History Of Chinese Pottery During The Ming Dynasty

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The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was an age of “cultural restoration and expansion”. Official kiln was constructed in Jingdezhen to create ceramics exclusively use by the court which led to an introduction of court-dictated styles in the crafts, emphasising edifying and realistic representation. Characters, scenery, and flora-and-fauna compositions were explicitly preferred as designs for porcelains, in order to honour the splendor of the Ming Dynasty (Department of Asian Art, 2002).

In the Hongwu reign, the restriction on foreign exchange resulted in a shortage of cobalt blue pigment and brought on the evolution of underglaze copper-red painted ceramics. Importation of blue paint recommenced in the Yongle reign and by the Xuande reign, the success of multiple new techniques led to a thriving ceramics production. During the Chenghua reign, potters strived for a higher level of perfection that could be represented by the doucai, an ornamental skill in which the patterns were outlined in underglaze blue and tinted in overglaze enamel.

From the Jiajing reign, the private kilns were commissioned to manufacture porcelain for monarchical use as to raise productivity together with the Imperial Factory. The mandatory guidelines on the design of imperial ceramics were gradually diminished. Wucai was developed in greater varieties in the Wanli reign which potters produced porcelains with gilt decoration named as kinrande and blue-and-white fuyode (Museum of Oriental Ceramics Osaka, 2014).

Over the years, the Chinese potters have developed diverse ways of painting patterns on ceramics. Porcelains offer a reflection of Chinese culture in each dynasty, depicting the aesthetics of craft, indicating the technical advances of society, thus demonstrating the changes in the material and spiritual life of people. This essay will discuss how the figurative portrayal patterns of underglaze and blue-and-white porcelains reveal the culture of the Ming Dynasty. Three components build up the structure of this essay. Following the introduction will be the section about how the human and animal figurative portrayal patterns of porcelains showcase the culture of the Ming Dynasty in terms of habits and beliefs. A conclusion in favour of the thesis statement will then be drawn.

Human Figurative Portrayal Patterns

The human figurative patterns of porcelains depicted the usual practice of literati. The surface of the painted vase is divided into horizontal sections. A geometric border embellishes the lip. The neck is decorated with cranes flying between the clouds. Two small registers with hatchings and flowers delineate the transition from the neck to the shoulder, which has a ruyi design symbolizing good wishes. While deers in the landscape around the foot convey the hope for longevity. The scenes on the greatest section reveal the lifestyle and material culture of Chinese intellectual (Leidy, 2015, p.92).

The figure sat on a mat and focused on the lotus pond is Zhou Dunyi, a philosopher. Four assistants at the left corner were brewing tea for Zhou and his partner. Another scene portrayed two scholars sitting at a covered table and drinking. Two attendants were holding instruments and waiting for them to play music with a zither. A few containers, a gourd filled with liquor, and a picnic basket were detectable in the forefront. A teenage man with a fan joined this scene to another that featured four gentlemen sitting around a low table, who were also drinking in a distant and pleasant setting.

In my opinion, these three scenes reveal the drinking habits and culture of Chinese literati in the Ming Dynasty. Tea and wine were common drinks when meeting with companions, as they could obtain pleasure thus share their own opinions on the taste and quality of drinks. Hence, tea and wine are usually served by their assistants, who also play musical instruments while they are drinking to create a relaxing atmosphere. Wine also acted as a catalyst for poets to put their thoughts to paper for which literati drank to forget their sorrow and failure. Besides, Chinese had a strict request for tea wares and drinking vessels that each type of liquor had its corresponding drinking jar, such that jue were used to contain kaoliang and jade cup were used to contain fenjiu. It can therefore be seen that drinking culture are depicted through the patterns of porcelains.

