Palace Museum displays glory days of Ming porcelain
The final edition of a long series of exhibitions focuses on Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, later dubbed the ‘ceramic capital of China’, Wang Kaihao reports.
The Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, is showcasing porcelain ware of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a period considered among the best in Chinese ceramic-making.
The ongoing exhibition in Beijing, titled Imperial Ceramics and Porcelain of the Great Ming: Comparison of Excavated and Extant Ceramic Pieces from Jiajing (1522-66), Longqing (1567-72) and Wanli (1573-1620) Reigns, is the sixth and final edition in a series of similar displays over the past three years.
It opened for public viewing on Nov 6 and will run through Feb 22.
The 298 exhibits from the former palace’s royal collections and archaeological discoveries from Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, will give visitors a panoramic view of the styles of porcelain ware created over the course of a century and also portray a general picture of changes in society during imperial times.
In 1369, a year after the start of Ming rule, a porcelain kiln was set up in Jingdezhen, which exclusively served the royals. Later the city would be dubbed the “ceramic capital of China”. Only the best products were taken to the Forbidden City, and the defective ones were broken and buried on site in Jingdezhen.
Similar and even identical artifacts have been discovered among kiln relics in Beijing and from Jingdezhen, giving scholars research material for comparative studies.
“We want to tell the vivid stories behind the cultural relics,” Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum, says, adding that the ongoing exhibition is able to display a wide range of items and demonstrate their association with society.
Shan says by presenting the latest achievements in archaeological research, the exhibition series has gone beyond academia and into the public domain.
The exhibits show the evolution of ceramics during the three reigns and the rigid criteria in selecting royal artifacts at that time, says Lyu Chenglong, a porcelain researcher at the museum.
From the iconic blue-and-white porcelain items, to others in single bright colors, which were established in previous reigns, to new shapes with images of dragons and other totems, many of the series’ exhibits are rarely seen treasures. More colorful artifacts-the most recognized feature of porcelain in that era-began to appear between the Jiajing and Wanli reigns.
“The decorative patterns became more complicated,” Lyu says. “Colors got flamboyant, sizes grew bigger, and bizarre shapes were favored-reflective of the economic prosperity of the time and the indulgent lives people led.”
In the late Ming Dynasty, capitalism also guided tastes in ceramics, but the changes were such that the decorative elements in the later Ming era were not as “exquisite” as earlier examples. In addition, there were changes in the management system of the imperial kiln in Jingdezhen at the time.
In the early years of the kiln, the studios making royal porcelain were separated from the production of items designated for general use. But the porcelain-making technique had improved in general by the time of Emperor Jiajing’s reign, and the turnover of the royal kiln could not meet the demand.
“Some privately-owned kilns were finally given the green light to make porcelain for the emperor (Jiajing) under official supervision,” Lyu says. “Some samples of these are also being exhibited.”
Work at the imperial kiln was officially halted in 1603, and product contracts were given to privately-owned kilns. It was reopened 80 years later during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Not all exhibits are intact, and some are excavated broken porcelain pieces. Lyu says they are equally important references for researchers to have a whole picture of the industry as it was back then.
Studies of unearthed relics from the royal kiln show the existence of at least 37 kinds of porcelain ware during Jiajing’s rule, indicating the boom in ceramics, as well as craftsmanship. A type of “melon skin porcelain”, which is glazed in green color and looks like a watermelon, reached its peak popularity in the Jiajing era, even though it appeared in the early Ming Dynasty.
A policy decision by Emperor Longqing influenced China’s communication with the world. Although he ruled for just five years, he lifted a longtime official ban on overseas trade shortly after taking power.
“That gave different civilizations a chance to communicate with each other through the marine trade route,” Gu Yucai, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said at the opening ceremony of the exhibition on Nov 6.
“That reflects the inclusiveness of Chinese culture, and, more importantly, influenced the handicraft industry of other countries.”
Gu said porcelain ware from Wanli’s reign was later widely used by foreign studios as models to make colorful ceramics, as a result of the open trading channels.
If you go
Through Feb 22 (Mondays closed)
Jingren Gong (Palace of Great Benevolence), Palace Museum, 4 Jingshan Qianjie, Dongcheng district, Beijing
Opening hours: 8:30 am to 5 pm (entry stops at 4:10 pm)
For entry tickets to the museum, reserve online via the official site en.dpm.org.cn. Each ticket costs 40 yuan ($5.8), with no extra charge for the exhibition.