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Ming Porcelain


Emergence of Jingdezhen as porcelain production capital

During the Ming Dynasty Jingdezhen firmly established itself as the porcelain production capital of China.  The official kiln was established during the Hongwu period.  The officiall kiln monopolised the best raw material and manpower to produce porcelain for the palace.  Porcelain bearing reign mark was first introduced during the Yongle Period.  Blue and white which first appeared during the Yuan Dynasty was further developed and became the dominant product.   The best blue and whites were produced during the Yongle and Xuande period using imported cobalt. 

Overglaze enamelled (wucai) decoration was improved upon with the finest called Doucai being  produced during the Chenghua period.   Doucai is characterised by the motif being outline in underglaze blue and the interior filled with overglazed enamels.  

Underglaze and monochrome red also saw further development during the Hongwu to Xuande Period.  

During the reign of Jiajing, the official kiln on its own was unable to cater to the huge demand of porcelains of the palace.  A system called guan da Min shao 官搭民烧(government order people fire) was implemented.  Selected commercial kilns were roped in to complete majority of the palace order at a low price. The official kiln essentially ceased production by the Wanli period. Some ceramics scholars however think that a very small number was still produced by official kiln during the Tianqi and Chongzhen period.

For a more detailed discussion on imperial porcelain production, please read this article.

Private kilns blue and white also became very popular in both domestic and export market.  To get an overview of non-imperial minyao blue and white, please read this article.  To learn even more, especially on dating and authenticating blue and white, please explore this section on folk kiln (minyao) Ming blue and white.

Beside Jingdezhen, Yunnan is another region in China which produced blue and white since the early Ming period.  To find out more, please read this article.

Export porcelains

During the early Ming period, private trades with foreigners were banned. The only permitted channel of trade with foreigners was through the tribute system.  Severe punishment was meted out on those engaged in illegal smuggling activities with foreigners.  The impact of the ban was great.  Only small number of export porcelains from the late 14th/15th century were found in Southeast Asia which was once an important oversea market.  Thailand and Vietnam made use of the opportunity to fill the demand.  This was the golden period for ceramics from the two countries.  Many Thai celadon and iron painted wares and Vietnamese blue and white of this period were excavated in Southeast Asia.

Emperor Longqing lifted the foreign trade ban in 1567 A.D.  China recaptured the overseas market for porcelains. A significant development was the emergence of demand for blue and white in the European market during the Jiajing period.  Some examples of Jiajing blue and white could be found in the San Sebastian shipwreck.  The motifs used in those export items were essentially similar to those for the domestic market.  The ever increasing demand spurred development of the folk kilns in Jingdezhen.  During the Wanli period, blue and white termed kraak wares with customised European design was introduced.  The bowls, cups and saucers/chargers are mainly in press-moulded form.  The design is characterised by a central motif on the interior base and paneled floral/fauna motifs on the interior wall.  Some good examples of kraak porcelains could be found in the Wanli San Diego shipwreck cargo recovered near Manila in Philippines. 


Export wares from Fujian Zhangzhou and Dehua

Overseas demand for blue and white was great during the late Ming period.  Jingdezhen by itself was unable to meet the demand of the overseas customers.  Many kilns located near the coastal ports in China also capitalised on the market demand and produced blue and white.  The most important centre was located in Zhangzhou which produced blue and white and enameled wares which was termed Swatow wares.  For more regarding Zhangzhou wares, please read this article.

Dehua rose to prominent during the late Ming period. It exported a large varieties of wares commonly termed Blanc de chine: cups, censers, gu-vases, ewers, bowls, large plates, lamp, seated lions, figurines. Blanc de chine wares have a silky ivory white tone and the porcelain is translucent.  In these aspects, they were different from the early Song/Yuan Dehua wares with the yellowish white glaze.  Dehua potters introduced the blanc de chine wares during the 16th century firstly mainly for the Southeast Asian market.  During the 17th/18th century, many Dehua blanc de chine were exported to Europe.  Dehua ivory colour tone blanc de chine received considerable favouable responses in Europe and were widely collected by royal families and nobles.  


Longquan celadon wares

Longquan celadon wares which was one of the most important export porcelains during the Song/Yuan period continued to be produced but on a much reduced scale. The imposition of foreign trade ban during the Hongwu period was a severe blow and may have been a key factor for the decline of Longquan kilns.  Despite the trade ban, during the early/mid Ming period, some porcelains were smuggled overseas.  But Jingdezhen blue and white constituted the main items.  This is evident in the shipwreck Lenga cargo found in the Palawan straits in Philippines.  The cargo constituted mainly of Jingdezhen blue and white. Only a small numbers of Longquan celadon wares, mainly big plates and jarlets were among the finds. 

With the lost of overseas market, a smaller numbers of Longquan wares continued to be produced for domestic consumption.  The quality of the products deteriorated.   It did not regain its position as  an important export ware when the trade ban was lifted during Ming Longqing period.

Cizhou wares

Cizhou wares from Northern China continued to be popular but was mainly produced for domestic consumption.  However, a small number  found their way to foreign lands. Some of them could be seen in the Indonesia Jakarta museum.  


The main production centres were in Hebei Handan Pengcheng (彭城), Henan Yuzhou (禹州and Shanxi province.  The most common decorative technique is underglaze iron black and/or iron brown motif.  On pots, jars and vases, the main motifs are usually depicted within several windows separated by floral scrolls or cloud-like spirals  The motifs are executed using calligraphic like strokes.  Visually they appear spontaneous, lively and vigorous.    




Henan Yuzhou also produced those with iron black motif with a torquoise glaze.  Some of the motifs used by the Cizhou potters were similar to those produced in Jingdezhen.  For example, compare motif in the below meipings.  


There were also those decorated with overglaze green/red enamelled motif. 

Shanxi kilns produced many jars decorated using the sgraffito method.  The motif is first incised on the glazed body, followed by the area outside the motif being scrapped away.  This creates an embossed motif effect.  


written  by :  NK Koh  (21 Sep 2009)

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