1. Imperial Support
The Kangxi period (1662-1722) was one of the most productive periods of Chinese ceramics. The Emperor Kangxi was the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty and he ruled for the longest period of time of any Chinese emperor. Considered one of China’s greatest emperors, he started off a period of great stability and cultural advancement. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and was fascinated by Western science, art and culture.
2. Easy to Spot
Blue and White glazed porcelain is probably the most immediately recognisable art production which flourished under this period, and has roots in earlier Chinese ceramic tradition. Emperor Kangxi was closely involved in every aspects of the ceramic production; not only did he provided an enormous financial outlay in establishing a porcelain factory, but he was also directly interested in the invention of new shapes, colours and styles.
3. Jingdezhen – The Porcelain Hub
Emperor Kangxi reopened the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, in the Jiangsu Province, which had been largely neglected during the decline of the preceding Ming dynasty and experienced large-scale destruction during the subsequent civil turmoil in 1674. Blue and white porcelain then became one of the most famous types of porcelain produced in Jingdezhen. New technologies were introduced in the production of porcelain, developing also new decorative designs and colour palettes.
4. Origins in the Tang Dynasty
Blue and White ceramics have been dated as early as the 7th century AD, during the Tang Dynasty. During the Kangxi period, however, production quality seems to regain its standards, and ancient techniques were employed in a new manner. Sometimes the period is labelled the ‘transitional’ style, marking the rebirth of high quality Chinese ceramics. Blue and white porcelains of the Kangxi period continued a centuries-old decorative tradition. However Kangxi blue and white ceramics in the hands of Kangxi painters presented a radiant new face.
5. How They Made That Blue
Blue and white porcelain was created by painting designs with the distinctive cobalt-oxide mixture under the glaze. Cobalt ores were originally imported from Persia, but were later sourced from the counties of Shaoxing, Jinhua and Quzhou in the Zhejiang province, leading to the eponymous ‘Zenjiang blue’, which produced vivid and dimensional shades of blue on Kangxi wares. Cobalt ores were ground into a pigment, which was then painted directly onto the smooth porcelain body. The piece was then glazed and fired. When fired in the kiln, the cobalt would have reacted to generate the distinctive bright sapphire blue colour.
6. Blue in Chinese Culture
In Chinese culture the blue colour always held a special and deep meaning. Often linked with the season of Spring, blue is associated with growth and advancement, as well as representing the element of wood. An azure dragon represents the season of Spring, and featured on the later Qing dynasty flag. The shade of blue on Kangxi porcelain is referred to as ‘gem blue’ or ‘kingfisher blue’. Blue was used in different dilutions and acted like ink at the hands of Kangxi artisans, who utilised the popular fenshui technique in their designs.
7. International Appeal
Kangxi porcelain was produced for both domestic and export markets. The high quality of material, craftsmanship, design, painting quality and aesthetic appeal, made it so popular in Europe that a separate branch of export designs flourished. It is also thought that Emperor Kangxi’s good relations with the international Jesuits enabled the pottery style to be exported, and the Jesuit priest François Xavier d’Entrecolles is said to have brought the Chinese porcelain technique to Europe. While international trade was blocked during a period of imperial crisis, private maritime trade was allowed to resume in 1685.
8. The Blue Chrysanthemum
Our examples of Kangxi blue and white porcelain come from the ‘Blue Chrysanthemum Wreck’. Analysis of survey material and cargo samples from the wreck site together indicate that the ship was engaged in exporting very high quality Chinese porcelain made in the 1660s, probably on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.
9. Popular Designs
Popular designs included floral and geometric motifs. They were sometimes based on Buddhist and Taoist themes but were more often sourced from literature, theatre and illustrated books. These included the ever-popular Ming stories of ‘The Three Kingdoms’, ‘The Romance of the West Chamber ‘, and the perennially popular dramas Xixiang Ji and Wui Hu Zhuan.
10. You can own it too
Kangxi pieces are accessible at any step of the collecting ladder, and the variety of styles and decoration appeal to any taste. Previously overlooked and undervalued, recent interest from China is re-establishing the excitement around Kangxi pottery. Visit our Chinese Gallery to discover more Kangxi pieces.