7: Tea Bowl


Tea bowl, late 18th to early 19th century (China, for American export), porcelain.

The tea bowl is rather simple in presentation. The only images occupying its otherwise white exterior are floral designs. The viewer first sees a magenta flower surrounded by stems, leaves, and dissimilar, orange-colored flowers. Upon rotation, the viewer then encounters a single flower—also magenta—which may suggest it is the same flower as the one previously seen, otherwise painted from a different visual perspective. These flowers, which appear to be tree peonies and Chinese lantern seeds, may belong to a class of porcelains known as familie rose. This style displayed the dominant pink color that became prevalent in Chinese floral porcelains from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.[1] It is in part due to the widespread use of these rose hues over such extensive time periods that makes this tea bowl so difficult to date. The rim of the bowl—lined with an orange wave design—also does not include any distinguishable features that would aid in dating the object. However, the base of the bowl has no markings. As porcelain became more commercialized, countries like the U.S. began requiring “Made in China” to put on the base.[2] This suggests that it was produced prior to the late twentieth century.

The interior rim of the bowl is also lined with a design consisting of arrowheads and dot decorations. The rest of the inner surface of the bowl is white, aside from the mark at its center. Marks on Chinese export porcelains were common and often characters that symbolized different dynasties.[3] This tea bowl’s mark, however, is unconventional; it does not match any of the popular signs that were commonly used by artists at the time. Additionally, it is not located on the exterior base of the bowl, which is where artists typically put them.[4] This may imply that this bowl’s mark is unique to its crafter, which only evokes more mystery surrounding this object.

The most significant aspect of the tea bowl is that it is made from Chinese porcelain. After the Portuguese returned to Europe with Chinese goods in the sixteenth-century, Europeans soon viewed Chinese porcelains as objects of unparalleled beauty and variety.[5] The appeal was associated with the unique white ceramic material that could not be duplicated in the West.[6] In addition, many pieces depicted Chinese culture and included images of “novel scenes of a land still very much exotic to most Westerners,” which also contributed to the European interest in these porcelains.[7]

The tea bowl is intrinsically linked to the West’s trade with China, and its American provenance implies that it was imported there. Due to complications in determining whether or not the object is from the years preceding or following the American Revolution, it is difficult to classify it as a part of England-China trade or the later U.S.-China trade. Before the Revolution, the object would have been a product of Chinese trade with the English East India Company, which controlled the commercial exchanges between England and China from 1600 to the early 19th century.[8] After the American Revolution, as a nation of entrepreneurs, the independent United States began trading directly with China in 1784 when the Empress of China left New York Harbor and arrived near Canton, a Chinese port.[9] All trading was restricted to the port at Canton and was to be performed only under the firm supervision of Chinese officials. Incoming ships would arrive in Macao, where a pilot would direct them up the Canton River.[10]

The strictly regulated nature of trade at Canton contributed to a lack of knowledge of China overall. Despite being in direct connection with China through trade, Americans—even traders—were largely uninformed about China and Chinese life. This lack of knowledge ultimately provided space for the American imagination to take root and develop into a fantastical vision of the foreign country.[11] Chinese ceramics, such as this tea bowl, provided fuel for this process. Many ceramic designs included basic elements—birds, trees, bridges, and Chinese houses—that evoked a curiosity of the East. These elements, like the Chinese flowers depicted on this tea bowl, acted as a base upon which one could construct his or her image of China. Dr. John R. Haddad, Professor of American Studies and Popular Culture, notes, “A simple china plate seemed to present a portal to an Oriental Garden of Eden.”[12] Therefore, the floral decorations on the tea bowl not only served an aesthetic purpose, but also provided a doorway into the East that had not been fully opened by the U.S.-China trade at Canton.

However, Chinese porcelains were only a small part of the trade market; cargoes were filled with many other Chinese goods at the time—particularly tea. Western understandings of the properties and implications of tea gave tea bowls and associated porcelains their place in Western society. Tea was originally known for its distinctive medicinal purposes, since it had a bitter taste and was thought to possess health-giving properties.[13] Then, after its introduction to Europe, it became something of symbol of high-status, since only the wealthy could afford the expensive tea sets that were “required” in order to drink it.[14] Many of the tea sets—much like ones this tea bowl would have been a part of—retained qualities that adhered to traditional Chinese practices of drinking tea, such as handleless cups. This made the experience even more exotic in the West, which is why it bore such an immense popularity.[15] By the late 18th century, tea and its associated porcelain wares had travelled both across seas and social classes. For example, inexpensive porcelain sets could be found in the homes of lower-class families.[16] Therefore, tea and its associated porcelain sets are remarkable in their ability to provide a shared experience that transcends both geographical and social barriers.

Considering all of this, we can return to this tea bowl and realize that it is not as simple as its design may suggest. Rather, objects like this tea bowl fall at the center of the relationship between the East and the West and serve as indicators of the interactions between distinct cultures. The bowl not only represents the trade networks established between the Americans and the Chinese, but may have also acted as a catalyst for the American imagination of the Chinese and their country. Given this, the porcelain tea bowl is intertwined in the ways in which Americans viewed the Chinese “other” and incorporated Chinese tea-drinking practices into their daily lives. As these practices became part of American civility, they aided in the construction of a global identity of tea, an identity ultimately associated with porcelain objects similar to this tea bowl.

Amanda Guth and Nicholas Musacchio


[1] Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785-1835 (East Brunswick: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981), 167.

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain in North America (New York: Riverside Book Company, Inc., 1986), 230.

[4] Ibid., 229-231.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Peter Herbert and Nancy Schiffer, Chinese Export Porcelain: Standard patterns and forms, 1780 to 1880 (Exton: Schiffer Publishing Limited, 1975), 8.

[9] Ibid., 11; H. A. Crosby Forbes, Review of The Empress of China,” The New England Quarterly 57, no. 4 (1984): 602, accessed May 2, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/365069?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

[10] Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 45.

[11] John R. Haddad, “China of the American Imagination,” in Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations, ed. Kendall Johnson (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012), 58.

[12] Ibid., 60.

[13] Helen Saberi, Tea: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2010), 85.

[14] Ibid., 87.

[15] Haddad, 62-63.

[16] Ibid., 60.