Reaching Distant Lands: Discussion

Summary

In Distant Lands, students look at reasons behind the trade in Chinese ceramics. They develop critical thinking skills by asking why other cultures valued Chinese porcelains and believed the risk and expense of shipping them over vast oceans and carrying them over distant deserts were worthwhile.

Objectives

Students will:

  • develop an understanding of why trade with China was so important along the overland Silk Route and maritime routes;
  • think critically about the reasons people value luxury goods, including the objects students value themselves;
  • connect with other historical events such as European trade worldwide and the relationship between colonial history and Chinese history;
  • use art objects as primary resources for understanding Chinese society and history;
  • understand multiple approaches to creativity in the arts and connection with traditional values.

Time Requirements

1 class period

Discussion Questions

Read and display or ask students to read the Distant Lands narrative.

The porcelain trade and trade in luxury goods gives students a window on the foundation of today’s global economy. The Distant Lands narrative focuses on the year 1760, a turning point in China: the great kilns in Jingdezhen were being rebuilt following a period of turmoil as the Ming dynasty came to an end and the Qing dynasty rose to power. Foreign trade increased because European powers scoured the world for economic opportunities, and powerful mercantile companies based their operations in Canton, confined there by the Chinese government. 1760 was also the first year of the reign of English king George III, providing a thread to the American colonies’ quest for independence in the 1770s.

There is evidence that Europeans learned mass production techniques and task specialization from the Chinese. These methods may have fueled the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century. But what effect did these techniques have on individual craftspeople, artists, and working people? Reflecting on the Distant Lands narrative, ask students to discuss or debate the effect of these techniques from several points of view. If you were a business person, what would you value in mass production techniques? If you were a craftsperson? A laborer? An art collector?

Activities

Trading between China and Europe was risky: merchants traveled long distances and were away from home for years. They faced thieves and pirates, storms, disease, and uncooperative or deceptive sellers. Chinese porcelains are still highly valued, especially antique pieces.

Why would people go to so much expense for Chinese porcelains? An art historian (Lothar Ledderose) noted that porcelain ware “pleased great numbers of people, improved the quality of their lives, and contributed to their feeling of privilege.” Ask students to define luxury goods. Answers might include items:

  • made from expensive materials
  • made from rare materials
  • that come from other countries
  • that are hard to make
  • made by someone well-known

Ask students to brainstorm lists of luxury goods in their own lives. Some examples might include:

  • expensive athletic shoes
  • electronic gadgets, including Gameboys, PlayStations, and cell phones
  • jewelry
  • cars

Ask students to debate or write about the following questions:

  • Despite the expense and trouble in obtaining them, why do people want luxury goods?
  • What’s the difference between something that is functional (a Styrofoam cup, perhaps) and something that is beautiful, expensive, and rare (a Ming porcelain tea cup)?
  • How does a luxury good improve the quality of someone’s life? What is privilege, and why would someone want to have it?
  • Sometimes we buy or want things because they look exotic. What does exotic mean? Do you ever want something because it looks exotic to you? Because it comes from someplace far away? Do you ever try to find out more about what it means? Do you have anything with Chinese or Japanese characters on it? What do they mean? Do you think anything from your everyday life looks exotic to someone from Japan or China? How does that make you feel?
  • In the West, many luxury goods are rare, one-of-a-kind objects. The craftspeople or artists who make them try hard to create unique and novel pieces. How is that different from luxury goods that are mass-produced? What are some ways that working within a long tradition can be considered creative?

List of Objects for Section 2

Bowl with details of boys playing
Qing dynasty (1662–1911)
Yongzheng period (1722–1735)
Porcelain, glaze (blue and white)
7.8 in. diameter x 3 in. high
Gift of Mr. David L. Kamansky
1991.76.2

Bowls (xing yao)
Tang dynasty (618–906 AD)
Porcelain, glaze (white)
1.75 in. high x 5.75 in. diameter
Gift of Chan Siu Kin
2000.13.3AB

Ribbed jar (Longquan ware)
Yuan dynasty (1279–1368 AD)
Stoneware, glaze (celadon)
3.6 in. high x 5.25 in. diameter
Museum purchase
(formerly in the collection of Ambassador Alexander Otto)
1994.46.6

Jar
14th century (from Guangdong)
Stoneware, iron-oxide lead glaze, sea growth
3 in. high x 3.25 in. diameter
Promised gift of Mr. Dennis Kendig
L.26.31.00

Charger (large platter) with qilin
(detail)
Ming dynasty (AD 1368–1644)
c. 1400
Porcelain, glaze (blue and white)
18.6 in. diameter
Gift of the honorable and Mrs. Jack Lydman
1991.47.6

Charger (large platter) with deer
Ming dynasty (AD 1368–1644)
Wanli period (1573–1619)
Porcelain, glaze (blue and white)
12.5 in. diameter
Gift of the honorable and Mrs. Jack Lydman
1991.47.17

Plate (center detail)
Qing dynasty (1644-1912), ca. 1800
Porcelain, underglaze iron-red and blue decorations
with overglaze enamel
7.25 in. diameter
Private Collection

Oval platter
Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Porcelain, overglaze enamels
17 in. wide
Gift of the
Honorable and Mrs. Jack Lydman
1991.47.77

Tea caddies
Qing dynasty (AD 1644–1911)
Porcelain, glaze (blue and white)
11.5 in. high and 6 in. wide
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Thomson
1985.21.1AB

Bowls
Song dynasty (AD 960–1279)
Stoneware, glaze, iron oxide lead glaze (temokku)
2.75 in. high x 4.8 in. diameter
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1997.69.43AB