Chapter X Porcelain of Ming Dynasty

Ming Dynasty lasted for 267 years (1368-1644). The first emperor still used Jingdezhen as the kiln for the royal court. The kiln formed its own style and brought the art of porcelain into a new sphere.

Blue and white was the main product of Jingdezhen in Ming Dynasty. There were more varieties of blue colorant, such as imported smalt, domestic “Hui Blue”, “Pingdeng Blue” and “Shizi Blue”. There were new glazes as well, sweet white, sky red, sky blue, tender yellow for instance. All these made it possible to paint over the glazes, and there was also the blend of underglazed blue and white with glaze of other colors. Porcelain became one of the most important revenues of the state and in Ming porcelain export came to a new high.


From this chapter on, we shall go into different historic period, since we have more knowledge than the dynasties before.
Section I   Porcelain of Hongwu Period
Hongwu is the reign title of the first emperor of Ming, who ruled for 30 years from 1368-1398. Porcelain production in this period was at a low ebb. However, two types of porcelain were passed down from this period: blue and white and underglazed red.
1.   Blue and White: The colorant used in this period was domestically made, which had little ferric containt and looked a bit greyish; its inner body was white, coarse, had holes and cracks; the glaze was thicker, there was accumulated glaze on some of the round openings; flowers were the main patterns, however, there were also dragons with three or four claws and occasionally one with five claws; most of them were plates, bowls and jars. Aside from Jade Pot/Spring Vase and big bowls whose opening was 20 cm in diameter, the stand of the rest was not glazed.
2.   Underglazed Red: The technique matured in Hongwu Period. Patterns were drawn directly with the red in lines. There were more underglazed red than blue and white in this period. Aside from wine pots, Jade Pot/Spring Vase and big bowls with 20 cm diameter openings, the stand of all the rest was not glazed. Flowers, flat    chrysanthemum mostly, were its patterns, there were also peony with interlocking branches, peony with bending branches, lotus with entwined stalks. Chrysanthemum with twisting branches was one of the most important features in underglazed red porcelain of Hongwu Period. Occasionally, there were also designs of bamboo,
pine and plum, courtyard and flying pheonix.
 A plate in underglazed red of Hongwu Period
Section II   Porcelain of Yongle Period
Yongle Period began in 1403 and ended in 1424, duirng which period, blue and white was at its best. Zheng He who made seven voyages on the oceans brought back smalt, a colorant for making blue and white.
  Flower watering pot, a new kind of product.
1.   Blue and White: The color was very fresh owing to smalt, but there were black crystal dots, and bubbles in the glaze. Aside from traditional varieties, there came the following new products in this period: big vase in the shape of a ball, flat pot with one side that had patterns, flat gourd pot, flower watering pot, jars with two, three and four handles, food vessel with high stand and lid. These new products were copies of gold and silver wares of West Asia and therefore of strong foreign style. One important feature was that the stand of most products was glazed and the bottom was white and refined, the patterns were in double lines, not as dense as before, a small amount had such characters of “made in Yongle Period”, most products didn’t have such an inscription.
               Yongle Flat Wine Pot                       Yongle Blue & White Plum Pot
2.   Sweet White Glaze: It was actually transparent glaze that was applied onto white inner bodies. Those had thin inner body and muted design were considered the best. Most of them have in seal script “Made in Yongle Period” at the bottom of the wares.
    Both are examples of Yongle sweet White Glazed Water Pots
