Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 28, 2020
Meha Priyadarshini Chinese Porcelain in Colonial Mexico: The Material Worlds of an Early Modern Trade Palgrave Studies in Pacific History. Philadelphia: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 198 pp.; 25 color ills.; 5 b/w ills. Cloth $99.99 (9783319665467)

Meha Priyadarshini’s Chinese Porcelain in Colonial Mexico is structured as a spatial-commercial journey, presenting a “typical biography” (sensu Igor Kopytoff in his classic 1986 essay from Cambridge University Press’s The Social Life of Things) of the world’s first “global brand” (to use Craig Clunas’s oft-cited phrase). The book follows Chinese porcelain from production in Jingdezhen, to transpacific shipping from Manila, to consumption in Acapulco and Mexico City, and finally to reproduction in Puebla (one valley east of the viceregal capital), where Chinese porcelain inspired a local off-brand (talavera poblana) that was valued on its own terms by poblano makers and consumers—and beyond.

Each of the four site-specific chapters begins with a history of its target location before and during the era of transpacific trade, and then goes on to consider porcelain’s social life at that place from a materially and corporeally focused perspective: techniques used by potters and painters and glazers, methods of packing for transoceanic transit, the aesthetics of hot beverage consumption, the guild regulations shaping reinterpretation. Overall, “by following one commodity through a trade network we can arrive at a ‘translocal global history,’ a history where we see the direct engagement between local conditions and the global forces of trade and empire” (5–6). Furthermore, “the advantage of writing from the perspective of one particular commodity is that it ruptures the meta-narratives created by histories written from the point of view of a colonizing force. These ruptures can be seen in the sites through which we follow the objects. In these various places we are forced to reckon with the tangibility of objects and recognize the tactile dimensions of commerce. We have to consider the hands of the people who made the commodities of trade, those who packed and shipped them, and those who treasured and studied them” (22).

Within this broad framework, Priyadarshini offers a number of microhistorical anecdotes and interpretations, which are one of the book’s great pleasures. The narrative is bookended, for example, by tales of the Casa de los Azulejos, a palace in the center of Mexico City covered with blue-and-white tiles in the eighteenth century. The introductory chapter points out that although legend claims these tiles were made in distant China (and not, as is really the case, in Mexico), actual Chinese porcelain can indeed be found inside the palace, built into its staircases. The concluding chapter returns to the building, which today is home to a Sanborns restaurant. Food there is served on blue-on-white “Willow Pattern” dishes, a Chinese-inspired design developed in England but now produced in Mexico as well (as explained by a wall plaque inside the restaurant). In chapter 3, we meet a spectacular seventeenth-century chest now in a Puebla museum: its wood is local to the Philippines, its design is Spanish, and its facture—including a painted lid that depicts the city of Manila and its adjacent Parián market—is probably Chinese. Priyadarshini points out that, as a shipping container, it no doubt traveled from Manila to New Spain filled with yet more Asian commodities—all of which provides a perfect materialization of translocal global history.

But alongside these case studies and across the ever-shifting site-specificity of the book’s chapters is the sustained theme of creole ethnogenesis in colonial New Spain. The reader is constantly told of how the inhabitants of the Spanish colony worked to create “a colonial identity in Mexico” (11) and resisted demands made by the empire: “The conflicts between the interests of the Spanish Empire and those of the merchants from the Americas were evident in the animosity harbored towards the merchants by Spanish colonists in Manila” (73), and “the Royal Palace, which housed the residence of the viceroy and his family, as well as various chambers and courts of the imperial government, the treasury, an armory, and a prison, served as a reminder to the Spanish and creole population of the colony’s connection and subservience to the Crown” (108). Yet “the appropriation of Asian goods and aesthetics in Mexico was influenced by its status as a colony, which is why we see instances, such as [Agustín de] Vetancourt’s writing, where people in the colony used the transpacific trade to challenge its subservient position or at least assert their difference by incorporating elements of Asia in their day-to-day lives” (172).

Priyadarshini is of course careful to separate this colonial identity from Mexican nationalism: for Puebla potters, “their goal in emulating Chinese porcelain was to produce a new and unique ceramic tradition that would be distinct from the Spanish one. This is not to say that the appropriations and adaptations of Asian goods and aesthetics led to a sense of Mexican nationalism, but the unique position of Mexico between Spain and Asia did afford the colonial society an opportunity to distance itself from the metropole” (14–15; see also 99, 113). “If the potters’ guild and its records represent the ceramic industry’s desire to stay connected to Europe and its traditions, the objects themselves represent another colonial reality: the desire of the society to assert its own unique identity and pursue its own agenda” (158). Local ceramic production was not the only example of such assertions: others include resistance by merchants to Crown prohibitions on transpacific trade or devotion to a saintly woman originally from Asia (Catarina de San Juan, the famous China Poblana) despite hostile edicts from Rome. “With such actions colonial society was beginning to distance itself from the metropole and form a distinct identity” (158).

Thus Chinese Porcelain in Colonial Mexico, in addition to its contributions to global history, can also be placed alongside Anthony Pagden’s “Identity Formation in Spanish America” (1987), David A. Brading’s “Nationalism and State-Building in Latin American History” (1994), and François-Xavier Guerra’s “The Implosion of the Spanish Empire: Emerging Statehood and Collective Identities” (2000) as a study of how creole identity was created in the colonial period and ultimately led to the liberating Wars of Independence in the early nineteenth century. For if, in his 1604 La grandeza mexicana, “[Bernardo de] Balbuena was not writing a revolutionary text, already in the early years of the seventeenth century he was suggesting that Mexico’s commercial ties gave it an advantage over Spain” (98); by the end of that century Cristóbal de Villalpando’s painting of Mexico City’s main plaza after the 1692 maize riots shows the viceroy’s palace not yet repaired, “perhaps also portend[ing] the waning power of the Crown” (111).

The final twist in this story is the history of the transpacific Manila Galleon Trade, which ended—in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and the Spanish American revolutions they triggered—in 1815. Thus a vehicle for colonial identity formation under Spanish rule disappeared at the same time Spanish rule was being overthrown. Perhaps this helps explain why until recently (as Priyadarshini laments) the role of Asia in the history of Latin America has been so understudied, and why visions of the early modern world have prioritized the connections of Europe and Asia (6, 9–10). With the freedom of independence, new identity formations could emerge in Spanish America, formations in which Asia was far more distant, materially and conceptually, than it had been during the three previous centuries.

Byron Ellsworth Hamann
William C. Seitz Senior Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts