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Collecting guide: Ming-dynasty art and furniture

An introduction to the exceptionally varied artistic production of this golden age of Chinese culture, from its ceramics and metalware to painting and calligraphy. Illustrated with forthcoming lots and others previously sold at Christie’s

Founded by Zhu Yuanzhang (later known as the Hongwu Emperor), China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was the last dynasty ruled by ethnic Han Chinese. With the ousting of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and the return of indigenous Chinese leadership came the introduction of artistic themes determined by the imperial courts. Birds, flowers and landscapes were among the motifs of choice taken up by painters who were urged to work in a realistic, narrative style that recalled the output of the 12th-13th century Southern Song dynasty. 

Calligraphy flourished, as did the work of scholar-painters who, for the first time, were encouraged to add something of their own personalities to their art. Interaction with foreign cultures gave rise to new designs, such as those on blue-and-white porcelain and objects in enamel. Considered a golden age of Chinese furniture production, the period was also known for its exquisite ceramics, in addition to works in metal, lacquer and textiles.

Here we take a look at the range and depth of Ming-dynasty artistic production, illustrated with 11 key pieces.

1. The Ming imperial kilns were established in the Hongwu period (1368-98). But as a result of a disruption of international trade, supplies of high-grade Middle Eastern cobalt dried up. Consequently, the Hongwu reign is the only one in the Ming dynasty during which copper was the chief colourant on imperial porcelain.

A rare copper-red decorated bracket-lobed cup stand, Hongwu period (1368-1398). 7⅞  in (20  cm)  diam, Japanese wood box. This lot was offered in Important Ming Imperial Works of Art from The Le Cong Tang Collection Evening Sale on 27 November 2017  at Christie’s in Hong Kong, and sold for HKD 2,500,000

A rare copper-red decorated bracket-lobed cup stand, Hongwu period (1368-1398). 7⅞ in (20 cm) diam, Japanese wood box. This lot was offered in Important Ming Imperial Works of Art from The Le Cong Tang Collection Evening Sale on 27 November 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, and sold for HKD 2,500,000

Copper produces a red colour when fired in the right conditions, but is far more difficult to control than cobalt, which produces a blue colour. The cup stand above is an example of a successfully-fired underglaze red decoration. The oval chrysanthemum flowers that make up the main design are characteristic of the Hongwu period.

2. The Yongle reign (1403-24) was one of the most dynamic in Chinese history. This is reflected in the quality and diversity of artworks produced to imperial order in this period.

A highly important imperial embroidered silk thangka, Yongle six-character presentation mark and of the period (1402-24). 132 x 84  in (335.3 x 213.4  cm). Sold for HK$348,440,000 on 26 November 2014 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A highly important imperial embroidered silk thangka, Yongle six-character presentation mark and of the period (1402-24). 132 x 84 in (335.3 x 213.4 cm). Sold for HK$348,440,000 on 26 November 2014 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Imperial porcelain began to reflect the influence of foreign cultures and religions, especially that of Islam, of which the blue and white basin above is an example. Its distinctive form, previously unknown in China, was made in metal and glass in Egypt and Syria from about the 13th century onward.

3. The Yongle Emperor (who reigned from 1402 to 1424) was a fervent Buddhist. This was reflected in the numerous ceramics of the period that feature Buddhist references, or that are decorated with Buddhist motifs.

A very rare early Ming gilt-bronze censer, Ming dynasty, 15th century. 7¾  in (19.7  cm) across the handles. Sold for HK$475,000 on 1 June 2011  at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A very rare early Ming gilt-bronze censer, Ming dynasty, 15th century. 7¾ in (19.7 cm) across the handles. Sold for HK$475,000 on 1 June 2011 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The succeeding Xuande Emperor was equally devout: during his reign, record numbers of Tibetan lamas came to reside in the monasteries in the Chinese capital. The Yongle and Xuande emperors commissioned gilt bronzes, images and ritual objects for personal religious practice, and as gifts for the Tibetan emissaries whose Vajrayana Buddhism they followed.

