A twisted tale of Chinese porcelain

Reverse engineering, industrial espionage: Been there, done that, got the T-shirt in the 17th century

Published January 25, 2006 10:45PM (EST)

China hasn't always been trying to catch up with the West. Gunpowder, the compass, paper and movable type: The Chinese are famous for inventing them all. A little less well known is that the Chinese perfected the manufacturing process for fine porcelain, centuries before Europe had a clue.

But not for lack of trying. From at least the 16th century onward, Europeans obsessively attempted to master the secret of porcelain. Europe was mad for the "white gold." In the first half of the 17th century alone, the Dutch imported some 3 million items. Chinese porcelain, with its steely hardness and sublime translucence, was a status symbol, collector's item and dinner-table fixture.

But for hundreds of years, European efforts to crack the porcelain code proved as fruitless as the quest to transmute gold from base metals. The necessary technique turned out to be bafflingly complex. The right clays had to be purified, mixed together, and fired in a kiln at extremely high temperatures.

Ultimately, a combination of inspired reverse-engineering by German alchemists and industrial espionage by Jesuit missionaries solved the mystery. In Meissen, Germany, Ernst Tschirnhaus and Johann Bottger, two men in the employ of the porcelain-infatuated Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, first succeeded in creating porcelain that matched the Chinese standard. Reports previously transmitted from China had given the men clues as to the types of clay necessary, and in a stroke of luck, one of the key ingredients, kaolin -- the so-called China clay -- was available in large quantities near Meissen.

At nearly the same time, Pere d'Entrecolles, a Jesuit priest and missionary who had finagled his way into Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China, sent two voluminously detailed letters back to Europe detailing every iota of information he was able to glean about the porcelain manufacturing process. While his information was not crucial to the work at Meissen, say ceramic historians, it was instrumental in assisting other European efforts to break the Meissen monopoly within Europe. Chinese exports of porcelain to Europe soon plummeted.

It should go without saying that today, such manufacturing methods would be (and are) considered protected trade secrets and guarded by thickets of patents and high-powered intellectual property litigators. But in the 17th and 18th century, I.P. laws were in their infancy, and certainly didn't apply to European relations with China. (It should also be acknowledged that modern patents last for only 20 years, and would not have been of huge help in keeping Chinese secrets safe for multiple centuries. Then again, copyright law might have helped prevent the wanton copying of Chinese designs that appeared on the new European porcelain.)

When discussing the current state of intellectual property woes in China, you don't hear a whole lot of moaning from the Chinese about how the Europeans stole the secret to porcelain manufacturing as a rationale for why China blithely copies DVDs, Armani suits, and top-of-the-line semiconductor chips. In fact, you are more likely to hear the current manufacturers of Chinese Jingdezhen porcelain complaining about other Chinese who are ripping off their designs, domestically.

Still, contemporary observers of the Chinese economy would do well to recall the troubled history of Chinese relations with the West. For as long as it was able, the West took what it wanted from China. If China resisted, the West brought in the artillery. The most famous example of this was the Opium Wars, in which Britain won the right to addict Chinese citizens to narcotics by brute force. But that was merely the grossest miscarriage of imperialism. China never had a chance to join the global economy on its own terms -- from the 19th century on, Western nations (and Japan) forced their own laws and business methods upon China. Today, if you listen closely, it's not hard to hear an echo of extraterritorial concessions and British imperial arrogance in the communications of the United States trade representative with respect to China and intellectual property. And it's not hard to understand why some Chinese leaders might think that the current international intellectual property regime is just another, more sophisticated version of the gunboat diplomacy that once ensured Western superiority.

But here's the real irony. Today, who do you suppose is once again the primary source of the world's porcelain? Not the Dutch or the Germans. It's come back to China, where thousands of porcelain firms are now undercutting their Western competitors by pumping out dirt cheap copies of Western porcelain that itself was copied from the Middle Kingdom hundreds of years ago. A better demonstration of "what goes around, comes around" might be hard to come by.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works Intellectual Property