THE PINK FAMILY: CHINA AND THE WEST 2
Current China on the globe.
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LEFT: Portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in Court Dress, by anonymous court artists, Yongzheng period (1723—35), Qing Dynasty. Hanging scroll, color on silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing. Public Domain.
RIGHT: History of China, Imperial Dynasties, source: Dynasties in Chinese history, Wikipedia.
THE FIRST REVOLUTION:
THE BLUE AND WHITE PORCELAIN DURING THE YUAN DYNASTY
In the Yuan Dynasty era - which lasted less than one hundred years, from 1271 to 1368 - the production of the 'old pieces' typical of the Song tradition continued, and so did the activity of some traditional manufacturing centers, such as Longquan or the Dehua kilns of Fujian. However, the most important development was the increasing importance of Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province. Here, in 1278, at the behest of Kublai Khan, the Fuliang Porcelain Bureau (浮梁瓷局, Fuliang Ciju) was founded to oversee the production of the best porcelain pieces for use by the emperor and the court. Many kilns in the area began to be run by government officials who supervised hundreds of skilled craftsmen, artisans, and potters, each specializing in one of the dozens of phases required to produce porcelain masterpieces. Some private kilns continued to work for the domestic market and low-quality export. Jingdezhen remained the site of imperial kilns until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, even after the kaolin from Gaolin Hill was depleted, thus becoming the prosperous 'world capital of porcelain'.
In Jingdezhen, the Qingbai ware production was joined by the making of a new type of porcelain, the so-called Shufu ware, made mainly in the kilns of Hutian outside Jingdezhen. The Shufu pieces were white porcelain bowls, cups, and dishes showing a thick glaze, more opaque than that of Qingbai ware, with a silky rather than a glossy texture. For these surface features, they were called luanbai ware (fine eggshell white glazed porcelain), while for the presence of two Chinese characters - shu fu, 枢府, "privy council" or "central palace" - they were commonly called Shufu ware. The two characters were probably related to the Shumi Yuan, the ministry concerned with military and civil affairs, and the pieces made for government officials' use. The Mongol elite harbored a particular attraction for the egg-white glazed porcelain pieces and, in general, the white color, which was inauspicious for the Chinese Han culture. The Shufu pieces were probably those mentioned and admired by Marco Polo in his memoirs.
LEFT: Porcelain dish with a molded lotus design, Shufu ware, Jingdezhen, Yuan Dynasty, 14th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
RIGHT: Stem Cup with Chrysanthemum Scroll, Shufu ware, porcelain with a molded decoration under a transparent glaze, Jingdezhen, Yuan Dynasty, 14th century. Diameter: 5 1/8 in. - 13 cm. The MET, New York, US.
The Shufu porcelain pieces were popular and massively exported to Korea, Japan, and the Philippines but their success was overshadowed by the new imperial blue and white porcelain, known in Chinese as qinghua ciqi, created and produced for the first time in Jingdezhen between 1328 and 1332. To tell the truth, the blue and white was not a 'new' kind of porcelain as the Shufu ware was, but the sophisticated outcome of a technical and artistic revolution that changed the history of porcelain.
Let's see two fine examples of Yuan Dynasty qinghua ciqi, defined by some experts as "the best-known porcelains in the world".
THE DAVID VASES
The two vases you can see below are commonly called "David Vases" as they were collected by Sir Percival David (1892–1964) and are part of the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art on permanent display in Room 95, at the British Museum (London).
DAVID VASES: pair of altar vases in blue and white porcelain, made in 1351 in Jingdezhen, during the Yuan Dynasty. Dimensions: diameter 19.60 cm / 22 cm, height: 63.6 cm / 63.8 cm (respectively 8.1 in and 25 in). British Museum, London, UK.
Released to you under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.
The inscriptions on the necks of both vases tell us that they were made in 1351 (in the 11th year of the Zhizheng era, towards the end of the Yuan dynasty) and were commissioned by Zhang Wenjin, a man from the Yushan county, to be offered as altarpieces to a Daoist temple in Xingyuan (Jiangxi), together with an incense burner that got lost. The importance of these pieces lies in their inscriptions (a rare feature, to tell the truth) and in the written date, which shows that in 1351 the production of blue and white porcelain was already well established in Jingdezhen.
These imposing and solidly built porcelain vases have huge dimensions and the form typical of ancient bronze vessels. Like the latter, they originally had porcelain rings hanging from the elephant head-shaped handles, that got probably broken.