3.   Wares in Fresh Red: Such red glaze was made from copper by high temperature reducing atmosphere. Wares in fresh red were often used at sacrificial ceremonies. It was also called ruby red, different from Jun Kiln red, which was somewhat purple and burnt twice. Fresh red was most difficult to burn, so it has been referred to as “an art of fire.”   This picture is a representative of Yongle Fresh Red, its inner wall is white and the exterior is freshly red in the bottom of the inner wall, there is an inscription of “Made in ”Yongle Period.
Section III   Porcelain of Xuande Period
Even though Xuande period was short lived, it occupies a very important place in China’s history of porcelain. Ming porcelain reached its climax at this period. Except blue and white, underglazed red, blue and white with underglazed red, there came above glazed red, above glazed five colors; above-glazed red with blue and white and above-glazed yellow with blue and white, above-glazed five-colors with blue and white.
1.   Blue and White: Blue and white of Xuande period has been regarded the champion, owing to mainly the colorant—imported smalt, which has a higher ferric content that caused some black spots, which fits into the fresh blue very well and is almost impossible to immitate. The inner body is heavier than those of Yongle period; the glaze is a bit rugged like orange peel, and if you look at it under a powerful magnifying glass, you would see big and small bubbles. It should be noted that almost all kinds of porcelain produced in Xuande period had such a glazed surface.
2.   Underglazed Red: Being a most successful product, its patterns were painted as a whole, not in lines as in Yongle period. Patterns that were used frequently were clouds and dragon, three-fish and     three-fruits. More bowls with higher stand were produced, especially those with red fish on the inside white glaze were most known. One striking feature of Xuande porcelain was its inscriptions, which were not only at its bottom, but on other places like the opening and the shoulders as well.
3.   Ruby Red: This was one of the representative works of Xuande period, which was in four grades: dark red, thick and fresh red, shallow and glittering red and pale and pink red. The edge of all openings of all ruby red porcelain of Xuande was greyish white. Ruby red pot in the shape of a monk’s hat was at its best.
    A Ruby Red Bowl of Xuande Period
4.   Blue and White with Other Colors: Blue and white with aboveglazed red, yellow, green and other colors came into being in the Xuande period, which were burnt twice with high and low temperatures. Blue and white with above-glazed red was mainly in the form of cups, the high stand cup of ocean animal design was well known; the most famous blue and white with yellow and green above-glaze was a plate of patterns of fish; blue and white with five colors, which were, beside blue, red, yellow, green and purple, which were made by two ways: one was to apply colors after contour was drawn with blue colorant under glaze; the other was to apply colors after contour was carved under glaze. The former later developed into blending of glazes in the Chenghua period while the latter became “five colors” in both Jiajing and Wanli periods.
5.   The Development of Blue Glaze: The blue glazing technique was so refind that it could produced colors like different grades of sapphire, both deep and sallow blues. The blue in some cases was glazed on both the interior and the exterior, in some cases, the exterior was blue and interior white, in other cases, the interior was white the exterior was blue with white flowers, there were also cases when the raised parts on the exterior were white the rest was blue. In all these cases, the edge of the opening was white. There were two kinds of inscriptions on the blue wares used for sacrifices: “made in Xuande Period of Ming” in regular script in writing and in muted carving.
Section IV   Porcelain in the “Blank Period” of Ming
There have been almost no porcelain products bearing the inscriptions of Zhengtong, Jingtai and Tianshu periods. What we can see are those produced in these three periods by civilian kilns, therefore these three periods have been referred to as a “blank period.” Wares with hastate handles and separate stand came into being during this period.

