Antiques: Yang Stai porcelain info


Real American Chop Suey! " A large electric sign that nightly blazes in Shanghai never fails to claim the interest of tourists. Turn the clock back two centuries and shift the locale southward to Canton, first city of prominence to tolerate trade-intent foreign devils. The signs that swung before the hongs of the chief Celestial merchants may have lacked the brilliance of latter-day illumination, yet undoubtedly they had equal ability to attract the eighteenth century trading tourists.

Whatever may have been the wording of these pidgin English signs, those done in Chinese characters spoke of yang stai. This is the true name for that ware which English and American collectors have mistakenly called Oriental Lowestoft because someone, years ago, made the error of attributing it to the pottery that flourished at Lowestoft, England, and during part of its half-century existence produced pieces decorated in imitation of porcelain then being imported into England in large quantities.

Yang stai is no chance name like Towser or Felix. The Chinese ceramic workers and painters decorated this ware, not for the use of their countrymen but for people living in other parts of the world.

Consequently, they called it yang (ocean) stai (decorated) or decorated for foreigners, since to reach those for whom it was intended it would have to make an ocean voyage. Nor was the decoration all. The very shaping of the dishes had a foreign flavour. Plates were flatter and shallower with a much more pronounced ring on the underside than would be acceptable in the home market. Some of the cups were made with handles, an Occidental oddity not in favour even today for Chinese usage. Further, there were pitchers (we know the shape as helmet) and lighthouse chocolate or coffee pots that were made solely to please the foreign buyers.

In fact, comparing good examples of Oriental Lowestoft with porcelain dishes made in China for the Chinese brings out so many fine points of difference that Chinese experts are unanimous in the opinion that the shaping- of our Oriental Lowestoft was patterned on some European dinner services sent to China as samples. And the colours used in the over glaze decorations are not the exact tints found on specimens of native-made porcelains intended for the Chinese market. Outstanding is the blue so frequently employed on Oriental Lowestoft.

Also, the blue-white body glaze of the yang stai has a tint that differs from the home-marketed product of the same years. It is uniformly less translucent and has a creamier quality. Experts agree that the paste shows beyond question its origin in Ching-te-chen and the other potteries in the Fuliang district of Kiangsi Province, while the over glaze decoration is entirely the work of Cantonese enamellers. For almost three hundred years this ware was especially produced in China for the Western world and for a major part of the time was one of the important commodities brought from Canton and other ports in the vessels of the trading companies that various European countries organized for the highly profitable commerce with Far Cathay.

The Portuguese came first with a trade that began as early as 1516. The Hollanders entered it in 1516, to be followed by the English in 1611. Other countries including France, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, and Italy organized East India companies of their own. All, by charter or other government provisions, were assured of exclusive trading rights and by the eighteenth century representatives of these different companies were allowed to maintain stations at Canton. By imperial decree the European merchants were required to live in a restricted district outside the walls of Canton and forbidden to enter the city itself. Known in English as factories (the place of residence of agents or factors), the Chinese called them hongs. Nothing remains of these once imposing and important establishments except the name of one of the streets of Canton, Sup Sam Hong or Thirteen Factory Street.

But during all the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth centuries the merchants of Canton enjoyed a fine export business. During these years they sold large quantities of yang stai to European and, toward the end, to Yankee traders from the New World. From the various countries came orders and careful instructions concerning the decoration. There were armorial dinner services for the landed gentry of England; plates decorated with scenes from Greek and Roman mythology for the French and with scenes of the Crucifixion for the Spanish and Portuguese; while from both England and America came orders for dishes decorated with ships active in the. China trade. Americans looked with favour on dinner services with their monograms or with patriotic decorations, such as the insignia of the Order of the Cincinnati or the coats of arms of cities or states.

Ordering this ware was relatively simple. All that was necessary was time enough for a sailing vessel to make the trip to the Orient, leave the order and then, six months or a year later, for another ship to fetch back the dishes decorated as desired. It was as simple as A B C compared with the process entailed after the order reached Canton. Only the decorating was done in that world-famous port. The dishes themselves were not Cantonese. That section had no deposits of the proper kaolin’s for making porcelains. To complete these orders the merchants of Canton had to call on the porcelain potteries of the Fuliang district in Kiangsi Province, the largest and most important being those at Ching-techen. This was no easy matter. Canton is a seaport in South China; Ching-to-then, an inland city on the Yangtze River, some five hundred miles away. Further, the normal flow of trade was down the Yangtze River, a tortuous route involving a thousand miles and more of river and ocean travel to Canton. This was too much even for the timeless Orient, so a more direct trade route had to be followed, utilizing river boats and pack animals.

