Whether they're high-shouldered or pear-shaped, rounded at their waists or curvaceous like a beaker, vases from China and Japan are expressive vessels. Made out of jade, bronze, porcelain, and numerous other materials, their forms are blank slates for decorations ranging from abstract patterns of dripping glazes to intricate narratives depicting scenes from everyday life, menacing dragons, and spiritual figures such as the Buddha.
Well before Chinese ceramists perfected the recipe for a strong, bone-white porcelain, which would become a staple of Chinese vases, celadon glazes were fired over earthenware and stoneware to replicate the greenish glow of jade. Porcelain as we think of it today wasn't invented in China until the Han dynasty a few thousand years ago, and the material did not come into its own until the Song and Yuan dynasties, which stretched between 960 and 1368. During the early part of this period, the first Imperial porcelain vases were produced. By the end of the era, cobalt-blue illustrations based on lyrical poems and stories about birds, animals, fish, and insects adorned white porcelain vases. At the time, blue was the only color that could withstand the high heat required to fire porcelain; today, traditional blue-and-white designs are still produced by Chinese, as well as Japanese, ceramists.
Vases and other types of porcelain pieces from the Song and Yuan dynasties were actually collected by Chinese living during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which saw an explosion of colorful and innovative polychrome porcelain designs. Some of these images featured fine line drawings of dragons and animals like lions and fish. Other depictions were even more intricate, especially on vases whose design motifs were dominated by flowers, fruit, birds, women in traditional dress, and scenes from opera and literature.
The Ming dynasty also saw the emergence of cloisonné, a technique imported to China from the Near East. In Chinese cloisonné vases, the forms were usually made of copper or bronze, as were the strips of metals used to create the cloisons, which were filled with a glass paste that was mixed with various metallic oxides (cobalt for blue, manganese for purple, uranium for orange, and so forth) to create colorful enamels. Firing these pieces was a multiple-step process since the enamel shrunk and had to be filled in after each firing. Concurrently, artisans devised a hybrid of porcelain and cloisonné called fahua, in which thin lines of ceramic slip were drawn on the body of the porcelain vases to create the cloisons, which were then filled in with enamel. Later, enamel was used like a glaze on vases to produce what are called overglaze enameled porcelain.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), painted porcelain began to be classified by its color palette: famille verte (green and iron red dominate); famille jaune (yellow ground); famille noire (black ground); and famille rose (mostly pink and purple). Around the same time, cloisonné enamel was used to decorate porcelain vases with chrysanthemum, lotus, peony, and rose flowers.
Meanwhile, in Japan, 17th-century ceramists were developing overglaze-enamel techniques of their own, particularly to produce Imari porcelain, which was used to created vases with a blue underglaze topped with overglazes of rusty orange and bright gold. Baluster-shaped vases large enough to be placed on the floor often featured cranes frames by elaborate scrollwork. Later, in the 19th century, gilded Satsuma vases were widely exported to the West. But not all Japanese vases were so garishly glazed. For example, Hirado vases were left bone white, with modest blue designs painted on their surfaces, and dragons or chrysanthemum petals applied to their bases and necks in dramatic relief.