Ibn Battuta on Chinese Porcelain
About This Resource
Ibn Battuta (1304—either 1368/9 or 1377) was one of the greatest world travelers. Inspired by his pilgrimage to Mecca as a young man in 1325, he kept on traveling for the next thirty years, eventually traveling throughout the Islamic world and as far as China..., southern Russia, and East Africa. Although he kept diaries of his impressions and descriptions of the fascinating things and strange customs that he saw, his Rihla [travel book] was actually written by Ibn Juzayy on the basis of Ibn Battuta’s dictation in 1357, at the behest of the Marinid sultan in Morocco. Ibn Battuta admitted that he had lost his notes, and it is perhaps because of this that some of his descriptions relied on the work of other authors—Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) most particularly—without acknowledging those sources, and that his descriptions are occasionally exaggerated.
In the following, he describes the porcelain made in Zaytun (Ch‘uean-chou-fu, or Quangzhou) in Fukien (Fujian) Province, which he used as his home base for excursions to other areas of China. Chinese porcelain reached the Islamic world by the end of the eighth century in the form of diplomatic gifts. Muslim potters then tried to imitate the fine body that produced exquisite vessels, pure white and thin to the point of translucence, but they lacked its key ingredient, kaolin. Ibn Battuta’s reference to fermentation alludes to the common practice of allowing organic bacteria to grow, making the clay more elastic and easier to manipulate.
Annotation by D. Fairchild Ruggles.
The photograph shows a Chinese porcelain jar from the Yuan dynasty, made during the mid-14th century.
The Chinese pottery (porcelain) is manufactured only in the towns of Zaytun and Sin-kalan. It is made of the soil of some mountains in that district, which takes fire like charcoal, as we shall relate subsequently. They mix this with some stones which they have, burn the whole for three days, then pour water over it. This gives a kind of clay which they cause to ferment. The best quality of (porcelain is made from) clay that has fermented for ten days. The price of this porcelain there is the same as, or even less than, that of ordinary pottery in our country. It is exported to India and other countries, even reaching as far as our own lands in the West, and it is the finest of all makes of pottery. (Abridged trans. Gibb, pp. 282-83)
Ibn Battuta (H. A. R. Gibb, trans.), , Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354 (abridged), New Delhi: Manohar, 2001. Originally published 1929; there are multiple other reprints. See also Ibn Battuta (H. A. R. Gibb (trans.), The Travels of Ibn Battuta (2 vols.). Cambridge, England: Hakluyt Society, 1958-62.
Ibn Battuta, Voyages d’Ibn Batoutah; texte arabe, accompagné d’une traduction, ed. C. Defrémery and B. R. Sanguinetti (4 vols.). Paris, France, 1853-9.
Ruggles, D. Fairchild, ed. Islamic Art and Visual Culture: An Anthology of Sources. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 67-68. Image credit: Guan Jar, Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century (porcelain), Chinese School, (14th century) / Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library, Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York, NY.
How to Cite This Page
"Muslim Journeys | Item #209: Ibn Battuta on Chinese Porcelain", January 18, 2018 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/209.
ceramics, China, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Jubayr, Islamic arts, material culture, porcelain, trade, travel