Dehua White Ceramics and their Cultural Significance


Yuan Bingling


Minnan (Southern Fujian) in Historical Perspective

        The district of Dehua is situated on the eastern slopes of the Daiyun Mountains of southern Fujian, some 50 miles inland at an altitude of fifteen hundred feet.  The name Dehua, which means "Virtuous Cultivation," was bestowed by Taizu of Min (909–925), a monarch who established Fujian as an independent kingdom.[1] His dynasty did not reign for long, but it gained everlasting fame in ballads and local lore.  During the next few centuries, the poor, hilly, and, in those times, still densely forested region of Dehua became the hinterland of the rich port of Quanzhou on the Fujian coast.

        Dehua has always been closely linked to Quanzhou, which formerly could be reached, first by road to Yongchun and then by boat over the river Taoxi, in about two days of travel.  Like the citizens of Quanzhou, the inhabitants of Dehua speak the Hokkien (Minnan) tongue.  Their main link to the larger religious and commercial networks of southern Fujian is the worship of the regional saint Baosheng dadi, to whom the largest temple in the market town of Dehua is dedicated.[2]  The founding temple of the Baosheng dadi cult is situated in the village of Baijiao on the shore of the Jiulong River.  This is in Quanzhou territory, but also near Zhangzhou and Xiamen.  Here were situated the great ports of Yuegang, Anpinggang, and other harbors that became the trading centers of Fujian after the port of Quanzhou had silted up (see below).

       Quanzhou, known by Marco Polo as Zayton and viewed by him as the richest city on earth, had become at that time, thanks to the farsighted policy of the above-mentioned king of Min, the gateway of China. [3]  He sponsored the building of seaworthy sailing vessels and sent his envoys to Southeast Asia and the Ryûkyû Islands.  The tribute paid by these states to the throne of China, and later to his own kingdom, came in through Quanzhou.  Exports, mostly luxury goods like silk, lacquer, and stoneware (the famous celadon wares), were sent abroad in return, making the city the starting point of the so-called maritime silk road.  Even when the Song dynasty unified China in 960 and subjected the fledgling Fujian kingdom of Min to its rule, Quanzhou remained the main trading center of the empire, a place it maintained right until the end of the fourteenth century.  The silting up of the bay and the bloody wars that marked the end of the Mongol dynasty (Yuan, 1277–1367) put an end to Quanzhou's greatness.

       The succeeding Ming dynasty maintained a strong nationalist and anti-foreign policy, inspired by the threats of the Mongols on the northern frontier and all kinds of pirates in the southern seas.  All sea trade was forbidden, and government troops were stationed permanently in Fujian to guard the coast.  After some time, the port of Quanzhou was reopened to again allow the Ryûkyû Islands to present tribute.  This measure, however, did not result in increased trade.  The tradition of shipbuilding and high-sea navigation that had become the specialties of southern Fujian now found no other outlet than illegal trade, at times with the active participation of Japanese and other foreign merchants.  New harbors appeared on the coast around the estuary of the Jiulong River, away from Quanzhou and even farther away from Fuzhou, the seat of the provincial authority.  These were the ports of Yuegang (near present-day Haicheng, the port city of Zhangzhou) and Anpinggang (present-day Anhai), at the southern end of Nan'an County, twenty-five miles south of Quanzhou.  In these new places, small vessels could hide in creeks near the harbors, in order to escape whatever official scrutiny there was.

       In spite of its illegal nature, trade developed on a massive scale, spurred on by Chinese commercial expansion in Southeast Asia.  Trading posts on the routes between Fujian and India were manned with emigrants from southern Fujian joined later by their ethnic cousins from Chaozhou (Swatow), Putian, and Fuzhou.  The volume and diversity of trade increased.  No longer were precious products from overseas matched with Chinese luxury goods.  Trade in bulk freight developed, including all kinds of foodstuff.  Spices, timber, and minerals were imported, while a thriving local economy produced silks and cotton cloth, ceramics, tea, sugar, dyes, and also paper and printed books for the export market.  Such was the scope and importance of this trade that historians nowadays tend to think that the maritime expansion of European nations (Spain and Portugal, and later England and the Netherlands) linked up in the Far East with what was essentially an already existing Minnan trading network.


The Golden Century (1563–1664)

       Two hundred years after the founding of the Ming dynasty, the strain of the costly upkeep of coastal garrisons in Fujian in the face of the enormous gains made through illegal trading and contraband became so critical as to make the government yield.  In 1563 the port of Yuegang became a legal place for trading with foreigners.  A form of maritime customs was installed that soon yielded vast sums of money for the Fujian treasury.  Other ports, such as Anpinggang were also opened.  Traders from Spain and Portugal, and later from other Western European countries, joined Japanese and Malay traders on the Fujian coast.  A golden period in maritime trade began and was to last until 1664, when the new Qing dynasty installed another total embargo.

       Fujian overseas expansion during this period and the resulting prosperity had far-reaching results at home.  One of the major impacts was of a religious nature.  The government had always tried to finance its expenditures for maritime defense in the province through taxes imposed largely on the rural population.  Arable land in Fujian, however, has always been at a premium, as the province is largely composed of mountainous regions.  Moreover, much valuable acreage had long ago become the property of Buddhist monasteries, which were exempt from paying taxes.  The insufficient tax yields created a trend to take this land away from the clerics and make it yield income for the government and its representatives, the Confucian elite took therefore an ever stronger anti-Buddhist stance.  When the new merchant bourgeoisie emerged, it generally turned away from supporting the traditional Buddhist monastic institutions in order to pursue more personal and private forms of religion. [4]  Lay Buddhist associations developed rapidly, checked only by the threat of being assimilated into heterodox sectarian movements.

