Har­mony between Fire and Earth

The Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644) was full of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties. It nur­tured the de­vel­op­ment of china dur­ing the reigns of em­per­ors Ji­a­jing, Longqing and Wanli from 1522 to 1620.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Re­becca Lou Edited by Mary Frances Cap­piello

The in­ven­tion of porce­lain was a unique con­tri­bu­tion of the peo­ple of an­cient China to hu­man civil­i­sa­tion. Its jade-like tex­ture has won the ad­mi­ra­tion of peo­ple all around the world, and to for­eign­ers, the splen­dour of ceram­ics is a sym­bol of an­cient Chi­nese cul­ture.

The Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644), full of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties, nur­tured the de­vel­op­ment of chi­naware dur­ing the reigns of em­per­ors Ji­a­jing (1522–1566), Longqing (1537–1572) and Wanli (1572–1620). The im­pe­rial kilns in the Ming Dy­nasty made the finest porce­lain for the im­pe­rial court. Pieces with any im­per­fec­tions would be used only as burial items in tombs.

As early as the 1970s, bro­ken pieces of porce­lain were un­earthed from the re­mains of an im­pe­rial kiln of the Ming Dy­nasty, which is lo­cated in Zhushan of Jingdezhen City. Since the 1980s, the Jingdezhen Ce­ramic Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute has car­ried out sev­eral ex­ca­va­tions on the kiln site and made sig­nif­i­cant dis­cov­er­ies. Tonnes of porce­lain frag­ments and kiln wares have been un­earthed to study the pro­duc­tion sys­tem of the Ming Dy­nasty kiln and dif­fer­ent types of porce­lain. This re­search has in turn ex­erted a wide im­pact on aca­demic cir­cles at home and abroad.

From Novem­ber 6, 2018 to Fe­bru­ary 22, 2019, Jin­gren Hall in the For­bid­den City is dis­play­ing china from im­pe­rial palaces and the im­pe­rial kilns in an ex­hi­bi­tion jointly spon­sored by the For­bid­den City and Jingdezhen City. The ex­hi­bi­tion is di­vided into three sec­tions ac­cord­ing to dy­nasty. Within each sec­tion, items are grouped ac­cord­ing to their spe­cific type, such as the bright and bril­liant Qinghua porce­lain ( which in­cludes yel­low- based Qinghua and Qinghua porce­lain with blush), the pure and el­e­gant sin­gle- coloured glazed porce­lain, mul­ti­coloured porce­lain such as five- colour or red and green porce­lain, and re­pro­duc­tions show­ing the in­flu­ence of the ar­ti­sans of the Ji­a­jing, Longqing and Wanli eras. A to­tal of 298 sets of china are be­ing ex­hib­ited.

Ex­hibits from the Ji­a­jing pe­riod in­clude a large disk with dragon pat­terns made from white and blue porce­lain, pot with fish and al­gae in multi-coloured glaze, a pot with a sea and dragon pat­tern in red glaze, a melon skin green glaze cloud-shaped ves­sel and blue-glazed wares. There are also

ex­hibits from the Longqing pe­riod— a dragon and phoenix pat­tern pot with han­dle, blue and white porce­lain round con­tainer, and a yel­low-glazed cone-arched cloud-dragon bowl. Wanli pe­riod pieces in­clude a plum bot­tle with dragon pat­terns, a blue and white porce­lain plate with peach pat­terns and San­skrit writ­ing, a blue-and-white porce­lain stone tablet, a yel­low-green bowl with a cone-shaped base, blue­and-white squid-shaped gar­lic bot­tles, a rec­tan­gu­lar con­tainer with hol­lowed­out flo­ral pat­terns and six-sided cricket jar with a colour­ful sea cloud pat­tern. These are rare trea­sures.

This ex­hi­bi­tion is the last in the “Ming Im­pe­rial Kiln Porce­lain” ex­hibit se­ries, jointly or­gan­ised by the For­bid­den City and the Jingdezhen Mu­nic­i­pal Peo­ple's Gov­ern­ment. The se­ries, which has lasted four years, has dis­played the finest china from both the For­bid­den City and Jingdezhen for the pub­lic. It is ar­ranged to com­pare dif­fer­ent fea­tures of the porce­lain wares which ex­isted to­gether hun­dreds of years ago.

