The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), of Manchu origin, is considered one of the greatest ‘Chinese’ emperors. To reach this remarkable achievement, he pursued a long and arduous path. Having come to the throne as a child, he slipped into his predestined role still well under age. He is considered to have taken control over the affairs of his vast state at the age of fifteen. He clearly realized, or was advised, that in order to gain and retain the respect necessary to rule over a predominantly Han-Chinese elite, he had to be exemplary in his knowledge as well as his deeds. He worked incessantly to understand China’s history and culture as well as the country’s achievements in the natural sciences. He thus became not only an ‘ivory tower’ literati-scholar, but also gained a thorough comprehension of the practical application of the sciences and the technical aspects of progress.
What obviously helped him in his endeavours was a naturally inquisitive mind. As soon as he realized that Jesuit missionaries who had been in China since the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), mastered techniques and processes not known in China, he readily welcomed them to the court to let the country at large profit from their presence. To gain hands-on experience he set up workshops right in the Forbidden City, close to his own living quarters, that worked in as many areas as were feasible in this location, making high-calibre scientific instruments, practical items of daily life, as well as artefacts. No other emperor, except probably his son, the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723-35), had such direct influence on the manufacture of arts and crafts; but while the son was more interested in aesthetics, the father was particularly concerned with technology.
He equally revived industries that required larger spaces and could not easily be transferred into the imperial palace, like the silk and porcelain manufacture traditionally rooted in south China. After a period of standstill of nearly sixty years, from the end of the Wanli period (1620), when the imperial porcelain factories at Jingdezhen ceased to be active, he initiated a new era of high-quality production. Of course, commercial kilns had continued to produce superb wares during that time, probably helped by the void created by the closure of the imperial factories, but introduced no technical innovation. The Kangxi Emperor’s predominant aim appears to have been to regain standards of quality that had long been lost, and to employ ancient techniques in a new way.
One of the priorities was clearly the revival of both designs and glazes in copper red which, being notoriously difficult to control, had hardly been used since the outstanding results achieved in the Xuande period (1426-35). Among the earliest pieces successfully fired in the Kangxi period were porcelains painted in underglaze cobalt-blue and copper-red, soon to be followed by monochrome copper-red glazed items. Here a new version was developed, peculiar to the Kangxi reign, which was produced for only a very short period. What in the West is known as ‘peach bloom’ is one of the rare monochrome glazes on porcelain that deliberately uses the natural tendency of the material to produce uneven results for decorative effect (cat. no. 5). ‘Peach bloom’ is now considered to be a short-lived early development of the Kangxi reign, and the attractive variegated, mottled tones of red, occasionally reverting to green, probably resulted from first difficulties to control the fugitive copper pigment. That some such results were accepted and recognized as being particularly attractive is remarkable in this otherwise perfection-driven period. In this respect it harks back to Song dynasty (960-1279) aesthetics, where the interest of many glazes lay in their variation, comparable to that of natural stones. From the Ming dynasty onwards, when the imperial kilns came under strict court control, variations were no longer allowed.
Another glaze characteristic of the Kangxi reign is in the West known as ‘powder blue’ (cat. no. 13). It is a cobalt-blue glaze which, having been blown through a gauze-covered tube, is subtle and delicate – quite unlike predecessors that were in use since the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), which cover the white porcelain with a thick, opaque, intense blue coating. Unlike ‘peach bloom’, which is only known from pieces of Kangxi mark and period, ‘powder-blue’ glazed vessels are generally unmarked, often over-decorated with gold, or decorated with polychrome enamels in reserved panels.
Blue-and-white never ceased to be made at Jingdezhen, but to update designs, early on in his reign the Emperor already engaged a gifted painter, Liu Yuan (c. 1638-c. 1685) for a decade, from c. 1678 to 1688, to create porcelain designs. This approach of involving a designer, which is so familiar to us today, was highly unusual at the time. It resulted in a new departure for porcelain decoration. Although Liu Yuan worked for the imperial kilns, his designs clearly had an impact equally on the many commercially produced wares without reign marks. The dragon among finely pencilled, agitated waves on the pen box (cat. no. 6), for example, would seem to owe its elegant and spirited design to Liu Yuan’s influence.
The porcelain style most immediately identifiable as ‘Kangxi’ is of course the so-called 'famille verte’ color scheme, in China known as wucai, ‘five colors’. As such it acknowledges its direct descent from late Ming polychrome wares, although it is in fact rather different from these. While in the Ming the five colors are easy to identify – blue, red, green, yellow and aubergine – this is much more difficult in the Qing (1644-1911). The Qing version represents a technical simplification, which enabled a decorative sophistication. In the Ming dynasty one color, cobalt blue, had to be applied before application of the glaze and before firing to those areas where it would later be needed, while the other colors were added after firing to make up the complete polychrome design; in the Qing, underglaze blue was mostly omitted making it possible to create much more complex and detailed designs by painting them fully onto the glazed surface. With underglaze blue omitted, the overall color scheme changed and became more distinctive, often with green dominating, hence 'famille verte’.
This style of decoration became ubiquitous in the Kangxi reign, when it was applied both to well-known forms such as bowls (cat. no. 14), large chargers (cat. nos 3, 4, 19), meiping vases (cat. no. 15) and desk items (cat. nos 7, 8, 22), as well as new forms such as cylindrical vases, rouleau (cat. nos 2, 23, 34, 38), phoenix–tail vases, yenyen (cat. nos 18, 20) and square-sectioned vases (cat. no. 28). Such shapes were particularly popular in the West, but are equally known from Chinese collections, not only non-imperial ones such as that of the Shanghai Museum, but are also found in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. What is rare in China, however, are vases of outstanding size, such as cat. nos 2, 20, 38. A faceted jardinière very similar to cat. no. 25, is in the Palace Museum collection, Beijing, as is a square incense burner, very similarly modelled as cat. no. 9, but painted largely in red.
Biscuit wares, models, and figures of Buddhist and Daoist deities and other household gods were also revived in the Kangxi period, but instead of the fahua coloration popular in the Ming, which consists mainly of turquoise and purple (cat. no. 8), we now see more often the sancai glaze combination of amber-yellow, green and brown (cat. nos 7, 10, 32).
Kangxi porcelains – perhaps not surprising given the longevity of this period – are vast in range and immense in variation. Remarkable, however, is the fact that not only imperial wares are of outstanding, high quality, but that non-imperial wares are hardly distinguishable in terms of material, craftsmanship, design, painting quality and aesthetic appeal. Although imperial manufactories and commercial kilns produced different wares, the connection between the two is very close, and inland and export wares are not easy to separate. Many styles were similarly created with and without reign marks, and many designs such as the complex figure scenes taken from history or literature, seem to be created solely for a Chinese audience, yet became particularly popular in the West. Rather than create an elite ware for court use, the Kangxi Emperor managed to raise the capacity and ability of the manufactories overall. This fits in with a man who was more passionately interested in progress than in extravagancies for his own person.