THE TECHNIQUE OF THE MING PORCELAIN

A LTHOUGH the processes involved in the various kinds of decoration and in the different wares have been discussed in their several places, a short summary of those employed in the manufacture of the Ching-te Chen porcelain during the Ming period will be found convenient. The bulk of the materials re- quired were found in the surrounding districts, if not actually in the Fou-liang Hsien. The best kaolin (or porcelain earth) was mined in the Ma-ts’ang mountains until the end of the sixteenth century, when the supply was exhausted and recourse was had to another deposit at Wu-men-t’o. The quality of the Wu-men-t’o kaolin was first-rate, but as the cost of transport was greater and the manager of the Imperial factory refused to pay a proportion- ately higher price, very little was obtained. The material for the large dragon bowls, and presumably for the other vessels of ab- normal size, was obtained from Yii-kan and Wu-yiian and mixed with powdered stone (shih mo) from the Hu-t’ien district. Other kaolins, brought from Po-yang Hsien and the surrounding parts, were used by the private potters, not being sufficiently fine for the Imperial wares.

The porcelain stone, which combined with the kaolin to form the two principal ingredients of true porcelain, came from the neighborhoods of Yii-kan and Wu-yiian, where it was pounded and purified in mills worked by the water power of the mountains, arriving at Ching-te Chen in the form of briquettes. Hence the name petuntse,^ which, like kaolin, has passed into our own language, and the term shih mo (powdered stone) used above.

The glaze earth [iju fu) in various qualities was supplied from different places. Thus the Ch’ang-ling material was used for the blue or green (ch’ing) and the yellow glazes, the Yi-k’eng for the pure white porcelain, and the T’ao-shu-mu for white porcelain and for ” blue and white.” This glazing material was softened with varying quantities of ashes of lime burnt with ferns or other frond- age. Neither time nor toil was spared in the preparation of the Imperial porcelains, and according to the T’ung-ya ^ the vessels were, at one time at any rate, dried for a whole year after they had been shaped and before finishing them off on the lathe. When finished off on the lathe they were glazed and dried, and if there were any inequalities in the covering they were glazed again. Furthermore, if any fault appeared after firing they were put on the lathe, ground smooth, and reglazed and refired.

It was not the usual custom with Chinese potters to harden the ware with a slight preliminary firing before proceeding to decorate and apply the glaze, and consequently such processes as under- glaze painting in blue, embossing, etc., were undergone while the body was still relatively soft and required exceedingly careful handling. The glaze was applied in several ways—by dipping in a tub of glazing liquid (i.e. glaze material finely levigated and mixed with water), by painting the glaze on with a brush, or by blowing it on from a bamboo tube, the end of which was covered with a piece of tightly stretched gauze. One of the last operations was the finishing off of the foot, which was hollowed out and trimmed and the mark added (if it was to be in blue, as was usually the case) and covered with a spray of glaze. To the connoisseur the finish of the foot is full of meaning. It is here he gets a glimpse of the body which emerges at the raw edge of the rim, and by feeling it he can tell whether the material is finely levigated or coarse-grained. The foot rim of the Ming porcelains is plainly finished without the beading or grooves of the K’ang Hsi wares, which were evidently designed to fit a stand ^ ; and the raw edge discloses a ware which is almost always of fine white texture and close grain (often almost unctuous to the touch), though the actual surface generally assumes a brownish tinge in the heat of the kiln. The base is often unglazed in the case of large jars and vases, rarely in the cups, bowls, dishes, or wine pots, except among the coarser types of export porcelain. A little sand or grit adhering to the foot rim and radiating lines under the base caused by a jerky movement of the lathe are signs  of hasty finish, which occur not infrequently on the export wares. The importance of the foot in the eyes of the Chinese collector may be judged from the following extract from the Shih ch’itig jih cha .“ Distinguish porcelain by the vessel’s foot. The Yung Lo ‘ press-hand bowls have a glazed bottom but a sandy foot Hsiian ware altar cups have ‘ cauldron ‘ ^ bottom (i.e. convex beneath) and wire-like foot ; Chia Ching ware flat cups decorated with fish have a ‘ loaf centre^ (i.e. convex inside) and rounded foot. All porcelain vessels issue from the kiln with bottoms and feet which can testify to the fashion of the firing.”

It is not always easy unaided by illustration to interpret the Chinese metaphors, but it is a matter of observation that many of the Sung bowls, for instance, have a conical finish under the base, and that the same pointed finish appears on some of the early Ming types, such as the red bowls with Yung Lo mark. The ” loaf centre ” of the Chia Ching bowls seems to refer to the convexity described on p. 35. The blue and white conical bowls with Yung Lo mark (see p. 6) have, as a rule, a small glazed base and a relatively wide unglazed foot rim.

