Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

collection in the Louvre, the Franks collection at the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as all the great private collections of Chinese porcelain, contain samples of this primitive and archaic-looking ware.

The great stream of porcelain decoration was, however, to take an entirely different direction. The Persian pottery with its brilliant painted decorations in blue, green and purple on a pure white ground, exercised its natural fascination over men as keen in colour-sense as the Chinese potters. With the concentration of the industry at King-tê-chên, and the rapid improvement in technical skill and knowledge that followed, the production of a fine porcelain with a transparent white glaze was perfected. Of all the colours used by the Persian pot-painter the only one that would endure the fierce fire of the Chinese porcelain was the blue obtained by using the ores of cobalt, and with this colour, and a wonderful blood-red obtained from copper, the foundation of Chinese painted porcelain was laid. It would be idle to try and fix any specific date for this important development, which took more than a generation to perfect, but it is reasonably accurate to say that the blue and white painted porcelains were unknown in the 13th century and were fully developed at the beginning of the 15th century. Chinese collectors prize most highly the blue and white of the reign of Suen-tê (A.D. 1426–1435), of Chêng-hwa (1465–1487), and next of Yung-lo (1403–1424). It is interesting to note that the colour used during these reigns is spoken of as “Mahommedan” blue, so that it was evidently brought from some country to the west. This 15th-century blue and white porcelain is admittedly the finest of its class, and though the Chinese never abandon an old method and have continued to make blue and white porcelain, often of very good quality, the later wares, fine as they may be, rarely equal these.

The under-glaze red, an invention of the Chinese, has already been mentioned, and this most difficult of all ceramic colours was largely used during the same period. At first it appears as a general ground colour for the outside of bowls and cups, then vessels were made in special forms (persimmon fruit, &c.) to display its qualities, finally it was used either alone or in conjunction with blue in painted designs under a white glaze of exceptional quality. A Chinese connoisseur of the 15th century describes one of his pieces as being decorated with “three red fishes on a white ground, pure as driven snow; the fish boldly outlined and red as fresh blood, all with colour so brilliant as to dazzle the eye.”

Other characteristic wares which made their appearance in Ming times are the marvellous “eggshell” porcelains, called by the Chinese “bodyless” from their extreme thinness. As early as the reign of Yung-lo (1403–1424) these delicate wares were in high repute, and their manufacture has been continued ever since with varying skill and success. In spite of their extreme thinness the specimens have designs of dragons in the midst of clouds and waves, inscriptions, &c., engraved in the paste before firing. In the fine white specimens the design is so delicate that it is barely visible until the vessel is filled with liquid or held to the light. Others were covered with a coloured glaze which serves to accentuate the design, and the most prized of these are the yellow pieces made during the reign of Hung-Chi (1488–1505) and Chêng-tê (1506–1521).

Another wonderful variety of Chinese porcelains which made its appearance at this period is the well-known perforated ware, commonly spoken of, from the shape of the perforations, as “grain of rice” porcelain, though the Chinese have exhibited consummate skill in the manufacture of perforated pieces of all kinds. Sometimes the perforations are left clear, but in the rice-grain pattern the incisions are generally filled up with the melted glaze so that they become like so many windows in the walls of the piece. We have already seen that the Persian potters used a similar method of decoration in the 16th century, but we are unable to say at present whether the device originated in China or in Persia. Its use in both countries is only an additional proof of the intercourse between eastern and western Asia.

It is only toward the end of the 16th century that we find the first examples of porcelain decorated with colours fired over the glaze. It seems probable that the practice grew out of the use of enamels on metal, which had spread from Byzantium to China, and which the Chinese developed with remarkable skill. It is important to remember that the very nature of the glaze of Chinese porcelain, necessitating such a high temperature to melt it, severely restricted the under-glaze palette to cobalt-blue and the glorious but uncertain copper-red. To obtain the rich polychromatic schemes of the potters of the West some other means must be found, and so the device was adopted of taking a finished piece of blue and white and decorating it further by very fusible colours painted over the fired glaze and then attached to it by refiring at a lower temperature equal only to that used by the enameller on metals. At first the on-glaze or enamel colours were applied as thin washes, as in the Ming (San ts’ ai) three-colour decoration of green, purple, and yellow. Then we get the Ming (Wan-li Wu ts’ ai) five-colour scheme, in which the same three colours are combined with an over-glaze red and all are painted over a skeleton pattern in under-glaze blue. This development, as its name implies, only took place in the reign of Wan-li (1573–1620).

At this time King-tê-chên must have produced a very large quantity of porcelain. The requirements of the court were enormous, for in 1583 one of the supervising censors, remonstrating with the emperor, declared that one year’s demands comprised over 96,000 pieces; and Dr Bushell writes: “The colossal production of the reign of Wan-li is shown by the abundance of porcelain of this time to be found in Pekin at the present day, where a garden of any pretensions must have a large collection of bowls or cisterns for goldfish, and street-hawkers may be seen with sweetmeats upheld by dishes a yard in diameter, or ladling syrup out of large bowls, and there is hardly a butcher’s shop without a cracked Wan-li jar standing on the counter to hold scraps of meat.”

Such profuse orders may be accountable for the fact that the wares of this reign are inferior both in material and workmanship to the wares of the preceding and also of later periods, but the influence of the growing export trade doubtless told in the same direction. For several centuries the native Chinese porcelain had been exported to all the neighbouring countries, and through Persia and Cairo to the West. No long time elapsed before the Chinese adopted forms, colours and decorations for these export wares, not in accordance with Chinese usage, but presumably more suited to the tastes of the foreigner. Hence the Persian and Syrian style of the painted blue decoration of the 15th and 16th century wares found in other Asiatic countries. Now, for the first time, there came a direct European demand, and cargoes of ware were brought to Europe by the Portuguese and afterwards by the Dutch, which were increasingly decorated in fashions foreign to Chinese taste. The production of these export wares slowly modified the taste of the Chinese themselves and paved the way for the new styles of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The political troubles which marked the downfall of the Ming dynasty definitely separated the first great period of Chinese porcelain from its second and culminating period. The works at King-tê-chên were destroyed more than once in the 17th century, but in spite of these difficulties the potters must have remained, for the reigns of K’ang-hi (1662–1722), Yung-chêng (1722–1735), and K’ien-lung (1736–1795) covered a century and a half, within which the high-water mark of artistic production was reached and passed. It is only possible here to sketch in broadest outline the course of this Renaissance, which has formed the subject of many learned works.

It is characteristic of the Chinese mind that during this period, when a spirit of eager experiment was abroad, the productions of their ancient kilns should receive no less attention than the new methods of decoration in on-glaze colours, while at the same time many of the discoveries of the later Ming days were carried on to perfection. The first remarkable productions of the reign of K’ang-hi, the famous green and blood-red Lang-yao glazes, were made in the attempt to produce glazes like those