The monochrome porcelains and biscuit-fired wares of the Qing period are relatively uniform throughout, and can therefore be treated together – not separately by reign, as opposed to the polychrome porcelains, where each reign has its inherent character. The key to the beauty of these pieces, much appreciated in both China and Europe at that time, lies in their technical accomplishment, in the brilliance and finesse of the colours, and the quality and texture of the glaze. All the glazes and enamels are vitrified coverings based on various elements (copper, iron, lead, manganese oxide, etc.), and are best classified according to the firing temperature.
The Emperor Wanli ruled China from 1573 to 1620, towards the end of the Ming Dynasty period, which lasted for more than three centuries until 1644. During Wanli’s reign, porcelain makers increasingly produced pieces for the export market to European countries like the Netherlands, as well as for the thriving domestic market. The Dutch East India Company was responsible for much of the export trade, and pieces fetched high prices at auctions in the Netherlands.
Kangxi was the third emperor of the Qing dynasty and ruled from 1662 to 1722. The best of Famille-Verte porcelain was produced between about 1685 and 1725, with most of it manufactured at the Jingdezhen Imperial factories. These had been reopened at Kangxi’s order after closure during fighting occasioned by the ‘Rebellion of the Three Feudatories’ from 1774-76. Some Famille-Verte pieces were also produced in Canton.
Famille-Rose porcelain gets its name from the pinkish hue that characterises the pieces. This colouring is created by adding colloidal gold, tiny fragments of gold suspended in water, to the glaze. The technique was introduced to China from Europe during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng, who ruled from 1723 to 1735.
Some authorities give Jesuit priests the credit for bringing the process to China, and the Chinese themselves called Famille-rose ‘fencai’, meaning foreign colour.
Cinnabar Lacquer pieces have a distinctive red colour combined with highly detailed carving. The origins of cinnabar lacquer-ware are lost in the mists of time, but are believed to date back as far as 2,300 years ago. In today’s market, the best available pieces are from the mid- to late-Qing dynasty period of the 18th and 19th centuries, although pieces from the 17th century occasionally appear at auction.
Earlier pieces, dating back as far as the 13th century, are only to be found in museums or private collections. Even those in museum collections are rarely seen because they are so light sensitive.
In 1743, T’ang Ying, overseer of the Jiangxi Imperial kilns, wrote that “Both round ware and vases of white porcelain are painted in enamel colours in a style imitated from Western foreigners, which is consequently called Yang-ts’ai, or ‘foreign colouring.'”
Yang-ts’ai ceramics feature Western shading and perspective techniques, white pigment to show light patterns on leaf and flower motifs, and Western-style floral formations.
T’ang Ying is given much of the credit for taking Western influences and melding them with the themes and style of traditional Chinese art. This exceptional craftsman also introduced the sgraffiato technique, a sophisticated method of ceramic engraving.
The Song Imperial kilns were in two main locations: at the former capital city of Bianjing (present day Kaifeng city) during the Northern Song Dynasty, and later at the city of Hangzhou in the Southern Song Dynasty after the regime moved southward. The Northern Song Imperial kilns produced celadon, but with various shades and lustre in the glaze. The glaze colours included light greenish-blue, moon white, glossy grey and yellow-green. Though the colours were different, they all contained the common element of green or blue-green, and their beauty was heightened by the different coloured bodies. The bodies can be blackish grey, dark grey, light grey or earth yellow, and when coated in glaze, produced different greens and blues. Since the body colours were quite deep, it conveyed a sense of sophistication.
One of the “Five Great Kilns,” Jun stonewares with their thick, lavender-blue glaze and areas of purple and violet were formerly known in the West as “Clair de Lune” and came from the Henan province. As of today, over a hundred kiln sites have been discovered. Some specialised in producing porcelain ware for the Imperial courts, with a history dating back to the Tang Dynasty. According to tradition they were mainly manufactured under the Northern Song Dynasty at Yangzhe which under the Jin Dynasty was renamed Junzhou. The name “Junuao” only appears in Chinese texts in the Ming period; for this reason some experts have reservations about the dating. However, the excavations at Jungzhou in 1964 have established that Jun ware appeared in the Song period with increased manufacture during the Jin period.