market imagined and conceptualized Chinese culture than the actual cultural meaning that was supposed to be connected to China. In other words, this is a multifaceted concept that requires further elaboration since it offers promising perceptions from which to explore and reflect on the interlacing of China and the world, while some of these correlations continue to generate a certain degree of social impact on our physical surroundings and imagination even to the present day.
Defining Chinese Commodities in the Early Modern Era: A Historical and Conceptual Analysis
Ronald C. Po
Tea, Porcelain, and Silk: Chinese Exports to the West in the Early Modern Period
Ronald C. Po
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.