Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

8. Ceramic Development in China

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Although the Mongols ruled China for nearly 90 years, they were always massively outnumbered and vulnerable to rebellion by the native Chinese who considered their reign to be cruel. The death of Kublai Khan in 1294 sparked instability as rivals fought for the Imperial throne. From the 1320’s there was the terrible impact of the bubonic plague together with a long period of bad weather, causing massive floods of major rivers and subsequent famine. As a result the later decades of the Yuan Dynasty were marked by social and administrative chaos. They were eventually unable to maintain control and a series of uprisings took place in the 1340’s and 50’s. One rebel leader, Hongwu, fought against his rivals in North Jiangxi before turning north against the Mongols, which caused the kilns at Jao-chou to partially close. He seized Nanjing in 1356 and it became his strategic base for campaigns in Central China, which swept him into power as the leader of the next Dynasty. War continued for some 12 years and the Mongols were forced to withdraw to the North and Northwest of the Great Wall – their hereditary homeland.

8.33 Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD)

The first Ming (“Bright”) Emperor, Hongwu, (1368–1398) was the son of a peasant and was a former Buddhist monk. He derived his influence initially from being the leader of the White Lotus Sect. The restoration of a Chinese native Dynasty and the end of the plague set it on a path to become a great power once more, bringing order and prosperity to most of China for 200 years.

Map of Ming dynasty 1,400 AD - courtesy Thomas Lessman

Map of Ming dynasty 1,400 AD - courtesy
Thomas Lessman

The Emperor adopted the government structures used by the Mongol Emperors to start with, and then introduced fundamental innovation. He subdivided the land into 16 Provinces, confiscated land to distribute to small farmers, reintroduced the examination for government office and removed non-Chinese from government office. He also banned foreign religious communities in favour of Confucianism. He established his Capital at Nanjing (Nan-Ching meaning Southern Capital), surrounding it with a wall 30 km long. His palace no longer exists. He was an autocratic and sometimes barbaric ruler.

Very soon after assuming the throne, he announced it to neighbouring rulers with gifts and sought “trade and respect” from them in return. Various trade emissaries were also sent, and they had a major impact on the ceramics industry. One in 1374 was sent to the Ryukyu Islands (between Taiwan and Japan). He carried silk, iron axes and 1000 pieces of pottery for each of the rulers, together with more silk, axes and 69,500 pieces of pottery to trade for horses. He returned 9 months later with 40 horses and an estimated 3 tons of sulphur, reporting that the silks had not raised much but the porcelain had fetched a high price. Further expeditions took place in 1383 to Siam, Cambodia and Champa in India with 19,000 pieces of porcelain. This early market probing led to a significant increase in the production of porcelain for export.

After Hongwu’s death in 1398, a violent civil war led to the Third Emperor, Yongle, (1402-1424) usurping the throne of his nephew, Jianwen. For the next 25 years the fame of China once more spread round the world, assisted by China becoming a major sea power through its immense naval expeditions between 1405 and 1433 led by the eunuch Admiral Cheng-ho. Chinese porcelain and silk streamed westwards to any country which could afford to buy them. Arts flourished as they had in the Tang Dynasty 500 years before. The Yongle Emperor established a number of workshops, and craftsmen were employed to produce luxury goods for the Imperial taste. The Yongle Emperor lavishly rebuilt the destroyed Mongol Palaces in Yanjing and moved his Capital there in 1421 AD, renaming it Pei-Ching (Northern Capital) - present Beijing. This provided better defence against the Mongols.

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Author: Dr. Stan Jones  © Copyright 2010 -
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