Porcelain was first made in China in a primitive form during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and in its mature form during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). The term originated with the Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254–1324) when he saw white-bodied ceramics being made in China at the court of Kublai Khan. He called the ceramics porcelanna, Italian for ‘white seashell’. This soon became the standard term in Europe.
In Chinese, the term ci (translated as porcelain in English) refers to all ceramics fired at high temperatures, including porcelain and stoneware. In the West, the term porcelain refers specifically to white ceramics made with a special type of clay called kaolin, which is fired to about 1300°C, resulting in a translucent, glassy material that makes a ringing sound when struck.
Delicate, nearly transparent and resistant to extreme heat and moisture, this material was technologically superior to thicker, low-fired European ceramics made prior to the eighteenth century. Objects created from it were regarded as being rare and luxurious. Their construction was so poorly understood at the time that European collectors often had them mounted in gilt silver or gold, in a manner similar to naturalia (‘natural wonders’) such as ostrich eggs and large shells. This emphasised their preciousness and transformed them into entirely different objects.
Vessels made of this porcelain were sent from China to other parts of the world along the overland and maritime silk roads in exchange for various goods like silk, spices, tea, ivory and metalwork. Following centuries of intra-Asian exchange, Europeans entered this trade in earnest in the early sixteenth century, after Portugal established direct sea routes to the Far East and began commercial trade with Asia via the Portuguese-controlled ports of Macau, Malacca and Dejima.
In English, the term stoneware refers to ceramics that are as similarly hard and dense as porcelain, but which are made with grey or brown clay, may or may not be white-bodied, do not transmit light, and are fired to a slightly lower temperature of 1000 to 1250°C. Ceramics fired below this temperature range are called earthenware.