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What is porcelain?

Porcelain is a hard, fine-grained, translucent white ceramic, ideal for holding hot tea. For centuries the secrets of making fine porcelain were zealously guarded by Chinese potters, and the elegant painted wares were prized in homes from Asia to Europe. That's how porcelain came to be known as china. By the early 1700s, however, European experimenters had worked out that porcelain needed clays that would turn glassy when fired at high temperatures — and local wares began competing with Chinese products for a place at the table.

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At an 1820s Chinese ceramics works, porcelain bowls are shaped on a wheel and set out to dry in the sun. Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts USA/The Bridgeman Art Library.

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Porcelain is hand-modelled and mouldings are made. Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts USA/The Bridgeman Art Library.

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Porcelain bowls are decorated by painters. Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts USA/The Bridgeman Art Library.

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Porcelain is fired in what was known as the 'dragon kiln'. Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts USA/The Bridgeman Art Library.

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Porcelain is packed for export in the kiln's warehouse. Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts USA/The Bridgeman Art Library.

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