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The Letters of Père d'Entrecolles
Part 1

From William Burton's Porcelain, It's Art and Manufacture, B.T. Batsford, London, 1906. The first letter was addressed to Pere Orry, procurer of the Chinese and Indian missions, and is dated from Jao-chou - the capital of the district - September 1, 1712.


From time to time I have stayed in Ching-tê-chên to administer to the spiritual necessities of my converts, and so I have interested myself in the manufacture of this beautiful porcelain, which is so highly prized, and is sent to all parts of the world. Nothing but my curiosity could ever have prompted me to such researches, but it appears to me that a minute description of all that concerns this kind of work might, somehow, be useful in Europe.

Besides what I myself have seen, I have learnt a great many particulars from my neophytes, several of whom work in porcelain, while others do a great trade in it. I also confirmed the truth of the information they had given me by a study of the Chinese books on the subject, so that I believe I have obtained a pretty exact knowledge of all that concerns this beautiful art, so that I can talk about it with some confidence. Among these books I examined the history of Fou-liang, and I have read carefully, in the fourth volume, the article on porcelain.

It says in these annals that formerly the porcelain was of exquisite whiteness and free from fault, so that when the pieces were transported into other countries, they were known only as the precious jewels of Jao-chou. Further on, it says the beautiful porcelain which is of such vivid whiteness or of a beautiful celestial blue, all comes from Ching-tê-chên; there is some made in other places, but it is quite different in colour as well as in finish.

Without mentioning examples of the pottery that are made all over China, but which are not called porcelain, there are some provinces such as Fuchien and Canton where porcelain is made, but foreigners can make no mistake for the porcelain of Fuchien is white like snow without sheen, and it is not decorated with colours. Some workmen of Ching-to-chen formerly transported themselves and their materials there, hoping to make considerable profit by reason of the great European commerce at Amoy; but this scheme came to naught, as they were not successful in their manufacture.

Beaker VaseThe reigning Emperor, who neglects nothing, had porcelain workers sent from Ching-to-chen to Peking, together with everything proper for this kind of work; nothing was omitted that would have enabled the work done under his eyes to succeed, but it is stated that this also ended in failure. It may be that political or other interests had something to do with this want of success, but, however that may be, Ching-to-chen alone has the honour of sending porcelain to all parts of the world, even the Japanese buy from there.

[Then follows an account of the situation and appearance of Ching-tê-chên-its population and government which may be omitted here.]

