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The Letters of Père D'Entrecolles
Part 3

From William Burton's Porcelain, It's Art and Manufacture, B.T. Batsford, London, 1906.

I have before remarked that the foot of the porcelain piece was left solid; in fact, only after it has been glazed and is dry do they put it on the wheel to hollow out the foot. After that they paint on it a little ring, and often a Chinese letter, and when this painting is dry they glaze the part that has just been excavated, and that is the last thing they do to it before it is taken to the firing.

I have been surprised to see how a man can balance on his shoulders two long and narrow planks on which the porcelain pieces are carried, and that he goes like that through several well-populated streets without breaking his ware. It is true that the people carefully avoid knocking against him, however slightly, because they would be obliged to pay for the damage they had caused, but it is astonishing that the carrier himself controls his steps and all the movements of his body so well that he does not lose his balance.

Where the furnaces are we find another scene. In a kind of vestibule before the furnace one sees piles of boxes and cases made of clay prepared for holding the porcelain. Each vase of porcelain, however small it may be, has its case ; the pieces that have covers as well as those that have none-these covers are only slightly attached to the bottom part during the firing, so that they easily come apart by a little blow. The small porcelain pieces, like tea- and chocolate-cups, are placed a good many in one case. In this operation the workman imitates Nature, who to ripen the fruit and bring it to perfection, puts it into a case so that the heat of the sun gets at it little by little, and its action inside is not too much interfered with by the air that comes from outside during the fresh nights.

These cases (saggars) are lined inside with a kind of sand-down, for they are covered with kao-lin dust as this sand does not stick too much to the foot of the piece that is put on it. The bed of sand is first pressed and given the shape of the bottom of the porcelain piece, which does not itself touch the sides of its case. The top of the case has no lid; a second case, after the shape of the first and similarly filled with porcelain, comes on it, so that it covers it completely without touching the porcelain underneath. In this way they fill the kiln with big cases all containing porcelain. Thanks to these thick veils the beauty, and, if I may say so, the complexion of the porcelain piece is not sunburnt by the heat of the fire.

With regard to the small pieces of porcelain which are enclosed in the big round cases, each one is put on a saucer of clay about as thick as two crown pieces, and as wide as the foot of the piece itself ; kao-lin dust is also strewn over these supports. When the cases are a little too wide, they do not put porcelain pieces into the middle, because these would be too remote from the sides, so that they might fail in strength and open and sink, and thus cause damage to the whole pile. It is well to know that these cases are one-third of a foot in height, and that they are partly filled before they have been fired at all. Those that have been fired previously and are still serviceable are filled entirely.

I must not forget the manner in which the pieces of porcelain are placed in these cases. The workman does not touch the pieces directly with his hands as he might break them, for nothing is more fragile. He takes them off the planks by means of a little cord. This cord is attached to a two-pronged wooden fork which he holds with one hand, while with the other he holds the two ends of the string that are crossed or opened according to the size of the piece; the cord is passed round the piece, which is then gently lifted and placed in the case or on its little saucer. All this is done with incredible quickness.

I have already said that the bottom of the furnace is filled with gravel to the depth of half a foot. This gravel serves to steady the piles of cases, which in the middle of the furnace rise to a height of at least seven feet. The two bottom cases of each pile are left empty, because they would be insufficiently fired, and also because the gravel bed partly covers them. In the same way the case which is placed on the top of the pile is left empty. The piles in the middle of the furnace are filled with the finest porcelain ; at the far end they place those pieces that are less fine, and near the mouth they place those that are very strong, which are composed of equal parts of kao-lin and Pe-tun-tse, and which have been glazed with a stone that is somewhat black or reddish, because this class has more substance in it than the other. The piles of cases are placed close together, and are united by pieces of clay put between them, at the top, at the bottom, and in the middle, but so that a free passage is left for the flame to penetrate everywhere evenly.1

Every kind of clay is not equally suitable for making the cases ; here they have three kinds ; a common yellow clay which predominates in quantity, a hard clay, and a very unctuous clay. The last two kinds of clay are mined in the winter in very deep mines, where it is impossible to work in the summer.

