Piecing Together the Past

ByWang Kaihao October 15, 2020
Piecing Together the Past
A visitor views a Ming Dynasty blue-and-white porcelain plate from the reign of Zhengtong (1436-49) at the ongoing exhibition in the Palace Museum in Beijing. [For China Daily/Jiang Dong]

 

They were so close to being favored by emperors. Yet, the road was just too far.

But centuries after being deliberately broken in the workshops of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province — the center of porcelain production in ancient China — they have finally arrived at their original destination the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Officially known as the Palace Museum today, the Forbidden City became China's imperial palace in 1420 when the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was in its heyday. Since that year, myriad porcelain pieces made their way from the imperial kiln in Jingdezhen to the palace to meet the royal demand.

And now the 196 artifacts — either intact porcelains housed in the former imperial palace or restored ones from the broken shards in the ruins of the imperial kiln — have finally arrived at their intended destination and are seen besides the intact imperial porcelains people will appreciate how demanding the palace was of the kiln.

New Views on Imperial Ceramics: Comparative Exhibition of Archaeological Finds from the Ming Dynasty Imperial Kiln at Jingdezhen and Ceramics Preserved in the Palace Museum Collection, which runs through Dec 20 in the Palace of Great Benevolence at the Palace Museum does just that and shows the high standards that needed to be met.

"Put alongside those that were rejected, the glamour of the approved pieces and the quality standards that had to be satisfied are apparent, as it is clear that some failed to find favor due to just a small detail," Lyu Chenglong, a ceramic researcher at the Palace Museum and curator of the exhibition, says.

The imperial kiln was set up in Jingdezhen in 1369, one year after the Ming Dynasty was founded, to exclusively provide daily-use articles for the royal families. Its operation ran until the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), according to Lyu.

Piecing Together the Past
A restored broken flat kettle from the reign of Yongle (1403-24) is juxtaposed with an intact counterpart from the reign of Xuande (1426-35). [For China Daily/Jiang Dong]

 

"The Ming emperors often selected the supervisors of production in person," he says. "The best artisans and raw materials gathered in Jingdezhen, rigidly following guidance from the royal court. But the pieces in the museum cannot portray the complete splendor of the imperial porcelains because of the wear and tear they have experienced over the years."

Large-scale archaeological excavation has been conducted at the site of the imperial kiln since the 1980s to look for historical clues in the ruins, and metric tons of ceramic pieces have been unearthed according to Jiang Jianxin, honorary director of Jingdezhen Ceramic Archaeology Research Institute.

Since 2015, the Palace Museum has cooperated with Jingdezhen Ceramic Archaeology Research Institute to conduct comparative studies of the underground trove of ceramic fragments. Six exhibitions have been staged in the museum since then to review the evolution of the imperial kiln throughout different reigns.

"This final chapter of the series of exhibitions unveils the recent archaeological discoveries and displays a panorama of the achievements of the Ming imperial kiln," Lyu says.

Some of the new findings on display have corrected scholars' understanding of the history of some pieces, such as a fragment of a porcelain cup.

Four heavy blue-and-white cups in the collection of the Palace Museum with flared rims and deep rounded sides that are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand have marks on their bottoms indicating they were made during the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-24)-who moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. But because their style differed from other pieces from that time, scholars were skeptical. However, in 2018, a broken piece of porcelain from a similar cup was found at the site of the imperial kiln in the stratum from the reign of Yongle, settling the matter once and for all.

Piecing Together the Past
A displayed porcelain glazed in the color of "watermelon" (second left, front row) from the reign of Jiajing (1522-66) and restored green glazed counterparts from the reign of Chenghua (1465-87). [For China Daily/Jiang Dong]

 

And Lyu also points out that the comparative display vividly shows the complex process involved in making porcelain fit for the emperor.

An exhibited meiping — literally meaning "plum vase" due to its common usage to hold plum branches for decoration — from the reign of Yongle, is a typical masterpiece of its time.

"It started a new trend favoring elegance, close to literati's taste," Lyu explains. "And it's exceptional because it even has a lid. It's rare to see a meiping with a lid, as these are easily broken."

Its delicacy becomes even more shining when part of a similar vase from the imperial kiln lies just beside it.

"Maybe the temperature was too high leading to the body collapsing," Lyu suggests.

Controlling the temperature of the kiln during a time without thermometers was tricky, as the exhibition shows. For example, to make the red glazed ceramics, a main variety among the products of the imperial kiln in the early 15th century, the temperature had to be maintained at between 1,250 to 1,280 degrees.

"Such a narrow span of temperature leaves little room for error," Lyu says. "Though the artisans were experienced, the odds against success were still high."

Various single-color porcelains were made during different reigns of Ming because each emperor had his own preference.

For example, yellow artifacts resembling the color of chicken soup, were favored by Emperor Hongzhi (1470-1505), while his son Emperor Zhengde (1491-1521) liked malachite green. Also a fan of green glaze, Emperor Jiajing (1507-67) took the initiative to introduce the color of "watermelon" to the surface of porcelain, while Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) preferred the color of eggplants.

It is hard to know just how many unfortunate buddies of the surviving porcelains were smashed into pieces, probably just because their colors were not quite right.

More than 1,400 artifacts have been pieced together from the fragments in Jingdezhen, and Jiang says that even the "broken pieces are still precious treasures." After all, although most of the artifacts from the Palace Museum and Jingdezhen match with each other, some patterns found in the kiln ruins have no known counterparts.

A blue four-footed oval tub from the reign of Xuande (1426-35), which was designed to grow narcissus is such an example.

"The study and categorization of the porcelain fragments found in Jingdezhen are still continuing," Jiang says. "Police authorities in Jingdezhen have also retrieved many porcelain pieces illegally dug up in recent years and these offer many new clues. Consequently, people will get a deeper understanding of the operation of the Ming imperial kiln in the future."

 

(Source: China Daily)

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