One striking feature is that the stand became wide. Most flower patterns have twining branches and signle branch as well; kylin and rhinoceros appeared in patterns of animals; plucking music instrument, chess, book and paintings, terraces and pavillions appeared on big jars. No products made by official kilns have been found for this period.





A ware with hastate handles.


Section V   Porcelain of Chenghua Period
Despite the corrupt politics in the Chenghua Period (1465-1487), the production of porcelain at Jingdezhen was splendid, in particular the blending of blue and white with other colors above glaze, which was an epoch making pioneering undertaking.
1.   Blue and White: There have been very few big pieces of blue and white in this period. They had white glaze, which looked like condensed fat; thin inner body that was half transparent, something later generations could hardly immitate.The patterns were drawn in double lines; the glaze was pale and graceful in sharp contrast to those of Yongle and Xuande periods. The pattern of flowers was in round groups; dragon that had a single foot also made its appearance in porcelain of this period. Most stands were glazed, those without glaze were in brownish yellow and of find quality. The glaze of civilian produts was also in pale colors. 
 A high stand blue and white cup of Chenghua Period
2.  Underglazed Red: There were not many wares in underglazed red at this period. Bowls with a pattern of three fish in underglazed red have been passed on, but the tail of these fish became wider; a vase with nine dragons in different pose is a rare treasure. The inscription has six words: made in Chenghua Period of Ming.
3.   A Blend of Under-glazed Blue and White with Colored Glaze: This kind of glaze is called “dòu ci” in Chinese, “dòu” means to fight, because there are quite a number of colors, each is fighting with other colors to see which is bright and vivid—that’s what it means in the Chinese name. The quality of “Dou Cai” porcelain has been most remarkable. The inner body is as thin as the wing of cicada and the color of the glaze is refreshingly pale. “Dou Cai” wares look elegant and delicate. Aside from its fresh colors, they are generally speaking in small sizes. The largest jar is only 13 cm while Xuande blue and white jars are normally 60cm in height. The largest cup with high stand of Chenghua period has a 7.7 cm diameter of its opening while the diameter of Xuande cup are all more than 13 cm. Patterns of chickken, flowers, grass, butterflies, grapes, palying babies and maids were most commonly used.
         A Chenghua Period Cup in “Dou Cai.”
4.   Thin Porcelain of Chenghua: The inner body is even thinner than an egg shell, it was made by over 100 working procedures. Because it is difficult to make, to keep, it is most rare and of highest value.
Section VI   Porcelain of Hongzhi Period
The products of this period was a continuation from Chenghua Period, the only uniqueness was the dainty yellow glaze, which was burnt for the second time after yellow glaze was applied on the blue and white. Yellow became an exclusive imperial color, for all monarchs worshipped land, which had been regarded a symbol of state power, the color of land had been yellow. The yellow glazed porcelain in the Ming Dynasty was used for sacrificial purposes, and in the later Qing Dynasty, it was used for display and daily necessities. It should be noted that in the imperial court, only the emperor, his mother and wife could use porcelain glazed entirely with yellow, the esterior of wares used by the most favored concubines was yellow while the inside was white while wares used by other concubines green glazed with yellow background. Most wares of dainty yellow glaze were jars, plates and bowls. Three kinds of jars of yellow glaze have been collected by Beijing Palace Museum—a double handle jar, a jar in the shape of an ox and a jar without handles. Because Emperor Xiaozong was a vegetarian, the porcelain he used was all in plain colors.
     A double handle jar with yellow glaze
Section VII Porcelain of Zhengde Period
This period, lasted only for 16 years from 1506 to 1521, saw an increase of larger wares. The striking feature of Zhengde blue and white is that there were more and more inscriptions in Arabic, mostly quotations from the Koran. There always space left on vases, pen-holders, jars and plates to be filled by Arabic quotations. People thought that such an occurance was caused by one concubine of the emperor who believed in Islam. New forms of wares such as backless and legless seat, pen-holders, sets of casing, vase for cutflowers and octangnol jars came into being. This period has been famous for its bowl—“Zhengde Bowl” whose radian measure of its wall is big as in the following picture:
