Chongzhen Emperor was the 15th and final Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was the fifth son of Emperor Taichang. Upon the death of his brother, Chongzhen ascended the throne at the age of sixteen. He set about repairing the deteriorating Ming government, by getting rid of the head eunuch who dominated his brothers reign, as well as several other corrupt officials. However, the damage done during the last reign could not be reversed. Partisan strife lead to conflict and unrest throughout the country. The depleted treasury did not allow Chongzhen the resources to gain proper control of the army, with generals leaving to join enemy forces for better pay. Ultimately, one of his main generals betrayed him, allowing the enemy to overrun Beijing. Chongzhen rang the bell to signal his ministers for an emergency conference, when he found that no one came, he climbed the hill next to the palace and hung himself.
Tianqi was the 15th and penultimate ruler of the Ming Dynasty. He was the eldest son of Taichang Emperor who ruled the empire for just 29 days. He was only fifteen years old when he became Emperor, following his father’s untimely death. The young ruler was illiterate and showed no interest in state affairs, he was suspected to have learning disabilities. The official duties fell into the hands of the eunuchs, which brought disrepair and corruption to the court. Tianqi’s reign was one of the stepping stones leading to the eventual downfall of the Ming Dynasty.
Wanli was Emperor Longqing’s third son and the 13th Emperor to rule the Ming Dynasty. He was just 9 years old when he ascended the throne, which meant that he was mainly aided in running the Empire by a statesman named Zhang Juzheng. Juzheng died shortly after Wanli turned 19, which left Wanli with full control of the state affairs. Fortunately, he proved himself to be a capable and diligent ruler, allowing the Ming Dynasty to prosper during the early part of his reign. Between 1600 and 1619, however the Emperor started becoming disenchanted and alienated from the court, going as far as extorting money from the government and his own people. This led to conflicts with powerful government ministers who eventually forced him to give up his throne.
Longqing was the 12th Emperor to rule the Ming Dynasty in China. He inherited the country in a state of disarray, due to the mismanagement and corruption at the reign of his father, Emperor Jiajing. He set about reforming his father’s policies and employing more competent officials while at the same time banning the corrupt eunuchs from court. He also re-opened trade with other nations in Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia. Although initially Longqing brought promise as an adequate Emperor, he eventually succumbed to the same vices as his father. He became more involved in Taoist philosophies and personal fulfilment towards the end of his reign.
Jiajing Emperor was the cousin of the former Zhengde Emperor and the 11th Ming ruler to reign the dynasty. Jiajing ascended the throne as a result of the sudden death of Zhengde Emperor, who did not leave an heir. According to ancient Chinese tradition, the emperor who was not an immediate descendant should be adopted by the previous one to retain the dynastic line. Jiajing was against this, which lead to a political conflict known as “The Great Rites Controversy”. The emperor prevailed which lead to many of the court to be banished or otherwise ruthlessly executed. This served as precedent for Jijing’s cruel and egocentric reign over the Empire.
Emperor Zhengde was the 10th Ming ruler and the only surviving son of the preceding Hongzhi Emperor. From a young age he was thoroughly educated in Confucian literature, and showed great promise as the leader of the Empire. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be the case. As opposed to his father, Zhengde was more interested in pleasure-seeking and personal fulfilment. He became notorious for his irresponsible behaviour, and reckless spending which led to political corruption within the court. Emperor Zhengde died in 1521, after a boating accident which led him to falling into the lake and later succumbing to illness as a result.
The reign of Zhengde marks the end of the classical period of the blue-and-white porcelain. At the start of the era, dragons still appear entwined with flowered scrolls, with stylized motifs. The decoration on dishes and on a few vases, with a thickly decorated raised rim, is pinched and overloaded. The blue has a greyish tint, and the glaze is cloudy. These pieces bear the Imperial mark in either four or six characters, inscribed within a double circle.
Hongzhi was the son of Chenghua Emperor and became the ninth emperor to rule the Ming Dynasty. His rule of the empire was known as the “Hongzhi Silver Age”, he was a wise and peace-loving ruler and the only known monogamous emperor in the history of China.
Porcelain made during the Hongzhi era, while maintaining the colourful styles developed in the latter part of the 15th century became increasingly stylised and weaker towards the end of the reign.
Chenghua Emperor was sixteen years old when he ascended the throne. He was the son of Zhengtong Emperor. Chenghua established himself by introducing new policies meant to reduce taxes and strengthen the empire. These changes however, did not last and towards the end of his reign, the official affairs were entrusted to the court eunuchs. His reign can be described as being more restrictive and autocratic, as the officials were prone to abuse of power, especially at the higher levels of the government. This led to corruption in the ruling class and wasteful spending by individuals which eventually depleted the empire’s treasury.
Xuande was the eldest son of Hongxi Emperor and was the fifth emperor to rule the Ming Dynasty. He strived to continue on the path of his grandfather Yongle Emperor’s “Golden Age”. Xuande was an accomplished painter and was fond of painting animals. He was regarded as the only Ming Emperor to display genuine artistic merit and interest.
Emperor Xuande also took a personal interest in porcelain. At Jingdezhen, some sixty kilns worked for the court. The majority of pieces bear the following mark transcription: Daming Xuande nianzhi (made during the Xuande reign of the Great Ming dynasty). It is neatly written, placed either under the base in two vertical lines, or near the outer rim in one horizontal line. Under Xuande, it became an established practice to mark ceramics; nevertheless authentic pieces without marks do exist.
The third emperor of the Ming Dynasty – Yongle reigned during the flourishing age of the early Ming dynasty. Yongle was the fourth son of the Hongwu emperor, who named Jianwen (his grandson) as successor to the throne shortly before his death. This resulted in a deadly feud between Jianwen and Yongle, ultimately culminating in Yongle’s rebellion against the emperor and sacking of the Imperial palace in 1402. Yongle usurped the throne and became the new emperor at the age of 42.
The Ming Dynasty can be considered as the golden age of blue-and-white porcelain. During Yongle’s reign, the wares were very distinguishable from the later periods. The blues were intense in tone, but uneven. Where the cobalt is more concentrated, there are dark flecks giving what is called the “heaped and piled” effect. These small dark dots, which the Jingdezhen potters of the 18th century were at great pains to copy, were not intentional in Ming times and the potters gradually succeeded by using more refined cobalts, eliminating impurities and improving their control of the firing and cooling of the kiln. The rendering of the little flecks in the 18th century is too regular to deceive the expert eye. With Yongle, blue-and-white porcelains appear to have received Imperial patronage. However the Imperial mark of this reign is very rarely inscribed on the pieces attributed to it: bowls, vases, gourds and large dishes with foliate rims were some of the very few marked wares.