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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.36 Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

The Manchu conquest did not produce the dislocation of Chinese social and cultural life, as had the Mongol invasion, even though China was once again under foreign rule. In fact the Manchu had started to adopt the Chinese way of life they found in the North East frontier Regions some 50 years earlier. However, the Chinese were forced to wear pigtails as a sign of subjugation. Many of the Ming clan and supporters moved to the South, and the Qing Emperors were constantly aware of the need to keep the South onside. This did not stop various rebellions over the first few decades of their reign; in particular in 1675 the Wu San-Kuei rebellion destroyed a large part of Jingdezhen.

The new rulers quickly accepted the Chinese system of government, Chinese customs, language, names and principles of Confucianism (though their State religion was Lamaism, a sect of Buddhism). The first four Emperors led China to its greatest territorial expansion, which resulted in prosperity and relative peace. The Emperor Shunzhi was in power in 1644. He was a child but had a few reliable trusted advisors from the Manchurian aristocracy. He also learnt the Chinese language. His successor was to prove very good for China. Known as Kangxi (1662-1722) he united the Chinese with forward-looking policies and tolerance. His Manchurian administration spoke Manchurian and Chinese, and the highest offices were filled equally with Manchurian and Chinese officials (which Kublai Khan mistakenly failed to do). The third and fourth Emperors were Yongzheng (1722-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796). The Qing rulers, particularly Kangxi and Qianlong were well-educated men eager to enlist the support of Chinese Scholars. They were extremely conservative in their political and cultural attitudes. Their artistic tastes were tempered between conservatism and their native love of extravagance. The prosperity of China during this Dynasty can be judged from the fact that when the Qianlong Emperor started his rule he had 150 million subjects, and by the end of his reign (he abdicated, not wanting to rule longer than his grandfather Kangxi) there were 275 million. However, China remained agrarian and the Qianlong emperor in particular had little interest in Western ideas of science and modern technologies.

The Qing Emperors could not expand in the Forbidden City, so, apart from maintenance and rebuilding, they extended their palaces and temples elsewhere. A significant feature of these was the gardens. In 1703 Kangxi started work on his Summer Residence in Chengde, 250 km from the capital, which was completed by Yongzheng. The designs of Summer Palaces and their gardens were made as engravings by the Jesuit Matteo Ripa in 1712-13 and brought to London in 1724. They were thought to have greatly influenced the revolution of garden design in Europe at this time. Qianlong too was keen on parks and gardens. He made major alterations to the Imperial Residence at Chengde, leaving it with 110 buildings. He also built the Summer Palace in Peking (Beijing) covering 750 acres with large artificial lakes. It has a 40m tall tower on the Hill of Longevity, a marble “boat” 36m long and a covered lakeside walkway built in 1750. A fire in 1860 and another during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 caused considerable damage to wooden buildings, but others such as the Pagoda of the Countless Precious Objects were spared. This Pagoda was decorated all over in tiny lead-glazed relief tiles that show hand-sized figures of Buddha, making it a jewel of ceramic-decorated architecture. The model for this was the Porcelain Pagoda in Nanjing.

The pottery industry suffered severely in the chaotic middle decades of the 17th century, during which time the typical products were Transitional blue and white wares. Not only damage from the rebellion, but also labour unrest remained a problem at Jingdezhen as it had been for nearly 100 years since the labour force refused to pay taxes under Wanli. Emperor Kangxi’s personal interest in ceramics, his open mind and willingness to learn from the Jesuits at his Court helped with the rapid development and innovation at Jingdezhen. Firstly the enlightened young Emperor ordered an enquiry into the state of the industry in Jao-chou, which reported in 1682. As a result the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen were rebuilt, a Superintendent of Kilns was personally appointed by the Emperor and by 1683, under the first Superintendent Tsang Ying-hsuan, the kilns were fully re-established. For the first time at Jingdezhen an industrial kiln complex was properly organised to supply the Palace, alongside the many other kilns in the region. Forced labour was abolished and all workers were paid as craftsmen or labourers. The transformation to the “factory worker” was completed, at the cost of less personal involvement of the potter in his handiwork. Two famous letters were written early in the 18th century by the Jesuit priest, Pere d’Entrecolles, describing Jingdezhen. Although he did not understand all the detail, they gave a clear picture of the industrial complex. 

Under Tsang Ying-hsuan’s influence Imperial Porcelain reached a level of quality not seen for well over 100 years. Working via the Board of Public Works, he was responsible for the Imperial Kilns that supplied porcelain exclusively to the Palace. Other kilns produced wares for domestic use and export. Initially the quality of all products improved, but at the start of the 18th century the best craftsmen migrated to the Imperial kilns with the result that Imperial quality became distinctively better.  This reformation set off the last great era of Chinese ceramics during the Qing Dynasty. It reached its zenith in the 18th century then declined in quality and output in the 19th century, as the discovery of porcelain in 18th century Europe and their Industrial Revolution eventually made Chinese products uncompetitive.

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