A Short History of Chinese Imperial Porcelain

A Short History of Chinese Imperial Porcelain

From blue and white porcelain to celadon glaze and falangcai, three pivotal achievements in Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain explained.
From blue and white porcelain to celadon glaze and falangcai, three pivotal achievements in Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain explained.

I n the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), following the end of Mongul rule under the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the imperial court of the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398) applied strict control on what was a thriving and free flowing porcelain trade that saw wares exported to elsewhere in Asia and as far reaching as Europe. Production was highly organised, major kiln sites spanned several provinces, and an assembly line style of manufacture was implemented. The creation of fine wares and imperial wares hailed from Jingdezhen – a source of pride for the imperial court. Such was the importance of Jingdezhen to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) that many of its 9,000 kilns destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion of 1855 would be rebuilt after the war ended in 1866.

Situated in the Jiangxi province in the southeast of China, Jingdezhen has earned its reputation as the mecca for Chinese ceramics. From its early days that saw the convergence of pottery villages to becoming the site for mass production factories in the 1950s, ceramics – porcelain in particular – continues to be Jingdezhen’s lifeblood to this day. With a modern day population of 1.7 million people, it’s a city that is these days enjoying a new vitality abuzz with artists and contemporary artisans from all over the world finding inspiration in its storied cultural history.

The Ming and Qing dynasties are particularly renowned for the exquisite achievements in porcelain, not least because the great patronage of emperors whose search could only be satiated with the finest craftsmanship.

A superb and exceptionally rare blue and white 'floral' moon flask,Ming dynasty, Yongle period | Estimate Upon Request

Blue and White Porcelain and the Exchange with Islamic Art

The invention of blue and white porcelain in the Yuan dynasty marked a turning point in the history of Chinese ceramics. Fast becoming the foremost type of porcelain ware coming out of Jingdezhen, by the early Ming dynasty, and ever since, it has been the dominating export porcelain. For imperial wares, cobalt used in the blue pigment was imported from Persia or Iran along the Silk Road by traders. Along with raw materials, Persian traders also brought with them also an exchange of taste and design, and foreign demand for Chinese porcelain. It is thus we see Middle Eastern stylistic and decorative influences in Chinese blue and white design, such as that exemplified in this blue and white ‘floral’ moon flask from the Yongle period, Ming dynasty.

The Yongle Emperor, in power for more than two decades from 1403 to 1424, was a most active patron of the arts with a cosmopolitan outlook. Under his reign, large-scale cultural and artistic projects included the compilation of the Yongle Encyclopedia (Yongle dadian), which attempted to assemble the complete written knowledge of China since the Bronze Age and the funding of enormous maritime expeditions all throughout Asia and as far as East Africa. These diplomatic missions – which saw the finest Chinese artefacts gifted and exchanged for foreign goods – left a lasting influence on Chinese arts.

A superb and exceptionally rare blue and white 'floral' moon flask,Ming dynasty, Yongle period | Estimate Upon Request

With its flattened moon-shaped body, this moon flask is thoughht to be modelled after a Middle Eastern metal prototype. Encircling the vessel in rich cobalt tones is a single flowering stem sprouting from the base on each side of the vessel, rhythmically extending into seven stylised blooms and leafy fronds reminiscent of Islamic arabesques. Where Islamic arts only sought to draw vaguely from naturalistic representations, the strong connection to nature even in the most freely interpreted motifs is a key differentiater of Chinese design from its Middle Eastern influence.

This fertile period of cross-cultural trade widened the horizon of Chinese potters and artisans. Among various ceramics technological achievements, the Yongle era is credited for success in improved recipes achieving thinner clay bodies and new glazes that gave white porcelain a shinier, purer appearance. Early Ming was a period where quality of production standards were raised, seeing increased conformity of wares, and a proliferation in designs and colours. Quality control by the court was so strict that any vessels with even the most minor flaws, and any surplus to imperial orders were discarded and destroyed.

After the Yongle era, very few momentous ceramic technological triumphs would be made. It would not be until the 18th century, long after the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) revived imperial porcelain production, that new achievements were celebrated.

