CHINESE-IRANIAN RELATIONS iv. The Safavid Period, 1501-1732



iv. The Safavid Period, 1501-1732

In the Safavid period relations with China were, unsurprisingly, indirect. In eastern Khorasan the Uzbeks and their successors blocked the land route to northwest­ern China through Transoxania. The sea route, which had for centuries been commercially more important, was in the hands of Europeans; first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and English held the monopoly of shipping; be­ginning in the early 11th/17th century, they exploited the ports of Bandar-e ʿAbbās(i) (Gombroon) purely as entrepôts for their trade from India to northern Europe. Shah ʿAbbās I (996-1038/1588-1629) himself was preoc­cupied with western Europe and tried to damage the Ottoman economy by diverting the lucrative raw-silk trade from the overland route via Tabrīz and Erzurum to the Gulf, whence the silk could be exported directly to Europe (Ferrier, 1973; idem, 1975). He had little time left for relations with the east.

Nevertheless, the indirect contacts, notably in the field of Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, are of interest for their effect on the Persian economy in the later 11th/17th century. The large quantities of early Ming and, to some extent, Yuan blue-and-white porcelains that had reached southern Persia in Chinese bottoms in the period of the Ming naval expeditions, ca. 1400-30 (Ma Huan, p. 178), had a long-lasting impact on Persian tastes, fixing them on porcelains of these early periods, to the extent that in the late 9th/15th century the Jindezhen kilns found it profit­able to produce direct copies of such early porcelains for sale in the Middle East. In addition, insofar as the very defective material remains allow a conclusion (Pugachenkova, 1945; idem, 1949), it seems that they stimulated wholesale local imitations of low-quality blue­-and-white wares, virtually to the exclusion of any other type. Little is known of kiln sites, and dated 9th/15th­-century pieces are rare; but a dish in the Hermitage in Leningrad (Ivanov, 1980) dated 878/1473-74 bears an inscription stating that it was made in Mašhad. Ivanov also cites an anthology, Moḏakker-e aḥbāb by Bahāʾ-al-­Dīn al-Neṯārī (completed 974/1566-67), which gives the names of potters active at Herat and Mašhad in the early 10th/16th century; no pieces attributable to Herat, how­ever, have yet come to light.

In 1020/1611 (Pope, 1956) Shah ʿAbbās I donated more than a thousand pieces of porcelain to the family shrine at Ardabīl (iv. ardabīl collection of chinese porce­lain). So large a gift suggest that he was beginning to tire of such porcelains. Despite subsequent breakage and losses, the surviving pieces, which include 350 pieces from the 10th/16th century, may well reflect the compo­sition of the total gift. At about the same time Persian imitations of 10th/16th century pieces, mostly of the Jiajing period (1521-66), began to appear (Lane, pp. 88-­91). Where they were made is still a matter of conjecture, nor did different centers necessarily confine themselves to the manufacture of single types. Groups of wares have been provisionally attributed to Kermān (pastiches of Persian and 16th-century Chinese motifs, often enhanced by red and olive-green slips) and to Mašhad. By the later Wanli period (1572-1619) changes in Chinese export porcelains were being rapidly reflected in faithful local copies, which began to be exported as well. East India Company records of the 1610s (Rogers, 1983, p. 125) refer to pottery acquired in the south Persian ports for sale in India, which had no mass-produced pottery of its own. There the decorative though technically inferior Persian pottery competed on equal terms with the cheaper Chinese export wares. Whether or not these copies were originally for export, they soon found their way into the hands of Dutch factors, with far-reaching consequences for Safavid potters (See xi, below; ceramics xv. the islamic period, 10th-13th/16th-19th centuries).

By the early 11th/17th century (Volker, 1954, pp. 113­-16) Dutch-commissioned exports from China through the Gulf ports, particularly of Kraakporselein, which first reached Amsterdam in 1603, were already considerable. European demand, however, soon far outstripped supply, which was liable to be constricted by internal unrest in China. The Dutch were thus evidently encouraged to include Persian blue-and-white wares in their shipments to Europe. Père Raphael du Mans’s report (p. 196) of the indignant rejection of blue-and-white porcelains from a Venetian embassy to Shah ʿAbbās I at Isfahan, because they were not of Chinese but of Persian manufacture, gives an idea of their quality. In Europe these Persian blue-and-white wares evidently passed as Chinese, a fraud doubtless perpetrated by the Dutch, rather than by Persian potters; that they were appreciated is clear from their frequent appearance in Dutch household inventories of the period. Between 1652 and 1682 the Dutch exported large quantities of Persian wares to the east for copying and mass-production in Japan. Almost immediately, in 1659 and again in 1662, enormous orders for Japanese porcelains were placed through both Mocha and Bandar-­e ʿAbbās(ī) (Gombroon) for export to Europe. This porcelain may not have been competently executed, and breakage may well have been considerable, but in con­junction with the still considerable volume of Chinese export wares, further augmented when the Jindezhen kilns resumed production in 1683, between 40,000 and 120,000 pieces were exported each year. This trade was a fatal blow to the Persian potters, helpless in the face of the Dutch shipping monopoly. The European market that had once seemed insatiable, was now flooded with low-priced Chinese and Japanese exports, as well as with European blue-and-white manufactures like those of Delft. Al­though the market for Persian blue-and-white wares was thus virtually eliminated, high-quality soft-paste white wares and revivals of Saljuq fritwares replacing direct copies of Chinese originals continued to circulate as Chinese in mid-18th-century Europe (Justi, p. 413).

