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Oriental Porcelain China

( Originally Published Late 1800's )



The obscurity which surrounds the language and traditions of China would incline us to mark with the interrogation point every affirmation contained in English or French literature regarding her porcelain. Not that the study of Chinese wares has not been as extensive as circumstances would allow, but, rather, the want of absolute fact and sympathetic intercourse seem to present impassable barriers in the way of authentic statement.

There are probably no Americans or Europeans living who can repeat or distinguish all the letters or characters of the Chinese alphabet, and it is these which are used upon their wares. All the published observations thus far upon the subject, are based upon the statements of the few who visited the country as missionaries, led thither by a generous desire to convey their truths rather than study the habits, economy, and technique of a people entirely strange to them.

Europe was made acquainted with the wonderful progress of Chinese ceramic art through the Portuguese who in 1518 introduced the Chinese wares. That the Oriental workmen were acquainted with porcelain manufacture at a remoter period than this we cannot doubt, for among the remains of the Egyptian tombs are those wonderful little bottles with Chinese inscriptions which have baffled the research of all scholars to the present time. Many ingenious theories have been advanced regarding their importation into Egypt and their use; nothing satisfactory, however, can be gleaned from these, and they remain mere theories. The bottles themselves are quite small, the largest being scarcely more than two inches in height; they are oblong, flattened at the sides, where upon the glazing is printed an inscription in Chinese characters. Chinese scholars state that these inscriptions locate them about the years 33 and 43 B. C. Bottles similar in form and with the same inscriptions are sold in the Chinese shops to the present day, and are used as containing vessels for snuff and medicines.

To enumerate and classify the enormous variety of wares found in China would be a labor involving perhaps more trouble and intricacy than would prove of interest to the general reader. The fact of its existence in large quantities is proved by its frequent presence in shop windows, the class which we here find, however, is not of that rare order which meets the approbation of collectors.

Among the most interesting of all the Chinese work is the old crackle, now so extensively imitated. This was produced in several varieties. "The colors are white, gray, green, brown, yellow, crimson, and turquoise ; the last is considered rarest, but those of a nice color and pale blue appear to be the oldest. "This cracked appearance is not in the glazing itself, but produced by the material underneath.

The mixed blue and white porcelain of Nankin is also of very ancient production. The acquaintance with colors which the Chinese obtained through the Europeans, afterward revived its manufacture. In the Orient this porcelain is much valued, and it occupies the place of honor among table wares, being used at nearly all the feasts of the nobility. Its fineness and value is determined by its general quality and the presence of a pale buff color introduced upon parts of the piece. When we leave flowers and insects to approach the art of landscapesketching, with the introduction of figures, as delineated upon the Chinese porcelain, we introduce a pretty well known characteristic-its oddity and faults are obvious to every observer; these proceed from the want of a correct knowledge of drawing, and the fact that each feature was the work of a different artist whose conventionalities were not easily adapted to perspective and modification. We find figures of the same natural size larger in the background than in the foreground-houses with inmates whose heads are as large as the window-sash. Porcelain of a later date, feeling the effect of European intercourse, shows a great improvement upon that just described. It may also be recognized by the introduction of borders commonly used by the European artists. Large quantities of plain white ware were transported to Chelsea, and there decorated, but this can generally be recognized by a careful examination of the details.

A species of ware known as "grains of rice" we must not neglect to notice. Devoid of color, under ordinary examination it would pass for plain white ware, but closer inspection reveals upon the material under the enamel a fine tracing, or tool-work, which is just a shade or two darker than the surface, produced by no color, but a variation in the thickness of the enamel.The work is very effective and beautiful.

As a triumph of the genius of the ceramic artists of the East, we must not neglect to mention the Porcelain tower of Nankin, known perhaps to every American who has examined the pictures in his geography. It was originally commenced by King A-you, in the year 833 B. C., but, through a series of accidents, not completed until A. D. 1431. During the Taeping rebellion it was totally destroyed, and no fragment remains to mark its former site.

