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Oriental China - The Ming Dynasty

( Originally Published 1911 )

The story of the overthrow of the Mongol dynasty by a rebellion headed by a native named Hung-woo, the son of a labouring man, introduces the great Ming dynasty. This man, a former Buddhist priest, captured Nankin in 1355, and thirteen years later he took the title of Emperor. During this dynasty, which lasted till 1644, the progress of the manufacture of porcelain was very marked ; indeed, the Chinese themselves are keen collectors of the Ming products, considering them to be the finest ever made. They scarcely exist outside the treasures of the cabinets of princes or of the collections of mandarins. Whether this is due to the extreme devotion of the nation to past history and to their love of ancient relics more than their appreciation of what we consider beautiful, the fact remains that, in the early times, Ming porcelain was rarely exported, so that we have very little to guide us in determining what is or is not porcelain of the Ming period. True, there are the marks, but the marks were copied just as much as the forms and decorations were. The best periods of Ming porcelain arranged in order of merit, and not in order of date, were Suen-tih (1426–1436), Ching-hwa (1465-1488), Yung-lo (1403-1425), Keatsing (1522-1567). Ching-hwa is the first in order of reproduction; his mark is most frequently copied.

At about the period of Ching-hwa, Europeans were making efforts to reach the East by sea, and in 1498 Vasco de Gama sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, and thus made an opening, by which eventually trade was carried on by sea to China. The Portuguese were the first to settle in China in 1516. From their factory or settlement in Macco, or Macao, at the entrance to the Canton river, the first sea-borne pieces of Oriental porcelain were sent to Europe by way of the Cape. The conclusion, therefore, mu ;t be, in view of these dates, that the earliest pieces found in England and on the Continent were carried overland, by camels, thousands of miles over mountains and through deserts, till at last they reached their European owners. The earliest porcelain found in England—that is, a Celadon bowl presented to New College, Oxford, by Archbishop Warham, and the bowls of Oriental china given in 1506 by Philip of Austria to Sir Thomas Trenchardcame by land. The Portuguese vessels were not content to sail only to China and to exchange its products for those of Europe, for in 1542 they appeared in Japan. Fernam Mendez Pinto in his " Travels," published in 1545, states that he and his companions were cordially received by the Prince of Japan. Evidently, then, at the time when Queen Elizabeth was reigning in England the Portuguese were pushing their trade in the East as the Spaniards were in the West, and, as we have seen, the Portuguese, amongst other commodities, sent Oriental porcelain home, and brought European products back. They brought the Jesuits too. Christian teachers had been at work in China for long years before the Jesuits came, but the activity and know-ledge of these gave them great influence amongst the reigning class practically from the close of the sixteenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century. It is said that they had much to do with the evolution of the beautiful enamel colours of the next dynasty, the " Tsing," though the evidence of this is of the slightest. On the contrary, the development appears to have had purely a native origin ; an unusual step, it is true, to be taken by a nation which seemed all along the line to be reproducing earlier forms and earlier decoration. From the period when the vases of the Yung-lo period were in demand, painted as they were with lions rolling a ball, with birds or with dark blue or red flowers, we find progress being continually made.

Suen-tih, whose reign is the most celebrated for the production of Ming porcelain, produced very fine examples, with flowers in pale blue, having red fish moulded as handles. Then comes the fine colour paintings of Ching-hwa, through which we reach the perfection of the Kang-he in the Tsing dynasty. It is remarkable that only a few Ming specimens seem to have been identified with enamel colour decoration, though in recent, indeed, quite late times, authorities are ascribing many pieces with green and yellow enamel set in black outline to Ming, rather than to Kang-he. White, green, and crackle pieces are often mentioned in the historical records.

We read that Lord Treasurer Burleigh, William Cecil, Secretary of State for nearly forty years to Queen Elizabeth, offered as a New Year's gift, in 1588, to his royal mistress " one porringer of white porselyn garnished with gold," and another gift of a similar kind was made to the Queen by Mr. Robert Cecil, "a cup of grene pursselyne." Later, we read that amongst the effects of Lady Dorothy Shirley were "purslin stuffe, Chinese stuffe, two dozen of purslin dishes."

It will be noted that it was only with the advent of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible that our English spelling took anything like uniformity. The last note regarding Lady Shirley's possessions was made in 1620. In the time which had elapsed between these records much had occurred in the Orient. The Dutch, in 1595, sent out their first expedition to the East Indies, and Queen Elizabeth, not to be outdone, despatched three English ships to China in 1596. Three years later the East India Company was founded, a company which at first could not trade in India or China owing to the fierce opposition of the Portuguese and Dutch. They therefore made their headquarters at Gombron in the Persian Gulf. The china ware was brought overland or by coasting vessels to Gombron, which gave the early name " Gombron ware " to porcelain which was universally used before the adoption of the name " china."

During the Ming dynasty the practioe of placing marks upon the porcelain was first adopted, though the rule seems to have been to mark only one piece in a set, yet the method of marking porcelain was far from being universal or methodical. In acquiring Ming porcelain the buyer must be especially careful. For many centuries the old forms were copied, and in counterfeiting the porcelain and decoration it was quite easy to imitate the mark. Here, then, we must once more advise the collector to rely upon sigh: and touch. We have stated that it is the inspiration of the educated eye regarding the tout ensemble which was largely to be trusted. On the other hand it would not be well to dispense with the necessity for actually handling the piece with the view to detecting differences between the old and the new work. In dealing with fine pieces there is one advantage : they are submitted to expert after expert, whose opinions may vary, but truth is great and will prevail.

The end of the Ming dynasty was rapidly approaching. The Tartars, with shaven head and pigtail, were "as the storm clouds which had been collecting for some time," and at length they " burst over the Empire." The space of time between the years 1616 and 1644, when the struggle for supremacy between the Ming and Tsing dynasties was at its height, leaves the identification of porcelain made during that period a matter of considerable difficulty. In a national struggle, art manufactures are the first to suffer, so that it is quite probable that only a small output of porcelain took place during those troublous years. In revising the Ming period note should be made that Hung-woo preferred black, blue, and white ornaments; and that gold used as the decoration for a dark-blue ground was first employed. In Yung-lo's time intense patches of colour were used, and there was a development with regard to the reds ; a dark red was widely adopted. The paintings of flowers and of birds and beasts, mainly used figuratively as emblems, became far more delicate.

The Ching-hwa potters seem to have adopted a delicacy and a mastery over the art of porcelain decoration scarcely ever met with in history. It is true that the supply of blue failed, the cobalt was of an inferior quality, but the coloured painting reached high perfection. The marks and designs of the Ching-hwa period furnished unexampled opportunities for copying, for although the later Kang-he showed, without doubt, the finest blue and white with regard to colour that was ever made, the pattern generally adopted can be distinctly traced to Chinghwa.

Kea-tsing was noted for the use of enamel colours of a beautiful depth and quality. About this time pure white cups were made imitating white jade but the quality of the porcelain is inferior to many old the other periods because one of the sources of supply of porcelain earth failed.

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