This is an underglaze blue & white pattern which has been made in China for at least one hundred years. Probably the most common pattern ever made in China and exported to the West in their millions, at least over the last 50 years or so. I imagine that almost everyone has owned or eaten off or been exposed to this pattern. It is called the ‘Rice Grain’ pattern, a misnomer because it was thought for many years that the rice shaped translucent elements which characterise this pattern were made by inserting rice grains into the clay before glazing and firing. This is not the actual method of manufacture. The ‘rice’ shapes were made by carefully cutting out pieces from the porcelain and, when glazed, created this characteristic translucency.
Many people only know the most recent Late C20th or newer version of this pattern, all stamped, stencilled and/or transfer printed and still being manufactured in their millions today, served up under Chinese restaurant meals the world over. However, a closer look at the pattern shows that from the end of the C19th to the beginning of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – 1949), some interesting and beautiful forms were made. The best way to show these I believe is to deconstruct elements of the pattern in all its forms.
So, the constant element is the translucent ‘rice grain’ shapes which form the most recognisable part of any example. The layout of these ‘rice grain’ shaped translucent elements is mildly variable but they are usually set out in a radial pattern like flower petals. The examples with Qianlong seal marks have more tightly spaced and seried ‘rice grains’.
However, most other elements of this pattern can vary enormously and almost endlessly:
- The base marks
- The decoration within the cavetto
- The border around the decoration within the cavetto
- The upper rim border, internally
- The upper rim border, externally
- The basal rim border
- The application of doucai and/or gold enamels to any of these elements
- Inscriptions within the cavetto
This report will attempt to deconstruct this pattern by showing images of all the elements above, in all their variations. By doing so I hope to show you some interesting and well executed decoration in underglaze blue for this period, give some clues to dating, and give everyone the tools to further our knowledge of these pieces. It should be remembered that there was a China wide shortage of cobalt for the underglaze blue during the Japanese war with China from about 1937, WWW II, and for some years after the war, so this may explain a relative dearth of blue & white wares during this period.
ORIGINS, AND DATING THE DECORATIONS
Although I can find Qianlong mark & period examples of this pattern without the ‘rice grain’ elements, I can find no early or even mid Qing examples with the rice grain elements. Interestingly, the only references to ‘rice grain’ porcelains are in Western publications, namely Rose Kerr’s ‘Chinese Ceramics’ (Qianlong mark, but at least C19th) and George Weishaupt’s ‘The Great Fortune’ – Guangxu mark & period, see below.
From Rose Kerr ‘Chinese Ceramics’ p 55, images were in black and white only. Note that the acquisition date (above) is 1883, so it was either quite new or could actually be mid-Qing in age.
“A visitor to Jingdezhen in 1920 noted the continuing popularity of the (rice- pattern) ware, and provides us with a clear description of its manufacture:
‘The wet clay is first formed into a crude cup or plate on the potter’s wheel. After the piece is dried for several hours or for a day, it is carefully scraped with a special kind of knife which conforms to the curvature of the vessel. The next step is to cut in the kernel-shaped holes. This is done by a skilled workman, who uses a small, flexible steel lancet.
I had always thought that the rice pattern was made by pressing kernels of rice into the damp clay. It was not until I saw the actual process that this erroneous impression was corrected.’
The piece was then dipped into or painted with up to thirty applications of clear glaze, until all the holes were filled.” (pp54-55)
Kerr is quoting above from Frank B Lenz’s ‘The World’s Ancient Porcelain Center’, National Geographic 38/5, November, 1920!
from ‘The Great Fortune’ ed. G.Weishaupt
So, perhaps this is essentially an export pattern. Supporting this notion is the fact that I have also searched through every book I own on Republic period porcelains, including all the Chinese language ones, and none have images of this ‘rice grain’ pattern. The other possibility is that the pattern is considered so humble that it has not been studied in China as yet, and therefore doesn’t make its way into publications. Certainly in the last year or two, the pre-PRC versions of this pattern have been coming onto the market and fetching increasingly significant prices, so this consideration may be changing as this report is being written!
This means that this pattern has not to my knowledge been faked yet, I have not seen a single one, but with rising awareness and prices it is just a matter of time. Post PRC examples exhibit all the characteristics of the time – stamped, stencilled elements, a smaller number of pattern variations and marks. At this stage it is easy to differentiate PRC examples from Republic and Late Qing examples. This report should be seen as a baseline for authentic examples of this ‘rice grain’ pattern.
