The Search for Decorative Patterns: A Daoist Emperor’s Influence on Porcelain Production
The color scheme and image endorsed by the Ming court for use in rituals, as well as their symbolic representation of the imperial household, were clear and specific. Ascending the throne not as an immediate descendant of the previous ruler, the Shizong emperor (born Zhu Houcong) was determined to reinforce the dictated provisions of ceremonial and etiquette to uphold his imperial legitimacy during the Jiajing reign (1522-1566). The Museum’s collection of Jiajing ceramics, including wares in monochrome glazes and those decorated with dragon patterns, is a manifestation of the Ming court’s ritual practices of worshipping Heaven and ancestors as well as the reverence held for imperial honor and glory; it is also illustrative of the innovation in glaze colors and design variations arrived at during the period. Hinting at the emperor’s deliberate intention of claiming the succession to the throne through descent, the glaze coloring and decorative patterns of the Jiajing wucai ware are clearly derived from those of the ceramics of the Chenghua reign (1464-1487). The patterns symbolizing longevity and immortality, on the other hand, come from the Jiajing emperor’s obsession with Daoist beliefs, which also popularized the general use of auspicious symbols and decorations.
This exhibition aims to examine history through the lens of ceramic evidence. Based on a detailed categorization of the forms and patterns of the Museum’s Jiajing porcelain collection, it offers an overview of the extent of impact of imperial rites and the emperor’s preferences on the design and production of ceramic wares. The three sections are to address the regulation of court ceremonies and rituals, the proclamation of imperial legitimacy, and the pursuit of eternal life, respectively.
The Regulation of Court Ceremonies and Rituals
The court ceremonial of the Ming dynasty dictates the use of porcelain for ritual wares. When worshipping Heaven and Earth, sun and moon, as well as the four mythological guardian creatures during the Jiajing reign, monochrome wares in blue, yellow, red, and white glazes were employed. Rendered in the forms of bowls, dishes, plates, and urns for everyday use, the wares all exhibit pure and uniformed tones in glazing, and the most common decoration on the surface is the incised dragon pattern. The porcelain intended for imperial use, on the other hand, takes on the dragon as the pattern to symbolize majestic splendor. The dragon often features an upturned nose, front-staring eyes, and an honest impression, with a slender and elongated body connecting five claws in the shape of iron rods. The composition demonstrates intriguing decorative flavors.
The Proclamation of Imperial Legitimacy
When commissioning the production of imperial porcelain, the Ming court would first determine the form, style, and quantity; the official kilns in Jingdezhen would then set about the manufacturing as prescribed. The polychrome wares of the Jiajing reign is a celebration of red, green, yellow, and purple glazes, with some demonstrating intense contrast while others introducing rich vibrant tones. The volume of production during the Jiajing reign was far greater than that of previous periods, ushering in a phase of sophisticated glamor in the development of polychrome ware. To reinforce the impression of his legitimate succession, the emperor’s production of wucai wares was largely in line with those from the Chenghua period, insofar as the decorative style was concerned. While the wucai vessels of the Jiajing reign do not exhibit the same elegance, they have nonetheless brought forth an intricate yet luxurious style that is unique in its own right.
The Pursuit of Eternal Life
A fervent patron of Daoist thought, the Jiajing emperor was keen on exploring measures to further extend and enhance longevity, and erecting altars for the performance of rituals. Ceramic wares executed in underglaze blue in this vein are rich in such auspicious patterns as the eight trigrams, lingzhi fungus, tortoise and crane, and the eight immortals. They are even adorned with prayer text messages, including Guotai Minan (contented people living in a state at peace), Yongbao Wannien (enjoying eternal peace and health), and Wanshou (eternal longevity), as well as more worldly images, e.g., literati in a landscapes, birds hovering among flowers, the spring coming in full form, and children at play. Rendered in different levels of intensity in brush movement and of density in pictorial composition, these elements are combined to create a wide array of images of auspicious implication.