This dish was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia.


Victoria & Albert Museum



Blue and White Dish

Public Access Description:

This dish was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia.

Chinese blue and white pottery was introduced to the Middle East and Southeast Asia by the treasure voyages of Admiral Zheng He, who was made a eunuch at around ten years old following capture by the Chinese army. Eunuchs played a key role in Ming Chinese political administration: they were perceived to be exceptionally loyal to the emperor as they could not have children who they would want to promote, and to be safe to serve female members of the emperor’s household without the risk of illegitimate children. This meant that castration of one’s children, or self-castration, was a route to economic security. It also presented an opportunity for people assigned male at birth who wanted castration for gendered reasons, and for intersex children, who were sometimes sent to the imperial palace as ‘natural eunuchs’. Despite being castrated, Chinese eunuchs were still able to fashion themselves as masculine by adopting children, acting as patriarchs within their kinship groups, and exerting political and socioeconomic power.

Zheng He’s treasure voyages brought Chinese men and eunuchs into contact with a variety of different cultures whose gender relations differed from their own, and their voyage accounts consistently comment on this. Some sailors chose to stay behind in the places they visited – notably Malacca – in order to marry local women. This was diplomatically and commercially advantageous, but involved clashes of gender ideology: in southeast Asia, women had a high level of economic, political and social autonomy, and marriage involved the transfer of wealth from the male to the female side, both of which conflicted with patriarchal Chinese Confucianism.


Curatorial comment:

This dish was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia. This project aimed to recover the complex gender dynamics that made objects meaningful to early modern people, and to increase the visibility of women and LGBTQ people in museum collections. Research on the V&A objects was carried out by Dr Kit Heyam, with support on the link between blue and white pottery and Chinese eunuchs from Dan Vo.

In addition to the findings noted in the Public Access Description, research on this object revealed the following:

Zheng He (born Ma He) was born into a Muslim family in Mongol-controlled Yunnan province. Eunuchs in Ming China, like Zheng He, often came from minority or conquered cultures: this provided imperial authorities with a way to reconcile their perceived political need for eunuchs with the undesirability of castration in Chinese Confucian philosophy. Eunuchs were only reinterpreted as feminised males in the twentieth century, following the influence of Western sexology. Before this, while they were seen as more ‘yin’ (the female element of the Chinese yin/yang gender binary) than men, they were not exempt from masculine self-fashioning. Indeed, their castration arguably facilitated this: given the civic influence of eunuchs, castration was a route to increased political power.

Zheng He’s voyages distributed treasure around the Middle East and Southeast Asia, demonstrating China’s magnificence and bringing these countries into the Chinese tribute system. Contemporary accounts note that the gift of blue and white pottery was particularly popular. Commanded by a total of 70 eunuchs, the treasure voyages had several gendered impacts on the countries they visited. In Southeast Asia, every aspect of pottery production – from clay-digging to decoration – was performed by women; the influx of Chinese imports, which were highly prized, undermined the significance of these women’s work. Anthony Reid has suggested that states who were keen to trade with others may have encouraged female rule as a strategy to avoid despotic male rulers, who would undermine commercial relations with other countries – meaning that intercultural trade contacts like those established by Zheng He may well have affected gendered hierarchies in states with which China traded. Tansen Sen suggests that the treasure voyages ‘may even have facilitated the spread of European colonial enterprises into the Indian Ocean region during the sixteenth century’, given that ‘the colonial enterprises followed and eventually occupied many of the same conduits and the nodes that the Zheng He expeditions utilized or created’: these colonial enterprises, as observed in relation to objects T.145&A-1931 and 584-1854, involved the imposition of European gender hierarchies and binaries, and the reshaping of gender relations and ratios within indigenous societies. In Europe, collecting Chinese ceramics was considered an appropriate activity for women, through which they could demonstrate good taste; men also used porcelain objects to expand their social networks and create new masculine-gendered spaces.

(Dr Kit Heyam, August 2019)



Key references

  • Gilbert Chen (2016) ‘Castration and Connection: Kinship Organization among Ming Eunuchs’, Ming Studies, 2016:74, 27-47
  • Howard Chiang, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China
  • Craig A. Lockard, ‘‘The Sea Common to All’: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, ca. 1400-1750’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 219-247
  • Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680: Volume One: The Lands below the Winds (Yale University Press, 1988)
  • Tansen Sen, ‘The impact of Zheng He’s expeditions on Indian Ocean interactions’, Bulletin of SOAS, 79, 3 (2016), 609–636

Further reading

  • Norman A. Kutcher, ‘Unspoken Collusions: The Empowerment of Yuanming yuan Eunuchs in the Qianlong Period’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 70:2 (December 2010), 449-495
  • Edward L. Dreyer, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433 (New York: Pearson Longman, 2007)
  • Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Stacey Pierson, ‘The Movement of Chinese Ceramics: Appropriation in Global History’, Journal of World History, 23:1, Special Issue: Global China (March 2012), 9-39
  • Kathryn M. Ringrose, ‘Eunuchs in Historical Perspective’, History Compass 5:2 (2007), 495–506
  • David Robinson, Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven: Rebellion and the Economy of Violence in Mid-Ming China (University of Hawai'i Press, 2001)
  • Jacqueline Van Gent (2016), ‘Linnaeus’ tea cup: Masculinities, Affective Networks and Chinese Porcelain in 18th-Century Sweden’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 41:3, 388-409