Chinese Ming Dynasty Porcelain
In the Ming dynasty porcelain was perhaps the most famous and highly-prized of all Chinese antique porcelain and there’s a very good reason for their popularity.
After 97 years of rule by the Yuan, a Mongol-led dynasty founded by legendary warrior-ruler Genghis Khan and the first to make Beijing its capital (called Dadu by the Yuan), China returned to Han Chinese rule in 1368 – the last imperial dynasty they ruled. The Ming dynasty as it was known ushered in an astonishing period of creativity, artistic and cultural restoration, development and expansion.
As China slowly recovered from bloody internecine struggles, Zhu Yuanzhang, known as the Hongwu Emperor who reigned for 30 years from 1368 to 1398, attempted to create one of the largest armies the world had ever known – he had a standing army of over one million soldiers and in Nanjing, the largest naval dockyards in the world – but he also understood the value of creativity and culture.
The Ming porcelain took their inspiration from the incredibly intricate but very busy Islamic styles of the Yuan Mongols but the Emperor Hongwu re-established a far more dominant Chinese style in the Imperial court. The early Chinese Ming porcelain produced during this period were unique and have since become some of the world’s most desirable works of art.
The monochrome ware that was so popular during the Song dynasty quickly went out of vogue and it was replaced by Ming vases and other equally-impressive Ming porcelain. Most was made in Jingdezhen in north-eastern Jiangxi province – known as ‘porcelain town’ but there were factories in Dehua in Fujian province and Foshan in central Guangdong province that manufactured the famous Chinese vase.
There were two main factors that drove the Ming porcelains towards perfection and their desire beyond China’s borders. First in the fifteenth century, China developed a market economy where nationalised industry was replaced by private business, a power-sharing government between the Imperial court and the civil service called by many as ’one of the greatest achievements of Chinese civilisation’ and the encouragement of trade relations between East and West. Second, as Europe transitioned out of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance ushered in a fervent period promoting great social and political change as well as the rediscovery of classical art, literature and philosophy and with it, the appreciation of the Ming dynasty vase. This appreciation led to unknown thousands of Ming vases – by now more subtle in design and more refined in quality – making their way into the palaces and houses of Europe’s elite, aristocracy and royalty
A century or so on from the start of the dynasty and the designs of the most famous Chinese vase included a more vibrant colour palette such as yellows, greens and blues and more intricate detail. As the demand grew from Europe and Japan, Ming dynasty vases quickly became a vital export – alongside lacquerware and silk – for China’s burgeoning free market.
As most people know, the stunning blue and white Chinese Ming vase has become one of the world’s most collectible antiques but as the dynasty evolved, so did the way the pieces were manufactured and the story of how the Ming vase evolved is richly woven into the tapestry of the history of the Ming dynasty itself.
The Xuande Emperor Xuande meaning ‘Proclamation of Virtue’ was the fifth emperor of the Ming dynasty and reigned for 10 years from 1425 to 1435. He was fond of poetry and literature and was an accomplished painter and it was during his reign that jihong was developed. Jihong was a blood-red porcelain glaze that coated Chinese Ming vases but it was almost impossible to produce. It is believed that there are fewer than 100 Ming vases in the jihong style in museums around the world.
The Chenghua Emperor Translated as ‘Accomplished Change’, the Chenghua Emperor was the ninth Ming dynasty emperor and reigned from 1464 – 1487. During this time, the technique of doucai – contrasted colours – was developed by painting a design onto a Ming vase in an underglaze blue and then firing it at a very high temperature of around 1100°C. Then the Chinese vase was fired again once the remainder of the design was added in contrasted colours of overglaze enamel at a lower temperature closer to 850-900°C.
The Hongzhi Emperor The tenth emperor, Hongzhi is translated as ‘Great Government.’ He was a hardworking and diligent ruler and injected a fresh energy into the middle years of the dynasty. During his time, the famous yellow glaze, jiaohuang or ‘yellow chicken oil’, was created and was especially popular in the Imperial court for the decoration of Ming dynasty vases.
The Wanli Emperor Translated as ‘Ten Thousand Calendars’, the fourteenth emperor’s reign (1572 – 1620) began well but ended with him effectively going on strike and overseeing the decline of the dynasty. However it was during his tenure that the stunning design style of wucai, most commonly translated as ‘five colour’ was developed. It should perhaps be more accurately known as ‘multicoloured’ since the wucai style of creating the Ming vase often used more or less than precisely five colours. It was also under Wanli’s emperorship that the artisan craftsmen equally mixed kaolin clay and pottery stone to further enhance the beautiful whiteness of the body of the Ming dynasty vase and other vessels.