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Early Ming Folk kiln blue and white Revisit

Recently I have the opportunity to attend a series of lectures on Jingdezhen Qingbai and blue and white conducted by Professor Ouyang Shibin of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute.  The lectures are enlightening and some information he imparted regarding Yuan and Early Ming Blue and white required a re-examination of current dating of early Ming folk kiln Blue and white. 

According to him, some recent tests revealed that Yuan blue and white, even those which appeared greyish and commonly found on the lower end pieces, used imported cobalt.   Another surprise is that tests on some Xuande imperial blue and white samples supplied by Prof Liu Xinyuan revealed that local cobalt was used. 

Hongwu blue and white are now confirmed to have used imported cobalt despite the greyish appearance. If indeed all Yuan Blue and white were painted using imported cobalt, then cobalt supply during Ming Hongwu period would pose a problem as foreign contacts and trade were forbidden.   The remaining cobalt acquired during the Yuan period would be scarce and precious.  Hence, not surprisingly they were used only for the imperial wares.  The fact that no local cobalt was used as a substitute to produce blue and white might be an indication that they were indeed not available yet.  Instead, during the Hongwu period, copper red and iron red pieces were also produced in considerable quantity to meet the need of the palace.  The supply of imported cobalt would have resumed in Yongle period and possibly brought back by the fleets of Admiral Zhenghe whose maritime trips reached as far as East Africa.

During the  early Ming period, a relatively high degree of  control was imposed on  political and cultural development.   For eg. during the reign of Hongwu, a decree was issued in the year 1371 which forbid certain subjects such as previous emperors, queens, sages or saints, dragon, phoenix, lion and chilin on porcelains.  During the Hongwu period, there were many instances of capital punishment for infringement of the policies.  To quote an example, an artist named Sheng Zhu was executed because he painted the drawing of a celestial being riding a dragon.  That was deemed a grave crime as the dragon is associated with the emperor. 

Hence,  Hongwu imperial blue and white have only motifs which are limited in scope.  They consisted meanly of various type of flowers essentially.  There were none with human subjects.  The composition and style of the decoration still show influence of Yuan blue and white. 


If we examine motifs commonly attributed to Hongwu folk kiln blue and white, they  consisted of simplified cloud motif, scholar with background with cloud, floral scrolls, floral scrolls with sanskrit/tibetan character or buddhist precious objects, embroidered balls with ribbons.  All the motifs were new and stylistically clearly different and not found during the Yuan period.   It would seem inconceivable that the folk kilns created all those new motifs in an environment which stifled artistic expression.  Most  artists lived in constant fear and understandably would be reluctant to attempt new designs which may be deemed taboos and incurred severe punishments. 

Most of the above motifs started to appear on imperial blue and white from Yongle/Xuande period onward.  In fact, mostly only gained popularity from Xuande period onward.  On imperial wares they are executed in more elaborate form.  It is most likely that the potters from folk kilns copied them but simplified them to facilitate quick execution and large scale production to meet the needs of common follks.



Hence, the possibility that  Ming Folk kiln blue and white may have appeared later than Hongwu or even Yongle period merits further study.  This seems incredulous but archeological evidence appears to support it.  If we take note of dated excavated Folk kiln Ming blue and white wares from graves, there were none earlier than Zhengtong Period.  According to Professor Ouyang, those excavated graves from Xuande and earlier consisted of white wares and other wares instead.  

If indeed there is no local cobalt use on Hongwu blue and white, the answer to when local cobalt was first used is important.  From the series of tests done on Xuande pieces, it is now certain that at least some also used local cobalt.  But it does not give any clue on whether the local cobalt was first used by imperial kiln or folk kilns.  But what is certain is that the availability of local cobalt at least by Xuande period would enable folk kilns to produce blue and white wares.  More studies on the cobalt used and more reliable dating of Yunnan blue and white might also throw light on when folk kiln blue and whites were first produced.  

Personally, I think folk kiln blue and white were produced on larger scale only after Xuande period.  Historically, we know that Xuande period produced hugh amount of imperial blue and white.  But upon his death, his mother who disapproved of his extravagance life style ordered porcelain production to be sized down.  This would definitely force many imperial kiln workers to seek employment with the folk kilns instead.  It would have facilitated the transfer of technology and raised the quality of folk kiln porcelain production. 

Two recorded events would substantiate  this development.  On the first year of Zhengtong (A.D 1436) , a civilian named Lu zhishun presented 50,000 pieces of porcelain as tribute to the court.  Another instance was the  decree  issued on 12th year of Zhengtong (A.D. 1447 ) which prohibited the production of color glaze such as yellow, purple, red or blue glazes including those with underglazed blue design.  The need to issue the decree showed that many folk kilns must have produced them despite the prohibition.


By NK Koh (25 Sep 2008)


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