Blue flower porcelain objects are recognized as of the greatest artistic value among what is broadly referred to as “painted porcelain” of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. In producing such an object, pictures were drawn on the roughcast with a mineral paint rich in cobalt before the roughcast was coated with a kind of transparent glaze, and lines of the painting on the roughcast turned bright blue in the course of firing. In ancient times, cobalt-rich minerals were available in Yunnan, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces or imported from foreign lands. Not long after they came into being, blue flower porcelain objects grew popular enough to replace those with decorative designs cut, engraved or printed on roughcasts. Pictures bright blue against a pure white background produce the same artistic effect as traditional Chinese paintings done on paper. Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province, known as China’s “porcelain capital”, has always been the best-known producer of blue flower porcelain.
Blue flower porcelain objects produced in the early 15th century are recognized as the best in quality and the most beautiful in design, and that period, as the heyday for this unique school of porcelain art. It is said that pictures on such objects were done with a mineral paint brought back from the Islamic world by Zheng He (1371 or 1375-1435). Pictures done with the paint, which has a high content of iron and a relatively low content of manganese, will be exceptionally bright, as bright as blue gems, provided temperature of the firing is properly controlled. Most pictures done on blue and white porcelain objects are flowers, the likes of peony, rose, camellia and chrysanthemum. Animal designs are mostly in the shape of dragons and phoenixes, as well as marine animals and unicorns. There are also pictures of fairies and pavilions and pictures depicting children playing games.
What is known to art historians as dou cai was developed during the Ming Dynasty. Dou cai objects are produced through firing at a relatively low temperature of about 800 degrees Centigrade, featuring pictures in outline done with blue paint on the roughcast and colorful pictures painted on the surface of the glaze by tracing the outlines beneath. The Chinese character dou means “struggle”, and cai, “painting”, the combination suggesting that pictures on the roughcast and the surface of the glaze “struggle” with each other for attention of the viewer.
The earliest dou cai objects were produced under the reign of Emperor Xuan De from 1426 to 1436. The best known dou cai products, however, were produced when Emperor Cheng Hua ruled China from 1465 to 1488. Pictures on Xuan De products are mostly red. In comparison, those on Cheng Hua products, mostly small in size such as wine cups, tea things and pots with lids, are bright with a variety of colors –– red, blue, green, etc. Another kind of porcelain objects of the Ming Dynasty were produced the same way as dou cai. The difference is that pictures on the surface of the glaze and those on the roughcast are independent of each other with complementing colors and designs.
Under the successive reigns under Emperors Kang Xi, Yong Zheng and Qian Long of the Qing Dynasty, painted enamel porcelain artifacts were for exclusive use by the imperial family living in the Forbidden City. These were produced in limited quantities right in the Forbidden City jointly by workmen and painters hired by the Imperial Household Affairs Office, with Jingdezhen, the “porcelain capital”, supplying pure white porcelain ware on imperial order. Modern chemical analysis proves that cloisonné enamel used in production of painted enamel porcelain was not domestically available and therefore had to be imported.
Also during the Qing Dynasty, what is known to fen ci porcelain came into being as a development of painted porcelain and painted enamel porcelain. The Chinese character fen means “background” and cai, color, suggesting that painted pictures on a porcelain object have a white, bright red or green background made of glass powder to enhance the artistic effect through color contrast. Among fen cai products preserved to this day, those produced during the reign of Emperor Yong Zhong are recognized as the best in quality and design.
Beginning the early Ming Dynasty, porcelain production boomed in China and export of Chinese porcelain kept increasing as a result of Zheng He’s voyages, reaching hundreds of thousands of pieces a year. In addition to Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and other traditional markets, Chinese porcelain ware became popular in Europe, the Americas and Africa, where they were displayed, as treasures even more valuable than gold, in palaces of kings and residences of rich merchants and aristocrats. Likewise, routes on high seas for porcelain trading became known as the “Porcelain Road”.