Cherished by Chinese and Western connoisseurs for more than three hundred years, blanc de Chine (literally “white of China”) was the name given by the nineteenth-century French to a variety of Chinese ceramics manufactured primarily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the county of Dehua, Fujian Province, in southeastern China, located opposite the island of Taiwan. It is the pai tz’ü “white porcelain” par excellence, of the Chinese. These predominantly white monochrome wares depend solely on the union of beautiful crafting along with a bland glaze for their stark aesthetic appeal. Although blanc de Chine was without imperial patronage, limited in range, and conservative in taste even for a conservative people, it has held this appeal longer than any other porcelain so far as the basic ware itself is concerned. Preserving always an air of craftsmanship and frequently of distinction, whitewares from the Dehua region were made for decoration and religious purposes as well as cooking, serving, eating and drinking in the home.
The most exquisite pieces from Fujian Province are from the town of Dehua itself and are termed “Dehua ware,” while anything that is not quite up to these lofty standards is considered “Fujian ware.” Only becoming well known during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) primarily for the finely carved figures, Dehua ware and blanc de Chine are interchangeable terms for this sublime porcelain.
Blanc de Chine manufacture started in the Song dynasty (960-1279), a period that saw a unified China, the rise of a merchant class, the first use of gunpowder in war, and aesthetic innovations in drawing, calligraphy, and hard-glazed porcelain. Dehua wares exported during the Song and Yuan (1279-1368) periods enjoyed an excellent international reputation. Large quantities of early Dehua porcelain from the late Song and early Yuan dynasties have been found in Indonesia and the Philippines.White porcelain always has enjoyed favor among the Chinese. Some writers have attributed this to its resemblance to white jade. However, if there is to be a resemblance to other material, that material is surely ivory. But it must also be borne in mind that white, the color of filial piety in China, is also the color of death and mourning in Chinese symbolism. This may account for most of the wares of Dehua being of a devotional character, such as statues and incense burners. Possessing aware of the unique rarity and white color, the factories directed it into uses where it would be in greatest demand. This slant which embraced censers, altar candlesticks, and other ritual objects besides figures, was manifest from the inception of the classical ware of the Dehua kilns, as can been seen from a text of 1604 with its reference to Buddhist figures even then making their appearance in the bazaar at Putuoshan.
According to the Kangxi Encyclopedia, written around the year 1700, the clay for blanc de Chine, called pai tz’u (white clay), was mined in the hills behind the Cheng monastery and found at Yung-hing. The whiteness of blanc de Chine is due to the relative absence of iron (less than 0.5 percent ferric oxide) in the local clay. The high quartz and kaolin content, combined with sericite and feldspar, and low levels of iron created especially good natural minerals for making quality white porcelain. Chemical analysis of Dehua ceramics reveals that all bodies of Dehua porcelain are very dense, and the density and the whiteness are comparable with modern white porcelains.The transcendence of the bonding between clay and glaze made possible the range of shades of white — from pinkish, rosy, and green tinges to pure creamy white — that enchanted both domestic and foreign collectors. Blanc de Chine actually appears in three different types of white. The best quality pieces have a slightly brownish tinge on their surface and are referred to as having the color of ivory-white or the color of goose-down white (white with a yellow tinge). The second type of white has a definite creamy appearance and the third is bluish-white.
Western tastes gravitate more to the pinkish, shrimp-like translucent color that may only be seen when a fine piece of blanc de Chine is held to the light. There can be infinite gradations in the shades of white, and two pieces of blanc de Chine placed side by side are rarely the same color. Not all blanc de Chine, confusingly enough, is white or a shade of white. The term Blanc de Chine actually encompasses pieces made in other colors as long as they come from Dehua and are manufactured in the same manner and from the same porcelain as white blanc de Chine. Dehua first made greenware during the Song and Yuan dynasties and moved into whiteware with the coming of the Mongols, who preferred the color white. Glaze colors in blanc de Chine include aubergine, green, and reddish-brown color, which in the past was called “red” by scholars but is actually a milk chocolate, brownish color. The lack of color or decoration in blanc de Chine means that this porcelain must rely on form and material — the clay and the glaze — for its appeal.