The   Evolvement of  Underglaze-blue  and  Red  in  Yuan  and

                                             Ming Dynasties                        

                                                            dcl Chinese Antique Research Department




Chinese ceramic has achieved a leading status in the world of art. Throughout its evolvement, underglaze-blue and red porcelains are considered the most valuable. Much about the unique oriental quality porcelains possess would not make sense unless we understand the variations of underglaze-blue and underglaze-red introduced in Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. Their elegance and beauty are not only intriguing but also bear the distinctiveness of the era which they were being produced. Advances of craftsmanship, differences of cobalt pigment, and the diversity of decoration styles all contributed in shaping the unraveling position in the history of Chinese art and culture. Furthermore, underglaze-red porcelains represent the most skillful underglaze artifacts. Although the firing conditions of underglaze-red porcelains were discovered in Yuan dynasty, high quality underglaze-red porcelains remain rare and valuable even today. Thus, the background knowledge about manufacture and craftsmanship of underglaze-blue and underglaze-red in Yuan  and Ming dynasties are discussed in this article.


I. Underglaze-blue in Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)




Porcelains in underglaze-blue had their roots in Tang dynasty (618-907), but the golden age was set in Yuan dynasty. It was not until 1929, underglaze-blue porcelain from Yuan dynasty was noted by Mr. R. I. Hobson from Great Britain. He described a vase with elephant handles and underglaze-blue decoration of clouds and dragons which was collected by Percival David Foundation in the U.K. From there, studies of underglaze-blue porcelains from Yuan dynasty blossomed and spread out around the world. In the early 1950s, Dr. John A. Pope compared Mr. Hobson’s vase with other underglaze-blue porcelains from the National Museum of Teheran and the Topkapi Palace Museum. He then distinguished a batch of underglaze-blue porcelains from Yuan dynasty, and noted some common features with this vase. He named those underglaze-blue porcelains “Zhi-zheng Type.” Till then, underglaze-blue porcelains from Yuan dynasty had been recognized and valued by scholars and collectors of Chinese antique ceramics.


        Underglaze-blue porcelains are decorated with cobalt pigment before glazing.  The most delicate underglaze-blue porcelains were manufactured in Jingdezhen (Ching-Te-Chen) in Yuan dynasty. According to the historical record, the eighty-eighth volume of History of Yuan dynasty-ranking officers’ documentary, the imperial court established “Fuliang Ceramics Bureau” as an official ninth level rank government body in charge of ceramics manufacture in Jingdezhen in 1278. Two officers were appointed to Fuliang Ceramics Bureau. “Fuliang Ceramics Bureau” specialized in the designing and productions of imperial wares. The bureau establishment directly facilitated the booming of ceramic industry in Jingdezhen.  Several other kilns were built in Jian of Jiangxi province, Jiangshan of Zhejiang province, and Yuxi of Yuennan province for manufacturing underglaze-blue porcelains in Yuan dynasty. However, Jingdezhen housed the most kilns and was the premier production center for high quality underglaze-blue porcelains. These exquisite porcelains display a constant, gorgeous color. A quote from Jiang Qi of Yuan dynasty taken from his book entitled Tao-lun-fu (Ceramics Study); best illustrates the quality of porcelains from Jingdezhen. “There were more than three hundreds kilns in Jingdezhen. Ceramics were as immaculate as genuine jade.”




    Underglaze-blue porcelains in Yuan dynasty can be divided into “Yan-you Type” and its derivative “Zhi-zheng Type” based on differences of cobalt pigment and decoration.


A.     Yan-you Type


Yan-you type of porcelains used local pigment which came in light blue, so decorations were broad with less line works and was most commonly found on small wares. A classic example of Yan-you type wares is a tower-shape vase with underglaze-blue decoration of peony excavated from a tomb in 1319 in the Jiujiang museum’s collection in Jiangxi province. This vase shows a slightly grayish blue, which was darken in the area of deepen and ended painting. The area accumulated some small brown drops and clear brown color appeared at dark glazing area.


B.     Zhi-zheng Type


Zhi-zheng type was painted with imported pigment with vibrant color. Most decorations on large wares were complex and multi layered. The vase with elephant handles and underglaze-blue decoration of clouds and dragons in the collection of Percival David Foundation in the U.K is a classic example of Zhi-zheng type. This vase displays a dense and gorgeous blue, and visible yellowish brown or sliver iron rust spots appeared at thick glazed area.




