Chinese Ceramics, Pt 1 – Knowledge Comes from Seeing Much

Chinese thinker and social philosopher Confucius, 551BC - 479BC

According to an old Chinese adage and that wise old philosopher Confucius “Knowledge comes from seeing much”. This is a particularly relevant comment for those studying antiques and art, most especially ceramics, which began to become known to the wider world from the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618- 907) onward.

The word ‘China’ eventually became the generic name for porcelain, so successfully had its potential as an export trade ware been exploited by the west at the end of the nineteenth century.

The enthusiasm the English, European and American trade market displayed for oriental goods from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries inspired the invention of porcelain in the west.

It also established the whimsical stylistic language known as Chinoiserie, which affected designs for architecture, interiors and gardens as Europeans fantasized about what China might be like.

Blanc de Chine - Ming Period. Surely the most beautiful of all Chinese ceramics are its most simple

For the most part using the dating period of Chinese Dynasties, or the ruling period of an Emperor to assign dates to Chinese ceramic wares and their development, is more than difficult.

At all stages during their stylistic and technical development there was a good deal of overlapping and copying of a previous dynasty’s designs.

Reproducing what had gone before at first was not a commercial objective, it was all about an intention to honour ancestors.

However as time passed and China opened up completely to the commercialism and corruption of the west, that would, and did change.

Founded upon a prosperous economy, the Tang Empire witnessed a great flowering of creativity; science and technology, art, music, painting, pottery, calligraphy, literature and religion – it was a golden age.

Ding Ware Northern Song Dynasty - The unobtrusive decoration is of incised lotus and sagittaria sprays that is incised into the body that has been ennobled by a mellow ivory-white glaze and the rim is protected by a metal cap 11th - 12th century

Ding Ware Northern Song Dynasty - The unobtrusive decoration is of incised lotus and sagittaria sprays that is incised into the body that has been ennobled by a mellow ivory-white glaze and the rim is protected by a metal cap 11th - 12th century

Chinese potters discovered that when stone wares were fired at higher temperatures they changed their characteristics.

The progression to what are now regarded as wares made from ‘true porcelain’ was a gradual process.

During the reign of the Tudors in England, when the west first accessed wares made of so- called ‘hard paste, or true porcelain’ in any quantity, it was entirely seduced by them.

They were magically translucent, resonant when struck, impervious to liquid, considered refined and aesthetically pleasing in both proportion and style, as well as having great beauty of form.

The material used was a fusion of fine white ‘china clay’ [kaolin, named for the hill in China called Ko-ling where it was discovered] and powdered feldspathic rock [petuntse], which when fired together at an intense heat [about 1450° C] producing a new type of ware that would completely captivate the rest of the world for centuries.

From the beginning of the ceramic industry in China to set up a large kiln there needed to be plenty of natural quantities of heavy clay, plenty of natural fuel to power the kiln, including water and, a cost effective way of taking the products to a ready market.

Once a kiln had been installed generations of artisans flourished with each area becoming renowned for the style and techniques of decorating the wares they developed.

A kiln atmosphere heavily charged with carbon monoxide is termed ‘reducing’. Its effect is to profoundly modify colours yielded by certain metallic oxides, particularly iron and copper.

Chinese potters achieved the desired concentration of carbon monoxide by feeding their furnaces wet wood. The dexterity and skill of the potters in controlling the way that a glaze was fired also meant they were able to crackle it deliberately.

This style of decoration more than likely came about at first by accident. However the potters found the effect so aesthetically pleasing in every way that they spent a great deal of time learning how to bring it about intentionally. This was achieved by using the differing coefficients of contraction and expansion and by also submitting the piece to rapid cooling after the firing. The results were magical.

   Northern Song (960-1127) 11th century Porcelain-like stoneware with céladon feldspathic glaze H: 20.5 cm  Musée Guimet

Northern Song (960-1127) 11th century Porcelain-like stoneware with céladon feldspathic glaze H: 20.5 cm Musée Guimet

Beginning with the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) and during the Tang (618-907 A.D.) Sung (960-1279 A.D.) Yuan (1279-1368 A.D.) and Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) dynasties large quantities of pottery and porcelain were exported from China to the eastern and western world.

