The story in fact starts around the mountainside of Mount Gaolin in China. It is this mountain that produces the very important and specific type of clay used in Chinese porcelain. In the excellent programme produced by the BBC called “Treasures of Chinese Porcelain”, Lars Thaup, porcelain expert on the Antiques Road Show, follows the 400 mile journey taken by the porcelain, before even leaving China. The journey starts in the porcelain capital Jingdezhen and then onto the coastal port of Canton.
He also looks at why Chinese vases are so famous and expensive. He finds the answer lying in the fact that the Europeans had an obsession for Chinese porcelain, which began in the 16th Century and by the 18th Century had become a full blown craze that included kings, princes, aristocracy and eventually the emerging middle classes. In the beginning the craze was for the blue and white wares, often referred to today as the “Willow Pattern” but as time passed other designs appeared with increasing variations in colour, such as the Famille Rose. Different emblems appeared as finials, examples of which can be found on the giant vase urns found on the broad half landing at Melford Hall, or as ornaments in their own right such as the very popular “Dog of Fo”.
The “Dog of Fo” which was originally known as the lion-dog is shrouded in antiquity but can be traced as far back to the Han Dynasty, and is in fact not a native to China but Buddhism. The lion was an emblem of valour, courage, energy and wisdom. In Chinese mythology it is believed that Tian Gouxing, “heavenly dog star”, devoured the moon at the time of the eclipse. The Chinese word for Buddha is “Fo” and when Buddhist stories of religious significance, which contained a lion character, reached China, where the animal was unknown, devotional statues of it were modelled after the countries native dogs. Thus they became known as “Dogs of Fo”.
It is hard to imagine how the porcelain, fine and delicate, survived the precarious and monumental journey across China. Starting along the River Gan, travelling across the inland sea Lake Boyang, carried by men known as stick stick men across Dayu Mountain, through the manmade pass known as Meiling Pass and then along the River Pearl down to Canton Bay. To see the full journey watch Lars Thaup complete this journey for himself in the aforementioned BBC programme.