Tianqi was the 15th and penultimate ruler of the Ming Dynasty. He was the eldest son of Taichang Emperor who ruled the empire for just 29 days. He was only fifteen years old when he became Emperor, following his father’s untimely death. The young ruler was illiterate and showed no interest in state affairs, he was suspected to have learning disabilities. The official duties fell into the hands of the eunuchs, which brought disrepair and corruption to the court. Tianqi’s reign was one of the stepping stones leading to the eventual downfall of the Ming Dynasty.
This relatively short reign produced an interesting group of wares made primarily for the Japanese market. Japanese merchants were deeply interested in tea, and came to Jingdezhen to purchase ceramic tea ware. There was once a merchant in Kyoto, who specialized in Chinese handicrafts and had a love of porcelain. He dealt large quantities of porcelain goods in his business. Through merchants in Nanjing, he requested craftsmen to make models of the best Japanese tea sets from Oribe and the best water jars from Enshu, which were then sent to Jingdezhen for making porcelain versions.
Towards the end of the Dynasty, with upheaval within the Ming government, the Imperial kilns ceased production. The private kilns at Jingdezhen benefited from newly discovered sources of kaolin clay and were now free of the restraints imposed by the Imperial kilns. Jingdezhen craftsmen produced products of different styles and characteristics for the particular needs of the customers. For the Japanese, since the Oribe tea merchants all preferred bold and unrestrained designs, Jingdezhen artisans made Qinghua porcelain with highly impressionistic illustrations, as well as what the Chinese now call the Honglucai, also known as Tianqi Chihui. The rugged styles of these impressionistic blue-and-white and Honglucai wares were highly acclaimed by the Japanese; many pieces of this time period are still preserved today.
The decorations were made mostly in blue-and-white, but sometimes also in wucai colours, this type of porcelain falls into two different categories. The first is an informal type, painted with figures, landscapes or vegetation and is rarely marked. These simple wares were often used in the Japanese tea ceremony. The second type of wares, known as Shonzui, are more meticulously made and often feature tight, geometric patterns. The patterns consisted of surfaces divided into geometric windows of either equal of unequal areas; each area would be adorned with fruits, flowers, and other attractive images. These large geometric windows were fitted with smaller windows in between, which contained the “eight treasures,” “pearl and jade,” and other patterns. These geometric windows were like the petals of the lotus flower, thus were referred to by the Japanese as “lotus hands”.
The blue-and-white porcelain of Jingdezhen during that time period had two variations – thick and thin. Those with a thick body were mostly shipped for Japan, while the thin-bodied pieces stayed in China or were sold to other countries. Wares from this period may also have rims dressed in an iron-brown glaze to prevent chipping.