Collector’s Notes: Blue and White Chinese Porcelain

An overview of blue and white Chinese porcelain for the budding collector that delves into the history and how to authenticate antique porcelains.

Blue and white Chinese porcelain collector's notes graphic

Think you’ve got a consuming passion for decorating with blue and white Chinese porcelain?

Take a look at these obsessive displays!

Don’t be confused by the perspective. You are looking up in to the vault of a pyramid ceiling where some 260 pieces of blue and white Chinese porcelain have been carefully hung and surrounded by gilt. This awe inspiring sight is from the De Santos Palace in Lisbon, now the French Embassy, and was laid out at the end of the 18th century.

Next the Porcelain Room at the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin houses thousands of blue and white Chinese & Japanese porcelains. A truly abundant display that signaled to all visitors just how far reaching Frederick I’s influence and diplomatic relations stretched. Gilt surrounds and mirrors amplify the effect.

Lastly, in case you think this obsessive display ended with the 18th century here is Whistler’s famous Peacock Room designed for shipping magnet Frederick R. Leyland. The room became an Aesthetic embodiment as the colors, paintings, and porcelains all culminated into one immersive art experience.

The amassing of blue and white porcelains from China has a long standing history in the West and Near East really since this ceramic’s inception in the Yuan Dynasty almost 700 years ago. The Chinese and foreigner alike have been mesmerized by its beauty and the naturalistic color combination of sky and cloud.

Particularly Europeans’ fascination and enchantment with Chinese blue and white porcelain cannot be separated from our history of exploration, conquest, and colonization of exotic lands. The evolution of blue and white porcelain design both in terms of shapes and surface decoration shows an absolutely fascinating amalgamation of cultural exchange, wealth, influence, and power. The wide ranging reach of Chinese blue and white is astounding, touching everyone from the Mongols to the Persians, the French to the Mexicans, and the Egyptians to the Syrians.

It’s hard to imagine another commercial product that has had such wide reach or impact on art!



 

History of Blue and White Chinese Porcelain

With the introduction of cobalt blue from Persia, Chinese potters developed the technique of painting a white porcelain body with designs in cobalt and glazing over top a clear coating that fired at high temperatures, ensuring a cohesive ceramic with extensive longevity.

Scholars agree that although earlier experiments with cobalt in China and Persian pottery do exist the Yaun dynasty’s technical developments and skilled decoration were truly an innovation that came to surpass all other efforts.

Porcelain – Chinese use the word ci to mean either porcelain or stoneware, not distinguishing between the two. In the West, porcelain usually refers to high-fired (about 2400ºF) white ceramics made from kaolin, whose bodies are translucent, vitreous, and make a ringing sound when struck.

Guangzhou Chinese export paintings from the V&A

Image via Derek Philip Au Guangzhou Chinese export paintings from the V&A

The cobalt oxide (zaffre) used to paint the bodies of these porcelains turns from black to blue when fired and is painted by brush under the glaze. A resulting range of blues occurs depending on the impurities present in the ore, and different eras saw different appreciations for certain blue hues and ability to produce these hues based on access to Persian cobalt or other Chinese sources. Hence why we see a softer, pale blue from the Chenghua (1465-1487) to the Zhengde (1506-1521) periods and a purplish-blue in the Xuande (1426–1435). To learn more about the varieties in cobalt read this.

Production of Blue and White

Production of blue and white porcelain centered in South China in Jingdezhen (Ching-Tê-Chên) and became a highly developed process with division of labor between those who:

  • prepared the basic clays into a paste
  • created the saggars (containers for firing)
  • moulded the pieces
  • decorated the surfaces

In fact, according to one historical observer, Jesuit priest Père François Xavier d’Entrecolles, a single jar may have been touched by over 70 different craftsmen, and the painting done in stages by different hands. For more on production read this.

By 1540 an estimated 10,000 people were actively involved in the production of ceramics. The kilns at Jingdezhen were either private or imperial with the best artisans appointed or forced to serve in the Imperial workshops. Positions were hereditary and thus whole families for generations worked in the potting industry.

It varied emperor to emperor, but most craftsmen had to spend some part of their year laboring for the emperor in a corvée system or pay heavy taxes. Most of the private workshops made the porcelains for the domestic and export markets. Orders from the Imperial court were large and as many as 100,000 pieces were created for the Ming court annually.

Click through the pink tabs below to learn more!