Before the cases are fired they are yellowish ; after the firing they are of a very dark red. For the sake of economy the yellow clay is largely used, and that is why the cases only stand two or three firings, after which they break completely. If they are only slightly cracked or split, an osier ring is used to hold them together; the ring burns away, but the case can be used this time without the porcelain being injured. They have to take care not to fill an oven entirely with new cases ; at least half of them must have been fired before. These are placed at the top and the bottom of the piles, while in the middle they place those that are newly made. It is stated in the history of Fou-liang that the cases were formerly fired alone before they were used for firing porcelain ; no doubt in those days they thought less of the expense and more of a perfect piece of work.

[Here follows an account of the construction of the Chinese porcelain furnace, but in place of it we reproduce the plan and elevation of a furnace in use at Ching-to-chen at the present time, which will explain its construction much more clearly than the account given in the letters.]

A. Fire mouth B. Body of furnace C. Chimney D. Retaining wall E. Steps to ascend to crown of furnace

On the top of the furnace there are three little peep-holes, covered with some broken pieces of pot, and they relieve the air and smoke of the oven. The workmen judge the progress of the firing by uncovering the peep-hole which is nearest to the chimney, and with some irons they uncover one of the cases. They judge that the porcelain is finished by the brightness inside the oven and especially how the colours shine in their brilliance.2 Then they leave off the firing and close up the furnace for some time. The furnace is fired as follows : They first heat it for a day and a night, then two men, who relieve each other, keep on putting in wood, of which they burn as much as 180 loads. It is stated in the annals that formerly they used 240 loads of wood, and twenty more if the weather was rather rainy, although at that time the ovens were only half as large as at present. They first kept up a small fire for seven days and nights, and on the eighth day they made a very fierce fire. It will clearly be seen, therefore, that the old porcelains must have had more substance than the modern ones. Formerly they observed one thing that is neglected nowadays. When the firing was finished they did not open the furnace for ten days for the big porcelain pieces, and for five days for the small ones. At the present time they wait, it is true, a few days before they open the furnace and take out the big pieces, for without this precaution they would crack, but the small pieces are taken out the following morning if the fire has been put out at the beginning of the previous night. When the porcelain is burning hot the workman who pulls it out can only touch it by protecting his hands with the ends of a long scarf which hangs round his neck. I have been surprised to hear that, after having burned in one day as much as 180 loads of wood, there were no ashes left in the fireplace the next morning.

After all I have said no one can be astonished that porcelain is so dear in Europe, and still less so when they hear that, besides the great profits of the European and Chinese merchants, the whole oven-full is hardly ever successful. Sometimes it is quite lost, and when they open the furnace they find the porcelain pieces and the cases reduced to a mass as hard as rock. Neither is it easy to regulate the fire, for the state of the weather instantly changes the action of the fire, the quality of the material it acts upon, and that of the wood which keeps it going. For one workman who gets rich there are a hundred others who ruin themselves, though they still try their fortunes further in the hope that they may save enough to become shopkeepers. Moreover, the porcelain that is sent to Europe is made after new models that are often eccentric and difficult to reproduce; for the least defect they are refused by the merchants, and so they remain in the hands of the potters, who cannot sell them to the Chinese, for they do not like such pieces.

