Painted porcelain tea sets, after the mid-Ming Dynasty, had achieved unprecedented accomplishments. Tea sets became more refined, and the mastery of the properties of painted materials by artisans reached new levels. Each historical period of painted porcelain tea sets in the Ming and Qing Dynasties had its own distinct characteristics. For instance, in the early Ming Dynasty, the custom of tea drinking was in a phase of transition and transformation. Therefore, the shapes and painted styles of tea sets still retained the residual influences of the Song and Yuan Dynasties. From the surviving artifacts, it can be seen that the types of utensils for brewing loose tea had not yet become standardized. The decorative techniques on utensils continued to use the Yuan Dynasty technique of small brushstrokes with dense and vivid colors, resulting in a simple and unadorned painting style that could not fully reflect the cultural and artistic characteristics of the Ming Dynasty. However, after the mid-Ming Dynasty, there were significant changes in the shapes and craftsmanship of tea sets. The types of tea sets used for brewing loose tea became standardized. The decorative patterns and painting styles on painted porcelain tea sets started to move away from the complexity of the Yuan and early Ming periods towards simplicity.

Tea sets, as both material and spiritual cultural consumer goods, have been influenced by the aesthetic consciousness of the ruling class and literati in every period. For example, during the reigns of the Ming emperors Jiajing (45 years, 1522-1566) and Wanli (48 years, 1573-1620), both of whom favored Daoist philosophy, the patterns and decorations on porcelain tea sets of this period reflected Daoist elements. Decorations such as the Eight Treasures, Eight Trigrams, clouds and cranes, the Eight Immortals, and Laozi expounding on the scriptures were common. The characteristics of tea sets vary across different periods, yet each distinctly reflects the traits of its era. Thus, the painted patterns on tea sets allow people today to deeply understand the culture of different times and the social life of people in various periods. The decorative themes and content on Ming and Qing painted porcelain tea sets are rich and diverse, combining practicality and aesthetics.

The Content And Artistic Expression Forms Of Painted Porcelain Decorations

The patterns on painted porcelain tea sets from the Ming and Qing dynasties were all-encompassing, with profound auspicious meanings, reflecting social and cultural phenomena and consistently conveying celebratory connotations. The themes and content of the porcelain tea set decorations were broad; historical figures alone constituted a large proportion, along with children at play, mythological figures, literary characters, and Western figures, all bearing the distinct imprint of the times. Artistic techniques such as homophony, symbolism, and metaphor were often used to imply auspiciousness, reflecting people's good wishes and the social life and customs of the Ming and Qing periods.

Secondly, tea sets painted with natural landscapes mostly featured small landscape scenes, which were fresh, distant, and thought-provoking, often executed with a few bold strokes. The animal motifs on tea sets included various rare birds and exotic beasts, such as lions, seahorses, qilins, dragons, phoenixes, deer, cranes, as well as geese, swans, sparrows, fish, insects, bees, and butterflies. Any beautiful flowers and fruits could be used to decorate porcelain tea sets, such as peonies, lotuses, chrysanthemums, plum blossoms, the Three Friends of Winter (pine, bamboo, and plum), lingzhi mushrooms, various melons, and algae.

The decorations on painted porcelain tea sets were often depicted with patterned designs, and the range of subjects for these patterns was very rich. Examples include the Eight Treasures (wheel, conch, umbrella, fan, flower, vase, fish, and endless knot), ruyi clouds, river plants, flames, precious pearls, tribute offerings, fangsheng, water patterns, and symbols with strong Daoist cultural connotations. Common border patterns included the banana leaf pattern with upright and drooping leaves, lotus patterns with upright and overlapping lotus, as well as scroll patterns and thunder patterns. Various twining flower patterns were even more commonly used subjects. Characters were also used as decorative motifs. In addition to using Chinese characters written in regular, cursive, clerical, and seal scripts to express auspicious phrases, single characters like "fortune," "longevity," and "happiness" were also used, as well as texts in Mongolian, Tibetan, Hui, and other minority languages. These various decorative patterns were sometimes combined in many variations. For tea bowls, lids, and cups, paintings were often on the outer walls, with the inner walls showing the texture and glaze color of the porcelain body, or the inner bottom and foot parts decorated to enrich the tea-drinking experience.

