Chinese porcelain for the Japanese market

For centuries, the kilns at Jingdezhen had produced the vast majority of the porcelain that ended up in the Imperial court and domestic markets but in the final decades of the Ming dynasty after the death of Emperor Wanli in 1619, the lack of imperial patronage forced the hands of the kiln owners. The needed to look for new markets and they started to make Chinese porcelain for the Japanese market.

Known as ko-sometsuke – ‘ko’ meaning ‘old’ and ‘sometsuke’ meaning ‘blue and white’ and produced between 1620 and 1645, it was an underglaze blue Chinese porcelain for the Japanese market manufactured to coincide with the increasing popularity of the tea ceremony that required a number of specific utensils. Ko-sometsuke porcelain was manufactured entirely to Japanese tastes and sensibilities.

Often called Tianqi porcelain (tenkei in Japanese) after the Ming emperor who reigned from 1621 to 1628, Ko-sometsuke porcelain, due to its uniqueness in the timeline of Chinese ceramics, is highly desirable by both collectors of Chinese porcelain and also those fascinated by the use of old blue and white porcelain in the traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

The production techniques and designs of the old blue and white porcelain were a marked departure from the traditional Chinese methods. Ko-sometsuke porcelain was intentionally manufactured using poorly levigated clay and roughly potted with inconsistencies or imperfections that appealed to the Japanese. Often the glaze would flake off the body of the vessel and these edges, known as mushikui, or ‘earth worm nibbles’ were particularly prized.

In recent years discoveries have been made at Jingdezhen revealing the Tianqi strata of the shard heaps and ko-sometsuke fragments even with Tianqi marks have been revealed.

Available Pieces
  • M3267 

    £6,850

    Chinese porcelain blue and white kosometsuke saucer-dish painted with four horses in a field, one galloping, one standing, one with head turned and one recumbent beside a seated groom playing a flute amongst grass sprays, all within a single line in underglaze blue, the reverse with stylised branches, with recessed base and unglazed biscuit foot rim.

  • M4452

    £5,250

    Chinese porcelain blue and white and underglaze copper red kosometsuke plate, painted with four fishermen in their boats amongst four copper-red fish in a river landscape scene with birds in flight beneath a large willow tree, the underside with stylised pearls.

  • M4472

    £3,850

    Chinese porcelain blue and white kosometsuke deep plate with everted rim, painted in the centre in vivid blue tones with a fisherman standing at the stern with the rectangular sail open, with rock work in the foreground and a two-tiered pagoda in the distance beneath the moon, with an unusual lappet border in the form of a flower, the underside with sprays of branches.

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  • M4887

    £7,500

    A Chinese porcelain blue and white kosometsuke circular blue and white saucer dish, painted with three fish swimming amongst aquatic plants, above stylised waves, beneath the moon, the top half of the dish with seven stylised aquatic plants, the underside glazed celadon, the base recessed and glazed white.

  • M5511

    £3,850

    A Chinese porcelain ko-akai, wucai, square dish, painted in the centre with a crosshatch design of different polychrome grounds including key-fret, cash, tile, scale and chainmail dispersed between iron red flower heads of lotus, prunus and camellia, encircled by a band of butterfly and insects beneath a flat everted rim, painted with crested swirling waves, the chamfered corners with pendent flowers.

  • M5516

    £4,250

    A Chinese porcelain blue and white kosometsuke plate, painted in the centre with a rabbit with his head turned upwards in white on an underglaze blue roundel, encircled by four different geometric grounds including key-fret, cash, chainmail and scales, divided by a cross, each terminating with a pair of cions, all beneath a blue ground boarder, on a scrolling ground, the underside with flower heads and scrolls.

  • M4738

    £42,000

    Chinese porcelain wucai four-tiered square picnic box and cover with indented corners, the cover painted with five crane medallions amongst clouds, each side with two chrysanthemum blooms and foliage and each section interior with two orchids, three bases with a six-character mark of Chenghua in iron-red, the flat white biscuit base unglazed.

  • M1373

    £10,500

    Blue and white two handled tripod incense burner painted in a continuous mountain river scene, each side with two fisherman in boats heading towards viewing pavilions with a willow amongst rockwork beneath further viewing pavilions at the shoulder, birds in flight amongst stylised clouds and the moon, the interior of the handle painted with a yang symbol of three unbroken lines, the exterior of the handles with a single line beneath a dot, covered overall in a rich blue tinged glaze continuing on the interior, the rim and feet with mushikui.

  • S1720

    £6,000

    Blue and white moulded leaf shape dish on three bracket feet painted in the reverse technique in the form of a single leaf with central spine from which everted striped lines emit, painted with stylised water drops beneath a serrated edge.

  • M2509

    £12,000

    Chinese porcelain blue and white kosometsuke large plate painted with Shoulao seated between seven immortals, all identifiable by their attributes, beside a bridge and between overhanging rocks with pine branches, encircled by a border with 39 mons, the underside with two pairs of lozenge and pearls.

  • S2323

    £4,500

    Chinese porcelain blue and white kosometsuke octagonal deep bowl painted in the centre with two figures about to cross a bridge towards a viewing pavilion in a mountainous river landscape scene, beneath sprays of bamboo, prunus, pine and a vine on a flat everted rim, the underside plain with two lines above the foot, the rim and inner rim with mushikui (fritting).

  • M4835/6

    £18,000

    Pair of Chinese porcelain blue and white kosometsuke small food bowls in the form of jardinières, each painted on the exterior with nine branches of bamboo beneath stylised leaves on the flat everted foliate rim.

  • S1742

    £12,500

    Blue and white deep dish moulded in the form of a chrysanthemum flower head, on three short cabriole feet, painted with a mountainous river scene, the centre with two fishing boats sailing between a two tier house beside rockwork, the other bank with a viewing pavilion in the distance and the single peak of a tall mountain in the distance beneath the moon, a double line border at the petal edge, the underside white and ribbed with a thick blue tinged glaze, the edges with mushikui.

  • S1384

    £5,500

    Chinese porcelain blue and white miniature shonzui type censer painted with three roundels of pine, willow and three birds in flight, all on three different geometric grounds of cash, wan character, and scales beneath a band of key fret, the inverted lipped rim with ruyi head scrolls on a blue wash ground.

  • S1383

    £4,500

    Blue and white tea bowl of cylindrical form on a tall foot, painted with two pairs of characters ji xi "fortune and happiness" in stylised octofoil lotus flower head reserves on cash and scale diaper grounds beneath a band of scrolls at the rim and above two blue lines on the foot, the rim with mushikui.

  • S2012

    £9,500

    A Chinese porcelain kosometsuke waterpot in the form of twin peaches, with stalk and foliage in relief, painted with four butterflies on a key-fret ground, the three biscuit feet of butterfly form.

Further information on Chinese porcelain for the Japanese market

This somewhat unique Chinese porcelain for the Japanese market was delightfully eccentric and displayed a refreshingly spontaneous, almost nonchalant style in comparison with traditional Chinese porcelain. Designs included landscapes, birds, flowers, animal and human representations and the ko-sometsuke vessels ranged from the classic to the asymmetrical to the humorous and downright odd.

While the Jingdezhen potters were turning their collective hands to the production of ko-sometsuke, or old blue and white porcelain, the approximate 45-year period of its manufacture was both representative of their ability to adapt but also a high point of the cultural interactions between Japan and China during that time.

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