Most of the examples shown here and throughout this report are of Guangxu and Republic dating. A few are of PRC age and are noted as such. In general PRC examples are very standard in the combinations of their decoration, much of which is stamped or stencilled. The PRC pieces usually have leaf basal borders, chrysanthemum flower mounds or dragons (stamped) in the cavetto, bat and I-ching upper internal borders, diaper upper external borders. The exception is the koi carp example which was purchased in France.
The Late Qing and Republic examples show considerable variation in all aspects and are all hand painted, decorated, and enamelled.
THE SHAPES AND OVERALL PATTERNS
09 10 *PRC or just before
11 *PRC 12 *PRC
THE BASE MARKS
Below are the base marks found on ‘Rice Grain’ pattern examples. I am fairly confident that this is a reasonably comprehensive set for Late Qing and Republic period examples (and most come from the examples above), but there may be more base mark types from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) not shown here.
Qianlong UB (underglaze blue) 6 character kaishu mark (handwritten) – 1880-1920s
Guangxu UB (underglaze blue) 6 character kaishu mark (handwritten) – 1880-1920s
Guangxu UB (underglaze blue) 4 character kaishu mark (handwritten) – 1880-1920s
UB (underglaze blue) 4 character kaishu mark (handwritten) Guang Sheng Yu Zao – 1900-1940s
Kangxi UB (underglaze blue) 4 character kaishu mark (handwritten) – 1900-1940s
UB (underglaze blue) 6 character stamped seal mark – Zhong Guo Jingdezhen Zhi – 1960s-1980s
UB (underglaze blue) ‘CHINA’ mark (handwritten) – 1900-1950
UB (underglaze blue) Wan Yu mark (handwritten) – 1920s-1970s, but not sure of exact dating
UB (underglaze blue) Wan Yu mark (handwritten), plus stamped red enamel Jiangxi Zhen Pin mark in a single red square – 1920s-1970s, but not sure of exact dating
UB (underglaze blue) Wan Yu mark (handwritten) – 1920s-1970s, but not sure of exact dating
UB (underglaze blue) 5 character stamped kaishu mark – Zhong Guo Jingdezhen plus ‘MADE IN CHINA’ – PRC, 1980s-present
UB (underglaze blue) 4 character kaishu mark – Zhong Hua Zhen Pin (handwritten) – 1912 -1950
Kangxi UB (underglaze blue) 4 character kaishu mark (handwritten) , in a double underglaze blue circle – 1880-1920s
UB 4 character kaishu mark, handwritten in a double underglaze blue circle, ‘ Xiang Rui Qi Zhen’, an aspirational saying – 1900-1930s
Qianlong UB 6 character seal mark, handwritten – 1860s (?)-1920s
Red Guangxu 6 character kaishu mark, handwritten – 1880-1920s
Qianlong red 4 character kaishu mark, stamped, within a double red square – 1910-1950s
UB 4 character kaishu mark, handwritten, ‘ Min Nan Gongsi’ – Private Company mark, 1912-1950
UB 6 character kaishu mark, handwritten, ‘Jiangxi Cheng Yong Fa Zao’ – Private Company mark, 1912-1950
UB 2 character kaishu mark, handwritten, ‘ Wan Yu’ – 1920s-1970s
UB 6 character kaishu mark, handwritten, ‘Jiangxi Ciye Gongsi’ = Jiangxi Porcelain Company , double underglaze blue circles, Private Company mark – 1912 – 1930s
UB Shou symbol circle in double underglaze blue circles, 1880-1920s
UB leaf symbol, 1880-1920s
THE DECORATION WITHIN THE CAVETTO
All the examples below are Late Qing and/or Republic unless noted otherwise.