The high-quality decoration, brush painted in underglaze cobalt blue, is divided into 8 bands of different motifs and shows the typical multi-layered pattern shared by many other porcelain pieces from the same period.
The floral pattern called Bao Xiang hua is called in the West 'a lotus flower pattern', but have you ever seen a lotus with that kind of leaves and vines? The Bao Xiang is not a lotus flower: it exists in traditional Chinese culture like dragons and phoenixes, provided with a mythical status and no actual existence in nature. It's, indeed, a combination of various floral elements (lotus, peony, chrysanthemum, and pomegranate); it has a Buddhist origin (it's called sometimes 'the Buddha's rose') and was used as a decorative element since the Tang Dynasty era.
The chrysanthemum, the flower of autumn in China, is a widespread symbol of nobility, long life, and duration, while in many European countries is the flower of the dead, associated with mourning.
The dragon is a complex symbol in traditional Chinese culture. Simplifying, we can say that it's a positive symbol of yang, male prowess, fertility, power, strength, and divine rule. It is often depicted creating clouds with its breath, riding clouds, or playing among them, causing beneficial rain to fall. «From the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) onwards, the dragon is also the symbol of the Emperor, the Son of Heaven» (Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, see Bibliography). During the Yuan Dynasty, the five-claw dragon became an imperial symbol and a decorative motif reserved for the Emperor alone, while the four-claw and three-claw dragon decorations were reserved for objects and robes made for princes and noble officials.
The dragon is often depicted together with the phoenix, a mythical creature representing its female, ying counterpart. Next to the dragon-Emperor, the phoenix represents the Empress. Therefore, the Chinese phoenix has nothing to do with the legendary, immortal bird symbol of bliss and eternal rebirth of Greek and Egyptian antiquity, Christian tradition, and Arabian mythology.
THE TECHNICAL SIDE
The David Vases were porcelain in the strict (Western) sense, not porcelaneous stoneware like celadon pieces.
The body of all blue and white porcelain pieces was made by mixing petuntse (porcelain stone) with kaolin (whose name derives from Gaolin Hill near Jingdezhen) in varying proportions, depending on the shape, dimensions, and finesse of porcelain to be produced. Once ready and naturally dried, the pieces were brush painted with cobalt-blue pigment mixed with water, then coated with a clear glaze, and finally fired at high temperature (+ 1300° C). The painted decoration was applied directly on the clay body, before the firing phase, which was always a single one (celadon glazed pieces could be fired more than once). That's why these porcelain pieces are said to show an 'underglaze' cobalt decoration.
As Suzanne G. Valenstein highlighted, the recent laboratory analyses of several categories of Chinese porcelain have revealed that the raw materials used in porcelain production varied considerably among different kiln centers; even at Jingdezhen, the composition of porcelain bodies changed over the centuries. According to Jing Yang and Annika Waenerberg, «during the Yuan (1271–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, the using amount of raw materials was 10–25% kaolin and 90–75% porcelain stone for the blue and white porcelain bodies, whereas during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) 30–60% kaolin and 70–40% porcelain stone was used» (Jing Yang and Annika Waenerberg, Blue and White Porcelain, see Bibliography)
As for the glaze, it was a clear colorless one, different from that used for qingbai and Shufu/luanbai wares: during the Yuan Dynasty, the glaze on the blue and white porcelain pieces contained 8-10% of calcium oxide, while qingbai 12-13%, and shufu/luanbai 5-6%.
The cobalt blue was imported from Persia - present-day Iran, at the time the Ilkhanate or Iranzamin ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu, a descendant of Genghis Khan - via the Silk Road trade route. It came from ancient mines of metallic-lustered cobalt ore located near the little village of Qamsar, 400 km south of Tehran, in the hills above Kashan. Locally, it was called "Solaymānī" cobalt, a term which became in Chinese sumani (or sumali) qing, and it was so prized to reach twice the value of gold. The cobalt blue pigment used to paint the porcelain in Jingdezhen contained cobalt oxide and aluminum oxide and had a distinctive pale black color before the firing phase. After, it turned into an 'explosive', vibrant intense blue color on the top-quality pieces and showed a greyish tone On the low-quality ones (because of greater dilution).
The Persian cobalt imported and used during the Yuan and the early Ming dynasties was rich in iron oxide, an impurity that produced the so-called “heaped and piled” effect after firing: spots and small areas of darker color with a black-purple tone on the fired, glazed surface, as in the pictures below.
