But Venice wanted a direct point of contact, and dispatched two brothers named Polo to accomplish it. On their second trip to Peking, young Marco Polo went along. Kublai Khan found him a keen observer and accurate reporter, so the young Italian became the emperor's trusted investigator and as such travelled all over China for some time. By 1295, however, Marco Polo had returned to Venice and three years later his account of his travels appeared. His tales of the wealth and culture of far-off China seemed to many Europeans but the lively fancy of an accomplished liar. Nevertheless, his book kept alive the idea of finding a trade route to China by sea or land not blocked by the Turks.
Vasco da Gama accomplished this in 1499 by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and thence to the Indian seaport of Calicut. A roundabout, dangerous way and many ships were destined in the coming centuries to deliver rich Chinese cargoes and crew to Davy Jones instead of the home port; but it tapped the Arab sea route to Malacca and Ceylon where they traded with the Chinese merchant junks. The Arab naturally fought this encroachment but lost, and the Portuguese soon controlled the Indian Ocean. By 1516 a Portuguese explorer was at anchor in the river before Canton. Then eight merchantmen arrived seeking trading privileges and were refused. China was peaceful, prosperous, and self-sufficient, with but little interest or use for anything brought from other lands.
On the other hand, the fact that they were not welcome weighed not at all with European traders, with eyes fixed on the rich profits possible. They began coming regularly to the China coast and establishing trading colonies. Practically every European nation organized an East India Company. The learned Jesuit priests who went along with this commercial invasion were welcomed by the Chinese, and some even attained important posts at the emperor's court. The traders, however, remained unwanted, but persistent sojourners. After nearly two centuries China bowed to the inevitable and compromised with an imperial decree, which established a strip along the riverbank and outside the city walls at Canton where the foreign merchants might establish warehouses for the Chinese trade. Very strict rules were promulgated, such as no entrance into the city itself, no wives and families to accompany the traders, and a list of Chinese merchants through whom they could do business.
During this period, and earlier, Europe, and America also, drew deeply on the culture and genius of the Chinese people. And what they took home with them changed the mode of life of practically every European nation. Also, a full hundred and fifty years after the first Portuguese explorer cast anchor before Canton, Chinese products were still things to marvel at in Restoration England. Under the date of June 22, 1664, we read in John Evelyn's Diary:
One Thompson a Jesuit shew'd me such a collection of rarities sent from the Jesuites of Japan and China to their Order at Paris, as a present to be reserv'd in their repository, but brought to London by the East India ships for them, as in my life I had not seen . . . glorious vests wrought and embroidered on cloth of gold, but with such lively colours, that for splendour and vividness we have nothing in Europe that approaches it; knives of so keene an edge as one could not touch them, nor was the mettal of our colour, but more pale and livid; a sort of paper very broad, thin and fine like abortive parchment and exquisitely polished, of an amber yellow, exceedingly glorious and pretty to Tooke on; several other sorts of paper, some written, others printed; pictures of men and countries rarely painted on a sort of gum'd calico transparent as glasses flowers, trees, beasts, birds &c. excellently wrought in a kind of sieve silk very naturall.
Until Europeans forced their way into China they knew nothing of such important aids as the mariner's compass, gunpowder, and movable type; nor could they make such things as silk, cotton, paper, porcelain, lacquer, or varnish. From China, also, they brought home wallpaper, textiles decorated with designs printed from carved wooden blocks, furniture in which carving or other ornamentation was replaced by a pictorial lacquer design. Boxes and little cabinets suggested to Europeans that they replace their heavy and somewhat crude wrought-iron or turned wood handles on furniture with more delicate ones of brass.
Of Chinese origin, too, was the spirally twisted column used in English furniture as early as the Cromwellian period. About fifty years later the claw-and-ball foot was widely used by cabinetmakers, in both England and America, but no Occidental designer originated the motif. It was borrowed from the Buddhist conception of the dragon's claw grasping the sphere of eternity. For proof, one has only to remember Chinese carvings antedating this furniture design, in which the dragon's claw was of teakwood and the ball a cleverly inserted globe of rock crystal.
Then there were the lacquered pieces of furniture with design of typical Chinese figures and landscape vignettes. These so captivated English and Dutch fashionable taste that pieces of furniture made in these countries were shipped out to the China coast to be decorated and then returned. That took time, however, and was expensive as well, so it was not long before craftsmen in Holland, England, and America mastered a technique for lacquering in the Chinese manner. This began as early as the William and Mary period and continued until the close of the Chippendale years.
For some unknown reason much of this lacquer decoration done by Occidentals became known as japanning and American newspapers of the eighteenth century have numerous references to painters making a specialty of it. Coming down into the nineteenth century, the old Chinese lacquer decoration again cropped up in the stencilled chairs made by Lambert Hitchcock and his contemporaries. True, the decorative motifs were now classical rather than Oriental, but the basic idea was the familiar black background relieved by applied design in gold and colour.
Since it was from China that the Europeans first obtained examples of the potter's art, which were of translucent clay with a glasslike surface decorated in colours applied either beneath or upon the glaze itself, it naturally follows that shortly after such porcelains became fairly well known, Occidental potters strove to produce ware comparable, in appearance at least, with those brought half around the world to them. The Chinese originals were relatively scarce and expensive, but they were so much more delicate in shape and form, so much more colourful than anything potters of England and the Continent had been able to produce, that they were a distinct challenge.
At first the translucent biscuit of fine kaolin was impossible to duplicate. Then Dutch potters found that if they coated their native clay with a glaze of tin oxide, they could produce a ware which had the whiteness of that from China. They decorated it with designs of cobalt blue, distinctly Chinese in feeling, and the result was Delftware. This success led the potters of England and one German establishment, Meissen, to experiment further. Working independently, they found a way to prepare a body with the same lightness and translucence as the original Chinese porcelains. With their decorators trained to paint Chinese figures and scenes that would almost defy detection, the products of these potteries could be sold in direct competition with those from Canton. Soon potteries of other European countries were producing skillful imitations, and throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century quantities of porcelains were made in a wide number of Continental and English potteries which were closely akin to the Chinese originals in body, glaze, colour, and decoration.
The vogue for Chinese decorative effects had begun to manifest itself in Europe before the end of the seventeenth century. It was particularly apparent in England and Holland where both countries had a large trade with the China coast and craftsmen at home who responded readily to the impact of Chinese artistry. In furniture, Sir William Chambers' book of plates of Chinese architecture, sketched while he was stationed on the China coast in the service of the Swedish East India Company and published in 1757, was the only English work giving Chinese decorative designs based on actual study of originals in their native land; but Chippendale and others before and after him, included plates in the Chinese conceit in books of furniture design.
On the Continent, under the French name "chinoiserie," artists and craftsmen produced a wide range of decorative accessories to meet the popular demand. A fine example of this Chinese influence in French silver is the silver teakettle and stand executed by Francois Thomas Germain, Paris, 1756-1762, for the Portuguese court and now in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga at Lisbon. The kettle is melon-shape, the spout in the form of a gamecock's head and the lid a grotesque Chinese head wearing a typical flat hat of that country.