National Palace Museum – Yongle Porcelains 適於心

“Pleasing to the heart,” that’s what the Emperor Yongle said about his porcelains. Thank God that these timeless pieces were kept intact by the Nationalists when they retreated to Taiwan.

Emperor Yongle’s Porcelains

朱棣 Zhu Di was the fourth son of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty Emperor Hongwu Zhu YuanZhang 朱元璋. He was not in line of the throne. However, he was a brilliant militarist and assisted his father in many campaigns. He was Prince of Yan (modern Beijing) when he staged the coup d’etat against his nephew, Emperor Jianwen Zhu YunWen 朱允炆.

During the twenty-two years of the Yongle reign (1403-1424), the Ming dynasty witnessed major advances both culturally and militarily. Examples of the major projects sponsored by the Yongle emperor include construction for the vast Forbidden City in Beijing, the dispatch of many expeditions (such as fleets to Southeast Asia), compilation of the enormous Yongle Encyclopedia 永樂大典, and the production of numerous imperial wares, representing but some of his important contributions.

The Yongle porcelains in the collection of the National Palace Museum are considerable in terms of both quantity and quality. The porcelains that best represent those made for the Yongle emperor are so-called “sweet white,” underglaze-blue, and red-glazed ones.

Sweet white, an innovation of the Yongle reign, is notable for its tranquil and elegant character, injecting new vitality into the tradition of white-glazed porcelain. The forms of underglaze-blue porcelains, also known as blue-and-white, are particularly numerous, with several new types being the product of multicultural interaction. Red-glazed porcelains, with their lustrous and vibrant hue, also became an object of imitation among later generations.

Those works that did not adhere to norms set by the court were smashed and buried, the remaining finest porcelains becoming objects for state rituals, imperial use, or gifts bestowed as rewards upon visiting members of states with diplomatic ties.

Underglaze Blue Porcelain 青花瓷

Blue and white decoration first became widely used in Chinese porcelain in the 14th century, after the cobalt pigment for the blue began to be imported from Persia. A style of decoration based on sinuous plant forms spreading across the object was perfected, and most commonly used.

It was widely exported, and inspired imitative wares in Islamic ceramics and later European tin-glazed eathenware such as Delftware and after the techniques was discovered in the 18th century, European porcelain. Blue and white pottery in all these traditions continues to be produced, most of it copying earlier styles.

“Sweet White” 甜白

“Sweet White” 甜白 is an unique type of glaze that was produced from the Royal Kiln of Yongle. The thin and translucent white glaze gives a feeling of “sweetness” like white jade, hence the name “sweet white”. The production process was extremely complicated and took several steps to achieve that special look.

“Pure and lustrous, indeed pleasing to the heart”

“Pure and lustrous, indeed pleasing to the heart”

– 明成祖朱棣 永樂帝 Emperor “Judy” Yongle (1403-1424)

There’s a high luminescence quality to the finished product and because of the thinness of the porcelain, it allowed light through and therefore embedded patterns were often found in them. Emperor Yongle loved his sweet-whites so much that he left a comment that was recorded for posterity. He described that his sweet-white porcelains were “pleasing to the heart”.

Jue cup and holder with dragon and waves decoration in underglaze blue 青花波濤龍紋帶托爵杯

The ceremonial jue cup 爵杯 was made with bronze in the Shang-Zhou periods and was used as wine vessels for worships and for ceremonies. By Ming Dynasty, they were made with porcelain and used solely for ancestral worship and burial purpose. These cup and holder were found in pairs, and were part of the Palace collection and recorded in the inventory.

In response to and under the supervision of the court, “authorized types” of porcelains by the court were sent to kilns for production. The phenomenon whereby official wares were made with well-defined forms, pure colors, and decoration conforming to specifications was also established at this time.

Spoon with lotus and Sanskrit letters decoration in underglaze blue 青花朵蓮梵文勺

Spoon with lotus and Sanskrit letters decoration in underglaze blue 青花朵蓮梵文勺, Ming dynasty, Yongle reign (1403-1424)

While the spoon was from the Ming Dynasty and decorated with the Sanskrit names of the different Buddhas. The wooden holder in the shape of a goose was made much later during the Qing Dynasty Qianlong Reign. If you remove the spoon from the holder, you will see Qianlong’s name 乾隆 represented as Yi Script 「三」隆.

Other Yongle Porcelains in the Museum

Ceremonial utensils from Yongle and Xuande periods

There’s an example of the porcelain jue and holder placed together. These are ceremonial utensils used for ancestral worship and not used for normal mealtime. Examples of Emperor Yongle and Xuande were placed side-by-side. You can see the difference in artistic styles between the grandfather and grandson.

Pots with incised lotus petals decoration in cobalt blue and red glaze 霽青、红釉刻花蓮瓣紋滷壺, Ming Dynasty Xuande Reign (1426-1435)

Emperor Xuande is the grandson of Emperor Yongle. He took over from his dad Emperor Hongxi, who unfortunately only reigned for one year. You can see the transition from the “sweet white” to gaudy blue and red that were used in these glazed pots. Not satisfied with just simple designs and colours, the Ming porcelains took a turn in design as the new (and much younger) emperor gave new briefs on how he wanted his art direction for the Great Ming to go.

Most of the pieces that were on display in Hunan Provincial Museum were pieced together from fragments. Much of these were pieced from rejects of the royal kilns that were smashed so that it would not be sold in the black markets, while some were destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Thank goodness that these Yongle porcelains that the emperor himself so admired still survive today some six centuries later. Not only do Yongle porcelains represent the achievements of imperial arts and crafts, they also serve as concrete testimony to multicultural exchange that took place at the time.

About the National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) was originally founded within the walls of the Beijing Forbidden City in 1925, the present-day National Palace Museum moved to Taipei’s Shilin District following the Republic of China government relocation in 1949 with an official opening for the public in 1965.

Over 600,000 of the most precious artefacts within the collection were moved to Taiwan to prevent their desecration during and after the Chinese Civil War. 

Due to the enormous numbers of collection spreads over 4 floors and 2 exhibition halls, the museum’s exhibits continuously rotate, as only a small percentage of the museum’s collection can be displayed at a given time to prevent wear and tear, so there will always be a new series of collection being exhibited on each visit! 

National Palace Museum
No.221, Sec. 2, Zhishan Rd., Shilin Dist., Taipei City 111001, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
Tel : 886-2-2881-2021

Date Visited : Oct 2018

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