David vase: the “heaped and piled” effect is clearly visible on the Bao Xiang flowers and leaves band on the neck.
The “heaped and piled” effect on a large porcelain guan wine jar decorated in underglaze blue and made under the Yuan Dynasty, in ca. 1330-1368. The animal depicted is a qilin (麒麟), a legendary hooved and horned chimerical creature of Chinese mythology. © The Trustees of the British Museum, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.
The 'heaped and piled' effect, which is accurately copied in many contemporary fakes, disappeared during the Ming Dynasty when a softer, less 'explosive' and clearer blue, achieved from China’s manganese-rich cobalt blue, was used. The production of blue and white porcelain continued during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1636-1912), with different types of cobalt and shades of blue, different techniques of application, and, of course, different art styles.
The blue and white porcelain was fired at ± 1300° C, but the exact temperature depended on the kind of pieces to be fired and remains a well-kept 'secret'. The firing was a very delicate phase: the white porcelain body turns grey and full of bubbles if the temperature exceeds the upper limit, while the surface loses its shininess, transparency, and glow if the temperature is too low.
The following video is a visual documentary, with no voice-over, showing the traditional porcelain manufacturing process in the ancient kilns of Jingdezhen. Please, watch it to the end, and pay particular attention to the making of the final large guan jar.
«Jingdezhen, a town in the southern province of Jiangxi, is one of the world’s earliest industrial towns. No other kiln complex can claim such a long and continuous history lasting some one thousand years.» (The British Museum)
The Jingdezhen Historical Museum of Imperial Kiln is located near the Imperial Kiln Relic Park, in the heart of the historic kiln district, and is entirely dedicated to the porcelain-making activity whose history is more than one thousand years long. Designed by Studio Zhu-Pei in 2020, the museum is inspired by the dragon kilns' shape. Its galleries are a series of hand-crafted, brick, vaulted structures.
The following documentary shows the porcelain manufacturing process in Jingdezhen with a special attention to the firing process. It's worth seeing but is in Spanish with no English subtitles.
The two previous videos remind us of something we don't think about enough: the highly refined masterpieces of Chinese porcelain were born not only from the crucible of the four elements - earth, water, air, and fire - and their magical encounter with human creativity. They took shape and 'life' from the physical toil and the health toll of many men and women whose names and faces we do not remember. In the human world, supreme beauty often arises from strain and pain.
THE BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS
In the following gallery, you'll see some porcelain pieces I chose to represent the best of Jingdezhen production.
Let's start with two large-sized dishes.
LEFT: Porcelain dish, painted in underglaze blue, with a bracket-lobed rim. Dimensions: height 6.4 cm, diameter 41.3 cm - 16.25 in. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. It shows a central decoration with two phoenixes amid peony scrolls, a second outer band decorated with Bao Xiang hua scrolls, and a third band on the rim showing a diaper pattern. The cobalt blue design is painted on a white background.
RIGHT: Porcelain dish, painted in underglaze blue, with a bracket-lobed rim. Dimensions: height 8.3 cm, diameter 45.7 cm - 18 in. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It shows a central decoration with Bao Xiang hua scrolls, an outer band with peony scrolls, and a wave pattern on the rim. Unlike the dish on the left, this one shows a white design on a blue-painted background.
Both these dishes show an exuberant, dense decoration: the symbolic, ornamental motifs expand on the surrounding space as if they had to conquer it and meticulously fill all the emptiness, following more the horror vacui typical of Islamic art than the traditional Chinese Han taste. The overall effect, however, is not of a messy, chaotic, and disharmonic ensemble: the arrangement is symmetrical and well-organized thanks to a clearly layered design. As many scholars have noted, the division of the surface into concentric bands of distinct patterns reflects the decoration of Islamic metalware.
We are far from the elegant grace, minimalist design, and love for simple naturalness that dominated ceramic art during the Song Dynasty. In the Yuan pieces, nothing is modest, not even their dimensions. Many porcelain dishes reached a diameter of 46-60 cm and many vases were guan jars or meiping of imposing height or width. Throughout the Yuan Dynasty, Jingdezhen masters showed a neat preference for large and heavily potted pieces, much more in keeping with Mongolian customs and Islamic needs. (Many items were created to be exported to the Arab and Persian worlds and many high-end pieces are today on display in the museums of Istanbul and Tehran). As the curators of The Hunan Museum in China highlight, the large dishes and plates created during the Yuan Dynasty perfectly suited the dietary habits of the Mongolians and the people living in Central and West Asia, who used to sit together on a floor carpet, around large communal dishes full of food to be grabbed by hands.
