Royal treat

Palace Mu­seum show­cases im­pe­rial ce­ramic his­tory

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at wangkai­hao@chinadaily.com.cn

In 1369, a porce­lain kiln was es­tab­lished in Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi prov­ince, to serve the im­pe­rial courts of the newly es­tab­lished Ming Dy­nasty (13681644), and thus be­gan the city’s story as a porce­lain hub.

Last week at Bei­jing’s Palace Mu­seum, or the For­bid­den City, the coun­try’s royal palace from 1420 un­til the end of Chi­nese monar­chy in 1911, two ex­hi­bi­tions were opened show­cas­ing a part of his­tory of im­pe­rial kiln ce­ram­ics.

Whether in pieces or as com­plete items, the charm of these ar­ti­facts is un­mis­tak­able.

The Ming Im­pe­rial Porce­lain: A Com­par­a­tive Ex­hi­bi­tion of Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Find­ings at the Im­pe­rial Kiln Site in Jingdezhen and Chenghua Pe­riod Porce­lain in the Col­lec­tion of the Palace Mu­seum, com­prises 183 sets of porce­lain from the reign of Chenghua (1465-87).

Seventy-six ex­hibits are from the Palace Mu­seum col­lec­tions, while the rest are pieces with de­fects found in kilns in Jingdezhen, ac­cord­ing to Lyu Chen­g­long, head of the porce­lain re­search in­sti­tute at the Palace Mu­seum.

“Only the best pieces were sent to Bei­jing. Those with de­fects were bro­ken and buried at Jingdezhen. You can im­me­di­ately tell the dif­fer­ence at this ex­hi­bi­tion,” says Lyu.

“The copy­ing of such pieces by the public was strictly pro­hib­ited. So you do not see sim­i­lar pieces else­where.”

Speak­ing about the pieces with de­fects, Lyu says fail­ures to get the color or shape right was a com­mon rea­son for the pieces to be de­stroyed. Some were, how­ever, re­jected for other “small” rea­sons.

“For in­stance, we found bro­ken items in Jingdezhen, some as ex­quis­ite as those housed in the For­bid­den City, but with mis­takes in the chrono­log­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, or with an ex­tra paw for the drag­ons.”

In2015, the Palace Mu­seum held a sim­i­lar event on im­pe­rial kiln items from the 1368-1435 pe­riod, cov­er­ing three em­per­ors, but Lyu says the Chenghua pe­riod needed to be em­pha­sized be­cause he be­lieves it rep­re­sents a zenith in porce­lain mak­ing dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty.

“Chenghua im­pe­rial porce­lain is among the most del­i­cate, and the sur­faces look like they are pol­ished us­ing oil,” says Lyu. “Their pat­terns and colors are not flam­boy­ant, but they re­flect har­mony and el­e­gance.

“Em­peror Chenghua may not have been a good ruler — nur­tur­ing notorious of­fi­cials — but we can­not deny that he had taste.”

Lyu also points to the over­seas artis­tic in­flu­ences seen in im­pe­rial kiln ce­ram­ics of the Chenghua era, re­flect­ing cross-cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Some ex­hibits from the time show typ­i­cal Is­lamic pat­terns from west­ern Asia.

“Chenghua porce­lain is an in­cred­i­ble trea­sure due to its large va­ri­ety and shapes,” says Geng Baochang, 94, one of the coun­try’s most renowned porce­lain re­searchers, af­ter visit­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion. “But it was once thought there were not many items sur­viv­ing from that pe­riod.

“So, when the Chenghua works are brought to­gether, it is re­ally a bril­liant ban­quet not only for re­searchers but also for the public,” says Geng.

Mean­while, an­other ex­hi­bi­tion, Porce­lain from the Ming and Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) Im­pe­rial Kilns: Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Finds at the Palace Mu­seum and in Jingdezhen, show­cases a to­tal of 163 sets from both places, which have been un­earthed since 2014, giv­ing vis­i­tors a view of how the kilns were man­aged and how the porce­lain was made.

“Some of the finds have filled gaps in aca­demic re­search,” says Lyu. “Many pat­terns, which are not seen in items which have sur­vived, were found dur­ing the ex­ca­va­tions.”

Ex­am­ples of how re­searchers have been helped are the finds re­lat­ing to the pe­riod 1436-64.

The ear­lier col­lec­tions did not have any items that could be traced to this pe­riod, and this led some to spec­u­late that the kilns had halted op­er­a­tions dur­ing that time.

But, the dis­cov­ery of an earth layer from that pe­riod at Jingdezhen, which con­tained a large num­ber of porce­lain shards, de­bunked that the­ory.

In 2014, a site con­tain­ing bro­ken porce­lain was also dis­cov­ered at the For­bid­den City, which could have been the dump­ing ground for an in­sti­tu­tion get­ting rid of used porce­lain from the im­pe­rial court.

Ac­cord­ing to Wang Yamin, deputy di­rec­tor of the Palace Mu­seum, the two ex­hi­bi­tions are a part of an agree­ment on aca­demic re­search signed in 2014 be­tween the­mu­seum and the Jingdezhen Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute.

“A vast ma­jor­ity of the 360,000 porce­lain items at the Palace Mu­seum come from Jingdezhen,” says Wang. “The two places are closely con­nected. It is part of an in­evitable trend of let­ting aca­demic re­search serve the public. More com­par­a­tive ex­hi­bi­tions show­cas­ing im­pe­rial kiln porce­lain from other reigns of the Ming Dy­nasty are in the pipe­line,” he says.

PHO­TOS BY JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY

Vis­i­tors look at the on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tions that show­case ce­ram­ics made in China’s porce­lain hub, Jingdezhen, for im­pe­rial courts dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties at the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing. The im­pe­rial-kiln ce­ram­ics rep­re­sent a zenith in the coun­try’s porce­lain-mak­ing his­tory.

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