HJexagonal lantern with flowers, birds and butterflies. (famille verte)I have said that the difficulty of making certain models sent from Europe is one of the reasons why the pieces are so costly. It is almost impossible for the Chinese to make some of the shapes sent to them from foreign countries, although they make many things at which foreigners are astonished, or that they would consider impossible. For instance, I have seen a large porcelain lantern made in a single piece, through which a candle lit up the whole room; this piece was ordered seven or eight years ago by the heir-apparent.3 (See image on left)

The same Prince ordered also different musical instruments, amongst others a kind of little organ called tseng, which is about a foot high and contains about fourteen pipes, the melody of which is agreeable enough; but every attempt to make this failed. They were more fortunate in making flutes and flageolets, and another instrument, called Yun-lo, which is composed of a set of little round, somewhat concave, plates, each of which gives a particular note. Nine of these are hung in a frame in different rows and played upon with small sticks like the dulcimer; they ring like little bells and are used to accompany other instruments or the voices of singers. They had, so they tell me, to make many experiments to find out the thickness required and the correct firing needed to produce all the tones and get all the notes that are necessary for a chord. I had thought they must have the secret of inserting a little metal in the body of these porcelain pieces to vary the note, but they have undeceived me. Metal is so ill-adapted to combine thin slabs with a space between, joining them together only by cross-bars. These slabs have two holes pierced at either end, so that they may be inserted in some cabinet work or upon the back of a chair, where they look very effective.

The history of Ching-te-chen speaks of different pieces, ordered by the Emperors, that the potters have tried in vain to make. The father of the reigning Emperor ordered some boxes, three and a half feet long and two and a half feet high, and the bottom was to be half a foot thick and the sides a third of a foot. They worked at these pieces for three consecutive years, and made nearly two hundred examples, not one of which was successful. The same Emperor ordered some slabs for the front of an open gallery ; each slab was to be three feet high and two and a half feet wide, and half a foot thick. All these, said the old people of Ching-t2-chin, cannot be done, and the Mandarins of this province presented a petition to the Emperor supplicating him to stop this work.

The Mandarins, knowing how great is the genius of Europeans in inventions, have often asked me to procure from Europe new and curious designs so that they might present something unique to the Emperor. On the other hand, the Christians beg me very strongly not to procure such models,, because the Mandarins cannot be so easily convinced as our merchants when the workmen tell them that something is impracticable, and often the bastinado is liberally administered before the Mandarin will abandon a scheme that he thinks may be of profit to him.

As each profession has its particular idol, and as Divinity is conferred here as easily as the rank of count or marquis in some European countries, it is not surprising that they have a god of porcelain. Pou-sa (the name of this idol) owes its origin to those designs which the workmen find it impossible to execute. They tell us that formerly the Emperor decreed positively that some porcelain pieces should he made after a pattern which he gave. He was told several times that it was impossible, but all these remonstrances only served to excite his desire. His officers redoubled their demands, and used all kinds of severities to the workpeople. These unfortunates spent all their money and tried their utmost, but they received only beatings in return. At last one of them, in a moment of despair, threw himself into the burning furnace and was consumed in an instant. The porcelain in that furnace, so they say, came out perfectly beautiful and to the satisfaction of the Emperor, who asked for nothing more. From that time the unfortunate man was regarded as a hero, and became in consequence the idol that watches over the workers in porcelain. I do not know whether his elevation has tempted any other Chinese to follow the same route with a view to a similar honour.
As porcelain has been so highly esteemed for many centuries, one would wish to know how the porcelain of the earliest times differs from that of our own days, and what the Chinese themselves think about it. There is no doubt that China has her antiquaries who greatly favor old things. The Chinaman himself is naturally prone to respect ancient productions, though one finds those who defend modern work; but porcelain is not like ancient medals, which reveal the science of bygone times. Ancient porcelain may be decorated with Chinese characters, but these do not denote any historical period, so that the curious can only prefer them for something in the style and the colours. I think I have heard it said, when I was in Europe, that porcelain to be perfect must have been buried for a long time in the ground. This is a false opinion which the Chinese ridicule. The history of Ching-te-chen, speaking of the most beautiful porcelains of earlier times, says that it was so much sought after that the furnace was hardly opened before the merchants were disputing for the first choice. It cannot be supposed from that that it had been buried. It is true that in digging in the ruins of old buildings and especially in cleaning out old, disused wells, beautiful pieces of porcelain are sometimes found which have been hidden there in times of revolution. This porcelain is beautiful because at such times people would only think of hiding what was precious, that they might recover it when the troubles were over. If it is esteemed now it is not because it has acquired any fresh beauty in the heart of the earth, but because its old beauty has been preserved, and this alone is prized in China, where they give large sums for the smallest utensils of the common pottery that was used by the Emperors Yao and Shun, who reigned several centuries before the T'ang dynasty, during which porcelain began to be used by the Emperors. All that the porcelain acquires in growing old in the earth is a slight change in its colourings or, if you prefer, in its tint, which shows that it is old. The same thing happens to marble or ivory, but more readily, because the glaze prevents the moisture penetrating so easily into porcelain. I can say this, that I have found in old ruins porcelain pieces that were probably very old, but I have not noticed anything special about them. If it is true that in growing older they become more perfect, they could not have been like the porcelain made nowadays when they left the hands of their makers. What I believe is, that formerly, as at the present time, there was porcelain of all prices.

