The World's Most Beautiful China

Still highly prized by collectors, Ming porcelain spread from China throughout the world

By Google Arts & Culture

Vase Vase (second half of the 15th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A smashing time for porcelain

The porcelain from the Ming Dynasty of China, which ruled from 1368 to 1644 CE, benefitted from the immense economic success of the 15th century. Famous for its cobalt blue and white designs, Ming ceramics have become some of the most highly-prized and valuable on the planet.

Fine ceramics were in high demand in this period of relative wealth and abundance during the Ming era. Produced in towns like Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, the designs and craftsmanship would have an influence in countries around the world, especially Japan and Britain. 

vase with dragon and cloud design (1426-1435) by XuandeIndianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields

Simplicity in design

Porcelain is one of a number of different types of pottery but usually considered more valuable because of its smooth surfaces and translucent whiteness. During the Ming era it was developed to new levels of perfection and combined with the traditional Chinese arts of painting and calligraphy. 

The classic blue and white aesthetic was the most in demand, using cobalt oxide sourced from Central Asia and covered in a glaze called Yingqing. Other colours were available, using copper to achieve a red/orange sheen. Designs were initially very floral and ornate but from the 15th century onwards they became more restrained, featuring open landscapes and simple animal motifs.

Power through porcelain

Ming porcelain became a major exportable good, exchanged with Spanish silver from the Americas to increase levels of wealth in China. The ceramics industry grew accordingly, with just one city, Jingdezhen boasting more than 100,000 workers. But along with the industrialisation of the process, the quality of the pottery began to suffer. 

Departure Herald (AD 1368-AD 1644) by Anonymous, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)National Palace Museum

The beginning of the end

However, the real blow for Chinese porcelain came in the late 17th and 18th centuries when the secrets of fine porcelain manufacture were discovered in Europe. But, without doubt, it was the Chinese, and the Ming Dynasty in particular, that really captured the world’s imagination. So much so, that all fine and bone-hard porcelain came to be known simply as ‘china’.

Life after Ming

A 15th century Ming vase sold at auction in Hong Kong in 2011 for an incredible $22.6 million, making it one of the most expensive pieces of porcelain ever made. However, a vase from the later Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) sold in the UK for more than $83 million, proving there was life after the Ming for Chinese pottery.

Modern Black Paper Fan with Applique Dragons Fighting for A PealArts & Crafts Museum Hangzhou

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