There are many romantic attributions for the term Celadon. It became a generic term for ceramics finished with a glaze ranging in colour from olive-green to sea-green. It was first developed as a protective coating for stoneware but on porcelain the colour took on all sorts of different tonal qualities.

Celadons from China were highly sought after by the Persians during the Northern Song Dynasty 960-1112 because they believed that they would break, or change colour if poisoned food was placed in them. At a court where suspicion and fear reigned, they collected them avidly.

The Chinese learned about Islam’s religious and cultural bans on the representation of human and animal figures and so, servicing their customers well, they provided floral designs to sell in Middle Eastern markets.

The Chinese dynasty known as Ming seems relatively near and modern in the long context of Chinese history. In 1368 when it began, many of its scholars considered that the supreme periods of the major arts, such as literature, calligraphy and painting had already passed.

In the European experience the word Ming is almost inseparable from porcelain, which was beginning to arrive in the west in increasing quantities. However it was considered by the Chinese of the Ming period only one of its minor arts. The use of cobalt as a blue colouring agent was considerably developed in connection with porcelain wares in China from the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368) onward.

Blue and White Plate Yuan Dynasty 1279 - 1368

Blue and White Plate Yuan Dynasty 1279 - 1368

The artist who painted a fish swimming through aquatic plants on this very early plate proved his worth at managing cobalt decoration by rendering the scene with great skill, dexterity and vitality.

It was during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the use of cobalt oxide reached a crescendo in painting, style and technique. Cobalt has an ancient history and was well known as a colouring agent in other centres such as Persia, Syria and Egypt at least 2000 years before Christ.

Native minerals on their own had impurities and that resulted in a dull or greyish colour, producing often an unstable patchy blue which was termed, heaped and piled decoration.

It became one of the main characteristics of Ming blue and white. Hui hui Ch’ing or Mohammedan Blue exhibited very rich colour when mixed with a native material discovered at this time. It had a distinct tendency to run when used on its own and the porcelain painters needed to be quick with brush strokes that were very deft and sure.

   Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) Mid 14th century Porcelain with cobalt blue decoration H:33.6 cm

Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) Mid 14th century Porcelain with cobalt blue decoration H:33.6 cm

The Ming period in China [1368 to 1644]  is considered by many historians as the last great dynasty that was truly Chinese. From the middle of the seventeenth century when Chinese influence on western culture really began to intensify, it was ruled by the Manchus. They invaded from Manchuria (north eastern China) and were considered by the mainstream population, the Han Chinese, as usurpers.

A typical mei p’ing vase was used to display blossom branches brought indoors in the warmth and forced into blossom for the celebration of New Year. It has a baluster body and is high shouldered with a small mouth. New Year was a very important festival that generally fell around February, or late winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

Blue & White Jar Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Blue & White Jar Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

There was a resurgence of Chinese nationalism during the Ming Dynasty, when the ancient barrier between East and West was reaffirmed. By far and away the most splendid wares of the Ming period were made for the Imperial Court, as well as the more exacting home markets of China.

To quote Hobson, an English authority on Chinese ceramics ‘Ming shapes are often distinguished by a certain rugged simplicity, and always by the directness and strength of an art, which is still young and virile’.

Ming porcelain generally has a fine grain body is white in colour and tinged buff on the unglazed footring. Thick glazes are often slightly uneven, with a bluish tinge due to traces of iron which also confer the buff colour on the footring.

The texture of the glaze surface exhibits what the Chinese call ‘chicken skin’ which looks like a series of irregular ‘pinholes’ in the glazes surface. This is only a general rule, however to which there are always exceptions.

Jar Ming Period of Emperor Jiajing 1521 to 1567

Jar Ming Period of Emperor Jiajing 1521 to 1567

The most prized of Ming period porcelains were made in the Hsuan Té period (1426-1435) noted for the brilliance of its painting in cobalt blue and copper red under the glaze.

Potters mastered both of these capricious materials, ensuring that the wares reached a high standard of technical and decorative achievement.