The Mandarin of Ching-te-chen, who honours me with his friendship, makes his patrons at the Court presents of old porcelain that he has the talent of making himself. I mean that he has found the art of imitating old porcelain, or at least that of a moderate antiquity; he employs at this work a number of workpeople. The materials of these false antiques is a yellow clay found in a place near to Ching-to-chen called Ma-an-shan (Saddle-back Hill). The pieces are very thick, for a plate that the Mandarin has given me weighs as much as ten ordinary ones. There is nothing special in the workmanship of these pieces, only that they are given a glaze made from a yellow stone which is mixed with the ordinary glaze, the latter predominating; this mixture gives the porcelain a sea-green colour. These false antiques also resemble genuine pieces in that they do not ring when struck and make no humming noise when held close to the ear. After it has been fired it is boiled for some time in a very fat broth, and after that it is placed in the foulest sewer, where they leave it for a month or more. When it comes out of this sewer it passes for being three or four centuries old, or at least of the preceding dynasty of the Ming, when porcelain pieces of this colour and thickness were highly esteemed at Court.

They have brought me from the debris of a large shop a small plate that I value more highly than the finest porcelain pieces made a thousand years ago. On the bottom of this plate is painted a crucifix between the Holy Virgin and St. John ; I am told that formerly they used to export such pieces to Japan, but that none of them have been made for sixteen or seventeen years. Apparently the Christians of Japan made use of this industry, during their persecution, to procure images of our sacred mysteries ; this porcelain piece, mixed in the case with the rest, might have escaped the search of the enemies of our religion. These pious artifices must have been discovered in the course of time and rendered of no avail by a stricter search, and that is no doubt the reason why they have ceased to make this kind of ware at Ching-te-chen.

(The letter concludes with some general remarks which need not be given here, but we cannot refrain from quoting the final sentences.]

Ching-te-chen owes to the liberality of M. le Marquis de Bruise a church which has a numerous congregation, increasing considerably every year. May God pour His benedictions more and more over these fresh faithful: I recommend them to your prayers. If they were helped by some assistance to increase the number of catechists the people of China would be enabled to learn that not only the luxury and cupidity of Europeans make them send their money as far as Ching-te-chen, but that there are zealous persons who have nobler intentions than those who bring from there such fragile jewels.


  1. The porcelain oven or furnace described by Pere d'Entrecolles is that which is used in China to this day ; it is practically a deep horizontal reverberatory furnace ; a similar kiln has even been used in Europe, especially in Germany, but has almost entirely been abandoned for many years now on account of the uneven way in which such kilns fire.
  2. By this he must mean the colours of the glazes, or of the underglaze colours, for no others are fired in these furnaces.
  3. This heir-apparent was the fourth son of the Emperor K'ang-hsi. He
    came to the throne under the title of Yung-cheng in 1735, and in the next chapter it will be seen what attention he paid to the porcelain manufactured in his reign.

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