          Another marked development was the rise in local temple organizations for the worship of popular saints and deities generally incorporated into the Daoist pantheon.  These temple associations often functioned as guilds and merchant corporations.  They were run by the lay members themselves and were independent and democratic in nature.  Temples were mutually linked through networks of affiliations, insuring cooperation and mutual protection.  The adoption of Mazu as the patron saint of Fujian merchants, for instance, spread the cult throughout the coastal regions, with the founding or restoring of temples in her honor by Minnan merchant-guilds in the large commercial centers where they operated. [5] Temple committees were never directed by priests, but were wont to hire secular Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists whenever the need for their services arose.  In the great port cities of Fujian, there was an ever-increasing number of temples and related organizations that extended their hold over the entire population, thus forming one of the very foundations of Chinese society. [6]

       We find, during the golden century of Fujian, a society that was very different from the Chinese stereotype.  It was not the imperial government and its bureaucracy of scholar-officials that yielded the greatest authority and set the standards for religion and culture; instead, rich merchants and artisans, such as the famous Zheng family, were the leading elite.  Foremost among the merchants was Zheng Zhilong (1604–1661), who built a trading empire that stretched from Malakka to Japan. [7] In the religious sphere, Buddhist lay associations and local temple networks had largely replaced large monasteries and officially recognized institutions. The search for a new society with greater individual freedom is best exemplified through the works of the anti-conformist philosopher Li Zhi (1527–1602) of Quanzhou, who attacked the authoritarian and hypocritical society created by the reactionary Confucians of his time and advocated absolute equality before the law for all. [8]  

        The refined culture of those times can still be appreciated.  It is evident, for instance, in the exquisite temple architecture of southern Fujian.  Nowadays only a few buildings of that era survive in the Minnan region itself, but many of those built by the Fujian merchants in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, still exist.  Another great cultural treasure is the highly refined and universally beautiful Nanyin music of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, the only form of Asiatic music that has developed a precise musical scoring system and which requires a conductor to be performed. [9]  The temple associations established special conservatories for the transmission of this art; it was only taught to respected and wealthy citizens, male as well as female, who performed strictly as amateurs.  And finally, this refined culture can be seen in the blanc-de-Chine porcelain of Dehua, which attained its true artistic expression during this very period.


Whiteness And Purity

      Religious objects figured prominently in the blanc-de-Chine art of the Ming period.  This means that the white porcelain incense burners, candlesticks, flower vases, and, most of all, the small and large statuettes representing a variety of deities and saints were intended to be used in worship. [10]  We can see from their size as well as from current usage that they were not made for temples or monasteries, but for the home altars of Fujian families and the private prayer halls of lay Buddhist associations.

       But before we say more about these issues, we should perhaps address the general question of the emergence of this particular art form.  It may seem surprising indeed that this kind of religious art appeared in a culture where white is related to rituals of death and mourning and is therefore generally considered to be inauspicious.  In fact, white statuettes of saints and deities, as well as ritual utensils, appeared during the Ming dynasty not only in Dehua but also earlier in Jingdezhen.

       One of the reasons may well be an imperial decree of 1370, at the very beginning of the Ming dynasty, concerning the vessels to be used for state rituals.  It stipulated that henceforward all ritual vessels should be made of porcelain and imitate archaic forms. As stated in the History of the Ming (Mingshi):

      In the third year of the Hongwu era, a report from the Ministry of Rites said: "According to the Chapter on the Special Sacrifice on the Altar of Heaven (Jiaotesheng) in the Records on the Rites (Liji),  it is said: 'For the sacrifice in the Southern Suburb, ceramic vessels should be used, as it is the most plain [material]. In the Chapter on the Attendants of the Sacrificial Vases (Bianren) of the Rites of the Zhou (Zhouli ) it is said: 'There are the [different species] of the sacrificial grains and viands to be offered;' and the (canonical) commentary adds: 'in all cases when offerings are made to the gods, ceramic vessels should be used.'

        That nowadays for the sacrifices we use porcelain (ci) is therefore in accordance with the ancient rules. The only [problem] is that the forms of the plates and water bowls are different from the fu, gui, deng and xing of ancient times. We now recommend that all sacrificial vessels are made of porcelain, and that their forms imitate those used in ancient times. Only the bian should continued to be made of bamboo." An imperial decree was issued in conformity to this proposal. [11]

      Another decree, issued by the Xuande emperor (1426–1435), reminds those concerned that this porcelain should be white. Officials were sent to the kilns at Raozhou (Jingdezhen) to supervise their fabrication. Again we quote the History of the Ming:

      Beginning with the reign of Xuanzong, the eunuch Zhang Shan was sent to Raozhou for the making of sacrifial vessels in white porcelain with dragon and phoenix decoration for the ceremonies in the ancestor hall. [12]

      This is confirmed by the Veritable Records (Shilu) of the Ming dynasty, which note that in the year .... the emperor ordered the Ministry of Public Works to see to it that in Raozhou the white porcelain sacrificial vessels were made for the ceremonies in the ancestor hall for the former emperors Taizong (Yongle) and Renzong (Hongxi). Again, for the reign of the Zhengtong emperor, it is stated that: "All the different kinds of vessels in white porcelain were made in Raozhou. (Mingshi 82, page 1989). Although this is not expressly specified, we may assume that again this refers to sacrificial ware. 

      The preference of the Yongle emperor (1403–1424) for white porcelain is well known.  Many examples of pure white Jingdezhen ceramics from the early Ming period have been preserved at the Palace Museum, as well as excavated from the imperial kiln site itself.[13]  In later times, however, the ritual vessels of the Ming dynasty were also made in blue or red.

      Scholars have, as far as I know, not yet addressed the question as to what may have been the reason behind all this.  As we have seen, according to the dynastic annals, the choice of white was inspired by a wish for classical simplicity and thrift.  But this is not entirely convincing.  It does not explain why ritual vessels formerly made of wood should now be made of porcelain, which is admittedly more expensive.[14] It does even less to clarify the choice of pure white.  Colored or white glazes must have been more or less equally expensive, although making pure white objects may well have been more difficult from the technical point of view.  All through the Song and Yuan periods, kilns, especially in northern China, had been producing high quality white and ivory-colored porcelain for private use, but this again does not explain why the Ming dynasty opted for white ceramics in its state rituals.