These porcelain paintings, especially in terms of human figures, best demonstrated the style of painted porcelain, with skilled lines and very individualized characters that could depict their identities and personalities. The postures of the figures in the paintings were varied and lively, with concise and powerful lines that were very fluid. In animal depictions, the distinct characteristics of various animals were vividly captured. The simple and strong lines were extremely smooth. Bird-and-flower paintings were extensively used to decorate tea sets, all painted with much charm and depicted with great detail. The compositions were light and cheerful, giving a sense of freshness, clarity, and joy.

In terms of pattern decoration, the application of textual patterns on porcelain was quite common. However, the meanings of the characters had long changed, and the text served decorative purposes, becoming more pattern-like and used as the main theme of the decoration. For instance, the "longevity" character pattern. Text on tea sets was mostly written at the bottom of the objects, and sometimes on the outer walls, often conveying auspicious phrases such as "fine vessel of eternal spring," "fine vessel of wealth," "superior vessel," "fine vessel of heavenly blessings," "fine vessel of the pavilion," "fine vessel of the jade hall," "beautiful vessel of the jade hall," "clear breeze and bright moon," "long life of a hundred years," "long life and wealth," "first place in the imperial examination," etc. Single characters like "play," "jade," "fortune," "longevity," "happiness," "elegance," "integrity," were also common.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the ceramic industry in Jingdezhen flourished, and tea sets produced by folk kilns often bore studio names, akin to modern commercial branding where products are stamped with trademarks. For example, Boguzhai, Baixiangzhai, Zhilanzhai, and so on. Additionally, some tea sets were inscribed with poems or titles based on the imagery depicted. Some inscriptions on tea sets were hastily written, making them difficult to decipher, reflecting the social customs of the time. Official kilns often produced porcelain tea sets with meticulously crafted inscriptions, similar to the earnest inscriptions of the manufacturing year found on the bottoms of items, such as "Made in a certain year of the Ming dynasty" or "Made in a certain year of the Qing dynasty." This practice of recording the manufacturing year of porcelain tea sets was also often imitated by folk kilns during the Qing dynasty, albeit with hastily written characters.

As for the decorative patterns on porcelain tea sets, intertwined floral patterns were common, featuring various motifs such as chrysanthemums, roses, morning glories, lilies, peonies, lotuses, grapes, bamboo leaves, lingzhi mushrooms, gourds, and pomegranates. These patterns, often depicted in paired continuous branches, were exquisitely beautiful. In the Song dynasty, porcelain already featured extensive depictions of intertwined floral patterns using techniques like carving, engraving, and printing. The Ming and Qing dynasties saw a rich variety of intertwined floral patterns on porcelain tea sets. These patterns not only adorned porcelain tea sets but were also found in other art forms such as silk fabrics, lacquerware, furniture, architectural paintings, and carvings, showcasing a consistent motif across various mediums. The evolution of intertwined floral patterns during the Ming and Qing dynasties gradually embodied the concept of "meaning in patterns." For example, intertwined patterns featuring lingzhi mushrooms and bamboo symbolized "wishing for longevity" due to the homophony of the word "bamboo" with the word "blessing." Similarly, patterns like the cloud and bat motif on blue-and-white porcelain teapots expressed the pursuit of happiness, as the homophony of the word "bat" with "fortune" reflects people's aspirations for good fortune.

The thematic content of the paintings on porcelain tea sets reflected the ethics, thoughts, psychology, and folk customs of Ming and Qing society. Drawn from life, these paintings reflected people's aspirations for a better life. With superb painting techniques, the artistic style captured the spirit of the times. Whether it was blue-and-white porcelain or polychrome porcelain, the thematic content and painting techniques were consistent. The painting style fully exploited the expressive forms of traditional Chinese painting since the Song and Yuan dynasties, including meticulous representation and a combination of detailed and expressive brushwork. These painting techniques were excellently inherited and utilized in the production of painted porcelain, resulting in lively and whimsical depictions on tea sets.

