Hongwu was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. In every aspect, the activity of Hongwu meant a return to China’s ancient traditions: the reorganisation of agriculture, a return to the examination system, the traditional Tang costume, and the Imperial red colour.
After 1369, porcelain production was centralised at Jingdezhen, the site of both the Imperial factory and several private workshops. The Imperial kiln monopolised the best raw materials and manpower to produce porcelain for the palace. Some other provincial centres continued to function, notably at Dehua in the Fujian province, at Yixing in the Jiangsu province , Longquan in Zheijiang province, Cixian in Hebei province, as well as the Jiangxi and Guangdou provinces. With the sites continuing production in this way, and earlier kilns being put back into production, it is no easy task to precisely date the earliest Ming wares.
The Jingdezhen kilns themselves were elliptical in shape, measuring about 5.40 meters at the top and 2.70 meters at the bottom, with a length of 9 meters. The high entrance was very narrow and only just allowed access. The saggars were piled on top of each other. Then the kiln was sealed with bricks, leaving two openings, one to let in air and the other for adding wood to the fire. At the end of the kiln was a chimney. Twenty-four hours were needed to fire the blue-and-white wares, two days for cooling before the kiln could be opened, and a further day before the potter could touch the saggars.
Correctly identifying genuine Hongwu porcelain requires a keen eye for the right details, as well as thorough research. During Hongwu reign, there were approximately 30 private kilns and 20 Imperial kilns producing porcelain for the Imperial court. The competition between the private kilns was evident in the quality of the produced wares, which was beneficial for the court. The blend of private and Imperial kilns resulted in a wide variety of quality for Hongwu porcelain. Many of the private kilns were producing such high quality pieces, that they would later become Imperial kilns during Xuande Emperor reign.
Privately produced porcelain of the early Ming era tends to be slightly heavier, in comparison to the delicate, more refined pieces of the Imperial kilns. The fact that these kilns used less refined materials meant that the wares were slightly below par in terms of brightness compared to the Imperial factories. Some firing flaws and impurities were also evident. The body tends to be dense and white with a thick glaze. The whiteness of the wares would improve in the later Yongle period, however it must be noted that these private kilns were still vastly brighter and higher quality than some of the provincial kilns of the same era. There is little evidence of manganese being used in the blue-and-white wares of the period. This was due to the fact that the cobalt used for the blue colouring was entirely imported and lacked this chemical. The result is a bright deep blue, as opposed to the greyish blue which occurred when manganese is present.
The decoration is simple but not refined. The subjects and scenes are very similar to the previous Yuan dynasty, in fact many of the same artists carried on into the Ming period. Floral decoration, dragons, phoenixes and various other animals such as deer, fish and aquatic scenes. These motifs were all carried out in a bold manner. With exception of some Imperial pieces, borders were kept simple with the use of waves, classic scroll, key fret and bands. Panels were usually large and uncluttered. The footing tended to be thick and deep. A new feature was the glazed base, which was uncommon during the Yuan period. It is one of the methods to distinguish Yuan and early Ming styles, there are some exceptions to the rule however and it should not be used as the sole indicator.
It is very difficult to authenticate genuine Hongwu era porcelain, mainly because most of them are considered to be unmarked. The ones that are deemed genuine by historians and archaeologists are the ones found from their origin i.e. Hongwu’s tomb. However, this is not a reliable method of dating the piece by any means, since it is likely that some of the pieces could come from the Yuan or other earlier period. Even wares marked with the actual Hongwu mark, are likely to come from the later Ming period, marked in remembrance of the first great Ming emperor.