If dimensions, shapes, and the densely patterned decorative style are inspired by Central Asian and Islamic ornamental arts, many motifs were typical of the Han tradition or came from Tibetan Buddhism. In all the larger dishes, the ornamentation is of three kinds: rim ornamentation, supporting ornamentation, and major ornamentation. In the high-quality pieces, the major central ornamentation was usually painted by a master, while the motifs on the rim (ocean waves, diamond-shaped grids, entwined gardenias or chrysanthemums, coiled weed, etc.) and on the cavetto (the inward slanting area on a dish or plate between the rim and the flat center) were designed by craftsmen of lesser importance. (One of the key features of the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen was the organization of work: each of the very many stages of processing was entrusted to a specialist with different skills and expertise). The major ornamentation required highly specialized skills and extreme dexterity: painting on the highly porous and absorbent surface of the unfired clay pieces was unforgiving and allowed the 'painter' no room for error. An inaccuracy on the rim ornamentation wasn’t as bad as a smudge on the major, central decorative motif.
Below, you can see other exquisite and large porcelain pieces.
LEFT: Porcelain plate with cobalt blue painted underglaze decoration. Dimensions: diameter 18 in - 45.7 cm. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century. The MET Museum, New York, US. Its central decoration shows a fish amid a dense growth of eelgrass (Vallisneria), duckweed (Lemna minor), and clover fern (Marsilea). According to the MET curators, it's a carp but its spiny fin and protruding jaw are typical of the mandarin fish (Siniperca chuatsi), a freshwater species from the family of Oriental perches. The second outer band is decorated with Bao Xiang hua scrolls, while the flat rim shows a diaper pattern.
RIGHT: Porcelain dish, painted in underglaze blue. Dimensions: diameter 18.11 in - 46 cm. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century. Aurora Museum, Shanghai, China. It shows a central decoration with two fish in a pond rich in eelgrass, duckweed, clover fern, water thyme (Hydrilla), and water milfoil (Myriophyllum). The middle band is decorated with Bao Xiang hua scrolls, while the rim shows a diaper pattern. The Chinese word for "fish", yu, is a homophone for "abundance", "plenty", and "affluence" (yu 餘). So the fish symbolizes wealth. Two fish in a pond are often a wish for conjugal harmony and mutual sexual pleasure. They can be also linked to one of the most famous passages of the book Zhuangzi by Zhuang Zhou (c. 369-c. 286 BC), a Daoist thinker who praised the fishes freely darting around as symbols of a man in a spontaneous flow, free from any restraint.
LEFT: Porcelain meiping vase with cobalt blue painted underglaze decoration depicting peony scrolls. Dimensions: height 38 cm - 14 15/16 in. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, late 14th century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, US. The meiping vase, aka 'plum-vase', was born as a wine vessel but was soon used to display branches of plum blossoms, hence its name. The vase shoulder is decorated with a floral motif inside a yunjian (云肩) or "cloud collar".
RIGHT: Porcelain dish/bowl, painted in underglaze blue. Dimensions: Dimensions: height 13 cm - 5.11 in; mouth rim diameter: 46 cm - 18.11 in; foot rim diameter: 23 cm - 9.05. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. The two outer bands are decorated with a floral and leaf design. The central part has a more complex design. The inner circle shows a crisscrossed Tibetan vajra design. (The vajra is the Buddhist thunderbolt, a symbol of indestructibility and force). The outer band shows some symbols interspersed with flames and stylized endless knots. Fresh flowers and leaves are painted inside a double yunjian (云肩) or "cloud collar".
Both pieces are decorated with a yunjian or "cloud collar", an ancient decorative motif adopted by porcelain painting during the Yuan Dynasty and further developed in the Ming Dynasty. The yunjian is an ancient Chinese fashion accessory, used with the hanfu, the traditional clothing of the Han Chinese. The cloud collar, which is a detachable collar with cloud patterns, was worn over the shoulder area. It was an essential accessory for Chinese women, especially during the Ming and Qing dynasties, as shown below.