4. In the Yongle period, imperial workshops excelled in the production of carved cinnabar-red lacquer. The box and cover below is a fine example of the almost three-dimensional quality of the lacquer of the period. The blooms are shown from different angles and in different stages of development; the leaves are dense and lush. On the sides are other flower species, including lotus, chrysanthemum and camellia.

A superbly carved cinnabar lacquer box and cover, Yongle incised six-character mark and of the period (1402-1425). 10½ in (26.5 cm) diam, Japanese wood box. This lot was offered in Important Ming Imperial Works of Art from The Le Cong Tang Collection Evening Sale on 27 November 2017  at Christie’s in Hong Kong and sold for HKD 8,740,000
A superbly carved cinnabar lacquer box and cover, Yongle incised six-character mark and of the period (1402-1425). 10½ in (26.5 cm) diam, Japanese wood box. This lot was offered in Important Ming Imperial Works of Art from The Le Cong Tang Collection Evening Sale on 27 November 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong and sold for HKD 8,740,000

Whereas only a minute proportion of Yongle imperial porcelain featured a reign mark, lacquer that met the imperial standard regularly included one. Here the Yongle mark is inscribed, as was typical, in small characters in a single column at the side of the base.

5. New glazes were developed in the early 15th century, including the imperial yellow glaze. The use of the imperial yellow colour on any material was restricted to the emperor.

A fine and extremely rare yellow-enamelled bowl, Xuande incised six-character mark within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435). 6  in (15.2  cm)  diam. Sold for HK$1,670,000 on 25 October 1993 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A fine and extremely rare yellow-enamelled bowl, Xuande incised six-character mark within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435). 6 in (15.2 cm) diam. Sold for HK$1,670,000 on 25 October 1993 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

This restriction was especially relevant to textiles and porcelain. The above Xuande-period (1426-1435) inverted bell-shaped enamelled bowl features this imperial yellow glaze — a rare combination of form and colour.

6. In the history of Chinese ceramics, the Xuande period is generally considered the high point of blue-and-white porcelain production. This was due to a combination of enthusiastic imperial patronage, technical ingenuity and the finest artistry.

A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). 19⅛  in (48.5  cm) high. Sold for HK$158,040,000 on 30 May 2016  at Christie’s in Convention Hall

A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). 19⅛ in (48.5 cm) high. Sold for HK$158,040,000 on 30 May 2016 at Christie’s in Convention Hall

Xuande-period porcelains were low in calcium and high in potassium, which made them especially translucent. The glaze was rich and lustrous, while the underglaze decoration demonstrated complete mastery of painting in cobalt on porcelain. Many connoisseurs consider the painting of dragons on Xuande imperial porcelain to be the finest in the history of Chinese porcelain.

7. In Chinese, the term wucai  means ‘five colours’. On porcelain, the vivid wucai  colour scheme reached its peak in the Jiajing period (1522-66) when the overglaze colours — yellow, iron-red and green, with black outlines — were used in combination with underglaze blue.

Among the various forms and sizes of wucai  porcelain made for the court, the jar and cover represents the largest and most ambitious type. The design on the jar above reflects the Jiajing Emperor’s strong Daoist beliefs. In Daosim, fish symbolise surplus and wealth. The jar also features eight fish — eight being an auspicious number in Chinese culture — while the cover has four. Added together, they possibly represent the ‘12 earthly branches’ — a Chinese system for the calculation of time.

8. The subject of children at play was favoured by the Jiajing Emperor. On the jar below, eight boys are at play with various toys, including a hobby horse and a model pagoda.

A very rare wucai ‘boys’ jar, Jiajing six-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566). 5½  in (14  cm) high, Japanese wood box. This lot was offered in Important Ming Imperial Works of Art from The Le Cong Tang Collection Evening Sale on 27 November 2017  at Christie’s in Hong Kong and sold for HKD 4,420,000

A very rare wucai ‘boys’ jar, Jiajing six-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566). 5½ in (14 cm) high, Japanese wood box. This lot was offered in Important Ming Imperial Works of Art from The Le Cong Tang Collection Evening Sale on 27 November 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong and sold for HKD 4,420,000

While the subject of boys at play was very popular on imperial Jiajing porcelain, those decorated in the richer wucai  palette are very rare. The design continued into the Wanli period (1572-1620).

