"Old China" opens with a bashful admission that Elia has an affection for old china. When he enters a new house, he always asks to see its china collection first. And while he is fixated on old china, he can't quite remember the first time that that he became aware of its existence.
He then goes on to describe the various scenes that one can find emblazoned in blue on a white background. Elia speaks in mystifying terms of figures floating above the ground in their depicted scenes, of men with women's faces, and of an illustration of a tea ceremony that concludes in a woman entering a boat with one foot stepping off a grassy riverbed.
One afternoon while Elia is drinking Hyson tea with his cousin Bridget, he remarks on china they're drinking from—a set he just bought recently. He reflects on their good fortune in recent years, and how they can afford such luxuries now. But Elia sees a look of disagreement on Bridget's face, and she launches into a monologue questioning the extent to which they can actually appreciate this china now that it's financially easily within reach.
She recalls a time from their past when they were poorer, when Elia held off on buying a new suit when his old one was looking shabby because he bought a book that Elia and Bridget had to rebind and repair. Now he never brings her any gifts, much less a dilapidated book. She recalls when they used to go for picnics and ask people to borrow a table cloth, and when they used to sit in the rafters when seeing a play, even though Elia would now only attend one sitting in the pit.
Bridget reminds him of the foods they used to eat that they considered luxuries, such as strawberries early in the season. Now, she says, anything they could treat themselves to above their typical means would be a greedy indulgence. She asks whether perhaps they were happier when they were poorer, if they could better enjoy those ephemeral pleasures, and whether they are now too easily satisfied by anything they can afford.
Elia responds that perhaps they were happier when they were poorer, but notes that they were also younger then. The fact that things were harder when they were younger should make them appreciate their current lot even more. Desiring those old, poorer days to return is a fantasy. Instead, Elia suggests, they should focus on the fantasy tableau portrayed in the china they're holding.
"Old China" is often considered something of a riddle amongst Lamb's essays, as it drifts into a memory in a similarly fluid manner that Elia drifts into the tea ceremony scene that he gazes at in the piece of china earlier in the story. In both the case of the scene in the china and his conversation with Bridget, drinking tea opens a door to a speculative kind of reflection. A parallel can be drawn here with the famous madeleine cookie that the protagonist of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time tastes right before he's catapulted into a vast landscape of memory.
At the heart of the essay is a meditation on class. The essay begins with Elia speaking of the "great houses" he enters—meaning homes of the wealthy—and he is clearly infatuated with the material trappings of the wealthy's lifestyle. Bridget, on the other hand, invites him to remember a time when they couldn't even afford to buy a table cloth to throw a picnic with. This class discourse speaks to a tension in British life at the time just before the Victorian period when the gulf between the rich and poor was about to explode.
Additionally worth noting here is Lamb's use of ekphrasis, a literary device in which writing describes a piece of art. Here, the description of china both helps draw us into the essay by sparking our visual imagination and helps characterize Elia himself, as we learn about his fixation on the masculine/feminine dichotomy and the dandyish pleasure he takes from enjoying the finer things in life. The description of the scene in the tea cup also primes the reader for another kind of reflection, one equally rooted in a character's imagination.