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Porcelain and Politics

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Maris Gillette | 23 May 2018

Fall, 1004

The emperor sat and stared at the delicate six-lobed dish of icy-blue in his hand. He traced his finger along the cloud-like figures carved in the cavetto, noting how the color pooled in the incised and combed design. He raised the dish almost to eye level and tilted it, appreciating the petal-like lobes that slid gracefully down to the carved center. Shifting the dish into his other hand, he turned it over to look at the bottom. The icy blue color stopped at a raised foot ring, a perfect circle of bright white that curved to a base of yellowy-brown flecked with black. A tiny hole pierced the otherwise smooth, glowing glaze on the dish’s side.

“Your Eminence,” his official said.

Zhenzong looked up. The man’s eye twitched, but he stood stiffly at attention, still in all other respects. Behind him were a dozen other officials and commanders. Behind them, his eunuchs and servants. Zhenzong was never alone. Six years since he had become emperor. Six years surrounded by civil and military officials, eunuchs, servants, members of the imperial household. So many memoranda. So much information. So many questions. So many demands. Zhenzong turned his gaze back to the dish, looking again at the design in the center, following the flowing lines.

“Your Eminence,” the official insisted. “Another treaty proposal has arrived.”

Zhenzong did not look up. He stared at the bowl, thinking about his friend, Wang Jizhong. Fishing buddy, companion at archery, fellow poetry devotee. Connoisseur of ceramics. The former owner of this dish. Zhenzong loved and trusted Wang Jizhong more than everyone else he knew. A border general, Wang Jizhong had been the first to warn him that the Liao were preparing to invade. Zhenzong had remained calm, done the necessary military preparations. He was confident that Wang Jizhong would forestall their attack.

“Read it,” Zhenzong instructed. “Or no, don’t read it.” He flicked his eyes to the twitching muscle, then back to the dish. “Tell me what it says. Keep it short.”

“We are invited to make peace. The conditions: we relinquish all claims to the territory of Yan and Yun. No new fortifications or canals, no disturbances to farmland or crops. Markets reopen. We pay them 100,000 taels of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk annually. In return, a solemn oath never to invade our empire again.”

Zhenzong heard a sharp intake of breath, and the officials and commanders began their tiresome buzzing. “Outrageous!” a general declared. “Scandalous,” an official agreed. “How dare they.” “And after Your Eminence personally defeated them at Shanyuan!” “Utterly unacceptable.”

Zhenzong resumed his exploration of the dish. The icy blue glaze, as lustrous and deep as jade, Wang Jizhong had marveled. The craftsmanship, so finely potted. When he brought the dish to Zhenzong, Wang Jizhong had pointed to the whiteness of its porcelain body, so unlike those heavy wares from Cizhou, their gray bodies covered in white slip. This dish had a fragility, a lightness…like the delicate bones of a concubine’s neck. Truly, it was magnificent. Jizhong was right to treasure it so.

The officials and generals continued their complaints, louder now. “We must return to battle.” “Lead us again Sire, the troops will rally behind you.” “How dare he make such a proposal,” a general declaimed again. Another spoke boldly: “Traitor!”

“Shut up!” Zhenzong snarled. “Shut up! Out of here! Get out of here. Now.”

The men retreated toward the door, careful never to show Zhenzong their backs. They wouldn’t leave, of course. They would stay until he responded to the proposal.

What happened during those early battles, Zhenzong wondered for the hundredth time. The Liao were skilled warriors. Zhenzong’s ability to keep them at bay was his family’s success or failure, the future of the dynasty that his father and uncle had created. Despite Wang Jizhong’s early warning, the Liao had penetrated swiftly, an unstoppable advance into Hebei. As they drew closer to Kaifeng Zhenzong’s generals urged him to leave the palace, flee south.

Then Zhenzong got news of Wang Jizhong’s capture.

He sentenced the two chief commanders to forty blows with the heavy bamboo and death by strangulation. They should never have deserted Wang. He beefed up military intelligence, sending more spies into the Guannan area, desperate for word of what happened. He called in the diviners. Had Jizhong been killed? Was he tortured? Zhenzong ordered that Wang’s porcelain collection be brought to the palace. He kept the icy-blue six-lobed dish with the cloud-like design at his side.

They call it the jade of Raozhou, Wang’s voice rang in his ear.

Zhenzong counterattacked. He personally led the troops at the front. The Liao would advance no farther. He would force them back, punish them for what they had done. He sent officials to the place where the dish had come from, ordering them to bring back more. “An insignificant town in the county of Raozhou, far to the south,” they told him when he asked about the place. “They call it the town south of the Chang River (Changnanzhen).” Zhenzong had a special case built for the decorated pill boxes, incised bowls, and delicate ewers that they brought back.

Then the rumors started. He’s alive, they said. He’s alive, living freely in the Liao kingdom. Next came the intelligence reports. He’s been to see the dowager empress. She made him her Tax Commissioner. He married a woman of her clan.

When the first peace proposal arrived, it was a personal appeal from Wang Jizhong. This one was the third. Or was it the fourth. Who knew. Too many memoranda. Too many people demanding his attention. Too much writing. Zhenzong was sick to death of it.

Porcelain as beautiful as jade, the voice whispered.

Zhenzong’s officials and generals insisted that he must reject the proposal. The Song could never give up the Guannan region. The treaty proposal was insulting. After all, the Liao hadn’t won. On the other hand, they hadn’t lost, either. The two armies were entrenched, waiting, occasional skirmishes.

Who was the peace treaty for, Zhenzong wondered. The Liao wanted what China had. Foodstuffs, certainly, but much more. Silk. Tea. Paper. Silver. Jade. Ceramics. Any money he sent them would come back to China tenfold. Was the peace proposal solely for the Liao’s benefit? Could it possibly be good for both empires?

Did Wang Jizhong remember the dish? Does he long for this small thing, so highly prized?

Does he miss me?

Zhenzong set down the dish and turned to the officials who he knew were close by. “I’ve made a decision,” he said.

They gestured to a scribe to come forward. “You’ll reject it, then,” a general said with confidence. “Tell them we won’t negotiate. Tell them we want no more of their so-called proposals for peace.” “Claim what belongs to us,” an official nodded. “Brook no challenges to your authority.” “Punish them,” said another. “Punish them for daring to write the words. Show them the power and the glory of the Song.” “Maintain and protect our glorious empire!”

Zhenzong spoke. “The place where they make this porcelain, raise its administrative status. Make it a market town. Send an official there. We will tax their porcelain, and they will supply ceramics to the court.”

The men were dumbfounded. The scribe was writing furiously. “Your Eminence?” “Your Eminence, the proposal?” “What of the proposal?”

Zhenzong turned and picked up the dish. “Oh yes,” he said. “Change the town’s name. Name it after my reign name. Henceforth the place is Jingdezhen. The town of the Jingde Emperor.”


Note from the author: This imaginative reconstruction of the events leading to the naming of Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital, is based on the historical information about the emperor usually called Zhenzong and his reign in The Cambridge History of China, volume 5 part 1, and Branches of Heaven: A History of the Imperial Clan of Sung China. Information about punishment in imperial China came from Barrington Moore’s 2001 article “Cruel and unusual punishment in the Roman Empire and Dynastic China” in the International Journal of Politics. Zhenzong was fond of archery, fishing, and poetry. The captured border general Wang Jizhong was his long-term confidant, and a mediator for the Liao in the Treaty of Shanyuan.


Maris Gilette is a professor at the school of global studies. She is a social anthropologist and filmmaker whose research explores how capitalist processes affect group identities, material culture, and economic practices.


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