The Fascinating World of a Chinese Vase

Chinese Vase, Kangxi Period

The antique Chinese vase on your corner table remains one of your most valued possessions. Centuries of wear and tear don’t seem to rob it of its beauty. It is designed with an enormous amount of love and care by a ceramic artist whose name has long been forgotten.

Chinese vases are exquisite. So much so, that despite being brittle in nature, people don’t hesitate to loosen their purse strings to buy a charming Chinese vase.

Chinese Vase – A Brief History

The fascination with Chinese vases is not limited to our time. It is certainly not limited by geography. Ever since their introduction to the 16th century European market, Chinese porcelain became omnipresent in the aristocratic homes of Europe. Around that time the Portuguese merchants started importing the famed blue and white porcelain from China.

Anyone who could afford these priceless pieces of decorative art wanted to possess them.

These much coveted blue and white Chinese vases appear prominently in the paintings of Henri Fantin-Latour, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.

Vase of Flowers by Camille Pissaro (1877-1878)
Vase of Flowers by Camille Pissaro

European traders mainly sourced Chinese porcelain from a city named Jingdezhen. It lies in the South East of the modern day China. The city remains a major producer of Chinese porcelain, including the blue and white ones, to this date.

Chinese Glazed Vase and Its Variations

The glazes used for the Chinese vases vary a lot from one period to another. The richness of the variety can at times seem to be overwhelming. Glazing helps to make the vases resistant to moisture.

However, this doesn’t apply to Chinese porcelain which is fired at an extremely high temperature (more than 1600 degree Celsius). In this case, glazing is done only for decorative purposes. It adds colour and beauty to a Chinese vase.

Three coloured vases – Three coloured vases or Sancai were produced during the reign of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). The vases, along with other articles of Chinese porcelain, from this era, show a distinctive green, amber and creamy white colour. Sometimes, they also have tints of brown and purple.

Monochromatic vases – Monochromatic Chinese vases are very popular among the contemporary buyers because of their sleek appearance. They look simply gorgeous in a modern setting. When placed in a prominent position in your contemporary living room and bedroom, they could easily become cynosures of all eyes.

Chinese Monochromatic Vase

But you may be surprised to know that monochrome vases are legacies of the Song period (960 – 1279). They have made their ways to the imperial palace of China more than 800 years’ ago. The vases produced during this period have a cool silver, white, grey or jade-like tone.

Celadon – The origin of celadon glaze can be traced back to the early Tang era (618 – 684 CE). The ingenuity of the Song era ceramic artists added finesse to the celadon pottery.

The artists belonging to the cities of Yue and Longquan made celadon famous across Asia and beyond. Later on, the ceramic vase designers of Japan and Korea also started designing flower vases with a Celadon glaze.

Though they are primarily identified by their pale jade green colour, celadon pottery can also boast of pale grey, ivory and cool blue shades.

Celadon Vase from Longquan Kiln, ChinaCrackled Cong Vase with Celadon Glaze, Daoguang Period
Image 1: Celadon Vase from Longquan Kiln in China
Image 2: Crackled Cong Vase with Celadon Glaze

Chinese crackle vase – Chinese crackle vases also made their first appearance during Song Dynasty. They were a variation of the famous celadon vases and were produced in the kilns of Ru, Ge and Guan.

The flower vases produced in Ge and Guan had a more pronounced crackle. The crackle is caused by the faster cooling of the glazing material and its subsequent contraction compared to the body of the vases which takes more time to cool down and solidify.

Blue and white vases – The blue and white vases are actually covered with a transparent glaze. The decoration underneath transforms into a characteristic cobalt blue hue and creates a stunning effect once the vase has been fired in the kiln.

This type of glazing first started appearing in the early 9th century. But, the blue and white pottery produced during Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) seemed to have stolen everyone’s heart and mind. The delicate style of the Ming era Chinese blue and white vases continue to be a collector’s delight.

Chinese Blue and White Vase, Kangxi PeriodCrackled Cong Vase with Celadon Glaze, Daoguang Period
Image 1: Chinese Blue and White Vase, Kangxi Period, Qing Dynasty
Image 2: Gu Vase, Qing Dynasty

Flambé glaze – Flambé vases are glazed with a copper-based material. In the process, the vase obtains an intense red, purple or bluish tone.