       The true reason must reside elsewhere.  We should recall here how tremendously important matters of symbolism were for the state sacrifices.  These ceremonies took place not only on certain dates during the year, but also on each day in the palace on a smaller scale as part of the court protocol; they were nothing less than the expression and implementation of the legitimacy of the dynasty.  Therefore, at the beginning of the Ming, white must have been chosen for a particular ideological reason, and likewise the switch to other ritual colors must also have been dictated by certain theories pertaining to the “virtue” of the dynasty.  In the absence of any other arguments, one may perhaps feel free to speculate that the initial choice of white may be related to the name the dynasty chose for itself: ming, that is "light" and especially "white luminosity." As recorded in the Mingshi (History of the Ming), the founder of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368–1398), had close ties to a messianic sectarian movement which historians have included under the general name of “White Lotus” (Bailian).  Toward the end of the Yuan dynasty, the movement attempted to establish a new dynasty and set up a ruler who called himself the Little King of Light (Xiao Mingwang). [15] The White Lotus sect itself is also often called the Religion of Light (mingjiao) or the Doctrine of Light (mingzong).  All these names refer in fact to Manicheaism.

        Manicheaism had an important foothold in Fujian. [16]  A Manichean shrine survives in the Quanzhou area, and archeological evidence confirms the vivacity of this faith in the region. [17]  Religious manuscripts dating from the Qing period but copying original Ming texts link the establishment of the Ming dynasty with the religion of Mani and, as a third protagonist, the sectarian White Lotus movement. [18]  These sources also show that at that time Manicheaism was already fully integrated into Chinese Buddhism, with its founder, Mani, transformed into Buddha Lord Mani (Manigong fo) and its worship of the Buddha of Light or the White Lotus Buddha (Bailian fo) a form of lay Buddhist devotion.  All this suggests that pure white may have been chosen for religious objects as an expression of ritual purity, a consideration that is still alive today whenever discussions about the choice between wooden images and white Dehua statuettes arise.  The latter has always been considered made of a purer material, sublimated through the fire of the kiln and therefore less prone to be eventually infested by demon spirits.  Porcelain statuettes are equivalent in almost all respects to those of wood, stone, bronze, or lacquer.  Although the ritual of consecration through the "opening of the eyes" (kaiguang) is the same, Dehua statuettes do not have an opening (cache) in their backs for sealing written documents with spells, talismans, or bundles of medicinal herbs meant to give the images spiritual power.  These caches are found universally in wooden images, and also in ceramic statuettes from Jingdezhen, but never in those from Dehua.

      That Dehua devotional art is unlike that produced in other places and by other techniques during the Ming and Qing periods is certain.  Its very special character is moreover confirmed in the writings of at least one contemporary Confucian polemist, a certain Wen Zhenheng (1585–1645).  Born in present-day Suzhou, Wen was a renowned and influential scholar who committed suicide out of loyalty to the Ming dynasty when the latter was toppled by the Manchu invaders.  His handbook on art and architecture, entitled Changwu zhi, was first published during his lifetime and has been re-edited several times since.  In several places in his book Wen mentions the Dehua ceramics produced in his time and ceramics produced in his time and absolutely rejects them as religiously improper. Writing on the subject of the household altar, he states:

       For making cupboards or tables for [the worship of] the Buddhas (this term includes all saints and deities), one can make use of black as well as red lacquered wood . . . Also the Japanese [style], which consists of leaving the wood in its natural untreated state, is most suitable and elegant . . . As to the recent eight-cornered tables with curbed feet, and also those religious images from the Fujian [Dehua] kilns, they are absolutely not to be used! [19]

     Elsewhere, Wen writes on the subject of incense burners, stating:

     Incense burners dating from antiquity or tripods from Han times, or those made in Guan, Ding, Longquan, or Xuan [de] ware are all so highly valued that they should not be employed for daily use.  Only the larger bronze censers from the Xuande period are really fit for this . . .  Among those censers the use of which should be especially forbidden are those recently made in the kilns of Fujian (Dehua).[20]

      Finally, the same judgment is meted out to Dehua flower vases: “New-fangled bronze vases, as well as vases from the Fujian kilns are all improper to be used in worship.” [21]  Perhaps at the root of his rejection of Dehua ware for the altar is the possible sectarian background of the almost puritanically stark white religious art.  The White Lotus ideology, which may have inspired the founder of the dynasty, lived on in Fujian long afterwards, even after becoming the abomination of scholar officials.

      All the preceding is still speculative, and the hypothesis is aimed solely at initiating a discussion on the question of how this very particular art form of Dehua came into being.  We will see below how the figure of the white Guanyin, which is so prevalent in the Dehua potters’ repertoire, again raises the issue of sectarian, that is, White Lotus, influence.  Not take into account sectarian religion and the possible influence of  Manicheaism in Late Ming Fujian is comparable to neglecting the Christian roots of much the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy. Hence the question will not go away.  It must be addressed, even though, given the present state of our knowledge, everything connected with it remains conjectural.


Devotional Art For Domestic Worship

      As we have seen, ritual objects from Dehua, such as incense burners, oil lamps, candle sticks, wine cups, and offering dishes, do conform to the official stipulations of the early Ming period, not only in their whiteness but also by imitating the shapes of archaic ritual vessels. [22]  Each object rarely exceeds twenty inches and is often much smaller.  It follows that these vases and incense burners were not made for large rituals, but were made instead for the family altar or for small community temples.  The same holds true for the many different kinds of statuettes of deities and saints.

