An Appreciation of Yuan and Ming Blue and White Wares

At the invitation of the Singapore Southeast Asia Ceramics Society (SEACS), I delivered this talk on the evening of October 2004 to its members and guests.

Introduction

Many thanks to the Council of SEACS for inviting me to deliver this evening’s talk. My talk will be in three parts:

First, I will focus on the Yuan blue and white, and exclude those classical wares inspired by the Song Dynasty. I will also touch on briefly on the other Yuan innovations, namely the underglaze copper red and shufu wares.

Secondly, I shall talk at some length about the Ming blue and white ware and take a cursory look at its other famed products like the underglaze copper red, docuai, monochrome, twin-colour and polychrome wares.

Finally, I will offer some tips on collecting porcelains for the benefit of the new and aspiring collectors amongst you, if only to help you avoid the pitfalls that I had to sadly endure as a beginner collector!

In the interest of time, I shall omit the technical aspects of the wares under discussion, but will offer a short reading list which should give you some insight into them.

The ceramics covered in my talk all came from Jingdezhen which, from Ming era onwards, had become the indisputable porcelain capital of China even to this day. It is named in honour of a Song emperor. This year, it is celebrating its 1000 years of preeminence among all Chinese ceramic kilns.

Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)

The Yuan products were once regarded as the “ugly duckling” of Chinese ceramics on grounds that they generally lacked technical excellence and aesthetic appeal, compared with those of Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.

There was then little interest, scanty knowledge and expertise among collectors of these wares.

This unflattering view is no longer valid. Since the 1970s, as a result of archaeological finds in China, more in-depth researching and objective appraisal by ceramic scholars and experts, their importance and technical and artistic accomplishments have been recognised, albeit belatedly.

Nowadays, ceramic experts, both Chinese and foreign, are generally agreed that Yuan potters initiated a freedom of of artistic expression which enabled entirely new colours, styles and and superb techniques to be introduced in ceramic decorative arts. These in turn influenced the development of Ming wares, the undisputed golden age of Chinese ceramic art.

While blue and white ware may have its primitive beginnings during the preceding Tang Dynasty according to some Chinese scholars based on archaeological evidence and other research and literary sources, it reached its maturity only during the Yuan era. After six centuries of evolution, it is today one of the most internationally popular and valued of all Chinese ceramic products.

The bulk of this ware were exported to the affluent overseas markets of the Middle East, especially that of Turkey, Persia (now Iran) and Syria, with some lesser pieces going to Southeast Asia. Only a very small quantity was earmarked for the domestic market. These high quality articles were much sought after in these Middle East countries and they fetched exorbitant prices. Many of these were fashioned in typical Islamic shapes, forms and sizes to suit their special needs. These were much copied by the local ceramic industries.

Compared with the quiet elegance of the classical Song monochromes, the Yuan blue and white was considered too loud and vulgar for the more conservative taste of the Chinese elites. The Mongolian ruling classes were quite indifferent to it. It was only from the 15th century onwards that it found favour with the Chinese Imperial Court and elites.

Be that as it may, and ironically, the most definitive Yuan blue and white specimens came from the altar of a Beijing Taoist temple, with full documentation dating these to 1351. A dealer secured the pair of vases somehow and sold them to Percival David, a British merchant of Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art fame. These so-called “David” temple vases are the only dated pieces extant, and no other dated pieces prior or subsequent to these have since come to light. Hence, in the absence of contrary evidence, the leading Western writers of this ware were convinced that it had its beginning only during the Yuan time.

Yuan David Vases (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The David vases have spurred international interest in Yuan blue and white ware since the 1970s. through the untiring efforts of well-known ceramic author JA Pope, whose authoritative work on Istanbul’s famous Topkapi Palace Museum collection , supported by archaeological discoveries and research findings in China itself, have firmly established beyond doubt the high standard of production set by the pioneering Jingdezhen kilns.

Yuan blue and white pieces are still a rarity anywhere. There are about 200 of them overseas, with a sizeable number in Topkapi Palace Museum of Turkey and at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum, and the rest are in several other countries.

Originally, there was a paucity of this ware in the Chinese collections. However, thanks to archaeological finds, acquisitions and donations by patriotic Chinese rich, the combined Chinese public collections now number more than 200 pieces. 70 of which are now housed in Beijing’s Gugong Museum.

Blue and white ware dominated the Yuan porcelain production at Jingdezhen during that time. It was far cheaper to produce and required only one firing, whereas the the coloured wares needed separate firings for each different colour.

Yuan Blue and White Ware on display in Topkapi Palace Museum (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Underglaze Red Ware

Another Yuan innovation is the underglaze red, whose motifs were modelled largely upon the blue and white ware. However, being then in the experimental stage of production, it was not a success. The potter found it difficult to control the copper pigment, which tended to run and spread out unevenly on the vessel itself. So successful pieces were quite rare, and those extant nowadays would fetch astronomical prices at international auctions.

Shufu Ware

Yet another Yuan creation, albeit inspired by the Song white ware, is the Shufu ware. It has been translated into English as “privy council” ware. As its name implies, it was made for the exclusive use of the Imperial household and government ministries. This white ware is usually moulded with incised ornaments to enhance its intrinsic beauty.

