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Blanc de Chine

Cherished by Chinese and Western connoisseurs for more than three hundred years, blanc de Chine (literally “white of China”) was the name given by the nineteenth-century French to a variety of Chinese ceramics manufactured primarily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the county of Dehua, Fujian Province, in southeastern China, located opposite the island of Taiwan. It is the pai tz’ü “white porcelain” par excellence, of the Chinese. These predominantly white monochrome wares depend solely on the union of beautiful crafting along with a bland glaze for their stark aesthetic appeal. Although blanc de Chine was without imperial patronage, limited in range, and conservative in taste even for a conservative people, it has held this appeal longer than any other porcelain so far as the basic ware itself is concerned. Preserving always an air of craftsmanship and frequently of distinction, white wares from the Dehua region were made for decoration and religious purposes as well as cooking, serving, eating and drinking in the home.

The most exquisite pieces from Fujian Province are from the town of Dehua itself and are termed “Dehua ware,” while anything that is not quite up to these lofty standards is considered “Fujian ware.” Only becoming well known during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) primarily for the finely carved figures, Dehua ware and blanc de Chine are interchangeable terms for this sublime porcelain.

Blanc de Chine manufacture started in the Song dynasty (960-1279), a period that saw a unified China, rise of a merchant class, first use of gunpowder in war, and aesthetic innovations in drawing, calligraphy and hard-glazed porcelain. Dehua wares exported during the Song and Yuan (1279-1368) periods enjoyed an excellent international reputation. Large quantities of early Dehua porcelain from the late Song and early Yuan dynasties have been found in Indonesia and the Philippines.

White porcelain always has enjoyed favor among the Chinese. Some writers have attributed this to its resemblance to white jade. However, if there is to be a resemblance to other material, that material is surely ivory. But it must also be borne in mind that white, the color of filial piety in China, is also the color of death and mourning in Chinese symbolism. This may account for most of the wares of Dehua being of a devotional character, such as statues and incense burners. Possessing a ware of unique rarity and white color, the factories directed it into uses where it would be in greatest demand. This slant which embraced censers, altar candlesticks and other ritual objects besides figures, was manifest from the inception of the classical ware of the Dehua kilns, as can been seen from a text of 1604 with its reference to Buddhist figures even then making their appearance in the bazaar at Putuoshan.

There are basically three types of blanc de Chine which correspond with the three principal outlets for Dehua products at the peak of their prosperity. First, for the faithful of all creeds are sculptural figures, undoubtedly their great glory, usually of Buddhist or Taoist deities but sometimes of Westerners as well. Second are round wares manufactured as export goods for everyday use, like bowls, boxes, dishes, cups, plates, wine flasks, teapots and jars. Finally there are pressed wares, such as inkstones, brush rests, brush washers, boxes, water droppers, porcelain seals, and paste boxes, appurtenances for writing and painting. This last category includes items for the highly select market of the Chinese scholar’s table. Scholars, though particular, were appreciative, and being apt to consider decoration unwelcome if not positively distasteful, found the simplicity of ornament in use at Dehua greatly to their taste.

According to the Kangxi Encyclopedia, written around the year 1700, the clay for blanc de Chine, called pai tz’u (white clay), was mined in the hills behind the Cheng monastery and found at Yung-hing. The whiteness of blanc de Chine is due to the relative absence of iron (less than 0.5 percent ferric oxide) in the local clay. The high quartz and kaolin content, combined with sericite and feldspar, and low levels of iron created especially good natural minerals for making quality white porcelain. Chemical analysis of Dehua ceramics reveals that all bodies of Dehua porcelain are very dense, and the density and the whiteness are comparable with modern white porcelains.

The transcendence of the bonding between clay and glaze made possible the range of shades of white — from pinkish, rosy, and green tinges to pure creamy white — that enchanted both domestic and foreign collectors. Blanc de Chine actually appears in three different types of white. The best quality pieces have a slightly brownish tinge on their surface, and are referred to as having the color of ivory-white or the color of goose-down white (white with a yellow tinge). The second type of white has a definite creamy appearance and the third is bluish white. Western tastes gravitate more to the pinkish, shrimp-like translucent color that may only been seen when a fine piece of blanc de Chine is held to the light. There can be infinite gradations in the shades of white, and two pieces of blanc de Chine placed side by side are rarely the same color.

Not all blanc de Chine, confusingly enough, is white or a shade of white. The term blanc de Chine actually encompasses pieces made in other colors as long as they come from Dehua and are manufactured in the same manner and from the same porcelain as white blanc de Chine. Dehua first made green ware during the Song and Yuan dynasties and moved into white ware with the coming of the Mongols, who preferred the color white. Glaze colors in blanc de Chine include aubergine, green, and a reddish-brown color, which in the past was called “red” by scholars but is actually a milk chocolate, brownish color.

The lack of color or decoration in blanc de Chine means that this porcelain must rely on form and material — the clay and the glaze — for its appeal.

Influence of Buddhism on blanc de Chine

Buddhism came to China from India in the sixth century A.D. Its influence on the art of China was at once profound, and although it had to share the country with Taoism and Confucianism and waxed and waned at court over the centuries, its grip on the common people remained strong.