Ji­a­jing Pe­riod, Out­sourc­ing of Of­fi­cial Kilns

The Em­peror Ji­a­jing ruled for more than 40 years. At the be­gin­ning of his reign, the em­peror tar­geted the malaise in gov­er­nance from the pre­vi­ous im­pe­rial reign, heard sug­ges­tions from of­fi­cials, and in­spected the land. He led ef­forts to rec­tify ills and boost pub­lic morale, un­veil­ing a new chap­ter in the life of the coun­try. How­ever, af­ter a coup at­tempt in 1542, Em­peror Ji­a­jing be­gan to live like a her­mit and buried him­self in study­ing Tao­ism. In his later years, im­pe­rial and pub­lic crises broke out and the na­tion's strength de­clined.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, the im­pe­rial kiln could not sat­isfy the large porce­lain pro­duc­tion de­mand in a timely way, so it was forced to del­e­gate some pro­duc­tion to des­ig­nated kilns. This was the be­gin­ning of im­pe­rial kilns' out­sourc­ing to pri­vate kilns. Jingdezhen's new co­op­er­a­tion sys­tem between im­pe­rial and pri­vate kilns pro­moted the de­vel­op­ment of porce­lain-mak­ing tech­niques. The ex­quis­ite tech­niques needed for man­u­fac­ture lim­ited the pro­duc­tion out­put of the pri­vate kilns but helped raise their qual­ity stan­dards. There­fore, at this time, the dif­fer­ences between the im­pe­rial kiln and the pri­vate ones were greatly re­duced. Dur­ing the Em­peror Ji­a­jing's reign, there were no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences between the im­pe­rial and pri­vate kilns.

A stun­ning va­ri­ety of porce­lain was pro­duced at Jingdezhen dur­ing this pe­riod. Judg­ing from the re­main­ing china and un­earthed wares, there were no fewer than 37 types of porce­lain made in the Jingdezhen Im­pe­rial Fac­tory dur­ing Em­peror Ji­a­jing's reign. The most fa­mous ones are blue and white, mul­ti­coloured, melon and green glazed porce­lain.

The shapes and dec­o­ra­tive fea­tures of the blue-and-white porce­lain cre­ations dur­ing Em­peror Ji­a­jing's reign were more di­verse than ever be­fore. In ad­di­tion to small uten­sils such as bowls, plates, cups, and wares for the no­bil­ity, there were large ob­jects used for dec­o­ra­tion. There was also a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in square shaped, hexag­o­nal, eight-sided and other shaped uten­sils, which were more dif­fi­cult to make. One ex­am­ple of this type is blue-glazed bot­tles. These can be made with two types of glazes, ji­lan or huiqing. Huiqing glaze porce­lain was a type of high-tem­per­a­ture blue glaze porce­lain char­ac­terised by the mix­ture of im­ported “re­turn­ing green” ma­te­rial and do­mes­tic shiz­iqing ma­te­ri­als. The oven process en­riches its colour and gives it a pur­ple tinge. The paint­ing on this porce­lain is so­phis­ti­cated as well, fea­tur­ing both re­fined and coarse tech­niques cou­pled with in­tri­cate dec­o­ra­tive de­tail­ing. The cur­rent For­bid­den City ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures many fine pieces rep­re­sen­ta­tive of these blue­and-white porce­lain styles.

Em­peror Ji­a­jing was en­am­oured with Tao­ism, so the porce­lain wares dur­ing his reign took on the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the re­li­gion. There was an abun­dance of gourd-shaped wares with Taoist-style il­lus­tra­tions of the Eight Im­mor­tals, the Dark Eight Im­mor­tals, the Old Man un­der the Pine Tree, and the Eight Di­a­grams. Tra­di­tional pat­terns sym­bol­is­ing peace, longevity, good har­vest, and aus­pi­cious­ness were also com­mon, which re­flected the po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural and per­sonal tastes of the em­peror.

