The third emperor of the Ming Dynasty – Yongle reigned during the flourishing age of the early Ming dynasty. Yongle was the fourth son of the Hongwu emperor, who named Jianwen (his grandson) as successor to the throne shortly before his death. This resulted in a deadly feud between Jianwen and Yongle, ultimately culminating in Yongle’s rebellion against the emperor and sacking of the Imperial palace in 1402. Yongle usurped the throne and became the new emperor at the age of 42.
The Ming Dynasty can be considered as the golden age of blue-and-white porcelain. During Yongle’s reign, the wares were very distinguishable from the later periods. The blues were intense in tone, but uneven. Where the cobalt is more concentrated, there are dark flecks giving what is called the “heaped and piled” effect. These small dark dots, which the Jingdezhen potters of the 18th century were at great pains to copy, were not intentional in Ming times and the potters gradually succeeded by using more refined cobalts, eliminating impurities and improving their control of the firing and cooling of the kiln. The rendering of the little flecks in the 18th century is too regular to deceive the expert eye. With Yongle, blue-and-white porcelains appear to have received Imperial patronage. However the Imperial mark of this reign is very rarely inscribed on the pieces attributed to it: bowls, vases, gourds and large dishes with foliate rims were some of the very few marked wares.
Under Yongle, the decorative repertoire was enormously extended. Plant motifs predominated, with flowers (chrysanthemum, peony, lotus) and fruit (bunches of grapes and vine leaves), drawn with elegant and supple lines. Occasionally there are Islamic reminiscences, decorated with stylized flowers among scrolls of foliage. With plates, the outside of the rims are typically decorated with a wave motif that was to remain popular until the 17th century. The drawings are broad and curvaceous with the deep blue dotted with small dark flecks caused by excess cobalt; the pieces are full of life and movement. The motifs and characteristics of Yongle wares are reproduced in later pieces that are not always easy to distinguish from the originals.
The white wares produced at Jingdezhen in the Ming period takes its inspiration from the shufu produced under the Yuan. The body is fine-grained, the glaze thick with small ripples called “orange peel”. Some pieces have “hidden” decoration, so-called because it is only visible against the light. The motifs are very lightly incised on the body. They are sometimes moulded in a very light relief, scarcely visible beneath the glaze. The manufacture of these white wares went on throughout the course of the whole dynasty. The Yongle era is famed for its smooth slightly bluish white glaze. The emperor took such pride in these white glazed porcelain that he even erected a white porcelain brick-faced pagoda at Nanjing.
While there were some monochromes produced in the Yongle period, the prized copper-red monochromes are extremely rare. Some ancient texts on Chinese pottery claim that ground ruby dust was mixed into the enamel, which is very unlikely to be true but rather fanciful exaggeration.
One thing is certain, however: the secret of this ware, which reached its zenith in the reign of Xuande, was lost for at least another 200 years.