In contrast with the drinking culture of literati, the portrayal patterns of porcelains revealed the everyday habits of children. The exterior of the bowl illustrates ten delightful boys playing in a garden surrounded with railing. They have big heads with tiny crest of hair thus wearing tunics and loose trousers. They are split into two groups and separated by the plants. Three of the boys are performing arts. One of them is grasping a string puppet, others are playing cymbals and pull toy. From this scene, we can recognise the toys and instruments children played in the Ming Dynasty. Since it was the period of agrarian society, the plaything of children were mostly obtained from daily life and produced by hand, which were made out of mud and clay, hence cloth in the later development.

This showed that people valued craftsmanship in the Ming Dynasty as they mastered the skills of making playthings manually for children without using machines. We can also realise that children were having fun usually at the outdoors instead of indoors, and they enjoyed playing in the form of groups instead of individuals, that is different from today which children can play alone contentedly with their mobile phones and tablets. Additionally, on the other side of the bowl, five of them are marching which the boy in the center is riding a hobby horse, a plaything with a textile head, a bamboo stick, and a steel wheel. Another boy grips a lotus-leaf covering above his head as a shading device. This shows signs of imitating the processions of scholars, an ordinary sight in major towns during the Ming Dynasty (Leidy, 2015, p.85). Leidy (2015, p.86) also suggested that this scene can be interpreted as “a reference to the authority and privileges that accrue to such scholar-gentlemen, and by extension, to the hope that one’s children will pass the challenging civil service exams and attain such eminent positions”.

I agree with Leidy’s point of view that parents in the Ming Dynasty had strong ambitions towards their children for aiming a bright and prosperous future. Parents believed that when their children succeed in the imperial examinations, they would become potential applicants that might be recruited as officials to serve the bureaucracy of the town, and in turn brought honour on the family. Therefore, to prepare for the exams, most children studied in a private school at the age of eight with a few fellows which they were required to learn writing, history and the six arts, that were rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and mathematics. Later, they had to read books about philosophical and religious ideas of maintaining social order. From the two scenes of the bowl, they reflect both leisure and learning culture of children during the Ming Dynasty.

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Aside from the leisure and learning culture of children, the portrayal patterns of porcelains displayed the belief of inhabitants towards gods in the Ming Dynasty. The outer part of the circular box presents nine tiny characters, Shoulao and the Eight Daoist Immortals, with their assistants walking in a cavalcade. The gods are differentiated by the device they hold that possess recognized advantages. In the scene, Shoulao, the god of longevity, sits on a rock next to an incense burner.

Beside him are Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin, a contributor of the soldiery who is holding a fan, and a patron of barbers who is holding a sword. A huge rock sets apart them from Han Xiangzi and Cao Guojiu, one is holding a dizi and the other is holding a jade plate. Divided by a huge plant, are Zhang Guolao and Lan Caihe, an aristocrat who is holding a fish drum, and an androgyne who is holding a flower basket. The former is the guardian of artists and calligraphers, while the latter is the protector of gardeners and florists. Separated by a clump of bamboo is He Xiangu, a lady who is dancing. Following her is Li Tieguai, a supporter of the ill. There is a cave alongside that leads to the kingdom of the gods. The pine trees, cranes and clouds on both sides recapitulate fortunate wishes for long life (Leidy, 2015, p.91). Leidy (2015, p.91) also mentioned that since the emperor was faithful to this tradition that makes a point of heavenly harmony, daoist imagery appear frequently in porcelain during the Jiajing reign.

The Eight Immortals holding different implements carry different symbolic meaning. The fan of Han could raise him from the dead, the sword of Lu could expel evil spirits, the dizi of Han could exorcise demons, the jade plate of Cao could remain silent, the fish drum of Zhang could persuade all beings, the flower basket of Lan could conduct multiple skills, the lotus of He could bring kindness, the gourd of Li could cure all diseases. Therefore, porcelains with immortals are usually presented as gifts to express wishes for long life by which immortals patterns painted on porcelain is to reveal that inhabitants have strong belief towards gods for bringing longevity during the Ming Dynasty.

