Ming or Yuan

I used to dream of owning a Ming dynasty blue and white vase. Finally after many years, I thought that I had finally aquired one. While it may have had some defects, these must made it more attractive to me than if it had been perfect.

Cobalt blue, a mineral used in the paint, plays a magical role to make Ming dynasty blue & white pieces famous. This is due to the under glaze cobalt blue that gives an effect much like Chinese brush painting - the ink spread on rice paper. That is why many people agree that Ming dynasty blue & white porcelain is the most famous style in Chinese ceramic history. In AD 1405, during the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongle (AD 1403 - 1424) sent his officer Tseng Ho through South East Asia to Iran to exchange Chinese procelain products for cobalt, called "lajiward", for making more blue & white porcelain. Tseng Ho's Fleet was very famous. And that is pretty much about all I can remember about the Ming dynasty from my time in school.

One day, while shopping for some antiques, I spotted a blue & white vase among many other ceramic items on the top shelf right under the ceiling in a warehouse. Looking at it from the distance, the vase has six sides opening top, two ears on the sides shaped like elephant heads. The lower part was fat and round with six side panels to form a vase. The pattern of cut peonies and branches on each panel surrounded the vase. The beautiful Chinese brush art; the glaze of the vase thick, shiny as jade - it all told me the piece had been fired at the proper temperature of 1280 degrees and afterward it had cooled off slowly to retain the beauty of the glaze. The cobalt blue was used on this vase is "lajiward". Each different period of time may use different source of cobalt blue in Chinese ceramic history, for instance; during Yuan dynasty, Turkish imported cobalt blue was used, in early to mid-Ming dynasty lajiward was used, late Ming dynasty Chinese domestic cobalt blue and also Japanese imported blue were used. We saw at the auction that Ming dynasty lajiward blue and white vase was sold at over million US dollars, there are over 2000 different shade of cobalt blue, but lajiward blue is very beautiful once you have seen it , the beauty lingering on you mind, hard to forget. Because lajiward cobalt blue has very distinctive character that when the blue colour is thick and dark it is like the ocean; the blue is so deep that you could see green in it, when it is light, you will see a tiny tint of purple in it. Lajiward cobalt blue vase is very easily to be identified, besides the distinctive shade of blue, on the surface of the cobalt blue, there are brown spots, the result from the iron residues in the impure cobalt. All of this told me this was a true Yungle period blue & white vase. This was the beautiful vase I would like to have, and it meant a lot to me especially because I knew Tseng Ho had brought back most of the material used in vases during this time period. I thought this would be an extremely expensive vase, so I was very surprised the price was not as high as other Ming vases. The owner explained that was because this vase was defective. He turned the vase over, showing me a large palm sized piece of reddish clay showing without glaze. There was also a brown peony branch where the glaze had shrunk away, leaving the cobalt blue painting uncovered, and directly fired in the kiln. How interesting, this was something that I had always wanted to see. The proof that cobalt blue and glaze together did a magic job, and without glaze, this is what would happen. But then another question came up; what caused the glaze to shrink away? I have read many porcelain related books and publications; none of them had ever mentioned this kind of situation. It took me weeks and months to figure out the answer. In Ming dynasty, private kilns were contracted to produce imperial ware for imperial family use. When the imperial wares were produced, the best materials were used. Handicapped people were hired to grind the gemstones. When the gem stone powder was added to the glaze, it was thick and elastic as gluten. After it was applied onto the clay, it tended to shrink away. It took a few layers of glaze to fully cover the entire surface. What I believe happened was this: During the Ming Dynasty, each piece of imperial ware would be reproduced in quantities of around 10. The best would then be chosen to be used by the emperor. A worker might've forgotten to add further glaze upon this piece, making it one of the rejects.

I believe this "defective" vase was meaningful to somebody; that's why after six hundred years the vase was still in good condition. To further support this, I also have a very small Song dynasty celadon teacup, with the common lotus petal shape. This piece has been carefully repaired with the white glaze of its time. Even with this defect, this piece has been passed down from generation to generation as a family heirloom.

After I had obtained the vase I discovered that it was not the Ming vasethat I thought (and was told) I was purchasing, but an earlier Yuan dynasty vase. At the bottom of the peony branches there are garden rocks and, as I later discovered, this style of decoration was common in the Yuan dynasty but not in the Ming dynasty. I still did not have my "Ming vase" but I did have a beautiful Chinese blue and white vase that was truly unique because it should have been destroyed 650 years ago but had escaped through some tiny, random quirk of fate.