HSUAN TE (1426-1435)

IN this short reign, which Chinese writers regard as the most occupied with the Imperial orders had increased to fifty-eight, the majority of them being outside the Imperial factory and distributed among the private factories. According to the T’ao lu, the clay used at this time was red and the ware like cinnabar, a statement which is difficult to reconcile with the glowing description of the jade-like white altar cups and other exquisite objects for which the reign was celebrated. It is, of course, possible that a dark colored body was employed in some of the wares, as was done at other periods, or it may be that the words are hyperbolically used to describe a porcelain of which the exposed parts of the body assumed a red color in the firing. This latter peculiarity is noticeable on specimens of later Ming porcelain, particularly the blue and white of the Chia Ching period. But in any case a red biscuit cannot have been invariable or even characteristic of the period, for no mention is made of such a feature in the Po wu yao Ian, which gives by far the fullest account of the Hsiian T e porcelain. The description in the Po wu yao Ian, which seems to have been generally accepted, and certainly was largely borrowed by subsequent Chinese works, may be freely rendered as follows : ” Among the wares of the Hsiian Te period there are stem-cups decorated with red fish. For these they used a powder made of red precious stones from the West to paint the fish forms, and from the body there rose up in relief in the firing the precious brilliance of the fresh red ravishing the eye.

The brown and blackish colors which resulted from imperfect firing of the red are inferior. There were also blue decorated wares, such as stem-cups with dragon pine and plum designs, wine stem-cups with figure subjects and lotus designs, small cinnabar pots and large bowls in color red like the sun, but with white mouth rim, pickle pots and small pots with basket covers and handles in the form of bamboo joints, all of which things were unknown in ancient times. Again, there were beautiful objects of a useful kind, all small and cleverly made with finely and accurately drawn designs. The belong to a common class. The flat-sided jars with basket covers, and the ornamented round pots with flanged mouth for preserving honey, are very beautiful and mostly decorated in colors (wu ts’ai). The white cups, which have the character fan (altar)engraved inside the bowl, are what are known as ‘altar cups.’

The material of these things is refined and the ware thick, and the form beautiful enough to be used as elegant vases in the true scholar’s room. There are besides white cups for tea with rounded body, convex base, thread-like foot, bright and lustrous like jade, and with very finely engraved dragon and phoenix designs which are scarcely inferior to the altar cups. At the bottom the characters ta ming hsiian te nien chih are secretly engraved in the paste, and the texture of the glaze is uneven, like orange peel. How can even Ting porcelain compare with these ? Truly they are the most excellent porcelains of this reign, and unfortunately there have not been many to be seen since then. Again, there are the beautiful barrel-shaped seats, some with openwork ground, the designs filled in with colors (wu ts’ai), gorgeous as cloud brocades, others with solid ground filled in with colors in engraved floral designs, so beautiful and brilliant as to dazzle the eye; both sorts have a deep green (ch’ing) background. Others have blue (lan) ground, filled in with designs in colors (wu ts’ai), like ornament carved in cobalt blue (shih ch’ing, lit. stone blue). There is also blue decoration on a white ground and crackled grounds like ice. The form and ornament of these various types do not seem to have been known before this period.”

It will be seen from the above that the Hsiian Te porcelains included a fine white, blue and white and polychrome painted wares, underglaze red painted wares, and crackle. The last mentioned lines,” and almost rivaling the Kuan and Ju wares. The ware was thick and strong, and the glaze had the peculiar undulating appearance (variously compared to chicken skin, orange peel, millet grains, or a wind ruffled surface) which was deliberately produced on the eighteenth century porcelains.

Another surface peculiarity shared by the Hsiian Te and Yung Lo wares was ” p a l m e y e ” (tsung yen) markings, which Bushell explains as holes in the glaze due to air bubbles. It is hard to see how these can have been other than a defect. Probably both these and the orange peel effects were purely fortuitous at this time. Of the various types which we have enumerated, the white wares need little comment. The glaze was no doubt thick and lustrous like mutton fat jade, and though Hsiang in his Album usually describes the white of his examples as ” white like driven snow,” it is worthy of note that in good imitations of the ware particular care seems to have been given to impart a distinct greenish tint to the glaze.

The honors of the period appear to have been shared by the ” blue and white ” and red painted wares. Out of twenty examples illustrated in Hsiang’s Album, no fewer than twelve are decorated chiefly in red, either covering the whole or a large part of the surface or painted in designs, among which three fishes occur with monotonous frequency. The red in every case is called chi hung, and it is usually qualified by the illuminating comparison with ” ape’s blood,” and in one case it is even redder than that. The expression chi hung has evidently been handed down by oral traditions, for there is no sort of agreement among Chinese writers on the form of the first character. The T’ao hi uses this further specified in the Ch’ing pi twang as having ” eel’s blood x character ^, which means “sacrificial,” and Bushell explains this ” as the color of the sacrificial cups which were employed by the Emperor in the worship of the Sun.” Hsiang uses the character ?§ which means ” massed, accumulated.” And others use the character f | which means ” s k y clearing,” and is also applied to blue in the sense of the ” blue of the sky after rain.” In the oft quoted list of the Yung Cheng porcelains we find the item, ” Imitations of Hsiian chi hung wares, including two kinds, hsien hung (fresh red) and pao shih hung (ruby red).” There can be little doubt that both these were shades of underglaze red derived from copper oxide, a color with which we are quite familiar from the eighteenth century and later examples.

For in another context we find the hsien hung contrasted with fan hung, which is the usual term for overglaze iron red, and the description already given of the application of pao shih hung leaves no doubt whatever that it was an underglaze color. The two terms are probably fanciful names for two variations of the same color, or perhaps for two different applications of it, for we know that it was used as a pigment for brushwork as well as in the form of a ground color incorporated in the glaze. . The secret of the color seems to have been well kept, and the general impression prevailing outside the factories was that its tint and brilliancy were due to powdered rubies, the red precious stone from the West which gave the name to the pao shih hung. It is known that in some cases such stones as cornelian (ma nap) have been incorporated in the porcelain glazes in China to increase the limpidity of the glaze. This is reputed to have happened in the case of the Ju yao, but neither cornelian nor ruby could serve in any way as a coloring agent, as their color would be dissipated in the heat of the furnace. The real coloring agent of the chi hung is protoxide of copper. If there were nothing else to prove this, it would be clear from the fact hinted in the Po wu yao Ian that the failures came out a brownish or blackish tint. This color has always proved a difficult one to manage, and in the early part to the iron red. See Julien, op. cit., p. 91 note : ” Among the colors for porcelain painting which M. Itier brought from China and offered to the Sevres factory, there is one called pao shih hung, which, from M. Salvetat’s analysis, is nothing else but oxide of iron with a flux.” In other words, it is a material which should have been labelled fan Imng. This careless terminology has led to much confusion. Unfortunately the term pao shih hung has been loosely applied in modern times of the last dynasty, when it was freely used after the manner of the Hsiian Te potters, the results were most unequal, varying from a fine blood red to maroon and brown, and even to a blackish tint. The peculiar merits of the Hsiian Te red were probably due in some measure to the clay of which the ware was composed, and which contained some natural ingredient favorable to the development of the red.