As Au Bak Ling’s Chinese imperial ceramics go on view, two experts discuss how excavations at kiln sites have affected our understanding of Chinese ceramics

Passionate about porcelain, Royal Academy, London from 17 November 1998


Before he became interested in porcelain, Hong Kong businessman Au Bak Ling collected paintings by artists of the Ling-nan school from the Canton area, and he is an enthusiastic painter of tigers himself. His interest in porcelain started in the early 1970s, when he went into Sotheby’s Hong Kong with a friend to view a pre-auction exhibition. He loved what he saw and proceeded to buy fifteen pieces then and there.

He jumped in at the deep end, as he says, with absolutely zero knowledge, but bought two or three nice things all the same. He then started to study the subject intensively, collecting it passionately for twenty to twenty-five years. Today he owns one of the finest private collections of Imperial porcelain.

Like many other Hong Kong collectors, Mr Au exported his art collection out of Hong Kong before the colony was handed back to China. The best part of this collection, one hundred pieces from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, goes on show this month for the first time, at the Royal Academy in London (17 November-20 December).

The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with Asia House, which aims to forge closer relations between Britain and the countries of Asia by encouraging cultural events in London and providing a place for senior businessmen to meet Asian leaders. Sponsorship is by HSBC Holdings plc and Royal Sun Alliance Insurance Group plc.

The Art Newspaper asked two scholars, Rose Kerr, who is Keeper of the Far Eastern Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Julian Thompson, joint chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, to discuss what changes the discoveries made at kiln site excavations in China have made to the traditional estimation and interpretation of Chinese ceramics.

Rose Kerr: I would like to ask you about the Au Bak Ling Collection in the context of the Chinese split between what they call guanyao or Imperial (official) ware, and minyao, popular ware.

China is the only country in the world that has always had this distinction between ceramics made for the top people and ceramics made for ordinary people.

Julian Thompson: It is true that China is the only country with such a clear split, which lasted a very long time, from the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) onwards, and it is reflected in practical collecting. Mr Au is somebody who has almost exclusively collected guanyao, going for the best periods of guanyao in the Ming dynasty (1386-1644 AD), from the start of the dynasty up to the reign of Chenghua (1465-1487 AD) and not much further, and in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) concentrating only on Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735) and early Qinalong (1736-1795).

Do you think Mr Au gets his inspiration from Chinese sources, from old texts, or from the modern market, which distinguishes between these kinds of wares?

That’s a difficult one. There is a long Chinese tradition of collecting guanyao, as it has been considered to represent the finest in Chinese porcelain. In this century one saw that kind of Chinese taste in Sir Percival David, the greatest of the English collectors of Chinese porcelain, and Mr Au’s taste is very similar, though he does not have the same interest in documentary, dated pieces, which help to establish the chronology.

Sir Percival David was almost unique among early Western collectors in focusing specifically on guanyao. Earlier collectors had sought fine ceramics of all kinds but perhaps had not recognised this inherently Chinese split between popular and official ware so clearly.

I think that’s right. Most collectors were also interested in export porcelain, which really comes into a third category. The split between guanyao and other porcelain has become clearer with the excavation of the Imperial kiln-site at Jingdezhen. There used to be a lot of doubt as to whether a piece was guanyao or not; now there is evidence that certain types are definitely guanyao and most of the preconceptions about the superior quality of guanyao have been confirmed.

You mentioned the Imperial excavations at the porcelain city of Jingdezhen in Southern China, a kiln exclusively devoted to the manufacture of porcelain for the Imperial household, starting in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD) and lasting until the end of imperial rule in 1911. Such a history of production is quite extraordinary, isn’t it?

The tons and tons of shards that have been dug up go way beyond anything that anyone would have imagined, and here we are talking very largely about shards from the first half of the Ming dynasty. But what is most fascinating is that these are not ordinary shards. At a normal kiln-site, the waste is mostly badly misfired pieces—it’s just the debris. What they have found at Jingdezhen is not just the waste, but the rejects from a rigorous selection procedure, so there are great quantities of pieces which can potentially be reconstructed.

They started excavating the kiln in 1982 and have been continuing ever since, so they’ve worked their way back through the periods, and have more information for certain reigns than for others.

Yes. Some periods, as one would expect, are much richer than others, and on the whole they are the ones when production is known from the historical records to have been larger, so that in the Xuande period (1426-1435) production was vast, and they have found large quantities of shards. Then in the Chenghua reign there is much less, but still very substantial quantities despite the rarity of surviving pieces.

There are three periods that interest me in the context of the excavation. The first is perhaps the most difficult period, which is the Yuan, the Mongol dynasty (1279-1368). There have been extraordinary pieces from this period found at Jingdezhen, but many of them seem to be unique. One doesn’t see them on the market.