Large serving dish in porcelain, painted in underglaze blue with a bracket-lobed rim. Dimensions: diameter 45.8 cm - 18.03 in; height 7.6 cm - 3 in. Made in Jingdezhen. Late Yuan Dynasty, 1330-1368. © The British Museum, London, UK.
Many large serving pieces of this kind were made for the Middle Eastern market. This large and heavily potted dish shows a complex and exuberant decoration, combining painting in underglaze blue on white and white reserved on a blue ground. All motifs are ordered according to the multi-band pattern, so widespread at the time. The center shows a peony flower, bud, and foliage reserved in white on blue ground. The outer bands, framed by bracket-lobed borders, show a chrysanthemum motif, then an abstract motif of spirals. The band before the rim, painted with white-crested waves, is technically called 'cavetto': it's the inward slanting area on a dish or plate between the rim and the flat center. Here, it shows the Bao Xiang hua scroll motif. Please, note that the decoration reserved in white against a blue ground implied a high consumption of cobalt blue and a decidedly stratospheric cost of production.
The two following vases show two characteristic Chinese shapes, which later spread throughout the world.
The one on the right shows a Chinese typical form called 'double gourd' or huluping (葫芦瓶), inspired by the hourglass-shaped gourd vegetable and created by the Longquan Kiln during the Southern Song dynasty. The double gourd is an auspicious symbol of fertility and a Daoist emblem of immortality (the Daoist immortal Li Tie-Guai is depicted as a beggar holding a double gourd full of a magic potion).
The vase on the left shows a 'pear shape' or yuhuchunping (玉壶春瓶) and was first used in the temples of the Tang dynasty for holy water vases. The shape was then popularized during the Song dynasty and used for wine vessels. Thanks to its refined shape and elegant silhouette, it became a classical vase style, copied still today.
Both vases share a remarkable, rare feature: neither shows the multi-layered pattern, framed by double line borders, typical of the Yuan-era pieces. In both, the floral decoration extends freely and unrestrictedly over almost the entire white body with an overall effect of refined harmony and elegance. Their designs were probably inspired by many Yuan silk brocades with floral branches covering the whole surface area.
LEFT: Porcelain yuhuchunping bottle with cobalt blue painted underglaze decoration depicting chrysanthemum scrolls. This autumn flower was an auspicious emblem of longevity. Dimensions: height 29.6 cm - 11.65 in; diameter 16 cm - 6.29 in. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, 1330-1368. © The British Museum, London, UK.
RIGHT: Porcelain huluping with cobalt blue painted underglaze decoration depicting peony scrolls. Made in Jingdezhen. Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century. Aurora Museum, Pudong, Shanghai, China.
During the late Yuan Dynasty, «the Yuan drama, precursor of the Beijing opera, was flourishing, and among the most memorable of Yuan ceramics are those associated with this new art form» (Laurie E. Barnes, cit.). The Yuan plays were written by the literati to be sung and acted. The playwrights had to overcome the harsh imperial censorship and the risk of incurring the death penalty, provided for any form of direct criticism. That's why they used old Chinese stories, romantic tales, and popular legends to express an underlying message. (It was not the first time, and it won't be the last in China, a country where the right to freedom of expression was and is still significantly limited, according to Amnesty International). «Scenes from the most popular dramas were painted by the potters of Jingdezhen on blue and white created for the Shundi emperor, with similar renderings found in rare editions of Yuan books. Usually, figural scenes, some of which are identified with Yuan dramas, were painted on wares of three shapes: the “plum vase” (meiping), the large covered jar (guan), and less successfully, the pear-shaped bottle (yuhuchun ping)» (Laurie E. Barnes).
Below, you can see some precious specimens.
Porcelain wine jar (guan) with underglaze cobalt blue, Jingdezhen, late Yuan dynasty. Dimensions: 27.8 x 21 cm (10 15/16 x 8 1/4 in). Photo: by courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, US.
The picture shows a scene from the 13th-century popular drama Yuchi Gong Jiu Zhu ('Yuchi Gong Saves His Lord') and, in particular, the rescue of Emperor Tang Taizong. Below, is a panoramic view of the entire scene. «The play was written in the late 13th century by Shang Zhongxian and was based on a historic event that occurred in 620. It recounts the valorous act of general Yuchi Jingde to avert the assassination of Li Shimin, who was the Prince of Qin and the second son of the Tang dynasty Emperor Gaozu. In the painting on this blue and white vessel, the enemy general Shan Xiongxin gallops towards Li Shimin with his spear outstretched, but Yuchi Gong heroically disarms him using an iron staff. Li Shimin later became Emperor Taizong, which is why an attendant depicted on the jar holds a banner bearing the characters Tang Taizong. The latter is generally regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history» (Laurie E. Barnes, cit.).