After these few particulars of the situation and present conditions of Ching-tê-chên, let us come to the porcelain in which its whole wealth consists. Let me state all that I know as to the materials used in its composition and their preparation; as to the kinds of porcelains and the way to make them; as to the oil1 that gives them their brightness and their several qualities; as to the colours which are their ornaments, and the art of applying them; as to the firing and the precautions that are taken to give the suitable degree of heat: finally, I will conclude by making some reflections on the old and modern porcelains, and on certain shapes or designs which the Chinese find it impracticable to manufacture. These things that the Chinese cannot do might, perhaps, be easily done in Europe if one could find there the same materials.
The material of porcelain is composed of two kinds of clay, one called Pe-tun-tse (ed. note: feldspathic rock) and the other Kao-lin. The latter is disseminated with corpuscles, which have some shimmer2, the former is simply white and very fine to the touch. While a large number of big boats come up the river from Jao-chou to Ching-to-chen to be loaded with porcelain, nearly as many small ones come down from Ki-mctn laden with Pe-tun-tse and Kao-lin made up into bricks, for Ching-tê-chên does not produce any of the materials suitable for porcelain. Pe-tun-tse, which is so fine in grain, is simply pulverized rock taken from quarries, and then shaped into bricks. Every kind of stone is not suitable, or it would not be necessary to go for it, twenty or thirty miles away, into the next province. The good stone, the Chinese say, must have a slight tinge of green. The pieces of stone are first broken with iron hammers, and the fragments are reduced to a very fine powder in mortars by means of certain levers, which have a stone head shod with iron. These levers are worked incessantly, either by men or by water-power, in the same way as the tilt-hammers in paper-mills. The powder is then put into a great vessel filled with water, and stirred vigorously with an iron shovel. When it has been allowed to stand several minutes, a kind of cream forms at the top four or five fingers thick; this they take off and put into another vessel full of water. The mixture in the first vessel is stirred up several times, and each time they remove the scum that gathers on the top, until nothing is left but the larger particles, the weight of which makes them sink to the bottom; these are finally taken out and again pounded. With regard to the second vessel into which they put all that has been skimmed out of the first, they wait until a kind of paste has formed at the bottom, and when the water above it seems very clear it is poured off so as not to disturb the sediment. This paste is then thrown into moulds, which are a kind of large and wide wooden box, the bottom of which is a bed of bricks with an even surface. Over this brick bed a coarse cloth is stretched, up to the sides of the case; this cloth is filled with the paste, and soon afterwards they cover it with another cloth on the top of which they put a layer of bricks laid evenly, one by the side of the other. This helps to squeeze out the water more quickly without losing any of the porcelain material which, as it hardens readily, takes the shape of the bricks3. Before it has become quite hard the paste is divided into little bricks, which are sold by the hundred; this colour and the shape have given it the name Pe-tun-tse. There would be nothing to add to this preparation if the Chinese were not in the habit of adulterating their merchandise; but people who roll little grains of paste in pepper dust, and mix them with real peppercorns, are not likely to sell Pe-tun-tse without mixing it with coarser materials, so that it has to be purified afresh before it is used.

Kao-lin requires a little less labor than Pe-tun-tse ; nature has done the greater part. Mines of it are found in the heart of certain mountains, which on the outside are covered with reddish earth. These mines are fairly deep ; it is found there in masses, and it is also made up into little squares in the same method as described above for the Pe-tun-tse. I should be inclined to think that the white clay of Malta, known as the clay of St. Paul, approaches in its nature to the kao-lin I am speaking of, although one cannot perceive in it the small silvery particles with which the kao-lin is sown. Fine porcelain owes its strength to the kao-lin; it is only the mixture of a soft earth or a soft clay, which gives strength to the Pe-tun-tse obtained from the hardest rocks.

A rich merchant told me that the English or Dutch (the Chinese use the same name for both nations) bought, several years ago, some Pe-tun-tse, which they took to their own country to make porcelain with, but, having taken no kao-lin, their undertaking failed, as they afterwards owned. The Chinese merchant said to me, laughing, " They wanted to have a body without bones to support its flesh."
Besides the boats laden with Pe-tun-tse and Kao-lin with which the riverbank at Ching-to-chen is lined, others are filled with a whitish liquid substance. I have long known that this substance is the oil4 that gives porcelain its whiteness and its sheen, but I did not know its composition, which I have since learnt. It seems to me that the Chinese name " Yeou " which they apply to different kinds of oil suits the liquid I am speaking of less than the word " Tsi," which means glaze, and I should think that people would call it by that name in Europe. This oil or glaze is extracted from the hardest stone; which is not surprising, as it is said that stones are chiefly formed out of the salts and oils of the earth, which mix and closely unite together. Although the same kind of stone from which Pe-tun-tse is prepared may also be used for the preparation of this glaze, they generally select the whitest pieces and those, which have the greenest spots.