An extremely rare and large blue-ground falangcai 'dragon' bowl, Blue-enamel mark and period of Qianlong | Estimate Upon Request

Falangcai and the Celadon Glaze in The Golden Age of Porcelain

With the gradual decline of the Ming dynasty in the early 17th century, orders for imperial porcelain all but nearly ceased. After the Manchus came into power in 1644, establishing the Qing dynasty, it was still several decades before the rule of power was stable enough and imperial kilns in Jingdezhen could be revived. Where early Ming dynasty was regarded as the “The Age of Porcelain” owing to its leaps in ceramics advancements, the early Qing dynasty rang in “The Golden Age of Porcelain” for the artistic accomplishments it would soon come to be remembered for.

Similar to early Ming, it was a period of rich exchange in styles and ideas of East and West, only the Kangxi Emperor – the second ruler under the Qing – took it a step further than trade routes. The Kangxi Emperor embraced the creative possibilities afforded by inviting European artisans to the palace workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The porcelain wares would be produced in Jingdezhen, then transported to the palace workshops where court painters worked under the discerning eye of the emperor.

Translating to “foreign colours,” falangcai – a style of enameling on porcelain, copper and glass introduced by European artisans – is one such feat. The present falangcai bowl, with blue-enamel mark of Qianlong period, appears to be in style with imperial porcelain developed under the Kangxi emperor and revived by his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor. The presence of the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) who worked as a court painter under all three emperors – Kangxi, his son Yongzheng, and Qianlong – no doubt left an indelible mark on the development of falangcai.

An extremely rare and large blue-ground falangcai 'dragon' bowl, Blue-enamel mark and period of Qianlong | Estimate Upon Request

The formal four-sided design harks back to the Kangxi era, but with new decoration on the inside of the vessel. Dragons are typically absent from falangcai, and the use of a single blue ground was rare. The dragons on this bowl are the stylised version called kui. The kui appears in many Qianlong period works of art, across varying media. The kui on this bowl however, has converged with the style of baroque swirls, its cursive floral motifs showing a European influence. The dragon design on the present piece is seemingly used for just one pair of bowls, as was characteristic of falangcai designs. Its companion piece is in the Musée Guimet, Paris. They appear to be the only known pair painted with a dragon motif.

The Qianlong Emperor was an avid collector of antiques and a foremost patron of the arts. He is believed to have appreciated archaicism when expressing a contemporary ideal, a point of interest which can be seen in both the falangcai bowl and the celadon-glazed ‘dragon’ meiping vase.

Dragons were an imperative part of Jingdezhen porcelain. This present vase carved with ferocious long dragons set against waves, covered with a glossy celadon glaze is a testament to the technological and aesthetic achievements under Tang Ying (1682-1756), during his time as supervisor of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.

Celadon glazes, which have been used for thousands of years since the Five Dynasties (907-960), were held in high esteem in the Song dynasty (960-1279). The beautiful bluish-green tone was seen in some of the finest wares coming from the Longquan kilns of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). The technique of celadon glaze was seemingly lost however, in the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and it was not until the Yongzheng period in the Qing dynasty that it reappeared, though on a smaller scale and rarely coupled with relief decoration.

A superb and possibly unique carved celadon-glazed 'dragon' vase, meiping, Seal mark and period of Qianlong | Estimate Upon Request

Produced for the Qianlong Emperor, the vase depicts five dragons; one extending vertically along one side of the vessel; while two pairs are depicted with one dominating the other slightly subordinately, a motif not seen before the Qing dynasty. Though such depictions of pairs of dragons are thought to refer to the Emperor and Heir Apparent, it is also thought here to be an act of filial piety and a reflection of the Qianlong Emperor’s respect towards his father, the Yongzheng Emperor.

After the Qianlong reign, imperial enthusiasm for art patronage waned. Porcelain was still held in high esteem, and imperial porcelain continued to be produced to the highest standards and with the most exquisite designs, however the later Qing reigns saw little new advancements.

Today, the imperial kiln sites of Jingdezhen, where enormous piles of porcelain shards have been unearthed, are a legacy of the golden heyday of Chinese imperial porcelain.

Chinese Works of Art

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