        The early underglaze-blue porcelains in Yuan dynasty inherited the characteristics of its forefathers in Song dynasty (960-1279). Porcelains were painted roughly on light and thin clay. Small wares were the majority being produced. Local pigment used for decoration resulted in a dark grayish blue without presence of iron rust. As porcelains production progressed, both quality and quantity were greatly improved, hence became more mature. White and bluish gray Ma-cang clay was largely used with obvious air holes. Local, imported, and combination of both pigments were applied on porcelains; the result is not only gorgeous color with dense black spots but dark gray without iron rust spots. Zhi-zheng type wares are representative of this late stage of porcelain development. At this stage, manufacture of underglaze-blue porcelains has reached its peak with the emergence of high quality large wares in Jingdezhen. Imported pigments were massively applied for decoration on entire ware. Seven to nine or even ten layers were found painted on porcelains from this period. 




        An intertwined relationship connects imported pigment (Su-ma-li Blue), Jingdezhen, and underglaze-blue in Yuan dynasty. In Wang, Shi-mao’s book “Kui-tian-wai-chen,” he describes Su-ma-li Blue used imported from West Asia and was used a primary source for porcelain decoration from Xuan-de (1426-1435) to Yong-le (1403-1424) periods. Before the imported pigment became widespread and popular, most pigment used in early Yuan dynasty was manufactured locally.  According to “Ceramics record in Jingdezhen” written by Lan Pu, “Su-ma-li blue was shipped from Southeast Asia or the West.” As underglaze-blue porcelains became famous and representing ceramics from Jingdezhen, Su-ma-li blue had profound influence on underglaze-blue porcelains.



    Before Yuan dynasty, small wares were the majority of porcelain production due to the clay’s inability to withstand high firing temperature and deforms easily. Later, Kaolin or China clay better suited for porcelain manufacture was discovered in Ma village as Lan Pu claims in his book Ceramics record in Jingdezhen. Ma-cang clay (Clay from Ma-cang village) is more commonly know as Kaolin clay in the present day. It was on the edge of becoming extinct between 1573 and 1620. Researchers found that a new clay mixing technique called binary formula was invented in Yuan dynasty. This innovation pioneered on mixing porcelain stones with Kaolin clay. The improved product is much more tolerant of high temperature and deforms less easily. The downside is reduced plasticity of clay.  For this reason, large wares adopted sectioned joining which promoted high quality large underglaze-blue porcelains.


II. Underglaze-blue in Ming dynasty (1368-1644)



The development of underglaze-blue porcelains in Ming dynasty was divided into three stages according to differences of pigment. The first stage is said to take place during Yong-le (1403-1424) and Xuan-de (1426-1435) regions, when Su-ma-li Blue was still in use. The second stage was from Cheng-hua (1465-1487) to Zheng-de (1506-1521) when Ping-deng Blue was used. The third and final stage used Hui Blue during the reigns of Jia-jing (1522-1566), Long-qing (1567-1572), and Wan-li (1573-1620). 


A. The early development


        According to studies conducted by Institute of Jingdezhen Ceramic Archaeology, Su-ma-li blue was used in Yuan dynasty until Hong-wu reign (1368-1398) in early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). However, color variations of underglaze-blue porcelains from this era may be attributed to several factors including glaze differences, altered firing conditions and temperature. It is reasonable to speculate that wars may have blocked transportations of imported pigment, so local pigment was used instead. Underglaze-blue porcelains in Hong-wu reign mostly had characteristics of heavy and thick clay body, dull glaze color, blurry bluish gray tone, and dim pigment.


In Yong-le period, underglaze-blue porcelains used Su-ma-li blue. In the third volume of Pottery, it said “Imperial Porcelains made in Yong-le and Xuan-de reigns possessed the characteristics of frequently used sweet white color with orange peel effect, decorative pigment of Su-ma-li blue, and precious bright red color.” Gao Lian, the author of Zun-sheng-ba-Jian, stated “Pigment used in Xuan-de kiln was Su-bo-ni blue”. Besides, History of Ming dynasty, mentioned that eunuch Zheng He went on the voyage to the Western Ocean in 1405. He traded porcelains from Yuan and Ming dynasties, and imported pigment from Southeast and West Asia. The imported pigment was Su-ma-li blue, whose name varied in different transliterations.


