Tuesday, June 14, 2022

300 years ago, a story of spying and offshoring

1999 7542 sheng puerh
At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, porcelain was also called 'white gold'. European courts would trade tons of real gold and silver to purchase porcelain vases, teapots, tea cups, plates from China. The first Qing rulers became rich and powerful thanks to their monopoly of the a process that had been refined during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD), over a millennium ago! 

This couldn't go on forever, or Europe would be ruined by its porcelain and tea loving elites! But who could they send as 007 in the service of his Majesty? There was no MI6, no Renseignements Généraux or CIA. However, in this pre-Voltairean, there was one powerful institution that disguised its real power by not wielding or carrying any weapons, except words, the church. And the 'company of Jesus' was one of its savviest and cunning branch. It wanted to spread the message of Christ to the highest levels of power in China and, at the same time, better understand the Empire it was trying to convert.

So, our secret agent was born in 1664 in the town of Limoges and was ordained priest in 1693. Five years later, he's sent  as missionary to Yangxi, in the GuangDong Province. There, he was known as Father d'Entrecolles, Father François-Xavier d'Entrecolles! Thanks to his proficiency in Chinese, he's later sent to JingDeZhen, China's porcelain capital. Officially, he was working to convert the Chinese to the Christian faith. Unofficially, he was trying to gather intelligence of the production of porcelain in the kilns of this town. This led him to send 2 letters describing the process of making porcelain in great detail. The first was sent in 1712 and the second in 1722, three hundred years ago! He even mailed a sample of kaolin!

What Father d'Entrecolles didn't know was that on October 9th, 1708, 2 German scientists, Tschirnhaus and Böttger, had already managed to fire the "first cup of true unglazed porcelain, the first white translucent vessel" in Dresden (see the White Road by Edmund de Waal, page 190). Nevertheless, his work was still useful, because what would become the Meissen manufacture would try its best to protect its own secrets of porcelain making!

There are 2 more interesting facts connected to this story that would enable the offshoring of the production of porcelain from China to Europe. First, the high mark for Qing dynasty porcelain was attained during emperor Kangxi. He was reigned from 1661 to 1722, the year of the second letter of father d'Entrecolles! This is not really a coincidence, because now that China's monopoly was broken, its power started to decline. Second, 25 years after the death of father d'Entrecolles in Peking (now Beijing), a large deposit of kaolin was found near his birthplace and that's how Limoges became the porcelain capital of France!

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