Ewer with Silver Cover

Object nr. 73 China, Transition period (1620-1683) Height: 20 cm

Private Collection, The Netherlands

Condition Report available

€ 9,500

This object can be viewed in our gallery.

Additional Information

Transitional Period (1620 – 1683)

The 17th-century Transitional period of Chinese ceramics is one of the most remarkable in Chinese ceramic history. It has been defined as the sixty three years between the death of the Ming Wanli emperor in 1620 and the arrival of the Qing Kangxi emperor’s imperial supervisor, Zang Yingxuan, at the Jingdezhen kiln center in Jiangxi province in 1683. This period spans the last three reigns of the Ming dynasty – Taichang (1620), Tianqi (1621-1627), Chongzhen (1628-1644) – and the early part of the Qing dynasty – Shunzhi (1644-1661) and the first two decades of Kangxi (1662-1683). The term “Transitional” thus refers to the period in Chinese ceramic history that witnessed the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchus and the consolidation of Manchu control over China under the Qing dynasty.

Politically and socially it was one of the most chaotic times in Chinese history, more chaotic than at any time in China since the late 14th century when the Ming dynasty was founded. The suffering of the common people was widespread and the sense of fragmentation and collapse that permeated the literature and painting of this period was also reflected in ceramics. During this time of transition, Chinese potters were forced (and, ironically, free) to pursue new patrons and experiment with ceramic styles, techniques and designs in a manner that was impossible immediately before and after. This is not to say that major innovations did not occur in the 16th and 18th centuries, for they did and generally are better known. What is significant is that the experimentation that took place during the Transitional period was without the patronage and direction of the imperial court in Peking. In this respect, the last two reigns of the Ming dynasty and the first two reigns of the Qing dynasty present a fascinating anomaly in the history of later Chinese ceramics.

Chinese Transitional Ceramics

The majority of the ceramics produced in China during the Transitional period came from the great kiln center at Jingdezhen in northern Jiangxi province. This city had been the leading center of porcelain production since the 14th century, when blue-and-white porcelains were first developed under the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368). Jingdezhen’s proximity to beds of fine clay and access to river transportation made it an ideal location for a complex of kilns that by the 15th century had developed into a major industry under imperial supervision. By the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Jingdezhen virtually monopolized the production of fine porcelain in China, and the kilns flourished as wares were made for both the domestic and export markets. The Portuguese, beginning in the mid-16th century during the Ming dynasty, were the first Europeans to export Chinese porcelains to Europe. This trade was taken over by the Dutch in the early Wanli period (1573-1620).

In the period form 1620 to 1683 the Jingdezhen kilns, which had enjoyed the financial support of the Ming court for the previous 253 years, were forced to search for new patrons. The reason for this was that between 1620 and the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, imperial funds that previously had been allocated to ceramic production were used to support the Ming armies in the struggle against the increasingly powerful Manchus in northeast China. During the Wanli reign hundreds of thousands of vessels had been commissioned by the Ming court. The suspension of these commissions after 1620 caused a major reorganization of the Jingdezhen kilns as new patrons were sought. The Dutch and the Japanese both benefited from this turn of events, and their patronage brought about noticeable changes in style in the wares produced for the export market. The wares made for the domestic market also revealed a break in form and decoration from the relatively orthodox style of the Wanli period. By the mid-1620s the wide range of styles and experimentation that characterized the Transitional period as a whole had appeared. Because there were no imperial inspectors present to dictate which shapes and decorative designs were to be produced, the potters had considerable artistic freedom. As a result, the Transitional ceramics of the late 17th century reveal a fresh and novel range of style unique in Ming and Qing ceramic history.

It is known from the surviving numbers of ceramics and the records of the Dutch East India Company that during the reign of the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen (1628-1644), the Jingdezhen kilns had successfully reorganized under private hands and were able to conduct a profitable business both at home and abroad. When northern Jiangxi province fell to the Manchus after 1644, the production of ceramics for the domestic market continued. The export trade, however, was interrupted by the “cancerous war” between the Manchus and Chinese forces loyal to the Ming throne. T. Volker has taken the year 1657 as the final year of ceramic exports to Holland, a trade that did not resume until 1681. However, some smuggling of ceramics overseas did occur at the beginning of the 1660s and again in the late 1660s and early 1670s.

Although it appears from eyewitness accounts of Dutch traders that the Jingdezhen kilns may have had an imperial-appointed superintendent as early as 1656, the unsettled conditions and fighting in Jiangxi province in 1673 associated with the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories, and the burning and pillaging of Jingdezhen in 1675 meant that little porcelain of quality was produced during the mid-1670s. It was not until 1677, when Zhang Qizhong was appointed director of the kilns, that production resumed in an orderly way. Zhang was followed by Xu Tingby in 1681, the same year in which the Kangxi emperor toyed with the idea of removing the imperial kilns to Peking. However, while imperial workshops for enamels, glass, jade, lacquer and other arts were established within the Forbidden City (Zijincheng), the imperial porcelain factories remained at Jingdezhen.

The true recovery of Jingdezhen’s former greatness came with the appointment in 1682 of Zang Yingxuan as superintendent of the kiln complex and the arrival of his commission in Jingdezhen in 1683. This event marked the end of the Transitional period and once again an orthodox, imperially sanctioned style was imposed on potters at Jingdezhen.

Floris van der Ven