Fujien Province was a stronghold of Buddhism, and from the first the figures from Dehua were mainly Buddhist. Dehua’s connection with Buddhism came at least partially through the Japanese, who had a strong influence on Fujian designs and marks. Japanese built the first Buddhist sanctuary on P’u Tuo Island, three hundred miles from Dehua, near the city of Ningbo. Communities of Japanese and Korean monks settled there. The origin of these communities in proximity to Dehua is tied to the Japanese Buddhist monk Egaku. According to legend, Egaku was returning from a pilgrimage to a sanctuary in Shanxi, carrying a Guanyin in his junk. During a typhoon, he prayed to Guanyin; he miraculously landed on P’u Tuo Island and was saved. Throughout the centuries, P’u Tuo was probably responsible for the main output of Fujian Buddhist figures from Dehua in figures of the goddess and other devotional objects sold to the countless pilgrims. The emphasis on Guanyin cannot be too great when we realize that, even today, nine blanc de Chine figures out of every ten represent that goddess in one or other of her manifestations.

Domestic patrons of Fujian potteries included Buddhist monks, members of secret societies, Taoist priests, and Wu sorcerers. Sailors and fishermen prayed to their local deities, Mapo or Tianhou. Buddhist monks ordered Guanyins and statues of other Buddhist personages, like Avalokitesvhara, Manjusri and Samantabhadra. Taoist priests amalgamated their saints with Buddhist deities.

Exports and Foreign Influence

Exports from Dehua fall into three groups. The smallest, most interesting and important, is the class of porcelains made to order, to designs essentially non-Chinese, from samples, drawings, or hearsay or even sight of the “foreign devils” themselves. The mass of the export wares, however, were formed of Chinese domestic articles which could be used similarly elsewhere. Teapots and teabowls are obvious examples. Covered censers would do duty as butter dishes, small boxes as salt cellars, but the main lines were tea-things and utilitarian objects such as beer mugs and coffee cans modeled from European metal forms in vast numbers greatly aided by the use of molds. Lastly come pieces for which the Chinese had a use but which sold abroad as ornaments or curiosities.

Seven main influences led to the creation of blanc de Chine:

  1. A long local history of ceramics manufacture.
  2. The growth of the scholars and the merchants as two important new domestic markets.
  3. The collapse, due to post-Ming dynasty civil war, of Jingdezhen, Dehua’s main competitor for decades.
  4. The desire for individuals belonging to the Buddhist, Taoist, Confucianist, and Christian faiths to possess statues of its leading figures.
  5. A newfound artistic freedom due to the collapse of the Ming dynasty.
  6. The influence of Jingdezhen potters.
  7. Vast trading relationships with Europe, America, and other Asian nations, most notably the Philippines and Japan.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade with China but it was left to the Dutch to affect the form of exports from Dehua. The Dutch East India Company was formed in 1609 but it was not until the middle of the century that the Dutch seem to have turned their attention to blanc de Chine. The Dutch took at once to the figures, as novelties which would find a ready sale in Europe, but the little winecups and the thick dishes did not please them and they set about effecting a change. Porcelain being new to Europe and cheap in China, it occurred to the traders that to reproduce in this medium those utensils in common use at home in silver at one end of the scale or in earthenware at the other would give a product cheaper than the one and easier to keep clean, and vastly superior to the other. The Dutch influence on the ware was severely utilitarian, with the exception of figure groups, which sometimes included the Dutch themselves. We do not know whether the idea originated with them or with the Chinese.

Pre-eminent among the utilitarian products of Dehua for Europe was the teapot. Tea was introduced into Europe in the seventeenth century, into England in 1657 (where it was not immediately popular, being described in that year as “a bad unworthy Indian practice”) and a way had to be found of making the beverage. The first receptacles to come over with the tea itself were undoubtedly winepots. But the kettle form of handle is not really convenient for a vessel which has to be cleared of residue through the top as well as poured through the spout, and it was not long before the standard teapot with handle at the side made its appearance. The early ones are generally small, tea itself being very expensive until the eighteenth century was well advanced. Teapots from Dehua were often fanciful, in the form of a pomegranate, a bamboo, and with plum blossom in relief, rarely plain, often of very fine quality.

The late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth saw Dehua exporting its porcelain all over the world, to Japan, the East Indies, and above all, to Europe. The classical period of the ware lasted a bare hundred years, corresponding roughly to the first century of Manchu domination, or about 1640-1740. By 1750 the glaze had changed to a uniform, much colder white which, while possessing a loveliness of its own in the pearly luminance of the better specimens, lacks for most the attraction of the richer and more varied color tones of the wares of the classical period. Also, export had largely ceased by that time, Europe having become self-sufficient in porcelain on its own account and the demand for tea-things having dropped away, particularly for plain undecorated tea-things.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dehua figures are less refined and fussier, with a greater degree of decoration, than earlier pieces. Such decorations, which fail to mask the poorer quality of the sculpting itself, include technically difficult elements like fluttering ribbons and intricate flower baskets. The nineteenth century witnessed a decline in quality. Mercantile concerns led to a substitution of technical dexterity for grace, so that the later artisans sought to dazzle the beholder with virtuosity instead of creating subtle, extraordinary works.>

When it comes to dating a piece of blanc de Chine, it can be difficult as contemporary reign marks were not used and dated pieces are rare. The unchanging output over long periods and the independence of this provincial kiln from court fashion does not offer clues by way of comparison with other porcelain products. There is therefore a prevalence among museum descriptions and exhibition and sales catalogs to attribute a piece to the "17th/18th Century." Primarily our knowledge of these ceramics comes to us from trading records, shipwrecks chemical analysis, and well-recorded European collections. This enables us to date with more than fair accuracy the bulk of the output of the classical period, which corresponded in time with the exports to Europe. This exceedingly powerful tool of dating by acquisition is unavailable in China itself, which account for the floundering of Chinese writers on the subject when it comes to dating.

The kilns are working today, very much as they always did, and are fully recovered after the hard times of World War II. Today exports consist exclusively of figure and figure groups.