Animal Figurative Portrayal Patterns

The animal figurative pattern of porcelains depicted the export practice of sovereign. The plane of the plate portrays four lion-dogs in the centre surrounded by clouds. Around the rim, there are eight decorated roundels by which four of them are clues showing that the plate is placed in an order for the Portuguese court as export porcelain. One of the roundels illustrates the coat of arms of Portugal, the other one showcases the spherical astrolabe. Another two roundels shows the abbreviation I.H.S, which stands for Iesus Hominum Salvator. The rest of the roundels displays plants and rocks (Leidy, 2015, p.96). While the surface of the dish depicts five lion-dogs, which two of them are in the center and three of them are around the rim, with a background of flowers and leaves that is made for the domestic market in China during the same period of time in the Ming Dynasty.

Comparing both of the lion-dogs patterns, it can be seen that the figurative motif on the bigger export plate have comparatively huge heads and scraggy bodies than those of the smaller domestic dish, as well as the paint of the porcelain is finished with a lower level of perfection. Yet, the skillfully painted flowers and leaves at the back of the export plate are the typical features of porcelain produced for the Portuguese trade during the Jiajing period. The flowers are painted more closely than those of Chinese domestic market by which this has been taken inspiration from the contemporary European ornaments (Leidy, 2015, p.98). The export plates with customized imagery are scarce due to the difficulties of painting and writing foreign symbols and scripts, so they are usually used as gifts for exchange. Therefore, most of the porcelain exported overseas are mass produced (Vainker, 2005, p.143). From the figurative pattern of the porcelain, it reveals the export culture of sovereign in the Ming Dynasty.

Apart from the export culture of the Ming Dynasty, the animal motifs of porcelains reflected the belief of civilians. The surface of the jar portrays four massive gold carp bounding on top of the lotus pond that filled with geometric styled water weeds, reaching to the sky of four-petaled blossoms. Gold carp are the dominant patterns of the jar which Leidy (2015, p.89) commented that the Chinese word for fish is a homonym for the character defining profusion, hence the scene containing both lotuses and fish represents prosperity and glory.

In the same vein, I support the view that carp symbolise endurance and abundance. As according to the ancient myth, Chinese carp can entirely jump over the vigorous rapids of the Yellow River and are believed to transform into dragons. Therefore, among the civilians of the Ming Dynasty, carp implied the success of passing the imperial exams and receiving a lucrative position as an official to serve the state; or the favourable outcome of keeping ahead of their business competitors. Consequently, carp are drawn on porcelain in the Ming Dynasty to demonstrate that civilians have strong belief on their symbolic meaning of bringing good fortune.

Apart from the carp motifs, dragon motifs revealed the belief of officials. The exterior of the jar shows a forceful dragon with three claws surging forward to the sky with scattered clouds in blue-and-white paint. Dragons with three to five claws are the common patterns appearing on the ceramics produced for the court. Pierson (2009, p.61) stated that the dragon motifs had been developed in different forms as they were used to be models of past literature that symbolizes power and strength. Comparing to the dragon motif on the plane of the dish, it can be seen that during the Chenghua reign, doucai is developed which the sinewy dragon is painted in a forest-green coloured enamel.

Hence, the five claws of the dragon is incised in the mixture with clouds behind it (Jenyns, 1988, p.143). From my perspective, as dragons implied a high rank of authority and competency, court ceramics decorated with dragons are the clues that officials and emperors believed in the symbolic meaning of dragons and used it as a means to represent their superior status among the town. As a result, dragons painted on the ceramics demonstrate official belief towards supremacy.


Potters have found inspiration from their everyday life, porcelain patterns have then come to be more elaborate, human and animal figural narratives are one of the common motifs (Wang, 2002, p.243). Through interpreting both human and animal portrayal patterns of porcelain, we are able to observe the culture of the Ming Dynasty, including the drinking habit of literati, the entertainment and study practice of children, the belief towards gods of inhabitants, the exchange culture of sovereign, thus the belief towards symbolism of both civilians and officials.

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