It is a tradition in Chinese culture that artisans of later generations imitate earlier works as part of the learning process. In Chinese, “Lao Fang” means imitation made before 1911 when the Republic of China was founded, and “Min Guo Fang” are those made during the regime of the Chinese Nationalist Party. These are NOT, by any standard, forgeries but could confuse collectors with their hi-fidelity and excellent craftsmanship.
A curious case came today at Midwest Auction Galleries when the sale included a Qing Dynasty urn with a Ming Dynasty mark. Lot 228 features a fairly large urn with the Chinese character “double happiness”. The catalog says:
Possibly from the Jiaqing Period. Bears the 4 character mark in underglaze blue: “Cheng Hua Nian Zhi” which translates as “Made in Cheng Hua.” Very large measuring 17″ H x 10″ Dia. Private collection, Metamora, Michigan
Jiaqing ruled China from 1796 to 1820. It is generally considered that the Qing Dynasty began to decline from his regime. The White Lotus Rebellion and the rampant opium were two causes that led to the fall of the empire. But the artisanship overall was kept at a fairly high level, if not as great as that of his father Qianlong period.
The mark on the bottom of the urn says “Made In Cheng Hua”, which leads to an emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled China in the second half of the 15th century. There is a good reason that porcelain artisans of the later period seek inspiration from works from Chenghua because the achievement of porcelain making with respect to quality, style, and innovation was not rivaled until the Yongzheng period, which was 150 years later. “Ming Kan Cheng Hua, Qing Kan Yong Zheng” was one of the famous old sayings about collecting porcelain. It means the best Ming porcelain appears in the Chenghua period while the Yongzheng period produced the most consummate works in Qing Dynasty.
Ink blue porcelain came to a turning point in the Chenghua period.
First, the color changed from the strong and exuberant of the earlier period to restraint and paler. The blue material comes from Raozhou of Jiangxi province, which tends to be dainty in color. From this perspective, this one surely showcases an exquisite subtle blue evenly painted.
Secondly, the painting style of the ink-blue porcelain also changed to be more feeble and graceful. In particular, “Shuang Gou” was used. Shuang Gou or double-stroke is a term not as a specific calligraphy style, but as a technique used for both writing and painting. It basically means to hollow out words or objects such that each stroke or gesture is represented by two strokes or gestures. (You may think of wood engraving.) The outlined strokes are often in darker blue color while inside the outline is painted in a textureless light blue.
Some collectors called such a style consummate naivety because children often draw the outlines first and then color objects in a flattening way.
Early scholars were puzzled that there was no big porcelainware from the Chenghua period. Such a statement has been proved wrong because certain large (some unfortunately broken) works have been found recently. The scarcity of Chenhua porcelain has made the generalization of the Chenghua period almost impossible because of the meager number of samples available.
The mark at the bottom betrayed the maker. The official kiln in the Chenghua period had special persons whose job was to write the marks, which are also six-character marks” Da Ming Cheng Hua Nian Zhi”, which means “Made in Chenghua period, Ming Dynasty”. None of the four-character-marked porcelain has been attributed to be authentic period works. In fact, because probably all marks were written by the same person, the particularity of these six characters has been summarized as one of the criteria for authentication.
Well, although it is a little bit disappointing to know that this lot is not a real Chenghua masterpiece, it is still desirable and surely beautiful to behold. In fact, I would be more conservative to comment if it had a six-character mark because modern forgery uses all these tricks to confuse collectors while the incentive to forge a late imitation work is not great enough. A Chenghua porcelain was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong a few days ago for 36 million HK dollars, while a Jiaqing imitation work can be found regularly in Chinese antique markets. Since I am not anywhere near the position to obtain authentic Chenghua porcelain, I would not be tempted if there were one with an affordable price tag.
Below is the Chuanhua porcelain that made the news at Sotheby’s.
If you are interested in learning more about those four-character “Chenghua” marks from the Qing Dynasty and want to know which mark leads to which Qing emperor period, this is the page you should refer to. You don’t have to read Chinese, just focus on the shape of the character, and be critical and firm on attribution, you will find it is not that hard.