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 ceramic Yue ware olive-green glazed moulded vessel in the form of a chimera, bixie with raised head and open mouth bearing its teeth, the flanks with relief hairwork scrolls, the hairwork along its mane and back divided by the spine supporting a short cylindrical holder, with elaborate pleated tail and short recumbent legs.
Chinese pottery straw glazed ovoid jar and cover, guan, with four double-loop handles at the shoulder above an incised line repeated on the cover surmounted by a flat knop, covered overall in an even straw glaze falling short of the buff-coloured foot rim with a further incised unglazed line on the lower body, the interior covered in an olive-green glaze with three spur marks in the well.
Chinese pottery blue glazed jar, guan, of well-rounded globular form with flat base and short flared neck, covered overall in a rich and even royal blue glaze extending in large splashes on the interior which also has a clear glaze, the rim with three spur marks from the firing.
–Chinese ceramic box and cover, he, with gently domed top encircled by two incised rings with flat sides each with a brown glazed dot to indicate correct alignment, covered in an even pale cream glaze falling short of the smooth flat white base revealing the body, the interior also covered in a pale cream glaze.
Chinese ceramic green glazed monochrome pillow, zhen, of ruyi-head form, incised on the gently concave top with outlines following the form, with further incised lines beneath the sloping shoulder, the fluted body covered overall in a rich and even deep apple green glaze, the flat predominantly unglazed base revealing the buff-coloured body, with an air hole from the firing beneath the ruyi-head point.
Chinese ceramic Ding ware cream glazed dish, pan, with flat base, short inverted foot and gently rounded sides, carved with a single lotus flower spray on a branch with leaves fitting neatly in the well with an incised outline, the flower and leaves with double and single outlines creating a three-dimensional effect, covered overall in a pale cream glaze gently pooling above the foot and creating a tear mark, the rim bound in copper.
Chinese ceramic Ding ware white glazed dish, pan, with gently flared unglazed rim, carved with a lotus flower spray and leaves in double and single outlines creating a three-dimensional effect, covered overall in a cream white glaze extending to the short foot rim and partially covering the base.
Chinese ceramic Yaozhou celadon glazed bowl, wan, of conical flower form, moulded with six lobes and gentle foliate rim, the interior with a pair of ducks swimming between lotus leaves on a wave ground, beneath a border of continuous lotus tendrils, covered overall in a rich olive-green glaze thinning towards the short unglazed biscuit foot rim burnt brown in the firing.
Chinese ceramic Yaozhou celadon glazed bowl, wan, of conical form moulded with two long neck geese between a central lotus bouquet with flowerhead branches, leaves, arrowhead, bud and pod on a dense comb-technique wave ground, the reverse incised with a single band and covered overall in an even olive-celadon glaze thinning towards the unglazed burnt brown foot rim, the base glazed brown in the firing, the foot rim with finger-nail marks.
Chinese ceramic Jun ware lavender glazed deep dish, pan, with shallow rounded sides, flat everted rim and gently raised lip, covered overall in a bright and unctuous glaze thinning in the cavetto and the lip, covering the base with a slightly recessed centre and falling short of the burnt brown knife-cut foot rim, the base with spur marks from the firing.
Chinese ceramic Jun ware lotus-bud form waterpot, jixin’guan, covered overall with a rich and even lustrous lavender sky-blue glaze, extending overall to the interior and the base thinning towards the light brown rim, all on a slightly splayed short unglazed brown knife-cut foot rim.
Chinese qingbai glazed box and cover, he, of melon form, fluted in twelve segments with naturalistic fold-over stalk, covered overall and on the interiors in a pale sky-blue glaze pooling in the folds, the base and rims unglazed revealing the high-fired white biscuit body, the rims of the cover and base each with an incised line to indicate correct alignment.
Chinese ceramic Longquan celadon glazed chrysanthemum-form wine cup, bei, of fluted form with foliate rim on a tall circular foot, covered overall on the exterior and interior with a pale olive-celadon glaze slightly pooling in the eighteen segments, the unglazed base and foot revealing the high-fired burnt biscuit body.
Chinese ceramic Longquan celadon glazed tripod washer, xi, or censer, lu, of circular drum form with two registers of relief drum- nail studs or bosses on three animal-mask feet with gently inverted rim, covered overall in a pale celadon glaze, with knife-cut biscuit foot rim burnt at the edges.
Chinese ceramic Longquan celadon glazed bottle vase, ping, with pear-shaped body cylindrical neck, everted rim and gently tapered foot rim, covered overall and extending to the interior and base with a pale light celadon glaze falling short of the brown burnt knife- cut rim.
Chinese ceramic Longquan celadon glazed bowl, wan, of deep form with gently rounded sides and short small foot rim, moulded with twenty-two relief lotus petals, covered overall including the base in a bright pale celadon glaze falling short of the burnt brown knife-cut foot rim.
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.
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.