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  • The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History
  • Ralph Croizier
The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. By Robert Finlay . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 440 pp. $34.95 (cloth); $28.00 (e-book).

Commodity history has become an important part of world history scholarship; this is not commodity history. Porcelain is usually regarded as an objet d'art; this is not art history. As the subtitle suggests, it is more about the "cultures of porcelain," what it meant as an object with social, political, and symbolic value throughout most of "the old world" before 1500 and the whole world in the succeeding three centuries.

Finlay does provide evidence for the economic importance of porcelain, how it represented Chinese manufacturing superiority over most of the rest of Eurasia from roughly the eleventh century to the eve of the Industrial Revolution. He also discusses both the technology behind making true porcelain and the aesthetics of its design and decoration in China and the various countries, from Japan to Great Britain, that became its customers and would-be competitors.

Similarly for the art side, Finlay carefully describes the aesthetics of porcelain, paying particular attention to how styles and taste moved from one part of Eurasia to another and often back again to their source of origin as cross-cultural trade carried cross-cultural influences.

But that does not make the book art history any more than occasional references to the enormous quantities of porcelain China sent abroad make it straight economic history. Rather, it is a history of cross-cultural contact through one particular commodity—one with an artistic component as well as practical use—on a global scale and, with shades of Fernand Braudel, for a very longue durée.

This close attention to the cultural dimensions fills a real need in world history, where the economic priorities in our own age of globalization have focused much more attention on economic connections than cultural influences. Culture—art in particular—has not been well represented in recent world history scholarship. Finlay's book marks the first really significant effort to fill that gap. Looking at a very different [End Page 585] set of data and presenting his evidence in a very different manner (no charts or tables of figures), he nevertheless helps explain both "the Great Divergence" (Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, 2000) and the great Eurasian convergence (Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, 1991), or at least connectivity, that went before it. This is no trivial question in world history scholarship, and his book is not just for the artsy set. It is big-time world history.

Finlay's background is in European history, mostly political in Renaissance Italy and, most significant for Europe's exposure to other Eurasian cultures and their exports, Venice in particular. He uses mainly European sources—more in English than French, German, or Italian—and relies on translations for Asian languages. That said, the copious literature on porcelain as an art object provides him with quite a number of translated sources, especially from Chinese. He has combed these sources extensively, but still, like much of world history scholarship, the view comes from Europe.

This is not as great a shortcoming as it might appear, for although he traces porcelain from its neolithic pottery beginnings in China, the big story is about how porcelain became a conduit for cultural exchange and knowledge of the Other throughout Eurasia and then, in the holds of European ships, around the world. For this, the Europe-China axis is central. Porcelain-facilitated connections between China and other parts of East and Southeast Asia are not neglected, nor is the fruitful interchange between China and Islamic Asia. But, as in so many other world histories, the China-Europe connection is at the heart of his argument.

The book starts with a chapter on the Jesuit Francois-Xavier Dentrecolles as missionary and industrial spy in the great center of the Chinese porcelain industry, Jingdezhen, in the early decades of the eighteenth century. It not only describes the organization and techniques of this highly sophisticated product at the height of its domination of worldwide markets, but highlights the...