Since then, the imported pigment, Su-ma-li blue, was used in Yong-le period. This pigment contains low concentration of manganese which reduced the purple and red hue in blue. When proper firing conditions were met, gorgeous sapphire porcelains were produced. Nevertheless, Su-ma-li blue also has a high concentration of iron which resulted in black spots on decorative lines. The decorative lines were diffused, blurry, and embedded in the clay body.


When Xuan-de kiln was evaluated in the Study of Antique Bronze and Ceramic Wares, Liang Tong-shu said, “Xuan-de kiln is excellent in its pigment, ware form, decoration, and inscription.” Another example in Treasures from Qing Dynasty states “Xuan-de wares are fine and thick with orange peel effect on the surface… Underglaze-blue porcelains used Su-bo-ni blue to paint dragons, phoenixes, flowers, birds, insects, fishes…etc. The decorations are complex and lovely.” 


The biggest distinction between Xuan-de and Yong-le porcelains is the penetrating spots of blue, which is obvious apparent in underglaze-blue porcelains from Xuan-de period. There were also iron rust spots scattered on the surface of ware and they looked patchy and thrifty. It was also the penetrating iron rust spots mentioned in Note of Na kiln. Many delicate and compact underglaze-blue porcelains were produced in Xuan-de and Yong-le periods. Then, large dishes and bowls were neat with lesser changeability. 



C.     The middle development


        In Cheng-hua period (1465-1487), only a few underglaze-blue porcelains were painted with Su-ma-li blue which displayed black spots. Other massively produced common vessels are well known for their graceful blue. Imported pigment (Su-ma-li blue) and local pigment (Ping-deng blue) were applied together on some wares. Ping-deng blue pigment contained low concentration of iron and high concentration of manganese. Thus, the pigment presented graceful and consistent color. According to the third volume of Pottery, “Su-ni-bo blue pigment used in Xuan-de kiln became exhausted in Cheng-hua period (1465-1487).” Su-ma-li blue was then replaced by local pigment, Ping-deng blue. Due to the low iron content in the new pigment, no black spots were formed on porcelains. Common characteristics of underglaze-blue porcelains from Cheng-hua period were thin clay body, bright white glaze, and graceful blue.


        In Hong-zhi period (1488-1505), the color of underglaze-blue was similar to Cheng-hua period. Both feature thin clay body, exquisite glaze quality, clear and bright white clay, and glassy glaze with slight green tint. Yet the glaze quality in Cheng-hua period was sleeker and smoother than Hong-zhi period. Early underglaze-blue porcelains from later Zheng-de period (1506-1521) were similar to the ones from Hong-zhi period. Porcelains in Zheng-de period were found to be less pure in color than ones from Hong-zhi period since Ping-deng blue almost ran out.  Therefore, local pigment was mixed with other pigments in late Zheng-de period which presented a grayish blue color. These porcelains have thick and heavy clay body, bluish glaze, and large number of air bubbles in the glaze.


D.     The late development


It was recorded in Note of Na kiln that “Jia-jing kiln used Hui blue, which presented dense and gorgeous color.” This confirms that Hui blue was used as pigment in Jia-jing reign (1522-1566). Hui blue pigment contains the least concentration of iron, so no black spots are seen on the underglaze-blue porcelains. On the other hand, Hui blue pigment has the highest concentration of manganese, so underglaze-blue porcelains appeared slightly red and purple. Underglaze-blue in Jia-jing period not only used Hui blue pigment, but also in combination with Shi-zi blue from Rui province. Jiangxi Da Zhi recorded Hui blue presented different colors due to different ingredients. 

In Long-qing period (1567-1572), the basic style of underglaze-blue porcelains followed Jia-jing period. Hui blue pigment was still applied on porcelains.  However, the reduced quality of almost exhausted Ma-cang clay was slightly blue, green or even yellow. Later, underglaze-blue porcelains in early Wan-li period (1573-1620) also followed Jia-jing period style, but with obvious difference in blue tones. After Jia-jing period, the amount of Hui blue pigment decreased rapidly as a result of mass production. Thus, Hui-blue pigment was applied conservatively due to reduced source. In mid Wan-li period, underglaze-blue porcelains used Zhe pigment from Zhe-jiang province. These porcelains are slightly grayish blue.