In terms of artistic expression, painted porcelain tea sets, primarily produced in Jingdezhen, used painting as decoration. Porcelain painting achieved effects akin to paper painting, featuring either plain outlined patterns with flat color blocks or creating a sense of depth through washes and blends. The painted surfaces of utensils differed from paper surfaces, as the vessels possessed volume and spatial extension. This alteration in perception allowed viewers to observe the painted decoration from multiple perspectives. Painted porcelain exhibited vivid artistic expression and fine craftsmanship, garnering considerable fame. From the illustrations in this book, one can roughly discern that the artistic expression of painted porcelain is consistent with the style of ancient Chinese painting. The tradition of painted porcelain tea sets in China originated in the Tang and Song dynasties, developed through the Yuan dynasty and early Ming dynasty, and by the mid-Ming dynasty, painting techniques had matured, achieving mastery over various pigment properties. Porcelain tea sets fired in Jingdezhen during the Ming and Qing dynasties featured simple and elegant shapes, free and bold painting, stable colors, and plain forms, echoing the aesthetic preferences of literati painting since the Song dynasty. The high level of painted porcelain tea sets during the Ming and Qing dynasties can be attributed to the following reasons:

Firstly, it is inseparable from the development of painting on paper at the time. Ancient Chinese painting styles underwent changes during the Song dynasty, with the emergence of a concise and sparse painting style represented by artists like Ma Yuan and Xia Gui. This painting style evolved through the Yuan dynasty and was further developed by Ming dynasty painters such as Shen Zhou, Lin Liang, Wu Wei, Dai Jin, and Xu Wei, reaching its peak with artists like Zhu Da (Bada Shanren) and Daoji (Shitao) at the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty. Literati painting emphasized depicting the spiritual characteristics of objects rather than focusing on their appearance and details. In terms of technique, it transitioned from meticulous and elaborate court painting to a more expressive and simple style. The painting on porcelain tea sets during the Ming and Qing dynasties bore similarities in subject matter, content, and painting techniques to the painting schools of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Particularly, porcelain tea sets produced by folk kilns served as commodities for the general public, needing to satisfy the aesthetic consensus of the broader society, thus showcasing this characteristic more prominently.

Secondly, it was the meticulous division of labor in the production of painted porcelain tea sets by artisans, which was closely integrated with production practices and conditions. According to ceramic literature, the production of a single painted porcelain item involved 72 processes, from quarrying and refining clay to firing in the kiln. Even in the painting of porcelain, tasks such as drawing and coloring were divided among specialized individuals. This organizational and management structure undoubtedly led to the specialization of painted porcelain tea set production, promoting the advancement of painting techniques. Zhu Yan's "Taoshuo," quoting Tang Ying's "Tao Yezhongshuo" from the Qing dynasty, states: "Painters learn to paint but not to dye, dyers learn to dye but not to paint, hence their hands are one, their hearts are not divided." Even today, Jingdezhen's kilns still have detailed professional division of labor. There are specialists for kneading clay, throwing pots, trimming pots, and so forth. There are outline painters, color fillers, calligraphers, glaze mixers, glazers, and even specific individuals for transporting clay bodies. Firing and unloading kilns are also handled by specialists. Market demand necessitates mass production of porcelain tea sets, leading to the establishment of specialized division of labor processes and enhancing the proficiency of painting techniques.

The Symbolism And Meaning Of Painted Ceramic Patterns

For any practical and aesthetically pleasing painted porcelain tea set from ancient times, appreciating it requires connecting with the aesthetic habits of people from different cultural backgrounds of different eras. When it comes to the visual forms of the motifs on Ming and Qing painted porcelain tea sets, identifying the subject and what is depicted poses no significant language barrier for any observer. However, appreciating the visual artistic forms of the motifs requires not only identifying what is being appreciated and depicted but also considering the psychological and emotional needs people had when portraying these motifs in specific social, material, and cultural environments, as well as the spiritual and cultural connotations of the motifs and their symbolism. Modern people may not be very familiar with this because the passage of time has led to changes in the production methods of contemporary society and people's spiritual values, resulting in significant changes in our aesthetic appreciation habits and standards for cultural arts. Modern people lack identification with traditional ethnic cultures when it comes to appreciating folk art.

