This particularly rare and elegant white-glazed meiping dates to the Yongle reign (AD 1403-25). Such was the Yongle Emperor's admiration of white porcelain that excavations at the site of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen suggest that more than 90 of the porcelains made there during his reign appear to have been white wares. It was during the Yongle reign that the famous tianbai or 'sweet white' glaze, seen on the current vase, was developed. This glaze has been admired by connoisseurs ever since for its soft, jade-like, appearance, which so perfectly complements the skilful potting and pure white porcelain body characteristic of this period. The tianbai glaze was made almost entirely of 'glaze stone' with little or no 'glaze ash' (burned limestone), and it therefore contains less calcium carbonate than the other Jingdezhen 'white' glazes. The reduction of calcium carbonate has the effect of making the fired glaze appear whiter. The tianbai glaze can perhaps be seen as the ultimate achievement of the Jingdezhen potters' experimentation with glaze stone/glaze ash balances, which had produced such differing glazes as qingbai; the glaze used with underglaze blue decoration; and the so-called Shufu glaze, largely through adjustments to the calcium carbonate content of the constituents.
The Yongle emperor's desire for white porcelain was undoubtedly due in part to his enthusiasm for Tibetan Buddhism, but may also be linked to the fact that when he was still a prince, his counsellor Yao Guangxiao suggested that he would 'put a white hat on his rank'. This was a subtle reference to the character for emperor, huang, which is made up of the character for white bai above the character for prince, wang. It was a bold suggestion, since Prince Yan was not the heir apparent. Yongle also appears to have had a genuine aesthetic appreciation for the color white, since the exterior walls of the famous 'Porcelain Pagoda' at the Bao'ensi, built in honor of his deceased parents, are covered with white-glazed bricks. This is extremely rare for a Chinese-style multi-eaved pagoda. His appreciation of pure white porcelain is made clear by his rejection of jade tribute bowls sent to him from the Islamic West in AD 1406, which he commanded to be returned with the comment: "The Chinese porcelain that I use everyday is pure and translucent, and it pleases me greatly. There is no need to use jade bowls." See Liu Xinyuan, Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Urban Council Hong Kong, 1989, p. 73. However, on another occasion the emperor returned other costly gifts and kept only some white jade. This may further explain his fondness for the tianbai glaze, which has a soft unctuous feel, reminiscent of fine white jade.
Few early 15th century vases of this 'sweet white' type have survived, although a very slightly larger meiping was excavated in 1983 from the early Yongle stratum at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, pp. 264-5, no. 101. The early Yongle excavated 'sweet white' meiping is undecorated, however, the current vase is subtly enhanced with anhua or secret decoration. Such decoration is almost invisible from a distance, but was intended to be appreciated only by those fortunate enough to examine the piece at close quarters. Incised anhua decoration is a feature of a number of fine white porcelains made for the Yongle court. It appears, for example, on a tianbai 'monk's cap' ewer excavated at the imperial kilns in 1983, illustrated ibid., pp. 260-1, no. 99. In the case of the current vase a finely-incised cloud-collar band emphasizes the roundness of the shoulders, while the major band around the body has blossoming peony sprays, and a classic scroll encircles the foot. The present vase is very similar in form, glaze, and style of decoration to two slightly smaller 'sweet white' Yongle vases; one in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, (Fig. 1), illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 37 - Monochrome Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 108, no. 99; the other in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum, Monochrome Ware of the Ming Dynasty - Book I, Hong Kong, 1968, p. 34, pls. 1a-d. Both vases from the Palace collections share with the current vase three bands of anhua incised decoration. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts also has a smaller Yongle 'sweet white' meiping vase in its collection, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, vol. 10, Tokyo/New York/San Francisco, 1980, no. 47. This too has incised decoration, but with a lotus scroll as the main decorative band. All four vases also have a more graceful, slender meiping form than that seen on some larger Yongle meiping decorated in underglaze blue, like the example in the Palace Museum illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 30, no. 28. Indeed it has been noted by several scholars that the white porcelains of the early 15th century often have particularly beautiful shapes, perhaps because the eye of the viewer is drawn first to their form, rather than any decoration.