Good china is made with kaolin, clay with an ample amount of kaolinite. Wiki's pretty clear that “kaolin” derives—via 18th-century French Jesuit mangling of gāolǐngtǔ (高嶺土)—from the village of Gaoling in Fuliang County near Jingdezhen in Jiangxi.¹²*


From its first appearance in English in 1727, though, it was paired with a second ingredient variously transcribed as petunse,³ pih-tun-tsze, pai-tun-tsze, petuntse, &c.


Wiki does have an article on that, too, but it's nonsensically sourced & can't link to a Chinese article or back up its claim that the actual Chinese term is báidūnzì (白墩子).[citation needed]† Instead, most English sources just repeat different variations of old Encyclopaedia Britannica articles repeating updated forms of what the Jesuit called the stuff.

Extraction du Kaolin (left) et du petuntse (right), 19th century French illustration

Meanwhile, 白墩子 doesn't appear at all on the actual Chinese Wiki and it only shows up on the shanzhai Chinese wiki as some Mongolian nitrate-laden salt. The Chinese Wiki article on hard-paste porcelain—the process they used at Jingdezhen—just says it involves gāolǐngtǔ and chángshí (長石). The Hong Kong Maritime Museum¹⁰ and a handful of other sites do mention the porcelain stone petunse but say it's a transcription of báidūncí (白墩瓷) instead. Under the heading pĭh tun tsze, Robert Morrison's 1819 Dictionary of the Chinese Language gives 白墪子 but with a 敢 and 子 in the top half of the central character instead of 敦... and with the note that "the characters are doubtful."¹¹

1809 illustration of Petuntse in British Mineralogy, Vol. III

I assume the basic chemistry is right and a feldspar-rich stone was used to create Jingdezhen porcelain, but what is the way Chinese actually historically and presently talks about that stuff? & does anyone have any firm source for what term François Xavier d'Entrecolles was trying to transcribe?

* Although strangely enough, the article on "Jingdezhen pottery" itself has absolutely no mention of the materials used to create it and seems focused on establishing the exact provenance and chronological order of the pieces in the British Museum collection. Go figure.
† Naturally, the page's Wikidata entry not only doesn't include any Chinese, it exclusively includes the atonal pinyin romanization baiduncai in its English list. Since that's the only appearance of "white lump vegetable" on the internet, though, it's obviously unintentional vandalism by someone misunderstanding the Jesuit ts as a modern pinyin c and is easy enough to fix. [Done.]

  • I'm an idiot. Of course Needham covered this at some point. I just found it in Science & Civilization in China, Vol. V, Pt. 12, p. 225. Rather than add it in myself, though, I'll leave a few days for @Petroski and/or
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:51
  • @水巷孑蠻 add it into their answers below or let another editor add it as a new answer. If no one does, I can put it up myself later.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:52

2 Answers 2


in the book “天工開物” by 宋應星, published in 明 dynasty; volume 卷中, chapter 陶埏第七 白瓷、附靑瓷 mentioned:


. . . 皆饒郡浮梁景德鎭之產也・此鎭從古及今為燒器地・然不產白土・土出婺源・祁門・兩山一名高梁山・出粳米土・其性堅硬・一名開化山・出糯米土・其性粢軟・兩土和合・瓷器方成

most likely, “高嶺土” referred to the clay from “高梁山”

what is the way Chinese actually historically and presently talks about

so, the options are

  • 白土
  • 白堊土
  • 粳米土
  • 糯米土

have fun :)

  • Thanks so much for your reply and the great source! That's definitely one historic account of the process. It does cover some things that should be added to the Jingdezhen porcelain article: presumably JDZ was never a source of the earth and became the center of production for other reasons (good airflow for the kilns, better access to water & wood, &c.). Right now, it doesn't fully answer the question since—unless they're really different in Gan—none of those options cover where the European term came from... although it's always possible it was just some local slang that never got written.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:04
  • It could also be improved a bit by taking some of the options out of the list. At least in that source, it seems like 白土 and probably (?) 白堊土 are talking about kaolin which looks more like powder but makes the hard core of the porcelain under heat. Both 糯米土 (nuòmǐtǔ, sticky-rice dirt) and 粳米土 (jīngmǐtǔ, short-grain-rice dirt) do look like names for the stonier-looking but softer-in-practice feldspar rocks, though, at least for Song Yingxing and his scholarly Ming audience.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:13

Have you ever noticed that the Chinese are very frugal with words? For example, in England, we have towns like: Clacton on Sea, Southend on Sea.