Jun vases – Like celadon vases, Jun vases were present during the Tang era. But, their production and sophistication of design increased in the Song era. Jun vases feature a serene blue tone with splashes of purple.

Their colour is a result of an optical illusion. Many Jun vases show fine cracks which must not be mistaken as a fault in the glazing of the vase. In fact, these fine cracks prove the authenticity of the material.

Five coloured vases – The fascinating designs of the blue and white Kangxi porcelain have been imitated worldwide. This, in turn, gave birth to newer styles. But that is not the sole achievement of the Kangxi period artists who worked between 1662 and 1722 CE.

Wucai or five coloured porcelain also made its first appearance during the Kangxi period. Kangxi vases produced during this time were glazed using a complex technique. This made the colours of the Kangxi vases more lustrous.

Monochromatic peach and pink vases were designed during this period as well. The artists used an enamel based glaze to achieve such striking colours.

Chinese Vase Flambe Glaze Qianglong PeriodChinese Glazed Vase, Qianglong Period
Image 1: Flambé Glaze, Qianglong Period
Image 2: Chinese Glazed Vase, Qianglong Period, Qing Dynasty

The skills of the Chinese ceramic artists were not limited to designing vases. They created a variety of household items like ceramic pillows, tableware, stools, planters and beautiful porcelain figurines. You can literally spend hours viewing and appreciating these amazing pieces of porcelain art.

Chinese Vase Shapes

A Chinese vase is not only appreciated for its intricate motifs but also for its interesting shape. The diversity of shapes contributes to the timeless charm of Chinese vases. Most of the modern Chinese vases, inspired by the classical Chinese vase designs, also mimic these styles. The following are some of the most sophisticated Chinese vase shapes you will ever come across:

Meiping vase – Meiping vases are popularly known as plum vases. The word ‘ping’ signifies jar or vase. Meiping were designed for storing wine during Tang dynasty (618 – 907). But in the later period, people started using them for a variety of purposes, including, as flower vases.

Those produced during the Song period and afterwards were sometimes designed without the lids. These vases display metal and lacquer embellishments.

Huluping vase – Huluping or bottle gourd vases are one of the most recognisable Chinese vase shapes. They are believed to have originated in the kilns of Longquan during the reign of Song dynasty. They come in a variety of colours and motifs.

Some of the Huluping vases of the Kangxi era have three bulbous formations, instead of two customary bulbs.

Huluping Vase Three Bulbs, Qing DynastyYuhuchun Vase, Song Dynasty
Image 1: Huluping Vase, Qing Dynasty
Image 2: Yuhuchun Vase, Song Dynasty

Yuhuchunping vase – Yuhuchunping is also known as pear vases owing to their shape. These vases looked the reverse of the Meiping vases. The inflated bottom is followed up with a slender neck. They started appearing during the Tang period.

Gu vases – Gu vases are sometimes called beaker vases. They have a flared mid-region followed by a slender neck and lean bottom portion. The design was inspired by the bronze wine vessels that were in circulation between 1600 and 256 BCE in China.

Suantouping vase – The Suantouping or garlic headed vases were also influenced by the bronze vases of the Shang and Zhou period (1600 – 256 BCE). The garlic shaped mouths of these vases give them a distinctive style.

Baoyueping – Baoyueping or moon flasks boast of a singular style. They have a flat and round form. Baoyueping were designed during the Ming era. They are also known as pilgrim’s flasks. Baoyueping was simultaneously produced in ceramics, bronze and gold.

Tianqiuping vase – Tianqiuping vases are characterised by their globe-shaped bodies and long necks. They were a favourite among the royalties. It is one of the most replicated designs of vases worldwide.

Xiangtuiping vase – These vases were produced towards the final period of Ming dynasty’s reign. They have a pillar-like structure with little modulation.

Meiping Prunus Vase, Song DynastyFengweizun Yen Yen Vase, Qing Dynasty
Image 1: Meiping Prunus Vase, Song Dynasty
Image 2: Fengweizun Yen Yen Vase, Qing Dynasty

Liuyeping vase – Liuyeping or Amphora shaped vases are one of the finest creations of the Kangxi period. They generally have a solid colour. Many of them boast of rubicund Flambé glaze.

