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Mandarin Porcelain - Keen Lung Period (1736-1795)

( Originally Published 1911 )



A MANDARIN is a Chinese official, either civil or military, but the word itself is not Chinese. It is a name given indiscriminately by foreigners to designate any Chinese official of whatever rank. The recognised official grades of mandarins are nine, each distinguished by its dress. The so-called button on the hat—the mandarin button—is conspicuous. It is really a very valuable jewel, and, like the rest of the dress, is worn under precise regulations. It will be interesting to notice how the mandarin's rank is shown by the dress. The coats were always embroidered with gold and were of coloured silk.

In the first order, the button on the hat was a bead and above that an oblong button of transparent ruby red—transparent red. The coat was violet, with a square plaque on the breast and back decorated, in the civil class with a pelican, in the military class with a kylin, whilst the belt was ornamented with four agate stones set in rubies. In the second class, the button was a red coral button resting on the ruby bead—red opaque. The coat had embroidered plaques decorated with a hen for the civil class, and a lion for the military class. The belt was ornamented with four embroidered plaques with rubies. The third class had a sapphire button—blue transparent. The coat had embroidered plaques decorated with peacock's plumes, each feather having only one eye. The symbolical peacock represented the civil class, and the panther the military class. The belt was ornamented with four plaques of worked gold. In the fourth class an azure-coloured button of lapis lazuli—blue opaque—rested upon a small sapphire bead. The coat had embroidered plaques decorated with the crane for the civil, and the tiger for the military mandarins. The belt was ornamented with four plaques and a silver button.

The fifth class had a rock crystal button—white transparent—resting on the small sapphire bead ; the embroidered plaques were decorated with the white pheasant for the civil, and the bear as the symbolical emblems. The belt was similar to the last class. The sixth class had a button of white polished opalescent shell—white opaque—with a blue feather. On the embroidered plaques of the coat were the emblems of a stork for the civil, and a little tiger for the military divisions. Four tortoise-shell plaques and a silver button ornamented the belt. The seventh class had a button of plain gold yellow brilliant—on a crystal bead. The embroidered coat had a part-ridge for the decoration of the civil division, and a rhinoceros for the military. The belt was ornamented with four round silver plaques. The eighth class had two buttons, one upon the other, of worked gold—yellow opaque. The embroidered plaque of the coat bore the quail as the symbol of the civil division, and the stork as the symbol of the military division. The belt had four ram's head plaques and a silver button. The ninth or last class had the second button of worked silver—blank opaque. The embroidered coat showed the sparrow as the emblem of the civil mandarins, and the sea-horse as the emblem of the military. Four black horn plaques and a silver button decorated the belt.

It will be seen that Chinese porcelain decorated with figures such as these dressed in their robes received the name of Mandarin china. The actual word comes from the Portuguese " Mandar, to command." Much could be said upon the subject of Chinese dress, as applied to porcelain in decoration, but it is only necessary to contrast the style of the Ming and the Tartar dresses.

The Ming long, flowing robes are held up with sashes, and the hair, turned up over the head, is either covered with a soft head-dress or with the Court ceremonial head-dress.

The Mandarin dress of the Tartar shows the robe principally, but there are besides the pantaloons and the high boots with thick soles. The hair is dressed in pigtail fashion, for from their earliest youth the Chinese children are shaved. The boys are shaved all over the head except at the top, and in the case of girls two tufts are left, one over each ear. These facts, while furnishing no actual clue to the age of Mandarin china, showed that at least it could not have been manufactured before the Tartars came into power in 1644. Probably the date of its manufacture is later.

We can understand that these Tartars, who had enforced their own dress upon the conquered people, but who had at the same time adopted their religion, would continue copying the holy persons such as the eight immortals, the genii, &c., in the same dresses which had been in use for hundreds of years. More than this, there seems to be a strong element of truth in the statement that the Mandarin decoration was due to the desire of the European traders to carry home porcelain which should illustrate the people, and the style and the colour of their clothes. If this is so, then the Yungching period would be the first in which Mandarin china was produced. At any rate we do know that most of it was made in Keen-lung's reign, and that the potters of the later Emperors, to our own times, have been manufacturing large quantities for commercial purposes.

In Mandarin china the figures vary in boldness and in general character, but the colouring is of one class—pinks, reds, yellows, blues, and greens, so distinct in tone as to receive the name of Mandarin colours. The decoration of this kind of china includes boys and men at games, such as kite-flying ; warriors fighting, marching, or resting; men and children in masks ; figures walking, riding on horses or on vehicles ; lantern shows with scores of people, besides many other designs. This Mandarin decoration is associated with great varieties in the ground colours and patterns. Such are the swastika ground, the red ground, the blue ground mottled over the glaze, and the scroll ground. There are also many diaper patterns and a variety of borders of flowers, butterflies, dragons, sometimes in low relief, whilst often examples are met with in which the vases are recessed so as to furnish a flat surface in which the decorative painting of figures, flowers, and birds lies flat in a shaped compartment or reserve, which may be joo-e-shaped, leaf-shaped, kakemono-shaped, or makemono-shaped. In studying the vases given as illustrations these varieties of shaped panels should be noted, as they are constantly used in catalogue descriptions of the decoration. Amongst the most beautiful vases of this period are the conical-shaped eggshell vases with short necks, covered with the most delicate scroll work in gilt, having large reserves decorated with Mandarin figures painted with the utmost delicacy, and the small reserves with rose and other flowers most carefully drawn.

The question has been raised as to whether transfer printing as a mechanical process was ever applied to Oriental porcelain. In England, Dr. Wall, of Worcester, is said to have invented transfer printing as early as 1751, and Sadler and Green, of Liverpool, lay claim to the honour of its discovery at about the same time, whilst on the Continent a similar honour is claimed for the factory at Marieberg in 1760. There is no proof that any blue and white Oriental china, except during the most recent times, was ever decorated on a transfer-printed ground. All of the blue and white Nankin and Canton ware was painted by hand under the glaze. When we consider the immense amount of labour necessary to keep up the supply of porcelain to Europe, and also to the United States early in the nineteenth century, it is astonishing that no process work showing transfer printing can be discovered, although the invention must have spread to China before 1796 when Keen-lung died.

We shall treat of " blanc de chine" later, when we discuss the colours of Oriental china, but it must be remembered that most of the Chinese ware of this type was made during this period. Such were the statuettes of Kwan-Yin and many other gods and goddesses. This cream-white porcelain may date from any period even before Kang-he. The earliest specimens are distinguished by being transparent, although thick, and by the creamy smoothness of their glaze. Some authors, however, ascribe the origin of this ware to the Keen-lung period.



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