The wares of China which can be designated and located by peculiarities in the decoration, are thus epitomized by Mr. Chaffers: "The acorus, an aquatic plant, painted under the foot of a vessel, designates it as the manufacture of Kiun, of the finest quality; date, 960 to 963 A. D Two fishes painted under the foot of a vessel indicate the porcelain of Long-thsiouen; 969 to 1106. A long, thin iron nail, projecting beneath the foot of a vase, covered with enamel, indicates certain porcelain of Iou-tcheou; 969 to 1106. The sesame flower painted beneath the foot also indicates this porcelain. Two lions playing with a ball, painted in the centre of the vase, indicate the porcelain of the first quality of the Young-lo period; 1403 to 1425. Two mandarin ducks (male and female), which among the Chinese are emblems of conjugal affection, painted in the centre of bowls or cups, indicate the porcelain of the second quality of the Younglo period; 1403 to 1425.

The third quality of the same period and date has a flower painted in the centre of the cups. A handle ornamented with red fish is found on cups of the Siouven-te period; 1426 to 1436. Fighting crickets indicate the same period and date. An enamelled dragon and a phoenix, very small, designate the vases of the same period, intended for the Emperor's use. A hen and chickens is the mark of the Tching-hoa period; 1465 to 1487. Fighting cocks, same period. Grasshopper, same period, also grapes in enamel. The branch of the tea-tree, painted in enamel in the centre of a small white cup, denotes one of the cups of the finest quality used by the Emperor Chi-tsoung; 1522 to 1566. Bamboo leaves, on vases with blue flowers, made in a street of King-te-tchin ; 1567 to 16I9. A bouquet of the epidendrum indicates the same fabrique. Of course all these have been counterfeited, and the collector must rely upon his own judgment as regards their authenticity. The impulse given to Chinese wares owing to the increased foreign demand has led to its production in enormous quantities, many of which bear all the marks of originality.

JAPANESS PORCELIAN

Ceramic art in Japan is closely allied with that of the Chinese, yet, while the Chinese is oldest and less frequently met, the Japanese ware has some features distinct from those of the country which introduced the industry to her notice.

Generally speaking, Japanese porcelain is inferior to the Chinese. "The red painted ware," says Mr. Marryat, "called nisikite, is only made at one factory, which pos sesses the secret of mixing and preparing this and other enamel colors; as well as silver and gold. The process is not allowed to be divulged. The blue porcelain of Japan differs from that of Nankin. The blue designs upon the latter appear upon the surface of the glaze, whereas those of the former seem absorbed in the paste under the glaze. This is owing to the more vitreous composition of the Nankin glaze." Some of the characteristic features of Japanese decoration are thus referred to by the same authority: "The Paullownia, the fir, bamboo, and begonia are among the principal flowers. Sometimes the fur, bamboo, crane and tortoise, all symbols of longevity, are grouped upon the same piece. These are unmistakable signs of Japanese porcelain, as are also the armorial insignia of emperors and the dragon with three claws. Statuettes of civilians in splendid costumes, adorned with the kirimon, Guik-mon, or branches of the imperial tree; and vases with feet, handles, or knobs, formed of little figures, are also especially of Japanese workmanship." Marks in relief found upon the backs of plates and bottoms of vessels are also significant of Japanese work; they are never found upon the Chinese wares. These dots or points were formed by little pieces of clay used in supporting the pieces during the baking process. These are found sometimes near the edge, and sometimes near the centre of the piece. A ware known as Satsuma, or Schatsuma, has met with much favor in Europe. In character it is entirely distinct from all other Japanese wares. The paste is quite hard, compact, and of a yellowish or ivory tint. The flower painting upon this species of ware is excellent; other decoration follows, as Mr. Chaffers remarks, the general Japanese peculiarity of avoiding regularity as to centres. Like China, Japan has of late years been very industrious in her ceramic department: the result is that the civilized world is flooded with her prod ucts. Her ready acceptance of the education which she finds in Europe and America is destined in future years to affect all her arts; even at this time she has advanced wonderfully, and with her facilities we may yet find her competing with the best workmen of the West. Peculiar taste and study is required for a proper understanding of Japanese work, and those who have collections of this kind are generally persons who have devoted their attention to its intricate and manifold marks and characteristics.



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