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Yunnan (Yuxi )Blue and white

Yunnan blue and white was first discovered in 1960 in an ancient kiln site at Yuxi (玉溪) wayao village. Since then, many blue and white wares, especially large jars were excavated from Yunnan ancient cremation burial sites .  Archaeological excavations revealed that the kiln sites are mainly located in the following regions:

Yuxi and Jian shui (建水) are approximately 50 km apart.  The kilns produced celadon, celadon with iron brown motif  and blue and white.  Blue and white wares consist of mainly  jar, vases, censers, bowls, and plates.

More extensive excavation were carried out in 1993 to 1995 in Fenyi shizi village ancient kiln site.  Produced mainly celadon and blue and white wares, consisting bowls and plates and smaller quantity of jars/vases/figurines. Also some quantity of pottery consisting of bowls, plates, jars/ vases and figurines). 

Interestingly in this area, many large blue and white jars were recovered from the cremation burial sites

Most ceramics experts from Yunnan are of the view that porcelain production were first introduced during the late Song period .  Celadon wares were first produced, followed by blue and white wares.  They are of the view that Yunnan blue and white using local cobalt first appeared in late Yuan period.  In fact, a term "Qing You Qing hua (青釉青花)", which literally means celadon glaze blue motif, was used to describe the the blue and white wares.  This is because the glaze is visually of a light grayish green/yellow tone. Basically those from Yuxi, Jianshui and Lu Feng are of better quality and share common characteristics in terms of glaze/paste, shape, design and manufacturing techniques.  As Yuxi was the first location to discover the blue and white wares of Yunnan,  in the ceramics circle, they were termed as Yuxi blue and white.  

The Yunnan potters started producing porcelain at least 1000 years later than those in other regions in China.   It is suggested that two waves of migration of people from Central China to the Yunnan region resulted in the introduction of more advance agricultural and production (including porcelain) techniques.  Yunnan is surrounded by mountainous terrains and remained a separate kingdom until it was conquered by the army of Kublai khan. The second wave was during the Ming Hongwu period when more than 500,000 people migrated to Yunnan mainly to cultivate the land.  An evidence of possible potters among the migrants was a stone tablet erected  to eulogize the virtues of rebuilding of the Ci en temple in Jianshui.  The content  mentioned a craftsman from Jingdezhen  with the surname of Che setting up a factory there.  It is interesting to note that many of the early Yunnan blue and white showed more distinct influence of style of the Hongwu than Yuan period.

Yunnan Blue and white production ceased in late Ming.  From mid Ming onward, Jingdezhen blue and white were produced in large quantity and imported to Yunnan.  As they were of better quality and reason price, they adversely affected the sale of the local counterpart and subsequently totally displaced them. Similar fate befallen the Annamese blue and whites which dominated the foreign market of Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and middle east during the 15th century.  During the early 15th century, the Vietnamese capitalised on the maritime prohibition policy of the early Ming emperors and became the major producer to fill the vacuum for the overseas supply of blue and white wares.  

The relationship between Annamese and Yunnan blue and white is an unresolved and much debated topic.  Stylistically, the motifs shared certain degree of similarity. Even the application of a brown slip on the base commonly found on Annamese wares is also sometime found on Yunnan celadon and blue and white. The Chinese experts are of the view that the Vietnamese potters copied the Yunnan blue and white decorations.  The argument put forward was based on the comparison of their respective earliest datable blue and white found.  The earliest dated piece of Annamese blue and white was a Yuan style motif and Ming shaped tianqiu vase (1450) in Topkapi museum.  As for the Chinese source, at least two jars  discovered  in cremation burial sites were attributed to "9th year of Xuanguan" ie equivalent to 12th year of Ming Hongwu (1380) and "4th year of Xuande" ie 1429 respectively.  The first date is more widely disputed as the burial site was badly disturbed.  The second blue and white jar with floral/lion motif was found in a grave  near another grave with the "4th year of xuande on the tomb stone". As the surrounding area was not disturbed, the dating is believed to be reliable.   Based on current datable pieces, it is therefore suggested that the Yunnan potters started producing the blue and white earlier.  Hence,  logically chronological evidence favours the argument that it influenced the Annamese counterpart.  

The western ceramics experts generally hold the opposite view.  They noted that the early Annamese blue and white copied the Yuan motif more faithfully and also used imported cobalt. Based on stylistic comparison, some of those pieces were attributed a late Yuan dating.  In the case of the earliest Yunnan pieces, some big jars which are attributed to late Yuan showed characteristics of early Ming blue and white/copper red.  John Guy reported that there is possible evidence of an even earlier example featuring sketchy flower on a blue and white bowl fragment found in Ryukyus.  It could have found its way there as early as 1363 but not later than 1416.  A similar one but with iron brown flower motif with a positive dating of 1330 was found in Japan. Besides imported cobalt, Annamese potters used mainly Yunnan cobalt on many of the blue and white wares.  This pointed to clear evidence of mutual contact and the possibility of exchange of ideas.  The issue of "who influence who" will remain unresolved until more concrete and datable evidence surface.


The motifs on Yunnan blue and white are executed essentially using calligraphic strokes.   The composition is a continuation of the multi-layered decorative scheme typical of Yuan period.   The motifs consisted of mainly floral, phoenix, fish, lion and human motif. The vessels consisted of mainly bowls, plates, jars , vases and censers.  Some blue and white pieces also featured additional decorative techniques, such as incising on part of the blue and white motif and/or applique motif such as those of the 8 immortals.


Early Yunnan Ming blue and white with phoenix/floral motif

Early Yunnan Ming blue and white with fishes/ducks in pond motif

 Yunnan Early Ming blue and white bowl with floral motif

Yunnan Ming blue and white with foral motif


The people of Yunnan were mainly Buddhists and practiced cremation of the deceased. Big jars were used to deposit the cremated remains.  The number of big jars excavated from Yunnan burial sites is numerous.  Cremation was however prohibited during the Ming period.  Hence, by the mid Ming the production of big jars was drastically reduced.  

Due to the constraints of the local raw materials,  Yunnan blue and white are more crude as compared with those from Jingdezhen. The vessels were produced mainly to meet domestic needs.  Although the potters copied the decorative scheme from the Jingdezhen blue and white, stylistically the motifs had evolved and incorporated new local elements.  Besides Jingdezhen, currently Yunnan is the only region in China known to produce late Yuan/early Ming Period blue and white wares.  In fact, scientific testing appeared to show that Yuan and possibly Ming Hongwu/Yongle Jingdezhen blue and white used only imported cobalt.  If this is true, it would be important to determine whether Yunnan was the first to use local cobalt to produce blue and white.   In addition, did the Jingdezhen potters learnt of this alternative source of cobalt subsequently and when did they first started to apply it to their blue and white wares?  


Copyright : N K Koh (16 Feb 2008), updated: 30 Sep 2013


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