The Yuan pieces are very peculiar indeed. There are those strange boxes, for example. But they have not found a major cache of Yuan pieces and I think one of the big questions now is whether in future excavations much more will be found from this period. One must not give the impression that the Zhushan imperial kiln-site is played out. Only certain areas have been excavated, others are covered by buildings as the site is in the middle of the city. Who knows what further Yuan material will be found? Was most of the fine quality Yuan blue and white that we are used to seeing made at Zhushan, or was it made, say, at Hutian, outside Jingdezhen? Because at Hutian they have found fragments of very fine quality Yuan blue and white. How much of this Yuan blue and white is really guanyao? And then, in the Yuan context, what is meant by guanyao?

Exactly: difficult questions—and difficult for a discerning collector who wants to collect Yuan dynasty porcelain of the highest official quality.

Well, I think that to try and collect Yuan guanyao at the moment would be rather foolhardy, because no equivalents to the pieces discovered at Zhushan have been found. Anyone who wants to collect Yuan blue and white just has to go for pieces of the best quality and not worry about which kiln-site it comes from.

Moving on to the Ming dynasty, to my mind two of the most interesting periods are the first two reigns: the reign of Hong Wu from 1368 to 1398, and Yong Le from 1403 to 1424. Prior to the Imperial excavations there was quite a lot of debate about late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century blue and white and other types of ware: what it actually was and how you dated it. The excavations have more or less sorted that out; would you agree?

I think it has been sorted out to a very large extent. For example, what has been recognised as a distinct, probably very early Ming or possibly Yuan group of underglaze blue and underglaze red that John Addis wrote about, has, from the evidence of the excavations been firmly established as early Ming, just as Addis thought. The arguments from the stratification of the kiln-site, which Liu Xinyuan (the director of the Jingdezhen Archaeological Ceramic Research Institute) has put forward are very convincing. One of the fascinating points he has made, in his article in the catalogue of the exhibition of Hongwu and Yongle pieces from Jingdezhen held at the Chang Foundation museum in Taipei, is that in the wars between the various Ming rebel armies and the Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty, the man who ultimately became the Hongwu emperor actually got control of the Jingdezhen area very early on—around 1360. So when did he start making Ming guanyao? One date given in the histories is the second year of his reign, 1369, but he could have started it before the dynasty began. There is no reason why not as the kilns had been destroyed at the very end of the 1350s but were firmly under his control and peaceful after that.

There were several times in the Ming dynasty when production stopped altogether for up to five or seven years, weren’t there?

Absolutely, and in the so-called interregnum period in the middle of the fifteenth century I think there were more stops and starts than usual. It was also customary for the emperor, who succeeded to the throne after the death of the preceding emperor, to declare a moratorium on the production of guanyao. And it’s just these stops and starts which are reflected in what has been found at Jingdezhen. That’s where it becomes really interesting, when the textual records become much more meaningful in the context of the archaeological discoveries.

Let’s skip backwards to the Song dynasty? The Au Collection has a very fine piece of Ru ware (the Imperial ware of the Northern Song dynasty, made for a very short time in the late eleventh and early twelfth century). In a way, these present more problems than the porcelain in terms of identification, dating and how the kilns functioned.

Recently, archaeologists claim to have excavated a lot of shards at Qingliang Si. I know there is some debate in China about whether this is the only Ru ware site, but do you think its excavation has affected our perceptions of Ru ware?

It certainly has, because the Ru ware site has revealed a lot of things which are nothing like the pieces traditionally described as Ru. That is the pattern now: kiln-sites are being properly examined and those to which, traditionally, only one ware used to be assigned, are discovered to have manufactured a whole range of different types.

But collectors still prefer the top quality. For example, at Qingliang Si there was a whole range of wares, some of which was top quality Ru. Then there was a rather rough-bodied stuff with a glaze like Ru and then all the way through to a much rougher sort of Jun-style piece.

Yes, I think the collector would say, “I want something which is like the pieces in the National Palace Museum Collection”, which are accepted as being the core Ruyao pieces. “I don’t care if it was made at Ruyao, if it doesn’t look like the Palace pieces, I’m not interested”. Collectors are very clear about this. One is talking about only around fifty surviving pieces. Mr Au has one very nice example, a flat, shallow dish in a rather unusual shape, very beautiful. Ruyao has an extraordinary, very individual quality which stands out among all Chinese ceramics.

Let’s move on to guanyao, which is the ware made for the Southern Song court after it moved south to the city of Hangzhou in 1127. As you know, there were supposed to be two sites where this ware was produced. One of them has been fully excavated and everyone knows about it. There’s a great deal of debate about whether the second site exists; about whether they have found it, about whether the second site is situated in Hangzhou or not. That’s a discussion for the Chinese, but do you think that these questions of kiln provenance actually affect our dating and classification?