Global Trade in Blue and White

Trade in Blue and White

At first trade in blue and white Chinese porcelain centered along the Silk Road and with the Near East and Southeast Asia. But by the early 16th century, Portugal made direct contact with China and began participating in the silk, tea, silver, porcelain, and pepper trade. King Manuel I of Portugal is credited with stimulating the European taste for blue and white when he offered the porcelains as diplomatic gifts to other European courts. While blue and white had been actually used in China and the Near East, upon reaching Europe its beauty and exoticism was so admired it quickly reached object d’art status.

In the 17th century the Dutch, particularly through the Dutch East Indian Company (Verenigde Oostindische Companie) came to dominate European trade with China. Porcelain grew in status and value even surpassing gold at one point, and spurring a race to reproduce the vitreous luminous ceramic body. Not until the 1709 did a German alchemist, Johann Fredrich Böttger, succeed, leading to the foundation of a porcelain industry at Meissen.

Some Basics of Chinese Ceramics

Understanding Chinese Ceramics

Collectors and historians date and discuss Chinese porcelain in relation to the dynasty it was produced in and when possible the emperor it was produced under as well as the type of decoration, which is also called the family (blue and white, celadon, wucai, etc.). There are stylistic differences and developments that affect the colors used, the shapes of the vessels, and the motifs used in decoration as porcelain production was impacted by the different governing dynasties and interaction with the Near East and West.

The three main dynasties to concern yourself with in regards to blue and white:

Yuan 1279 – 1368

Ming 1368 – 1644

Qing 1644 – 1912

For a full listing of dynasties and emperors head here.

Another important point to understand is that Chinese porcelain falls within 3 distinct groupings, particularly after the Imperial kilns were set up in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty:

  • Porcelain made for the Imperial court (Guanyao)
  • Porcelain made for the Chinese people (Minyao)
  • Porcelain made for the export market (the West, the Near East, Japan, and South East Asia)

The difference in these 3 types is found in the shapes of the porcelain bodies and the decoration. Porcelain made for the domestic market (imperial or people) was made in the “Chinese taste” and that made to export was made with the stylistic tastes of that culture in mind as best understood by the Chinese potters.

Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), Forbidden City

Image via Arts of Asia, Smarthistory Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), Forbidden City

Imperial porcelain is almost always marked with a 4 or 6 character period mark/reign mark, while export porcelain is usually not marked (except when we get to 1892 and “made…” in marks are required to certain Western markets). Imperial Ming porcelain is the crème de la crème of blue and white and it commands 5 figures and up. Since it was made for the emperor and his court, these porcelain wares are extremely refined and of high quality, so you should not see any firing flaws or kiln grit.

Flaws were more acceptable on minyao or export pieces. Peoples ware is much more common and available at more affordable prices as is export porcelain.

Consequently, pieces with fake Imperial marks are common and have been produced according to some scholars from day one, so you could very well have a vase created during the Ming period but with a fake Imperial mark, and many pieces were made by Chinese potters in homage to periods past, which may have a retrospective mark.

It is very difficult to date Chinese porcelains only by their marks!

Blue and White Design

Blue and White Designs

Chinese Taste

By the Ming dynasty the philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism were well established and most practiced some combination of the three. Commoners and emperors alike supported temples and honored devotional images in their homes. China had a highly literate society that greatly valued poetry and brush-written calligraphy, which, along with painting, were called the “Three Perfections,” reflecting the esteemed position of the arts in Chinese life.

Blue and white porcelain was part of these artistic endeavors and influenced by the brush and ink calligraphy and painting techniques as well as the three philosophies. It was particularly admired by the Imperial court, and it is interesting to trace the shapes and motifs preferred by different emperors, many of whom ordered huge quantities of porcelain from the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. The porcelains were used domestically, given as gifts, served in temples offerings, and at burial sites.

For a look at early blue and white in the Chinese taste watch this video on the David Vases:

Dish decorated with Phoenix design, unknown maker, mid 14th century

Image via The Victoria and Albert Museum Dish decorated with Phoenix design, mid 14th century

Some hallmarks of Chinese taste include the interplay of contrasting light and dark tones and manipulation of the white and blue. Two ever popular themes are the lotus pond with ducks and fish among water plants and the “Three Friends” – a pine, bamboo, and prunus intertwined. Narrative scenes with figures were also to the Chinese taste, alluding to stories from literature of the time.

The most popular motifs were:

  • Florals- chrysanthemum, peony, and lotus
  • Animals- dragon, phoenix, pheasant, leonine figure, and peacock
  • Fruits- pomegranates, peaches, grapes, and melons.
Vase, porcelain painted in underglaze blue, China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644)

Image via The Victoria and Albert Museum Sleeve vase, Ming dynasty (1368-1644)

In terms of becoming a true connoisseur who can date Chinese porcelains knowing when certain motifs were introduced and popular is important. For further study see my sources section.