Bangchuiping vase – These vases are popularly known as Rouleau which refers to their cylindrical shape. They came into existence during the Kangxi era. Many of the large Rouleau vases, inspired by the original designs, occupy prominent positions in today’s chic living rooms.

Cong vase – Cong vases showcase an interesting square shape. Their origin is not very clear, but the design of these vases induced them to be in and out of fashion depending on the changing tastes of time.

The minimal geometric design of the Cong vases is extremely popular in the interior of modern homes.

Cong Vase, Jade, Neolithic Age (2600 - 2400 BCE)Cong Vase, Kangxi Period
Image 1: Cong Vase, Jade, Neolithic Age (2600 – 2400 BCE)
Image 2: Cong Vase, Kangxi Period, Qing Dynasty

Fengweizun vase – Fengweizun vases are sometimes called Yen Yen vases or Phoenix Tail vases. These vases have an inflated bottom, narrow neck and spacious mouth. They are a variation of the Gu vases and were designed in the Kangxi period.

You will find many modern varieties of the antique Fengweizun vases designed in an elegant fashion. These vases are available in green, charcoal black, blue and white colours.

Yaolingzun vase – Yaolingzun vases have a characteristic bell form. They are known as Mallet vases. This is a very rare variety of Chinese vase.

Haitangzun vase – This type of vases has a begonia like shape. They may be glazed into a single solid colour or decorated with ornate and colourful sceneries. The Haitangzun vase is another one of the Kangxi era creations.

Shiliuzun vase – Shiliuzun is known as a pomegranate vase. It is another one of the Ming era’s magical creations. Many of the Shiliuzun vases were decorated with intricate motifs or solid Flambé glaze.

Shiliuzun Pomegranate Vase, Daoguang Period
Shiliuzun Pomegranate Vase Daoguang Period, Qing Dynasty

Shuanglianping – This type of vase is popularly referred to as a conjoined vase. It is designed by joining two half moons together. The central ridge remains visible. And the mouths are covered with separate lids.

Bailuzun vase – Bailuzun vase or hundred deer vase was created in early Qing period. It is often designed with two small handles that are moulded like animal heads or branches of trees.

Zhuanxinping vase – Zhuanxinping vase or rotating vase has a separate rotating compartment in the interior. This type of vases came into existence in the mid-17th century. Zhuanxinping vases are often decorated with elaborated landscapes and designed with two small handles.

Zhuanxinping Rotating Vase
Zhuanxinping Rotating Vase

How to Read Chinese Vase Markings?

Reading Chinese vase markings could turn out to be quite a tricky endeavour. Unfamiliarity with the script makes it all the more difficult. But understanding would help you understand the authenticity of an antique vase.

Chinese vase markings could be found on the base of the vase. Sometimes they are neatly hidden in the motifs.

Reign Mark in Motifs
Reign Mark in Motifs

Most of the old Chinese vases are inscribed with four to six characters. The characters are meant to be read from top to bottom and right to left. However, it is not uncommon to write them horizontally. In such cases, you will still have to read them from right to left.

The marks are made in two scripts – Kaishu and Zhuanshu. The first two characters of the vase markings refer to the dynasty during whose time the vase was produced. It is followed by two characters revealing the name of the reigning emperor.

The final two stands for ‘made for.’ It signifies the imperial quality standard of the vase. Those having only four characters include the name of the emperor and then the ‘made for’ sign.

Reign Mark in the Bottom of a Chinese Vase
Reign Mark in the Bottom of a Chinese Vase

The complication related to the identification of the Chinese pottery marks does not end here. Many of the old pieces were left unmarked.

Sometimes markings show copies of an older period and not the era when the vase is produced. This is meant to be an ode to the bygone era. These marks are known as ‘apocryphal’ marks.

In The Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics, Gerald Davison deciphers the intricacies of Chinese vase markings. If you are planning to start a serious collection then the following books will help you in understanding the world of Chinese porcelain better.

  • Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, Patricia Bjaaland Welch
  • Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period through the Qing Dynasty, Laurie Barnes and Pengbo Ding
  • Kovels’ New Dictionary of Marks: Pottery and Porcelain, 1850 to the Present 1st Edition, Ralph & Terry Kovel
  • Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, Duncan MacIntosh
  • Chinese Pottery and Porcelain: From Prehistory to the Present, S J Vainker
  • The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History, Robert Finlay

How to decorate your home with Chinese vases?

The beauty of Chinese vases makes it an irresistible choice for decorating your living room, bedroom, hallway and dining parlour. You may apply some of these tips to showcase your proud collection of Chinese vases in the best possible light.

  • While buying Chinese vases, think of the design and colour scheme of your room. Vases with monochrome ivory, pitch black, reddish brown, Celadon, Flambé or Jun glazes look great in a contemporary home with minimalist décor.
  • Those with more intricate motifs and dazzling colours look chic in living rooms, halls and dining spaces decorated in an eclectic style. Blue and white vases are welcome in the modern as well as traditionally decorated spaces.
  • Give your Chinese vase a prominent position.
  • Large vases should be placed on the floor or on small wooden stools. This will prevent the vase from breaking by falling from high places. Consider spreading a plush area rug close the place where you are displaying your Chinese vases.
  • Place the smaller vases on the coffee table, tv cabinet, side tables, corner brackets and console tables. Decorate the top of the sideboards and dressers with these beautiful pieces.
  • Don’t keep two vases together that compete with each other in colour and design.
  • You may like to put your precious collection of Chinese vases inside a display cabinet to secure them from pets.
  • Keep the focus firmly on them. Install wall sconces or ceiling mounted focus lighting fixtures to illuminate the space around your favoured art object. This will help everyone fully appreciate the piece.
Huluping Vase, Bottle Gourd Shape, Qing Dynasty
Huluping Vase, Bottle Gourd Shape, Qing Dynasty

Tips to Buy a Chinese Vase Online

Online shopping has become an integral part of our life. By choosing to shop online, you may often find such items that are not available locally. But, like many other things of value, you must take some precautions while shopping for a Chinese vase online.

  • Collect only such items that you would really like to have around yourself.
  • When buying an antique vase, check the vase markings. See if it comes with a certificate of authenticity. If possible, seek opinions of an expert about the origin of the piece.
  • If you are buying a new Chinese vase to gift someone you love or to decorate your home, find out more about the seller’s reputation. Always buy from a trustworthy website. Read the feedbacks left by the previous buyers.
  • The important thing is not to get duped while buying antique vases and paying a huge sum for something which is anything but original. Simple precautions like the one mentioned above will help you prevent any such mishap while buying Chinese vases.
  • Be careful about the shipping arrangements. Choose insured post or courier services. Being brittle in nature, extra care should be taken while shipping these items. When in doubt, seek more information about the modes of shipping.
  • There is no dearth of stylish vases designed by the contemporary artists. Many of them might be inspired by the designs of the old masters. The presence of these delicate works of art is bound to give your home a graceful feel.
  • Make proper arrangements to put these items on display.
  • Learn to clean and preserve these items. Seek expert help to mend your old but valuable Chinese vases that may have got chipped accidentally.

The Value of Antique Chinese Vases – A Reality Check

A couple from New York bought a small Chinese bowl at USD 3 at a yard sale in 2007. Six years’ later the same bowl fetched USD 2.22 million at an auction in Sotheby’s.

A few years ago, two people were busy giving a house, which they have received as an inheritance, a thorough clean up. They accidentally came across a large Chinese vase along with some other items of Chinese porcelain. The vase was sold at close to USD 86 million.

You may have come across similar stories on the internet or in the newspaper recently and got interested in learning the actual value of antique Chinese vases. These examples vividly show the financial rewards of a true antique piece. The value of antique Chinese vases is on the rise and will remain so for the next few years.

But you must also understand getting hold of such valuable possession is not easy. Fairy tales like these don’t happen every day. It is better to buy a top quality Chinese vase within your budget than paying exorbitant prices for collecting those items whose age and origin are questionable.

Many people start as casual buyers of Chinese vases. Soon they get so mesmerised by these pieces of decorative art, that they start building a small collection of their own. Perhaps, you too are at the beginning of your collector’s journey. Know that,

Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.

William Pater

Enjoy decorating your home with these precious works of Chinese porcelain.

Image Courtesy:

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art