The patterns on painted porcelain tea sets from the Ming and Qing periods each possess unique symbolic systems as objects of aesthetic appreciation. Symbolism, broadly speaking, refers to the ways in which human beings express their spiritual activities and creative behaviors. The various forms of human spirituality include language, religion, philosophy, art, historical legends, and folk tales. The depiction and expression of images on tea sets can be said to have a complete and thorough symbolic and meaningful cultural language system. Prayers constitute the main content of the decorative culture, where every motif carries significance and auspiciousness, as images of seeking good fortune and avoiding misfortune became cultural sedimentations to satisfy people's psychological and emotional needs. Culture typically refers to the lifestyle of a certain group of people, constituting a complex whole that includes the thoughts, behaviors, and habits of society members. Tea sets are the main carriers of tea culture. The motifs on painted porcelain tea sets reflect the essence of culture and aesthetics. This aesthetic language system is a composite whole brought about by the cultural and lifestyle heritage of generations of Chinese people. "Folk customs" are the main body of culture, and blessing and disaster prevention are the leading motives and spiritual homes of cultural psychology, emotions, and interests. The practical and aesthetically pleasing tea sets from the Ming and Qing periods are cultural artworks, where decorations on daily utensils serve aesthetic purposes. People's aesthetic views are combined with their practical functions, or they are closely related to the practical functions of materials, and there seems to be very few cases of distinct boundaries or contradictory situations.

The expression of symbolic and meaningful motifs on tea sets often features subjects such as figures, animals, and plants. For example, the "Fu," "Lu," and "Shou" stars are symbolic figures in folk culture. The imagery of these three figures originated from Taoism in the Song and Yuan Dynasties. They frequently appear on painted porcelain tea sets from the Ming and Qing periods, indicating their firm place in people's cultural psychology. The Shou Star, with its strikingly protruding forehead and eyebrows, holding a long dragon-headed cane over its head, represents longevity in people's minds, embodying the concept of "longevity and eternal youth." Worship of the Fu Star originated from the northern legends of the Song Dynasty's Xuanwu (Zhenwu), later identified as the "Heavenly Official" for blessings. His imagery is often plain and resembles that of a general civil official. The Lu Star, although also depicting a civil official, is often accompanied by a mythical deer, as the homophonic word for "deer" is "lu," which also means "good fortune." The decoration of the "Fu," "Lu," and "Shou" stars themselves is filled with people's psychological aspirations and hopes.

Serial NumberTipsSource
1The common decorative patterns found on porcelain in the Ming and Qing dynasties include dragons, phoenixes, flowers, and various auspicious symbols, symbolizing power, prosperity, and longevity.British Museum
2The five-clawed dragon is a symbol of the emperor, often used on imperial porcelain, symbolizing supreme power and status.Khan Academy
3The butterfly pattern on porcelain often symbolizes longevity and happiness, especially on Qing Dynasty porcelain.Khan Academy
4Pine, bamboo, and plum are known as the 'Three Friends of Winter,' symbolizing resilience, integrity, and friendship. These patterns are very common on Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain.World History Encyclopedia
5Ming dynasty blue-and-white porcelain was painted with cobalt blue, featuring patterns of flowers, fish, and birds, symbolizing auspiciousness and prosperity.Metropolitan Museum of Art
6In the late Ming Dynasty, porcelain began to adopt floral patterns influenced by Islamic art, reflecting cultural exchanges between the East and the West.British Museum
7The patterns of '福' (blessing), '祿' (prosperity), and '壽' (longevity) on Qing Dynasty porcelain are often used to express wishes for happiness, wealth, and long life.Smarthistory
8Doucai technique reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty, with colorful patterns such as dragons and auspicious symbols of Buddhism on porcelain, symbolizing imperial authority and religious beliefs.Khan Academy
9The symbols of Christianity such as the cross and images of the Virgin Mary on Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain reflect the fusion of Eastern and Western religious art.MDPI
10The practice of adding the emperor's reign mark and the artist's signature to the bottom of porcelain began in the Ming Dynasty, which increased the value and historical significance of the porcelain.World History Encyclopedia

The painted porcelain tea sets of the Ming and Qing dynasties fundamentally embody a cultural significance of "symbolism and metaphor." This symbolism and metaphor are not only fully expressed in the painted porcelain, but also hold a prominent position in other art forms. For example, literati painters from the Song and Yuan periods tirelessly depicted pine, plum, and bamboo, a tradition that continued into the Ming and Qing dynasties. Rooted in the use of objects to express emotions, thoughts, and implications indirectly and subtly, this approach employs symbolism in a gentle yet profound manner.

