[personal profile] fiefoe
There's a lot more clammy heat in this book than in Edmund de Waal's previous one on netsuke. It's more about making than possessing.
  • Pinch a walnut-sized piece between thumb and forefingers until it is as thin as paper until the whorls of your fingers emerge. Keep pinching. It feels endless. You feel it will get thinner and thinner until it is as thin as a gold leaf and lifts into the air. And it feels clean. Your hands feel cleaner after you have used it. It feels white.
  • I want poems that compare white porcelains to smoke coiling up from a chimney, or from incense on an alter, or mist from a valley, or, at the very least, an egret in a paddy field poised.
  • There are the pleasures of being envied and the pleasures of being feared and the pleasures of looking down on a sea of new possessions but of all the pleasures. More is the only thing that works.
  • The connoisseurs sniff, categorise, rank, price, demote.
  • Celadons, the colour caught between green and blue, get sky after rain, and kingfishers, and iced water, all of which are lyrical.
  • “In many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls,” Herman Melville wrote.
  • “The Auroras of Autumn” by Wallace Stevens: being visible is being white, / Is being of the solid white, the accomplishment / Of an extremist in an exercise….
  • If you make God in your own image, then William's God is an interested God. Not kind, perhaps, too many bereavements have knocked away that pietism, but good on detail, and definitely good on surprise.
  • All emperors look like Dorothy L. Sayers, legs planted firmly apart, hands on lap, solid, unknowable.
Of a necessity, there's a lot about doings of autocratic rulers:
  • Augustus II, elector of Saxony, an omnivorous collector of both mistresses and china, wrote, “The same is true for oranges as for porcelain, that once one has the sickness of one or the other, one can never get enough of the things and wishes to have more and more.”
  • The tale here comes very close to fairy story. There are tests, kilns, firing, failures. The boy is imprisoned, and then freed on condition he keep good his promise to transmute clay. Tschirnhaus invents large lenses capable of concentrating enough heat to melt Chinese porcelain. Between them, after years of error, they manage to produce one white translucent cup, whereupon Tschirnhaus dies.
  • Louis XIV built a porcelain pavillion for his mistress. In it, they made love: "in a Chinese bed below a ceiling painted with Chinese birds."
  • In 1909, someone writing on behalf of the boy emperor, then five years old, requests “one white porcelain vase, four white porcelain ju vessels, one white porcelain bowl, and twelve large white porcelain dishes. The vessels will be placed in front of the portrait of the late Empress Xiao Qin Xian for ritual purposes.” A response to another request arrives two years later, and it is the last imperial correspondence regarding porcelain—a staggering detail, when one realizes that such letters were exchanged for more than a millennium. Here, de Waal paraphrases: “It says that we received your letter, but we cannot fulfill a demand for one hundred seven-inch dishes glazed in sacrificial red. We no longer have the skills. So we are sending a hundred white dishes with red dragons on them.” <> “A thousand years of imperial porcelain ends on this,” De Waal writes. “For the first time in decades I feel like a cigarette.”
  • The emperor Zhu Di, who seized the imperial throne in a bloody act of usurpation in 1402, slaughtering hundreds of relatives in the process, was so fascinated by its purity he commissioned a towering pagoda of white porcelain brick that rose nine storeys and was celebrated as one of the wonders of the world.
  • The last section in which the author's pilgrimage to the lands and people who make porcelain takes him to Dachau where he uncovers the dark history of Allach porcelain.
Reviews are respectful but mixed, which align with my takeaways from this book:
  • He applies it to delicious effect in the strongest section of “The White Road,” which describes the travails of Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus — student of Spinoza, friend of Newton and Leibniz — as he rattled around Europe seeking an aristocrat to fund his research: “If you are interested in optics or mineralogy or funding a dictionary of philosophy, you are lucky to get two minutes of the attention of a margrave who lives for killing stags or boar in inventive ways.”
  • De Waal juxtaposes Cookworthy’s small-time ­efforts to fire the stuff with the enterprises of Josiah Wedgwood, the potentate of English pottery, who sent a factotum all the way to a mountain in the Cherokee Nation in the Carolinas to retrieve five tons of white clay.
  • De Waal is concerned also with ownership; and the undertow is one of misery and forced labour on the part of those who will never own anything much.
  • De Waal can tease a lot of atmosphere out of the most unprepossessing archival research — an imperial order for “hundreds of shallow dishes for narcissi” leads him to “imagine walking down one of those endless corridors in the Forbidden City, a paced rhythm of steps and scent.” He’s not, however, a natural travel writer, and the many places he visits flicker past without making much of an impression, backdrops to his perpetual agitation.
  • There was something almost holy in his earnestness: any holier and The Hare with Amber Eyes would have lost its poise and toppled into piety.
  • There emerged a robust market of export ware: porcelain exclusively made in China for Europe. Today, one can still marvel at the strange game of decorative, Orientalist telephone that this development created. A porcelain ewer has the seal of Portugal painted across its bulbous body in mild blue brushstrokes—except the seal is upside down.

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