Oriental China - Kea-King, Taou-Kwang, And Later Emperors
( Originally Published 1911 )
WHEN any country is disturbed by internal divisions or by external invasion, the inhabitants pay less and less devotion to art. The reign of this king was certainly disturbed. The people suffered from misrule, and though the traditions of the Chinese potters did still keep up, in a measure, the high standard of the previous reign, the neglect of the governing bodies, of the Emperor and Court, took away much of their devotion to the development of the porcelain so conspicuous in Keen-lung's reign. The porcelain, however, remained good in the quality of its paste, and now and then it reached excellence with regard to the decoration, which became characterised by conventional designs. Coloured enamels and gold were largely used for ornamentation, the turquoise blue, "famille rose," and a good blue-green were conspicuous. Mandarin china still continued to be made, though the modelling was comparatively clumsy and the paste thick, still, however, having the wavy surface always noticeable in Mandarin china, which was, as we have said, largely made for the European market. The influence of Western art made itself felt in the decoration. Many scenes were painted with European subjects, especially in the small reserves or vignettes. Some of the finest forms, too, of the early Sevres and early Wedgwood and Adams' styles were copied and decorated with festoons of raised husks with a landscape in a medallion. This wavy porcelain seems to be specially connected with a comparatively thick blue enamel and a style of decoration usually called Lowestoft. Of course it is not Lowestoft. Lowestoft was a soft paste porcelain imitating early Bow and Worcester. The porcelain of the Keen-lung period, then, might be named the porcelain of commerce. European forms of pieces not used by the Chinese themselves are often found. The process seemed to have been something like this. The East India Company, all the captains and officers of the East India Company's ships, when visiting China took with them orders for services to be decorated with crests or armorial bearings, with English landscapes, or with sporting or religious subjects. Blue and white was made in vast quantities owing to the demand from Europe. It needs but one sentence of description. It was poor. About this time the Chinese potters copied the Japanese. Imari ware, with its flowers in conventional forms, various Celadons in blue, lilac, grey-white on good fine porcelain, are traced to this reign. Perhaps it was most celebrated for the reproductions of the porcelain of earlier periods in which both pattern and mark were constantly recopied.
In this period there was a special development of the enamelled rice bowl, although beautiful vases so decorated with enamel as to cover the whole surface are not uncommon. The use of two shades of green produces a very pleasing and comparatively new effect. Unfortunately, the Chinese potteries, as in the previous reign, seemed to have devoted much of their time to reproductions. The rice bowls were often decorated in graviata, graffito, or sgraffito patterns, in which the enamel was scratched with a point into a variety of twists and turns, forming beautiful variations from the ordinary plain enamel surface. This surface was also painted with flowers and figures. The process seems to have been first adopted by Keen-lung, and many pieces have the Keen-lung mark. In a set of four very fine examples which came under our notice three had the Keen-lung mark, and the fourth that of Taou-kwang. In all probability the majority of them were made in the later reign and the earlier mark was copied. The copying during this reign included all the older forms from the Kang-he period, and it excelled in reproducing the "famille verte" and the "tamale rose." Perhaps the Yung-ching green enamel received the most special attention, for the outline of the design is often found first painted in blue under the glaze, so that the blue shows through the transparent surface enamels and gives a bluish tint to the decoration generally, which was quite the effect produced by a similar decoration in Yung-ching's reign.
To the same class of rice bowls belong the pierced porcelains with patterns filled with glaze. Here the rice pattern is cut through the paste while the paste was soft. Then as usual the blue decoration was applied painted on by hand, and certain parts received a coating of white enamel before the whole was care-fully glazed. The skilful glazing is shown by the evenness with which the pattern, in glaze, matches the general surface of the piece itself. The rice or star pattern is the most common of all these pierced porcelains. Some specimens have, however, a diaper pattern, and more rarely a dragon design with flowers and leaves, so cut that portions only are filled with glaze, which gives a very unusual and striking effect. These pierced specimens are not supposed to be earlier than the eighteenth century, and of course they may be very much later.
Very little porcelain was made during this reign, owing to the Tai-ping rebellion, during which Kingte-chin was destroyed. The first Chinese war with England took place in 1860. The rebellion ended in the next reign.
With peace after the wars the manufacture of porcelain was resumed. Generally, the best pieces were copied from the antique, though a pale turquoise ground with decoration of flowers and butterflies was made for exportation. Sepia drawings showed some distinction, but there was no new departure of importance. This period is modern, and these later Emperors are only mentioned in order to bring the history up to date, and to call attention to the marks both on ordinary and seal character.
In the present reign much more importance has been given to the improvement of porcelain, which is largely made for export, high prices being obtained for imitations which are sold as antiques. The largest customer is the United States of America. The intense conservatism of the Chinese has been largely broken down by the influence of outside pressure. The almighty dollar holds the field. Yet, if it is still true that "for ways that are dark and tricks that are vain," "the heathen Chinee " is " peculiar," he holds no monopoly of such qualities. Western civilisation runs him close. On the other hand, the honour of a Chinese in trade is generally of a high standard, and the people have a natural instinct for artistic decoration, which has come to them as the legacy of ages past. And with this power they have, too, an unlimited supply of the very finest kaolin. Let us hope that happier times will bring back the glories of the past.