The history of Fou-liang, though it does not enter into details, says that the best stone for the glaze is that which has spots similar in colour to the cypress leaf5, or with reddish marks on a brownish ground something like toadflax. The rock is first well washed, and then prepared in the same way as Pe-tun-tse; when the purest stuff has all been collected out of the first vessel into the second one they add to about every hundred pounds of the cream one pound of a stone or mineral like alum, named Shih-kao6. $ This has to be first roasted in a fire and then pounded; it acts like rennet in coagulating the material, though care is taken to keep it liquid. This stone glaze is never used alone, but another is mixed with it which acts like its essence. The composition of this is as follows : They take big pieces of quicklime, on to which a little water is thrown by hand to reduce them to powder; a bed of dried bracken is spread upon this and then another layer of slaked lime, and so on alternately ; then the ferns are set on fire. When all is consumed the ashes are spread upon new beds of dried bracken. This is repeated five or six times running; it can be done still oftener, and the glaze is all the better for it. Formerly, so it says in the history of Fou-liang, they used besides the bracken the wood of the tree Se-tse. I should think by the tartness of this fruit when it is not ripe, and by its little crowning husk, that it is a kind of medlar. My converts tell me that this wood is no longer used, seemingly because it has become very scarce in this district. It was perhaps owing to this wood that the porcelain made in early times is more beautiful than that which is made nowadays. The nature of the lime and the bracken .contribute also to the quality of the glaze, and I have noticed that that which comes from certain places is much more esteemed than that which comes from elsewhere. When they have obtained a certain quantity of the ashes of lime and bracken, they are thrown into vessels full of water. In one hundred pounds they dissolve a pound of Shih-kao (see above). The mixture is stirred up and then left to stand until there appears on the surface a scum or crust, which is skimmed off and thrown into a second vessel, and so on several times. When a kind of paste has collected at the bottom of the second vessel they decant the water, and the liquid sediment is used as the second oil to be mixed with the previous one. For a proper mixture it is necessary that the two purees are equally thick ; to ensure this they dip into each little squares of Pe-tun-tse, which they dip in several times, and then take out to judge if the thickness of the deposit is the same with both.

Kakiemon VaseThe best glazes are made from a mixture of ten parts of the stone glaze with one part of the glaze of lime and fern ashes, and the most economical never put less than three parts. The merchants who sell the glaze, however little inclined they are to cheat, do not think much of increasing its volume; they put water to the glaze, and, to disguise their fraud, they add Shih-kao in proportion to thicken the liquid.
Before I explain the way in which this glaze is used it will be better to describe how the porcelain is made. In the less frequented districts of Ching-to-chen are vast sheds surrounded by walls, where one sees ranged, stage upon stage; a great number of jars of earth. Within these walls live and work an infinite number of workpeople, who each have their allotted task, and a piece of porcelain, before it is ready to go into the oven, passes through the hands of twenty persons, and that without any confusion. Doubtless they have proved that the work is done much more quickly in this way. The first task consists in purifying again the Pe-tun-tse and the Kao-lin from the waste added to it when it was sold, which is performed by the same washing and settling as before described. It is not necessary to break up the pieces of Kao-lin; these are simply put into a very open basket, which is placed in a vessel filled with water, where the Kao-lin easily liquefies of itself, though there is generally a residue left which must be thrown away. By the end of a year this waste accumulates, and forms big masses of a white spongy sand, which the workmen must clear out from their workshops.

When the two materials have been prepared in this way they must be mixed in their proper proportions. For the fine porcelains they put as much Kao-lin as Pe-tun-tse; for the inferior ones they use four parts of Kao-lin and six parts of Pe-tun-tse; while the least that they use is one part of Kao-lin and three of Pe-tun-tse.

The mixture is thrown into a big pit well paved and cemented, where it is trodden and kneaded until it becomes stiff ; this is very laborious work; those Christians who are employed at it find it difficult to attend church; they are only allowed to go if they can find substitutes, because as soon as this work is interrupted all the other workmen are stopped.