Ching-te-chen, famous for its porcelains since the ninth century, and other pottery cities, such as near-by Kui Kiang, started the product destined to become yang stai at Canton. It was in what the Chinese called pei pay, or white condition, that is, fired and glazed but undecorated. The route was down the Peh River, across Poyang Lake and up the Kan Kiang to the headwaters of navigation in a mountainous section of the southern part of Kiangsi Province. Here it had to be transferred to pack trains for transportation overland through Meiling Pass. Then back again into boats to be carried down the North River and thence by one of the numerous channels or canals to Canton.

Here it was unloaded and sent to the shops of the paint porcelain craftsmen, the men who applied the over glaze designs ordered by the customers waiting patiently, or not so patiently, in lands far beyond the comprehension of these Cantonese workers. Yet they executed the designs with surprising fidelity. There were mistakes, of course, such as rendering the motto of a coat of arms "stink and stank" instead of "think and thank." But, on the whole, they came through with flying colours considering how little they knew of their European and American customers.

Their work entailed a second firing to fuse the over glaze enamels. Then at last yang staff was ready to be put aboard the trading ships that crowded Canton Harbour. After that came the hazardous homeward voyage rounding either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Ching-to-then to Canton; Canton to Europe or America; the journey and the quantity of porcelains that made their way safely is hardly credible. Still less so is the price for which it could be bought in Canton. A typical cargo was between 120 and 150 chests of china which contained about 150,000 pieces. These could be bought at Canton for fifteen hundred pounds or barely a penny each. Small wonder that the cases and rolls of china shipped from this Oriental seaport by the various East India companies were used for ballast.

Of the wide variety of forms and shapes produced, the punch bowl was both the most Chinese and most specialized. Whether of one or eight gallons, it was structurally nothing more than a rice bowl, something the Chinese potters had made for centuries, formed in the large to meet the foreign order. It had a more limited market than other forms of this ware. England, the United States and, to some extent, Sweden and Denmark were the only countries for which this particular piece was produced. Rarely did a dinner service include a punch bowl, though "bowls" of smaller sizes were practically always among its two hundred and fifty or three hundred items.

We find that punch bowls for both English and American trade were produced in practically all the stock designs, blue-and white (sometimes with the addition of gold lines), floral patterns in typical bright enamels, geometric patterns in sepia and sometimes plain black. For both groups of English-speaking customers, the personal touch of cipher or monogram was sometimes added. Interesting and rare as are these stock design bowls, their decoration gives no indication of whether they were originally shipped to England or this country.

The especially decorated punch bowls vividly reflect events and -interests of the times. Of those destined for England, many bore crests and coats of arms, for the period was one in which noble families felt it altogether proper to display their armorial distinctions wherever possible. Political and sporting subjects were likewise prime favourites. Decorations commemorating the political career of John Wilkes and with the inscription "Wilkes & Liberty" are typical of the political cartoon punch bowl. Popular sporting prints were sent to Canton, where the decorators copied them with the utmost fidelity, adding a slight Chinese touch.

Americans and British alike favoured the ship-decorated bowls and those bearing Masonic emblems. With the latter, the square and compass and other elements were usually executed in plain black. Masonry played an important part in the social life of Englishmen and was coming to the fore in America, in the late eighteenth century when our ships were making voyages to China. Of the ship-decorated examples, there is the Grand Turk bowl, painted in Canton in 1786, and sent back to Elias Hasket Derby, merchant prince of Salem, Massachusetts, by Pinqua, probably the Chinese merchant of Canton through whom his supercargo conducted his buying and selling. On the side and interior are superb specimens of Cantonese ship painting, depicting the Grand Turk with sails set and an American flag flying from the stern. On ribbons above and below the representation on the inside of the bowl is lettered "Ship Grand Turk at Canton 1786."

Of the bowls decorated strictly for American use, none are more significant than those bearing the insignia of the Order of the Cincinnati. Probably the earliest is one made for General Knox of Thomaston, Maine. Major Samuel Shaw, supercargo on the Empress of China, had been aide-de-camp to him and it is reasonable to suppose that the bowl was brought back on that first voyage of 1784. Punch bowls depicting American scenes also were brought back. Outstanding among them is the New York City punch bowl. In the interior is reproduced "New York from Brooklyn, 1802," as drawn by Birch and engraved by Seymour, and above it a band of lettering: "Drink deep. You will preserve the City and Encourage Canals." On the exterior above the seal of the city is the presentation inscription: "Presented by General Jacob Morton to the Corporation of the City of New York, July 4th, 1812." On the base is lettered: "This bowl was made by Syngchong in Canton Fungmanhe Pinxt." It is a unique piece with an American scene, a dated inscription of presentation, and the name of the Canton merchant through whom the order was transmitted as well as that of the decorator who did the work.Lastly, in the Peabody Museum at Salem, Massachusetts, is a punch bowl decorated with a scene that depicts Canton itself. On the exterior may be seen the buildings of the trading post outside the city walls. The American Hong is in the centre.

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