White porcelain was of special significance for the court during the Yongle reign (1403-24). The sophistication of the production of white-glazed porcelain during the Yongle period of the Ming dynasty may be attributed to the Emperor’s personal fondness for white vessels.
The production of white-glazed porcelain during the Yongle period achieved technical virtuosity, distinguished by the very fine white body clay and luminous white glaze, which earned the name tianbai or ‘sweet white’ glaze. Tests, conducted on excavated pieces of Tianbai wares from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, discovered that the pure white porcelain resulted from the combination of a kaolin-rich paste with very low iron and titanium content and a glaze containing mainly glaze stone and no glaze ash.
The term tianbai was apparently coined by Huang Yizheng, a writer of the Wanli period (1573-1620) in his Shiwu ganzhu of 1591. In this book he characterizes the glaze, which he thought was common both in the Yongle and Xuande (1426-1435) periods, as “white like congealed fat, immaculate like piled-up snow”.
The importance of white wares is certainly due in part to their relevance in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, which the Yongle Emperor passionately patronized and which is reflected in Buddhist shapes such as ‘monk’s cap’ ewers and stem bowls, as well as probably tens of thousands of porcelain bricks ordered for the Porcelain Pagoda in Nanjing, of which over 2000 have been unearthed at the kiln sites.
The imperial commissioning of white wares, however, extended well beyond pieces used in a Buddhist context. Besides foreign shapes, particularly copied after metal wares from the Islamic lands of the Middle East, and shapes whose source and usage are still not properly understood, there are wares of purely Chinese character such as the yuhuchunping or the meiping. Meiping vases, or jars, since in the Yongle period they were probably still used as wine containers rather than flower vases, were made in various sizes and despite – or perhaps exactly because of – their quintessentially Chinese flair were not only popular in China, but also abroad. Fine Yongle examples are preserved in the Chinese palace collections in Beijing and Taipei as well as in the Safavid and Ottoman royal collections in Iran and Turkey, but otherwise are very rare.
Tianbai glazed wares witnessed a resurgence during the Kangxi, Yongzhend and Qianlong periods.