THE EARLY MING PERIOD: THE GOLDEN AGE FROM 1368 TO 1435
During the Yuan Dynasty period, Jingdezhen was the most active center of porcelain manufacture; during the following dynasty, the Great Ming, the city became the 'capital of porcelain' overshadowing all other kiln complexes.
After the Yuan imperial kiln closed for the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty, Yuan-style wares continued to be produced at private kilns in Jingdezhen by those potters who had previously worked for the imperial court. Such a brief transitional phase occurred before the Ming style developed.
In the past, some scholars believed that early blue and white porcelain had to wait for several decades before gaining full acceptance in China. The early Ming work Gegu Yaolun (格古要論, Important discussions about assessing antiques), a treatise on collecting antiques by Cao Zhao aka Cao Mingzhong, described Yuan qinghua ware (Yuan blue and white porcelain) as "exceedingly vulgar".
(PLEASE note: blue and white porcelain ware, 青花瓷, qīng huā cí, /tʃɪŋ-huá tzə/)
The new kind of porcelain was initially reputed as too showy and flashy by some literati, nonetheless, the story of the David Vases shows that blue and white ware was produced for local consumption, not just for export, and that in the mid-14th century, the best qing hua pieces were already considered prestigious enough to support a formal homage.
The attitude of the new Han dynasty toward the old Mongolian one was ambiguous. On the one hand, they welcomed the Yuan heritage, the blue and white porcelain. In 1369, the first Ming emperor Hongwu established the imperial kiln in Jingdezhen, following the Mongol institution and their habit of reserving the best quality for imperial use. This decision was motivated both by the desire to oversee the excellence and exclusivity of the pieces reserved for the emperor and by the need to control every aspect of high-quality qing hua ci production for a political reason: those pieces continued to be the gifts most widely used by Chinese diplomats around the world. They were, in other words, the most visible art form meant to represent the power and refinement of the ruling Chinese dynasty. They were 'talking objects', in brief. (Note that the third Ming Emperor Yongle tasked Zheng He, one of the greatest explorers of world history, with commanding maritime expeditions in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and beyond. The fleet admiral brought hundred of exquisite blue and white porcelain and silk fabric pieces as main diplomatic gifts and trading goods). It was therefore crucial for the Ming dynasty to develop a new artistic style complying with a different idea of beauty, and a 'political' language more in tune with the Han tradition and leagues apart from the old language of the 'foreign' Mongol dynasty.
As Suzanne Valenstein noted, «sharp lines marking political shifts in China's history are not reflected in patterns of change in its ceramics, where the evolution in both physical qualities and style almost always occurred by degrees» (cit.). The Ming artistic language and style developed gradually: if the early Ming qing hua ci pieces still showed the full influence of the late Yuan style (the master potters were likely still the same), during the reigns of Yongle (1402–1424) and Xuande (1425/26–1453), the overall artistic quality reached recognizable, unique features of excellence. For many scholars, the Yongle and Xuande periods make up a sort of 'golden age' of blue and white porcelain ware. In China, the qing hua ci from the Xuande period was so highly valued in the following Qing Dynasty that between the late 17th and the early 18th centuries, many pieces were gifted to the emperors for their birthdays.
«Potting techniques had been further refined: the body is white, fine-grained, and wonderfully smooth to the touch. Showing a characteristic surface unevenness that, appropriately, has been compared with the peel of an orange <the so-called 'orange-peel effect' on the surface> the thick and brilliant glaze has an especially rich quality. A general reduction of decorative elements and a corresponding emphasis on the large principal motif give blue and white wares a new sense of formality» (S. Valenstein, cit.).
The densely patterned ornamentation and the exuberant, intricate details of the Yuan era began to give way to a more balanced relationship between the blue color and the shiny, pure whiteness of the glazed porcelain body.
While during the Hongwu reign there was a shortage of imported from Persia cobalt blue, during the Yongle and Xuande periods, the supply of precious cobalt ore was guaranteed by the returning fleets of Zheng He’s (1371-1433) maritime expeditions. Therefore, the blue color on high-end porcelain pieces was vibrant and intense and still showed the characteristic "heaped and piled" effect due to the presence of iron oxide and other factors (such as the firing temperature): «dark flecks especially in the gathering place of pigment and (...) dark grey, brown and rusty color on the surfaces of glaze which are called “black spot” or “iron spot”. Spots with metallic luster are commonly known as “tin light”» (Wenxuan Wang, Jian Zhu, et al., Microscopic analysis of “iron spot” on blue-and-white porcelain, see Bibliography). Since the "heaped and piled" effect was typical of the Yuan porcelain, it could be inferred that the early Ming potters used an imported cobalt ore rich in iron (Fe) and poor in manganese (Mn), similar to that employed during the Yuan era. The effect will disappear in the following decades when the Persian cobalt ore will be mixed with or replaced by a local one with a different Fe/Mn ratio.
Ming blue and white porcelains were typically lighter and smaller than those made in the previous Yuan era. Only in the late Ming period, during the reigns of Jiajing (1522-1566) and Wanli (1573-1620), the Jingdezhen potters reverted back to the large and heavy pieces that demanded complicated techniques to fire.
The ornamentation saw the triumph of the vegetal over the animal motifs: peonies, lotus flowers, chrysanthemums, Bao Xiang hua scrolls, pomegranates, grapes, pine trees, bamboos, and plums took the central stage. However, the dragon and the phoenix were still widespread noble emblems.
«Auspicious motifs, dragons, phoenixes, and Buddhist and Daoist symbols, decorated the surfaces of most objects and materials used within imperial contexts. These motifs, symbols and colours combined to form a rich visual language that served to assert visible expressions of imperial virtue, rank, authority and legitimacy. Dragons and phoenixes, which represented male yang and female yin principles, featured prominently and prolifically in the visual language of the imperial court arts. Five-clawed dragons, in particular, were exclusively restricted to imperial use and forbidden to Ming commoners.» (Ming: The Golden Empire, National Museums Scotland, see Bibliography).