A fundamental characteristic of all Chinese porcelain is colour. Even porcelain fired with transparent glaze carries its distinctive milky white hue. Among the myriad forms, techniques and classifications of porcelain wares, the two most commonly regarded essential groupings are monochrome and polychrome. Polychrome wares refer to pieces adorned, whether under or over the glaze, with pictorial imagery and pattern. It also refers to wares utilising two or more colours. Owing to the repeated firing often required to achieve its final effects, polychrome porcelains are among the most demanding of all types of ceramics.
“While ‘colour’ in its pure and aloof form was integral to the cosmological ordering of the imperial realm, ‘colourfulness’ was a mark of informality, of quotidian luxuries and delights.”
Meaning “the wind and the water”, feng shui is the ancient Chinese practice of orienting one’s environment in harmony with the vital life force known as qi (氣, meaning breath). Chinese porcelains are considered to be vessels that hold and transmit such energy, and whose design (as well as placement and orientation) can create a harmonious energy flow within its surroundings. Chinese scholars have investigated the theory of feng shui as far back as the 5th century BC, and the art of feng shui embraces many facets of Chinese beliefs and culture, such as the harmony of yin and yang, the workings of the Five Elements (wuxing, 五行), Chinese symbolism and philosophy.
Balancing yin and yang
Qi is the powerful cosmological force that inhabits everything, and is believed to be composed of opposing but complementary yin and yang elements. Millennia of Chinese people have sought to master the perfect balance of these elements, improving the flow of positive qi in their lives in order to attract tianning, dili renhe (“heaven’s blessings, which bring harmony and prosperity”), and keep negative qi at bay.
Achieving harmony in feng shui design involves finding a balance between cool yin colours (such as blue, green, purple-blue, grey, and white) and warm yang colours (such as red, orange, yellow, and reddish-purple). It is crucial to ensure that the yin and yang colours have equal strength and their contrast does not cause discomfort or overwhelm the eyes. Opposing colour pairs evoke the cyclical flow of yin and yang, symbolising the creation and ongoing rejuvenation of the universe.
An exquisite red and white overlay green glass 'chilong' waterpot, mark and period of Qianlong showcases the artistry of cameo-overlay glasswares designed for the Emperor and the Imperial household. This particular piece features a captivating combination of red and white overlay on green glass, adorned with a skillfully carved chilong. The chilong, a mythical creature considered one of the dragon's nine sons, holds great significance in Chinese culture, symbolising strength, influence, and grandeur. The auspicious qualities of the chilong are further enhanced by the presence of red, representing good fortune, the purity of white, and the deep sea-green hue of the glass, symbolising blessings for longevity.
A flambé-glazed jar, seal mark and period of Qianlong, showcases a mesmerising blend of lustrous raspberry-red glaze and milky-lavender streaks. This harmonious combination of yin and yang hues creates a sublime visual balance. The use of the flambé glaze on vessels reflects the Qianlong Emperor's admiration for the celebrated Jun wares of the Song dynasty. The Qianlong Emperor continued the tradition, following in the footsteps of his father, the Yongzheng Emperor, who initiated the development of new glazes inspired by Jun vessels and their revival glazes in various shades of purple, crimson, and blue,.
Similarly, five-colour opaque glass baluster vase, mark and period of Qianlong, featuring a cobalt blue rim and blush pink tones, exemplifies a harmonious fusion of balanced yin-yang hues and elegant rounded proportions. This five-colour glass vase showcases a captivating visual harmony.
The Five Elements
Feng shui divides the world into five elements – wood, fire, earth, gold and water – a key concept that appeared in Chinese literature as early as the 4th century BC. These elements follow a compatible and cyclical sequence. Wood, represented by the colours green and blue, gives rise to fire, symbolised by red, which in turn burns wood and transforms it into ashes, creating earth, depicted in yellow. Earth contains ores that yield gold, represented by white, which then generates water, symbolised by black, through condensation. Water, in turn, nourishes plants and trees, completing the cycle by supporting the growth of wood. Compatible elements are considered to be wood with fire, fire with earth, earth with gold, gold with water, and water with wood, resulting in fortuitous colour combinations such as blue/green with red, and red with yellow, as seen in the polychrome-enamelled 'dragon' jar, Ming dynasty, 16th century and blue and white and iron-red and green-enameled 'sea horses' vase, zun, Late Ming - early Qing dynasty.
