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The Blanc de Chine Guanyin Figures in Globolization

Ching-Ling Wang

  1. The Charm of Blanc de Chine


Blanc de Chine refers to the name of the white porcelain produced by the kilns in Dehua, Fujian Province, on the southeast coast of China. It is a kind of white porcelain in which the glaze and its white body that contains very little iron are perfectly fused. This allows it to be fired in an oxidizing atmosphere, resulting in a milky white glaze, with a blueish, yellowish, or sometimes rose-pink tint. Glazes can range from ivory white, milk white to a slightly bluish or greyish white. Its color makes it instantly distinguishable and quite different from the porcelain produced by Jingdezhen kiln, which contains more iron and is fired in reduction. The term “blanc de Chine”, which is now commonly used in the West, was first used by French connoisseurs around the middle of the nineteenth century as a collective name for this group of white porcelains.

Blanc de Chine white porcelain entered Europe around the seventeenth century. It was first introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish, and later imported in large quantities by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the British East India Company. During the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, the civil wars caused the production of kilns in Jingdezhen to be interrupted; and the sea ban was imposed in the early Qing Dynasty, resulting in a shortage of overseas trade porcelain supplies, but the ceramic firing in Dehua was not interrupted. After blanc de Chine was imported into Europe, it was favored by nobles and royal families, and the porcelain wares of blanc de Chine were documented in the inventories of different collections. For example, in the collection of Queen Mary II of England (1662-1694, r. 1689-1694) there are six large figures of Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) in Hampton Court Palace. The collection of Augustus II (1670-1733, r. 1694-1733), the Elector of Saxony, in Dresden is the largest and most famous collection of blanc de Chine white porcelain in Europe. In the inventory of his collection, more than 1250 pieces are recorded, of which about 500 pieces are preserved to this day, among which there are also various types blanc de Chine Guanyin figures. In addition, in the East the blanc de Chine Guanyin figures, and other white porcelain wares are also found in the collection of the Qing imperial court. They were used as a Buddhist object for worship and being enshrined in the altars or for interior furnishings.


2. Mysterious Blanc de Chine Guanyin Figures Attributed to He Chaozong


Among the many types and shapes of blanc de Chine white porcelain wares, the most striking is the white porcelain Guanyin figures. Among them, the Guanyin figures attributed to He Chaozong are the most famous, they can be found in the collection of Qing court as well in European collections. It is said that He Chaozong was active during Jiajing (1522-1566) to Wanli (1573-1620) periods of the Ming Dynasty. The figures of Guanyin he created are breathtakingly vivid and refined. The figure of Guanyin attributed to He Chaozong, now in the Rijksmuseum, is 51 cm in height and covered with ivory white glaze. Its porcelain body is heavily potted, and the inside of the base is conical with an opening at its top giving access to the hellow body of the figure. The bottom of the base is unglazed. In the headdress of the Guanyin figure is decorated with a tiny figure of Buddha Amitabha. The Guanyin figure is with a high hair bun covered by a white cloth, closed eyes, a straight nose and small mouth with a slight smile. The Guanyin wears a long robe with wide-sleeves and a necklace over the chest, stands on bare feet on the base of clouds (or waves) with both hands crossed before the belly. This Guanyin figure has an elegant posture and a graceful appearance, especially the hair and the drapery of clothes are entirely brilliant and lively in their execution (fig. 1). Another piece of “Guanyin with a Child” attributed to He Chaozong, also in the Rijksmuseum’s collection depicts the compassionate image of Guanyin sitting on a rock base and holding a child in the arms (fig. 2). It is, however, worth noting that by far none of these Guanyin figures that attributed to He Chaozong in the Ming Dynasty can be accurately identified as He’s genuine works. They are considered to be works made around the middle to the second half of the seventeenth century. In fact, which one (or ones) of the white porcelain Guanyin that really can be identified as He Chaozong’s work remains still a mystery! 