The peacock green glaze, which was first used in the Song Dynasty, was at its best in this period; because Emperor Wuzong believed in Islam, a lot Islamic patterns were adopted on porcelain wares.
Section VIII   Porcelain of Jiajing Period
This period lasted for 45 years. Emperor Shizong believed in Taoism and paid very little attention to the government. During this period over 600,000 pieces of porcelain were produced by the official kilns.
1.   Blue and White: its background color was purple and green and gave out strong and passionate feelings. Pine, deer, crane and glossy gannoderma were common themes in the patterns.
2.   Five Colors: This is what Jiajing period has been most famous of. Blue and white was no longer the main tone, instead, red and other strong colors like yellow, green, purple and peacock blue became key players.
      A Five Color Jar with Fish Patterns and a Lid
3.   Assignment on Civilian Kilns: Since the 16th century, some porcelain for imperial use, was assigned to civilian kilns. The fact shows that the technical level of civilian kilns was upgraded. Sunflower, cloud and crane, fish, tree and stone, playing baby and animals were often seen in the patterns. Most of them bore such inscriptions: made in the Great Ming.
4.   Emperor Jiajing and Porcelain with Taoist Patterns: One striking feature of porcelain of this period was the Taoist style. Sacrificial vessels were big—big jars, big wine vessels, big vase, big bowls and big plates. So was the patterns—the eight immortals, eight diagrams, lotus and so on.
Section IX   Porcelain of Longqing Period
Nothing particular about this period, which existed only six years, which produced blue and white, blue and white with yellow, red, sweet white, white with red, yellow, blue and white with five colors.
Section X   Porcelain of Wanli Period
Wanli Period started from 1573 and ended in 1620. The year 1607 was a demarcation line, before that year production of porcelain in official kilns was in a big scale, and after that year the production began to decline.
1.   Blue and White: We are now able to see a great amount of blue and white produced in this period by both official and civilian kilns, some new forms came into being, for instance, vase in the shape of an onion, hanging vase (on the wall or in a sedan), shaft of a brush pen, a brush pen in the shape of a boat, plate in the shape of lotus petals.
2.   Wanli Five Colors: There were three varieties: one, underglazed blue and white with yellow, green and red over glaze; two, yellow, green, purple and red over glaze of blue and white and the patterns were drawn with dark brown lines; three, colors painted directly on glaze. Features are: (1) inner body is thicker and heavier; (2) the surface of glaze is white and glittering; (3) there is sharp contrast between colors, for instance, between red and green; (4) there are spaces left for patterns and hollowing out techniques; (5) the painting skill seems infantile.
3.   Wanli Three Colors: The colors were painted directly onto the inner body, those in yellow glaze was with green and purple, seemed heavy and dull; there were also those with white dragon patterns as well.
4.   Porcelain Dragon Vats Produced in the Jiajing Period and were Buried with Emperor Wanli: Among Ming Tombs, Ding Tomb was the one that burried Emperor Wanli—Zhu Yijun. Three blue and white vats were excavated from the tomb, the diameter is 70cm for each of them, the pattern is of clouds and dragon and the blue and white glaze is still quite fresh. Yet, these vats were produced in the Jiajing period, not Wanli. Why, because before the death of Emperor Wanli, the workers at Jingdezhen were on strike and there wasn’t enough time to have the vats finished in time for the funeral.
5.   Clark Porcelain: The term refers to, in general, porcelain for export in this period, which included plates, bowls, vases and “Junchi” pot for hand-washing, it was named after a Portugese boat, which was captured in 1603 by the Netherland army at Malacca Straits and carried 60 tons of Chinese porcelain. One striking feature of this kind of porcelain was its design, mostly flowers, with 8 or 6 open spaces, each was in the shape of a fan, for separate patterns.
   A sample of Clark Porcelain
Section XI Porcelain of Tianqi and Chongzhen Periods
Ming Dynasty began going downhill from Tianqi Period. More smaller pieces were produced by the official kilns in Tianqi period. From what have been passed down to us from Chongzhen Period, nothing produced by the official kilns could be found. Shanghai Museum and Palace Museum in Beijing collected blue and white with five colors produced by civilian kilns in Chongzhen Period. The patterns were often mountain and water, figurines, rabbits, flying birds, peach and other fruits. There is an inscription—“peace under heaven” in seal script on the bottom.


Ming Blue & White Spring Vase


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