Export Patterns

Mid-16th century blue and white porcelain dish produced for Portuguese market with IHS and armillary sphere

Image via The Met Dish shows Christian and Portuguese Symbols

Like the Persians before them the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Jesuits, and then the Dutch influenced the design and production of blue and white. By the 1520s ewers, bowls, and plates were being painted with Portugal’s Manuel I’s own armillary sphere, the Hapsburg eagle shows up on a jar from 1575, and Christian iconography of crosses and the inscribed Ava Maria was making an appearance by the 1540s.

Kraak

Blue and white porcelain dish in Kraak style from late 17th century via the Met

Image via The Met Classic Kraak radial design on this dish

The first truly distinct design of blue and white porcelain produced for Europe in large quantities starting at the end of the 16th century and continuing to the middle of the 17th. It features radial panel decoration around a central design in a blue-grey tone. The panels are filled with fruit, flowers, auspicious emblems, and the center often shows a landscape with figures or birds or deer. Varying diaper borders are used. This style was produced on a range of porcelain bodies from plates to vases.

Kraak ware is named after the Portuguese ships that carried so much of the blue and white from China to Europe. The porcelain body is typically fine-grained, dense, and pure white although prone to firing flaws. The bases tend to have grit attached around the foot rim and often shallow radial marks (chatter-marks) are evident. For more on Kraak ware read this.

Canton

Blue and white Chinese export plate in Canton pattern

This is an export porcelain appearing at the end of the 18th century decorated in cobalt blue with a central panel of houses, mountains, figures, and bridge within a landscape in a typically Chinese style. Most Canton was made for tableware and was very popular in England and America. It was somewhat of an “everybody’s” china, gracing the tables of prominent citizens and the less affluent. We know George Washington owned a several large sets, and this pattern inspired transferware Blue Willow.

Early Canton ware usually had a rain and cloud border, was thick and heavy, finials in the form of a strawberry, and cross handles. Later pieces have a straight line border and are thinner.

Canton varies widely in quality with coarser pieces showing firing flaws, grit, and careless decoration. Some scholar suggest it was useful as ship ballast and was packed first thus refinement wasn’t necessary rather speed of packing. It is called Canton (Guangzhou) after the port it was decorated and shipped out of. Throwing and firing of the pieces still occurred at Jingdezhen.

Nanking

Also a popular 19th century tableware porcelain in cobalt. Generally, this pattern was darker blue and showed much more refined decoration. The borders were more detailed with a diapered section and inner ring of spears and posts. The central decoration of Nanking resembles Canton, but it is usually more detailed with a figure on the bridge.

FitzHugh

Fitzhugh tureen early 19th century via The Met

Image via The Met

This is another 19th century export pattern that consisted of four geometric sections around a central medallion. The designs consist of vegetation, butterflies, honeycomb, and florals. It was produced in blue as well as green, orange, purple, and yellow.

Reproduction or Fake?

Exploring the Debate About Reproductions/Knock-offs/Fakes

Imitation blue and white porcelain has been created almost since the very beginning as consumers came into contact with it, fell under its spell, and tried to reproduce the effect with the materials and techniques available to their domestic potters. Imitation blue and white was being produced in:

  • Vietnam by late 1300s
  • Ottoman empire by end of the 1400s
  • Puebla, Mexico by the late 1500s
  • Japan by second half of the 1600s
  • Holland by the 1620s

Some of these imitations, such as Delftware and Turkish Iznik, came to have intrinsic and unique value in their own right, deviating in creativity and design enough to become their own original styles. Others never distinguished themselves from Chinese blue and white and the goal was always to replicate. As I mentioned earlier, even within Chinese production itself porcelains were made to replicate earlier styles as tribute.

This gets us to the interesting and long standing debate over what is a reproduction versus a fake… what is homage and what is trickery?

Intention lies at the crux of this debate, and for me if a piece was made, sold, or altered with the sole intention to deceive and command an outrageous price then it is a fake.

Most reproductions can be detected by an expert, and don’t intentionally set out to fool anyone. They may use modern materials and even have identifying labels. In terms of technique and skill, though, some may well be made on par with antique porcelains. Sometimes you will see these called designer or decorator porcelains.

