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Thursday, October 12, 2017, 11:58
The best porcelain of the Ming era is on show in Beijing
By Wang Kaihao
Thursday, October 12, 2017, 11:58 By Wang Kaihao

A porcelain piece produced during the Hongzhi reign in Jingdezhen, the 'porcelain capital' of China, is one of the pieces being showcased at the Palace Musuem. (JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY)

When talking about Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain, people usually focus on artifacts from the rule of Chenghua (1465-87), considered the peak of porcelain-making in China.

Putting artifacts from two places together can people fully understand the achievements made by Ming's porcelain-makers

Wang Yamin, Deputy Director, Palace Museum

Since 2015, a series of exhibitions at the Palace Museum - China's former royal palace, also known as the Forbidden City - has aimed to give visitors a more comprehensive view of Ming porcelain. The third of four exhibitions recently kicked off at the museum's Zhai Gong (Hall of Abstinence) to review the lesser-known but splendid post-Chenghua porcelain ware.

The display, Imperial Porcelain from the Reigns of Hongzhi and Zhengde in the Ming Dynasty, is a comparison of porcelain pieces unearthed from the imperial kiln site in present-day Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, and the imperial collection originally from the Palace Museum. It shows some 162 artifacts and runs through Feb 28.

Jingdezhen started its porcelain kilns exclusively serving the Ming court in 1369. Since then, it began to be known as the "porcelain capital" of China.

Only the best artifacts made in these kilns were taken to the Forbidden City, while the rest, even with the slightest flaws, were broken and buried in Jingdezhen under strict supervision.

"Only through a comparative exhibition, putting artifacts from two places together, can people fully understand the achievements made by Ming's porcelain-makers," Wang Yamin, deputy director of the Palace Museum, says of the wares unearthed in Jingdezhen and those in the Forbidden City's collection.

"We can have a whole view of management system of kilns from the different shapes and types of the exhibited artifacts," he says. "Items from the two places prove each other's identity."

Relics of the imperial kiln site in Jingdezhen were found in the 1970s when archaeologists unearthed "tons of porcelain samples" that provide crucial references for studies of the Forbidden City's own collections.

Among the exhibits are pieces that remained intact in the palace while others were restored from broken pieces in Jingdezhen.

But Lyu Chenglong, head of the porcelain research institute at the Palace Museum and curator of the ongoing show, says some porcelain types unearthed in Jingdezhen could not be matched with any item found in the Forbidden City, and vice versa.

"If we hadn't done excavations in Jingdezhen, we wouldn't have known about some types that once existed," he says.

Although the imperial kiln porcelain produced during the Hongzhi (1488-1505) and Zhengde (1506-21) rules cannot compete in numbers with Chenghua's rule, they have strong characteristics.

For example, Lyu says yellow porcelain created during the Hongzhi rule is perhaps among the best in Chinese history.

"The color looks so tender. I'd like to compare it to chicken grease," Lyu says.

"Hongzhi porcelain inherited its elegant style from the Chenghua era and even took it beyond."

He says that dragons with closed mouths appear in images on vases.

"Well, even powerful dragons look really docile during Hongzhi's reign," he says, smiling.

Emperor Hongzhi was a ruler who wasn't known to be attached to a luxurious lifestyle. Some high officials during his reign recommended ceasing the operation of imperial kilns to save money for other things in the country. Though the emperor finally resumed the kilns after suspending operations for a few years, he still kept their production in low quantities.

"All this is attributed to his art taste in porcelain, emphasizing simple flavors," Lyu says.

Some types of porcelain used for sacrificial rituals were created during Hongzhi's time and were used later, even in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The wares made during his reign used deep purple as one of the main colors, which Lyu says was the first time the "eggplant color" was used in Chinese porcelain.

But the style shifted when the reign of Zhengde began.

Emperor Zhengde was associated with debauchery and bizarre hobbies in previous historical records. But some modern historians have reflected on his progressive views on individual freedom. No matter which label is more convincing, the emperor has left many unique porcelain collections.

For instance, he had strong interest in studying religions, including Islam, Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism. Some exhibits at the ongoing show reflect their strong influences on the wares of his times. For instance, Islamic eulogies written in Arabic and Persian are commonly seen on the artifacts.

An ancient Mongolian language was also used on a piece of Zhengde porcelain to record the production year. There is no other such example in Chinese porcelain history, even during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when Mongols ruled.

"The highest achievement made by Zhengde porcelain were wares created in malachite green," Lyu says.

The curator points out that in the later years of Zhengde's reign, porcelain pieces were full of flamboyant colors and patterns, reflecting lifestyle changes in society at the time.

"That art trend became even more favored by later Ming rulers. Zhengde's time was an important transition."

If you go

8:30 am-5 pm, (the closing time will be 4:30 pm every day starting from Nov 1), closed on Mondays, through Feb 28. Palace Museum, 4 Jingshan Qianjie, Dongcheng district, Beijing. 

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