The meiping or 'plum vase' below is another outstanding piece of Yuan-style blue and white porcelain, on display at the Nanjing Municipal Museum, in China.
Blue and white porcelain wine bottle (meiping vase), depicting the popular Yuan drama Xiao Heyueye zhui Han Xin (Xiao He Pursues Han Xin on a moonlit night), Jingdezhen, late Yuan dynasty, probably 1333–1352. Dimensions: height 44.1 cm - 17.36 in. Nanjing Municipal Museum, China.
This imperial-quality vessel was found in the 1392 tomb of Mu Ying, a general of the revolutionary forces and adopted son of the first Ming emperor; therefore, it is likely that it was made in Jingdezhen when the kilns were no more under the control of the Mongols.
It shows scenes from the play Xiao Heyueye zhui Han Xin (Xiao He Pursues Han Xin on a moonlit night), written by Jin Renjie (?–1329). It tells a story based on a historical event that occurred during the founding of the Han dynasty. «In the tale, Liu Bang, who later became the first Han emperor, did not expeditiously approve the recommendation of Minister Xiao He that Han Xin should lead his army. The latter grew discouraged, thinking that his talents would never be utilized, and left. Xiao pursued him, and after finding him on a riverbank, pleaded with him to rejoin. Upon their return, Xiao advised Liu that Han’s leadership was essential for victory. Han was made chief marshal with power over Liu’s troops. The scene shows Xiao in search of Han. Downtrodden, Han leads his listless horse to the water’s edge, seeking advice from a boatman. On the opposite side of the vessel, Xiao anxiously rides his galloping steed in pursuit. His horse, as if fully understanding the mission, looks around while maintaining a full gallop. The scene is masterfully composed and executed, achieving remarkable harmony despite the sharp contrast in vignettes of aimless wandering and intensive searching» (Laurie E. Barnes, cit.).
The following rare vase is a magnificent guan jar, photographed to show its entire design, masterly painted in the finest cobalt blue. It was auctioned by Christie's of London in 2005 and sold to a private buyer for £15,688,000 (approx. US $27,679,100 and €22,731,912). It shows a close layered pattern and pretty much the same pictorial hand as the previous meiping vase. According to Christie's experts, the two pieces might come from the same workshop in Jingdezhen and may even be painted by the same artist (conditional is required!).
Blue and white porcelain guan jar, Jingdezhen, mid-late Yuan dynasty. Dimensions: diameter 13 in - 33 cm. Photo: by courtesy of Christie's London.
The jar is «vividly painted in a deep and vibrant cobalt blue around the body with a narrative scene depicting a robed figure seated in a two-wheeled cart drawn by a tiger and a leopard, following two foot soldiers each carrying a spear, approaching a rustic bridge across a stream beneath a waterfall. The cart is followed by two equestrians on either side of dramatically painted rocks, one in military attire and carrying a banner bearing the characters Gui Gu, the other in scholar's clothes, on a prancing piebald horse and turning towards the first horseman. The composition is punctuated by pine, bamboo, flowering prunus, plantain, rose, and willow. A classic wave band is around the neck, a peony scroll around the shoulder, and a band of upright lappets enclosing emblems around the base» (from the Christie's catalog).
The continuous narrative scene is probably inspired by a woodblock printed illustration, from the book Yue Yi Tu Qi ('Yue Yi Planning the Conquest of Qi'), published during the Yuan Dynasty in 1321–1323. The story, however, is much older: it derives from the Zhan Guo Ce, 'Strategies of the Warring States' or 'Annals of the Warring States', an ancient Chinese text compiled about 250 to 8 BC that contains anecdotes and episodes from the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BC). The narrative scene depicts Su Dai, an emissary from the state of Qi, searching for Wang Yi (or Wang Xu), a reclusive military strategist whose help is needed to free Sun Zi, who had been captured in a battle by the Yan general Yue Yi. Wang Yi, also known by the sobriquet of Guigu Zi, is depicted seated in a cart being pulled by two felines. Su Dai is depicted as an official on horseback rounding a rocky outcrop directly behind Guigu Zi.
