Qianjiang Ceramics Painting-  A Gem of Late Qing Period

Qianjiang ceramics painting is a term used to describe a type of over glaze enamelled ware which was very popular during the Late Qing/Early Republican Period.  The term Qianjiang cai (enamels) or Qianjiang porcelain was only coined in the 1950s.  Prior to that, annals or commentaries in late Qing and Republican period did not classify it as a new type of over-glaze enamel technique on porcelain. 

The term Qianjiang was initially used to describe the type of “浅洚山水 landscape painting by Yuan master literati painter Huang Gongwang.  It is typified by use of a particular colour scheme: varying ink tone for outline, mass, shaded area of mountain/ tree trunk and reddish-brown for other aspects such as the foliage, water and the lighted area of the mountain.  The term was subsequently used to describe porcelain painting (inclusive of  all subjects such as  landscape, human figures, bird/floral) which used similar colour scheme but with additional colour such as  aquamarine, moss green, pale blue and light pink.

A typical early Qianjiang work applied thinner enamels and used light tone colours.  Due to its subdued colour tones, visually the painting has a quiet and delicate feeling.  These are distinctive features of the literati school of paintings.   In fact, those initial works were done by a small circle of cultivated artists who were well-versed in Chinese literature and highly skilled painters and calligraphers.  The pioneers include Cheng Men,Jin Pin Qing and Wang Shao Wei who had worked in the imperial kiln.   Such qianjiang porcelains were probably initially produced for the gentry’s class. 

Landscape by Cheng Men

Landscape by Jin Pin Qing

Landscape by Wang Shao Wei

Work by Wang Zhang (汪章)

To cater to a wider market including the wealthy merchant class and common folks, the colour scheme gradually evolved and changed to satisfy their taste, sensibility and preference.   Aesthetically, the common folks appreciate more vibrant colours which convey a gaiety, vibrancy and sense of well-being.  Hence, the later Qianjiang porcelains used stronger colours to meet the artistic preference of the new consumer group. 

Qianjiang painting of Object of Antiquity by Xu Pin Heng (许品衡)

There are ‘purists” who argue that such works should not be classified as Qianjiang and view them as fencai work.  In fact, such latter works shared the same root as earlier Qianjiang work in terms of the execution technique, enamels and the composition.  To exclude such works would miss the very essence of this genre of decorative art. The most important contribution of the Qianjiang artists is the introduction of literati style painting on porcelain medium.  On most works, the composition incorporate calligraphic inscription/poem and seal marks.  The work is the creative effort of a single artist whereas those traditional fencai and wucai (famille verte) works were the result of division of labour.  It has resulted in the subsequent change of perception and the recognition that the potters are not just craftsmen.  It is no exaggeration that such form of ceramic painting has further enriched Chinese painting as an art form.

Both Qianjiang and fencai work use fencai enamels.  Qianjiang artist however made the following technical changes during the application of the enamels:

The earliest piece of Qianjiang porcelain was initially thought to be a teapot decorated with Qianjiang style landscape and dated to 1855, the 5th year of Xianfeng.  It was drawn by Cheng Men and his second son Cheng  Rong.   However, according to Mr Xiong Zhong Rong in his book Qianyitang Cangci (谦益堂藏瓷), the teapot should be dated 1879 and not 1855.  It was the mis-reading of the cyclical date.  Furthermore, according to his research, in 1855 Cheng Meng was 21 years old. Hence, even if his son Cheng Rong was born, he would be too young to master the painting skill.   It was also the year that the Taiping rebels captured Jiangxi and destroyed and burnt the imperial kiln complex in Jingdezhen.  The rebels occupied Jingdezhen for 7 years and porcelain production was severely disrupted during this period. Many of the potters could have perished or left Jingdezhen to seek a livelihood elsewhere.   Porcelains produced are generally of poorer quality and the volume was low. 

