Of course there’s an obvious answer for why we call porcelain “china” – because its origin is traced to that country – but there’s much more to the story and it’s worth a thought, especially as the material continues to grow in popularity.
Decorative porcelain is enjoying a bit of a revival these days, and when that happens it’s always good to brush up on the facts.
Porcelain: A Long, Long History
Porcelain has been around for a very long time, having first been manufactured in China as far back as 206 B.C during the Han Dynasty. Evidence of Chinese artisans’ attempts to make it go back even further – some 1,400 years further, to the Shang Dynasty.
So, that was almost 4,000 years ago. But, what we picture in our minds when we think of china didn’t emerge until the Tang Dynasty, which began about 1,400 years ago in 618 A.D.
‘Blue & White Ware’ Emerges
While the earliest examples of the familiar blue-on-white porcelain patterning date to the Tang Dynasty, widespread production in China didn’t materialize until the 14th century.
Production continued into the period of the Ming Dynasty and beyond, and by the 16th century the Chinese were producing porcelain specifically for export to Europe, and later North America; however, authentic non-export pieces arrived earlier and were regarded as rare treasures.
Export Porcelain & Copycats
In what may be one of history’s best unintentional marketing coups, a reputation for "fine" china was cultivated well before the exported version began to arrive in Europe.
And, then as now, people could hardly distinguish between china designed for export and the real McCoy circulated in China, despite there being stark differences in the patterning. Before long, European artisans were copying the exports, thus making a lot of decorative porcelain that was twice removed from the source.
Fine China vs. Porcelain
Porcelain and china are basically the same thing, manufacturing discrepancies notwithstanding. They are both ceramics, made with a combination of clay and other materials.
The main difference is defined by the ceramic’s origin; typically, porcelain from China is called china, and porcelain from anywhere else is called porcelain.
The only thing that makes china "fine" is its delicate appearance – at the end of day it’s all still ceramic.