Why Is Some Dinnerware Called China?

When you've been enjoying your dinner off fine china plates, or relaxing over tea from a beautifully decorated bone china teacup, have you every wondered why it's called china? Maybe you've just been too caught up in the enjoyment to think about it, but it you have wondered, here's the explanation — and it might not be quite what you think.

When you've been enjoying your dinner off fine china plates, or relaxing over tea from a beautifully decorated bone china teacup, have you ever wondered why it's called china? Maybe you've just been too caught up in the enjoyment to think about it, but if you have wondered, here's the explanation — and it might not be quite what you think.

The Country and the Porcelain

It's often assumed that china is simply named after the most populous country in the world, but it actually isn't quite that simple. The country known to its own people as Zhongguo is generally called China or something similar in the West, but that name wasn't used at all until a few centuries ago.

One popular theory has been that the name comes from the Jin (pronounced Chin) Dynasty, the founders of the Chinese Empire. However, the Jin date from the 3rd century BC, while the name China wasn't in use till the sixteenth century — when Marco Polo travelled there in 1271, he referred to the country as Cathay. In fact, it seems as if the country's name may actually have come from the tableware, rather than the reverse.

Teaware | A light pink bone china teacup and saucer on a table.

Shop this light pink bone china tea set here.

Ming Vases and China Ware

In 1368, the Ming Dynasty came to the imperial throne, kicking out the Mongol invaders. The Ming are most famous for their vases, but the fine porcelain that had been produced for centuries also reached new heights of quality. Large quantities were exported and found their way eventually to Europe, where the tableware was much in demand, due to its exceptional quality. Shakespeare refers to food being served on cheap tableware, "not China dishes."

In fact, the most likely theory for the name is that most of the exports were shipped from an area in the southeast called Chin. Converted to China in English, this name came to be applied to the tableware, and from there to the whole of the country that produced it.

Teaware | A blue bone china tea set placed on a red table.

Shop this Warwickshire bone china tea set here.

China Tableware Today

Needless to say, by no means all chinaware today is produced in China, although the country is still a significant source of fine porcelain. In the 18th century, many UK companies began producing it in their own right, and bone china is a specifically British idea. Many different styles of decoration were used, but some of the most characteristics are based on the Chinese "blue-and-white" style, such as the famous "willow pattern" design.

Teaware | Bone china teacup and saucer next to an interior magazine.

Shop this turquoise bone china tea set here.

If you want the luxurious experience of fine china, we offer a wide range of china teacups and china tea sets, with many designs to choose from. You'll be part of a tradition that not only goes back for centuries but even played a part in naming one of the world's greatest countries.