       In traditional China every family used to have its domestic shrine.  Depending on region, religious traditions, and economic status, these were of course different in form and size, varying from small wall niches in the poor regions of northern China to the elaborate cupboard shrines with double doors of Beijing and the even more lavish high open altars of Fujian.  These consist of two tables: one high, narrow praying table (anqi zhuo) or incense table (xiangzhuo) and one lower, square Eight Immortals table (baxian zhuo).  The latter is in fact a dining table.  The two tables are positioned against a wall, normally the wall opposite the entrance of the main room; this is the so-called reception hall (keting) of the house and its ritual center.  Above the tables hangs a painting with a religious subject, often showing the Three Star deities of Fortune, Blessings, and Longevity (fu, lu, shou), or, in the case of the illustration to the present article, the portrait of Lord Guan. The high table holds the ritual objects of worship.  First, there are the five offerings (wugong): incense-burner, two candlesticks, and two flower vases.  Behind these are displayed the statues of the patron deities and saints.  These figures vary according to the religious orientation of the household.  In Dehua itself, always a stronghold of lay Buddhist and sectarian movements, the image of Guanyin is de rigueur.  Next to her, in a lower position, stands the Lord of the Earth (Tudi gong), who presides over the family's worldly fortunes. 

       In other parts of southern Fujian, other patterns and traditions of worship prevail.  The different districts of the Quanzhou region all have their important local saints: Baosheng dadi in Tongan, Qingshui zushi in Anxi, Guo Shengwang in Yongchun and Nan’an, and so on.  Holy Mother Mazu from Putian, the patroness of seafaring people, is worshipped everywhere along the coast.  The great monkey saint Qitian dasheng (Sun Wukong) has his devotees in the mountainous regions of southern and central Fujian.  It should be noted that the Dehua potter’s repertoire of local saints is limited to these areas.  Other important Fujian patron saints, like Lady Chen (Chen Jinggu), the Holy Mother of Fuzhou, have apparently never been portrayed in Dehua white porcelain.  Needless to say, great deities from northern China, like the Princess of the Morning Clouds (Bixia yuanjun), who enjoys the eternal devotion of the inhabitants of Beijing, or those from the Guangdong area are entirely absent.

       The vocational saints make up another group, whose foremost member is Lord Guan, or Guandi, the legendary hero of the Three Kingdoms period (220–316) who was later deified as a divine protector of trade. [23]  Next in importance is the celestial protector of scholars, Wenchang; he is often associated with other saints of literature, such as Kuixing.  Also very popular is Tiandu yuanshuai, who was especially venerated in Quanzhou as patron saint of the performing arts and as an exorcising spirit.  Equally remarkable is Dongfang Shuo, the famous court jester of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (157–87 B.C.), who became the protector of goldsmiths. Xuantian shangdi (Supreme Divine Ancestor of the Dark Heaven, historically related to the Song deity Zhenwu (True Warrior), was a great Daoist god who personifies the powerful exorcising energies of the North; he was also the divine protector of the Ming dynasty and therefore universally worshipped.  Similarly, the Qing dynasty placed itself under the protection of Lord Guan.  Last but not least we find the domestic deities, such as the already mentioned Tudi gong. [24]

       Lay Buddhist organizations were of course also very numerous outside Dehua, and the demand for the White-Robed Guanyin, who was also the embodiment of the Ancestral Mother (Wusheng laomu) in many sectarian movements, was universal. [25] This may explain why statuettes of Guanyin in particular have found devotees all over China.  There is, moreover, a great iconographical variety among these images.  The most prevalent variation is Guanyin on Mount Putuo (Potalaka), often accompanied by her acolytes Shancai and Longnü as well as her faithful parrot.  Next in popularity we find Guanyin crossing the seas (of sorrow) or walking over the lotus pond (picking flowers).  She is variously shown with the water bottle, with the Lotus Sutra, with the fish basket, and in the act of bestowing children.  All these forms of the White-Robed Guanyin derive, as Chün-fang Yü has shown, from the Water Moon Guanyin, the archetype female manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. [26]

          For the shrines and temples of lay associations and sects, images of other bodhisattvas, such as Maitreya, were also produced in great quantities.  Maitreya (Mile fo), as a giver of happiness and fortune, was very popular, and his statuettes are almost as numerous as those of Guanyin.  Among the arhats (luohan), Bodhidharma occupies an important place, for reasons as yet not entirely clear. Sets of the Eighteen Arhats are also known. 

         Purely Daoist icons were less prevalent.  The above-mentioned Xuantian shangdi and the Mother of the Dipper Stars (Doumu), a deity who governs human life and destiny, are the most popular.  Dehua potters pushed religious eclecticism so far that they also made devotional art for non-Chinese religions, for example holy water bottles for Hindus and statuettes of the Holy Virgin for the already important Roman Catholic communities of Fujian during the Qing period.[27]

Most of the deities and saints whose statuettes were manufactured in Dehua were not regularly worshipped there, but were intended for sale outside the district.  We are not well informed about the market network for Dehua products, and thus can only say with certainty that the distribution area for most of them, as we have seen, did not go beyond the Minnan region, as the repertoire of saints and deities is absolutely limited to this area. Nowadays, devotional statuettes for worship outside Dehua are produced on demand.  Usually a potter is approached by a representative of a temple or a local community who brings a model, either in porcelain or in wood, of the holy image to be reproduced in a specified number of copies.  A mold is then made, and when a first trial product is approved, production can begin.  It rarely exceeds the required number.  The Dehua potters are perfectly familiar with this kind of catering or working to order. 


The Potters Of Dehua: Artisans And Artists

The artisans and their temple

         The Dehua kilns are not concentrated in the Dehua Township, but are distributed throughout the surrounding countryside.  The raw materials of clay, minerals, and firewood used to be available locally and could be obtained at many locations.  The particular quality of Dehua clay which allows the pure whiteness of its ceramic products will certainly be dealt with elsewhere in this catalogue.  Here we may stress that although Dehua can boast of this natural resource, the clay has to undergo a long process of purification before it can be used.  Although it lacks plasticity and is unfit for the potter’s wheel, it can generally be molded.  Even so, the unfired products sag easily.  They also often crack in the oven.  All this makes blanc-de-Chine wares expensive to produce.