Copper red particularly, was very difficult to control and they eventually abandoned it for an iron red enamel glaze painted over the glaze.

Rim of Imperial Yellow and Cobalt Blue Plate

Rim of Imperial Yellow and Cobalt Blue Plate

Yellow glazes in various nuances appeared in the late Ming period and continued until the nineteenth century.

The use of Imperial yellow during the reign of the Emperor Xuande (1426-35) was based on iron, was very brilliant and served as a ground colour for a design painted in blue under the glaze.

Flora [plants and trees generally] are also used very widely in the decoration of porcelain in the Far East, and there is an elaborate symbolism attached to most of them. Eg. The seasons are represented by the prunus [Winter], the tree peony [Spring], the lotus [Summer], and the chrysanthemum [Autumn].

The most important innovation during the reign of Ch’eng Hua (1465-1487) was the introduction of the tou ts’ai or contrasting colours. These were a combination of underglaze blue with other enamel colours, the latter laid on top of the glaze within the outlines of the underglaze blue.

So-called Chicken Cup

So-called Chicken Cup

Excellent examples of this particular group are the so-called ‘chicken cups’, which became very popular especially when they were copied again during the eighteenth century, which can be a trap for new collectors.

When assessing the dating of porcelain there is more than style and colour to be considered.

Portugal was considered one of the most adventurous of the European sea faring nations and it reached China in 1517. From Macao they traded Chinese, and other Asian goods for spices in Europe. The Society of Jesus founded at Rome in 1534 also sent missionaries to East Asia.

From the 1540’s onward the Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci, along with his colleagues who had gone to China learned its main languages, mastered the canon of classic Confucian texts, dressed as mandarins and demonstrated to Chinese intellectuals that the west had far superior skills in some areas, which the Chinese recognized as vital, like cartography and astronomy.

Burghley Bowl

Burghley Bowl

When Emperor Wan Li, the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty sat on the Throne of Heaven ruling over the Middle Kingdom in the Forbidden City from 1573 to 1620 in England Elizabeth 1 was contending with Mary Queen of Scots and many other thorny issues.

The earliest accurate record we have of Ming porcelain in the west was pieces specified in the will of Elizabeth 1.

From the inventory compiled following her death, we can deduce they were highly prized and very precious, like the bowl belonging to the Cecil family of Burghley who served the Queen well.

It was the year 1600 when Queen Elizabeth 1 of England granted a Charter for her seafarers to challenge the Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade followed by the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie 1602 and the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales) 1664.

By the middle of the seventeenth century a lively trade for lacquer, silk and other small objects to European Courts was in full swing.

Porcelain painted in underglaze blue and overglaze polychrome enamels.

Porcelain painted in underglaze blue and overglaze polychrome enamels.

An important innovation was the appearance of the so-called ‘Wucai’ (five colour) decoration during the Jiajing period (1522-1566).

A method was developed where cobalt blue was painted under the glaze and then after being fired the potters then overpainted the glaze with polychrone enamels before firing it a second time.

Fish were often used because they were an important symbol for wealth.

By the late Ming Period c1573-1644 there were new developments in the ancient arts of calligraphy and painting. In the Songjiang and Jiaxing regions the literati strove to surmount petty struggles by devoting themselves to creative artistic activities. They did this by concentrating on heightening an awareness of the individual, his position in the world and relationship with his fellowman.

This led to a simultaneous blossoming of all the art forms. Through mutual discussion and creative interaction the works they produced attained a high level of artistic merit, tinged with extreme, poetic elegance that reflected a healthy attitude toward art and society.

The years surrounding the fall of the Ming dynasty and the founding of the Qing dynasty in China were uncertain and foreign trade suffered.

To be continued…

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014

Chinese Ceramics Pt 2- ‘Knowledge Comes from Seeing Much’


  • Bryan Govett says:

    The poem “I went to dine…” was often quoted by my mother, who told me it appeared in Punch in the 20s. She learnt it for a forfeit at parties.

  • Thank you, you are the first person I have ever encountered before who has known of it. Certainly sounds like something that Punch would have printed.

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