The vases painted with drama scenes show the extent of the revolution produced by the blue and white porcelain better than all of the other pieces, decorated with flowers, dragons and phoenixes, cranes, fish or mandarin ducks in a pond, deers, rabbits, all together with decorative patterns showing clouds, waves, lotus petals, leaves, circles, or Buddhist auspicious objects. All these motifs were already present in the Song Dynasty ceramic art, even if applied with different techniques, shapes, and styles. The revolution did not consist in introducing figurative representations: it lay in the adoption of a new language.
Before the Yuan Dynasty, decoration on ceramics was made by engraving, incising, stamping, and impressing; since the appearance of blue and white porcelain, brush painting became the primary decorative method, and the most used. Brush painting is more flexible and adaptable; it's quicker; it has fewer technical limitations and can give rise to a more powerful language, richer in expressive and narrative potentialities than the previous decorative techniques. Brush painting, a highly refined art in China, could tell complex stories with a web of hidden meanings. It gave the new porcelain both a strong and a subtle voice, and this new feature was crucial in the country where "to speak through objects" was, more than a traditional custom, a long-standing necessity.
From the Yuan Dynasty onward, porcelain pieces were talking objects; however, they talk to people who hold them in their hands, not to those who look at them behind the glass of a museum display case.
A FRUITFUL MELTING POT OF CULTURES
The blue and white porcelain revolution was made possible by a technical advance in the processing and firing of porcelain and by a happy and fertile contamination among multiple cultural influences. «Innovations in porcelain at Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty are directly attributable to the longstanding exchanges of materials and technology within the vast Mongol empire» (Laurie E. Barnes, cit.).
As we saw, the cobalt blue came from present-day Iran, and many ornamental motifs and artistic trends (the multi-layered patterns, a full composition, the horror vacui) came from the Muslim art world.
The use of under-glaze cobalt blue painted decorations on ceramic pieces is typical of central Asia. In the 8th and 9th centuries, «opacified tin glazes were used in Abbasid Iraq at Basra first to provide a suitable ground for new cobalt and lusterware techniques and subsequently to imitate Chinese sancai wares» (Laurie E. Barnes, cit.). Abbasid-era pieces have been found in present-day Iraq dating to the 9th century A.D., decades after the opening of a direct sea route from Iraq to China. In Iraq, cobalt blue was used for simple calligraphic or floral and geometric motifs on earthenware pieces, fired at relatively low temperatures. («Neither the raw material nor the technology for making the high-fired stonewares and porcelains typical of China was available in the Near East», Oliver Watson, see Bibliography).
All of the following Abbasid wares are the results of interactions between China and the Islamic world; however, the underglaze cobalt blue decoration was a local innovation.
Bowl Emulating Chinese Stoneware, painted in blue on opaque white glaze. Iraq, probably Basra, 9th century. Dimensions: height 2 3/8 in - 6 cm; diameter 8 in - 20.3 cm. The MET, New York, US.
«Ceramics such as this bowl are among the first examples to incorporate calligraphy as the main element of decoration. The Iraqi potters of the 9th century attempted to emulate the luminous quality and hard body of Chinese white wares by using a tin‑opacified white glaze» (The MET curators). The Arabic word ﻏِﺒﻄَﺔ, ghbTa, 'delight' is repeated twice in cobalt blue at the center.
LEFT: Bowl in tin-glazed earthenware with cobalt blue-painted geometric design. Iraq, probably Basra, 9th century. Dimensions: diameter 20.8 cm, height: 6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
CENTER: Bowl in white glazed earthenware with a sandy grey color, painted in very dark cobalt blue. Iraq, 9th century. Dimensions: diameter 20.8 cm, height: 6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
RIGHT: Earthenware bowl with a tin opacified glaze and cobalt blue-painted geometric design. Iraq, 9th century. Dimensions: diameter 24.5 cm, height: 7.5 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
«In the early 9th century, Iraqi potters began to imitate elegant white bowls imported from China. They used the local yellow clay, which they masked with an opaque white glaze. Soon they began to add new forms and decorations of different types in blue, green, and metallic luster. Once Iraqi potters could successfully imitate Chinese white ware, they began to treat the white surface of their ceramics as a blank canvas. Painting into the glaze in cobalt blue was a local innovation, which resulted in the world's first blue and white ceramics» (The Victoria and Albert Museum curators).
