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.
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.
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)