Asian Antiques Appraisals And Valuations

Exploring the World of Chinese Blue-and-White Porcelain

In the annals of Chinese ceramic history, the color blue has a unique and significant place, particularly during the Tang dynasty (618-907). The remarkable blue hues in glazed pottery and porcelain were made possible by cobalt ores imported from Persia, a precious and scarce resource at that time, used sparingly.

During the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the distinct shades of blue seen on blue-and-white porcelain were determined by different types of cobalt ore and innovative application techniques.

Cobalt ores have a rich history of use as pigments in West Asia dating as far back as 2000 B.C. In China, their initial application was in glassmaking during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.). The flourishing Silk Road trade route facilitated the introduction of imported cobalt to China, leading to its incorporation, along with other lead-based glazes, in low-fired earthenware. This marked the rapid rise of three-colored sancai wares.

Imported cobalt played a crucial role during the Song dynasty (960-1279) in the production of monochrome wares. However, artisans of that era considered the use of cobalt blue impossible. It wasn’t until the Yuan dynasty under Mongol rule that blue-and-white porcelain reached its pinnacle, resulting in more intricate and diverse designs. This development also had a religious significance, as the Mongols revered mythical ancestors symbolized by the ‘hazy blue’ wolf and the ‘white’ fallow doe. Blue-and-white porcelain became reserved for special occasions and diplomatic gifts.

The cobalt used for Yuan wares, known as Samarra Blue (sumali qing) or Sumatra Blue (suboni qing), was rich in iron, creating a glaze with darker blue spots due to the accumulation of iron oxide in certain areas. These blue-and-white wares found favor among local dignitaries and enjoyed wide popularity as diplomatic gifts and merchandise.

During the early Ming period under the reigns of Yongle (1403-1425) and Xuande (1426-1435), smalt cobalt brought back by Zheng He’s maritime expeditions remained the primary source for blue-and-white porcelain. Subsequent improvements in firing processes resulted in subtle variations in ‘heap and pile’ characteristics, with rich and brilliant cobalt blue tones visible in the glazed surface.

The supply of imported cobalt briefly faced disruptions during the Hongwu period (1368-1398) due to foreign trade restrictions. As a result, locally mined cobalt, distinguished by its high manganese content, gained prominence after the Xuande period (1426-1435). From the Chenghua (1465-1487) to the Zhengde (1506-1521) periods, local cobalt produced a softer, pale blue color.

A unique blend of imported and local cobalts emerged, including ‘Mineral Blue’ (shi qing or shizi qing) from Jiangxi province. This cobalt, known for its dull leaden-blue hue, was frequently used in minyao (folk kiln) blue-and-white ceramics. When mixed with ‘Muslim Blue’ (huiqing), the most precious variety of ‘Mineral Blue’ from Central Asia, Xinjiang, and Yunnan provinces, it yielded a distinctive purplish-blue tone. The vividness of the glaze, ranging from violet blue to silvery blue, depended on the proportion of ‘Mineral Blue’ used.

The preferences for these various shades were influenced by the tastes of different emperors. For instance, the Xuande Emperor favored a purplish-blue color with a heaping and piling effect, while the Chenghua Emperor preferred a lighter tone.

If Yuan blue-and-white marked the first zenith, the periods from Yongle (1403-1425) to Chenghua (1465-1487) could be seen as the second, with Chongzhen (1611-1644) to Kangxi (1662-1722), known as the Transitional Period, representing the third phase. During this era, the application of ‘Zhejiang Blue’ (Zheliao) – cobalt mined in Shaoxing, Jinhua, and Quzhou counties in Zhejiang province – resulted in intense and brilliant cobalt blue shades with an almost three-dimensional quality on Kangxi blue-and-white porcelain.

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