Among the var­i­ous types of Ji­a­jing kiln porce­lain, “wu­cai enamel,” also known as “five-colour porce­lain” was the most com­mon. Its finest wares are as good as the famed Yon­gle Xuande blue and white porce­lain and as Chenghua porce­lain. As the name in­di­cates, this im­pe­rial mul­ti­coloured porce­lain has painted with ex­quis­ite red, yel­low, green, blue and black con­trast­ing against a white back­ground. Its bold use of red and green is es­pe­cially gen­er­ous, en­thu­si­as­tic and splen­did.

Melon green glaze is a lowtem­per­a­ture glaze with cop­per ox­ide as a colouring agent and lead ox­ide as the main flux. The Ming Dy­nasty Jingdezhen im­pe­rial fac­tory started to make this china be­gin­ning in Yon­gle's reign. How­ever, the colour of prod­ucts from Em­peror Ji­a­jing's reign is con­sid­ered the purest. The Ji­a­jing melon skin green glaze bot­tle in the ex­hi­bi­tion is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive work.

Im­pe­rial porce­lain dur­ing Em­peror

Ji­a­jing's reign was marked by ex­ten­sive use of a va­ri­ety of mis­cel­la­neous glaze com­bi­na­tions: yel­low with green, red with yel­low, yel­low base with red pat­terns, or white base with green. The yel­low base with red colour was quite pop­u­lar. The pro­duc­tion method is first to ap­ply yel­low glaze to the item and put it in the kiln, then later use the blush colour for or­na­men­ta­tion, or out­line the shape of the ware with red or black and brown colours. Af­ter low tem­per­a­ture fir­ing, the ves­sel will have the de­sired colour ef­fects. Be­cause “yel­low base with red glaze” lit­er­ally means aus­pi­cious­ness and bless­ings to the em­peror, some of the wares that were made us­ing this tech­nique were de­signed as pleas­ing gifts for the Em­peror.

Af­ter Em­peror Ji­a­jing took the throne, he im­ple­mented the “Ji­a­jing New Poli­cies.” An im­por­tant part of the New Poli­cies was the re­vi­sion of the na­tional sac­ri­fi­cial code, which spec­i­fied new de­tails for the cer­e­monies. These new reg­u­la­tions had an ef­fect on ceram­ics used dur­ing these rites. For in­stance, dif­fer­ent from the porce­lain used in daily life, the uten­sils used in sac­ri­fi­cial of­fer­ings dur­ing the reigns of Ji­a­jing, Longqing and Wanli all have sin­gle-colour glazes. All the items used for sac­ri­fices were to be made in the im­pe­rial kilns. In 1530, a porce­lain colour-code was de­cided for the var­i­ous mau­soleums in the suburbs: blue colour for Huan­qiu, yel­low for Fangqiu, yel­low for the Tem­ple of Sun, and white for the Tem­ple of Moon. De­tails were also spec­i­fied for the place­ment and use of dif­fer­ent porce­lain items used dur­ing the ri­tu­als.

Size Ef­fects in Longqing’s Reign

Em­peror Longqing was clear-minded and le­nient. Dur­ing his reign, he res­o­lutely re­dressed the ills left by the for­mer reign and pun­ished way­ward Taoist priests. He ac­tively pro­moted clean gov­er­nance, land re­form, the re­form of the ser­vant sys­tem and open­ing-up of ports. He laid the foun­da­tion for the re­forms led by Zhang Juzheng in the early years of Wanli, an im­por­tant pe­riod in his­tory.

Em­peror Longqing's reign only lasted six years, so the Jingdezhen Im­pe­rial Fac­tory had a shorter pe­riod of time for mak­ing porce­lain as­so­ci­ated with his reign. None­the­less, the num­ber of porce­lain items made in the im­pe­rial kiln was large. As recorded in his­tory books, in 1571 alone, tens of thou­sands of bright red bowls, con­tain­ers and boxes were made.

