From the Greek monokhromos, mono – one, khromos – colour, Chinese monochrome porcelain is considered to be one of the ceramic world’s great achievements.
Chinese monochrome porcelain is said to have its roots in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279). At the turn of the first millennium, China was the world’s most advanced civilisation and this epoch is known for the invention of movable type printing, bank notes, gunpowder, the compass and even the concept of the restaurant.
Early Chinese monochromes were black and white but very quickly, competition emerged. Kilns vied with each other to see who could make the most exquisite pieces of monochrome Chinese porcelain. In the Song dynasty, the emergence of Ge ware, Guan ware, Ru ware and Jun ware enabled a new burst of colour to appear within the ceramic production.
As the Song dynasty made way for the Yuan, dramatic advancements in the production of Chinese monochrome vases and indeed all forms of Chinese monochromes were developed.
While the production of monochrome Chinese porcelain continued throughout the Yuan dynasty, the Ming dynasty was when new glazing techniques were established. In the Ming dynasty, the most popular monochrome colours used by the imperial court were yellow, red and blue.
When the Qing dynasty arrived, monochromes were very much loved by the emperor and the court. New innovations within the Qing dynasty saw the arrival of new glazes such as peachbloom, teadust, robin’s egg, celadon and lavender, with Song-inspired glazes re-emerging such as Ge, Guan and Ru ware. Further development of enamelled glazes produced remarkable colours not seen before, such as pink, ruby, lemon-yellow, pale turquoise and lime-green.
Chinese Blanc de Chine bottle vase of bronze form with slender neck, garlic bulb beneath the upright gently everted rim, entwined with a high relief chilong dragon with bifid tail, all on a short splayed lipped foot rim, covered overall in a pale cream glaze.
A Chinese Blanc de Chine incense burner of archaic bronze lian form on three ruyi-head bracket feet, impressed with a central band of archaic animals on a liwen ground between horizontal ribs, covered in a white glaze.
Chinese porcelain Blanc de Chine brushpot, bitong, stoutly potted with gently everted sides, incised on the body with a nineteen-character poem and a four-character signature, covered overall in a rich and even cream glaze.
Chinese imperial porcelain yellow glazed bowl of deep form thinly potted with gently flared rim, covered overall in a rich and even yellow glaze.
A Chinese celadon glazed chrysanthemum saucer dish, carved in the centre with a tree peony amongst leaves, encircled by chrysanthemum petals beneath a foliate rim, the petal ribs repeated on the underside, covered overall in an even pale celadon glaze, the base glazed except for a burnt red unglazed firing ring.
Pair of Chinese celadon glazed small vases and covers of guan form, each carved with flowerheads on a continuous scrolling branch amongst leaves above a wide lappet band with upright leaves and further flowerheads and scrolls on the shoulder, and beneath a triangular band on the gently flared neck, the covers with central raised flowerhead, again above a scrolling flowerhead band, the base glazed, the unglazed foot rim, rim and underside of the cover revealing the biscuit body.
A Chinese porcelain Ming imperial yellow saucer dish with slightly flared rim, covered on the front and underside with a rich yellow glaze, the base with a six-character mark of Zhengde within a double ring and of the period, 1508-1521.
Chinese Longquan celadon two-handled pear-shaped bottle vase, each side moulded with a ruyi-head medallion, one with fu and one with shou-character between leafy branches of flowering camellia, one issuing from waves, the other from rockwork, all between key-fret bands on the neck and everted foot, the upright rim in the form of an open flowerhead, above two stylised elephant-head and ring handles.
Chinese Longquan celadon fluted lianzi bowl, the exterior with tall upright petals, the interior with a flowerhead in the well beneath a carved keyfret band at the rim.
Chinese imperial porcelain copper-red glazed saucer dish covered overall in a rich and even bright red glaze beneath a white-glazed rim.
Pair of Chinese imperial porcelain small yellow glazed thinly potted saucer dishes, each covered overall in an even yellow glaze extending to the base.
Chinese Longquan monochrome celadon glazed cosmetic box of circular form, the cover moulded in relief with a peony bloom on a branch with three leaves all within a single ring, covered overall in a luminous even pale celadon sea-green glaze, the box base plain with unglazed interior rim and base revealing the stoneware biscuit body.
A Chinese green lead glazed large lian, wine warmer and cover with two stylised relief mask and ring handles between two bands of three rings, standing on three bear feet, the animals with long ears, the moulded cover with a stylised bronze loose ring handle surrounded by two bands, one with dots and triangles, the other with a stylised scroll and dot pattern, the rim with band of petals, the base unglazed.
Chinese green glazed pottery model of a kneeling Middle Eastern figure with left knee raised, wearing a belted robe and holding a child, both wearing peaked hats, a large cylindrical oil lamp over the shoulder, the monochrome green glaze now iridescent due to oxidisation, the underside revealing the terracotta brick-red body.
Chinese monochrome green glazed pottery model of a circular ram pen with flat lipped rim, the interior with a shepherd with head turned, seated on a large saddled ram, amongst a flock of seven other standing rams, each with ridged curled horns, covered overall in an even green glaze now iridescent due to oxidisation.
Chinese monochrome olive glazed pottery jar of ovoid form with three double-loop handles at the shoulder, above an incised line beneath the upright rim, covered in a bright olive glaze continuing on the interior, falling short of the buff stoneware body and the slightly splayed foot.
A Chinese Yaozhou monochrome deep bowl with conical sides and upright ribbed rim carved on the interior with three chrysanthemum blossoms on a continuous single scrolling branch amongst large leaves, the underside plain, covered overall in an even olive-green glaze falling short of the unglazed biscuit foot rim revealing the high-fired stoneware body.
Further information on Monochromes
Chinese monochromes took a starring role in state ceremonies because traditional Chinese beliefs assumed that ritual vessels must be Chinese monochromes of glazed porcelain of particular colours, representative of four temples in Beijing and the gods they represented:
Blue Chinese monochrome porcelain – Altar of Heaven (tiantan)
Yellow Chinese monochrome porcelain – Altar of the Earth (ditan)
White Chinese monochrome porcelain – Altar of the Moon (yuetan)
Red Chinese monochrome porcelain – Altar of the Sun (ritan)
The reign of Kangxi at the start of the Qing dynasty was when the techniques of Chinese monochromes began to mature.
The beauty of Chinese monochrome vases, indeed all Chinese monochrome porcelain was in the technical accomplishment, the finesse of the colours and the quality of the glaze. It’s testament to the processes developed to produce monochrome Chinese porcelain that the colours have remained as spectacular as they were the day they were fired.
Arguably the most famous of all the colours, not just of Chinese monochrome porcelain but of all Chinese porcelain, blue is almost infinitely varied and the cobalt used came from as far away as modern-day Iran – from the most pale clair de lune to the deepest shades known as Mazarine blue.