Porcelain sculpture with white glaze made in the city of Dehua in China.
Qing dynasty, Kangxi Period
The area along the Fujian coast was traditionally one of the main ceramic exporting centers. Over one-hundred and eighty kiln sites have been identified extending in historical range from the Song period to present. The two principal kiln sites were those of Qudougong 屈斗宫 and Wanpinglun 碗坪仑. The Wanpinglun site is the older of the two and manufactured pressed wares and others. The kilns of Dehua also produced other ceramic wares, including some with under glaze blue decoration.
Tripod Early 17th Century, Nantoyōsō Collection, Japan
From the Ming period porcelain objects were manufactured that achieved a fusion of glaze and body traditionally referred to as "ivory white" and "milk white." The special characteristic of Dehua porcelain is the very small amount of iron oxide in it, allowing it to be fired in an oxidising atmosphere to a warm white or pale ivory color. This color makes it instantly recognizable and quite different from the porcelain from the Imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, which contains more iron and has to be fired in reduction (i.e., an atmosphere with carbon dioxide) if it is not to appear an unpleasant straw color.
The unfired porcelain body is not very plastic but vessel forms have been made from it. Donnelly lists the following types of product: figures, boxes, vases and jars, cups and bowls, fishes, lamps, cup-stands, censers and flowerpots, animals, brush holders, wine and teapots, Buddhist and Taoist figures, secular figures and puppets. There was a large output of figures, especially religious figures, e.g. Guanyin, Maitreya, Lohan and Ta-mo figures. Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, was particularly revered in Fujian and there exist innumerable figures of her. Donnelly says, “There is no doubt that figures constitute the great glory of blanc de Chine.” Some have been produced with little modification from the late 16th or early 17th century. Crisply modeled figures with a smooth white glaze were popular as were joss-stick holders, brush pots, Dogs of Fo, libation cups and boxes.
The devotional objects produced at Dehua (incense burners, candlesticks, flower vases and statuettes of saints) “conformed to the official stipulations of the early Ming period, not only in their whiteness but also in imitating the shape of archaic ritual objects”. They were probably used in the domestic shrines that every Chinese home possessed. However, one Confucian polemicist, Wen Zhenheng (1585–1645), specifically forbade the use of Dehua wares for religious purposes, presumably for their lack of antiquity: “Among the censers the use of which should be specifically forbidden are those recently made in the kilns of Fujian (Dehua).”
The numerous Dehua porcelain factories today make figures and tableware in modern styles. During the Cultural Revolution “Dehua artisans applied their very best skills to produce immaculate statuettes of the Great Leader and the heroes of the revolution. Portraits of the stars of the new proletarian opera in their most famous roles were produced on a truly massive scale.” Mao figures later fell out of favor but have been revived for foreign collectors.
Precise dating of blanc de Chine of the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties is often difficult because the conservatism of the Dehua potters led them to produce similar pieces for decades or even for centuries. There are blanc de Chine figures being made in Dehua today (e.g. the popular Guanyin and Maitreya figures) little different from those made in the Ming dynasty.
Notable artists in blanc de Chine, such as the late Ming period He Chaozong, signed their creations with their seals. Wares include crisply modeled figures, cups, bowls and joss stick-holders.