But this digression on the nether peculiarities of the different wares has led us away from the subject of glaze. The proverbial thickness and solidity of the early Ming glazes, which are likened to ” massed lard,” are due to the piling up of successive coatings of glaze to ensure a perfect covering for the body, and the same process was responsible for the undulating appearance of the surface, which rose up in small rounded elevations ” like grains of millet ” and displayed corresponding depressions.* This uneven effect, due to an excess of glaze, was much prized by the Chinese connoisseurs, who gave it descriptive names like ” millet markings,” ” chicken skin,” or ” orange peel,” and the potters of later periods imitated it freely and often to excess. Porcelain glazes are rarely dead white, and, speaking generally, it may be said that the qualifying int in the Ming period was greenish. Indeed, this is the prevaing tone of Chinese glazes, but it is perhaps accentuated by the thick- ness of the Ming glaze. This greenish tinge is most noticeable when the ware is ornamented with delicate traceries in pure white clay or slip under the glaze.

As for the shape of the various Ming wares, much has already been said in reference to the various lists of Imperial porcelains, more particularly with regard to the household wares such as dishes, bowls, wine pots, boxes, etc. No precise description, however, is given in these lists of the actual forms of the vases, and we have to look elsewhere for these. There are, however, extracts from books on vases ^ and on the implements of the scholar’s table in the T^ao shuo and the T’ao lu, in which a large number of shapes are enumerated. Observation of actual specimens shows that bronze and metal work supplied the models for the more elaborate forms -which would be made, partly or wholly, in moulds. These metallic forms, so much affected by the Chinese literatus, though displaying great clever- ness in workmanship and elaboration of detail, are not so pleasing to the unprejudiced Western eye as the simple wheel-made forms of which the Chinese potter was a perfect master. Of the latter, the most common in Ming porcelains are the potiche-shaped covered jar (Plate 80) and the high-shouldered baluster vase with small neck and narrow mouth (Plate 84), which was known as mei p’ing or prunus jar from its suitability for holding a flowering branch of that decorative flower. Next to these, the most familiar Ming forms are the massive and often clumsy vases of double gourd shape, or with a square body and gourd-shaped neck, bottles with taper- ing neck and globular body, ovoid jars, melon-shaped pots with lobed sides, jars with rounded body and short narrow neck, all of which occur in the export wares. These are,as a rule,strongly built and of good white material, and if the shoulders are contracted as is nearly always the case) they are made in two sections, or more in the case of the double forms, with no pains taken to conceal the seam. Indeed, elaborate finish had no part in the construction of these strong, rugged forms, which are matched by the bold design and free drawing of the decoration. I may add that sets of vases hardly come within the Ming period. They are an un-Chinese idea, and evolved in response to European demands. The mantelpiece sets of five (three covered jars and two beakers) are a development of the mid-seventeenth century when the Dutch traders commanded the market. The Chinese altar  set of five ritual utensils is the nearest approach to a uniform set, consisting as it did of an incense burner, two flower vases, and two pricket candlesticks, often with the same decoration throughout.

The Ming bowls vary considerably in form, from the wide-mouthed, small-footed bowl (p’ieh) of the early period to the rounded forms In some cases the sides are moulded in compartments, and the rims sharply everted. Others again are very shallow, with hollow base and no foot rim ; others follow the shape of the Buddhist alms bowl with rounded sides and contracted mouth ; and there are large bowls for gold-fish {yil kang), usually with straight sides slightly expanding towards the upper part and broad flat rims, cisterns, hot-water bowls with double bottom and plug hole beneath, square bowls  for scraps and slops, and large vessels, probably of punch-bowl form, known as ” wine seas.” The commonest type of Chinese dish is saucer-shaped, but they had also flat plates bounded by straight sides and a narrow rim, which has no relation to the broad, canted rim of the European plate constructed to carry salt and condiments.

The Chinese use porcelain plaques for inlaying in furniture and screens, or mounting as pictures, and there are, besides, many objects of purely native design, such as barrel-shaped garden seats for summer use, cool pillows, and hat stands with spherical top and tall, slender stems. But it was only natural that when they began to cater for the foreign market many foreign forms should have crept in, such as the Persian ewer with pear-shaped body, long elegant handle and spout, the latter usually joined to the neck by an ornamental stay : the hookah bowl : weights with wide base and ball-shaped tops for keeping down Indian mats, etc., when spread on the ground ; and at the end of the Ming period a few European shapes,such as jugs and tankards. In the Ch’ing dynasty European forms were made wholesale.