The pioneers of Qianjiang paintings are Cheng Men,Jin Pin Qing and Wang Shao Wei.  Jin and Wang worked for the imperial factory during the reign of Tongzhi and Guangxu eras.   In fact recent materials uncovered also indicated that Cheng Men had also worked in the Imperial kiln. During the initial phase till about 1885 (10th year of Guangxu), Qianjiang porcelains were only produced by a small circle of cultivated artists who were well-versed in Chinese literature and highly skilled painters and calligraphers. The production was probably of a small scale and intended for a specialised group of consumers, mainly those from the gentry’s class. In fact, it is difficult to find works which are dated before 1885.  (This demarcation was suggested in an article by a Chinese Qianjiang collector, Mr Zhao Rong Hua.  This is very much in line with my observation of pieces belonging to myself and fellow collectors in Singapore.).  Most of the pieces during this period were executed with light tone enamels (mainly black, brown, blue, moss green, aquamarine and with spare use of light pink) which are powdery in appearance.  They are pure Qianjiang paintings, visually soft, subdued and pleasing to the eyes. 

The peak period of Qianjiang porcelains production was from 1885 to about 1911.  The pool of Qianjiang artists was enlarged by a maturing group of new entrants trained by the pioneers.  The increased production was easily absorbed by growing demand from an emerging group of affluent consumers.  They have benefited from an economy which has recovered after the suppression of the Taiping, Nian, Muslim and other regional rebellions, and improvement measures taken during the Tongzhi restoration were showing their effects.  Many of the work especially those with birds/flower and human figures were clearly influenced by paintings of artists stationed in Shanghai, which has evolved into a cultural and commercial centre after it was opened up for foreign trade.  The works of the artists in Shanghai, such as Ren Yi, Ren Xiong and Wu Changshuo were popular and in high demand.  This school is given the name Hai pai (海派), i.e. Shanghia style. Hence, it is not surprising that their styles were copied to enhance the appeal of the porcelains to the consumers.  The style of Qianjiang paintings during this period is characterised by more vibrant, stronger and deeper colour tone. This is especially evident in the depiction of birds and flowers.




Work by Fang Jiazhen (方家珍)


Examples with the Hai Pai style of drawing

Landscape by Wang You Tang (汪友堂)

From about 1911 increasing number of Qianjiang style paintings used enamels which are essentially a new enamels termed foreign colours (yang cai [洋彩]).  The design using yang cai can be painted directly on vessel just like water colour on paper.   The pigments are synthetic materials whose colorants include metal oxides and silicates.  Range of colour available is wide.  More intermediate shades can be obtained by blending the existing colour.   The enamels are thin and colour more even.  Nowadays, such enamels is more commonly called Shui Cai (水彩).

An example using Shui cai

As the composition of such Shui cai works is similar to earlier Qianjiang works, some collectors have mistaken them to be Qianjiang.  This is stretching the definition of Qianjiang too far as the enamels used is totally different


The Imperial Kiln Connection

Two Qianjiang pioneers, Jin Pin Qing and Wang Shaowei had worked in the imperial kiln.  This is convincingly established by Mr Liu Xinyuan  in the book "Brush and Clay" by Simon Kwan.  Mr Liu interview Li Qi, a descendant of Li Yingzhou who headed the imperial factory in the Tongzhi period. Jing and Wang were than known as the "two brushes of the imperial factory".   One of the known work by Jin indicated that it was painted at Huan Cui Pavalion (环翠亭) and another by Wang done at Bangong garden (半弓园), both located within the imperial factory compound.

Some extant works by other Qianjiang artists also indicated they were done at "珠山官廨" or "珠山官舍" i.e. Zhushan government factory or dormitory.  Another interesting observation is a group of qianjiang pieces with the mark "官窑内造", i.e. "Guan Yao Nei Zao" literally means made within the imperial kiln.    This may be a marketing strategy by the imperial kiln artists to differentiate their products.  Generally those with this mark are of good quality. 

An example with Guanyao Neizao (官窑内造)mark 

Video of Selected Qianjiang work from my Collection

Selection of my Qianjiang porcelains

Posted by Koh Nai King on Monday, February 20, 2017

Written by: NK Koh  (Updated: 23 Feb 2017)