The painted decorations on porcelain tea sets also exhibit unique craftsmanship. For instance, the pine, bamboo, and plum "Three Friends" teapot produced during the Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns of the Qing dynasty. The motif of the "Three Friends" embodies a righteous spirit, conveying cultural connotations of symbolism and abundance: pine symbolizes longevity like the Southern Mountain, bamboo represents integrity enduring through the years, and plum signifies enduring flowering despite the cold.

Lotus patterns are more commonly used in painted porcelain tea sets, featuring various themes and diverse depiction methods. Themes include auspicious motifs like lotus giving birth to sons, fish playing among lotus, mandarin ducks in lotus ponds, and herons peering into lotus blossoms. These themes, depicting love and fertility, convey cultural symbolism and metaphor in a simple and concise manner, expressing people's wishes for enduring love and highlighting the profound subconscious significance of "sexuality" for contemporary audiences. The lotus often appears alongside birds like mandarin ducks and herons on painted porcelain tea sets, symbolizing conjugal bliss and prosperity. The use of symbolic and metaphorical artistic techniques enriches the auspicious meanings, reflecting people's aspirations for happiness. Lotus flower motifs on Qing dynasty tea sets often depict lotus plants growing together, symbolizing marital harmony and unity.

Other plant-themed motifs on painted porcelain tea sets include peach, peony, and pomegranate. The peach, besides symbolizing longevity in motifs like "Three Stars Shine Upon the Peach," "Double Happiness and Longevity," and "Eight Immortals Blessing Longevity," also embodies infinite charm. References to peaches and beauties, sexual love, and marital bliss can be traced back to ancient Chinese literature. Even today, expressions like "peach blossom luck" continue to carry deep cultural connotations. If birds perch on peach branches on painted porcelain tea sets, it implies a reference to sexual love, as birds are metaphorically linked to males in slang. Peony, another major theme in Ming and Qing painted porcelain, has been appreciated by the Han Chinese since the Tang dynasty. Its large, lush flowers, rich colors, and fragrant scent make it a symbol of wealth and peace. Peonies bloom profusely in early spring, adding color to the season's beauty. Many literati in the Ming and Qing periods praised the peony's heavenly beauty. Peony motifs on painted porcelain tea sets often appear alongside phoenix motifs or in intertwined floral patterns, sometimes depicted in clusters. Pomegranate motifs share similar connotations with lotus patterns, symbolizing secular values of fertility and reproduction. The straightforward symbolism of the pomegranate's many seeds prompts associations with its deeper cultural attributes.

Animal motifs on painted porcelain tea sets often convey auspicious blessings, reflecting shared ideals of beauty. Fish motifs date back to the Yangshao culture's painted pottery featuring "human faces with fish." In the Ming and Qing periods, fish motifs on colored porcelain tea sets often carried the blessing of "abundance year after year," with patterns symbolizing a bountiful harvest. Fish, being both a source of food and a common decorative motif, when combined with lotus motifs in themes like "fish amidst lotus" or "fish playing in lotus," convey blessings for descendants to thrive continuously, reflecting fertility connotations. Butterflies, considered carriers of aesthetic beauty in Chinese art, have been synonymous with "dreams" in ancient literature. Butterfly motifs often evoke poetic fantasies and bring a sense of delight.

Animal motifs like cranes, deer, and bats on porcelain tea sets convey people's aspirations for a better life. Cranes symbolize nobility and are commonly featured in Taoist cultural motifs like the Eight Immortals and Laozi expounding scriptures. Deer, phonetically related to "lu" for prosperity, often appear with bats on painted porcelain tea sets, with the bat's phonetic association with "fu" for happiness, reflecting people's wishes for a blissful life.