Not so the Chinese, they just have the nameless: on Sea: 上海!

If you go walking in the sierra in Spain, well, nowadays, people don't look at the breathtaking scenery, they just stare at the screen of their mobile phone. In the past, before the advent of mobiles, that was not so.

How did you know where you were going back then? Well, locals often make little piles of stones, look for them. Often there will be a little, long, narrow stone on top, pointing the way. They tell you: this is a path to somewhere.

That is what “十里墩”、“白墩” are: path or road markers along the way. Piles of stones. People began to build villages near the 墩子, and often the village might just take, for reasons of frugality, the name of the 墩子.

(In) East 五河 county, on the north bank of the river 淮 there is a village called “十里墩” (5 mile village)
in 双忠庙 town, near the national highway 104 is an old village called “白墩乡” (white pile village)
according to historical records, these names are very old.

There are probably many 白墩子 and many 白墩乡 in China.

In this case, 白墩子 has become the name of a whole region!

白墩子,a lake salt producing area.
located within the borders of 甘肃红水 and 靖远
470 li from the capital city,
extending more than 50 li to宽沟 the east of 红水县
70 li to the south reaching the 一条山 mountain range (a very frugal name!)
360 li southeast to 靖远县,
and more than 10 li to the Mongolian border in the north.
the salt lake is about 5 li from east west,
from north to south the lake is more than 10 li.
The salt which is produced there contains saltpeter (potassium nitrate)
which is useful in the manufacture of red silk hookahs (water pipes).

And, presumably, porcelain!

  • 1
    Thanks for the reply but, yep, you should add sources. Nope, the nitrate-laden salt in the wrong region of the country with no porcelain production definitely has nothing to do with millennia of constant porcelain production. Beyond that, it's also both unusual for Chinese names to be as prosaic as Shanghai is (they're generally poetic once things grow beyond village level) and kinda untrue that Shanghai is just On-the-Sea. It's always been 上海縣, 上海市, etc. with the level carrying some of the meaning the same way English says Kingston, Clacton, Sussex, &c. and not just King's, Clac, Sus, &c.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 11:52
  • Oh, someone upvoted the initial comment so I shouldn't just replace it. I can't edit it now either, but, in fairness, I should say that the "definitely" above really should've been "almost certainly" instead. It's pooossible there is a source out there making the connection.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:23
  • Sussex: Suþ Seaxe "(land of the) South Saxons" Never heard of Sussex upon Sea, presumably because it is a county, but I do know Kingston upon Thames. The suffix -ton would correspond with 镇. If you call 上海 上海市, you still have no name, neither poetic nor prosaic, just on Sea market! Where do the Chinese store all these words they save? Where is the Word Bank?
    – Pedroski
    Commented Jun 23 at 15:49
  • That & there's no landlocked Sussex to distinguish it from. Point was the second word was part of the name and translating South on its own would be bizarre and unhelpful. -ton would correspond with 邑, 州, 郡, 府, 市, 縣, 鎮, &c. at different times. Precisely my point: you're treating common names and top-line dictionary results as accurate summations of the full meanings of the full names... which, no, doesn't work. Really far in the weeds now, but Market-by-the-Sea is precisely what Shanghai was, although it got the name when it was a 鎮 (which covers counties and their seats &c.).
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 16:36
  • And, as far as where the Chinese store the words they save, eh, they just consider it civilized to aim for terse eloquence. If that's really so uncomfortable, you probably wanna stay well clear of literary Chinese. The Chinese translations are always the lightest at the UN tables. Literary Chinese would fit on postcards... & sometimes did when kids were aiming to cheat on the provincial exams by cramming all of Confucius onto the inside of a shirt. There's a museum at Jiading's Confucian Temple that has some examples.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 23 at 16:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.