The style of Longqing pe­riod blue and white porce­lain in­her­ited traits from the pre­vi­ous era. Ce­ramic pro­duc­tion at this time is marked by com­plex­ity and va­ri­ety. Squares, mul­ti­ple sides, mel­ons, and sil­ver in­gots shapes are com­mon. Hol­lowed- out pat­terns are ex­tremely ex­quis­ite. The Longqing blue- and­white dragon pat­terned pot is a rar­ity. It changed the com­mon prac­tice of plac­ing the han­dle on one side of the pot body. In­stead it has the han­dle on top of the pot like those found in the Song (AD 960– 1279) and Yuan ( 1271– 1368) dy­nas­ties.

How­ever, Longqing pot­tery does have cer­tain dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics. Green colour on Longqing pot­tery wares was still gen­er­ated us­ing a mix­ture of im­ported and lo­cal ma­te­ri­als, but with bet­ter ra­tios to pro­duce authen­tic colours used to de­pict clouds, drag­ons, phoenixes, mon­keys, pine deer, fish, lo­tus flow­ers and dolls in rich and aus­pi­cious scenes. Longqing blue and white porce­lain wares are of­ten in­scribed with writ­ings that record the year they were pro­duced. The Chi­nese char­ac­ters they used are slightly dif­fer­ent than those on porce­lain made in other reign pe­ri­ods, a de­tail that could be eas­ily over­looked.

Splen­dour in Wanli

Em­peror Wanli was the longestreign­ing em­peror in the Ming Dy­nasty. In the first decade of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, he fully sup­ported the cab­i­net's re­forms aimed at rec­ti­fy­ing servi­tude, which led to a pe­riod with po­lit­i­cal clar­ity and eco­nomic pros­per­ity. But soon, the Wanli em­peror coun­tered the pre­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal mea­sures, aban­doned re­forms and be­gan a 30-year pe­riod which plunged his em­pire into po­lit­i­cal stag­na­tion and so­cial up­heavals.

The Jingdezhen im­pe­rial kiln porce­lain was in­evitably af­fected by pol­i­tics. Its pro­duc­tion quan­tity in­creased but the qual­ity was com­pro­mised. The op­er­a­tion of the im­pe­rial fac­tory was also af­fected. In 1608, the im­pe­rial kiln stopped

op­er­a­tion. From then on, Jingdezhen porce­lain pro­duc­tion stepped into the "tran­si­tion pe­riod" of the de­cline of the im­pe­rial kiln and the pros­per­ity of the pri­vate kilns. The im­pe­rial kilns did not re­sume op­er­a­tion un­til the 20th year of Em­peror Kangxi (1681).

Wanli im­pe­rial kiln porce­lain's style and dec­o­ra­tions carry for­ward the styles from Ji­a­jing and Longqing pe­ri­ods. There are over 20 types, among which the most pop­u­lar are blue and white, mul­ti­coloured, egg­plant-pur­ple and yel­low and green glaze porce­lain. Com­pared with other types it made, the Wanli im­pe­rial kiln pro­duced lit­tle re­main­ing sin­gle-colour glazed porce­lain. While yel­low, egg­plant-pur­ple and blue glazes still dis­play the pure and el­e­gant char­ac­ter­is­tics of sin­gle-colour glaze wares, the shape and pro­duc­tion process do not show much in­no­va­tion. In­stead they fol­low the tra­di­tion of the Ji­a­jing and Longqing pe­ri­ods. In the ex­hi­bi­tion, the yel­low glaze bowl, the yel­low glaze cone base cloud dragon bowl, the pale pur­ple glaze bowl, and the blue glaze bowl are rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this era.

The tall, elab­o­rately-pat­terned blue-and-white plum bot­tle from the For­bid­den City, which was un­earthed from the Din­gling Mau­soleum, is a mas­ter­piece of Wanli im­pe­rial kiln blue and white porce­lain. The pro­duc­tion and fir­ing was a dif­fi­cult af­fair. It utilised a mix­ture of im­ported and lo­cal ma­te­ri­als, such as green ma­te­rial pro­duced in Zhe­jiang. The blue and white porce­lain or­na­mented by this kind of Zhe­jiang ma­te­rial has a grey tinge in the blue, is gen­tle and peace­ful, calm and stable.

