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All you need to know about Ming vases

The Ming dynasty was known for its wealth, cultural expansion and vases. But, what made its porcelain so valuable?

Few objects in the world are so famous that they are known by their place of origin. Like Champagne and Damascus steel and limousines, Chinese porcelain joined the ranks of eponyms when the English-speaking world came to call it “china”. And from this transliteration sprang another curious figure of speech: the Ming vase.

This is fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, the Ming dynasty refined ceramic development. But it was the improved enamel glazes of the early Qing dynasty, fired at a higher temperature, that acquired a more brilliant look than those of the Ming dynasty. Secondly, blue and white porcelain – the kind we’re most familiar with – wasn’t even a Ming invention.

It first appeared in the earlier Tang and Song dynasties. So Ming porcelain was neither the first nor the best, but it remains one of the most significant milestones in ceramic history because it was during this dynasty (1368-1644) that China dramatically improved its ceramic technology. The imperial court developed a taste for more vibrant colour schemes, and overall economic prosperity meant a greater demand for beautiful homeware. Foreign trade was also at an all-time high, leading to the reputation of China’s beautiful porcelain spreading far and wide.

“Ming porcelain is neither the first nor the best, but it remains one of the most significant milestones in ceramic history.”

The Ming’s porcelain prowess had so exceeded the quality of its predecessors that the Ming dynasty’s Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of a pagoda with white porcelain bricks in his capital city of Nanjing sometime during the 15th century. The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing became one of the seven wonders of the medieval world. A modern replica still exists today.

The Ming dynasty’s achievements were many, including the building of the Forbidden City and the majority of the Great Wall, advancing printing methods, and maintaining the largest economy in the world. But for most, it’s the breathtaking work of the era’s best porcelain craftsmen that define the period. And who can fault them?

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The Ming Vase

Ming Vase

This treasured piece of porcelain has become a figure of speech in the English language, inspiring ideas associated with fragility, preciousness and antiquity. But why the Ming dynasty and why a vase? We established that the real porcelain dynasty was the Qing, and demand for the beautiful and delicate Qing wares in the West soared. Under the reign of the Qing’s Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722), porcelain flooded the European market. Interestingly, Ming porcelain, which wasn’t far behind in terms of quality, was therefore considered rarer and seen as more exotic. The vase imagery is a logical one. A vase is functional enough to find a place in most households, especially moneyed ones. It is also large enough to show off the artistry of ceramic decoration. Size doesn’t always matter, though. The record holder for the highest price paid for a Ming dynasty piece is the Meiyintang “Chicken Cup”, a small porcelain cup painted with chicken motifs that sold for HK$281.24 million (S$45 million) at Sotheby’s in 2014.

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Signature work

Signature Work China Porcelain

It was only during the Ming period that the practice of adding reign marks or reign dates to ceramics became commonplace. They consisted of six characters read vertically from right to left, with the first two characters spelling out the dynasty and the next two stating the title of the current emperor. The final two were usually “nian zhe” (made for). The most common examples featured these marks written in underglaze blue and ringed by a double circle found at the base or mouth of a vessel.

Signature work China Porcelain
Fakes abound, but take note that some reign marks claiming to be from an older period than the ceramic itself may not be outright forgeries. There were artisans who copied these reign marks out of respect and reverence for those earlier periods, and you’ll find them classified as “apocryphal marks” in auction catalogues. While the quality eventually suffered as quantities went up in response to increased demand both locally and from abroad, Jingdezhen is easily the world’s most famous porcelain capital. It is currently home to the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum, which houses 19,000 ceramic articles.

Evolution of Ming design

  • Ming Vases

    Early Ming period

    Blue and white porcelain, now practically the archetypal icon of Chinese porcelain, really took off in development and sophistication during the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty and was still highly prized – even after the transition into the Ming period. Understandably, the Ming’s first emperor, Hongwu, wanted few reminders of the country’s former foreign overlords, and so did not adopt this type of porcelain in court.

    He ordered his wares to be monochrome red. These were difficult to execute, and few pieces exist today. Outside the court, blue and white porcelain was in high demand, and Arab clients requested for intricate, abstract and floral decorations that were similar to their textiles back home. As the century progressed, designs became more restrained and delicate to suit Chinese sensibilities and moved towards birds, flowers and landscapes.

Great art is never static. Here’s a broad outline of how designs took on the tastes of the times.

 

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