Sunday, December 6, 1998
Chinese pottery flourished under court patronage of different dynasties of Imperial China, where skilled craftsmen devoted their lifetimes to perfecting the skills honed by those before them. They created masterpieces, only the best of which were sent to the royal patron, says Harkiran Sodhi
ONE of the finest examples of ancient Chinese art forms is their blue and white pottery. Some of the finest and most distinctive pieces of pottery were created by the Chinese long before such attempts were made (often in the form of blatant copies), like with Delft pottery, in the West.
Chinese pottery flourished under court patronage of different dynasties of Imperial China, where skilled craftsmen devoted their lifetimes to perfecting the skills honed by those before them, creating masterpieces, only the best of which were sent to the royal patrons. Of course, different dynasties left a distinctive stamp on pottery of the period.
The Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) saw many innovations come into the traditional Chinese pottery designs largely due to the Mongol invasion, shapes the usage of colour charged. Pottery painted in two or three colours, with bold decorations carved on the object were some significant changes seen during this period.
Another major innovation was the use of cobalt blue as the main decoration colour. The colour was probably imported and soon this new blue and white pottery became quite the rage. The coarser varieties made in southern China were used for trade while the finest pieces from Ching-te-chen were selected for the court.
Designs on the pottery were bold, precise and usually filled the entire space with panels and borders. Popular motifs used to decorate the blue and white pottery pieces in this period were dragons, lotuses, fish, floral scrolls and vines as well as Taoist figures.
In the early period of the Ming dynasty, the Yuan designs on the blue and white pottery were not only continued but also changed and refined in the colours, shapes and designs. Considered unsuitable for court use due to its coarse texture, the first Imperial reign mark found on the pottery was from the Hsuan-te-period (1425-35).
By then designs had changed to delicate and beautiful floral designs and dragons. Popular shapes were vases, jars, dishes and stem cups, on which the deep-blue designs were painted. Often an underglaze was used in either red or blue with the other colour contrasted for the design.
What set the Ming pottery apart from the earlier pieces was the use of polychrome enamels and glazes as well as the delicate classic blue decoration. By the Cheng-hua period (1464-87) the designs had become over-ornate and between 1505-21 Arabic inscriptions were often found on the pottery made for the emperor and his Muslim eunuchs.
Pottery quality was poor in the Chia-Ching (1521-61) and Wan-li (1572-1620) periods. After suffering a setback in the 17th century, blue and white pottery in the Kang-hsi period was resurrected with the blue now of a more intense shade and intensity with the use of cobalt washes.
Blue and white pottery continued to flourish in China. The workmanship improved with the shapes becoming better balanced and the glazes becoming even more perfect and brilliant in hue. Decorations which were a pictorial representation were often used and eggshell thin porcelain sometimes with a secret decoration started.
Ironically, the best of Chinese pottery is not in China. The Encyclopedia Britannica says:
"Today two of the most important collections of Yuan and Ming blue and white are in Teheran (formerly the Collection of Sheikh Safi at Ardebil) and in Istanbul (Topkapi Saray Museum)" .
The beauty of the Chinese blue and white porcelain is undeniable, while the unique shapes and usage of porcelain objects were intriguing. Pillows have been seen in many shapes and sizes but the Chinese liked their pillows made out of porcelain. These pillows came in many different shapes and designs, one of the more commonly seen designs was in the shape of a reclining boy whose back makes up the nest of the pillow.
Just as we keep dogs or cats as pets in our homes, the Chinese have always loved crickets and keep them as pets. Even today if you stop to rest in a park in Hong Kong in the evening, you will find elderly Chinese who bring crickets in little baskets and hang them up wherever they can. So it is understandable that in imperial households earlier there were special crafted, truly exquisite porcelain cricket boxes, to show off the pet in.
In the accompanying photograph, if you look at the top left, you will see an 18th century double plate with a warmer for hot water to keep food warm. The plate on the top right in an early Ming piece with a landscape design. The second row from the top as two vases, while the third row as a 19th century pieces, an incense burner (left) and a jar. The fourth row also features jars.
| Interview | Bollywood Bhelpuri | Living Space | Nature | Garden Life | Fitness |
| Travel | Modern Classics | Your Option | Time off | A Soldier's Diary |
| Wide Angle | Caption Contest |