       It appears that all the kilns were, and as a matter of fact still are, family enterprises. Among these families, the Lin and Su lineages are considered to be the most prominent nowadays.  They both live in and near the central market town of Dehua and share the management of the Zulong gong temple, about which more will be said.  Many famous artists came from these lineages, the most well remembered today being Su Xuejin (1869–1919), active in the late Qing period.  He signed his works with the seal Boji yuren, “The Vastly Accomplished Fisherman,”  [28] and Yunyu (see below), but his successors in the Su family continued to use his seal for several generations, so that figurines with the mark of Boji yuren are nowadays quite numerous.  The Lin family proudly points to not only a great number of famous artists, such as Lin Chaojing and Lin Xiaozong, but also to the very first among them, the patron saint Lin Bing (see below).

       Other illustrious families can be found in the villages.  The He family of Housuo, potters since time immemorial, claims the great He Chaozong and He Chaochun among its ancestors (see below).  But little else remains of these artists apart from their names and the works attributed to them; their mention in the lineage genealogy have yet to be verified.  He Chaozong, who is no doubt the most famous Dehua artist to the outside world, is also considered in his place of origin to be a great artist but also an outsider.  One reason may be the fact that he did not come from one of the dominant lineages; another reason may be that, according to local oral tradition, he became a Buddhist monk (heshang) in the later part of his life and had no progeny.  The more educated members of the Dehua community tend to attribute He Chaozong's celebrity to the fact that, of all the potters, only his name can be found in one of the local gazetteers, and he was therefore familiar to scholars.

       All Dehua potters, either from the market town of Dehua itself or from the surrounding countryside, are joined into a kind of guild organized around the veneration of a founding figure and patron saint named Lin Bing together with his divine spouse, the Woman of Mystery (Xuannü), from whom he obtained his skills.  Both are enshrined in the small temple that is nowadays called the Palace of the Ancestor Dragon (Zulong gong).  It is situated in the outskirts of the market town of Dehua near the hills where most of the kaolin clay, the main ingredient of porcelain, is dug out.  There, at the yearly festival held on the sixteenth day of the fifth lunar month, all the potters and their families convened and exhibited their newest and finest products as homage to their divine founders and protectors. [29]

       Lin Bing, the patron saint of the Dehua potters is said to have lived a long time ago, in the beginning of the Song period.  He was a potter by vocation, working with a small furnace, square and flat, which demanded much firewood for rather meager results.  He longed to make a larger furnace, which would enable him to produce more for a market that demanded ever more.  But in spite of his endeavors, all the new furnaces he built did not work properly or caved in.  One day, exhausted by his exertions, he fell asleep in front of his furnace.  In his sleep, he saw a divine woman standing naked before him.  He could see her large breasts and round belly.  From her throat came wisps of smoke.  This goddess was no other than Lady Jin (Gold).  One of the seven daughters of the Lord of Heaven, she had already chosen to come to Dehua and reside there.[30]  For this purpose she had someone set up her incense burner on the shores of the Dragon Gate Stream; the inhabitants understood her wish and built a temple for her.  Lady Jin loved the youth of Dehua and their rites of spring that took place on the shores of the stream.  She very much wished to help them.  She was also greatly moved by the beauty and character of young Lin Bing, and decided to reveal herself to him in this way.  The young potter, inspired by this lovely vision, built a new furnace in the shape of the divine body.  It had a large dome in the middle (the belly) and two smaller domes on each side (the breasts).  Built this way, it could fire many pieces at the same time.  This first great furnace was built in the year 1094.  After that, all the potters of Dehua built similar furnaces.  As for Lin Bing, he was asked by the potters of Jiangxi to come over and help them, which he did.  He never returned.  In order to commemorate his great contribution, the families of Dehua built a shrine, where he is worshipped alongside his divine female companion, Lady Jin. [31]

Similar stories can be found elsewhere, notably in Jingdezhen.  There a young potter called Tong Bin (instead of Lin Bing) inspired by  a deity, sacrifices himself in the burning fire of the kiln, assuring the eternal success of the workmanship. [32] All these stories have their antecedent in the myths concerning the metal artisans, bronze casters, and sword makers of ancient China, like the story of Gan Jiang and his wife Mo Ye, in which hierogamy and self-sacrifice are leading themes.[33]

       The ritual and religious unity of the potters of Dehua allowed them to maintain a true corporate structure.  A kiln from the fourteenth century, the vestiges of which have been unearthed and researched, measured 57 meters in length and had more than ten rooms.  From the shards discovered on the site it can be seen that different families of potters used this kiln at the same time. According to modern estimates such large kilns could fire four hundred tons (dan) of ceramics at the same time, a ton being equivalent to one hundred Chinese pounds (jin).  This shows the extent of corporate exploitation. Of course, it must noted here that these large quantities of ceramics had nothing to do with the high grade blanc-de-Chine wares shown in this exhibition, but rather pertain to the mass production of bowls and other objects for everyday use that were in early times a specialty of Dehua.  The tradition of yearly exhibits of new and outstanding products in honor of their patron saints resulted in mutual emulation and inspiration, enabling the potters to keep up their standards and their inventiveness, and also to renew their techniques.  As in other great centers of Chinese ceramics, the guild-like activities of liturgical organizations did more for the quality and continuity of Chinese art than imperial patronage or foreign demand.  The function of these organizations in the investment, the exchange of information, the production process, as well in the marketing of finished products, should therefore not be overlooked.


The artists

      It may seem strange that an article about the splendor of Dehua ware does not begin with what has always been the greatest jewels in her crown: artists such as He Chaozong, whose fame has become almost proverbial, and the many other masters who left their names on the splendid pieces they created.  By showing the general context of the Dehua kilns first, I hope that the exceptional nature of the artists might be better understood. 

