Fired with Passion: The Golden Age of Porcelain in China’s Qing Dynasty

Between 1661 and 1795, the Qing dynasty in China was ruled by three emperors, Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong with the longest reigns being that of the first and third emperor (61 and 60 years respectively). This long period of stability and prosperity resulted in a golden age for China. The borders of the empire were gradually expanded to include large areas of Central Asia and Tibet, which kept the dynasty safe from nomadic invasions. These emperors also supported Chinese arts and culture. Emperors and court officials alike became patrons of painters, calligraphers, poets, and artisans. Qing ceramics mirrored the prosperity of China during this period. They are notable for their wider range of colors, mostly in overglaze enamels, compared to those of the preceding Ming dynasty. At the same time, special glazing effects were developed and classic Song wares were imitated with great skill. Technical standards at kilns such as Jingdezhen were remarkably high, but declined somewhat by the middle of the 19th century.

Selected Ceramic Works of the Qing Dynasty

Ceramics from the Kangsi Period (1661-1722)

Water jar; Qing dynasty, Kangsi mark and period (1662-1722); porcelain, Jingdezhan, Jiangxi province. Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne.

This sumptuous water jar from the Kangsi period is a part of a scholar’s implement. It is used to hold the water with which the ground ink was mixed. The jar is dome-shaped and has a short and narrow neck that opens to a delicately flared mouth. The lustrous eye-catching red color, known as “peach bloom” glaze (jiangdou hong), is produced by adding to a three-layer transparent underglaze, a layer of copper pigment followed by a layer of clear lime glaze. After the jar is fired at 1,250 degrees centigrade in a kiln, the desired peach bloom color emerges from the chemical reduction of the copper-lime mixture. Copper-based red was first used during the Yuan dynasty. Emperor Kangxi was the second emperor of the Qing dynasty and an admirer of ceramics. With his support, peach bloom and monochrome copper-red glazed porcelain enjoyed a revival under his long reign.

A painted portrait of the young Emperor Kangsi ((5 May 1654 – 20 December 1722). Kangsi ascended to the throne at the age of seven and reigned for sixty one years from 1661 until 1722), which makes him the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history. His reign brought about long-term stability and relative wealth after years of war and chaos, and initiated the period known as the “High Qing”.
A ruby red-ground ‘falangcia’ double-lotus bowl. Kangsi blue-enamelled Yuzhi mark, c. 1722. Private collection.

This exquisite imperial bowl from the Kangsi period is a sublime example of ‘falangcai’ – or ‘coloured enamels’. Featuring a unique ‘double lotus’ design, it was likely made towards the end of the reign of the emperior when ‘falangcai’ production reached perfection. The bowl’s intricate beauty is best seen up close and from all angles (see below) that reveals the rich tones of the enamel on the exterior decorated with a lotus pond, large lotus blooms in yellow, pink, blue and greenish white, all supported on slender studded stalks and set against a vibrant ruby-red ground.

Ceramics from the Yongzheng Period (1722-1735)

Despite his short reign of 13 years, the Yongzheng era was a period of peace and prosperity, when the arts, including ceramics, continued to flourish. A highlight of this period was Meiping which literally translates as “beautiful vase that typically bears the form of glazes of the ceramic art of earlier high periods. Emperor himself was said to be fascinated with reproducing the form and glazes of Meiping vases, an example of which can be seen below.

Meiping vase with mottled glaze imitating archaic jade. Qing dynasty, Yongzheng period and reign mark (1723 – 1735). Height: 28.5 cm, diameter: 16 cm. Zhuyuetang Collection, Hong Kong.
Yellow-ground blue and white handled cup, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng mark and period (1722-1735), W: 9.8 cm. Private collection.

This elegant copper pear-shaped vase is raised on a flared flat foot and tapers inward to a narrow neck and a trumpet mouth. Yongzheng period h: 24 cm. Private collection.

A very rare imperial green jade ‘dragon wine cup’. Mark and period of Yongzheng (reign: 1722-1735). Width: 12.7 cm (5 in). Private collection. Sold by J.J. Lally & Co, New York, April 2020.

Very few jade vessels inscribed with the imperial mark of Emperor Yongzheng’s reign are known to exist. Ancient dragon-handle cups probably inspired the design of the present cup, that bears the Yongzheng mark at the base. The cup features a pair of energetic dragons climbing over the looped handles. Their serpentine bodies, carved in open work, shows great tension which is further accentuated by their curled down manes and hind legs extended out to the sides.

