What is a Ming Vase?
The Ming dynasty vase is perhaps the most famous and highly-prized of all Chinese vases and there’s a very good reason for their popularity.
After 97 years of rule by the Yuan, a Mongol-led dynasty founded by legendary warrior-ruler Genghis Khan and the first to make Beijing its capital (called Dadu by the Yuan), China returned to Han Chinese rule in 1368 – the last imperial dynasty they ruled. The Ming dynasty as it was known ushered in an astonishing period of creativity, artistic and cultural restoration, development and expansion.
As China slowly recovered from bloody internecine struggles, Zhu Yuanzhang, known as the Hongwu Emperor who reigned for 30 years from 1368 to 1398, attempted to create one of the largest armies the world had ever known – he had a standing army of over one million soldiers and in Nanjing, the largest naval dockyards in the world – but he also understood the value of creativity and culture.
The Ming vases took their inspiration from the incredibly intricate but very busy Islamic styles of the Yuan Mongols but the Emperor Hongwu re-established a far more dominant Chinese style in the Imperial court. The early Chinese Ming vases produced during this period were unique and have since become some of the world’s most desirable works of art.
Early Types of Ming Dynasty Vase
The monochrome ware that was so popular during the Song dynasty quickly went out of vogue and it was replaced by Ming vases and other equally-impressive Ming porcelain. Most was made in Jingdezhen in north-eastern Jiangxi province – known as ‘porcelain town’ but there were factories in Dehua in Fujian province and Foshan in central Guangdong province that manufactured the famous Chinese vase.
There were two main factors that drove the Ming vase towards perfection and their desire beyond China’s borders. First in the fifteenth century, China developed a market economy where nationalised industry was replaced by private business, a power-sharing government between the Imperial court and the civil service called by many as ’one of the greatest achievements of Chinese civilisation’ and the encouragement of trade relations between East and West. Second, as Europe transitioned out of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance ushered in a fervent period promoting great social and political change as well as the rediscovery of classical art, literature and philosophy and with it, the appreciation of the Ming dynasty vase. This appreciation led to unknown thousands of Ming vases – by now more subtle in design and more refined in quality – making their way into the palaces and houses of Europe’s elite, aristocracy and royalty.
How were Ming Vases made?
A century or so on from the start of the dynasty and the designs of the most famous Chinese vase included a more vibrant colour palette such as yellows, greens and blues and more intricate detail. As the demand grew from Europe and Japan, Ming dynasty vases quickly became a vital export – alongside lacquerware and silk – for China’s burgeoning free market.
As most people know, the stunning blue and white Chinese Ming vase has become one of the world’s most collectible antiques but as the dynasty evolved, so did the way the pieces were manufactured and the story of how the Ming vase evolved is richly woven into the tapestry of the history of the Ming dynasty itself.
The Xuande Emperor Xuande meaning ‘Proclamation of Virtue’ was the fifth emperor of the Ming dynasty and reigned for 10 years from 1425 to 1435. He was fond of poetry and literature and was an accomplished painter and it was during his reign that jihong was developed. Jihong was a blood-red porcelain glaze that coated Chinese Ming vases but it was almost impossible to produce. It is believed that there are fewer than 100 Ming vases in the jihong style in museums around the world.
The Chenghua Emperor Translated as ‘Accomplished Change’, the Chenghua Emperor was the ninth Ming dynasty emperor and reigned from 1464 – 1487. During this time, the technique of doucai – contrasted colours – was developed by painting a design onto a Ming vase in an underglaze blue and then firing it at a very high temperature of around 1100°C. Then the Chinese vase was fired again once the remainder of the design was added in contrasted colours of overglaze enamel at a lower temperature closer to 850-900°C.
The Hongzhi Emperor The tenth emperor, Hongzhi is translated as ‘Great Government.’ He was a hardworking and diligent ruler and injected a fresh energy into the middle years of the dynasty. During his time, the famous yellow glaze, jiaohuang or ‘yellow chicken oil’, was created and was especially popular in the Imperial court for the decoration of Ming dynasty vases.
The Wanli Emperor Translated as ‘Ten Thousand Calendars’, the fourteenth emperor’s reign (1572 – 1620) began well but ended with him effectively going on strike and overseeing the decline of the dynasty. However it was during his tenure that the stunning design style of wucai, most commonly translated as ‘five colour’ was developed. It should perhaps be more accurately known as ‘multicoloured’ since the wucai style of creating the Ming vase often used more or less than precisely five colours. It was also under Wanli’s emperorship that the artisan craftsmen equally mixed kaolin clay and pottery stone to further enhance the beautiful whiteness of the body of the Ming dynasty vase and other vessels.
Ming Dynasty Bowls – The Later Period
As the market economy matured, traders exported porcelain, including the now famous Ming vase, around the world on a remarkable scale. In addition, in contrast to the formative years of the dynasty where there was a need to get away from external influences, namely the Islamic design styles of the Yuan, the influence of foreign art slowly returned into the designs of Ming vases. They were decorated with Persian and Arab-inspired floral patterns as well as the highly detailed and stylised flowers commonly found in the art of the Tibetan people.
Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, from around 1580 through to the mid-1600s, it became the fashion for the makers of Ming vases – many of whom became famous – to include imperial reign dates to their Chinese Ming vases as well as autographs, and these were known as Ming dynasty vase markings. A signed Ming vase by a celebrated craftsman dramatically affected its price, such was their reputation as the most highly-skilled artisans of their age. In the same way in Europe at the time, paintings signed by the most famous Renaissance artists commanded a far higher premium than those that were not.
Ming Dynasty Vase Markings
Known as ‘reign marks’, the practice of adding inscriptions became popular during the Ming dynasty. Vases were marked and these Ming dynasty vase markings – usually on the base of the piece – denoted that it was commissioned for the Emperor or for the Imperial household. The tradition carried on through the Ming and into the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911).
The markings on Ming vases are usually written in vertical columns and read from top to bottom, left to right. It’s not certain but it is thought that this way of reading and writing developed from the ancient calligraphers who wrote on vertical pieces of bone or bamboo.
These Ming dynasty vase markings all follow a prescribed format. The first two characters lets the owner know from which dynasty the piece is from. If it reads Da Ming, it refers to the ‘Great Ming’ dynasty and if it says Da Qing, it refers to the ‘Great Qing’ dynasty.
The next two characters are the name of the Emperor during whose reign the Ming vase was manufactured and the final two characters, ‘nian zhi’ mean ‘made for’. Sometimes there will only be four Ming dynasty vase markings on a piece and this will simply omit either Da Ming or Da Qing.
While these Ming dynasty vase markings are often used as a tool for dating a Chinese vase, it’s prudent to employ the principle of caveat emptor, whereby the buyer alone is responsible for confirming the quality and provenance of a Ming vase before payment is made. There are many fakes, forgeries and copies purporting to be genuine.
To confuse matters, for centuries there was a fashion for Ming vase artists to copy Ming dynasty vase markings from earlier dynastic periods out of reverence and respect. These are known as ‘apocryphal’ marks but they were not done with the intention of fooling gullible buyers.
As an example it is not uncommon to find a fifteenth-century Ming dynasty reign mark on Qing dynasty porcelain since during that time the quality of Ming vases was at its zenith. To this end, the most commonly copied Ming dynasty vase markings come from the reigns of the Emperor Xuande and the Emperor Chenghua.
The revered Ming vase has immense global desire, so much so that the designs of these fames Chinese vases influenced the great porcelain and pottery houses in Europe, Japan and through the Middle East.