Others are clearly not! Take a stroll through your local Hobby Lobby or click around on Amazon and you will find cheap blue and white ceramics. Let’s call these knock-offs. They follow the same aesthetic principle of combining crisp white with brilliant blue and parroting popular Chinese motifs.

But they lack in painterly finesse and proportion, and many of them are in fact not hand painted and the ceramic body is thin and insubstantial. These are meant to capitalize on the centuries old craze for blue and white. I don’t consider these fakes, but I don’t consider them quality either.

Many people find them perfectly appealing in look, but know what they are and how they compare to the antique porcelains.

If you are looking for quality reproductions, I recommend vintage Chinese porcelains from the 20th century as well as Mottahedeh for dishes, The Enchanted Home and Danny’s Fine Porcelains for jars and decor.

Tips for Authentication

How To Tell If It’s Modern or Antique:

No. 1 Is it porcelain?

Listen for a clear ringing or singing sound when struck not a dull ding. Try the light test if it is a plate or thin body by holding the piece up before a light source and if you can see shadows on the other side chances are good it is porcelain.

No. 2 Look for stenciled decoration or transferware printing.

Instead of being entirely hand painted many modern pieces use stencils to apply the decoration. Look closely at the designs for breaks in the stencil where it would have been moved or adjusted.

No. 3 Truly unique forms are rare and usually museum quality.

Interestingly, there is often a rash of reproductions of unique forms when an authentic piece sells at auction for hundreds of thousands.

No. 4 Pay attention to the blue hue.

An even very vivid blue color is indicative of a modern piece, and its achieved with synthetic pigments not possible when hand grinding pure cobalt. Or modern blues may appear very flat without depth.

No. 5 Examine the base and foot rim.

If it lacks grit, is totally flat, and/or smeared with a brown wash chances are it is later or faked. The treatment of the base and foot rim varies by workshop, but generally an authentic piece has an inset base and could have kiln grit in the glaze. The foot rims themselves are shapely with clean edges. Collected dirt or grime maybe evident but it should look like natural accumulation over years.

No. 6 The genuine antique jars were cast in two parts.

One upper and one lower part were then fitted together horizontally with wet clay as glue in a way that left a clay ring or at least a fire crack clearly visibly on the inside and often at least discernible on the outside, like a welt.

No. 7 A mix of anachronistic decorative motifs.

Motifs from different periods on one piece is a sign it is a later reproduction. As I mentioned earlier recognizing and understanding what motifs occurred when takes serious study.

No. 8 Heaped and piled cobalt.

A characteristic of 15th-century blue and white porcelain is the ‘heaped and piled effect’, in which the cobalt-blue underglaze was concentrated in certain areas, bubbling through the surface of the glaze and turning a deep blue-black. This can be copied these days, so it is only one check among several.

No. 9 Wear to glaze is usually evident in older pieces.

It should be concentrated in the areas most likely to be touched or bumped, and the glaze over all should not be super shiny rather more of a soft luster.

No. 10 A pristine surface is a bad sign.

As I mentioned minyao and export pieces often have firing flaws where something gets in the glaze and these can appear as little dimples or divots in the surface or full on gouges.

To understand the process and tests a Chinese porcelain piece goes through to be authenticated read this on Ming reproductions.

Watch this:

“Tips on How to Identify Authentic Antique Chinese Porcelain vs. Modern Copies and Fakes – Part 1” Chamberlain Antiques

“Dating Chinese Ming to Qing Porcelain and Learning About Footrims” Peter Combs

Sources

General Info on China & Chinese Art

Arts of Asia from Smarthistory – great overview and introduction to Chinese art and culture

On Authentication

“Tips on How to Identify Authentic Antique Chinese Porcelain vs. Modern Copies and Fakes – Part 1” Chamberlain Antiques

“Dating Chinese Ming to Qing Porcelain and Learning About Footrims” Peter Combs

Advice on collecting antique blue and white Barneby’s

“The Story of Fake Chinese Ceramics” Chalré Association

History & Production

Books

Blue & White Chinese Porcelain Around the World by John Carswell 2000

The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World by Anne Gerritsen 2020

How to Read Chinese Ceramics by Denise Patry Leidy 2015

Websites

“Chinese Export Porcelain for the West” Gotheborg.com

“Porcelain Frenzy” National Museum of Asian Art

“Shades of Blue” Christie’s

On Production Process Gotheborg.com

“Blue and White Chinese Ceramics” The V&A

Chinese Export Art Featuring the Hodroff Collection, Part IV, Christie’s – Mesmerizing examples of Chinese export porcelains

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