A rare lemon-yellow cup, mark and period of Yongzheng, 8.8 cm (3 3/8 in). Private collection.

Measuring just 8.8 cm in diameter, this cup with deep rounded sides features a brilliant lemon-yellow glaze. Yongzheng porcelain cups of this small size represent one of the most technically challenging porcelains to be produced. They required absolute precision in potting, glazing and firing, as the smallest imperfection resulted in the destruction of the piece. Lemon yellow wares were made for the court’s daily use. The lemon-yellow glaze was a Yongzheng innovation achieved when the antimoniate of iron was combined with tin oxide, resulting in an opaque yellow glaze of brilliant hue.

This pair of copper-red-glazed wine cups from the Yongzheng period is finely potted with deep rounded sides, and is covered on the exterior with a glaze of crushed strawberry-red color. The interior and base are glazed white.

This is an extremely rare and large sacrificial blue-glazed vase from the Yongzheng period, featuring the so-called “garlic mouth” design.

Ceramics from the Qianlong period (1735-1796)

Emperor Qianlong lived for 87 years, making him the longest living emperor of China. He also reigned for 61 years, making him the second-to-longest reigning emperor after his grandfather, Kangxi. For many, the Qianlong period is seen as the height of porcelain production. This is due to the unmatched quality and technique of the potters that worked in the emperor’s imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. On the other hand, the designs of Qianlong ceramics often border on excessive, reflecting the emperor’s taste for the extravagant, compared to the more subdued colors and patterns of works from the preceding Yongzheng period.

A Carved Celadon-Glazed ‘Dragon’ Meiping Vase with Blue-Green Glaze. Seal Mark and Period of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). H: 35.3 cm. Private collection.

The lovely bluish-green glaze on this vase was first popularized during the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279), but appears to been lost in the Yuan and Ming dynasties that followed. It was revived during the reign of the early Qing dynasty emperor, Yongzheng (1723-1735) and continued to blossom during the reign of his successor, Qianlong (1736-1795) where this vase dates. The current example stands out in many ways, not least in its beautiful tapering shape, the sublime blue-green glaze that covers it, and most impressively, the five dragons that roll around the vase’s surface. Two of the dragons soar amid the crashing waves, flaming pearls in their mouths. It is believed that such depictions express a poignant act of filial piety by the emperor to his father.

A turquoise-ground famille rose ‘five boys’ vase, Qianlong period. H: 32 cm. Private collection.

The vase is elaborately decorated with bats, eternal knots, peaches and multi-coloured lotus sprays, set against a bright turquoise ground. The mouth is encircled by a ruyi (auspicious) border and a band of classic scroll. The shoulder is moulded with two young boys, one holding a ruyi sceptre and the other holding a gold ingot. Three other boys are depicted to one side, climbing onto the vase. In Chinese art the depiction of young boys at play is considered a sign of good fortune, representing the blessing of having many sons to carry on the family name.

A flambe-glazed bottle vase, Qianlong seam mark and of the period 1736 – 1795. H: 17 cm. Source:
A rare imperial lapis lazuli ‘lingzhi’ washer, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng/Qianlong period. Private collection.

 This marvelous washer in oval form has flared sides rising from a tripod base to a foliate rim, finely carved in low relief with a stalk of lingzhi with two meandering branches bearing large fungus heads. The deep purplish-blue stone is speckled with golden flakes, cleverly utilizing the change in color of the stone for maximum sublime effect.

Lidded cup in the shape of a chrysanthemum, China, 1776, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795). Lacquer. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

This lidded tea cup in the shape of a chrysanthemum was a favored form for Emperior Qianlong. The chrysanthemum is celebrated in China and across East Asia for its legendary power to prolong life, and the flower continues to be consumed today in the form of tea. Inside the lid of this tea cup is a poem by the emperor himself praising the craftsmanship of the tea cup and the delicate fragrance of chrysanthemum tea. It reads:

In a form of a chrysanthemum flower 
The knob is lighter than a chrysanthemum. 
Sipping fragrant tea [from it], it echoes my poetry for ceramics 
Yet its inner strength embraces delicateness. 

— Inscribed by Qianlong, spring of 1776.

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