Edmund de Waal, A lecture on the weather, 2015

Happy the man who develops an obsessive interest early in life that remains with him and that he can turn to constructive account. Edmund de Waal is such a man: he alighted on ceramics as a boy and they have remained the focus of his working life ever since.

To the general public, however, he is probably more known as the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes than as a ceramic artist. That book, which became a surprise bestseller throughout the world, recounted the story of one side of his family, an enormously rich pan-European banking family originating in Odessa, through the checkered fate of a collection of netsuke that he had inherited. This was not merely a family saga, but an account of the virtual destruction of an entire civilization and way of life, a theme of some of Stefan Zweig’s stories. But The Hare with Amber Eyes was more than just a lament: it was a call for people to take an interest in the history of the objects around them, and not to take them just for granted, as if they materialized only the moment we looked at them.

The author returns, somewhat tangentially, to this theme in The White Road: Journey into an Obsession, a literary macédoine, as it were, of the history of porcelain, autobiography, travelogue, and philosophy. At times it strikes me as a little precious and self-indulgent, and the use of the historical present suggests an intimacy with the actors in the history that can appear presumptuous, but the end of the book is (or was to me) as startling and unexpected as the ending of any crime novel.

Here I must confess to an ignorance of, and comparative uninterest in, porcelain as an art form. I am guilty of precisely that taking-for-granted of those few pieces of porcelain that I own that The Hare with Amber Eyes counteracts, which for me are highly decorative and even beautiful but do not engage my full attention in the way that my pictures do. The deficiency is no doubt in me, not in porcelain as a medium; recently, for example, I went to an exhibition of modern Japanese calligraphy which opened to me, or perhaps I should say left ajar to me, an entire art form which I scarcely knew existed but which is regarded as the supreme art form in Japan and China. Needless to say, an hour in a museum and the reading of one book is not enough to enter into an art world so alien that it would take a lifetime of study to understand it truly, but it is certainly humbling and salutary to realize that you have been, and remain, profoundly ignorant of the highest artistic medium of more than a fifth of mankind, whose beauty you can appreciate only in the most superficial way.

It is not quite so bad with porcelain, of course, but bad enough, and after reading this book I shall certainly look with closer attention at the medium. Its history is fascinating, though perhaps I would have retained more of it had it been set out in a less fragmented and personal way than it is here, where it is recounted like a pilgrimage to the sources of de Waal’s art.

The Chinese discovered (if discovered is quite the word) porcelain several hundred years before the Europeans. For the latter, porcelain was long a rare and precious cargo, brought at the cost of every possible hazard, the possession of even a small quantity of which conferred enormous prestige on the possessor. The King of Saxony swapped an entire regiment of soldiers for some grand porcelain vases owned by the King of Prussia, so great was his lust for them (and so little, one might add, his concern for the life of others). The Europeans longed to discover the secret of the extraordinary material, translucent, strong, and malleable into myriad exquisite forms, eventually attaining their goal first in Saxony and then in England, guided in their efforts by the reports of the French Jesuit missionary to China, Père d’Entrecolles.

Porcelain was long a rare and precious cargo, brought at the cost of every possible hazard, the possession of even a small quantity of which conferred enormous prestige on the possessor.

The manufacture of porcelain requires two materials, a stone called petunse, and a clay called kaolin, after a mountain in China called Kao-ling where it is found in great quantities. It is a measure of my ignorance that before I read the book I associated kaolin with the binding agent of the mixt. kaolin et morph., a sludgy brown medicine that was once used for the symptomatic treatment of diarrhea, freely available over the counter, and consumed in large quantities by desperate addicts on account of the small quantity of morphine that it contained.

It so happened that the two ingredients of porcelain existed in large quantities together in Saxony and England (the latter soon supplying half the kaolin used in the world for the manufacture of porcelain). But of course much more goes into the making of the porcelain that we take for granted than the mixture of the two ingredients: at every stage, from the molding to the coloring to the glazing and firing in the kiln, something may go wrong and the product abandoned. When de Waal went to the city of Jingdezhen, the millennial capital of the Chinese porcelain industry, he found mounds of millions of pieces of smashed porcelain, like the slag-heaps of coal mines, many of them hundreds of years old, from porcelain dishes that turned out imperfect and therefore unusable—for in a nation of imperial and scholarly connoisseurs imperfection was impermissible.

The Chinese porcelain industry took advantage of the extreme division of labor hundreds of years before Adam Smith described its effect on productivity. There were painters of one particular motif and nothing else, for example; they were proletarians in the mass production of aesthetic perfection in a society in which most people lived not far above the level of subsistence. Their conditions of work must have been abominable and the grossest occupational disease rampant among them, though probably accepted as inevitable and inseparable from existence. Mao said that power grew out of the barrel of a gun; it sometimes seems as if the exquisite grows out of the imposition of hardship.