It is equally important to recognise the significance of incompatible elements and their destructive cyclical counteractions. Water, represented by black, extinguishes fire, symbolised by red, melting gold, depicted in white. Gold, in turn, breaks down wood, represented by green and blue, which cuts into earth, symbolised by yellow, and earth absorbs water, completing the cycle of incompatibility. Incompatible elements are thus considered to be water with fire, fire with gold, gold with wood, wood with earth, and earth with water.
The Five Blessings
In line with ancient Chinese thinking that the cosmos is represented through combinations of five elements, such as colours, directions, and seasons - the Five Blessings (wufu,五福, also known as the "Five Happiness" or "Five Good Fortunes") encompasses all the essential elements needed for complete happiness. These blessings include wealth, longevity, good health and tranquility, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. Chinese porcelains are abundant with auspicious references to these blessings, as skilled porcelain artists devised ever-inventive ways to convey intricate messages and concealed meanings, aiming to amuse and delight their highly educated patrons.
A rare imperial white and ruby glass snuff bottle, mark and period of Qianlong in the shape of a fish holds great significance as a feng shui symbol of abundance. In Chinese, the word for “fish” (yu, 魚) sounds similar to a word that means “surplus” or “excess” (yu, 余). Goldfish (jinyu,金魚) is a homonym for “surplus of gold” in Chinese. Carp (li yu, 鯉魚) resembles the Chinese word for “profit” (li, 利) , and is also associated with scholarly success, as its jumping ability symbolises triumph in the prestigious civil service exams.
In a blue and white 'crane and figure' bottle vase, Qing dynasty, Shunzhi period, the crane takes centre stage. Cranes are widely regarded as a symbol of longevity due to their remarkable lifespans. Often portrayed gracefully soaring through clouds, they also represent the transcendence from earthly existence that accompanies immortality.
Dragons hold paramount significance as yang symbols of power. Frequently depicted alongside phoenixes, whose elegant plumage embodies feminine beauty and cosmic yin energy, dragons and phoenixes first emerged as explicit emblems of the Emperor and Empress during the Han Dynasty, following their initial appearance in the Shang Dynasty. They were believed to herald extraordinary events and were said to manifest on Earth only when the empire was governed with justice. See for example a rare blue and white ‘dragon and phoenix’ jar and cover, Ming dynasty, mark and period of Jiajing and a yellow jade 'dragon and phoenix' double vase, Qing dynasty, 18th century.
Plants belonging to the mallow family are commonly associated with vitality and long life. An Imperial Red Overlay on White Glass ‘Mallow Flower’ snuff bottle, mark and period of Qianlong features a stylised ruby-red mallow flower overlaid on white glass. This design symbolises loyalty to the Emperor, as the head of the mallow flower follows the path of the sun, a symbol of the Emperor, throughout the day. These bottles were presented by the Emperor to his officials as a reminder of their sworn allegiance.
Chinese porcelain motifs often express wishes for a happy marriage and the blessing of childbirth, reflecting the central role of the family in Chinese society. In a famille-rose 'lady and boy' dish, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng period, a young boy playfully runs alongside his mother while holding a halberd (ji, 戟), which serves as a play on the Chinese word for "auspicious" (ji, . The boy wears a Chinese lock charm around his neck, symbolising protection from death and securing his connection to the earthly realm. He passes a vase adorned with a coral branch and peacock feathers, which alludes to the emblems worn by high-ranking officials during the Qing dynasty. The depiction of domestic interiors and garden scenes depicting mothers and children gained popularity in the early eighteenth century, coinciding with advancements in enamel colouring techniques that allowed for more intricate figure painting.
The production of polychrome porcelain is considered one of the most challenging ceramic techniques, requiring multiple firings and the expertise of multiple specialised craftsmen to achieve their vibrant final appearance. Eternally fresh and bright in colour, polychrome wares convey the power of their auspicious imagery in part through the longevity of their own colour. Interacting with porcelain wares involves close engagement, inviting the sense of touch alongside sight, enriching the intimate experience of the owner and immersing them in a world of splendid colours and delightful imagery.