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The History of Blue and White Vases

In order to understand why they are so highly revered by antique Chinese porcelain vase collectors all over the world, it’s important to understand the history of the famed blue and white vase.

Underglaze blue and white pottery was first introduced not by the Chinese, but by the ancient Mesopotamians in the fertile valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria). They used cobalt oxide pigment – one of very few that can withstand the highest firing temperatures – to imitate lapis lazuli and later during the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate (from around 750 AD), blue and white pottery became very popular all over the Middle East.

The cobalt used to make blue and white Chinese urns is a natural mineral refined by washing or purifying at around 700°C. Once clean, it is ground and mixed with water. It was mined in the modern-day Iranian region of Kashan, in Oman and in Hejaz in Saudi Arabia and reached the Chinese potters in an already prepared state. The Chinese called it ‘huiqing’ which translates to ‘Muslim blue’.

The Development of Blue and White Vases

Just as the style was gaining recognition in the Islamic world, it was also starting to be recognised in China. The very first blue and white pottery was made during the early Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) in the central Chinese region of Henan but were earthenware rather than porcelain. According to experts there are only three complete Tang blue and white pieces in the world and they were recovered in 1998 from the wreck of an Arabian dhow that sunk around 830 AD.

When the cobalt first started to arrive in China via the Silk Road, the potters of the Mongolian Yuan dynasty experimented with it but had to be very sure of their brushwork. The porous surface of the vessel didn’t allow for corrections. As it was painted on it was a greyish-black but as it was glazed and fired, the heat turned it a brilliant blue. 

As the Yuan were ushered out and the Ming dynasty commenced in 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang – known as the Hongwu Emperor – who reigned for 30 years, decided that the incumbent busy and detailed Islamic style of blue and white pottery was to be replaced with a more dominant Chinese style.

These early antique Chinese porcelain vases have since become some of the most sought after – and expensive – works of art in the western world for a very good reason. Hongwu’s restrictive trade policies meant that there was very little imported cobalt available. What did get through was diluted and mixed with local materials which resulted in the underglaze blue having a dull, greyish tone. While not the most mature of the classic blue and white china vases, there are desired by collectors for their scarcity.

The Evolution of Blue and White Pottery

14th Century Chinese Blue and White Vases

By the fourteenth century the southern Chinese town of Jingdezhen, known as ‘porcelain town’, had become the nation’s largest centre for porcelain production. More blue and white Chinese urns and blue and white vases were made here than in any of the other major ceramics centres including Dehua in Fujian province and Foshan in central Guangdong province.

Here, potters used kaolin clay and developed and refined the glazing and firing technology. They also created new decorative techniques including combining dark and light blues for incredible contrasts on a clean white background.

The new style of blue and white pottery quickly replaced the centuries-long tradition of unpainted Qingbai, a rather insipid bluish-white southern Chinese porcelain and it appealed to China’s Mongol rulers.

15th Century Chinese Blue and White Pottery

The fifteenth century was the defining age of what has become the antique Chinese porcelain vase.

Ironically, because it appealed to the foreign Mongols, blue and white pottery was temporarily shunned by the early Ming emperors. However, when the Xuande Emperor came to power in 1399, the artistic styles were more to the liking of the Chinese nobility. At the start of the fifteenth century mass production on an industrial scale of some of the finest blue and white vases ever produced was happening at Jingdezhen.

To many collectors, this was a time when the antique blue and white vase reached perfection. China developed a market economy where private businesses flourished and what has been hailed as one of the greatest achievements of Chinese civilisation, a power-sharing government between the royal Imperial court and the civil service encouraged trade relations between East and West. In addition, as Europe transitioned into the Renaissance it ushered in a fervent period of creativity, political and social upheaval and a new-found appreciation of Eastern art, including the magnificent blue and white vases from China.

By now more superior in quality and increasingly subtle by design, they made their way into the royal and aristocratic houses of Europe’s wealthy elite and have remained there ever since.

16th Century Blue and White China Vases

Under the Zhengde Emperor who reigned from 1491 – 1521 (and who died falling drunk into the Yellow River aged only 29), Chinese blue and white pottery made a short return to the late Yuan – early Ming Islamic style. It often bore Persian or Arabic writing due to the influence of the Muslim eunuchs he kept at court.

Towards the end of the century as the economy matured, there emerged a vast export market for blue and white vases and they were being sold around the world on a quite remarkable scale. In terms of style, the late sixteenth century blue and white pottery was adorned with more floral motifs, including stylised flowers commonly found in Tibetan art.

17th Century Antique Chinese Porcelain Vases

Because so much was being sold abroad, the Chinese developed blue and white vases and other porcelain exclusively for the export market. As the country moved from the Ming to the Qing dynasty in 1611, a transitional style emerged that took scenes from classic literature, wide landscapes and groups of figures.

It is said by some that the production of blue and white vases reached its zenith during the Ming dynasty. However, due to internecine fighting in the third quarter of the 17th century, the government of the new Qing dynasty closed the ports. Trade stopped immediately and the Europeans looked to Japan for their blue and white pottery.

18th – 20th Century Blue and White Vases

The European export market for what has become antique Chinese porcelain vases was reinstated and remained strong, and the kilns in Jingdezhen were still producing exceptionally high quality blue and white pottery for the Imperial court and the elite domestic market.

Some of the finest examples ever produced – which therefore have become among the most desirable of all antique Chinese blue and white vases – are from the later reign of Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi from around 1700 to the early 1720s. They are characterised by beautifully sophisticated designs and demonstrate an unrivalled technical expertise. The potters produced an underglaze in stunning sapphire blue which was applied in up to six different tones. This gave a vibrant, dimensionally-nuanced effect when applied to a bright white vessel and is known to be much cleaner, more pure and brighter than the blue and white vases from the Ming dynasty.

Blue and White Vases Today

Chinese blue and white pottery has been called the first truly global commodity and has inspired some of the world’s greatest and most famous producers of porcelain. It has been copied and re-created by porcelain makers from around the world and is one of the most enduring products in the history of Chinese art.

While it remains in daily use by many hundreds of millions of Chinese, antique blue and white pottery and especially blue and white vases are some of the world’s most collectible works of art.