In the 1690s the Kangxi Emperor commissioned a work to portray significant Chinese industries, the Gengzhi tu, or Illustrations of Ploughing and Weaving. This album of woodblock prints outlining the stages of silk cultivation and rice production was then expanded by the Qianlong Emperor to include porcelain production.
Westerners were fascinated by these exotic Chinese industries. Both tea and silk were luxuries previously unknown in Europe, and tea, in particular, had become the driving commercial force of the China trade by the mid-18th century. Export artists created watercolor and gouache albums for their Western clientele delineating the stages of tea cultivation in highly idealized and romanticized views.
Vary rarely, these themes appeared as decoration on porcelain. One or two famille rose tea services were made depicting merchants in a tea warehouse; a single set of famille rose plates with the theme is known. Examples from the present series, with its exuberant rococo borders after Delft, are found in Dutch public collections, and it seems likely that the original commission was from a Dutch tea merchant. There are 23 subjects known in the series, each numbered but not in a logical order. The Chinese porcelain enamelers would of course not have been familiar with Arabic numerals on watercolors, but they certainly copied these flat art subjects onto round dishes masterfully.