Along with rugs from Persia and watches from Switzerland, porcelain has a long established connection with China. So much so, porcelain is often simply referred to as China. And when we think of Chinese porcelain, we think of Ming vases. But what exactly is a Ming vase? Poles Direct take a look into this cultural icon.
China has a long history with porcelain, well, to put it more accurately, they have the longest history with porcelain. Pieces of porcelain have been found that have been carbon dated to be around 20,000 years old. Though these were coarse, rough ware used for practical purposes, they started the ball rolling.
Things started to get interesting around the time of the Han dynasty*.
*Side note – dynasties in China are odd things. They signify a certain climate of politics and culture, as opposed to a specific set of rulers. Typically they rise to a peak, before crumbling due to corruption and other such things. Dynasties can range anywhere from a couple of decades to hundreds of years, and can be set over different areas of China. We won’t go too deep into it in his post, but it’s worth a read.
Though the distinction between proto-porcelain ware and true porcelain is a tough one to make, some experts put the emergence of true porcelain in the Han dynasty (202-220 AD). This is when the temperatures of the kilns started to get hotter than previously, thus producing finer porcelain.
But, we are here to learn about Ming Vases! So we’ll jump forward a thousand years or so, to 1368, the start of the Ming dynasty.
In the Ming dynasty new techniques, designs and shapes were experimented with. These new designs used more colour than before, and due to a period of exploration, were subject to a lot of foreign influence. There was also great technical advancements. During the Xuande period (142-1435) it was discovered that adding manganese to the cobalt colouring used, while slightly dulling its brilliance, dramatically decreased how much the colour ran. Thus giving much finer detail. Xuande period porcelain is now considered amongst some of the finest Ming porcelain available.
Not only this, but enamelled decoration was perfected under the Chenghua Emporar, and led to highly ornamental pieces. These pieces, probably due to fashion, ended up being considered as valuable as pieces from the Song dynasty, which preceded these Ming pieces by around 300 to 600 years.
But why do we have this connotation with Ming China and particularly, Ming Vases.
Well, the answer is slightly less romantic than we first hoped, and comes from a few sources. Simply put, the Ming dynasty was the first to mass produce, and export its wares. Which meant that it was largely during the Ming dynasty that the western world learned of Chinese porcelain. It quickly became hugely fashionable and desirable and swept through most of Europe, and so the association began.
Another reason is: there was essentially two types of porcelain made during the Ming Dynasty – Min Yao and Guan Yao. Min Yao roughly translates as, people’s ware, and was normal porcelain made by, and for the use of, the general population. As such, it was typically small, plain objects such as bowls and cups, and was not crafted to a very high standard. Guan Yao, on the other hand, translates as imperial ware. These are items that were specifically made for, or commissioned by, the Chinese Emperor and imperial family. As such it was crafted to an extremely high standard, and the pieces were often larger and more ornamental, such as vases. These are the pieces we typically picture in our heads, with the pure white bodies and crisp blue paint. And it’s these pieces that are so rare, and valuable.