9. The red-and-yellow combination is a distinctive Jiajing colour scheme. Three firings were required to achieve this result: first at around 1300°C for clear-glazed porcelain, then at a lower temperature for the yellow overglaze enamel, and finally at a still lower temperature for the black outlines and the iron-red background.

An exceptional and rare red and yellow-enamelled ‘dragon’ jar, Jiajing six-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566). 5¾  in (13.7  cm) high, Japanese wood box. Sold for HK$1,284,100 on 28 October 2002 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

An exceptional and rare red and yellow-enamelled ‘dragon’ jar, Jiajing six-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566). 5¾ in (13.7 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Sold for HK$1,284,100 on 28 October 2002 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The process was laborious and required meticulous attention to detail, contributing to the high failure rate and the rarity of these jars.

10. The mid- to late-Ming dynasty witnessed the spread of the Neo-Confucianist philosophy known as the School of Mind, introduced by Wang Shouren. According to this paradigm, the material world was the extension of a single ‘principle’ that existed in human consciousness.

Wang Shouren (1472-1528), Correspondence. Each leaf measures 28 x 17.5  cm (11 x 6⅞  in). This lot was offered in Court, Studio, Atelier Chinese Works of Art and Paintings from The Ming Dynasty Evening Sale on 27 November 2017  at Christie’s in Hong Kong and sold for HKD 3,940,000

Wang Shouren (1472-1528), Correspondence. Each leaf measures 28 x 17.5 cm (11 x 6⅞ in). This lot was offered in Court, Studio, Atelier Chinese Works of Art and Paintings from The Ming Dynasty Evening Sale on 27 November 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong and sold for HKD 3,940,000

This philosophy promoted an inward exploration of thought, and a new aesthetic that emphasised self-expression. A letter written by Wang discussing the School of Mind reflects the philosophical transformation experienced by the literati during this period.

11. Driven by their frustration with officialdom, while at the same time enjoying unprecedented material wealth, the literati of the mid- to late-Ming-era devoted their energy to painting, calligraphy and poetry.

Artists such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Zhu Yunming (1460-1526) became the tastemakers of the day.

12. Among their successors, Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) was one of the most visually exciting artists of his time. Born in Zhejiang, Chen was extraordinary in his creativity. He is most celebrated for his paintings of vividly coloured flowers and birds, as well as highly stylised figures.

Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), Insects and Flowers. Album of eight leaves, ink and colour on silk. Each 20 x 13.4 cm (7 ⅞ x 5 ¼ in). Sold for HK$6,660,000 on 28 November 2016 at Christies in Hong Kong

Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), Insects and Flowers. Album of eight leaves, ink and colour on silk. Each 20 x 13.4 cm (7 ⅞ x 5 ¼ in). Sold for HK$6,660,000 on 28 November 2016 at Christie's in Hong Kong

Chen left the court shortly after the fall of the Ming dynasty, and died in 1652 at the age of 54. Chen’s calligraphy left a lasting impact on artists such as Yun Shouping (1633-1690), Ren Xiong (1820-1857), Ren Xun (1835-1893), Yu Fei’an (1888-1959) and Xie Zhiliu (1910-1997).

13. The literati influenced the design of everyday objects, particularly furniture for the scholar’s studio.

An extremely rare and important pair of huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, quanyi, Ming dynasty, 17th century. Each 26¾  in (68  cm) wide, 21  in (53.3  cm) deep, 36  in (91.5  cm) high. Sold for £908,750 on 7 November 2017  at Christie’s in London

An extremely rare and important pair of huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, quanyi, Ming dynasty, 17th century. Each 26¾ in (68 cm) wide, 21 in (53.3 cm) deep, 36 in (91.5 cm) high. Sold for £908,750 on 7 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

A high-water mark in Chinese furniture production, Ming-era tables and chairs made of highly-prized, slow-growing huanghuali  wood reflect the elegant proportions and graceful lines of the literati style.