       In China, sculpture representing human figures is largely of Buddhist origin, something that can be observed by the fact that any devotional image is still called a bodhisattva (pusa) in the vernacular.  Throughout the later periods, Chinese sculpture remained essentially religious.  It also had its great artists, some whose names are known to us.  During the Yuan period, Chinese art received fresh influences from India and Central Asia, and in 1262, the great Buddhist patriarch 'Phags pa (1235–1280) introduced one of his disciples, the Nepalese prince and sculptor Anige, at the court of Kublai Khan.  Anige remained in China and during his long life produced many works of art and had many disciples.  One of these was the Daoist disciple Liu Yuan (Liu Bingyuan; second half of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries), who later became famous all over China for his dry lacquer sculptures in a temple dedicated to the Lord of the Eastern Peak (Dongyue miao) in Beijing.  Both Anige and Liu Yuan became high officials, but their work was considered a religious accomplishment. [34] From the sources that describe the works of these artists and their followers it becomes clear that Daoist iconography was not just a question of canonical rules, but also personal inspiration and vision.  Although the Ming court did not honor its artists in the same way as the Yuan, sculptors of religious statues in later times remained highly esteemed.  This can be seen from the inscriptions on certain bronze statuettes,[35]  each of which was obviously a unique work of art—first sculpted in clay and then cast from molds—made especially for a given patron.

       The Quanzhou Gazetteer (Quanzhou fuzhi) of 1763 contains a short chapter on different Minnan artists of the Ming period, which fortunately also mentions He Chaozong.(add note: (juan 63, pp. 6b–7a; it has been often said that He Chaozong is mentioned in the Quanzhou Gazetteer of 1612. This is a mistake). He's biographical note is attached to that of a certain Wang Bi from Jinjiang, [36] whose nickname was Shengshi.  This Wang was "skilled in writing poetry and prose, as well as in calligraphy and painting.  He was especially gifted in modeling clay and making portraits as well as figures of Daoist and Buddhist deities.[37]  In this no one was his equal and even the hollowed out [statues] in dry lacquer  [38] by Anige and Liu Bingyuan could not rival his [art]." [39]  The text then continues by saying that:

       During the same period there was also a certain He Chaozong.  His place of origin is not known, but some say he was a native of Dehua, and [later] came to live in the city of  Quanzhou.  He was a most expert modeler of ceramic figures, and [the statues of] the Great Worthy of the Sangha (i.e., Guanyin) he made are transmitted and treasured [everywhere] in the empire. [40]

      This may seem a very short and laconic text, but in fact this section on biographies of specialists and craftsmen (yishu) in the Quanzhou gazetteer contains only about thirty entries, of which only five or so are painters, sculptors, and calligraphers, the others being mainly medical specialists.  Seen from this viewpoint, it is remarkable enough that He Chaozong is mentioned at all.  Wang Bi, who made "portraits," was apparently also a scholar, and this may have also been true for He Chaozong.

        He Chaozong signed his works, but he did not date them.  From his inclusion in the section on Ming artists in the Quanzhou gazetteer we may safely deduce that he worked during the Ming dynasty.  No doubt he belonged to the later part of that period, which, as we have seen, coincides with Minnan's golden century.  There are three other artists who signed their blanc-de-Chine creations: Lin Chaojing, Chen Wei, and Zhang Shoushan. [41]  Again, none of these signatures is accompanied by a date.  On the other hand, we do have a number of dated pieces. [42] Those claiming to be Ming should be treated with caution, as some of them are of a later period.  Dated pieces have no signatures.  Thus we may distinguish between signed pieces and dated pieces.

       Among the dated blanc-de-Chine pieces we find a number of statuettes of saints and deities, such as the Wenchang in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  These statuettes, although of a fine quality, are very traditional, formal, and hieratic renderings of the divine beings in question.  In fact they are closely similar to devotional statuettes made of wood or bronze. 

       Those who have signed their names on the blanc-de-Chine statuettes of the late Ming period, no matter whether small or large, can be termed true artists.  This can be seen in the quality of their work, but also more objectively in the great freedom with which they treated their religious subjects.  The signed statuettes—that is, those which stand a chance of being authentic or copies of authentic works—are not formal and rigid.  Instead, we find great freedom and unconventionality.  The Guanyin signed by He Chaozong in the Ashmolean Museum is a most personal and visionary rendering of the hallowed theme of Guanyin with the Lotus Sutra.  This manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Mercy is shown as a very young girl clad in a simple robe and almost completely without ornaments or jewelry.  Immersed in thought after having read a passage in the sacred text of the Buddha, she is pondering her resolve to devote herself to the salvation of all creatures.

       We may say with some certitude that all these artists—He Chaozong, Lin Chaojing, Chen Wei, and Zhang Shoushan—worked during the late Ming, that is, during the above-mentioned golden age of southern Fujian.  Works of the Qing period that carry personal signatures are those by He Chaochun, Lin Xiaozong, Lin Xizong, Lin Zixin, Lin Jiesheng, etc.  During the very last years of that dynasty we encounter The Vastly Accomplished Fisherman (Boji yuren), or Su Xuejin; his work belongs, however, to the modern development of Dehua art.


Later Developments

     Only in 1664, a full twenty years after the founding of the Qing dynasty in Beijing, did the Manchu rulers finally impose their rule on southern Fujian.  The retaliation was severe.  With the remainder of the army of the Ming hero Zheng Chenggong (Coxinga) and the last loyal servants of the Ming dynasty still holding out on Taiwan, the Qing government spared no effort to seal off the coast and enforce a rigorous embargo on all sea trade.  Once more, southern Fujian was sealed off from the world, but this strict embargo could not go on forever.  Already towards the end of the seventeenth century, illegal trade and emigration, contraband, pirating, and other unsanctioned practices flourished anew.  In the meantime, Fujian had become severely impoverished and was condemned to remain poor for a very long time.  Together with the severe losses caused by the dismantling of the overseas trading houses and the embargo, there was the loss of their trade routes to the Western powers.  Also, many former export goods, like sugar, were now produced in other places.  Fujian’s economic situation was exacerbated by the galloping increase in population that marked the early years of Manchu rule.