This blue and white ceramic spread over Persia as well. «Muslims within Il-Khanate <or Iranzamin> were already using cobalt oxide pigments to decorate vessels and architectural tiles. From 1256 to 1335, there were frequent exchanges of commodities, personnel, and information between the Mongolian courts of China and Iran. Documented exchanges with the Il-Khanate during the Wenzong reign indicate the possibility that Persian cobalt ore could have been presented to this emperor of China with a request that it be used as a decorative pigment on porcelain. Rashid al-Din (1247–1318), an adviser to the Il-Khan rulers in Tabriz, made a large special order for Chinese porcelain apothecary jars» (Laurie E. Barnes, cit.).
Oliver Watson writes: «The Persian potters of Kāšhān and elsewhere had been using the underglaze technique for more than a century before the Chinese began to do so, and they had used cobalt blue for their designs. Could the Persian underglaze technique have been adopted by the Chinese at the same time as the cobalt pigment?» (O. Watson, cit.).
I think that Chinese blue-and-white porcelain arose from a complex cross-cultural interchange. There was a "cross-fertilization of ideas" (Laurie E. Barnes' copyright) due to the collaborative contributions of Mongol, Muslim, Tibetan, and Chinese scholars, officials and artisans.
According to Oliver Watson and other scholars, the blue and white porcelain may have been developed in China expressly for the Near Eastern markets. The high number of cobalt blue decorated pieces found in Islamic lands supports this view. Thanks to the Pax Mongolica and the reopening of the Silk Road route, Islamic blue and white ware and cobalt-blue pigment were introduced to China, thus inspiring the Jingdezhen potters to experiment with new ways of decorating white porcelain pieces, more in tune with the Islamic dominant taste and the demands of Middle-Eastern markets.
However, the Chinese blue and white porcelain would not have revolutionized the history of art ceramics if it were a production, however massive, intended only for export. Laurie Barnes believes that «the driving force for the creation of Yuan blue and white was the desire to create a new type of porcelain that would appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of the Mongols» (Laurie E. Barnes, cit.). I go even further: I believe that the driving force was made up of a complex of political factors.
The Yuan Dynasty emperors were in a difficult position: they were not Han, and they were not Chinese in the traditional sense, but by ascending the throne of the Celestial Empire, they had also ceased to be the old nomads of the steppes. In a sense, they were no longer Mongols as they were before. They became rulers of a powerful empire whose history and culture were thousands of years old. China was an empire whose cultural identity was so strong and well-defined to be able to embrace, assimilate, and sinicize foreign artistic elements with astonishing creativity. China was a powerful 'sinicization' machine and the Mongols knew it, they knew they could have been chewed and digested to the point of disappearing. The Yuan emperors let themselves be sinicized: they honored the Tang and Song tradition, loved calligraphy and painting, and developed traditional arts giving them new impulses (think of Yuan drama, opera, and zájù, for example). The early foundation of the Fuliang Porcelain Bureau in Jingdezhen (1278) tells us that soon after their conquest, the Mongols were very concerned about controlling the cultural and artistic production, developing it in a direction functional to the maintenance of imperial power. Blue and white porcelain, recently arrived from the west, was regarded as the perfect embodiment of the irreducible specificity of the Mongol dynasty. White was the Mongolian color par excellence, hated by the Han, and blue was the color that symbolized Eternal Blue Heaven (Koke Mongke Tengri), the supreme god to whom Genghis Khan credited his military and political success. The blue and white luxury porcelain, capable of revolutionizing the previous ceramic art but grafting onto it like a house on its foundation, was the perfect symbol of the new dynasty, born from the union of blue heaven and white earth, and firmly secured on the pre-existing foundation. The Imperial control over Jingdezhen's best production granted the Yuan dynasty the development of a new, recognizable language of power. It is by no means a coincidence that Mongolian emperors gave outstanding pieces of the finest blue and white porcelain to foreign ambassadors and diplomats: they had perfectly learned the traditional Chinese art of "speaking through objects".
Chinese blue and white porcelain ware on display at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.
Chinese blue and white porcelain ware on display at The Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. By Xinhua News, China.
The secret weapon of the Mongols: their horse
This 2022 video by Anavad Studio shows a traditional wedding ceremony in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, south of Mongolia. This ceremony is called 'The Wedding of Erdos' and developed during the 15th century. Mongols are today one of the many officially recognized minority ethnic groups in China.
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