Appreciating Sweet White Porcelain

Among all sweet white glazed porcelains of the Yongle period, the mitral pot bears the unique characteristics of that time. Its shape originated during the Yuan Dynasty from Tibetan Buddhist Puja, or religious rituals. (Image: Secret China)
Among all sweet white glazed porcelains of the Yongle period, the mitral pot bears the unique characteristics of that time. Its shape originated during the Yuan Dynasty from Tibetan Buddhist Puja, or religious rituals. (Image: Secret China)

Sweet white porcelain (甜白瓷) is a famous porcelain that was produced in the Jingdezhen Porcelain Kiln during the Yongle period of the Ming Dynasty. It earned its reputation during the Song and Yuan dynasties. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the quality of this refined monochromatic glazed porcelain produced in the official kiln reached its peak. This glazed porcelain has a visually appealing color, like soft white sugar, inspiring delicate feelings, hence its name “sweet white.” During the Yongle period, the three most precious monochromatic glazed porcelains were sweet white, red gem, and green jade. Sweet white glazed porcelain is widely known and very prestigious.

How to identify it

After the Yongle period, there were many imitations in the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong periods. They often have a blue tint due to their lack of white color. The Qing Dynasty imitation glaze appears gray when viewed under light, and the floral pattern of modern imitations is too clear. Present archaeological studies of artifacts show that the sweet white glazed porcelain of the Yongle period has two main distinguishable features. Firstly, it appears pale pink under light. Secondly, some of the glazed areas (more obvious near the base) have a blue color.

sweet white porcelain

The sweet white glazed porcelain of the Yongle period appears pale pink under light. (Image: Secret China)

Origin

The Yongle Emperor was fond of white. Sometimes, he only accepted treasures made of white jade from the tributes brought to him. Perhaps to cater to the Yongle Emperor’s favor, the ceramic craftsmen at that time chose porcelain clay and glaze with a lower iron content. After the purification process, the iron content was minimized — if the glaze contained less than 0.75 percent, it would be white after firing. Using such a pure transparent glaze on clay produces porcelain with a high degree of whiteness.

sweet white porcelain

A sweet white glazed bowl carved with a dragon pattern (Image: Secret China)

Market value

In recent years, many sweet white porcelain pieces have appeared at auctions, and all sold for extremely high prices. In the 2014 Sotheby’s spring auction in Hong Kong, a sweet white glazed bowl with eight auspicious patterns from the Yongle period sold for HK$5.08 million. During another session, a sweet and white glazed bowl with seasonal flower patterns was traded for HK$6.04 million.

In 2008, when Chinese domestic collectors were keen to purchase Qing porcelain, Christie’s auctioned a sweet white glazed vase in New York. Its sale price of US$2.77 million made it the most expensive piece of sweet white glazed porcelain ever auctioned.

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