       With the decline of the local market, blanc-de-Chine production in the early seventeenth century began to depend on markets in other regions of China and also outside the country.  Some of the Dehua wares imitating European shapes and models were made to order.  Whether the potters made others to attract Western buyers is not quite known, because foreign subjects were of interest in China. [43]

       The perception of the Dehua artists about the final purpose of their art gradually changed too.  During the Qing period, the influence of Confucianism became pervasive, and the importance of lay Buddhist and of Daoist worship declined.  The culture of the Confucian literati became dominant.  Instead of a religious attitude towards Buddhism and Daoism, the literati developed an antiquarian and sentimental sensibility.  They collected bibelots, objets d'art, and curios.  In their studios appeared elaborate stands especially made for exhibiting all kinds of "treasures." Partly by imitation, partly through innovation, Dehua started to produce blanc-de-Chine collectibles and bibelots on a grand scale.  Figures were no longer confined to purely religious art, although that always remained in production, but were now also derived from folklore, literature or theater, giving us such subjects as the Eight Immortals; the mad monk Jigong; the two jester monks Hanshan and Shide; Xiwangmu, Royal Mother of the West; the fairy Magu, or Hemp Lady; Shouxing, the Star of Longevity, and the like.  Objects for the scholar’s studio, especially brush washers and water droppers in all kinds of animal forms, also became fashionable.

       Su Xuejin is the great Dehua name of the late Qing period.  He used the signature “Boji yuren,” a strange and perhaps somewhat ridiculous appellation meaning "the vastly accomplished fisherman." A rather immodest fisher in the high mountains! According to his own descendants, Su Xuejin liked to put his poetic "Fisherman" name or his literary style "Yunyu" on the works he himself considered the best.  He also molded and imitated a great number of Ming statuettes, on which he put a gourd-shaped seal mark which reads Dehua and another seal with the message "made in the Wanli era of the Great Ming dynasty." Occasionally he would sign his creations by engraving them with the message "hand-made by Su Xuejin." His commercially successful folkloristic figurines became the stock in trade of Dehua, and his seals were used during several successive generations. [44]

       With the advent of the Republic in 1912, the Dehua repertoire changed again.  Historical figures became popular.  Great poets like Qu Yuan and statesmen from former times, as well as popular heroes like Lady Mulan, made their appearance in white porcelain.  After 1949, Dehua was put to work on the propaganda of the proletarian revolution.  Henceforward, it produced a vast line of portraits of great Communist leaders and heroes.  It also began imitating Meissen porcelain and other types of "romantic" Western art, not just for export to the Soviet Union, but also to a Westernized Chinese market.  During the Cultural Revolution, Dehua artisans applied their very best technical skills and prime materials in order to produce the most 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.

       In recent years, Dehua boasts several hundred workshops and factories.  Most are industrialized with electric kilns and produce cheap white cups and saucers for a national and increasingly international market. [45]  Pious images, especially of Guanyin with a vase (with true dripping water if one cares to fill the reservoir) and folkloristic subjects continue to be turned out on a grand scale.  This industry has brought a relative affluence to Dehua, which is visible in the building boom that has completely done away with the ancient Chinese architecture and replaced it with multi-storied concrete housing blocks.  Only some descendants of the great families continue to work as before, using kilns fired with charcoal, making molds, and finishing their products by hand.  Their main line of business consists of replicas and pastiches of antiques.


[1] On the Min kingdom, see Edward Shafer, The Empire of Min (Rutland, 1954).

[2] On the worship of Baosheng dadi, see Kenneth Dean, Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China (Princeton, 1993), pp. 61–98.

[3] For the description of Marco Polo’s Zayton, see The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, trans. and ed. Henry Yule, 3rd ed. rev. Henri Cordier, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1903), pp. xx–xx; Marco Polo also mentions the city Tiunguy as a production center for ceramics.  Could this be Dehua? 

[4] See Tian Rukang, "The Decadence of Buddhist Temples in Fukien in Late Ming and Early Ch'ing," in Development and Decline of Fukien Province in the 17th and 18th Centuries, ed. E.B. Vermeer (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 83–100.

[5]  See Barend J. Ter Haar, “The Genesis and Spread of Temple Cults in Fukien,” in Development and Decline in Fukien Province in the 17th and 18th Centuries, ed. E.B. Vermeer (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 374–75.

[6] See Kristofer Schipper, “Neighborhood Cult Associations in Traditional Tainan,” in The City in Late Imperial China¸ ed. G.W. Skinner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977) and "The Cult of Pao-sheng ta-ti and its Spreading to Taiwan—A Case Study of Fen-hsiang," in Development and Decline in Fukien Province in the 17th and 18th Centuries, ed. E.B. Vermeer (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 397–416.  Compare, for similar facts concerning old Beijing, the recent book by Susan Naquin, Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400–1900 (San Francisco: University of California Press, 2000).

[7] In his later years, Zheng Zhilong agreed to cooperate with the already very weakened imperial power in order to defend China against foreigners.  He was given a peerage, as was his son, Zheng Chenggong, who was given the title Grandee of the Imperial Clan (Guoxing ye,or, according to the Dutch rendering of the Hokkien prononciation of this title, Coxinga). The latter ultimately led the Ming resistance against the Manchus and held his last stand on Taiwan (after having first ousted the Dutch) in 1662.

[8]  See the extensive biography of Li by K.C. Hsiao in Dictionary of Ming Biography (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), pp. 807–818.

[9] See Piet van der Loon, The Classical Theatre and Art Song of South Fukien (Taipei, 1992).  Sound recordings of Nanyin music are available as compact discs: Chine: Nan-kouan, vols. 1–6, Ocora C559004, C560037–41 (distributed by Harmonia Mundi).

[10]  We may perhaps extend this claim to many of the more refined white porcelain tea and wine cups of this period.  These were also not intended for everyday use, but for the offerings on the home altar and for ceremonial banquets.  Miniatures of musical instruments may also have been intended for votive use.

[11] Mingshi (History of the Ming), ed. Zhang Tingyu et al. (1739; reprint, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974) juan 47, p. 1237.

