Yongzheng Emperor (1723-1735)

The fourth son of Kangxi, Yongzheng was 44 when he succeeded his father. For the whole of his short reign he had to contend with the intrigues of his brothers, some of whom had been converted to Christianity. The direct result of which, was that he tried to avenge himself on the missionaries by relentlessly oppressing the Christians established in China. Only the Jesuits admitted to court were spared. In the reign of Yongzheng, Giuseppe Castiglione, a pupil of Andrea Pozzo, helped Nian Siyao with adapting the treatise Perspective pictorum et architectorum (1729) into Chinese. Nian Siyao was the Superintendent of Customs, and also, from 1726 to 1736, director of the Jingdezhen porcelain factory. He himself supervised the pieces made for the court at Peking.

Blue and White Porcelain

The chief characteristic of blue-and-white in the reign of Yongzheng is the archaic taste both in form and in decoration. However, the copy is rarely faithful; the influence of the 18th century is apparent even in the transposition of the past.

The blue is darker and flecked with black in imitation of Xuande pieces, but is artificially contrived and feels mechanical, so that is never manages to capture the effect of the original. The silvery blue of Chenghua, the violet sheen of Jiajing are also reproduced, again with a varying degree of success. Decoration repeats Ming themes: lotus scrolls, peonies, tight arabesques of leaves and clouds. There are also copies of large dishes, called “Constantinople dishes”, and some pieces on a yellow ground described by Tang Ying in his list as copies of Xuande models.

Famille rose or Yangcai Enamel Glazes

The fashion for the Yongzheng period was fine “eggshell” porcelain. Although they look so fragile, they are in fact very hard. The porcelain was so thin, that the design can be made out against the light from the back of the piece. The decoration is described as famille rose enamels, a term coined by Jacquemart in the 19th century. The Chinese call this type of enamelling fencai, meaning “pale colour”, or yongcai, “foreign colours”. The pink enamel characteristic of this ware is a precipitate of gold that appeared in China about 1720, having been discovered by Andre Cassius of Leyden about 1670. This opaque pink, called “purple of Cassius” is found together with blue, pale green, yellow and mauve enamels.

Two styles or tendencies can be distinguished in the decoration of polychrome porcelains in the period of Yongzheng. Some palace bowls, dishes, vases and bottles are painted in an extremely refined but elegantly sober manner. The composition is never symmetrical. A single branch of flowering plum, two or three fruits or a bird on a branch will be the only decoration on a bowl or a rimless dish. The perfection of the shape and the quality of the glazes has never equalled in porcelain since. The smallest details, the features of a face, a bird’s feathers, the wings of a butterfly are rendered with the utmost care. Precious as the art is, it is nonetheless elegant and unaffected.

At the time, Jingdezhen was producing famille rose porcelain which one might easily assume was being made for the nouveaux rich, were it not that some of them bear the nianhao of the emperor. The decorations on the ruby-backed plates were very carefully painted yet overly ostentatious. The flat rims of the dishes may have up to seven borders: quarterings, mosaics, leaf scrolls, lozenges, dots etc. These overdecorated pieces were primarily destined for trade and export, which is why these porcelains (especially the plates with seven borders) were successfully imitated in Europe in the 19th century, in Hungarian factories among others.

The Guyuexuan of Yongzheng and Qianlong

Guyuexuan (meaning “Old Moon Pavilion”) is the name given to snuff bottles of polychrome enamelled glass and bibelots of enamel decorated porcelain of yongcai. The objects were marked with “made in the Old Moon Pavilion” and were of mediocre quality. However, the name was also given to the cups and vases of famille rose porcelain which were of exceptional quality and careful decoration. The decorations on these bibelots were painted for the Imperial palace in Chinese taste and with extreme delicacy. There is, however, a hint of Western influence – especially the pieces featuring lighter colours and even a few rare pieces adorned with European subjects.

Guyuexuan were painted for the Imperial palace between 1727 and 1754. The best pieces (small teapots, cups, pots, goblets etc.) – are decorated with flowers, birds and bamboos. These are all delicately painted with poems written in black characters and framed in red seal script. The nianhao (Imperial mark) of Yongzheng is inscribed in a square on the base of the object, usually in blue, mauve or yellow ink. Some poems are reputed to have been composed by the emperor himself, but the red script never gives his name, only good wishes and literary allusions such as yue-du (“old moon”), chang-chun (“eternal spring”) or jiali (“beauty”).

Guyuexuan porcelain bowl with characteristic black script and red seal markings

The decoration is so skilfully painted and so exquisite that one must assume the objects were sent undecorated from Jingdezhen to Peking, where they were enamelled in the palace workshop by artisan painters from the Hanlin Academy. Some presume that the red seals may be the actual marks of the artists, however no recorded history of painters with those names exist.


Yongzheng Imperial marks in kaishu (left) and zhuanshu (right)

Vases from the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods often have zhuanshu (archaic script) seal marks. The marks appear on the base in underglaze blue or are incised or moulded. The glaze associated with the use seal marks simulates bronze or iron – indicating the archaic influence. The use of zhuanshu marks was not as widespread during the Yongzheng period as it was during the latter Qianlong period.

Variations of the kaishu script seal of Yongzheng

Variations of the archaic zhuanshu seals inscribed on vase bases

Square nianhao (Imperial mark) commonly found on Guyuexuan pieces.


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