Porcelain Piracy: How Porcelain was stolen from China and why that’s good.

Nowadays, China gets a real bad rep. We jokingly say they produce everything in the world, and that whatever they produce are mere knockoffs, cheap products that could never rival the authentic.

It’s because at the heart of it, in the day and age we live in, we worship originality and believe that authenticity should be celebrated and replication is evil. That is why we have so many patents, lawsuits about who is copying who, and even fights between Singapore and Malaysia on who actually owns the origin of Hainanese Chicken Rice (Oh, the irony)

What if, we rewrote the narrative and actually see the beauty of copying, rather than bashing on those who seek to imitate?

This thought was inspired by my visit to the Design Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen (which is an MUST-GO for all those who love design, and it puts Singapore’s Red Dot Design Museum to shame, for real) as I looked inquisitively at the different exhibits of porcelain within the museum.

Porcelain first originated in China from the Shang Dynasty, where porcelain was in its primitive form of glazed ceramic ware. Over a span of 2000 years, porcelain production underwent its own evolution, and the Chinese have perfected porcelain that it became an exquisite treasure.

As the Silk Road opened up in the 1500s, trade between Europe and China increased exponentially, especially so in Denmark. Porcelain was a hot commodity. It was not only aesthetic, well-manufactured but also functional.

Early attempts by the Danish at re-creating the Chinese Porcelain was largely unsuccessful. They lacked the lustre and durability that the original porcelain had. The reason for their failure was largely attributed to the fact, that they had no idea how the Chinese produced their porcelain. They had no clue on what materials consisted of the Chinese porcelain.

The secret of mixing Kaolin and Alabaster and firing it up to a temperature of 1400 degrees celsius in a wooden kiln was not known to them. Left on their own, the Danish would struggle mightily.


Exhibit at The Denmark Design Museum of  attempts at recreating the Chinese Porcelain.


However, in 1712, a French Jesuit Priest by the name of Father Francois (for the sake of simplicity), basically leaked Chinese trade secrets on how they produced Chinese porcelain, thanks to the help of Catholic converts. (Seriously, how ironic: A Father telling secrets of people to other people, that is definitely not right)

This changed the entire game of porcelain making.

In a short span of 100 years since then, porcelain has become a staple of the Danish ceramic ware production. Porcelain was synonymous with royalty.

In 1775, Royal Copenhagen was founded and it was protected by Queen Juliane Marie who gave this her friend, Frantz (see that rhyme scheme there), a chemist sole monopoly of porcelain production.

Fast forward (if you like to know the entire history of Royal Copenhagen, here you go!), by 1889, the Danish too have perfected their craft albeit in a different fashion, as Krox’s underglaze was awarded the Grand Prix at the World Fair Expo in Paris.

The real interesting aspect of this porcelain production technique and the consistent replicating of it from the Chinese by not only the Danish, Japanese, and other European countries, is that it evolved.

The initial stages of copycatting might have shown a close resemblance to the Chinese, but the key is that the production of porcelain evolved from a rudimentary blueprint.

Different countries and cultures define aesthetics and functionality differently, the images imprinted in the porcelain were not all homogeneous. They were all localised, meant to suit the taste and preferences of its people.


Related image
Danish Porcelain Plate of Little Mermaid


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Royal Japanese Porcelain Plate




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Royal Chinese Porcelain Plate



Related image
Imperial Russian Ceramic Plate


Despite such complexity and range, porcelain still remains a niche owned by the Chinese and its cultural dominance by the known association of porcelain being a Chinese good stand as a testament to how even with their “trade-secret” exposed, they still did not lose ground.

Using the porcelain example, we can see that copying is not a bad thing after all. I would even dare to say that more often than not, copying is a necessity for creativity to manifest.

We need to copy each other for us to succeed because it saves us unnecessary and redundant work on achieving something that is already attainable. Instead, it helps us to concentrate on the unchartered waters, harnessing our efforts into venturing the unknown.

We need to realise that while it seems that we are competing against each other, seeking to cut the throat of our competitors, the truth is we achieve as one human race, with the mission of maximising the potential of our humankind into creating sustainability and excellence for ourselves and the future generations.

This surely sounds idealistic, and along with this comes the debate on patents and the importance of copyrights. (and obviously a whole bunch of ethical and commercial questions.)

And hey, I am just a college kid, why not look at the mic drop of Elon Musk, as he basically gave up his patented rights to Tesla to the “open-source market”.

Quoting Musk,

Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.

Distilling this quote and putting it in layman terms, he defines excellence for us (which can be applied almost universally).

Excellence is not insisting on the originality of your idea that others could potentially replicate instead it is, rather it is getting talented individuals to buy into your ideas and co-operate with you. I hope I have come to let you appreciate the beauty of copying.

I hope that with the ironic tale of how Europe copied China in porcelain production,  you can see that maybe, just maybe there is some beauty in copying.

(But, always remember to cite your sources! 🙂 )

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