3. Blanc de Chine Guanyin Figure as a Model for the European Ceramics 


The blanc de Chine Guanyin figures produced by the Dehua kilns also played a role as a model for the European manufactories in the process of experiments to fire porcelain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, the red clay and white porcelain works of the Meissen manufactory in Germany are directly cast from the blanc de Chine Guanyin figure made in Dehua. Their Chinese model was casted into mould, hence they are all identical. They Meissen copies are smaller because the ceramics and porcelain bodies shrinked after being fired (fig. 3). Another example of a white-glazed faience, probably produced in Ansbach in Germany, about 1720-1750, is then shaped after a similar Chinese model. Although the plastic technique of the potter is a bit blunt, we can still clearly recognize the model it imitated according to the shape (fig. 4).

Besides the Guanyin figures, other types of blanc de Chine works were also imitated by European potters and manufactories. For instance, this “Cup with Applied Decoration of Flowers and Leaves” produced by the Meissen manufactory around 1715 in the Rijksmuseum collection was inspired by the similar blanc de Chine work made in Dehua (fig. 5). In addition to Meissen in Germany, porcelain manufactories in France, England and Italy also took blanc de Chine wares as their model and imitated or copied blanc de Chine porcelain works in some of their products, or made new creations inspired by the shapes of blanc de Chine wares.

Moreover, in a copperplate engraving published in 1726 by Bernard Picart (1673-1733) in which it depicts the Chinese people worshiping Guanyin, but when we observe it carefully, we find the three Guanyins depicted on the print, especially the one in the middle, which is actually much closer to the blanc de Chine porcelain Guanyin figures produced by the Dehua kilns. The scene depicted on the print is actually the creation of the artist, based on the shapes of the blanc de Chine porcelain Guanyin figures, instead of a realistic representation (pic. 6). It’s worth mentioning that the other two Guanyins on the left and right in the print are similar to the image of the Virgin and Child in Western Christianity in their shapes. 


Fig. 5. Two Cups, Meißen, porcelain, ca. 1715, Rijksmuseum. (Left) (Right)


4. Virgin Mary and Guanyin


In fact, the image of “Guanyin with a Child” from China also reminds the Western viewers of the image of the Virgin and Child in Christianity. They even ordered figures of the Virgin Mary from the Dehua kilns based on the image of Guanyin. When European Jesuit missionaries preached in China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they also linked the merciful image of the Chinese Guanyin in Buddhism with the Virgin Mary in Christianity to facilitate the promotion of Christian gospel dissemination. Therefore, in the cultural exchange between Europe and Asia, the blanc de Chine Guanyin figure from Dehua also played a significant role.   In addition to being exported to Europe, the blanc de Chine Guanyin figures were also circulated in Japan. Besides the context of Buddhism, the blanc de Chine Guanyin figures were also used in the context of Christianity in Japan. In the early days of Christianity’s spread to Japan, it was regarded as a religious heresy. In the 15th year of Tensho period (1587), the shogun of the shogunate Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) promulgated the “Bantenlian Pursuit Order”, ordering the expulsion of foreign missionaries in Japan. Since then, during the Edo period (1603-1867), General Tokugawa also issued the “Prohibition Order” many times, forcing the Japanese Christians to renounce their beliefs, this made the Christians in Japan turned their worship of the Virgin Mary into a secret worship. They used the Chinese blanc de Chine Guanyin figures as a substitute for the Madonna, thus developing a special image and worship culture called “Maria Kanon”. Until the sixth year of Meiji period (1873), Japan abolished the decree prohibiting belief in Catholicism, this culture is gradually disappearing. The video installation “Memory” created in 2013 by Japanese contemporary artist Tatsuma Takeda (b. 1988) is an artwork with the theme of this historical background. In the work, the artist smashed the plaster statues of Virgin Mary and Guanyin and reassembled them into an abstract statue. In this case, Mary is Guanyin, Guanyin is also Mary, and the two became one. The family ancestors of the artist Tatsuma Takeda were the Japanese Christian, the people who were persecuted in this historical situation. By smashing the Madonna and Kanon (Guanyin) and then reconstructing, the artist tried to make the viewers aware of the belief that is dormant in our hearts. 

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