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What are Antique Ming Dynasty Bowls?

Ming dynasty bowls are among the most sought-after pieces of Chinese porcelain.

After almost a century of foreign rule by the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, the return to Han Chinese rule in 1368 with the Ming dynasty – the last imperial dynasty ruled by Han Chinese – heralded an incredibly creative period of cultural and artistic restoration, expansion and development.

As China recovered from its internecine struggles, the indigenous ruling house led initially by Zhu Yuanzhang, known as Emperor Hongwu, ensured that Ming bowls, indeed all forms of Ming porcelain, became some of the most desirable works of art in the world.

Early Ming dynasty bowls took inspiration from the intricately detailed but incredibly busy Islamic styles of the recently departed Yuan Mongols but it was Hongwu who re-established the dominance of the Chinese style of Ming bowls in the Imperial court.

Early Styles of Ming Bowls

Song dynasty monochrome ware quickly went out of fashion and the old factories sank without trace. They were replaced by, among other pieces of Ming dynasty porcelain, the stunning blue and white Ming porcelain bowls crafted in the world famous ‘porcelain town’, Jingdezhen in north-eastern Jianxi province as well as other towns that became famed for their high quality output of Ming bowls. These included Dehua in Fujian province and Foshan in central Guangdong province.

As Ming ceramic bowls continued on their journey towards sublime excellence, their desire was exacerbated by two major factors. First, China shifted towards a market economy in the fifteenth century with private businesses replacing nationalised industries, the encouragement of foreign trade enabling contact between East and West and a power-sharing government between the Imperial court and the civil service that has been described as ’one of the greatest achievements of Chinese civilisation’. Second, the European Renaissance led to tens of thousands of Ming dynasty bowls and other pieces of porcelain – by now more refined and subtle in design – finding their way into Europe’s royal houses and those of the wealthy and titled.

How were Ming Porcelain Bowls Made? Production Techniques

A century on, Ming ceramic bowls included more vibrant colours such as hues of yellow, green and blue and more detail, and as demand from Europe and Japan grew, Ming dynasty porcelain including Ming bowls became one of China’s most important exports alongside silk and lacquerware and were often exchanged for Spanish silver which came from the Americas via the Philippines.

But it wasn’t just blue and white Ming bowls that became so highly prized around the world. As the dynasty matured, so did the innovations in the production techniques and the story of what started out as the humble Ming dynasty bowl turned into a wonderful tale of artistry and creativity over hundreds of years.

During the reign of Xuande (1425 – 1435), jihong was developed, a blood-red glaze that was virtually impossible to reproduce and it is believed that there are fewer than 100 remaining pieces left. Under Chenghua (1464 – 1487), the technique of doucai – contrasted colours – was developed by painting designs onto the Ming porcelain bowls in an underglaze blue and then firing them at a temperature of around 1100°C. Then the vessel was fired again once the rest of the design was added in contrasted colours of overglaze enamel at a lower temperature of something like 850-900°C.

During Hongzhi’s reign (1487 – 1505), the famous yellow glaze, jiaohuang or ‘yellow chicken oil’, was created and was especially popular in the Imperial court and under Wanli in the final decades of the Ming dynasty (1572 – 1620), wucai, most commonly translated as ‘five colour’ was developed. It should perhaps be more accurately known as ‘multicoloured’ since the wucai style of creating Ming bowls often used more or less than exactly five colours.

It was also under the leadership of Wanli that the artisan craftsmen mixed kaolin clay and pottery stone equally to enhance the vivid whiteness of the body of the Ming dynasty bowls and other vessels.

Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, from around the 1580s through to the mid-1600s, it became fashionable for the producers of Ming ceramic bowls – many of whom became famous in their own right – to include imperial reign dates to their wares as well as signatures. A signed Ming bowl by a renowned artist dramatically affected its price, such was their reputation as the finest craftsmen of their age. In the same way in Europe at the time, a signed Rembrandt commanded a far higher premium than one that remained unsigned.

Ming Dynasty Fish Bowl & Ming Dynasty Chicken Bowl

No article on Ming bowls would be complete without telling the stories of perhaps the two most famous Ming dynasty bowls in existence.

The ‘fish pond’ bowl is an exceptional early Ming bowl from the Xuande period and has been described as ‘one of the greatest examples of early Ming blue and white porcelain in private hands’.

The 23cm lobed Ming dynasty fish bowl is intricately painted in tones of underglaze blue and depicts fish swimming in a lotus pond including carp and traditional Mandarin fish but also the fangyu, a type of bream that is very rarely depicted on Chinese porcelain. Themes of swimming fish on Ming dynasty bowls have a great cultural and philosophical significance and can often be read about in the Daoist allegories and parables that were so popular during the reign of the Ming emperors.

The incredibly rare (possibly unique) Ming dynasty fish bowl is over 600 years old but has been preserved in an extraordinary condition and was first exhibited publicly at the Tokyo National Museum in 1963. In April 2017 it was auctioned and sold for the staggering sum of £22,900,000.

The Meiyintang Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’ is a small, 500-year old white doucai cup decorated with a continuous scene of a red rooster and his hen tending to their chicks. Made during the reign of Chenghua (1464 – 1487) when levels of craftsmanship were at their zenith and quantity was small, chicken cups are revered as one of the finest and rarest of all Ming bowls, indeed of all Chinese ceramics.

The Meiyintang Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’ is reported to be one of only seventeen in existence, most in museums but a small number in private collections and is considered to be the ‘holy grail’ of Ming dynasty bowls. In fact around a century after they were made they were highly prized by Ming emperors and by the late seventeenth-century these particular Ming dynasty bowls were among the most expensive objects money could buy.

In April 2014 inclusive of premium, the Meiyintang Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’ sold to Chinese businessman Liu Yiqian for £21,500,000.

Ming Dynasty Bowls – The Later Period

As the Ming dynasty shifted towards a market economy, they exported porcelain, including Ming ceramic bowls, around the world on an unprecedented scale. In addition, in contrast to the early period where there was a desire to get away from outside influences, namely the Islamic-inspired design trends of the Mongol-led Yuan, the influence of foreign art crept back into the designs of Ming porcelain. Bowls were decorated with the floral patterns of the Persian and Arab people as well as the extremely detailed and stylised flowers commonly found in Tibetan art.

This illustrated the immense global reach that Ming pottery had and it is also true that the designs of Ming bowls and all forms of Ming ceramic pottery greatly influenced the foreign pottery houses in Japan, Turkey, Iran and eventually into Europe.