Trade Winds: Chinese Export Wares from the 8th to 20th centuries

On Saturday, December 1, 2007 come discover the fascinating stories behind the export of Chinese goods throughout the world with the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) new exhibition, Trade Winds: Chinese Export Wares from the 8th to 20th centuries. The exhibition will be on display until April 6, 2008 in the Museum’s Herman Herzog Levy Gallery.

More than 100 artifacts selected from a wide range of ROM collections and other from the collections of five lenders including paintings, wallpaper, ceramics, and textiles will let visitors learn more about the history, economy, art and culture of China from the 8th to 20th centuries. Many of these artifacts will be on public display for the very first time and will add to visitors’ overall experience as they move through the adjacent galleries of China, Japan and Korea.

"Chinese commodities made life more comfortable and attractive in many foreign homes. In the days when they were still rare and expensive, they were regarded as status symbols,” says Dr. Ka Bo Tsang, Assistant Curator, Chinese Pictorial Arts, in the ROM’s World Cultures Department. “Many were even passed down from generation to generation as much-treasured heirlooms. Today visitors to the exhibition can see for themselves some of the fabulous designs and superb craftsmanship that had once allured their ancestors.”

In the past, people in different parts of the world came into contact with Chinese products through commerce. Impressed by the excellent workmanship and artistic quality of these seemingly exotic wares but ignorant of the place of manufacture, they developed idealized visions of this faraway country. Trade Winds will offer a glimpse into some of the most representative goods that China exported to many countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. From Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62 – 113) we learn that Chinese silk, whether in the form of skeins or yardage, had already reached Imperial Rome during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220).

For centuries, luxury items, such as tea, silk, spices and porcelain were carried by camel caravans through treacherous deserts and ice-bound mountain passes in Central Asia and the Middle East or shipped via the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean to the Italian ports of Genoa and Venice. This continued until the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and reached India in 1498. The newly discovered sea route enabled Portugal to be the first Western country to trade directly with China. Soon other countries -- Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France -- followed suit, each eager to carve a share in the lucrative profits of the China trade.

Chinese goods have been widely used in Canada since the 18th century. In 1867, after Confederation, Canada was finally able to trade directly with China. Before that date Canadian importers had to obtain merchandise from China through American, English, and French transhipments. Evidence of brisk trade is seen by surviving objects and documentation, as well as the tens of thousands of shards excavated from the sites of early settlements across Canada and from shipwrecks off the coast of New Brunswick.

Louisbourg, for example, was a fortress built by the French in Cape Breton in 1713. This capital of France’s Atlantic territories grew to become the third busiest port in North America. However, it came to its demise after the British captured it a second time in 1758. During the 1960s, when the federal government rebuilt part of this historic site, an astounding 69,000 fragments of Chinese export porcelains from Jingdezhen, China’s most renowned ceramic production centre, were excavated. Since then, most of these shards have been pieced together to recreate the shapes of the original wares.

Included in Trade Winds is a partially reconstructed saucer made up of three small fragments on loan from Fortress Louisbourg. Its decorative design of a girl on a swing in a garden setting has inspired a cup and saucer set. Though a 20th-century reproduction, this set has also been made by Jingdezhen potters who used traditional methods to ensure the highest quality.

Exhibit Sponsor:

Manulife Financial