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Rebecca Sherman On Her Chinese Love Affair

Rebecca Sherman’s love affair with blue and white started in, where else, China.
By Rebecca Sherman |

Photo by Dave Shafer

Moment of Truth
In China, the trade in fakes is big. The Chinese will fake anything, especially ancient porcelains, which they’ve been faking for centuries.

A fang gu, or imitation, might be many hundreds of years old, pretending to be even older. My first encounter with Chinese porcelains came during a trip in 1996 to visit my brother, who was working in China.

I landed at night in Shanghai, the legendary port on the Yangtze River Delta in east China. The next morning, I peered out the window of our hotel room at a city of cranes and scaffolding. Dozens of new skyscrapers were going up on the harbor, as if they couldn’t wait to catch up to the Western world. The horizon buzzed with energy. Below, in the hotel gardens, on the sidewalks, and nearby in Pudong Park, a sea of old men and women performed slow, graceful tai chi movements. The contrast was exhilarating.

After a traditional, if less exhilarating, breakfast of watery rice, shredded pork, and unidentifiable vegetables, I headed across the street to Shanghai’s official, government-run antiques store. Chinese antiquities must bear an official wax seal in order to leave the country legally, plus, at a government-sanctioned store, the chances of buying a fake were less.

Inside, I was taken by a 1950s era, red alarm clock with Mao Zedong painted on its face and contemplated buying it. That was before I spied the blue and white double happiness vase. Its abstracted sweet pea vine pattern was staggeringly beautiful. The glaze had a centuries-worn, fine crackle to it, and on the inside bottom, there was a layer of rock-hard dirt, calcified from age. Fine pots made for the Imperial families are no longer allowed to be exported from China. In fact, a Chinese national who attempts to smuggle an Imperial pot outside the country faces life in prison or death. Unrefined peoples ware or everyday objects such as the double happiness vase, are plentiful, having been stored en masse for decades or centuries in barns and warehouses.

At 12 yuan, the vase cost my entire souvenir budget, but I gave in and bought it anyway. This marked the start of an obsession with blue and white, one that continues to muddle my brain every time I see a beautiful example. Wikipedia defines the verb Shanghaied as the act of forcibly conscripting someone to serve a term working on a ship, usually after having been rendered senseless by alcohol or drugs. Shanghaied. That’s what I was, addled by the heady beauty of a single Chinese porcelain, and forever enslaved.

The vase turned out to be real, though common. The fakes came later, after I discovered eBay six years ago. I bought a few old blue and white pieces from online dealers based in Shanghai for a pittance, only to be blindsided by enormous shipping and handling costs. My pots arrived after slow passage, their boxes stamped with graphic Chinese lettering. Even the postage was beautiful. I opened the first and my heart sank. The blue and white colors of my 19th century Yuan-style vase were dull. Its pristine glaze was obviously brand new. The pot was just plain ugly. I turned it over, and oddly enough, water poured out. The next box held a large gourd-shaped vase that had split perfectly in half at a vertical seam, like a slice of Wonder Bread. These pots were so newly made that they must have been put in their boxes fresh from the firing kilns.

An authentic peoples ware piece, with its crude firing pits and fine, irregular cracks, looks old. Age is hard to fake without looking, well, fake. A genuine pot seems to hum with trueness. Fang gu, on the other hand, clanks with an ineffable discordance. Hardly science.

On a trip some years ago to San Francisco, I stumbled upon a small shop filled with beautiful Chinese pottery. The whole place was humming. The proprietor, a silver-haired woman, greeted me, and I noticed a framed appraiser’s certificate from Sotheby’s on the wall. She looked wise. Here was my chance to pick an educated brain about fakes. How do you know when a piece is real, I asked? She picked up a rustic bowl with a dragon painted on it and cradled it in her hands. It was exquisite, imperfect. When something is real, it speaks to you, she said, and handed me the bowl. I had expected a short lesson on dynasty marks or some other appraiser’s learned trick of the trade. Instead, she reaffirmed what I already knew, that truth is revealed not in outward appearance, but in soul.

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