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General Consideration In Regards To Chinese Ceramics

[General Considerations]  [Historical Review]  [Chinese Grave Customs]  [Pottery Of The Chou, Han And Other Pre-T'ang Dynasties]  [Wares Of The Tang Dynasty]  [Ju Yao And Some Related Wares]  [Kuan Yao]  [Chun Yao]  [Ting Yao And Related Wares]  [Lung-Chuan Yao And Related Celadons]  [Tz'u Chou Yao]  [Chien Yao And Related Wares]  [More Articles Related To Chinese Ceramics] 

( Originally Published 1922 )



To realise in true perspective the different phases through which Chinese ceramic art has passed it is necessary to have a general acquaintance with the political influences which have operated in succeeding ages in the Middle Kingdom, and no excuse is necessary for beginning a general description of the earlier Chinese wares with a brief account of the history of the country in its relation to ceramics. Some knowledge of Chinese history is essential, but the ordinary collector hardly appreciates the fact, and even if he does, he has neither the time nor inclination to read the authoritative works on the subject.An attempt will accordingly be made to introduce the reader to the chief types of the ware produced during the long period extending from about 200 B.C.-A.D. 1368, by a resume of the main features of the dynasties which held sway in those fifteen hundred odd years.

The term antique is a relative one: the collector of English and continental pottery and porcelain applies it to the products of factories operating in the eighteenth century, but all the wares with which this book concerns itself were produced before Charles I came to the throne, and by far the greater part from the time when Canute was teaching his courtiers natural philosophy on the sea shore to the date at which Prince Edward defeated Simon de 1Vlontfort at Evesham. The antiquity of Chinese civilisation is but vaguely appreciated by us, and it is difficult to realise, for instance, that football was played in China several centuries before Julius Caesar landed in this country : it is equally remarkable to learn that polo was played in the seventh century.

Such facts as these are startling, but they help to adjust our minds and to explain how it is that we find in China at a very early date the most beautiful expressions of ceramic art instead of the crudest types, as might have been expected from our knowledge of the wares made in Britain or the near Continent during the same period. Professor Fenollosa tells us that the highest point was reached in the T'ang dynasty (seventh to ninth centuries), and that after a fall and a rise again in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, creative art fell from that time with scarcely a break to its present level.

It is true that in the opinion of many, perhaps of most, collectors today the porcelain produced in the reigns of K'ang Hsi, of his son Yung Cheng and of his grandson Ch'ien Lung, i.e. the period 1662-1796, is the most pleasing of all the wares of China. But this is in large measure due to the fact that the earlier specimens have only recently been available in any quantity for acquisition and appreciation in this country. There is already a rapidly-growing body of collectors who are losing their interest in the more elaborate productions of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries and are collecting in their place the simpler types and the purer art exhibited by the wares of the T'ang, Sung, Yuan and 1Vling dynasties, particularly those of the first three.

The decoration employed and the shapes made in the pre-Ming wares are essentially manifestations of the art of the potter and in consonance with the material of which the vessels were composed. During the 1Vling dynasty, when decoration in underglaze blue and in polychrome was introduced generally, the art was still a potter's art and in keeping with the potter's medium; in other words the decoration was suitable. When we come to the reign of K'ang Hsi, we first begin to see signs of over-elaboration, which is hardly in keeping with the material, though the art may still be said to be "suitable." But the wonderful porcelains of the Yung Cheng, and more particularly those of the Ch'ien Lung reign show pronounced signs of what may be called " unsuitable " art; by which I mean that the beautiful pictures depicted in enamels on the potter's medium would find a more appropriate place on the silk or canvas of the artist. There are of course exceptions to this generalisation, and many later specimens, decorated in what is sometimes called " Chinese taste " to distinguish it from the type of design which was made for the foreign market, are very artistic.

The following questions may reasonably be asked. How is it that these earlier specimens are now coming to this and other Western Countries? Why were they not available before? What assurance is there that they are genuine? Historical facts and commercial considerations furnish the answers.

The potter's art has been held in high esteem by the Chinese for centuries. In the West, architecture has always made a great appeal to the aesthetic sense; but in China, art seems to have found a more popular expression in objects which could be the daily companions of the people. No Chinese gentleman of position and standing was without at least a few fine specimens of porcelain, and the wealthy were proud of their choice collections. The Chinese, moreover, have deep-rooted in their nature a love for everything connected with bygone ages, ancestral worship and filial piety are deeply ingrained in their being. For centuries they have counted amongst their treasures and heirlooms specimens of pottery and porcelain, and very acute financial distress must be felt before they part with them. The events which have occurred in China since the fall of the 1Vlanchu dynasty and the financial conditions prevailing during recent years, account in some measure for the opportunity we have been given in this country; especially since the greater appreciation of these early wares shown by Europeans has involved a correspondingly higher market value being placed upon them.

Moreover, development of the country has led to the construction of railways for the more rapid conveyance of traffic of all kinds. Railway construction has naturally necessitated cuttings, and some of these have had to be made in places used for burial purposes. As a result, pottery and porcelain vessels and figures have been unearthed which have lain buried for centuries undisturbed by a people imbued with a profound sense of the sanctity of tombs and with a horror of their violation.

