A masterpiece of Chinese art: a famille rose porcelain spoon from Qing Dynasty China

By Peter Chen

Porcelain, often referred to simply as china, is one of China’s greatest inventions. It is
ubiquitous in people’s homes nowadays. It has its own unique aesthetic and is a material
particularly well suited to practical use. At the time it was first created, porcelain was
superior to simple pottery in its capacity to hold liquids and in its appearance. It had
advantages over glass and bronze as well. Glass could be carved, but porcelain could be
carved and painted. Porcelain was more easily formed into a range of shapes, since the clay
could be moulded by hand before fire locked it in the final form of the piece. Because bronze
rusts over time, it was less useful than porcelain as a material for making goblets, water
pitchers, and other objects used for practical purposes. Although other materials such as
gold had these qualities, porcelain had the advantage of being more affordable.

The word “porcelain” comes from the Italian word “porcellana”, meaning little piglet, a slang word for cowry shells. This term for ceramics was coined by 13th century Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo, who couldn’t think of any other way to describe the translucent and lustrous surface of porcelain during his visit to Yuan Dynasty China.

People generally associate Chinese porcelain with its blue and white patterns. Indeed the
blue and white porcelain pieces have almost become a symbol of China. They were mass
produced starting from the Yuan Dynasty and were exported to Europe in the late Ming
Dynasty. The piece of porcelain that I will feature here, however, is a famille rose porcelain
spoon from the Qing Dynasty, the era ruled by the Manchu people who succeeded the Ming
as rulers of China.

Famille rose is a fusion of Chinese and Western painting. The technique for painting porcelain in an arrangement of dominant colours ranging from pink to dark ruby mixed with glassy white was brought to China from Europe by the Jesuits during the Kangxi Era of the Qing Dynasty, in the late 17th century. Coloured porcelains already existed in China before the Qing dynasty, but the addition of glassy white into the mixture of the enamels during that era extended the range of colours and allowed smoother transitions between the different hues. This technique, which was newly adapted for Chinese porcelain from Western painting, made porcelain painting more vivid and three-dimensional.

This spoon (above) was made during the reign of Qianlong, the grandson of Kangxi, in the 18th century. The Qianlong emperor was known for favouring porcelains that were extravagant, with complex patterns. This tendency can be seen on this spoon, as the paint used is thicker and the colours are more saturated than in the reign of the two previous emperors.

The spoon is 21 cm in length and 7.5 cm in width, slightly larger than a normal spoon.
Although it was made in the shape of a serving spoon, this porcelain work was probably
used only for display. The enamel paint of famille rose contains lead, a highly toxic
substance, and thus this porcelain piece was not suitable for actual use in the kitchen or
dining room.

At the very center of the spoon a peony is drawn and carved, and beside it are begonia,
hibiscus, chrysanthemum, ipomoea, and rose flowers. This floral combination symbolizes
prosperity and happiness in Chinese culture.

If the paint is directly exposed to sunlight, a slight rainbow colouring effect can be seen. This
is referred to as “蛤蜊光”, or “clam light” by the Chinese, closely resembling the rainbow
colouring that can be seen inside clam shells. The “clam light” is formed when the lead in the
famille rose is exposed to air for a long period of time, usually around 150 years or more.

On the bottom of the spoon are six traditional Chinese characters written in red – “大清乾隆
年製”, (reading from right to left and up to down) – “made in the Qianlong reign of the great
Qing Dynasty” when translated into English. These characters tell more about this porcelain
work’s origin than their literal meaning. The characters here are written in regular script.

Most imperial kiln porcelain markings during the Qianlong reign were written in seal script,
however. Further, although this use of characters on this spoon is written in a very orderly
manner, which closely resembles the few regular script imperial markings in existence, the
characters 乾 and 製 (the last characters in each of the two columns) are smudged, something that would rarely happen in the case of imperial kiln porcelain markings. In terms of the overall quality, the spoon is exceptionally well-made. However, the Qianlong reign was the peak of porcelain making in the Qing Dynasty, if not the whole imperial history of China. Therefore, the craftsmanship of the spoon was not up to the standard of the imperial kiln of its time.

The kaolin (the clay mineral from which porcelain is made) used to make this porcelain is
well selected and filtered. There are very few impurities in the kaolin compared to other
examples of folks kiln porcelains made in the same era. There are seven brownish dots on
the bottom of the spoon (two of which can be seen in the upper corners of the image of the
spoon above), which may appear to some to be the impurities of the kaolin. However, these
are in fact trace pieces of the stand which the porcelain piece was mounted on during the
firing of the porcelain. During the firing process, the temporary stand elevated the porcelain
above a permanent stand placed over the fire, so that the bottom of the porcelain piece
could remain white and be glazed to look translucent. The type of kaolin used and how it
was fired to account for the slight green-bluish hue common among Qing Dynasty porcelain

Overall, this porcelain spoon is a great piece of art and evidence of the glorious ceramic
industry of imperial China. The brilliance of Chinese porcelain is in its capacity to take an
everyday object and turn it into something that still stands out as a treasure of artistic beauty
prominently featured in museums the world over after hundreds and thousands of years.