“Of a strong build, suitable for export and of good material, with a clear white body often left unglazed on a flat base. The glaze is thick and rather bubbly, and the blue is of a bright violet tone.”
— R.L. Hobson,author and Chinese Ceramics Specialist, British Museum, 1915.
A stoneware water pot with underglaze blue splashes, Tang Dynasty (618-907).
The technique of painting a color under a glaze first developed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when celadon enjoyed great popularity. (The Song also delved into some aspects of underglaze porcelain). Although this new decorative style was initially considered vulgar and unworthy of the educated, underglaze painting evolved and matured. The most important period is the Yuan, due to scarcity. Considering the difficulty with firing, some beautiful pieces were produced but few pieces come on to the market.
In simple terms, the unfired porcelain is left to become dry enough to handle, then painted in under glaze cobalt blue (or copper red or iron black). The items are put aside so the paint can dry, and then dipped in or brushed with glaze prior to firing in the kiln. This basic method has been refined over time, as potters sought to remedy the many flaws that spoiled early production. Ironically, those telltale flaws characteristic to one or another period, are of most help in dating Chinese porcelain.
The development of underglaze blue to decorate white porcelain began on a regular basis and with great skill at Jingdezhen in the Yuan period, and was perfected during the Ming Dynasty. Until the Ming, the blue pigment—called cobalt—was imported exclusively from Persia (present day Iran, where the color Mohammedan blue come from) but fortunately a native cobalt was discovered in the early part of the Ming era.
A Ming Dynasty celestial globe vase with dragon and floral design from the Yung-lo reign (1403-24).
Within this important era, blue and white porcelain underwent several variations in manufacture. The most vital innovation relates to the modulation in the blue pigment, which can range from a grayish, washed-out blue to blue-black to a brilliant blue. Other variations are the individual glazes, the variety of shapes, the style of decoration, and the calligraphy of the Imperial reign marks.
The dating of early blue and white Chinese porcelain made some headway when Oxford research scientists discovered that the Persian cobalt has no manganese, yet the Chinese cobalt contained a high proportion of manganese oxide. In effect, blue and white wares containing traces of manganese cannot be earlier than Ming. As no blue and white piece can be genuinely attributed to the reign of Hongwu, the first Ming emperor (1368-1398), most pieces are classed as “early 15th century.”
Under the Ming ruler Yongle (1403-24) production of blue and white porcelain flourished, and under his Imperial patronage, a wide range of archaistic floral, fruit and vine motifs and styles ensued, including an occasional Islamic decoration. This period is artistically rich, maintaining the devotion to floral emblems and their significance which had prevailed from early ages in China. In particular, the lotus, chrysanthemum and peony were most popular, used with foliate or geometric borders or rim decoration. Later reproductions of Yongle wares are difficult to distinguish from originals except under expert scrutiny. Reign marks are rarely found on Imperial pieces until the Xuande- era.
Yongle characteristics include good, sturdy shapes and curved bodies, with attractive and restrained decoration. If it is a double-sided piece, the decoration is usually similar on both sides. The color is intense violet blue with numerous small dark flecks, and the glaze is very soft and smooth but with the “orange peel” effect of small brown flecks caused by iron impurities.
The classic period in the development of blue and white Oriental porcelain is considered to be the Xuande reign (1426-35), when the marking of ceramics became established practice and a number of innovations occurred. The variety of shapes expanded to include not only dishes but bowls, wine cups, ewers, flasks, vases, lidded boxes and jars, and utensils for Buddhist ceremonial offerings—all richly decorated in the typical blue-black pigment associated with early Ming wares. The glaze has a thick texture, little light reflection and fewer impurities. With the change to the native cobalt, the blue alters to a more subdued color than at the beginning of the century.
