Not all Chinese ceramics for the domestic and foreign markets were made in the kilns of the city of Jingdezhen. Smaller, local kilns had their own assortments. Only recently have these wares become the subject of study and archaeologists started to excavate 17th, 18th and 19th century kiln complexes in China, especially in the southern provinces Guangdong and Fujian.
One very well-known kiln is that of Dehua in the province of Fujian, which has long been famous for its excellent porcelain, the so-called Blanc-de-Chine. This porcelain is characterised by a rich, glossy transparent glaze, pooling in recesses and without crackle. It is perfectly fused with a body of very pure white porcelain which contains almost no iron. Even when thickly potted, it remains beautifully transparent and objects of the best quality sometimes even resemble opaline glass. Pieces are well-finished, although firing cracks are common in the bases of these figures. The colour of the glaze can vary from an ivory or creamy-white to a slightly bluish- or greyish-white. The ivory tint is usually the most highly regarded, but, although it was long thought to be such, it is no guarantee of an early date, However, it does enhance the resemblance of blanc-de-Chine to ivory, for which, as far as the copied figures are concerned, it might have been a cheaper substitute.
Blanc-de-Chine pieces bear no painted decoration - hence the name - and derive their effect from the combination of shape and glaze. Details are either moulded, applied or impressed under the glaze; decorations or inscriptions incised under the glaze are less common.
The Dehua kilns have a long ceramic tradition and their wares can be traced as far back as the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), but the typical blanc-de-Chine porcelain seems to have been developed in the 16th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries its production reached a peak with a great variety of shapes destined for domestic as well as for export. Recently salvaged cargoes from shipwrecks such as the Hatcher junk and the Vung Tau yielded small amounts of blanc-de-Chine of typical Chinese shapes in an export context.
The kilns of Dehua are particularly noted for its many figures, some of them quite tall. Moulded representations of Guanyin, Bodhisattvas and Daoist Immortals were initially made for the home market to be used on altars or for the scholar’s study, but from the middle of the 17th century they were also exported to meet an ever-increasing demand in Europe for strange and exotic objects. Additions to the assortment were figures of animals of all kinds, Europeans standing, seated, riding an animal or made in the shape of a whistle, the Virgin Mary and Child and even cups, mugs and ewers after Western forms. It is not always clear, however, if these objects were produced to order for European customers or to satisfy a Chinese fashion for Western rarities.
In Europe the whiteness of the undecorated figures was not always appreciated and they were sometimes ‘embellished’ with an overglaze decoration of red, black, or gold paint or lacquer. Though by now it has often largely worn off, such over-decoration is part of the history of the piece and should not be removed, since it offers proof of its authenticity. Other pieces were decorated in the Netherlands or Germany with enamels fired at a low temperature in a muffle kiln.