Dragons, phoenixes, and qilins are mythical creatures invented by ancient Chinese people. They are eternal decorative motifs in Ming and Qing painted porcelain. Dragons, as mythical totems, represent the will of heaven and earth, grand and noble, omnipresent, and omnipotent. The imagery of the dragon was fixed during the Song dynasty, described in Luo Yuan's "Erya Yi" as having characteristics resembling various animals. Ancient Chinese emperors consolidated political power, calling themselves "true dragon sons" because dragons could ascend to the heavens, controlling celestial phenomena and responding to the four seasons. Throughout history, dynasties changed, but the concept of dragons was reinforced by rulers. Dragon motifs on Ming and Qing painted porcelain tea sets, especially the "five-clawed dragon motif," were exclusive to emperors; others were forbidden from using it. Phoenixes, with their feminine origins, seem to be flaunted within the Confucian cultural sphere like dragons and qilins, serving as evidence of imperial virtue. Patterns like auspicious dragon-phoenix pairs and red phoenixes facing the sun represent auspiciousness. Qilins, representing male personality in Chinese ancient culture, were invented by Confucian ethics out of thin air. Patterns like "Qilin bestows a book" often decorate the teachings of Confucius and Mencius in various periods, extolling outstanding young men and often using the term "Qilin son." Qilins, being the incarnation of deer, are phonetically related to "lu" in Chinese characters, representing prosperity, which is a symbol of personality in Ming and Qing society. In Chinese culture, qilins are often associated with the Bodhisattva of Fertility. "Qilin bestows offspring" is a major decorative theme on painted porcelain tea sets, representing people's hope for wealthy and talented offspring.

The symbolic imagery on painted porcelain during the Ming and Qing dynasties carries profound cultural connotations and vivid sensory forms of thought, which is termed as 'symbolism'. The concept of symbolism condenses into a profound cognitive path, possessing distinct artistic and cultural utilitarian colors, reflecting the essence of Chinese aesthetics, which has a direct lineage with primitive ideograms. In the primitive stage, ideograms were a form of obscure psychological behavior, serving as a psychological bridge between objects and people. Oracle bone inscriptions condensed the richest collective cultural consciousness. Symbolism expresses humanity's ceaseless declarations and aspirations. There is an inherent stability in the decorative patterns of porcelain tea sets, bestowed by historical and cultural factors, as well as social collective psychological factors.

The cultural composition and forms of symbolism vividly reveal the concepts and aspirations passed down through ancient ceramic decorations. Symbolism often metaphorizes natural objects, such as the intriguing depiction of pomegranates symbolizing 'many children', which embodies the mysterious thoughts and will of the people, concealing the rustic forms of folk thought. The appearance revealed by phonetic components and loan characters in Chinese characters is a symbolic image that is virtual rather than real, bearing a beautiful consciousness. Completeness and fullness are the steadfast principles in decorative expression. This principle stems from humanity's pursuit of perfection in material and spiritual life, reflecting the psychological desire for 'completeness' during agrarian economic and social times. Patterns such as peace throughout the four seasons, family reunions, and longevity are forever expanding and extending in painted porcelain. The balanced rhythm and symmetry felt in patterns like dragons and phoenixes or dragons playing with pearls in writing reflect the folk culture.

The legacy of painted porcelain tea sets from the Ming and Qing dynasties is quite abundant, with the most common ones being the 'mass-produced' daily necessities manufactured in Jingdezhen at that time. The processing and painting of decorative patterns are relatively simple. Since the early Ming dynasty, Jingdezhen had become the national center for porcelain manufacturing, with the production scale of folk kiln products continuously expanding. Many techniques on folk kiln painted porcelain tea sets were learned from the firing techniques of official kilns. In comparison, the painted patterns on official kiln tea sets are very delicate, appearing luxurious and intricate. However, due to being commercial products, folk kiln tea sets are not as exquisite and delicate as official kiln ones, but regardless of figures, animals, flowers, calligraphy, etc., the painted patterns are full of vivid expressions and emotions, reflecting people's beautiful wishes for auspiciousness and happiness, containing the aesthetic consensus of folk customs and the appreciation of elegance and vulgarity.

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