III. Color Variations of Underglaze-blue Affected by Kiln Temperature


        Formation of porcelains required proper temperature, so various firing temperature had its effects on underglaze-blue. From 1955 to 1956, a test on underglaze-blue pigment was launched by Institute of Jingdezhen Ceramic Archaeology and Institute of Metallurgy and Ceramics of Chinese Science Academy.  Some representative formula was tested at different temperatures. The result is listed below.


Colors under different firing temperature






Formula 1

Dark blue

Blackish blue

Formula 2

Dark blue

Slightly reddish and blackish blue

Formula 3

Slightly purplish dark blue

Slightly reddish and blackish blue

Formula 4

Dark blue

Blackish blue

Formula 5

Slightly purplish dark blue

Blackish blue

Formula I

Dark blue

Blackish blue

Formula II

Dark blue

Blue with purplish black


                (Samples fired at 1280 were tested in a large firewood kiln in Jingdezhen while samples fired at 1350 were tested in a small coal kiln in the Institute of Metallurgy and Ceramics of Chinese Science Academy in Shanghai.)



IV. Underglaze-red


        Underglaze-red was an important innovative technique invented in Jingdezhen in Yuan dynasty. The molding process was very much the same as underglaze-blue.  Underglaze-red was decorated with copper red pigment on white clay body before glazing. 


        The development of underglaze-red was much later in comparison with underglaze-blue in Yuan dynasty. Successful manufacture of underglaze-red porcelains requires not only appropriate firing conditions, but also perfect copper proportion and enough enzymes in the glaze. During the firing process, the sensitive nature of copper red pigment has led to imperfect coloration and undesirable smears of line works. Copper becomes rather unstable and easily volatilizes as temperature rises over 1250. High concentration of copper results in blackish red color, and low firing temperature produces gray. Thus, pure and bright red underglaze-red porcelains are rare and extremely valuable. For instance, a covered jar with underglaze-red decoration in Wu county of Jiangsu province is praised as the highest achievement in underglaze-red porcelains from Yuan dynasty for its gorgeous red. This jar was ornamented with three sets of decorations on the body and a white dragon on red belly.


        In Ming dynasty, most underglaze-red porcelains are grayish red in Hong-wu period. An imperial roof tile made of white porcelain unearthed at the Palace Museum in Nanjing from Hong-wu period was glazed with dark and grayish red glaze. It indicates that the techniques of manufacturing underglaze-red porcelains were immature in early Ming dynasty. After Yong-le and Xuan-de periods, some gorgeous ruby wares were made despite the fact that temperature control and glaze proportion were perfected. The following statement in Zun-sheng-ba-Jian remarks the maturity of underglaze-red porcelains, “A cup with underglaze-red decoration of fishbone was made in Xuan-de period. Its ruby pigment decorated a fish’s shape over white clay body. The glittering and gorgeous red was superior to purplish black.” After the mid Ming dynasty, some techniques were lost and few underglaze-red wares were made, most of which are small wares with grayish color. Only wares from Cheng-hua period with their bright and intense red were able to compete with wares from Yong-le and Xuan-de periods. In late Ming dynasty, underglaze-red wares were only manufactured in imperial kilns. Small quantities of small wares were made in common kilns.

        Until Kang-xi reign (1661-1722) of Qing dynasty, the production of underglaze-red porcelains was revived with breaks through to a higher level.  Commonly speaking, the firing techniques and consistency of coloration were mastered. In Yong-zheng (1723-1736) and Qian-long (1736-1795) periods, bright and gorgeous underglaze-red wares with multi layer decorations had reached its peak, and was never surpassed.




V. Reference:


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3.         Liu, Ru-shui. Appreciation of China, Taipei: Shuchuan, Aug. 2004.

4.          Ma, Xi-gui. Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, Shanghai: Shanghai Gu Ji, 1999.

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6.         Lan Pu/ Zheng, Ting-gui. Pottery Record of Ching-Te-Cheng, Shandong: Hua-bao, 2004.

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9.         Li, Hui-bing. Appraisement Foundations of Chinese Porcelain, Beijing: Forbidden City, 2001.

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11.    Chen, Qing-guang. “Covered jar with underglaze-red decoration of dragon from Yuan dynasty”. The National Palace Museum Monthly of Chinese Art No.4, Vol. 1, Issue 4. Taipei: Yu-tai, Jul.1983, 90-91.

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