The Shunzhi Emperor ruled China from 1644 to 1661, he was the third emperor of the Manchu Qing Dynasty and the first of the Qing to rule all of China. His birth name was Fulin, but upon his ascension to the throne at the young age of five, it was decided that his period of reign would be known as “Shunzhi”. Due to his young age, the actual power was held by the appointed regents – Princes Dorgon and Jirgalang. During his short reign he brought many changes to the history of China. He tried to fight corruption and reduce the influence of the Manchu nobility in Chinese politics. He was also a scholar and an open minded emperor who dabbled in astronomy and new technologies coming from the West. The Emperor died from smallpox in 1650 at a young age of 22. Shunzhi’s successor was his third son, Xuanye who went on to rule for the 60 year period known as the Kangxi Era.
Not a lot is known about porcelain from this period mainly due to the fact that up until 1980s, Shunzhi’s reign has been ignored by scholars and researchers in China and the West. Exports were greatly reduced and no Imperial porcelain was produced in that era. The biggest breakthrough in identifying Shunzhi period pottery, came in the early 1980s with the recovery of a Chinese shipwreck containing 23,000 porcelain pieces. This find has enabled scholars to accurately identify Shunzhi porcelain although it bore little to no marks. The historical texts and the pieces recovered from the wreck, indicate that the porcelain was in fact produced in response to demand from the scholarly gentry and the merchants from the South coast of China.
The most challenging aspect of identifying Shunzhi pieces is the fact that mid – 17 Century porcelain does not bear any dates or marks. The 17th Century was truly the last unexplored period of Chinese porcelain production and the short seventeen years of Shunzhi’s reign was the least well-known of all. Although some of the porcelain from the late Ming Dynasty (era immediately before Shunzhi) was date marked, and so was the porcelain of the Kangxi era (period immediately after), the interim period was a mystery. Despite all of this, it has since been possible to identify the works simply by looking at the designs, which was quite distinguishable from the Ming and Kangxi eras.
The 1644 civil war in China had greatly disrupted the established markets for Chinese porcelain. The mainland potters and artisans had to mainly rely on the patronage of the affluent scholarly class as well as the wealthy merchants and collectors from the Yangzi valley. This wealthier and more educated clientele meant that produced objects were of great beauty and were meant to be looked upon as pieces of art. Bold new colours, shapes and painted scenery amalgamated into a single style which is now known as Shunzhi. The dominant varieties are the blue & white porcelains, as well as the blue underglaze, five colour wucai pieces. Popular motifs include human figures, animals – both real and mythical, plants and flowers. Shunzhi ceramics painters were highly regarded for their beautiful landscape decorations, specifically the “master of the rocks” paintings which depicted mountain scenes in blue and white porcelain. Other painting themes included fishing, war scenes and narratives from traditional Chinese novels and folk tales.