Monochrome white glazed ceramics have long held the attention of Chinese ceramics enthusiasts. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, white porcellaneous wares were a precursor to further developments in this aesthetic. At the Jingdezhen kilns, qingbai wares were made in the Five Dynasties period, followed by the Yuan dynasty’s shufu wares, then tianbai in the Ming dynasty. The Dehua kilns were in operation from the Song dynasty, and the dense, hard clay bodies that were produced there lent themselves well to the monochromatic tradition – by the 16th century, Dehua works were considered among the superior white wares.
Dehua clay is different from that of Jingdezhen, and the paste derived is sometimes described as “dense” and “brittle,” better suited for decorative, rather than utilitarian objects. The glaze achieves effects of translucence, volume and luminosity when applied to the clay, lending itself well to objects meant for worship and devotion. Aside from these physical factors that encouraged the manufacture of figural works, a confluence of socio-economic factors during the zenith of Dehua production also spurred the proliferation of religious idols. Potters were encouraged to concentrate on figural subjects, and it is no surprise that particularly celebrated Dehua works tend to be figural, devotional works. Consequently, the few famed Dehua potters identified in scholarship are all known for their figural works. Lin Xiaozong and He Chaozong from the Ming dynasty, Xu Youyi in the 20th century, and other known artists are all celebrated for their superior technique, displayed exclusively in their modeling of devotional figures.
Imperial patronage to Buddhism and Daoism had waxed and waned over the course of many dynasties, but household worship and cult followings of those deities generally strengthened from the Song dynasty to the Qing dynasty. During the turmoil of any dynastic change, shrines tended to fall into disrepair, sometimes from neglect, sometimes by imperial decree. At the fall of the Ming dynasty, two factors brought about the proliferation of personal household shrines: the neglect of official shrines during the transition period; and the rise in popularity of several deities, including Guanyin, Wen Chang, Tudi Gong, and Guan Di.
The populace felt compelled to continue worship even if government-funded temples were not maintained, and in order to do so, they acquired devotional figures for the home. The relatively small size of Dehua figures shows they were made for these personal shrines, rather than large communal temples. Sotheby’s 13–14 September Important Chinese Art auction will include the Dehua collection of Richard Lehman Gray. From the collection, lot 304 is a fine example of a Dehua Guandi made around this time, while Guanyin is represented in a variety of poses in the sale. Figures of Damo, Tudi Gong, and Shoulao, deities that were increasingly popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties, will also be auctioned. The broad collection includes signed works by celebrated potters and covers a wide scope of periods and styles, including vessels that can be used in devotional practices as well.
At the fall of the Ming dynasty the Jingdezhen kilns were temporarily closed, and Dehua kiln production rose to meet demands for porcelain. The increased market share created by Jingdezheng’s closure allowed for the proliferation and distribution of Dehua wares throughout China, and soon foreign markets as well. Collectors such as Augustus the Strong and Queen Mary II are counted amongst those who collected Dehua wares in the 17th century. Chinese porcelain connoisseurs continue to study this type of porcelain, and the Dehua kilns are still in production to this day.