CH’ENG HUA/Cheng Te (1506-1521)

CH’ENG HUA/Cheng Te

The reign of Cheng Te, though not mentioned in the Po wu yao Ian and but briefly noticed in the T’ao shuo, must have been an important period in the history of Chinese porcelain. The yii ch’i ch’ang (Imperial ware factory) was rebuilt and the direct supervision of a palace eunuch renewed. The porcelain, we are told in the T’ao lu, was chiefly blue painted and polychrome, the finestbeingintheunderglazeredknownaschihung. Animportant factor in the blue decoration was the arrival of fresh supplies of the Mohammedan blue. The story is that the governor of Yunnan obtained a supply of this hui ch’ing from a foreign country, and that it was used at first melted down with stone for making imitation jewels. It was worth twice its weight in gold. When, however, it was found that it would endure the heat of the kiln, orders were given for its use in porcelain decoration, and its color was found to be ” antique and splendid.” Hence the great esteem in which the blue and white of the period was held.^ The merit of this new Mohammedan blue was its deep color, and the choicest kind was known as “Buddha’s head blue” (Fo Vou cliing). Its use at this period was not confined to the Imperial factor}^ for we read that the workmen stole it and sold it to the private manufacturers. In the following reign a method of weighing the material was instituted, which put an end to this pilfering.

Some account has already been given ^ of this material and its use in combination with the commoner native mineral blue. It was, no doubt, the blue used on Persian, Syrian and Egyptian pottery of the period exported by the Arab traders. One of the oldest routes ^ followed by Western traders with China was by river (probably the Irrawady) from the coast of Pegu, reaching Yung-ch’ang, in Yunnan, and so into China proper. This will explain the oppor- tunities enjoyed by the viceroy of Yunnan. There were, of course, other lines of communication between China and Western Asia by sea and land, and a considerable interchange of ideas had passed between China and Persia for several centuries, so that reflex influences are traceable in the pottery of both countries. Painting in still black under a turquoise blue glaze is one of the oldest Persian methods of ceramic decoration, and we have seen that it was closely paralleled on the Tz’u Chou wares.

It is related that a thousand Chinese artificers were trans- planted to Persia by Hulagu Khan (1253-1264), and it is probable that they included potters. At any rate, the Chinese dragon and phcenix appear on the Persian lustred tiles of the fourteenth century. At a later date Shah Abbas (1585-1627) settled some Chinese potters in Ispahan. Meanwhile, quantities of Chinese porcelain had been traded in the Near East, where it was closely copied by the Persian, Syrian and Egyptian potters in the sixteenth century. The Persian pottery and soft porce- lain of this time so closely imitates the Chinese blue and white that in some cases a very minute inspection is required to detect the difference, and nothing is commoner than to find Persian ware of this type straying into collections of Chinese porcelain.^ Conversely, the Persian taste is strongly reflected in some of the Chinese decorations, not only where it is directly studied on the wares destined for export to Persia, but in the floral scrolls on the Imperial wares of the Ming period. The expressions hui hid hua (Mohammedan ornament or flowers) and hiii hui wen (Mohammedan designs) occur in the descriptions of the porcelain forwarded to the palace, and there can be little doubt that they refer to floral arabesque designs in a broad sense, though it would, of course, be possible to narrow the meaning to the medallions of Arabic writing not infrequently seen on Chinese porcelain, which was apparently made for the use of some of the numerous Mohammedans in China.

An interesting series of this last-mentioned type is exhibited in the British Museum along with a number of bronzes similarly ornamented. Manyoftheseareofearlydate,andfiveoftheporce- lains bear the Cheng Te mark and unquestionably belong to that period. These comprise a pair of vases with spherical tops which are hollow and pierced with five holes, in form resembling the pecu- liar Chinese hat stands ; the lower part of a cut-down vase, square in form ; an ink slab with cover, and a brush rest in the form of a conventional range of hills. The body in each case is a beautiful white material, though thickly constructed, and the glaze, which is thick and of a faint greenish tinge, has in three of these five pieces been affected by some accident of the firing, which has left its sur- face dull and shrivelled in places like wrinkled skin. The designs are similar throughout—medallions with Arabic writing surrounded by formal lotus scrolls or cloud-scroll designs, strongly outlined and filled in with thin uneven washes of a beautiful soft Moham- medan blue. The glaze being thick and bubbly gives the brush strokes a hazy outline, and the blue shows that tendency to run in the firing which we are told was a peculiarity of the Mohammedan blue if not sufficiently diluted with the native mineral cobalt. The inscriptions are mainly pious Moslem texts, but on the cover of the ink slab is the appropriate legend, ” Strive for excellence in penmanship, for it is one of the keys of livelihood,” and on the brush rest is the Persian word Khdma-ddn (pen rest). In the same case are three cylindrical vases, apparently brush pots, decorated in the same style but unmarked. One has dark Mohammedan blue and probably belongs to the next reign. The other two, I venture to think, are earlier. They are both of the same type of ware, a fine white material, -which takes a brownish red tinge in the exposed parts, and the glaze, which is thick and of a soft greenish tint, has a tendency to scale off at the edges. The bases are unglazed and show the marks of a circular support. The larger piece is remarkably thick in the wall, and has a light but vivid blue of the Mohammedan sort ; the smaller piece is not quite so stoutly proportioned, but the blue is peculiarly soft, deep, and beautiful, though it has run badly into the glaze, and where it has run it has changed to a dark indigo.^ One would say that this is the Mohammedan blue, almost pure ; and if, as I have suggested, these two specimens are earlier types, they can only belong to the Hsiian Te period.

Another blue and white example with Cheng Te mark in the British Museum is of thinner make and finer grain ; but, as it is a saucer-dish,thisrefinementwasonlytobeexpected. Itispainted in a fine bold style, worthy of the best Ming traditions, with dragons in lotus scrolls, but the blue is duller and greyer in tone than on the pieces just described.

Two specimens of Cheng Te ware are figured in Hsiang’s Album, one a tripod libation cup of bronze form and the other a lamp sup- ported by a tortoise, and the glaze of both is ” deep yellow, like steamed chestnuts.”

The Cheng Te mark is far from common, but it occurs persistently on certain types of polychrome porcelain. One is a saucer-dish with carved dragon designs under a white glaze, the depressions of the carving and a few surrounding details being washed over with light green enamel. The design consists of a circular medallion  in the centre enclosing a dragon among clouds, and two dragons on the outside, the space between them faintly etched with sea waves. The ware is usually thin and refined. These dishes are not uncommon, and it is difficult to imagine that they can all belong to such an early period. On the other hand, one also meets with copies of the same design with the Ch’ien Lung mark (1736-1795), which display unmistakable difference in quality. Another type has the same green dragon design with engraved outlines set in a yellow ground, and in most cases its antiquity is open to the same doubts. It is certain, however, that these pieces represent a style which was in vogue in the Cheng Te period. A small vase of this kind was the only piece with the Cheng Te mark in the exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1910,^ and it had the appearance of a Ming specimen. A good example oft his ChengTepoly- chrome belonging to the Hon. Evan Charteris i It has the designs etched in outline, filled in with transparent green, yellow and aubergine glazes, the three colors or san ts’ai of the Chinese ; and the Cheng Te mark is seen on the neck.- And a square bowl in the British Museum, similar in body and glaze to the blue and white specimens with Arabic inscriptions, is painted in fine blue on the exterior with dragons holding Shou (longevity) characters in their claws, the background filled in with a rich transparent yellow enamel. This piece has the mark of Cheng Te in four characters painted in Mohammedan blue, and is clearly a genuine specimen.