Heron and Lotus pond, with inscription
Heron and Lotus pond
Five bats encircling a double ‘shou’ symbol circle
Landscape with sea, boats and mountains
Koi carp with seaweed (PRC, 1960s-70s)
Dragon with pearl and flames
Facing dragon with pearl and flames
Chrysanthemum and buds on a mound (2nd one probably PRC)
Crane in medallion format
Landscape with pavilions, sea and mountains
Double Shou symbol circle
Five bats encircling peaches
Duck and Lotus pond
Dragon & phoenix in overglaze enamels, pearl, flames and stylised clouds
THE BORDER AROUND THE DECORATION WITHIN THE CAVETTO
A complete range of decorations is shown below, although many examples do not have this border or it is simply an underglaze blue line. The range includes:
- Red enamel scrolls
- Red or gold enamel single ‘shou’ symbols or swastikas
- Red enamels floral scrolls with or without:-
- Underglaze blue bat and I-ching symbols
- Rare bamboo clumps and prunus branches
- Rare greenish netting pattern with red flowers
THE UPPER RIM BORDER, INTERNAL
By far the most common upper rim border is the bat and I-ching symbol fret, with four distinctly different examples shown below
*PRC stamped border (last one, bottom right)
Some of the diaper border variations are shown in the five examples below:
Swastika (and bat) borders, below
This next example from the 1960s-70s carp decorated dish, showing a shell type border, handdrawn
Just a plain ring border
A rare crab and band border
Two examples below of key fret borders
This ‘Buddhist emblems & squiggly line’ example is a one-off
THE UPPER RIM BORDER, EXTERNAL
There is quite a bit more variation in this border.
The diaper border on the external upper rim is the most common:-
*PRC stamped border
The ‘three friends of winter’ – bamboo, prunus and pine – or flowers of the four seasons are found on earlier examples, sometimes within a diaper border, as shown below, all handpainted.
This hexagonal border, (called a turtle back pattern in Japan but I’m not sure of its Chinese name equivalent), is often filled in with doucai enamels
The three examples below show a swastika border with either a bat, shou symbol or a doucai floral scroll
The two examples below show an underglaze blue simple key fret and a typical C20th multi-coloured key fret, the latter very rare on rice grain pattern, especially with the fine quality doucai enamelling
Found on the back of dishes and plates around the turn of the century are these floral scrolls with orange camellia (or peony?)
A mixed border of key fret and flower
On two examples with Qianlong seal marks (but late Qing/early C20th) are these ruyi borders
This overlapping UB zig zag border with iron red enamel floral scroll is quite unique
THE BASAL RIM BORDER
There are two main patterns: firstly Buddhist emblems with a squiggly scroll, as shown below in a range of styles
And secondly, radial leaf patterns, also in a variety of styles
A couple of examples below show lotus petal lappets in underglaze blue and in multi-colour enamels
The two Qianlong seal mark examples also have unique radial spoke designs on their basal border
This is a singular example of a finger lime (‘Buddha’s Hand’) with a sprig of foliage
Another singular example of an underglaze blue stylised wave basal border (usually seen in green enamel on fencai Dragon & Phoenix pieces)
THE APPLICATION OF DOUCAI AND/OR GOLD ENAMELS TO ANY OF THESE ELEMENTS
There are three broad groups within this section:
Firstly, iron red enamels and gold outline the ‘rice grains’ and a range of doucai enamel colours are applied as floral scrolls. The colour and enamel consistency/texture range is enormous, as can be seen from the examples below,
Secondly, just iron red enamels are used to outline the ‘grains’, the scrolls and flowers applied with gold and occasionally green enamels. These are usually on mid-late Republic examples and even on PRC pieces.
Thirdly, and most rarely, the ‘grains’ are finely outlined in iron red enamel and dainty orchid sprigs are applied in between , below
INSCRIPTIONS WITHIN THE CAVETTO
These pieces have a Guangxu, Qianlong or Kangxi UB mark. All have a heron and lotus pond decoration in the cavetto, and all have the ’three friends of winter’ motifs on the external upper rim. Other elements vary. The inscription on all examples (above the lotus leaf in the cavetto) is the same:
‘Yi Lu Lian Sheng’ or ‘one road Lotus rise’, meaning continues rising high (an aspiration to or commendation for higher official posts – translation from S. Ng, Gotheborg)
From here it is a bit of mix and match! This report should have opened your critical eye to all the possibilities, obvious and more subtle, of this interesting pattern. It is not completely exhaustive and there may be several more permutations of each element. I have, on purpose, not shown how all these deconstructed elements can be reconstructed into authentic examples. This would be an invaluable aid to those who wish to make copies. Suffice to say that as with so many other Late Qing and Republic period patterns, there is standard range of decoration parameters and combinations. Those examples which stay within these limits can easily be deemed authentic. Those which don’t, need harder questioning.
Best wishes as usual,
- Chinese Ceramics, Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 1986
ISBN 1-851772-642 by Rose Kerr V & A Publications
- The Great Fortune, Chinese & Japanese Porcelain of the 19th and 20th centuries & their forerunners, from the Weishaupt Collection 2002
ISBN 3-00-010306-6 Ed. George Weishaupt