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Dehua Porcelains from the Koger Collection

Dehua Porcelains from the Koger Collection

The History of Dehua Wares

Dehua wares, also known by the nineteenth-century French term blanc de Chine (white from China), are white porcelains made in Dehua county in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian. Best known for their elaborate Buddhist and Daoist icons, Dehua kilns produce a wide array of functional, decorative, and devotional objects.

Dehua has been a site of porcelain manufacture since the Song dynasty (960–1279), but the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was its golden age. Following the legalization of sea trade in 1563, Fujian experienced an economic boom that lasted through the end of the period. Late Ming-era political instability also resulted in looser manufacturing regulations. Under these circumstances, the local ceramics industry flourished. Dehua wares also gained popularity beyond Fujian with international markets in Southeast Asia and Europe.

Although these wares were collected all over the world, most of the artists have remained anonymous. In a few cases however, the artist can be identified by a seal stamped on the porcelain, a sign of the virtuosity and fame achieved by the sculptor and a guarantee of quality for collectors.

The Making of Dehua Wares

Dehua porcelains are made from a type of kaolin clay unique to Fujian province. Once gathered, it is cleansed of impurities, and a mineral called feldspar is sometimes added to bolster the chemical makeup of the clay.

The bodies of most Dehua wares were made by press-molding or slip-casting, with fine details added afterwards. Press-molded pieces are made by shaping a figure in sections, joining them together, and hollowing the body out to prevent breakage when in the kiln. When making slip-casted pieces, the artist will pour slip (liquefied clay) into plaster piece-molds; a more efficient process used frequently in Dehua today. Some vessels are made on a potter’s wheel.

The chemical composition of Dehua porcelain lends it several desirable features. The viscosity of the clay minimizes distortions that may occur in the extreme temperatures of the kiln, thereby preserving the fine details for which Dehua wares are admired. Furthermore, the low levels of iron oxide found in the clay allow for a consistent color, while a high silica content yields a translucent quality. The glazes used on Dehua wares combine kaolin and ash (calcium carbonate), which combined with the high alkali content of the clay, produces a transparent finish and surfaces that range from a milky color to a warm pinkish hue.

In the 13th century, Dehua potters developed a step kiln modified from the traditional climbing kiln model. Climbing kilns have a tunnel-like shape built along slopes. Firing begins at the base, conducting heat upward to be released by a chimney at the top. Dehua potters altered this model to include distinct rectangular chambers, as opposed to one long chamber form. This allows for a more controlled firing and even distribution of heat at extremely high temperatures of around 2282–2354°F (1250–1290°C).

The Ringling’s extensive collection of Dehua porcelains, encompassing objects made between the 16th and early 20th centuries, was given to the museum in 2001 by Ira and Nancy Koger. The collection represents many of the major trends and types found in Dehua wares and includes examples that show distinguished technical handling as well as those mass-produced for a large market.