A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of spending a few days at my friend’s holiday house in the Cape, where I chanced upon a particularly imposing ceramic pot near the fireplace in the dining room. My friend noticed that – despite the splendid view of Table Bay and the fabled mountain stretched out before us through the floor-to-ceiling picture windows – the gaze of my eyes had paused on this piece, so he started to tell me a history of how it had come to be in his family’s hands and that it was in fact a particularly ancient and valuable piece from one of China’s oldest dynasties.
His story made me realize how little I know of China’s culture and history, despite the country’s current position in the World’s economy (indeed the very plate I was eating off of bore the predictable legend “Made in China” on the reverse). I read and hear so much about the powerhouse today, and I know many people who regularly visit the nation for business – and it’s most certainly high on my list of places I would like to visit – but, apart from some very superficial sense of its history gleaned from the various novels and autobiographies I’ve read or movies I’ve watched, I feel remarkably ignorant of what is in reality a very huge and very significant part of our modern world culture. I am embarrassed to admit China remains pretty much a romantic mystery in my head… and one that I feel compelled to start unraveling.
I suppose it’s fairly normal to be far more familiar with the cultures – and histories thereof – of one’s own family’s ancestry, mine being a hodge-podge of mostly European traditions. I consider Europe to be a particularly rich and diverse cultural nest, and for example find it weird that a place as distinct as Paris is about the same distance from London as Johannesburg is from Durban. It would be crazy to imagine that China – massively larger in area than Europe, and with its enormous population – is any less diverse from one small portion of it to another.
But I have to begin somewhere, and since then I have been keeping my eyes and ears open, and in a remarkable moment of synchronicity Jeremy Astfalck from the Old Corkscrew in Franschhoek casually mentioned that it is currently the Chinese year of the Dragon when I later bumped into him. While showing me some items of silver made in China between 1860 and 1900 that have decorative dragon details, he explained that this is a particularly auspicious sign of the Chinese zodiac, as it is the only one not based on a real animal. Not only this, but unlike it is in European cultures, the Chinese dragon is not considered evil and instead symbolizes potency and has special powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck – perhaps why this mythical creature was often used as the Emperor of China’s symbol of imperial power.
Johan Joubert and Brenda van Dijk’s unassuming and approachable personalities belie their considerable knowledge of the Chinese and Asian works of art that they trade in at Global Heritage in the Cape Quarter in Greenpoint, Cape Town. While showing me some masonry dragon carvings from the Yuan dynasty (13-14th Century), they explained that such roof-ridge tiles and similar architectural carvings developed as a way in which to ward off evil and negative mystical forces from Chinese households. The roof-tops of buildings were seen as the bridge between the heavenly realms, and if not properly guarded allowed access into our physical world for both good and bad spirits.
These particular “Chiwen” dragons, who also protect against fire, are carved with wide-open mouths, and manes that appear to sweep in the wind, to create the illusion that they will swallow anything wicked that crosses their path.
I then spoke to Ricus Dullaert of Kunsthandel H.W.C. Dullaert – who trades in Holland and also here in South Africa – and he pointed out that the Euro-centric cultures of colonial Africa were not as isolated from those of the Far East as I had at first imagined. Indeed the Dutch were the biggest dealers in Chinese porcelain in the 17th and 18th centuries through the famous Dutch East Indian Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie / V.O.C.), which was the first multi-national in history, operating from 1602-1789, and forms a significant chapter in the Cape’s early colonial history.
While showing me a rare blue and white porcelain plate, Ricus explained that this particular example was produced during the reign of Kangxi, the longest reigning Chinese emperor in history. He reigned from 1654 to 1722, and it was under his reign that the trade in porcelain between the Dutch and the Chinese reached its peak.
“The Dutch were completely in love with the deep cobalt blue colour of the Kangxi porcelain, which contrasted so well with the snow white background of the porcelain” he said while turning the plate over in his hands. “The VOC ships brought hundreds of thousand such pieces of Chinese Kangxi porcelain to the Netherlands, where it became the fashion to display this status symbol in specially-designed display cabinets veneered with burr walnut or mahogany woods”.
The Dutch also exported the Chinese porcelain to many other European countries, and it influenced the production techniques and decoration of earthenware manufactured in Delft for the less affluent clients who could not afford the costly Chinese porcelain but admired this new fashion for blue and white plates and dinner services. “This Kangxi plate here was copied untold times in the 18th century in Delft to serve the local market of the middle class who could not pay for the Chinese plates”.
This story of the trade routes between the East and West was expounded by Tim Curtis, who showed me a Chinese blue and white vase with lid – from the same Kangxi Dynasty – in his shop Tim Curtis Antiques on Constantia Road, Wynberg, near Cape Town.
“This vase came from a collection of porcelain found in the Vung Tau shipwreck, circa 1690, which was discovered by fishermen off the islands of Con Dao in the south of Vietnam”, Tim told me as he pointed out the delicate floral decoration on the elegantly shaped piece. “The master mariner Sverker Hallstrom obtained the license to excavate the wreck after the Vietnam Salvage Corporation had carried out preliminary excavation.
“The starboard side of the hull – from the keel to the waterline – remained in good condition, protecting the precious cargo held within and allowing it to be recognized as the hull of a “lorcha”, a ship of combined Eastern and Western influence, and the first ever found.
“From an analysis of the cargo it seems that the ship was bound from China to Batavia where the bulk of the ceramics would have been trans-shipped to a Dutch East India Company (VOC) vessel for the onward voyage to Holland… The fate of the cargo of course differed”, he said with a smile, “and was auctioned off by Christie’s in Amsterdam centuries later in April 1992”.
As I made my way back to the airport, and the city and sea sparked under the late afternoon sun, I realized that the view that greeted the earliest European traders – with their precious cargo from far-off little-known cultures and lands – was not like the simple etchings shown on antique maps, nor the stark black-and-white shadows of the early photographs, but instead hardly differed from the techni-coloured, wind-swept reality we see today.
By Paul Mrkusic