[12]  Mingshi, j. 82, p. 1998. A similar passage can be found in Mingshi, j. 82, page 1989 and in Mingshilu, Xuanzong, j. 9, page 231.

[13] See Yanseyou: Monochrome Porcelain, vol. 37 of  Gugong bowuyuan cang wenwu zhenpin quanji (Hong Kong: Shangwu, 1999), pl. 99–105; see also Nigel Wood, Chinese Glazes: their origins, chemistry, and recreation (London: A & C Black; Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennylvania Press, 1999), p. 68, for an example from the Victoria and Albert Museum. For white wares excavated in Jingdezhen, see Liu Xinyuan, Jingdezhen chutu Wudai zhi Qingchu cichan (Ceramic Finds from the Jingdezhen Kilns (10th - 17th Century). The Fung Ping Shan Museum, Hong Kong, 1992,  nos. 211 - 215.

[14]  For instance, it was also decreed that the sacrificial vessels for the worship of Confucius, which used to be made in wood, would henceforward also be made in porcelain. See Mingshi, j. 50, p. 1295.

[15]  Mingshi, j. 122, Biography of Han Liner.

[16] See Edouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot, Un traité manichéen retrouvé en Chine  (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1912).

[17]  See Quanzhou lidai zongjiao shike (Fuzhou, Fujian: Renmin chuban she, 1992).

[18]  For example Daojiao yuanliu, a manuscript from southern Fujian recovered from Tainan, Taiwan, and now in the collection of the Yimen Foundation, Fuzhou University, Fujian.

[19]  In the modern edition of Wen Zhengheng’s work, Changwu zhi jiao zhu, annotated by Chen Zhi (Nanjing: Jiangsu kexue jishu chubanshe, 1984), pp. 140–41.  That the reference here is to Dehua ware is confirmed by Chen’s commentary. 21.

[20] Ibid., p. 247.  Here again, the context indicates clearly that the ceramics of Dehua are meant.

[21] Ibid., p. 283.

[22] See Yanseyou, pl. 106–110.

[23]  His full name is Guan Yü, but out of respect his personal name (Yü) is never pronounced.  Instead he is called Lord Guan (Guan gong) or more ceremoniously the Imperial Sovereign Saint Guan (Guansheng dijun).   

[24]  In contrast there appears to be no Dehua statuettes of the Kitchen God, Zaojun.

[25]  On this very important question, see the book by Chün-fang Yü, Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

[26]  See the many relevant discussions in the above-mentioned work by Chün-fang Yü.

[27]  Roman Catholicism, first introduced in the sixteenth century by Dominican friars from Spain, experienced a kind of breakthrough with the missionary efforts of the Jesuit Giulio Aleni, a companion of Matteo Ricci.  The church founded by Aleni in Dingtou, a village on the coast of eastern Fujian (Fuan, Mindong), is still active today.  The antagonism between the Dominicans and the Jesuits in Fujian is at the origin of the infamous “rites controversy,” which has so enduringly influenced Western perception of China.  

[28] This strange epithet also sounds awkward in Chinese.  Its exact meaning remains obscure.  Mountainous Dehua is not a place known for fishing!

[29]  This remarkable custom appears to be quite old and unique to Dehua.  When asked, the oldest living potters in Dehua assured me that in their youth they had seen the exhibition take place, and they were told by their parents that this had been the custom since time immemorial.

[30]  This means that she already had a temple cult in Dehua, probably as a saintly protector of potters. 

[31] This account is given in a booklet distributed by the Dehua temple committee: Guo Shaoqing and Lin Muzhu, Yaotai taoyuan (Beijing, 1999), pp. 14–20. 

[32]  See Ma Shutian, Huaxia zhushen, Sushen juan, (Taipei 1993), p. 182).

[33]  See Marcel Granet, Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne (Paris,1926), pp. 496–503.

[34]  On these two artists, see Wang Gang, Beijing tongshi, Vol. 5 (Beijing shehui kexueyuan, Peking 1989), pp. 293-296.

[35]  See Stephen Little, ed., Taoism and the Arts of China (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago; [Berkeley]: University of California Press, 2000), p. 294, for the inscription on a bronze figure of Zhenwu.  It names the artist, Chen Yanqing from Hangzhou, and gives a date equivalent to 1439.

[36]  A county situated to the south of the city of Quanzhou.

[37]  Literally, "immortals and bodhisattvas."

[38] The text reads "lacquered cloth and extractable [mold]," an expression referring to a kind of hollow "dry lacquer" technique.

[39]   In a rather obscure article published in Fujian gongyi meishu 1981 (2), the author Lin Zuliang ascertains that the statue of Mazu (Tianfei) in her famous temple in Quanzhou was made by Wang Bi.  This statue and that of her two demon helpers, Qianliyan and Xunfenger, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but the ivory court tablet which Mazu kept in her hands was preserved.  It carries a Wanli date.

[40]  Contrary to what has been written by some Chinese specialists, this note does not appear in the Quanzhou fuzhi of the Wanli period (1612).

[41]  For Lin Chaojing, see P.J. Donnelly, Blanc de Chine: the Porcelain of Tehua in Fukien (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), pl. 140C and D; for Chen Wei, see Donnelly, pl. 82B; and for Zhang Shoushan, Donnelly, pl. 138 and 139.

[42] See for example, a figure of saint (usually identified as Caishen, but more probably a Wangye) dated to 1610 (Donnelly, pl. 71A) and a figure of Guanyin dated to 1629 (Donnelly, pl. 71B).

[43]  The author wishes to thank Mr. John Ayers for his help in writing this passage.

[44]  See Yaotai taoyuan, pp.40–42.

[45] The figure given for the commercial value of exports of Dehua ware for the year 2001 is about three billion Chinese yuan, equivalent to some three hundred fifty million U.S. dollars.



    “Dehua White Ceramics and their Cultural Significance”,发表于Blanc de Chine: Divine Images in Porcelain,出版机构:China Institute,New York,2002年。