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.
With this period however, another great period of blue-and-white begins. In terms of technicality, there was undoubted progress: the fine dense body of a pure white, the glaze thick and uniform, loses its “orange peel” roughness. Iron impurities have all but disappeared, as have the flecks of blue cobalt, though some minor smudges still dull the colour.
The ink blue of the period came to a turning point during Chenhua’s reign. The colour changed from strong and exuberant to a more restrained hue. The blue cobalt material came from Raozhou of the Jiangxi province, which tends to be paler in colour. There is a more refined subtlety and delicacy to the painting style.
Though technical of materials and firing made the pottery virtually flawless, the decoration was less free and spontaneous compared to the Xuande period. The drawings have less vitality and, to some extent, more sophistication and effeminacy, reflecting the taste of the emperor – a man subject to the influence of his entourage: his eunuchs and his concubine, Wan. This femininity is evidenced in the shuang gou present on much of the blue-and-white porcelain. Shuang gou (double stroke) is a style of writing and painting. It basically means to outline each word or object, so that it is represented in two strokes or gestures (such as a wood engraving). The outlined strokes are often in darker blue while the inside is painted in a textureless light blue.
The floral designs are often treated “naturalistically”: hibiscus, mallow, poppy, lilly, chrysanthemum and lotus are made into graceful garlands on the outside and occasionally, on the inside of some pieces, especially bowls. Dragons, phoenixes and other mythical animals, as well as Buddhist and Taoist emblems, are found on a number of pieces. In this period, too, appears a new type of decoration: scenes of children or of comical figures not far removed from caricatures, contrasting with the rest of the decoration. These pieces bear no marks.
Shapes repeat – only rather more elegantly – those of the Xuande period. Fragile flaring bowls form one of the most characteristic products of the reign of Chenghua. They are called “palace bowls” though there is nothing to indicate that they were made solely for the Imperial palace.
Appearing in the reign of Chenghua, is doucai or “contrasting colour” decoration – the most typical of all Ming porcelains. It combines brightly coloured enamel glazes (red, yellow, green and aubergine), applied over the glaze with blue underglaze. The latter is largely used to outline the motifs, as, for instance, in the extremely delicate pieces, usually made for the Imperial palace. Pieces like the famous “chicken cups”- bowls decorated with roosters, hens, chicks and peonies. The bluish-white background is mostly left blank, thereby highlighting the exuberance and refinement of the polychrome enamel colours which are ringed like gems against the blue setting painted under the glaze. The scenes are sketched out entirely in blue before the enamels are added – a defining characteristic of these wares.
There weren’t many monochromes produced during Chenghua’s reign, however there was a new type of decoration that was introduced during this period. A dragon is incised onto the body, with glaze running over the whole of the piece, apart from the dragon motif. After a high-temperature firing, the dragon stands out in biscuit against the glazed ground. It is covered entirely in green enamel and the piece is fired again at a lower temperature. Another group decorated with green dragons on a yellow background appeared at the end of the 15th century but these pieces were enamelled all over.