How to identify pictures of Ming vases

Written by stephanie ashby
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How to identify pictures of Ming vases
Ming vases can be blue on white, but they can also be many other colours. (Jarrod Boord/iStock/Getty Images)

The Ming dynasty was a period of Chinese rule between eras of Mongol and Manchu dominance, and lasted from 1368 to 1644. Apart from the distinctive cobalt blue on a white background associated with the Ming dynasty, there are other features that may help you to identify a picture of a vase from this era.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Look at the shape and aspect of the vase in the picture. A vase is generally a vessel that a floral stem could be placed in. Ming vases can have small necks, or necks that are long and tall, they may be globular in shape, and may have simple, tiny, loop handles influenced by Islamic design (due to trade with the Islamic world). Gourd vases can have an oval base (Yongle period, 1402 to 1424) or a rectangular base (Xuande period, 1426 to 1435).

  2. 2

    Understand the technique of cloisonné. This involves applying coloured glass paste to a metal vessel, within enclosures made of copper or bronze wires. This ware was greatly prized at Emperor Xuande’s court. Look for copper bands and raised metal strips.

  3. 3

    Identify the colours, decoration and images on the picture of the vase. The rich, mid-blue, known as cobalt, painted on a white background is only one example of a Ming vase. One of three main types of decoration for a Ming vase is a monochromatic glaze, including celadon (pale grey -green), red, green and yellow. A second main type of decoration is an underglaze of copper red and cobalt blue, and a third is an overglaze, or enamel painting, sometimes combined with underglaze blue. Look also for monochrome ware decorated with copper red under a transparent glaze. Polychrome wares used only two colours and one of the colours was usually yellow. Sancai (three colour wares) are usually turquoise, purple, yellow and deep violet blue, separated by raised lines imitating cloisonné work. Also during the Xuande period, thick deep blue pigment was applied and sometimes dragons were painted on vases in red on a blue background, or vice versa, to achieve a richer effect.

  4. 4

    Look for paintings of leaves, leafy tendrils, crashing waves and wave scrolls with cream coloured foam, hanging jewels, dark blue dragons, orange fish, large scale landscapes, flower and bird composition, and figural narratives. Images were favoured that would glorify the new dynasty.

  5. 5

    The reign mark was put on the base of a vase around the time of the Yongle Emperor, and from then on this was done regularly. A picture of the mark, which usually consists of the reign title of the Emperor and the name of the dynasty, can be found online at Chinese Reign Marks. Look for Arabic inscriptions from wares made for the Zhengde Emperor (1505 to 1521). Yixing wares (early 16th century) are often signed or inscribed with poetry.

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