Thursday, November 24, 2011

64. The David Vases (China, AD 1351)

Pax Mongolica.
Here’s an interesting podcast which starts with etymology. Call it ‘china’ if you’re referring to the ‘fine china’ that you keep in your ‘china hutch’ because the industry became a big deal in medieval China; or call it ‘porcelain’ because Marco Polo, in first describing it to Europeans, used the Italian word porcellano=“cowrie shells” (yes, it really means ‘little piglet,’ but that was how Italians described cowrie shells) because the texture of porcelain was reminiscent of cowrie shells. What it really is, is a great example of vast intercontinental trade at work. The blue & white coloration of the finest, most traditional kind of china goes back to artistic tastes in medieval Iran. (MacGregor brings on a psychologist to say that blue & white may universally mean serenity and peace to human beings, too.) But in the 13th century when Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde swept out of Mongolia to east and west, devastating huge parts of Eurasia and bringing a vast empire into brief being, that Islamic world of Iran/Iraq got incorporated into the east. (Historian's advice to the US Government: Genghis Khan was the last foreign power who actually won a war in Afghanistan. Unless you’re prepared to do what he did, get out now.) China became the heart of the Mongol empire, and that’s where Marco Polo met Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai, some decades later, a less bloodthirsty warlord who was apparently also a pretty good administrator. Because the Chinese were good at making porcelain—which requires firing clay at outrageously hot temperatures, so that it turns halfway to glass and thus becomes impermeable to water—and because of Kublai’s Pax Mongolica, vases like this were created in China and traded all the way to Iran. The industry kept going, and by the time the Europeans were ready to drink tea, they wanted blue & white china to drink it out of, too.

These beautiful works are known as the David Vases because they come from the collection of one Sir Percival David (Welsh, perhaps?) who has a huge room full of china tucked away on the 4th floor of the British Museum.

MacGregor began this podcast playing what sounded like a scratchy old LP of Richard Burton reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and concluded by conjecturing that Coleridge was sipping his laudanum, as he daydreamed that poem, on blue & white china.

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