Although there is no documentation, Persian blue-and-white wares of the Mašhad group were fine enough to have been ordered for the Safavid court and could have been used by the Mughals as well. But both Safavid and Mughal court taste ran to a much wider range of soft-paste copies of late Ming wares, finely potted and highly fired. They included celadons, monochromes, translucent white wares with carved decoration, and cloisonnés (fahua) with brilliant, often startling, colors, some of the finest pottery, technically speaking, ever produced in Islamic lands. They could well have been produced in the vicinity of Isfahan after Shah ʿAbbās I transferred the capital there in 1006/1598. How long they were made and how they were affected by the “crash” of blue-and-white around 1700 are unknown.

These rather exotic court wares illustrate the extent to which later Safavid taste followed that of the later Ming emperors, though there is little evidence that the Chinese themselves did much to direct it. The originals that were copied for the court could conceivably have been diplo­matic gifts. A group of Chinese porcelains of the Zhengde period (1506-21), mostly incense burners or pen boxes of Chinese types but bearing rather inept Persian or Arabic inscriptions (occasionally Koranic verses but more fre­quently prayers or proverbs), has nevertheless sometimes been adduced as evidence of Chinese exports specifically designed for a Muslim market. There are two pieces of this type in the Ardabīl collection, though they are ordi­nary dishes (Pope, pp. 121-24). The preponderance of peculiarly Chinese shapes, however, many derived from contemporary Chinese bronzes, suggests that they were made for Muslims attached to the Chinese court (Laufer; Carswell, nos. 36-40).

There are a few indications that, under the Mughals at least, attempts were made to reach a Chinese market. An East India Company official, William Hawkins (Foster, 1921, pp. 109-10), who left India in 1613, recounted the story of Jahāngīr’s master of the wardrobe, who had the misfortune to break a valuable porcelain, probably early Ming, from the imperial collection. He was ordered to replace it and went as far as China but in two years found nothing comparable; his career was saved only by the opportune acquisition of a duplicate (of Persian manufacture?) at the court of Shah ʿAbbās I at Isfahan. At least one important late Ming piece shows familiarity with Persian blue-and-white: a covered guan in the British Museum (no. 1965 7-21 1), datable to around 1600, with scrollwork after designs on Kermān or Mašhad wares and, around the middle, a band of landscape broken by panels containing an archer in Persian dress, copied from a painting of the Qazvīn school (ca. 988/1580; Rogers, 1983, no. 47 with references). It is not clear whether the drawing that had reached the Jindezhen potteries was after a Mughal copy, but it is likely that the guan was part of a set or service, possibly a special order. Persian relations with China in the field of pottery and porcelain were thus not absolutely one-sided.



J. Carswell, Blue and White. Chinese Porcelain and Its Impact on the Western World, Chicago, 1985.

R. W. Ferrier, “The Armenians and the East India Company in Persia,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 1, 1973, pp. 38-62.

Idem, “The European Diplomacy of Shah ʿAbbās and the First Persian Em­bassy to England,” Iran 11, 1975, pp. 75-92.

W. Foster, The English Factories in India, 1618-21, Oxford, 1906.

Idem, Early Travels in India 1583-1619, Oxford, 1921.

A. A. Ivanov, “Fayansovoye blyudo XV veka iz Mashkhada,” Soobshcheniya Gosudarstvennogo Èrmitazha 45, 1980, pp. 64-66.

J. G. von Justi, Vollständige Abhandlungen von den Manufakturen and Fabriken, Copenhagen, 1758.

A. Lane, Later Islamic Pottery, London, 1957; repr. London, 1971.

B. Laufer, “Chinese Muhammedan Bronzes,” Ars Islamica 1, 1934, pp. 133-46.

Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan. The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores (1433), ed. and tr. J. V. G. Mills, Cambridge, 1970.

R. du Mans, Estat de la Perse en 1660 par le P. Raphael du Man, ed. C. Schéfer, Paris, 1890.

A. H. Morton, “The Ardabil Shrine in the Reign of Shah Tahmasp I,” Iran 12, 1974, pp. 31-64; 13, 1975, pp. 39-58.

J. A. Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956.

G. A. Pugachenkova, “Keramika Samarkanda èpokhi Timura i timuridov,” Byulleten’ Sredne-Aziatskogo Gosudarstvennogo Universiteta (SAGU) (Tashkent) 23, 1945.

Idem, “Glazurovannaya keramika Nisy XV­-XVI vv.,” Trudy Yuzhno-Turkmenistanskoĭ arkheologicheskoĭ kompleksnoĭ èkspeditsii (YuTAKE) 1, 1949, pp. 400-17.

J. M. Rogers, Islamic Art and Design 1500-1700, London, 1983.

Idem, “The Ceramic Art of Persia,” in The Arts of Persia, ed. R. W. Ferrier, London, 1989, pp. 255-69.

T. Volker, Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company. A Record of the Dutch Registers between 1602 and 1682, Leiden, 1954.

(J. M. Rogers)

Originally Published: December 15, 1991

Last Updated: October 14, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 4, pp. 436-438