Around the World in Plates: Serving up History One Dish at a Time

January 30, 2014

Trade and commerce: the two have been bringing people together since the dawn of civilization—actually, they were probably responsible for it in the first place. To prove it, here’s a small sampling of world history, served up on 4 plates:

1. Some time during the 2nd century BC, the Han emperor of China sent out an imperial envoy named Zhang Qian to sniff out potential military allies against the hostile Xiongu tribes that hemmed in China to the West. Though Qian would be captured by the Xiongnu and enslaved for a total of 12 years, he eventually made it to the territory that constitutes modern-day Uzbekistan. While no one seemed too hot on joining the Chinese to fight the Xiongnu, the astute Qian saw the potential for another kind of relationship with China’s western neighbors. When he returned home, the first ever to bring detailed, reliable news about Central Asia, he told the Emperor that these “distant lands” held great commercial promise, thus setting the stage for the Silk Road, so named for the lustrous fabric that China would export in mass quantities.

Our gorgeous ceramic plates from Uzbekistan were crafted using techniques that date back to the heyday of the Silk Road itself.


2. If people looked to China for silk, they looked to the Malay Archipelago for spices. By 1400, the Malacca Empire had been founded by King Parameswara at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula alongside the strait that shares its name. Parameswara would turn Malacca into a wealthy cosmopolitan entrepôt by creating a trade-friendly infrastructure and courting powerful trading partners like China. Chinese merchants would start to settle in Malacca as early as the 15th century, and their descendents would become known as Chinese Peranakans or Baba-Nyonya. Later, during the 19th and 20th centuries, even bigger waves of Chinese immigrants would arrive, and today Chinese Malays make up nearly one quarter of Malaysia’s population.

Beautiful enamel plates like these vintage examples from Malacca were popular in the homes of the Peranakans, whose abodes were often lavishly decorated.


3. Of course the Malacca Empire was not the only one who wanted to trade with the Chinese. In Europe, the huge global demand for Chinese luxury goods like silk, porcelain, and tea had European merchants scrambling to find products that would tempt the Chinese. One of the few things that European powers were able to offer China was silver. Silver ingots were an important form of currency in China, where silver itself was scarce. While the Americas had vast quantities of the shiny stuff, Chinese ships were not sophisticated enough to make the long journey, which placed colonial powers like Spain and Portugal in ideal positions. It’s estimated that 1/3 to 1/2 of all the silver mined in the Spanish colonies ended up in China during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the biggest centers of silver-extraction in the New World was the Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain” in modern-day Bolivia, from which so much silver would be mined that today the peak is a couple hundred meters shorter than it was originally.

This gorgeous pewter platter was made in Potosí, Bolivia, home to the Cerro Rico.


4. Meanwhile, another rising European power had worked itself into a fit of desire for one Chinese product in particular—tea. The British and their insatiable appetite for the steaming beverage would soon rack up a staggering trade deficit with their Eastern partner, which they then decided to balance by importing vast quantities of highly-addictive opium from their Indian colonies. With an increasingly drug-addicted population on her hands (even the emperor himself—a teenager who spent most of his time in bed with his concubine Cixi—was a user), China eventually demanded that the drug shipments cease. When the order was ignored, Chinese officials confiscated nearly a year’s worth of opium from British merchants, thus marking the start of what would become known as The Opium Wars.

This antique plate was made in Canton, one of the only Chinese ports open to foreign countries, which would become the site of a battle early on in the Opium Wars. We purchased it from Chor Bazaar in Mumbai, India.


And there you have it. Four plates and four slices of history. Tasty, right?

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