An exciting range of shapes and forms came from the Xuande era, which is characterized by a bluish white glaze (usually more uniform than on past porcelain). Minute flecks still occur but are less visible, and the flower scroll decoration is more conventional in style than at beginning of century. Representations of Taoist symbol (mythical characters), the Eight Precious Objects, the Three Friends (pine, prunus, bamboo), phoenix and sacred fungus, among other subjects, are prevalent. The dragon is always vigorously painted, spreading his tail and claws very dramatically against a plain white ground.
After Xuande there was a 20-year interregnum as the successive three emperors appear to have had no interest in ceramics—no more than a few pieces bearing a reign mark from the mid-century. It was to be redressed by Chenghua (1465-87), who revitalized blue and white. Technically, Chenghua pieces are superior, although the former decoration was somewhat curbed due to the taste of the Emperor who followed the dictates of his concubine Wan, and eunuchs.
A Ming Dynasty underglaze blue bowl from the Chenghua period.
Chenghua decoration lacks vitality, but has a greater sophistication and effeminacy. The designs become more naturalistic as flowers become swirling wreaths with leafy tendrils, and these designs are sometimes painted on the inside of pieces. There is a new artistic direction as scenes of children or comic figures appear, greatly contrasting with the rest of the decoration; these pieces bear no marks.
Repeated shapes are characteristic of Chenghua pieces, although fragile flared bowls called “palace bowls” are also a characteristic product. Reign marks (nienhao) in two vertical rows are written within a circle or rectangle.
The Hongzhi ruler (1488-1505) continues the wares of previous reigns, with the same classical themes but a less lively depiction. The blue is grayish and varied, with the six characters written under the base in two ways; the characters are small and unevenly spaced, or written larger and in a regular form. Some unmarked bowls decorated with children’s games appear in this period.
The classical period of blue and white Oriental porcelain concludes with the Zhengde ruler (1506-21), when examples range from superb to mediocre. Some later pieces reflect an Islamic innovation, as Arabic or Persian script and quotations from the Koran are used. At the time, Muslim eunuchs and a number of Muslim communities within China held sway at court, and it is thought their influence was reflected in this new decoration. It is seen on small pieces such as writing utensils, candlesticks, vases and screens. Such pieces always have the dynastic mark written in six characters.
A Jiajing period Ming Dynasty square dish.
In the Jiajing reign—from 1522 to 1566—blue and white porcelain was characterized by a brilliant rich blue, and decorations of Taoist symbols such as the Eight Immortals or the shou dominate. In everyday pieces we see children’s games, dragons, phoenixes and floral motifs depicted.
Due to economic conditions, Jingdezhen was forced to reduce its output during the Longqmg reign (1567-72). Lan Pu describes it thus: “The clay is adhesive and rich. The body partly thick, partly thin. The technique of manufacture is excellent …. the glaze is lustrous, thick like a layer of fat.”
Blue and white wares produced in the Wanli reign (1573-1620) are characterized by a fine body, a brilliant glaze and deep violet-blue decoration¬—although such pieces are rare. The shapes become a little different from earlier forms, and a return to archaistic shapes signals a decline in creativity. There are repeating themes of dragons, Eight Precious Objects, etc., but also a more vital depiction of figures in everyday life. Delicate pieces such as stem cups and incense burners attributed to Wanli are seen bearing the marks of Xuande or Chenghua.
The popularity of blue and white Oriental porcelain was supported by the burgeoning export industry, which widely transported its wares. Products were mainly Chinese, but vast orders from foreign countries were generally fashioned for the foreign tastes and designs of countries in Europe, the Near East and Japan.
Chinese reign marks did not become established practice for marking ceramics until the Xuande reign (1426-35). The six characters are precisely written, placed either under the base in two vertical lines or near the outer rim in a single horizontal line. The top two characters are the emperor’s second name (left) and the character for “great” (right).
The middle characters name the dynasty, and the lower two characters are “made in the reign of …” and the emperor’s first name. It is not accurate to date Chinese porcelain using reign marks. While no doubt some deliberately meant to deceive’ usually it was a simple case of tribute—some potters who admired a previous golden age are known to have reused those marks as a form those marks as a form of respect
— by R.L. Hobson
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