Glossary of Chinese ceramics: wucai
With this post I initiate a new series that will run here at 7 junipers intermittently over the next few months (as I find time to work on it). The goal of the series is to create a glossary of terms relating to Chinese ceramics and their glazes. The variety of glazes in traditional Chinese ceramics can cause confusion, which is compounded by an equal variety of foreign terms used to describe them.
I believe, therefore, that the best approach is to use the native terminology: words such as dehua rather than blanc de chine and qinghua rather than blue-and-white, for example.
The glossary will not go into great depth on any of the subjects but instead will aim at providing an introduction and a basis for further investigation. Perhaps it will be of some use to collectors or owners of traditional Chinese ceramics.
Let’s begin with wucai, a kind of ware that was especially popular in the early and middle Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Chinese words can be translated literally as “five colors,” but in fact the number of colors can vary — the phrase “five colors” is applied loosely to convey the impression of multiple colors on such objects.
To produce wucai ware an underglaze of cobalt blue was laid down, and then three or more lower-fired, fairly pale, transparent enamels were painted on top of the glaze. This was a laborious process that required a second firing. The overglaze colors were applied in more or less equal proportions so that no one color dominated.
Wucai colors tend to be bright and flat (rather than gradated). Ming wucai typically combines underglaze blue with red and yellow or red and green. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) a more varied palette was developed. The use of underglaze blue gradually gave way to blue overglaze enamel, the enamel colors became more opaque (yielding stronger yellows and greens), and underglaze blue was used as an outline for solid opaque enamel masses of color. Qing dynasty wucai may also employ black to define outlines, and may include gold decoration.
Shown is a covered jar decorated with goldfish and aquatic plants, Ming dynasty, reign of the Jiajing emperor (1522-1566). Porcelain with overlay enamels, H: 46 cm. National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing.
Fish appear frequently as a decorative motif in Chinese art. The Chinese word for “fish” (yu) is a pun for “abundance” (yu), so fish are an common auspicious symbol in Chinese art.