Western influences, religious and other, coupled with an acute appreciation of commercial values, have led to a further exploitation of unearned increments, with the result that the earth has been made to yield up treasures of which but a small percentage has as yet seen the light of the present day. When we think of the millions and millions of Chinese graves, in many of which objects of ceramic importance are interred, we may expect to see a further supply of specimens of mortuary ware of ancient date. Cases are known of temples recently converted into schools, and the pottery and porcelain vessels deposited in them for centuries have been placed upon the market. We are only on the threshold of further knowledge, and it is no idle prophecy to say that fifty years hence Western knowledge of Chinese ceramics will be a vastly different thing from what it is at the present time.

But the exploration of grave-sites is not the only source from which knowledge will be procurable. Some day, we may hope in the not too distant future, the famous kiln-sites will be properly and scientifically explored. Already we have received specimens from some of these, notably the Lung-ch'iian district in Chekiang, and if these sites can be investigated in a systematic fashion, our present knowledge will be extended to a considerable degree. The fascination of the early wares is great and is not to be accounted for merely by their antiquity, though their age naturally enhances their interest. It is their beauty of colour and simplicity of form which make such an appeal to those who collect examples of the products of the Chinese potters who lived about a thousand years ago. Whether it be the professional potter of today, or the professional artist, or the art critic, all unite in eulogy of the preMing potter and his skill. The Chinese porcelain factories of the Mahcu dynasty were largely occupied in trying to reproduce the earlier wares, and while new inventions can be recorded in that dynasty, there was comparatively little discovered of first importance that the Sung potters did not know already.

The early wares are essentially simple, and therein lies the chief difficulty of their reproduction. The few lines employed, whether used in the shape or in the decoration, betray more readily the weaker hand and are harder to imitate than a more complicated composition. It is relatively easy to describe anything in half a dozen sentences, but it is another matter to do so in one. So in art, a stroke or two by the master hand achieves the end more surely than a dozen by the less skilled artist or craftsman.

It is a striking fact that a number of collectors who have been keenly interested in the Ming wares, and in the Ch'ing porcelains of the early eighteenth century, have gradually lost their enthusiasm for them in preference for the preMing wares; but one would find it difficult to discover cases where the reverse process has taken place.The body of collectors of the early types is of course not a large one at present, for the reasons already mentioned, and too much stress must not be laid on the enthusiasm displayed by a relatively small number of individuals. But the remark, " I have been taking up the early things of late," is one which is made with increasing frequency. A collector of K'ang Hsi and Yung Cheng porcelains sees for sale, perhaps, a fine example of white Ting yao with a beautifully-drawn design showing through its creamy glaze : he falls, and his complete destruction (or shall we say emancipation?) is only a matter of time; for it is difficult to live with a fine example of the Sung potter and rest content with the more elaborate beauty of his descendant. It would not be difficult to cite instances of people who are left quite cold by an inspection of eighteenthcentury potting of distinction, but who wax enthusiastic over a piece of Lung-ch'iian celadon. The reader will be saying that this is merely an ex parte statement to be discounted accordingly, so we must pass on to a few suggestions to the would-be collector who is willing to commence a study of the wares described in this volume.

The cost of fine examples is high, and is not likely to become less as time goes on and the number of collectors grows. The supply, apart from mortuary wares, is necessarily a limited one, and though it has been augmented recently for the reasons already referred to, it is more than probable than an increasing difficulty will be experienced in obtaining specimens of the first class.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to become a real student of the wares without constantly handling and examining pieces, and this can only be done by actual possession of specimens. A student need not, however, seek perfect examples in order to make himself acquainted with the characteristics of glazes and pastes, though fragments which serve this purpose perfectly well do not satisfy as a rule : too much is left to the imagination in regard to shape and design. On the other hand, a damaged bowl or plate meets all the essential requirements of the case, and as a mended specimen can be bought for very much less than a perfect one, those with limited means available for the prosecution of their hobby will do well to acquire first-class workmanship in a damaged condition rather than perfect specimens of the second class. Their purse will suffer less and their pleasure will be more lasting. As a matter of fact, a bowl, plate or vase well repaired in gold lacquer is not seriously disfigured thereby, although the cracks are the more apparent.

Another suggestion, but one which the enthusiast finds difficulty in adopting, is to take time over building up a collection. The temptation to fall to the first available example of a type not yet represented is great, but it only results in dissatisfaction later on when a finer specimen is seen. The less desirable item is then discarded, probably at a pecuniary loss. There is also the inclination to buy a piece merely because it is cheap and despite the fact that the collector possesses an adequate (and possibly better) example already. This is not collecting but accumulating, and a home may become a storehouse of " pots " with which the owner has merely a passing acquaintance.Every specimen should be acquired with the definite object of filling a lacuna in the collection.

A Chinese connoisseur who lived centuries ago said, " Copper and porcelain are cherished above gold and silver, in order to cultivate simplicity and elegance. Pairs are to be avoided with a view to aiming at rare and choice specimens." Here we have the view of the native collector, and however desirable it may be to have a pair of any type, the cost will probably be more than double that of the single piece, and the collection will in no wise be strengthened.

Temptation to break the tenth commandment does not increase as experience is gained. No doubt at an early stage envy of someone else's possessions is keen, but there is a delightful freemasonry among collectors which encourages admiration of the taste or good fortune of others without engendering covetousness. Indeed one of the greatest charms of collecting lies in the friendships created by the process.



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