Ming Ceramics (1368–1644)

Blue and white ware continued to dominate the ceramic production in Jingdezhen throughout the Ming Dynasty, and it became the leading porcelain production capital of the nation.

For the first time, Imperial kilns were set up there under the supervision of senior Government officials permanently based there so as to ensure that stringent standards were adhered to strictly.

One reason the Imperial ware (guan yao) is still so highly valued today is because it has to be in perfect condition and any imperfect pieces would be destroyed so that they would not fall into the wrong hands. While this ensured exclusivity, it also greatly inflated the manufacturing cost.

During the reigns of Emperors Yongle, Xuande and Chenghua, blue and white entered its heyday with superb craftsmanship, glazing and hand drawing and they have no equals before or after. The superiority of the imported cobalt blue form the Middle East enhanced the “heap and pile” effect on the Yongle and Xuande pieces and also added to their depth and intrinsic charm.

The world-renowned Chinese explorer, Admiral Zhenghe, gave away as gifts to local rulers Yongle blue and white pieces in each of his seven epoch-making maritime voyages in Asia and Africa, which preceded the European explorers by almost a century. Those pieces that have survived the vicissitudes of time have become rare treasures.

Chenghua pieces have a more restrained and softer hue, due to the mixture of foreign and native cobalt blue being applied on them. The smaller articles are especially exquisite and are truly a great joy to behold and handle. From the reign of the first Ming Emperor Hungwu, the practice of inscribing the reign mark on the piece was started but this became compulsory only from the Xuande reign.

The middle Ming period of Zhengde and Jiajing ushered in a new phase in the development of this ware, with distinctive flavours all their own due to the pigmentation of the “mohamedan blue” cobalt blue on it. While the Zhengde ware is rich in Islamic themes, in contrast the Jailing ware is full of Daoist legends.

From Wanli’s reign onwards, the quality and colour of the blue and white ware declined perceptibly. Nonetheless, the last three reigns are noted for the so-called “transitional ware”, covering a period between 1620 to early Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1910 when China became a republic.

Ming Underglaze Red and Doucai Wares

Underglaze copper red reached its full maturity during the Ming time, as many excellent pieces were produced as evident in the Chinese collections and elsewhere. Doucai (harmonising colour) was the pride of the Chenghua reign, like the chicken bowls, and were already worth a king’s ransom during the Qing era. These are almost exclusively in the Imperial Gugong collections in Beijing and Taipei.

Other Ming Wares

They include monochrome, twin-colour and polychrome wares, the latter became the pride and glory of the Jiajing and Wanli periods. They are enthusiastically collected internationally and their best examples are now worth more than their weight in gold.

Ming Blue and White on display at Topkapi Palace Museum (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tips on Collecting

Before I end my presentation, I would like to share with those new or aspiring collectors in the audience some tips on collecting. Hopefully they would help you avoid the painful mistakes I made when I first started collecting:

  • Always read, handle and scrutinise as many pieces as possible before making a purchase.
  • Take your time and don’t be an impulsive buyer!
  • Always buy on quality, not quantity, within your means, and avoid buying defective pieces.
  • Buy only from reputable dealers and always ask for their certificates of authenticity.
  • Collect primarily for your own enjoyment, not just for investment.

Happy antique hunting! Thank you for your attention.

Lam Pin Foo


Sources for this Article

Arts of Asia, Gugong publications, Sotheby’s sales catalogues, Singapore-based Yeo and Martin’s book on blue and white, other books on this ware by authors including Harry Garner, Margaret Medley, R Scott and JA Pope and several other books in Chinese by renowned writers on Chinese ceramics.

Updated Development on the Origin of Chinese Blue and White Ware

Sometime in 1998, An Arabian cargo ship of 9th century vintage sank in the vicinity of the Indonesian island Belitung, near Sumatra in the Java Sea. With the support of the Indonesian Government, an agreement was entered into between this Government and an underwater salvaging company, financially backed by foreign commercial enterprises, to salvage this Arabian vessel from the deep sea bed.

Their efforts finally led to the exact location of this Arabian vessel, which sank there on its homeward journey from China carrying tens of thousands of 9th century ceramics, gold objects and other rare ornamental items including numerous pieces of Tang blue and white and other wares. They were recovered in good condition.

These Tang blue and white pieces predated the Yuan era “David” vases by almost five centuries, thus invalidating the long-held view of the leading Western Chinese ceramic experts and writers that the blue and white ware had its beginning only during the Yuan era. Incidentally, these Tang products came from Hunan Province kilns, not from Jingdezhen.

Despite international biddings from several famed overseas museums, the Singapore Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) succeeded in clinching the deal by paying a colossal sum of US$32M for the entire cargo, with the generous donation from the estate of the late Singapore multi-millionaire Khoo Teck Puat. The ACM therefore decided to call it the Khoo Teck Puat Collection. Part of this varied collection, including many unique articles, are on permanent rotational display there for the viewing pleasure of visitors from both Singapore and many overseas countries.

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