The Significance, Symbolism and History of White and Blue Porcelain in China

Prized for its beauty, Chinese blue and white porcelain is the nation’s most famous china and also the most prevalent type of porcelain on the market. Throughout its history, artisans have continued to improve the way these wares are crafted and marked.

To truly appreciate this type of porcelain, it’s important to understand its history and the symbolism used by artists over the centuries.


The History of White and Blue Porcelain in China

The history of Chinese blue and white porcelain dates back to the Tang and Song eras, but it would take another hundred years, during the Yuan era, for the technology to mature.

Blue and white porcelain became mainstream in China between the late 1300s and 1600s before reaching its peak in the early 1700s. The development of this art form was due to a combination of Chinese methods and Islamic trade.

The distinctive blue color comes from cobalt ores imported from Persia. In the early days of this art form, cobalt ore was scarce and only available to artisans in limited quantities.

Over time and as global trade became more commonplace, different types of cobalt ore and application methods were used to create the distinctive shades of blue that this porcelain ware is known for.

During the Yuan era, Sumatra Blue and Samarra Blue cobalt was commonly used in the creation of blue and white porcelain. This type of cobalt was iron-rich, which created darker blue spots caused by an accumulation of iron oxide.

In the future, more rigorous firing processes were used to create more subtle differences in hues of blue, allowing for richer cobalt blue to come through the glazed surface.

During the Hong wu period (from 1368-1398), the supply of cobalt was disrupted, which meant that cobalt had to be mined locally. Because the local cobalt had a higher concentration of manganese, the blues were much softer and paler in color.


Symbolism of White Porcelain with Blue Hand Painted Designs

Like other forms of pottery, blue and white porcelain was decorated with motifs that brought meaning to the piece.

In the 14th century, motifs had Islamic influences, as wares were often shipped to Muslim traders in Southwest-Asian markets.

Many pieces contain motifs and decorations that offer wishes to the recipient, as porcelain was often given as a gift. Common wishes and example motifs included:

  • Longevity: Pine trees, peaches and cranes
  • Prosperity: Fish
  • Honor: Deer
  • Happy marriage: Mandarin ducks

Of course, religious symbols were also common. During this artform’s peak, Taoism and Buddhism were dominant religions in the country, so symbols included:

  • Pearls for granting wisdom
  • Books for knowledge
  • Rhinoceros horns for happiness
  • Coin for wealth
  • Leaf of Artemis for luck
  • Conch shell for knowledge
  • Lotus flower for purification
  • Parasol for royalty and spirituality

A wide variety of motifs and decorations have been used throughout the history of Chinese blue and white porcelain. Modern designs are less about symbolism and more about pure beauty, but artisans must still master the techniques that make blue and white porcelain so distinctive and beautiful.