This gets very difficult, because, as far as I know, the excavations of the guan kilns in Hangzhou have not produced concrete evidence of dating. It’s very different from Jingdezhen. There they found lots of shards with reign marks. In Hangzhou, you find a lot of interesting shards and other kiln material, but how do you even start to pin it down chronologically? I have seen several collections of shards from Hangzhou and they are bewilderingly diverse. I don’t know whether they will ever sort it out. What do you feel?

I think you’re absolutely right. I wonder if we’re even asking the right questions about what Guanyao is.

I think that in this context, that could well be the case. At Jingdezhen, we really know what guanyao is, but it’s a very different situation.

Could I ask you about Ge-ware (the sort of ware with a very crackled glaze which collectors have prized since at least the Yuan dynasty)? There’s even more controversy about exactly what Ge-ware is and even when it dates to. Some people say southern Song, some people say Yuan. Does any of that matter to the collector and connoisseur?

I think it does. Collectors and connoisseurs are sensitive about dynasty, and to attribute a piece of Geyao to the Yuan dynasty rather than to Southern Song is seen as a sort of demotion. It’s a strange attitude. I don’t see why it matters. What the collector has to rely on is his own eye to judge the merits of the piece itself.

I’d like to move on to the question of the collecting of whole perfect pieces, which is what collectors want to do, vis-à-vis the identification of shards. Finding small pieces of pot in an excavation and matching that with a whole, beautiful pot is sometimes very easy and sometimes surprisingly difficult.

Do you ever find that a problem when you’re considering, for example, Jingdezhen porcelain? that the whole pieces which you see in the course of your work don’t tie in with the shards?

The whole business of matching up shards and whole pieces is, I think, an absolutely fascinating exercise. I’ve been working on Chengua guanyao doing exactly that, and trying to see, on the one hand, what patterns have been found as shards at Jingdezhen and, on the other hand, what patterns have survived. Are they the same or different?

The answer is that there is a large overlap, but many surviving patterns have not been found at Jingdezhen and many exciting patterns found there have not survived, either because all the examples made have been lost, or because the patterns were never approved for use and did not see the light of day. Of course it is a big mistake to jump to the conclusion that a piece is not right because the corresponding shards have not been found. We must remember that the Jingdezhen excavations are not that complete.

The whole picture is complicated. Of the enamelled wares, corresponding shards have been found for the majority of patterns but for blue and white it is less than half. There is a whole group of surviving doucai jars with double circle marks, like the famous piece with rocks and peonies in the Percival David Foundation, which I am quite certain are genuine, but for which no corresponding shards have been found. One possible explanation is that these patterns belong to periods of production different from the periods of the accumulation of shards which have been discovered.

Guanyao is wonderful stuff and we appreciate its fine qualities but the very fact that Chinese official ware was made for the fairly conservative Imperial court means that, if you look at it over a long period, shapes do repeat, patterns recur and perhaps to an outside eye, you might say that the material was less visually interesting than other ceramics. Do you expect for example the wonderful Au Bak Ling collection to have very wide popular appeal outside the circle of connoisseurs?

I think that the Au Bak Ling collection contains many pieces that one could describe as routine guanyao. It is true that there is a lot of guanyao of patterns which were constantly in demand: endless small blue and white dishes painted with dragons, for instance, and they do become extremely repetitive. Huge orders were made for them in the sixteenth century and they are not really of very much interest. What is of great interest, in my view, are the exceptional pieces which were made in short bursts of tremendous creative activity inspired by particular demands from Beijing, and it is in this kind of piece that the Au Bak Ling Collection is so rich. Examples are the Xuande period, and the Chenghua period between 1482 and the end of the reign six years later, when all the doucai pieces were made. This is true of ceramics from other cultures too: the first few years of Vincennes, Meissen or Chelsea, when new techniques were still a challenge, before routine production became established. With other kilns in China, we do not have the means to date pieces with sufficient accuracy to know whether this is also the case. In fact if somebody had said only fifteen years ago that all the truly innovative Chenghua porcelain was made in a period of only six years, we would have said that’s not possible.

Let’s move on to the last period of the Chinese Imperial history, the Qing dynasty, who were in power from 1644 to 1911. It’s a little more difficult for us to gain information from excavation because most of the Qing-dynasty kilns are still under the city and haven’t been dug up.

I agree that the possibility of being able to excavate the areas where the Qing imperial production took place would be fascinating, but I don’t think one should get over-excited about it. The reason is that the extraordinary discoveries from the first half of the Ming dynasty are thanks to a complete prohibition on the sale of any Imperial porcelain on the open market. It was not allowed to fall into the hands of ordinary people, so anything that was not selected to go to the palace in Beijing had to be destroyed.

That was not the case in the Qing dynasty. By then it had become the practice to sell off the seconds to help finance the production of guanyao. It was a very important source of revenue and there are well documented memorials about this, so it was a very different situation.

So even if the kilns were excavated one wouldn’t expect to find hundreds of thousands of wonderful shards destroyed and left in the ground.

No, definitely not.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Passionate about porcelain'