From the mass thus prepared, lumps are taken and spread on large slates. The workmen knead, beat, and roll them thoroughly, taking care that no hollows are left inside the mass and that no foreign bodies get into it. A hair, a grain of sand would spoil the whole work. If this mass is badly worked the porcelain cracks, splits, drops or bends. From these prime materials such beautiful works of porcelain are produced, some by shaping on the wheel, others only in moulds ; and they are afterwards finished with a knife. All the plain pieces are made in the first way. A cup, for example, when it leaves the wheel, is very roughly shaped, almost like the top of a hat before it has been blocked. The first workman only gives it the required diameter and height, and it leaves his hands almost as soon as it is commenced, for he receives only three deniers per board, and on each board are twenty-six pieces. The foot of the cup is then nothing but a piece of clay of the necessary width, and it is only hollowed out with a knife when . the other operations are finished, and when the cup is dry and firm enough. When the cup leaves the wheel it is taken by a second workman, who puts it straight upon its base. Shortly afterwards it is handed over to a third man, who puts it on its mould and gives it its shape; this mould is mounted on a kind of wheel. A fourth workman trims and polishes the cup, especially the rims, with a knife, and pares it down as much as necessary for its transparency; he scrapes it several times and moistens each time, however little he may have pared it, if it is too dry, for fear he should break it. In taking the cup from the mould they turn it softly on the same mould without pressing it more on one side than the other, otherwise it would develop cavities in the clay or it would go out of shape. It is surprising to see the rapidity with which these vessels pass through so many different hands ; and I am told that a piece of fired porcelain has passed through the hands of seventy workmen. I can easily believe this by what I have myself seen, for these great workshops have been for me a kind of Areopagus, where I have preached Him who fashioned the first man out of clay, and from whose hands we depart to become vessels of honour or of shame.

The large objects of porcelain are made in two pieces; one half is lifted on the wheel by three or four men, who support it on each side while it is being shaped; the other half, which is almost dry, is put on to it, and they join the two together with the same porcelain materials diluted with water, which serves as a sort of mortar or glue. When these pieces, so glued, are quite dry the seam or join is polished inside and outside with a tool, so that, with the help of the glaze, no inequality is left. In this way, too7, they put handles, ears, and other pieces on to vases. This relates chiefly to the pieces that are made in moulds or by hand, such as fluted pieces, or those of bizarre shape; animals, grotesques, idols, the busts ordered by Europeans, and such-like things. This kind of moulded piece is made in three or four parts, which are joined together and finished by the use of tools, by which means they are polished, carved, or hollowed and perfected in details that the mould does not give. As for flowers and other ornaments, which are not in relief, but in intaglio, they are impressed in the porcelain by seals or stamps; reliefs, ready prepared, are also applied in the same way, almost as gold lace is put on a coat.

I have recently learnt something concerning these moulds. When they obtain a model of any required piece of porcelain, which is such that it cannot be made by hand on the wheel, they impress on the model some moulding-clay, and when this has been properly impressed it is cut up into pieces of pretty large size, which are left to stiffen. When the moulds are to be used the sections are put in front of the fire, after which they are coated with the porcelain material according to the thickness required. They press this coating firmly by hand, and then the mould with the coating is put for a moment in front of the fire, to detach the clay press from the mould. The various sections of the whole piece, after being separately moulded, are joined together with a thick slip of the porcelain materials. I have seen animal figures of large size made in this way, and after they had left the substance to get hard it was shaped and finished with a tool and the separate parts were then united together. Afterwards pieces are glazed and fired. If it is desired to have a decoration of different colours this is afterwards painted and the gold is applied, and then it is fired a second time. This kind of porcelain, which is made with great care, is of course very dear...

[Then follows a paragraph relating to the kind of clay from which the moulds are made, and to the advantage a merchant has in the rapidity with which he can execute European orders if he possesses a good stock of moulds, so that he can employ many gangs of workmen at the same time.]


  1. Pere d'Entrecolles here uses the Chinese word. They speak of the glaze of porcelain as 'oil'.
  2. Evidently a reference to the particles of white mica which had not been separated from the Kao-linite.
  3. It is interesting to see this rudimentary filter-press being used in China nearly one hundred and fifty years before filter-presses were introduced in Staffordshire.
  4. The word "oil" is always used for glaze by Pere d'Entrecolles. But we shall now translate it glaze to avoid confusion.
  5. Dr. Bushell says this refers to dendritic markings of oxide of manganese.
  6. Gypsum or sulphate of lime.
  7. That is by the use of 'slip'.

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