It is not as brightly coloured as in some kinds of ceram­ics, but the new colour brings new feel­ings.

A typ­i­cal im­pe­rial kiln blue-and­white porce­lain of Em­peror Wanli's reign is gen­er­ally out­lined with a thick colouring agent and filled in with lighter coloured ma­te­ri­als. The Wanli em­peror also be­lieved in Tao­ism, so the porce­lain was of course af­fected by this. Dec­o­ra­tive mo­tifs of the Eight Im­mor­tals, Laozi preach­ing, longevity, bless­ing and aus­pi­cious­ness were pop­u­lar. Wanli kilns also learned to re­pro­duce the china from pre­vi­ous pe­ri­ods, mainly from the Yide and Chenghua im­pe­rial kilns. Their styling, or­na­men­ta­tion and styles are all imi­ta­tion. Their only dif­fer­ences are in shape, dec­o­ra­tion and the time when they were made.

Wanli porce­lain is also gor­geously coloured. In this pe­riod, although there were many styles such as red and green porce­lain, the most fa­mous is five­colour porce­lain. Most of the small items of this type are neatly-shaped and finely dec­o­rated, while the large-sized ob­jects are slightly ir­reg­u­lar in shape and their bod­ies are less neatly made.

Wanli mul­ti­coloured porce­lain uses blue and white to make par­tial sketches and a rich colouring agent for over­all bod­ies. The “open­ing” tech­nique adds vi­tal­ity to the colours. The hol­low­ing process is com­monly used in bot­tles, boxes and other uten­sils and in high­light­ing the main pat­tern. The tech­nique of sculp­ture is mostly used for char­ac­ters, an­i­mals, rocks and other im­ages. A Wanli blue-and-white pen holder and the Wanli blue-and-white rec­tan­gle box in the ex­hi­bi­tion of­fer the pub­lic a glimpse of the craft level at this time.

Com­pared with the pre­vi­ously ex­hib­ited Ji­a­jing kiln mul­ti­coloured porce­lain, Wanli mul­ti­coloured porce­lain is sim­pler, with a more ca­sual com­po­si­tion. The com­bi­na­tion of blue and white and the glaze is not per­fect, but the less rig­or­ous ar­range­ment is prob­a­bly the most dis­tinc­tive trait of Wanli china. The yel­low based mul­ti­coloured plate in the ex­hi­bi­tion, the colour­ful pav­il­ion fig­ure plate, and the Wanli cricket holder are per­fect ex­am­ples of the artis­tic achieve­ments of that pe­riod. Un­doubt­edly, this splen­dour re­flected the rapid de­vel­op­ment of com­merce in the mid­dle part of the Ming Dy­nasty, the pur­suit of pros­per­ity, van­ity and ex­otic things. This style not only af­fected the pro­duc­tion of coloured porce­lains in later gen­er­a­tions, but also af­fected the col­lec­tion and imi­ta­tion of Chi­nese porce­lain in over­seas coun­tries.

Re­pro­duc­tions of Wanli china come in three types. One type is a new piece which re­pro­duces all as­pects of the orig­i­nal, in­clud­ing shape, or­na­men­ta­tion, and style. The sec­ond is a new piece based on pat­terns and styles used in the past. The third is sim­ply a pre-ex­ist­ing item with ad­di­tional de­signs added. There is a great abun­dance of re­pro­duc­tion of Wanli china in later gen­er­a­tions in ev­ery types of glaze. Po­ten­tial buy­ers must look at styling, or­na­men­ta­tion, glaze and in­scrip­tions to as­cer­tain the true age of the re­pro­duc­tion.

Pho­tos by Qu Bowei

A blue-glazed cup with three legs that was pro­duced dur­ing the Ji­a­jing pe­riod (1522–1566)

A colour­ful plate dec­o­rated with a pav­il­ion and flow­ers pat­tern that was pro­duced dur­ing the Wanli pe­riod (1572–1620)

A colour­ful cricket holder dec­o­rated with drag­ons, clouds and sea wa­ter pat­terns that was pro­duced dur­ing the Wanli pe­riod (1572–1620)

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