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Chinese porcelain decoration: underglaze blue and red

The earliest blue-and-white ware found to date are temple vases inscribed 1351. These display a competence which indicate that the underglaze-painting technique was well-established by that time, probably originating in the second quarter of the fourteenth century. Cobalt blue was imported from Iran, probably in cake form. It was ground into a pigment, which was painted directly onto the leather-hard porcelain body. The piece was then glazed and fired. 'Blue-and-white' porcelain was used in temples and occasionally in burials within China, but most of the products of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) appear to have been exported.

The colour on early underglaze red wares is often grey, as firing affected the copper pigment. In the late fourteenth century, however, it seems that more underglaze red than blue was produced, since the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, Hongwu (reigned 1368-98), banned foreign trade, and cobalt was very difficult to obtain. Later domestic sources of cobalt were discovered.

Trade remained an essential part of blue-and-white porcelain production in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1644-1911). Europe, Japan and South-east Asia were important export markets. Vessels, with numerous bands of decoration, were painted with Chinese motifs, such as dragons, waves and floral scrolls. The potters of Jingdezhen also produced wares to satisfy the demands of the Middle Eastern market. Large dishes were densely decorated with geometric patterns inspired by Islamic metalwork or architectural decoration.

Blue-and-white porcelain was particularly admired by the Imperial court, and it is interesting to trace the shapes and motifs preferred by different emperors, many of whom ordered huge quantities of porcelain from the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.